Wednesday, September 28, 2016

America's CEO

A good friend of mine, a successful small business entrepreneur now retired, once observed that “all politicians should have written a payroll check at some point in their career.” He felt that the experience of waking up each morning responsible for keeping business doors open, and meeting one’s employment obligation to employees, would keep many a political position grounded in some appropriate first-hand business realities. Among the CEOs community, there are many fine successful leaders who remain grounded in that “doors open / employee payroll” perspective. Sadly, far too often that connection has been lost. For the big corporations, the organizational layers are too many and too dense, the subsidiaries are too diverse, the employees have no names but are merely summarized numbers on an expense spreadsheet, and the CEO is all-too-frequently a financial manager pouring over marketing analyses with little knowledge of affinity for the actual products and services being produced.

Some “successful” CEOs – meaning they have personally become very rich while their stockholders and suppliers may or may not have benefited much – decided that their business success can be transferred to the national economy and political governance. We have certainly had presidents before from the very wealthy class: George Washington (probably our richest president measured in today’s dollars), Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, George H.W. Bush. Yet all but Washington were beneficiaries of inherited money, not earned wealth. Such inheritance allowed them to follow a career of public and/or political service that helped prepare them for the presidency. But when a CEO/businessperson directly enters the political ring, it is typically from a “business managerial” perspective. Unfortunately, that perspective does not often translate well into public governance.

Why? Because the business world and the government world are each built upon fundamentally different premises, exist for completely different objectives, operate within vastly different working processes, and are subject to totally different metrics of measurement. About the only aspect they share is a baseline that neither can exist for long if they go broke. Beyond that one commonality, business success is measured by net profit, and the Return on Investment (ROI) to its owners/stockholders. Our American governments are measured by their adequacy of maintaining public safety and delivering certain basic infrastructure services, while ensuring equal opportunity and treatment for all citizens who have widely divergent backgrounds, ambitions and life choices. Business is built on a command-and-control decision-making structure with clear centers of absolute authority. Government is built on persuasion and consensus, even in these frustrating times of “no compromise,” with few centers of absolute authority.

In 2008, Mitt Romney (a very wealthy businessman) ran for the Republican nomination for President, emphasizing his business success and economic promises as his qualifications for office. He lost that nomination campaign to John McCain. In a July 2, 2008, post (full text still available on this blog site) reflecting on “Buying the Presidency-2,” the following observations were made:

“For Mitt Romney, it was not his wealth I objected to, which he seems to have come to quite legitimately.  It is his attitude that came through so pervasively, i.e. that his electability should be predicated on his wealth, that being successful in business inherently qualifies one to be successful in governmental leadership.  The reality is that American government is not a business, was never designed from the get-go to be ‘run like a business’ (although that does not preclude utilizing business-like operating efficiencies).  Political leadership and achievement is about vision, compromise, building consensus among divergent but equal stakeholders, attending to and balancing conflicting needs rather than playing to “niche market segments” (a la Karl Rove and George Bush).  It is not about electability, it is about governing.

The US Congress is not a stockholder’s meeting, the Supreme Court is not a corporate board, and state governments are not subsidiary corporations.  It was Romney’s lack of understanding and connection with many facets of the American citizenry, and the failure to truly understand “government” for what it is, that I think ultimately undermined him.  It is why his (or any other) campaign must show a broad body of public support – via volunteerism, fundraising, and ultimately votes – in order to qualify one for public office (versus being designated as corporate CEO).”

I spent most of my career years in the non-profit world, primarily with public and private colleges and universities, with side ventures in artistic and spiritual organizations. I watched firsthand the difficulty well-intended business people had in serving on Boards of Trustees or in management / advisory positions with non-profit/public service organizations. There would simply be a fundamental disconnect in the thinking, perception, and verbiage of the business people vis-à-vis the non-profit / public service people – a disconnect that would be bridged only infrequently. It is not easy to shift from a “giving orders” environment to a “persuasion” environment.

