The recent primary wins of Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman are giving us a familiar narrative: former corporate CEOs, fists pumping the air, talking about how they will correct the course of the foundering ships of state using boardroom tactics. Budgets will be slashed and deficits slayed. Profitability will be restored, peace will reign and all will be right with the world. Unfortunately, one of the most potent weapons of the corporate CEO is unavailable to the average senator or governor—layoffs.
When Carly Fiorina was ousted at HP, her successor, Mark Hurd, immediately started laying off people as part of the restructuring. He was only following in Fiorina’s footsteps; she also cut thousands of jobs while at HP. As a board member of eBay, Meg Whitman approved massive layoffs for the company. And Wall Street, which adores a robust round of layoffs, always responds with a big thumbs up and a rising share price.
Much has already been written about layoffs and the devastating effect job loss has recently had on America. But lost in the narrative is the simple fact that this time honored tool of corporate CEOs everywhere is useless to an elected official. Of course, elected officials can do layoffs to trim budgets and save money. Whitman is on record as saying that if she is elected governor, she will want to cut jobs. Cut spending, eliminating jobs, doing more with less—this is all familiar and comforting territory for Those Who Would Run Government Like a Business. It works—just looks at their former corporate paychecks, Wall Street accolades and rising share prices.
There, is of course, one major flaw in the business plan. When Whitman or Fiorina laid off employees at eBay or HP, those employees became (to channel Douglas Adams) a SEP—Somebody Else’s Problem. And that Somebody was the government. Carly, Meg and the others Who Would Run Government Like a Business don’t seem to grasp the fact that you can’t lay off a citizen. You can’t make them pack their things in a box and have a guard escort them off the property to Canada. You can only restructure a citizen from the Department of Employed Citizens to the Department of Unemployed Citizens. Try as you might, you can’t deactivate their passport and bar them from the country.
Meg or Carly or anyone else Who Would Run the Government Like a Business can lay off all the government employees they want, get rid of the IRS or the Department of Education, and slash entitlement programs, but the people who staff these organizations or depend on these programs will still be on the payroll somehow—be it through drawing unemployment, Medicaid and food stamps, or hanging around on the street asking strangers for food or change. There are plenty of sobering images from the Great Depression showing what a country that cuts all obligations to its citizens the way a corporation cuts all obligations to its employees looks like.
Government, it should be clear, is not a business. Meg, Carly and anyone else Who Would Run Government Like a Business may think they are displaying a steely-eyed economic savvy that will reap huge profits and Wall Street adoration. But all that really tells us is that they don’t understand that both the bottom line and the bread line will be their problems to solve and that they are forever linked.