We Really Need to Sort Out How Government Works

Warning: I'm going to go full point-by-point rebuttal on a video. This one has 15 million views and seems to be met with lots of positive feedback, so it's a good case study. I got turned onto it by reader Chris (who also wrote his own assessment).

As an exercise, before you read the rebuttal, I encourage you to watch the video in order to form your own interpretation. That will make this a useful ReConsidering exercise. It's sufficiently partisan that most people are going to react one way or another.

So go ahead and watch.

Alright, you watched. Now let's check in: how did you react? Did it seem to resonate? Did you reject it? And why?

My Critique

Let's first review his key points:

  1. His main point seems to be that a CEO runs a company like a totalitarian dictatorship, and a president is supposed to run a business democratically.
  2. The second point is that "the goal of a business is to maximize profit; the goal of a government is to represent the will of the people.
  3. The skills of the CEO and President are "diametrically opposed" because a President needs to build consensus, manage public opinion, and engage in diplomatic relations, where a CEO simply needs to squeeze profit out of a business. 
  4. When referring to healthcare, he drifts to making the case that citizens are customers, rather than employees, to make the point that running a government for profit is a bad idea.

And my critique:

  1. Our speaker draws an analogy between employees and citizens--that is, if the president acts like a CEO, they'll treat the citizens of the US as employees. In the "ambassador from hell" part, he says, "try calling your boss an ambassador from hell--you won't be at that company for very long." He's made clear that his argument rests on the idea that the president is the "boss" of citizens, and that he has the kind of direction or power over them that a CEO has over employees. Obviously the president doesn't. They can sign bills into law--as passed by Congress, but their primary role is to direct the executive branch of the government itself. That is, citizens are not analogous to employees--government employees are analogous to employees. 
  2. Our speaker also makes the case that a CEO is accountable to their shareholders and a President should be accountable to citizens. He says that this is somehow a problem, as if these are very different things. From a strictly selfish point of view, a CEO works in order to make money and keep their job (the shareholders can oust them). From a similarly selfish point of view, a President works in order to make money and keep thier job (voters can oust them). Corruption aside (which is not unique to CEOs) the most primal incentives are the same: keep your shareholders & voters happy. In this way, voters are much closer to shareholders than employees.
  3. After the citzen-employee analogy, our speaker then compares voters to customers of the company. He does this when discussing why the USPS is important, instead of just having the free market solve for shipping and mail. Let's not digress into discussing the different kinds of services the government or the free market is best for, but does it make sense to treat citizens as customers? Perhaps, much in the same way as you might treat them as shareholders: give them what they want and make them happy, and you'll stay on top. Disappoint them, and you're doomed. It appears that the incentives between CEO and president are not all too different in this case. Again, not the same, but certainly not "diametrically opposed."
  4. He says, "yes: the US postal service loses money," and, "the government helps pay for it." Turns out it's self-funding. This is just bad (or total lack of) research. 
  5. He claims "profits for health insurance companies are doing pretty good." This is just wrong. It's a common misconception, but also simply not researched. Even after the profit increase that insurers got under Obamacare, their profit margins are just 3.3%. This puts the industry near the bottom of profitability. Drug manufacturers get 22%, for comparison. This claim is simply wrong.
  6. He claims near the end that the president should be concerned with providing more care, not more profits. But for whom? This argument clearly implies that the CEO-President would be interested in providing profits for health insurance companies, not the government. This confuses who the president (or CEO for that matter) is working for.

Can the same profit-maximizing CEO skills work for running a government? Like with all previous professions, there are some skills that overlap and some that don't. A case can be made that a CEO isn't prepared to be president because of a lack of experience in office--with legislation, foreign policy, etc. But that's not the point of this video. The point is that the incentives are wrong, and that a CEO is going to treat citizens like employees, which is simply false. 

In the end, the video is confused about what point it's trying to make--is a CEO-president going to treat citizens like employees, or customers? Is he running the government for profit, or running it for the profit of corporations? And each of these contradictory claims falls quickly flat.

What's the Point?

Besides this particular video's inaccuracies being frustrating in themselves, there's a bigger issue afoot. Given how many people have seen, liked, and shared this video, it clearly resonates. 

The fact that it resonates suggests either that a few million people are just really excited to see stuff that marks Trump as a bad president (or otherwise takes a shot at capitalism, perhaps), or that people actually have a bit of a twisted notion of how government actually works. The core thesis behind the video's internally-inconsistent point is that the president "runs the country," when in reality the president does not--they merely run the executive branch of the government. For the most part, the country runs itself (much unlike a business). The entire concept of the President being CEO of the citizenry is just silly. It may be time to take a step back and sort out how government actually works.


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.