General Dwight Eisenhower was a career military man, fully schooled in giving and taking orders within the chain of command. When he was elected President in 1952, his predecessor Harry Truman mused privately to friends, “Ike will sit right here [in the Oval Office] and he’ll say ‘do this, do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike. It won’t be a bit like the army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”

The United States Presidency may be the most powerful position in the world. But each President can also speak to the all-too-real limitations of that power. Limitations from other personalities, the various branches of government, the authority of other elected officials, the extended bureaucracy, the sovereign rights of other nations we cannot trample over. Then, of course, are the People of these United States. The real owners of all layers of our governments, armed with their bulwark of rights to express their opinions, criticize at will, protest against perceived injustices, and cast their vote.

Government is built on checks and balances to preclude errors of excess. The checks may be continually tested, the balances tipped on some occasions, but the center must ultimately hold. Decision-making is slow and messy by Constitutional design (though decisions must eventually be made); efficiency in deliberation was never a priority. Unlike in the business environment, governance requires many voices to be heard and opinions to be considered. The President is one voice among many.

After his 2008 loss, Mitt Romney went on to win the Republican nomination on the same platform in 2012, only to then lose to Barack Obama. So far over the years, Americans have intuitively sensed a reservation about the “political CEO.” With some exceptions, wealthy businesspeople, spending large sums of money for political office, have not had a great track record of electoral victory. There are many more “workers” in this country than there are managers and entrepreneurs and CEOs. Perhaps that view from the rungs further down on the career ladder makes the citizenry suspicious of what a CEO of a United Corporation of America might have in store for them. Perhaps they understand corporate America all too well, and seek in their government a counterbalance to the economic driver that prevails over so much of their life. I hope so. Best to proceed with caution when the wolf shows up covered in that sheep outfit.

One other thing we should remember. Being President is about more than just the economy. Certainly our national economic viability and our personal economic well-being are vitally important. They always constitute standard topics for campaign rhetoric. But as any mayor, county commissioner, governor or former President can attest, there is a full and wide-ranging menu of issues that require experience and skill from elected executives. With all due respect to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential election, it is not solely about “the economy, stupid.” The Presidency is much bigger than that.

©   2016   Randy Bell     

Monday, September 5, 2016

Private Rights, Public Responsibility

The United States Constitution is a marvelous document. It was the first to overthrow the millennia-old idea that the right to govern was “the Divine Right of Kings.” It was a written governing document, defining a framework for running a new form of government “by the People.” And primarily through its subsequent Amendments, the Constitution explicitly delineates certain Rights that are inherent in being a citizen within this government.

