Blog: Reframing

About this business of government, Mr. President

5 April 2017

[Another version of this was posted on hbr.org last week under the title “The U.S. cannot be run like a business.”]

Dear Mr. President

As a neighbor in Canada who has long worked with businesses and governments around the world, I have some important news for you. America is not suffering from too much government so much as from too much business―all over government. Please understand this to avoid pouring more oil on the fires of America, and this planet.

[Another version of this was posted on hbr.org last week under the title “The U.S. cannot be run like a business.”]

Dear Mr. President

As a neighbor in Canada who has long worked with businesses and governments around the world, I have some important news for you. America is not suffering from too much government so much as from too much business―all over government. Please understand this to avoid pouring more oil on the fires of America, and this planet.

Business in its place is essential, just as is government in its place, which is not all over business. Now, however, thanks to you and your cabinet, business need no longer just lobby government to get its way; it is government. You were elected to challenge the establishment; will the executives who came into your cabinet from ExxonMobile and Goldman Sachs do that? They are the establishment: that other, more powerful business establishment that has now displaced the weaker political establishment.

This is an old problem now being carried to a new extreme. In the early days of the Republic, Thomas Jefferson expressed the hope that “we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength...” Instead, later in that century the U.S. Supreme Court recognised corporations as “persons” in the law. Not long after that, in the new century, President Teddy Roosevelt was railing about the power of corporate trusts in American society, and in the 1960s President Dwight David Eisenhower warned of the “unwarranted influence…by the military-industrial complex.” Nevertheless, in 2010 the Supreme Court gave those corporate persons the right to fund political campaigns to their heart’s content. When “free enterprise” in an economy becomes the freedom of enterprises as persons in a society, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, government of the real people, by the real people, for the real people perishes from the earth.

Should government even be run like a business, let alone by businesspeople? No more than that business should be run like a government, by civil servants. As you well know, when an entrepreneur says “Jump”, the response is “How high sir?” You are now finding out what happens when a U.S. president says “Jump”. So far, so bad. Governments are relentlessly subjected to a plethora of pressures that many businesses, especially entrepreneurial ones like your own, cannot easily understand.

Business has a convenient bottom line, called profit, which can easily be measured. What’s the bottom line in government, say for terrorism? (Countries listed? Immigrants deported? Walls built?) What’s the bottom line for climate change? (Do you really believe it is jobs created?)

Running government like a business has been tried again and again, only to fail again and again. You must remember the debacle in New Orleans when Homeland Security was run by a businessman…of sorts. How about when George W. Bush’s Secretary of the Army promised to bring in “sound business practice”? He came from Enron, just before its spectacular collapse.

In the 1960s, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara introduced PPBS (Planning-Programming-Budgeting System) to run government like a business. The obsessive measuring led to the infamous body counts of the Vietnam War. That bottom line was about as low as it can get. Then in the 1980s came the “New Public Management”, a euphemism for old corporate practices: isolate activities, put a manager in charge of each, and hold him or her responsible for the measurable results. That might work for the state lottery, but how about foreign relations or education, let alone, dare I mention it, health care? And now, at your request, your own son-in-law heads yet another effort to run government like a business. Back he comes with that old buzzword of citizens as “customers.” (Al Gore was using this misguided metaphor when he was vice-president.) You know what? I am not a mere customer of my government, thank you, as if I buy services at arm’s length. I am an engaged citizen of my country.

The place of business is to supply us with goods and services; that of government, aside from protecting us from threats, is to help keep our marketplaces competitive and responsible. Do you really believe that recent American governments have been overdoing this job, let alone even doing it?

I have a little book for you, Mr. President, called Rebalancing Society. It contends that a healthy society balances the power of respected governments in the public sector with responsible businesses in the private sector and robust communities in what I call the plural sector (“civil society”). The most democratic nations in the world today function closest to such balance, including ours in Canada and those in Scandinavia, likewise your own when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the community “associations” that helped to maintain democracy in early America. Indeed, during the decades following World War Two, the U.S. was far better balanced, as it experienced striking prosperity and development—economic as well as social―despite high taxes and generous welfare programs. Now, however, the country has lost that balance, and needs the plural sector to offset the fruitless swinging back and forth between left and right—government interventions by the public sector and market forces in the private sector.

