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Speaker of the House John Boehner Shocked that Govermnent Is Not Run Like a Business

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In his rebuttal to President Barack Obama’s talk to the American people about the U.S. debt ceiling debate, Speaker of the House John Boehner revealed an interesting perspective on the nature of government. First coming to the House as a small business owner, Boehner said he was shocked that the U.S government didn’t operate like “other businesses.” Noting that “other” businesses do not spend outside their means, neither, he said, should Washington.

I did a bit of a double take at that innocuous remark, so very Republican that it was almost a throwaway line. And maybe that’s the problem—and the difference in approach to government between the two major parties. Government is not a business. Government has responsibilities to its citizens that go beyond what businesses have to their customers. Businesses have to provide a product or service at a competitive price and quality. Their bottom lines are governed by production and distribution costs, research (if applicable), etc., which have to balance with the revenue coming into the company through sales (in general). When revenues decrease, businesses cut back on production, making adjustments until revenues come return. Government cannot do that, perhaps especially during a recession, where people are needier, there are more jobless and people hurting.

Government, especially as its evolved since the New Deal of the 1930s, has always included a social component, providing a safety net for its citizens, and taking care of the nation’s infrastructure and other things that the citizens cannot provide for themselves. That structure also includes ensuring the environment isn’t polluted, the food isn’t tainted (by accident or malicious intent), that workers are safe in their jobs, that medicines we use are safe and effective, and other collective needs. Goverment sometimes also provides the impetus for innovation and the partnership to advance our society in science and medicine. Businesses don’t have to deal with hurricanes, blizzards, droughts and wildfires going uncontrolled. Businesses don’t have to provide for the nation’s defense.

For all these things—these “collective goods”—we all pay taxes (well, most of us do). We all benefit from the things that we buy with our taxes, even if not directly.

Speaker Boehner’s logic is faulty if he was shocked that the U.S. government doesn’t operate like a business. Government is not a business. It is there to provide for the common good—for the collective good. But Speaker Boehner’s belief speaks to the heart of the matter—the fundamental difference between how Republicans (many of them, anyway) and Democrats (and I would guess a fair number of independents) view government. It is a fundamental philosphical difference in the purpose of goverment, and it is at the core of what President Obama said this evening has become political warfare in Washington. It is a philosophical difference that grows more and more polarized—and polarizing—every year. It has become so intense that our government, as President Obama noted this evening in his speech to the American public, has become dysfunctional. Whether that difference is reconcilable remains to be seen.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • Amy

    The Wall Street business community is what got us into this bad mess in the first place. Let’s not forget that as we move forward.

  • zadoc

    There has been enough political game playing. Let’s face facts and do what’s best for America.

    POLL: Boehner vs. Obama on the debt – Who’s right and who’s wrong?

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Barbara – you’re absolutely right – government is not a business and should never be run as a business. Government is not in the business of making a profit – but it is in the business of making sure that the nation’s businesses CAN make a profit.

  • But Glenn–that isn’t government’s ONLY function–or even its major function.

  • But in a way, Barbara, Glenn is right in a perfidious kind of way. You’re speaking from that standpoint of what ought to be (the case), Glenn from what is.

  • The answer is that we need more rigorous audits of the public and private sector. We need a complete Uniform Commercial Code overhaul for derivative transactions to preclude situations like the 2008 crash.

    In addition, we need better infrastructure. The country now has 300MM people and growing. By 2050, we will have 1/2 billion citizens in the USA. We need to prepare the health care and road infrastructure for these new realities. For more, see my article today on the Pros and Cons of Raising the Public Debt on Blogcritics.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Barbara –

    I agree that it isn’t the government’s only or main function. Of course it isn’t. But in the context of the discussion we’re currently having, it certainly is the function of the government to ensure that businesses can make a profit.

    Unfortunately, too many people think that business profits are the raison d’etre of government, and do not accept that the people often need to be protected from the vagaries of Big Business run amok. For instance, read this article describing the latest Tea Party Republican attempt to eviscerate the EPA, which bill weakens mountaintop removal regulation, coal ash regulation, caps EPA employment at 1992 levels (!), and restores $55M in taxpayer subsidies to offshore oil and gas drilling!

    The hypocrisy of the Right is, well, breathtaking.

  • Maurice

    I like Boehners’statement in that government should be run in a responsible way. Overdrawing the checkbook is not responsible. Borrowing to pay debt is not responsible.

  • zingzing
  • zingzing

    according to this article, the same republicans who won’t raise the debt ceiling nearly doubled that same debt ceiling during the bush presidency, from 5 trillion to 9.8 trillion, and they raised the debt ceiling 5 times in 5 years. at no time did they call for spending cuts to accompany these raises, and they even passed the bush’s tax cuts for the rich on the same damn day.

    what changed? there’s a dem in office now.

  • There’s also a recession now.

    Arguably caused by policies enacted while there wasn’t a Dem in office, but some folks would rather we didn’t look behind that particular curtain…

  • zingzing

    yes, there is a recession now. which would only be furthered by not raising the debt ceiling…

  • Maurice

    Debt is bad and it doesn’t matter to me whether it was the Blues or the Reds that caused it. I would just like to see the irresponsible spending reined in. Is there consensus on the debt issue? Can we all agree that paying the car payment with a credit card is wrong?

  • Can we all agree that paying the car payment with a credit card is wrong?

    Long time no see, Maurice. Yes, we can agree on that, but it’s not the best analogy.

    This is more like not paying one’s car payment because one doesn’t have any money, then getting all huffy and blaming your spouse for buying that new pair of shoes when the loan company repossesses your car.

    How about raising the limit on one’s credit card? Not usually a good idea, granted. But wrong?

