Seemingly every presidential election cycle, at least one candidate pledges to use his or her C-suite bona fides to whip the feds into shape.
Specifically, to “run government like a business.”
This talking point dates at least to Ross Perot’s ’90s campaigns. Then in 2000 George W. Bush’s supporters boasted that, unlike any prior president, this Decider had an MBA. (Because, you know, that served him so well in his many successful business ventures.) Since then, we’ve had a crush of hopefuls hyping the value of their corporate know-how, including some who emphasized it because they had no experience in elected office (Herman Cain, Donald Trump) and others because their only experience in elected office was a political liability (Mitt Romney). Even Carly Fiorina, who was very publicly fired from her job as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, has instructed observers to look to her track record there for a taste of what she’d be like as president (perhaps an unprofitable merger with Canada is in the offing?).
Now Ben Carson, brain surgeon and Fox News personality emeritus, is selling the same line.
“We are going to change the government into something that looks more like a well-run business than a behemoth of inefficiency,” he pledged last week, perhaps not recognizing that the industry in which he got his business experience, health care, is not exactly a bastion of efficiency.
Carson may not be much of a businessman, though. At least not if you examine the policies he and other self-proclaimed private-sector savants advocate under the guise of B-school-inspired budget-busting, which generally translates as across-the-board government spending cuts.
A good CEO knows that not all spending is created equal. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money. In other words, “running government like a business” means not cutting every government program by 10 percent, as Carson has suggested, but adequately funding the initiatives that offer the highest returns on investment.
To that end, I humbly suggest several places these corporate-minded, fiscally conservative candidates should increase spending:
●The Internal Revenue Service. Though despised, the IRS is a positive-cash-flow agency. For every dollar appropriated to the IRS in 2013, it collected $255. Yet Congress has been hacking away at its budget for years, while loading it up with new responsibilities. The cuts have led to worsening customer service for honest taxpayers and fewer resources for hounding the dishonest ones. Over time, both consequences seem likely to cost the government serious dough.
●Medicare and Medicaid fraud prevention. As with IRS enforcement, each dollar spent rooting out fraud translates to substantially more than a dollar in government savings. Sequester-driven cuts to this program have therefore had the opposite of their intended effect. The next CEO of the U.S.A. ought to reverse them.
●Family planning for poor women. Every $1 invested in publicly funded family planning services saves an estimated $7 in Medicaid and other public expenditures. Yet funding for Title X, the federal program that helps low-income Americans obtain birth control, has sustained serious cuts as part of shortsighted efforts to reduce the federal deficit. A program in Colorado that provided low-income women and teens with long-acting reversible contraceptives, and likewise sharply reduced unintended pregnancies (and abortions), was killed by state legislators last month. These are exactly the kinds of programs presidential contenders should champion if they want to prune our bloated welfare state.
●High-quality early childhood education. As research from Nobel laureate James Heckman and others has shown, preschool presents a huge bang for the buck. Every dollar spent on early childhood education returns 10 cents annually over the life of the child, through a combination of both higher earnings and lower public spending. Want to improve the country’s bottom line tomorrow? Invest in the human capital of toddlers today.
●Publicly funded research. Government researchers and grants have enabled countless major scientific and technological breakthroughs, including the Internet, Google, vaccines and the Human Genome Project. Yet Washington’s been cutting funding for public R&D. Just as at a private company, the next American president should remind legislators not to eat the seed corn.
Of course, unlike a for-profit entity, governments also fund some programs because they are simply the right thing to do, even when they’re unlikely to increase revenue (shielding the elderly from dire poverty, for example). But, happily, many spending programs happen to be two-fers: They serve the greater good, and they save taxpayers money. We just need a president who’s willing to crunch the numbers.