There is a truly pernicious, evil idea that nearly everybody in the United States reflexively parrots and that at first glance looks like it might make sense but really, really doesn’t: that the United States of America should be run like a business.
“We need to put a businessman in the White House!” (Wait . . . George W. Bush was “the MBA President,” remember? How about we don’t do that again.)
There are a coupla reasons this is a truly terrible, evil idea. For one thing, it is just wrong: a business is run to generate profit, full stop. If it can generate profit without – just as a coupla f’rinstances – actually producing valuable goods and services (we call this the “financial industry”), without paying its employees (we called this “slavery”), and by dumping all of the toxic waste, sludge and filth it generates into the air, the sea or on public land (we called this “standard operating procedure” before the 1970s), then it will do so.
The government, on the other hand, is intended to help foster a better and more prosperous society for everybody without generating profit for itself. This is why slavery was eventually ended, though it took a Civil War to persuade slaveholders that they could no longer generate outsized profit off of the degradation and ownership of other human beings. It is why after too many incidents like the Cuyahoga River catching on fire we created agencies like the EPA and passed legislation like the Clear Air Act and the Clean Water Act, to prevent companies from generating outsized profits by poisoning everybody else. And it is why – eventually – we will have to start actually regulating the financial industry . . . beginning with getting the Consumer Fraud Protection Bureau up and running, to prevent the financial industry from generating outsized profits by defrauding people.
But what really makes the idea that government should be run like a business pernicious, and not just wrong, is that it introduces the idea that government functions and political rights should be monetized. And once that idea has taken hold it is just a short step toward evaluating government functions and political rights not based on their value, but based on a cost-benefit analysis: (i) does this activity produce a monetary profit and, (ii) if it does not, then how much is it costing us and can we afford it?
So, for example, we heard calls just a few months ago to dismantle the U.S. Postal Service because it "lost" over $5 billion last year. Now, to begin with, it’s worth noting that the only reason the USPS is “losing” money is because the rest of the government has been raiding Postal Service revenues to help artificially lower the size of the deficit:
[T]he Postal Service is right now forced to pre-pay health care benefits for employees the agency hasn’t even hired yet – in fact, for many future employees who haven’t even been born yet – all to artificially shrink the federal deficit.
. . . . Right now, the Postal Service is being forced to pre-pay health benefits for the next 75 years during a 10-year stretch. In the past four years, those prepayments have totaled $21 billion. The agency’s deficit during that time is about $20 billion. Remove those crazy pre-payments – a requirement that no other government agency endures and no private industry would even consider – and the Postal Service would be in the black.
But let’s suppose that weren’t true. Let’s suppose that the rise of email and the electronic transmission of documents really was the cause of USPS revenue woes. Another way – a better way – to understand the situation would not be to say the USPS was “losing” $5 billion, but that “it costs us” $5 billion to provide national postal service. All of a sudden, that seems quite reasonable.
For the low, low cost of $5 billion – which, given that the 2011 federal budget had total outlays of $3.834 trillion, means we are talking about only 0.13% of total spending – the United States provides postal service across the country, including to rural and remote areas not adequately served or, in many cases, not served at all by private couriers. It seems to me that having an affordable, national postal service is a sine qua non of being a great country, and given the size of our budget we can have one for cheap.
But once we internalize the meme that all government services should be monetized, the question changes from “what do we do to be a great country” to simply “is this agency generating a profit?” And once we accept this framing then it becomes all too easy to tear away at many of the things that truly do make our country great – a national postal service, public education for all, the Center for Disease Control, NASA, etc. – because none of those things are “profitable.”
And it only gets worse! Over at ThinkProgress Zaid Jilani and Brad Johnson point to this AP article in which it is estimated that over the past two months policing the Occupy protests in 18 cities has “cost local taxpayers at least $13 million in police overtime and other municipal services.” The article goes on to refer to “cash-strapped police departments,” the “cash-strapped” City of Oakland (that’s “cash-strapped” twice in one news story), and how this additional spending “is eating into . . . overtime budgets and leaving less money for public services.”
(To be perfectly fair to the AP, although the article is front-loaded with quotes stressing just how expensive it is to police the Occupy protests, the article does include information further down suggesting that many other cities have been and are able to handle the movement just fine.)
Naturally, conservative outlets such as Hot Air and Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government have seized on this report to argue that the Occupy protests are just too costly to maintain. In response, Jilani and Johnson attempt to put the cost of policing Occupy into context; J&J point out that that $13 million spread over 2 months in 18 cities is not a large sum, that other protests have cost much more, and that the cost of policing the Occupy protests are insignificant compared to the amount of wealth destroyed by the Wall Street recession.
I’m sorry, but while all of these observations are correct this is also the wrong argument to be making. I don’t recall anywhere in the Constitution that says the Freedom of Speech shall not be abridged “unless the government decides that exercising it costs us too much money.” Protesting against the status quo is not something that we should be weighing against budget constraints. The idea that the exercise of our First Amendment rights is something we may have to forego if it costs too much is an idea that no decent American should ever have to hear bruited about in public.
And how would that even work, really? The Occupy movement is protesting against public policies that have produced such a gross level of inequality in our society, including our governments’ persistent failure to tax the 1% so that we can adequately fund public services like police departments. And now defenders of the status quo argue that the Occupy movement’s right to protest this failure should be curtailed because our police departments are underfunded? Excuse me, but WTF?
No, the better argument to be made here is actually the one articulated by Don Tripp, the parks director in Des Moines, who is quoted in the original AP article:
[A]t the end of the day, the thing that has been in the back of my mind is that during times of public discourse in our country, parks are noted for being places where people have the chance to demonstrate their First Amendment rights. I think [the protesters’] use has been consistent with that.
The United States of America has to be about more than turning a profit. Our country was founded in the Enlightenment, the principles of the Enlightenment were the principles the Founders attempted to enshrine in our Constitution, and those principles certainly do not exalt a blind grasping after "profitability" as the greatest virtue to which we can aspire.
Our country was founded not to be rich, but to be great. So let’s try to stop thinking of the United States of America as a business, and start thinking of it as a great country again.