Big boss man

Talking politics
By AL DIAMON  |  July 13, 2011

"Government should be run like a business."

If I had one share of Google stock for every time I've heard a politician or some other brainless twit make that comment, I wouldn't care if Medicare and Social Security end up as bankrupt as Lehman Brothers and Borders bookstores.

I also wouldn't have to keep explaining that government isn't a business and can't function like one. Government's fundamental purpose is not to produce a product or service that can be sold at a profit.

The reason we have government is to make fun of it. Also, to maintain some sort of social order. Most political disagreements center on how much of that order (and/or ridicule) is necessary.

Nevertheless, the idea that government can operate like a business persists. And nowhere is it more stubbornly entrenched than in the brain of Paul Richard LePage, who is currently employed not as the CEO of a chain of remaindered-goods emporiums, but as governor of Maine.

LePage thinks like a businessman. There's nothing wrong with that when it comes to setting priorities, balancing budgets, and allocating resources. Those who criticize LePage for taking a businesslike approach to welfare, health care, or environmental protection are off the mark. LePage's problem isn't that he's trying to transfer his skills in managing a private-sector entity to running a public-sector one. It's that he doesn't recognize the fundamental difference between business and government.

When LePage ran Marden's Surplus and Salvage, he was the boss. By all reports, he was a pretty good one. He delegated authority. He sought advice from his staff. He considered a variety of viewpoints before making decisions. But once LePage made up his mind to do something, he expected — indeed, he demanded — that it be done exactly the way he wanted it done.

No amendments.

No compromises.

No study commissions that'll report back next year.

At Marden's, it was do it the LePage way or any resistant staff members would find their continued employment deemed surplus and their careers relegated to salvage.

It was that approach that LePage brought to the Waterville mayor's job in 2003. It made him popular with fiscally conservative voters, but it limited his ability to accomplish much. In a city dominated by Democrats, Republican LePage never seemed interested in building a base of support that extended beyond his own re-election. He didn't recruit any like-minded candidates for the City Council. He didn't energize the GOP to elect more legislators. He displayed almost no aptitude for the political end of the job.

The reason for that ineffectiveness was that LePage could never get out of business mode. He still informed people of his decisions and expected them to carry out his orders. But often those people were elected officials in their own right — used to the sort of give and take that resulted in both sides getting some of what they wanted, but nobody getting anywhere near all of it.

So they politely told LePage to pound sand.

A more savvy and open-minded guy might have figured out that the political realm doesn't operate in the same manner as the business world. But LePage's savvy was limited to commerce and his open-mindedness shut off as soon as he left his executive offices. When, through the intervention of sheer dumb luck, he found himself in the governor's office last January, he was still operating as if he were negotiating to buy water-damaged furniture or out-of-style famous-name clothing.

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