Friday, November 18, 2016

Eating your vegetables

It's no secret that I weigh more than I should.  The reasons for that are simple:  I eat more than I should, I eat the wrong kinds of foods, I don't exercise enough.  I'm not a fan of vegetables; I tolerate them, mostly because I have to.  I'm on a diet now, and part of that diet involves eating vegetables I don't like--but I do it because I need to lose weight to improve the length and quality of my life.

Over the last 10 days, as I've watched the Trump transition move forward, it occurred to me that the eat-your-vegetables analogy can be used to describe the Trump/Republican approach to government.

I have heard several people tell me, in all seriousness, that they voted for Trump because, as a successful businessman*, he can do a better job of managing the federal government than a career politician like Hillary Clinton.  The theory, I suppose, is that running a vast business enterprise requires skills that, properly applied, will make the government run more like a business (and, by extension, like a successful business).  Meanwhile, the lack of business experience means that a politician will make all the same mistakes the supposedly inefficient government makes, and things will never get better.

* I think that at best the jury's still out on whether Trump qualifies as a successful businessman.  But we'll take that at face value for the moment.

This strikes me as the kind of argument that stupid people think sounds smart.  It's fraught with problems, and it takes for granted certain things that just aren't so.

First, the federal government is an enormously complex organization that has 320 million customers and 320 million owners.  With the possible exception of Facebook, no private business has that many different constituents to try to please.  (Facebook has, what, a billion accounts?  But it has an extremely narrow focus, compared to the federal government.)

Second, for what it must accomplish, the federal government is incredibly efficient.  I'll use health care as an example:  The federal government provides health care to the poor and the elderly through Medicare and Medicaid.  The cost ratio of those programs--the percentage of each program's budget that goes to "overhead expense" rather than health care services--is under 3%.  Private insurers, who by law are compelled to spend 80% of the premiums they collect on health care services, struggle to meet the implied cost ratio of 20%.  Meanwhile, Medicare and Medicaid must insure everyone who is eligible for them, while private insurers can choose the kinds of customers they want to serve, to some extent.

Third, private businesses exist primarily to serve their shareholders.  If a business line isn't serving the shareholders (i.e., it's losing money), the business will generally shut that business line down.  Private businesses have broad latitude to make those kinds of choices.  The government has to find a way to do the things that are needed, even if they are costly.

The problem with the Trump transition--and, I suspect, an enormous wake-up call that happened when Trump met with President Obama last week--is that Trump is used to running his organization as a top-down, hierarchical organization.  Trump has the authority to decide for his companies what they will do, to hire whomever he wants to do those things, to fire people when they don't meet his expectations, and to change directions when his businesses fail (and he has repeatedly done so, apparently with few consequences).

As President, Trump will not have that authority.  The President is powerful, but he is still subject to the law.  He cannot simply do whatever he likes; the law imposes on him certain duties that he cannot shirk; before he can spend money, Congress must agree that it should be spent; and the Constitution imposes still other limitations on his activities.  There is a process and procedure associated with doing things.

Which brings us back to the business of governing.  Only totalitarian dictators get to impose their will upon the governments they head.  Governance in a democratic republic like ours, with the separation of powers like ours, requires compromise and negotiation; it requires knowing the rules and following the procedures.  In short, being the President requires a special set of skills that is completely different from those of a standard--or even a celebrity--businessman.  It requires being able to eat your vegetables, even if you don't want to, because the instant gratification of a meat-and-dessert diet isn't worth the long-term problems.

There are many things about the government that could be improved.  Trump has focused lately on our free-trade agreements, Obamacare, and taxes.  Many of the people who voted for him did so because they liked his message on those topics--they see problems with these things, and they thing that simply removing the thing will solve their problem.

Lost your job because the company moved production to Mexico?  End NAFTA.

Can't afford health insurance anymore?  Repeal Obamacare.  (Or repeal parts of Obamacare.)

Don't have enough money?  Cut taxes.

The problem with these "simple" solutions is that the system exists as it does because the system was designed to solve a problem--perhaps a different problem than one you are experiencing, but a problem nonetheless.  We might take a broadsword to the establishment, but the yesterday's problems will still exist.  NAFTA came about because it was difficult for us to sell enough goods to our nearest neighbors because of trade barriers.  Obamacare came about because 45 million Americans didn't have health insurance and mostly resorted to emergency care.  Our tax code exists as it does because deciding who pays for what is a matter of negotiation and compromise.

It might feel good to end NAFTA, but what about the American companies that sell products to Canada and Mexico?

It might feel good to repeal Obamacare, but what about the 20 million Americans who will lose their access to health care?

It might feel good to cut taxes, but how do we fund the programs that you rely on?

Governing is hard work, and it requires smart work from people who know what they're doing--from people who are willing to eat their vegetables because that's required for the best outcome.

I have more to say on this topic, but it's been a long week.

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