Think back to the Berlin Wall, Mr. President. That wall fell on our Western democracies, because we misunderstood what brought it down. The pundits of the West claimed that capitalism had triumphed. Not at all. Balance had triumphed.  While the communist states of Eastern Europe were utterly out of balance, on the side of their public sectors, the successful countries of the West retained a relative balance across the three sectors.

But with this misunderstanding, capitalism has been triumphing since the fall of that wall, and throwing America and many other countries out of balance the other way, in favor of their private sectors. Look around, Mr. President, at income disparities, climate change exacerbated by excessive consumption, and the unregulated forces of globalization running rampant around the globe. That is why we have seen votes like Brexit and your own, by distraught people unsure which way to turn, except against the “establishment”.

When enough people realize what has been going on, if not you, then a subsequent president, will have to restore the balance that made America great in the first place.

Sincerely

Henry Mintzberg
Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal

© Henry Mintzberg 2017. For elaboration of these arguments, please see Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center. Also my Harvard Business Review article “Managing Government, Governing Management”. 

Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing here. To help disseminate these blogs, we also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn page.

Jefferson and Lincoln anticipated Trump. What’s next?

30 December 2016

Donald Trump is not a new phenomenon in the United States, just an extreme form of an ongoing one. For years theatre has been prominent in the country’s public life, although never quite like this. This latest farce may be entertaining, but it could prove to be disastrous. The so-called “leader of the free world” will soon be a loose cannon loaded with nuclear warheads.

The winner of the presidency loses the election (although not, conveniently, in four key states—kind of makes you wonder).   The great tax evader is expected to stop the evasion of taxes. He accused his opponent of giving speeches to the very bankers who are staffing his new administration. A hunt is already underway in the Environmental Protection Agency for whoever has dared to protect the environment. And please welcome ”clean coal” back to an atmosphere near you.

Donald Trump is not a new phenomenon in the United States, just an extreme form of an ongoing one. For years theatre has been prominent in the country’s public life, although never quite like this. This latest farce may be entertaining, but it could prove to be disastrous. The so-called “leader of the free world” will soon be a loose cannon loaded with nuclear warheads.

The winner of the presidency loses the election (although not, conveniently, in four key states—kind of makes you wonder).   The great tax evader is expected to stop the evasion of taxes. He accused his opponent of giving speeches to the very bankers who are staffing his new administration. A hunt is already underway in the Environmental Protection Agency for whoever has dared to protect the environment. And please welcome ”clean coal” back to an atmosphere near you.

This is quite literally business as usual. Just look at the stock market: it’s having a ball.

Business as usual began early in the Republic. It was barely a quarter century old when Thomas Jefferson expressed the hope that “we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength...” A half century later, Abraham Lincoln “tremble[d] for the safety of my country….  Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow…until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.… God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless.”

Instead, two decades later, the Supreme Court granted corporations the right to personhood. Not your usual personhood, however: corporate persons do not go to jail when they commit a crime (otherwise the ranks of the great enterprises would have been decimated by now). More recently, for anyone who missed its message, the Supreme Court granted these persons the right to fund political campaigns to their heart’s content. Do you think Brazil is corrupt? Its corruption is criminal, and is being prosecuted. The corruption in America is legal, and therefore beyond challenge: the U.S. Supreme Court legalized bribery.

There is noble America and there is nasty America: on one hand, the America of World War Two, the Marshall Plan, and the upholding of basic freedoms; on the other hand, the America of repeated incursions all over Latin America and into Vietnam and Iraq, and at home travesties from McCarthy to Trump.  Yet even rather liberal commentators have been blindsided by noble America. “Somewhere in the back of their minds, a lot of people seem to be realizing that the alternative to a United States–dominated world . . . is a leaderless world” (Thomas Friedman).1 “To regain the identity it enjoyed during the Cold War, the United States ought to become the leader of a community of democracies…. [It] would still need to retain its military might, but this strength would serve to protect a just world order” (George Soros).2 Shall we all sit back and hope that Friedman and Soros will not have to eat their words?

Guess what? Nasty America is on its way back in. Indeed, 2017 is looking to be the year of the bullies: Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, and the rest. Will people around the world who care about this planet and our progeny finally realize what has been going on and do something about it?

What has been going on is imbalance. Private sector forces now dominate the “free world” much as public sector forces dominated the communist world of Eastern Europe. In the name of globalization, “free enterprises” ride roughshod over free people and sovereign nations. Something is rotten in the state of democracy.

