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The death of a cliche

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POSTED: October 9, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Something is missing from this year’s election campaign cycle. No principal candidate from either major party has dared use that trusted cliché of past stump speeches: “Elect me, and I’ll run your government like a business.”
Perhaps candidates stopped using the phrase because business — at least big business — doesn’t enjoy the popularity and admiration that it once did.
Looking back at a long list of successful Georgia politicians, I find that governors from Joe Frank Harris and George Busbee through trial lawyer Roy Barnes and now Sonny Perdue promised to use business as a model for reforming state government.
Then out of the blue it dawned on some bright consultant that comparing government with corporations may not be such a wonderful idea. See Enron, WorldCom, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and AIG for starters. Mentioning business as lighting the way for politicians these days is akin to shouting “Remember the Alamo!” in a crowd of Hispanics. However, ripping Wall Street is bound to get a good round of applause.
The current Commission for a New Georgia was organized six years ago to apply business principles to Georgia government. Its charge has not exactly worked out. Commission members dreamed up the idea of the state spending $600,000 on an airplane hangar lease, while closing a home for veterans. Georgia’s budget gurus missed estimating the state budget by a shocking 13 percent — or $2.5 billion to $3 billion. That is peanuts compared to the feds’ trillion or so dollars in debt, but the deficit is significant for li’l old Georgia and its $20 billion annual budget. 
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, described as “the face of McCain’s economic team,” was asked last week on a radio talk show whether she thought the Republicans’ hugely popular vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin ,had the experience to run a major corporation like Hewlett-Packard.
No, said Fiorina, then she realized she should not have said that about Palin. So she hastened to add that neither does John McCain, Barack Obama or Joe Biden have the experience to head a giant company. She asserted that serving government is different from managing a corporation. Didn’t much matter what she said after the Palin gaffe. McCain was said to be furious, and Fiorina was sent to the showers as a campaign spokesperson and told to stay off TV and radio.
Just as the selection of Palin says something about McCain, maybe the pick of Fiorina does too. Just because Fiorina spearheaded HP’s merger with Compaq and cut 18,000 jobs doesn’t make her the arbiter of whether politicians are fit to run businesses, does it? 
Zell Miller and Bill Clinton’s adviser Paul Begala had a few choice words for Fiorina in his new book, “Third Term: Why George W. Bush Loves John McCain.”
Begala referred to Fiorina as “the poster child for corporate avarice, incompetence and outsourcing.” Calling her the “outsourcing queen,” Begala quotes Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, late of Emory, now of Yale: “You couldn’t pick a worse, non-imprisoned CEO to be your standard bearer.”
Well, maybe you could. How about Bob Nardelli, formerly of Home Depot? With Nardelli at the helm, Home Depot’s stock price languished while do-it-yourself rival Lowe’s shares doubled in value. Nardelli finally exited Home Depot with a $210 million severance package, a lot more than Fiorina’s paltry $21 million firing bonus from Hewlett-Packard.
In any event, the great-sounding false idea that government can be run like a business finally appears dead and not likely to be revived for another generation or two when the current Wall Street debacle is barely a footnote to history (I hope).

You can reach Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, e-mail: shipp1@bellsouth.net, or Web address: billshipponline.com.

 

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