Oped: Disaster zone: Trump's Cabinet formula
Donald Trump, a businessman-turned-president-elect, is larding his Cabinet with business people-turned-public-servants. It's never worked, and it won't work now.
Business and government are two different disciplines. Success in one seldom leads to success in the other.
The whole purpose of private business is to make a profit. If a business produces a useful product or service, that's icing on the cake. But it's not why the business exists.
The whole purpose of government is to deliver a service. If it delivers that service in a cost-effective manner, that's icing on the cake. But it's not why government exists.
The people who run business and government both need deep training and keen skills — but not the same training and skills.
Trump doesn't agree. Criticized for his gold-plated Cabinet, he told a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, that "I want people that made a fortune. ... It's no different than a great baseball player or a great golfer."
Not so. Professional point guards and professional cellists are both peak performers, but it would be a mistake to swap Bulls basketball star Rajon Rondo for cellist Yo Yo Ma and expect good results. So with business people and government leaders.
From Robert McNamara to Donald Regan to Robert Rubin to Donald Rumsfeld, American history is littered with the wreckage left behind by successful corporate leaders plucked from their corner suites, only to bomb in public life.
(Fair's fair: The list of government leaders who became successful business people is also pretty short.)
Government exists to do the things — train soldiers, supply public education, enforce laws, regulate trading, assess taxes, maintain roads, support public housing, run national parks — that business either can't do for a profit, or shouldn't do if equity is to be served. Its eye is on keeping the public happy.
Business exists to produce goods and services beyond basic human needs that people are willing to buy. Its eye is on keeping shareholders happy.
Obviously, the two often overlap: Defense contractors and private prisons move in, not always to good effect, when companies see a way to turn public needs to private profit. But a healthy society makes room for both government and business, and much of politics involves seeking a proper balance between the two.
Government and business leaders not only need separate skills but have separate personalities.
Most businesses are dictatorships, necessarily so. The chief executive officer is hired by the board of directors to achieve a clear end and given the power to get the job done. Orders are to be obeyed, not debated. Underlings give advice if asked, but they don't get a vote. Good CEOs set the goals, decide the policy, give the orders, and see success or failure in the stock price. They don't typically check the public opinion polls to see how they're doing.
Most of all, a business leader can, if he chooses, seal himself off from naysayers and critics. He may be wrong, but no one will tell him so.
Government leaders serve in an elected administration buffeted daily by polls, tweets, editorials, opposing politicians, even their own underlings whose loyalty is to the government, not to the people who happen to be leading it at the moment. These leaders give orders that will be considered but not necessarily obeyed. Successful Cabinet secretaries are better at negotiating than whip-cracking. They spend a lot of time testifying to members of Congress who may not be experts in energy, say, or education but are masters of politics, which is what really counts.
For corporate leaders used to giving orders, this is frustrating. Grand plans fall by the wayside. Sweeping reforms get nibbled to death. But this is the way democracy is supposed to work, in fits and starts, step by step, piecemeal measures that need to be debated and judged. The only good thing about it is that it works. Dictatorships may be more efficient, but they always fail.
Apart from their wealth, Trump's Cabinet picks — like Trump himself — are notable mostly for their complete lack of experience in government. They include a banker, fast-food purveyor, even a neurosurgeon. There's a populist feeling that politics, like teaching, is easy and that anybody can do it. People who have tried either politics or teaching soon find it's harder than it looks.
If it makes no sense to ask Julian Castro, the current secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to perform neurosurgery, it makes no more sense to ask retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson to be Castro's successor.
Experience counts, and Trump has chosen a Cabinet of amateurs.
— Richard C. Longworth is a distinguished fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.