There’s no business like…

Robert Valentine
Senior lecturer
of advertisingRobert Valentine Senior lecturer of advertising

Column by Robert Valentine, Senior lecturer of advertising

There is much talk these days about running things like a business. Most of it is wrong. 

In Kentucky, the governor wants to run the state more like a business. Like any good businessman who finds himself in arrears, he has looked first at some of his biggest expense items. Very reasonable.

On the national level, candidate Donald Trump wants to run the nation like a business. His current business (performing a comedy act with his partner, Ted Cruz) can’t last forever.

Sadly for all those people who want greater efficiency, more accountability and more stability, a government is not a business. This will come as a surprise to many, but it’s easy to understand once you a) spend some time in public office or b) think for a minute.

First, consider that a business usually exists for profit – not solely, but without a profit the business will cease to exist. Profit for a business can go into reserves, higher salaries and wages or business expansion.

Governments don’t have profit, because all of their financial resources don’t really belong to them. “Profit” for a government has to go back to the taxpayers. Whether it is spent on a massive campaign to renew the infrastructure or reduced taxes to those who would benefit most, governments can’t get rich. Look at the one in Washington: it’s broke, and has been for decades.

Second, a business sells things. Whether it is a product (jet planes, razors or beer) or a service (pest control, teeth cleaning or election fixing), you give the business money and it gives you something you want. You are allowed to make incredibly stupid choices and there are many businesses out there to help you do so. States even run lotteries, in case you missed your stupidest opportunity.

Government, on the other hand, has nothing for you to buy. You pay taxes, but that is not directly related to a specific good or service provided by the government. For instance, you can’t withhold your taxes because you have no kids in the schools. Government can even do with your tax money that which you violently oppose. No, a government is not a business.

Businesses have customers, and customers can go somewhere else if the business doesn’t satisfy them. Governments have citizens. You can’t change your government without moving. Some people do so, and some Kentuckians are probably thinking about moving right now.

Finally, a business can go broke. When it does, we usually write it off to bad luck (flood damage, divorce), bad management (crooked cashier) or a changing economy (where are all the blacksmiths?). No one dies. 

When a government can no longer sustain itself, the scope of harm far exceeds the mere filing of a bankruptcy brief. Many will suffer and some may die. It may result from bad luck, but it always results from bad management. It’s called “leadership” at that level, but it’s just as harmful.

Sure: government can be run with greater efficiency. Government can devise plans to better serve its constituents. Government can be conducted with greater wisdom and vision. All that is true.

But no government can be a business.

Likewise, the university is not a business. It does not sell education. It can be made more efficient; it can change priorities and ask more of its constituents, but, like a government, it really has no customers. It doesn’t produce things; it produces understanding, progress and futures. It needs money, but it runs on hope, ambition and hard work.

A university serves the world. Its impact can reach around the globe and as far into the future as may be imagined. A university is a nursery for dreams – dreams of individuals and hopes for a nation. The profit is not in dollars, and the product may not be realized for decades. Universities don’t have owners; they have leaders. The real owners are the people who make it work: students, faculty, citizens.

So let us all try to do what we do better, with less waste and more progress, but let’s not imagine that everything is a business. We’re already too far down that dead end street. Let’s wake up and create the dream.