No wonder so many people are angry about globalization. The trouble is that they don’t know where to turn, so they vent their rage indiscriminately—in favor of the likes of Brexit, Trump, and Le Pen. The world is on fire and the inclination is to pour oil on it (all too literally in the case of climate change). Many of the more  established people don’t turn to reckless leadership; they are just waiting for corporate social responsibility to fix it—as if CSR will compensate for all the CSIrresponsibility we now see around us. These people should be taking tranquillizers (on patent). 

How to escape what Albert Einstein defined as insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”? There may, however, be a silver lining in the Trump election: it issues a wake-up call, that we shall have to do things differently, sooner or later. Given his latest Twitter pathology about the American nuclear arsenal, sooner looks better.

Doing things different is possible. Imagine, for example, a council, a coalition, and communities.3 The Security Council of the United Nations is an insecurity council, arguably a war council. All five permanent members have large arsenals of nuclear weapons and histories of bullying—whether in the form of colonialism or belligerent incursions. They are also the five largest exporters of armaments in the world. Aleppo is their most recent accomplishment. Imagine instead  a Peace Council, made up of democratic nations with no nuclear weapons and no recent history of belligerence. Vested with legitimacy by concerned people all over the world, such a council could shift the whole thrust of international relations.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) each have their own cause: human rights for Amnesty International, the environment for Greenpeace, the medical consequences of calamities for Doctors Without Borders. Yet these problems share common cause, namely the imbalance that distorts the world today. Imagine if a coalition of respected NGOs issued a compelling vision forward—a manifesto for action to restore balance—around which these concerned people everywhere, left and right, could coalesce.

One message of the Trump, Sanders, Brexit, and other votes is that never before have so many regular people been prepared to act on the resentment they feel. With such a vision to replace the deceptive rhetoric of populist politicians, there could emerge a groundswell of people in communities, connected around the world, intent on restoring decency and democracy. They could pressure their governments to legislate and regulate for better balance, promote an international Peace Council, and support businesses that act responsibly while targeting those (and governments) that do not. We should be using the marketplace, with boycotts, to let the sellers beware.

Is any of this utopian? All of it is. But that makes none of it impossible, not when the alternative is to hope for the best. Everything in Donald Trump’s behavior indicates that what we see is what we are going to get.

It must have seemed impossible in 1776 that a popular groundswell could create a new form of democracy that would change the world. Thomas Paine, pamphleteer for that effort, did write that: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” And so they did. And so we can.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. Some of these ideas are elaborated in my 2015 book Rebalancing Society

Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing hereTo help disseminate these blogs, we also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn page.


1 Friedman, T. 2009, February 25. Paging Uncle Sam. New York Times.www.nytimes.com/2009/02/25/opinion/25friedman.htmal?

2 Soros, G. 2004. The bubble of American supremacy: The costs of Bush’s war in Iraq. New York: Perseus Books, pp. 167-168.

3 These were discussed at greater length in an earlier TWOG entitled “We couldn’t vote, but we can act.

 

We couldn’t vote, but we can act

23 November 2016

We in Canada, alongside other people around the world, did not get to vote in the recent American election. Yet we are meant to suffer the international consequences of it. Shall we sit back, as usual, and watch events unfold, including the possibly catastrophic effects of climate change left unchecked?

Moreover, shall we continue to look on, in Aleppo and elsewhere, as communities are blown apart while a few great powers maneuver behind the scenes? Now another of these powers will have a bully at the helm—a loose cannon with his finger on the nuclear button. Bullies may admire each other, but what happens when they cross each other?

On the other hand, perhaps Donald Trump has done the world a great service, by bringing to a head long festering problems that can no longer be tolerated.

We in Canada, alongside other people around the world, did not get to vote in the recent American election. Yet we are meant to suffer the international consequences of it. Shall we sit back, as usual, and watch events unfold, including the possibly catastrophic effects of climate change left unchecked?

Moreover, shall we continue to look on, in Aleppo and elsewhere, as communities are blown apart while a few great powers maneuver behind the scenes? Now another of these powers will have a bully at the helm—a loose cannon with his finger on the nuclear button. Bullies may admire each other, but what happens when they cross each other?

On the other hand, perhaps Donald Trump has done the world a great service, by bringing to a head long festering problems that can no longer be tolerated.