Understandably in the aftermath of a Revolution to separate ourselves from an autocratic King,
the Constitution is very focused on Rights; the “Bill of Rights” was a first order of business for the new Congress. What it is less clear about is the flip side of Rights: citizen Responsibility. The Rights statements define obligations of the government to citizens of the United States, but Responsibility was assumed by default. You start out with Rights until you abuse them in some way by injury – either real or as a highly probable potential – to others. (A 12-year-old child does not have the right to drive a car. He may not have killed someone, but the likely possibility from lack of good judgment is deemed too high to risk.)
Another one of those assumed principles in our Constitution is our Right to Privacy. To be left alone. If I am causing no substantive harm to you by my actions, then leave me the hell alone. Nowhere in our Constitution is a Right to Privacy specified. (Perhaps the closest to it is the 4th Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches.) But this important Right has been explicitly presumed in various Supreme Court decisions, most notably(and perhaps ironically) in a 1965 decision overturning laws prohibiting married couples from obtaining contraception aids (e.g. “the pill” newly available), and a 1972 decision overturning laws prohibiting abortion (“Roe v. Wade”). Not withstanding the lack of an express statement, most Americans  believe and expect that Right to be part of their citizenship package. Whatever legal briefs may be filed, the Right to be Left Alone is at the heart of much resistance to a perceived intrusive government. But Privacy, and Rights in general, often collide in the face of expectations of Responsibility. It is a collision that is at the root of many of our social arguments.
For example, take our 1st Amendment guarantee of Freedom of Religion, which says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In our homes and churches, temples, and mosques, we have a Right to adopt and practice whatever religion we may choose – including none at all. This individual Freedom can only happen if our government remains strictly neutral about all religions, and prohibited from showing any preference of one religion over another. It is a promise virtually every President has upheld, even when “religious leaders” – and some politicians and lay people – periodically call for their institutions and religious beliefs and practices to dominate over others. (People seem to easily forget that that neutrality is the very thing that allows them the freedom to practice their religion at all.)
The Right to practice the religion of our choice in the privacy of our homes and houses of worship nevertheless bumps up against the Rights of all citizens in the public marketplace and government services. We are all equal citizens one-to-one, an equal count in the voting booth, an equal voice in the public debate, an equal owner of our government. Our Constitution guarantees each of us equal opportunity and standing as a citizen unrestricted by race, color, heritage, marital status, gender, or, with some limitations, age or physical health. Nor by most any other categories we have not yet come up with to try to separate ourselves.
Our Constitutional Rights are generally personal to the individual. But the detailed laws that carry out these Rights define our Responsibilities to the Community in which these Rights are exercised. We always live simultaneously in both worlds, as individuals while concurrently a member of a mutually interdependent community. Humankind may have once lived entirely self-sufficient lives, without a need for others. That is impossible in today’s shrunken political, economic, social, interconnected world. When we move out of our private lives, and engage in the public place, Responsibility becomes equal to, and sometimes dominant over, Rights. It is a necessary accommodation for creating a civilized society.
In our homes, we can associate with whom we choose – likely people very similar to us. But in the public marketplace, we do not choose: everyone is the same. Some of us remember all too well the signs saying “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” In fact, “anyone” inherently meant Blacks and Mexicans, sometimes Jews and Catholics. Women and LGBTs were not even considered worthy of a conversation. Ultimately, our Constitution caught up with, and abolished, such public bigotry. If one is in the marketplace, all citizens are entitled to be served  regardless of what one chooses to believe or do at home. A  Jewish shopkeeper may open a Kosher Jewish deli, but when my friends in Boston took me there, there were usually as many Gentiles there as Jewish patrons! (No religious test for good ethnic food.)
Taking the illustration further, in the privacy of their own homes, Justices of the Peace and marriage license Clerks can believe anything they want about the moral correctness of same-gender marriage. But the State has its own secular definitions of marriage from a legal ownership and benefits perspective. It is a perspective that cannot deny a citizen’s Rights based upon the religious choice of either the public servant or the couple seeking the marriage. Each religion has its own religious definitions, ritual, and rules of eligibility to sanctify “religious marriage” within that faith – a freedom with which the State does not interfere. The Community obligation to issue a secular marriage license does not also require you to perform the religious ceremonial ritual. If one chooses to be a public official or officer of the court, the law of community takes precedence, not the Right of Privacy or Religion.
The Rights versus Responsibility distinction will always be a source of tension if not outright conflict. Both seem clear when considered separately; the appropriate relationship between the two is rarely easy to determine, especially when two Rights go head-to-head against each other. This same tension is found in all of our Constitutional Freedoms vis-à-vis our laws of Community: gun ownership, freedom of speech, freedom of press, voting procedures. No Right of Freedom can disregard Community Responsibility; no laws of Community can arbitrarily overwhelm Rights. We cannot just have it one (i.e. our) way. The teetering point in between is always a difficult case-by-case compromise, often on a trial-and-error “best effort” basis, determined by people of good will towards each other: respecting Privacy, while building strong Communities.
I am usually comfortable with this Rights and Community tension, willing to let each person hold to their individual beliefs and private conduct while expecting respect and accommodation in the public place. But sometimes I do wonder … if I were a small entrepreneur, a baker of cakes in a small shop in my little town, and a Skinhead or KKK member walked in one day and asked me to inscribe a cake with a blatantly offensive racial slur or societal threat – how would I respond?
Theory meets daily reality. Life is never perfectly clear. Rarely does it offer easy answers. In the end, there is not a “right” answer. There is only our good will, and best wise judgement, brought to bear that truly matter.
©   2016   Randy Bell