The quote above comes from another famous New York City politician: Fiorello La Guardia, who, as mayor in 1938, pledged to make the city run more like a business than it was.
This promise to make government run as efficiently and effectively as a business is a long-standing one. Our Aaron Blake noted on Monday that each of the last few presidents has made a similar promise to bring businesslike efficiencies to bear on the federal government. But the government-should-be-more-like-business idea has been around since well before any of those presidents were born.
The 1992 election featured a candidate who, like Trump, made his business acumen the focal point of his value proposition. That was Ross Perot, who used the “like a business” idea in nearly every campaign appearance. There was certainly a natural symbiosis between coming from the business community and arguing that you can make the government act more like a business, but even by that point the idea was tired.
“Contrary to the popular notion that ‘he’s not like all the other’ political candidates, in fact he is a virtual carbon copy of 75 percent of the people running for office today. I know, because I have to talk to them,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Richard Matthews wrote in June of that year. “You could almost substitute a tape recording for most of the people who come to this editorial board to seek our endorsement. ‘I’m not a politician,’ nearly all will insist. ‘I think government ought to be run like a business.'”
You can see that surge in rhetoric in a graph of uses of the term in books, as tracked by Google’s book-scanning tool. The term appeared and then faded a few times, but surged in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan.
In 1981, after Reagan took office, candidates for executive office rolled out the line of argument. John Brown, former Kentucky governor, promised that his state could be run like a business. Kathy Whitmire, the first woman to lead the city of Houston, described her administration as “represent[ing] the idea that Houston can be managed like a business.”
But, again, this didn’t start in the Reagan era. In 1978, Fob James ran for governor of Alabama on the same promise. In 1961, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller declared that big government was “here to stay” — but that the state needed to run more like a big business.
We can rewind further. In 1909, a man named Franklin MacVeagh was appointed secretary of the treasury by President William Taft. And guess what MacVeagh promised.
How did he do? Public debt continued to trend downward during Taft’s administration, before spiking, thanks to World War I.
Two years prior to MacVeagh, the New York Times praised the government of Galveston, Tex. — the “city of the new idea” — for running “like a large business establishment” that was “no longer the loafing place for idlers and politicians.”
Of course, it’s easy to rethink your city government after it has been obliterated by a hurricane.
But that contrast — streamlined business versus wasteful politics — has been the point of the comparison since its inception, exaggerating both the inefficiency of government and the efficiency of business. (Trump, for example, has not always operated his own businesses with unfailing efficiency and effectiveness.) Government has never been able to fully adopt the brutal efficiencies of business because government isn’t a business — the desired outcome isn’t profitability — and government can’t be brutal, since saving money by, say, not paying for Medicare would make for some effective campaign ads by opponents in an election year.
Which isn’t to say (1) that government can’t be made more effective and (2) that Trump’s team can’t be the one to do it. It’s just to say that it’s been tried before.