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Redux: He’s a Successful Businessman, So He Knows What the Country Needs: A Commentary

Aug 24th, 2015 | By | Category: Features, Front Page


The popularity of Donald Trump is a bit reminiscent of the last successful businessman who asserted that those business skills offered an advantage in the skills that are required of a president.  So EJ dug into its archives and resurrected the following article, originally published in December of 2011.

An often-heard platitude during the seemingly endless media coverage of the seemingly endless Republican presidential nomination process is, “He’s a successful businessman, so he knows what the country needs.” One hears this from a candidate’s supporters, from the candidate himself, and from reporters and analysts of all political persuasions. It is also uttered without reflection, as if its veracity was self-evident–Its truth is simply taken-for-granted. Mitt Romney and Herbert Cain were usually the referents, but that is unimportant here. The focus here is on what the presuppositions of such a claim are and, when all is said and done, is it a prudent judgment?

Firstly, there is no reason to doubt that these individuals possess the skills and knowledge to lead a business enterprise to financial success. However, those skills and knowledge constitute only a very small portion of those needed to make judgments about policy regarding public economic policy. Public policy must consider a variety of constituencies as well as a consideration of both the economic and non-economic consequences of such policies. A CEO’s orientation in a very real (but not absolute) sense is singular: to return a profit to its shareholders.

This does not imply that candidates with a background in business are not able to be at least as competent as there non-business counterparts with regard to public policy. It does, however, imply that they have no significant advantage over them. Although not necessary, there also is the very real possibility that their background may direct them to embrace policies that are a bit myopic; one which raises the success of the firm to an excessively preeminent position in the development of policy.

This, in fact, was evidenced recently on the most important public matter of the past few years, i.e., the public response to the economic meltdown. The meltdown laid bare many components of the national economic structure that required real structural reform. However, real reform was never considered as part of the response. Rather the response was almost entirely designed to shore up the financial integrity of the highly oligopolistic firms that constituted the financial sector and, in the long run, making the sector even more highly oligopolistic. This oligopoly is one of the most important structures that screamed reform. Certainly, one of the most important, if not the most important, factor contributing to the firm-centered orientation of the public response was the background of those who designed it. The designers were all Wall Street insiders and former officers of the major financial firms or principals in related institutions like the NYSE. The composition of this group did not change even though the administration changed in the middle of the meltdown. To complicate matters, the public heard only firm-centered solutions from the major information source, the television business channels. The TV analysts also were firm-centered Wall Street regulars. Whether motivated by self-interest, perceived obligations to friends, or (more likely) a parochial world view of what is important in the economy and its financial sector; the response was limited, short-sighted, and counter-productive. To further complicate matters, the Congress and the Administration(s) were largely educated on these matters by the same Wall Street insiders and lobbyists and were in lock-step with such solutions. Whether motivated by their connections to lobbyists or (more likely) their orientation to these matters resulting from their Wall Street education; they were largely on the same page as the “experts”.

Presidential campaigns will come and go and candidate qualifications will be mis- and over-analyzed, but public policy has lasting and real consequences. In an era where neo-liberal economic values have predominated our public discourse, one must be careful not to over-emphasize the value of free markets and business acumen and to acknowledge that the public interest consists of more than economic efficiency and good business plans. Returning to our point of departure; when it comes to evaluating candidate qualifications–caveat emptor.

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