Enough of the Great Global Powers    Imagine a city with weak government and no police force. Gangs would roam the streets, seizing territory and battling with each other for advantage. Well, this is the world we live in today. Three political powers roam the globe, exercising their influence, while an economic force called globalization empowers the affluent of the world to ride roughshod over everyone else.

We all know about noble America, the defender of freedom, as in World War II and the Marshall Plan that followed. Nonetheless, we had better not forget about nasty America, with its wars in Vietnam and Iraq as well as its repeated incursions throughout Latin America. Are we about to experience another round of nasty America—America made great again? Power does corrupt, whether it speaks English, Russian, or Mandarin.

We may not choose the leaders of the great powers, but we can certainly challenge the outsized control that they, and globalization, exercise over our destinies. Consider a council, a coalition, and connected communities.

A Council of Peaceful Democracies    Five countries dominate the United Nations: the permanent members of the Security Council. This should be called the War Council, since all five have large arsenals of nuclear weapons and histories of bullying—whether in the form of colonialism or belligerent incursions—and are the five largest exporters of armaments in the world.

Imagine instead a Peace Council, of democratic countries with no nuclear weapons, no history of military incursions in recent times, and relatively insignificant exports of armaments.  

Does this sound impossible? It could be made possible simply by creating it. Imagine if Pope Francis, perhaps the most respected leader in the world, convened an initial meeting of several such countries, to define the mission and determine the membership of such a council. This could include countries that have been particularly active in peacekeeping (such as Sweden and Canada), democracies in South America and Africa (for example, Uruguay, Ghana, and Brazil when it gets its political act together), Costa Rica (which got rid of its armed forces in 1948), and perhaps South Korea, from Asia (once it resolves its current difficulties).

Before ridiculing this collection of peripheral powers, consider how many such countries there are, and the influence they could have when working together for a safer world. Get your head around this form of influence—peace in place of power—and the ridicule could instead be directed at the obstinate permanent membership of the Security Council.

Such a council could take positions on issues such as the inequitable distribution of wealth in the world and the recent demise of so many democracies. With no official status, or even one day with it, the power of such a council would  depend on the efforts of institutions and people on the ground.

A Coalition of Engaged NGOs   Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) abound in the world, each with its own mission. Amnesty International deals with human rights, Greenpeace with the environment, Doctors Without Borders with the medical consequences of calamities. Yet many of these problems share a common cause, namely the imbalances that pervade the world today: the domination of all things economic over anything social, the capacity of global corporations to intimidate sovereign governments, and the lop-sided influence of the three great powers. Imagine, then, a coalition of engaged NGOs that could champion the establishment of a compelling, constructive vision—a manifesto for balance—around which concerned people everywhere could coalesce.

Connected Communities of the “good folk”   One message of the Trump, Brexit, and other votes is that never before have so many people been prepared to act on the resentment they feel. What they have lacked, however, is this compelling vision to replace the deceptive rhetoric of populist politicians. That could provide a groundswell of collaboration among what can be called the “good folk” of the world—people concerned with decency and democracy.

Collaboration happens in communities, not networks. (If you doubt this, ask your Facebook “friends” to help paint your house.) Thus, the real force for change exists in community groups on the ground, albeit networked around the world. If Amnesty International alone has seven million members, think about how many other people now function in groups in particular communities, and how many more groups would form given a clear rallying call for change.

Well, then, what are we waiting for?   All the necessary elements are in place for a groundswell of global action: Peaceful nations perhaps now ready to work together; the mass media to highlight the excesses of our imbalanced world; the NGOs to articulate a compelling vision for change; community groups of concerned people determined to make the necessary changes; and the social media prepared to connect these communities into a worldwide movement.

These community groups could pressure their governments to legislate and regulate for better balance, to promote an international Peace Council, and to support businesses that act responsibly while targeting businesses as well as governments that do not. Think of how powerful the tool of boycotting would be—so well-honed by international alliances—when executed at the grass-roots level, across the globe.

Is this vigilante justice?  Not at all. It is making good use of the marketplace, a concept that corporations understand well, as does President-elect Donald Trump, not to mention Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. We do, after all, have the right not to buy, also to let the buyer be aware—and the seller too.

Am I dreaming in color? Sure, for good reason. The likely alternative could well be one of the nightmare scenarios that would destroy our planet and our progeny.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. A similar version appeared in the Huffington Post on 22 November. See my book Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center. 

Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing hereTo help disseminate these blogs, we also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn page.