  • Baronius

    analogy (n): a comparison between two things, typically on the basis of their structure and for the purpose of explanation or clarification

  • Baronius

    OK, I hit “post” too soon, and I was going to reply to a point that no one had actually made, so basically that last comment was nonsense.

    Carry on.

  • Maurice

    Dr Dreadful – I think I like your analogy better. As to your question I would put conditions on raising the limit of the credit card. #1 if we are going to raise our limit we must have a plan to pay it off. #2 we are only raising it because we have temporary financial troubles.

  • Maurice

    …and not because we want to do more shopping!

  • Referring to Medicare and Social Security as “shopping” conveniently ignores the human and economic consequences of sudden, severe belt tightening.

    Long term, we have to lower the deficit. Short term we have to concentrate on jobs and economic recovery.

    The Tea Party can’t or doesn’t want to acknowledge the difference between short term and long term, or between taking a first step and doing it all right now, damn the torpedoes, to hell with the consequences.

  • zingzing

    debt is bad, yes. but not raising the debt ceiling does nothing to solve that problem.

  • Igor

    ¨Debt is bad¨.

    What a stupid thing to say!

    In fact, debt is what has financed every thriving company in America. Debt is what has allowed investors to participate in the successes of innovative people and companies by financing their debt.

    EVERY successful startup company I have seen or participated in here in Silicon Valley was initially financed by the founders (who were ordinary middleclass engineers with families, debts, and NO savings) who secured cash money by taking out second mortgages on their homes. Without debt there would be NO technical economy and prosperity.

    Silicon Valley was NOT financed from retained earnings of big companies like IBM and DEC. In fact, both those companies have all but disappeared from sight as they were overwhelmed by DEBT-financed startups. Those big companies were viorously opposed because they saw micro-computers as challenging their superior positions.

    The computer revolution was financed by DEBT.

    In fact, as a participant in several startups I can attest that we would barely sign the papers on one round of debt-seeking and we would start the next one, moving up the financing chain to ever-higher levels of indebtedness.

    Indebtedness proves that people have confidence in your ability to succeed. Have the nay-sayers lost confidence in Americas ability to succeed that they would be unwilling to finance debt?

    Most American families that became middleclass did it while taking on huge debt, in a house, for example. Debtors are keenly aware of the necessity to succeed and that makes them more effective workers.

    Any person who says ¨debt is bad¨ is diminished in my estimation because it shows that he has not given serious thought to debt and probably gets his ideas from his grandmothers homilies, perhaps expressed on an old tattered sampler that says ¨neither a borrower nor a lender be¨, which, after all, Shakespeare employed to show what a fool Polonius was. Shakespeare, himself a skillful master of debt, used debt to finance his plays. Without debt there would have been no Shakespeare.

    Overall, the USA operates on a net debt ratio of about 10 to 1: we carry ten times as much debt as we have real assets with intrinsic value.

    Debt is good: it´s what makes the wheels of commerce go ´round. It´s what enables families to climb up into the middleclass.

  • troll

    …maybe we need to consider the possibility that business should be run more like government – to provide for the common good

  • That would be the day.

  • Until businesses realized they could sell things that people didn’t actually need, the common good is pretty much what they did provide for – not as a raison d’être, perhaps, but as a necessary consequence.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    troll –

    I agree. That’s why a lot of non-profit businesses do quite well, thank you very much, since any profits over and above salaries and operating expenses are required to be used for the improvement of the business itself.

    Think about it – would businesses be stronger if instead of paying untold millions in exorbitant salaries, they instead paid reasonable salaries (which is what government employees make – not enough to get filthy rich, but enough to live decently) and put the rest into improving the company itself?

    Yes, most businesses WOULD do better. But those who demand profit on top of profit (“greed is good!”) rake in dividends and obscene salaries that could otherwise be used to improve the operational infrastructure of their businesses.

    But be sure to ignore all this, because I’m surely just presenting another great threat to true democracy!

  • A raison d’être is even better motivation. When I ran my own for nearly thirty years, I took greater joy in seeing my workers make as much as possible than in how much I myself was making.

    Besides, isn’t there something perfidious about turning a product that people don’t need?

  • Yes, but that hasn’t stopped companies over the centuries from selling things like periwigs, tulip bulbs, unsustainable mortgages, Pet Rocks, Snuggies…

  • Maurice

    Igor – Clearly I have pushed a very sensitive button for you. Debt is bad. It can be useful but should be discouraged and rare. Please take a moment to go look at the debt clock.

    You will notice the debt per tax payer is $130,000. That is too much.

  • Yes, we enabled them.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Doc –

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if nobody made things we didn’t need? Think of how much money we would save if we didn’t waste our money on things we didn’t really, truly need – like toilet paper, or charcoal briquettes, or televisions, or double-pane windows, or sewer systems, or electrical grids….

    The only thing we’d really need, then, is someone to tell us whether something is truly a ‘need’, or simply just a ‘want’ or a ‘really nice-to-have’.

  • Glenn, I wouldn’t go to that extreme. As a society becomes more affluent, things like toilet paper and TVs, that earlier generations wouldn’t have had much use for, become “necessary” to maintain a baseline standard of living. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

    The paradigm shift I mean happened the moment it was realized that you could manufacture something ostensibly useless or superfluous – and then persuade people that they needed it.

    Watch any infomercial if you don’t believe me – although it’s by no means purely a 20th or 21st century phenomenon.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Doc –

    I was being facetious in a snarky sort of way. It has something to do with being deemed the greatest threat to true democracy.

    What you’re referring to isn’t a modern phenomenon but a very human foible, as you well know since you referenced the Tulip Bubble from, what was it, the 1600’s? The only difference is that now we can be convinced that we ‘must’ have something via electronic means, and we’ve often got the money to waste on such things.