Feb. 24 2016 12:17 AM

Business acumen isn't answer for political problems

To understand the appeal of Donald Trump, why some believe he is viable presidential material, I called my brother Terry.

I wasn't surprised that he's a Trump man, though easily he could have been for Ted Cruz. Among my five brothers and sisters is a wide political gulf, from Terry, whose views mesh with Fox News and conservative talk radio, to, well, me.

The first reason he offered for supporting Trump was his business experience and a belief that government should run like a business. But that's only part of Trump's appeal. Like so many Americans, Terry says government isn't working. The reasons are complex and defy Trump's glib and polarizing pronouncements. But my brother is right about the dysfunction and he wants a change.

There's that memorable line from the film “The American President” that captures the feelings on the right and left about the leadership vacuum. Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy Lewis Rothschild (Michael J. Fox) is badgering a reluctant President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) to challenge the tactics of Sen. Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss). Rothschild says:

“People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand.”

Welcome to Election 2016. It explains the appeal of Bernie Sanders, certainly an unconventional politician. And of Trump, an even odder presidential contender, who promotes corporate success as a qualification to untangle the nation's political gridlock.

Anyway, this is Terry's view. He suggested that the water crisis in Flint was the result of career politicians more interested in reelection than protecting people. And to be fair, for New Yorkers, what happens in Michigan is akin to the collapse of the Ukrainian governing coalition.

He had no idea that Rick Snyder's brand is business, that he sold himself as a “job creator” (the Republican euphemism for corporate executive) and that he still promises on his website to make government more efficient and effective for Michigan’s citizens.

It was the Snyder Administration's embrace of corporate expense controls — cost cutting — that led to the lead poisoning of people in Flint. The response to complaints by Flint citizens about their discolored, foul tasting water was ridicule. That's not even a business standard.

Privatizing the state's prison food service was another business-based disaster. To lower costs, the Synder Administration eliminated state workers and gave Aramark Correction Services a three-year, $145 million contract. The result was food shortages, maggots, drug and contraband smuggling and Aramark staff sex acts with prisoners. Underlying all of this is the state's unrelenting war against union workers.

I asked my brother if there were businesses that he thought might serve as a model for government and he was stumped. With good reason. The goal of business isn't job creation or people's welfare. It is profits, as it should be.

Do we want a country run according to the sketchy ethics of Wall Street? The nation's largest, most prestigious bank, JP Morgan Chase, has paid billions of dollars in fines for charges as varied as misleading investors, fictitious sales of securities, improper credit card charges and illegal manipulation of interest rates. What about other financial giants, the big insurance companies like AIG or investment bankers like Goldman Sachs? Both have paid billions of dollars in fines for fraudulent practices. And these are the industry leaders.

How about the airlines? Anyone who flies knows how well they are serving the people's interest. Their business model is cramped seating, fees, flight delays and predatory pricing tactics designed to stifle competition.

The coal industry? Won't even go there. But its biggest customers, public utilities, are certainly large and successful businesses. That they continue to pollute and fight vigorously to do so means higher profits for their shareholders.

Then there is the wealthy pharmaceutical industry, which according to the Center for Responsive Politics spent $273 million lobbying to shape the Affordable Care Act. There is Turing Pharmaceuticals, the drug company that increased the price of the drug Daraprim from $13.50 a pill to $750, and Valeant Pharmaceuticals, which between May 2014 and October 2015 raised the price of the diuretic Edecrin from $470 to $4,600.

It's all just business. But there is little to recommend as a governing model. The fact is government isn't business and shouldn't be. Obviously, success in the corporate world is no guarantee of success in governing.

Vice President Dick Cheney was CEO of Halliburton before his stint with the Bush Administration. George Bush has an MBA from Harvard and made a fortune from his dealings with the Texas Rangers. Strong business credentials and inept execution is their legacy.

My brother may like Trump, but crediting his business savvy as a qualification for elected office is sketchy at best. Better to look at him as an outsider willing to defy political conventions. Government simply isn't a business.