Rotting, staggering reanimated corpse it may be, but it's a rotting, staggering reanimated corpse affecting how our states and nation are being run and how students are being educated, so it's worth poking at a bit.
In response to her governor's "run government like a business" moment, Laurin Manning at South Carolina Soapbox asked:
- Don’t most—if not all—well-run businesses seek to grow? Don’t Republicans want to shrink government? Isn’t a business that is shrinking an unprofitable one?
- Are the citizens of the businesstate of South Carolina the customers? Or the shareholders? Or both?
- Do Haley campaign contributions = stock?
These are intended to be facetious questions, and the answer to the third one in particular may be an eye-rolling "well...how honest is Haley going to be about that?" But they come uncomfortably close to truth. Because Republicans do not want to run government well. They want to run it so badly that people won't trust it.
As for whether citizens are customers or shareholders, in the business model that does all depend on our profitability to the people and corporations for whose benefit government-as-business is run. If we're customers, the point is to try to extract as much profit from us as possible. If we're shareholders, the point is to try to get us as much money as possible (after executive bonuses are subtracted, of course).
The "run government like a business" school of Republicans wants to treat us as customers of the least customer-friendly business imaginable. The business that charges its average customer exorbitant prices and gives them a broken product in order to rake off giant profits. Only here, the average customer is 90% or so of wage earners and taxpayers, the broken product is our nation's government, and the giant profits go to the wealthiest in the form of massive tax breaks.
As Seth Masket writes at Enik Rising,
Businesses exist to turn a profit. They provide goods and services to others only insofar as it is profitable to do so, and they will set prices in a way that ends up prohibiting a significant sector of the population from obtaining those goods and services. And that, of course, is fine, because they're businesses. Governments, conversely, provide public goods and services—things that we have determined are people's right to possess. This is inherently an unprofitable enterprise.
That's unprofitable in the financial sense, of course. There are other meanings of the word "profit," though, and by that token there are human and moral profits to good government. Matt Yglesias has gone all Jonathan Swift with this:
It’s not “entitlements” and it’s not “Social Security” and it’s not “Medicare” and it’s not “health care costs” it’s the existence of old people. Old people, generally speaking, don’t produce anything of economic value. They sit around, retired, consuming goods and services and produce nothing but the occasional turn at babysitting. The optimal economic growth policy isn’t to slash Social Security or Medicare benefits, it’s to euthanize 70 year-olds and harvest their organs for auction.
Proving the difficulty of satire in this political climate, Republicans then go and vote to end Medicare. Organ-harvesting it's not, but did you ever think you'd see the day?
This twisted logic has also increasingly made its way into education. Charter schools are often administered by or have leasing agreements with businesses. Those are typically nonprofits in at least a technical sense, but not always. And the effects of the business model are demonstrable. In Boston and New York, for instance, charter schools have been found to serve lower proportions of students who qualify for free lunches or don't speak fluent English than do traditional public schools. In Boston and New Orleans, charter schools serve fewer special needs students. Special needs students and poor students and students who are learning English are more difficult "customers," and while traditional public schools have to take them, charter schools—operating on the business model—don't have to and frequently don't.
The so-called free market is hitting higher education, too. Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat writes that:
Passing over local kids to admit out-of-staters—who pay three times as much to go to school there—is the corporatization, the privatization, of your flagship public university. And it's about to escalate, dramatically.
Causing the furor this spring is that the UW cut its slots for local students in next fall's freshman class by 150. That's a reduction of about 4 percent in the in-state enrollment.
It did so because it has had its taxpayer support cut so sharply that it had to go find money from somewhere else. So it's admitting more students willing to pay the out-of-state rate of $25,000 a year versus the in-state rate of only $9,000.
(h/t SC Soapbox)
This is happening at public universities across the country. These are the places where once kids could work their way through college and come out with little to no debt. Today that option is being taken away, making the cost of a college education a lifetime of debt for a vast number of students. And while they're in school, they suffer from more of the depredations of "running it like a business."
As Tenured Radical, one of my own former professors, writes:
One problem with free market theories for reorganizing education is that they lead to a free market in educators. This, in turn tends not to be conducive to what administrators need to deliver a quality education to students: faculties who commit to a particular school, and create a culture of excellence, over the long term. Policy makers who believe that free market competition creates better education for the most people have, frankly, never been in a classroom beyond their three-year hitch at Teach for America.
Colleges and universities are increasingly relying on adjunct professors, many of whom are talented and dedicated but who have little control over their working conditions or ability to advocate for their students. They are typically poorly paid and may not be on campus much to participate in outside-the-classroom aspects of education like holding office hours or being available to write reference letters for students applying to graduate school, study abroad programs, internships, and other important parts of a college education. Any individual course taught by an adjunct may be wonderful, but having a system that relies heavily on their labor strips away many things that enrich higher education.
To this point I’ve mostly focused on how the “business” model refuses responsibility for many of the things government is supposed to provide. But there’s also the revenue side. As noted above, businesses are supposed to turn a profit. They do that partly by not providing unprofitable services, but they also do it by trying to maximize revenue. And that is certainly something today’s “run it like a business” Republicans do not want to do.
Take Indiana Republican Congressman Todd Rokita, who recently told MSNBC:
We have too much revenue as it is. We spend too much.
His slide from “too much revenue” to “too much spending” is telling, and as ThinkProgress notes,
It’s worth noting that the last time Republicans claimed there was too much revenue coming into the federal government, they ended up solving that problem by helping to create the deficits of today. “[M]ore than any other” reason, President Bush justified his 2001 tax cuts by claiming the budget surplus President Clinton created was actually bad. “A surplus in tax revenue, after all, means that taxpayers have been overcharged,” Bush explained. Of course, the Bush tax cuts are one of the largest contributors to today’s budget deficit by depriving the government of needed revenue.
Time and time again, Republicans have shown that they don’t really want to run government like a business. What they want is to introduce the worst excesses of business—the incentive to poor service, the race to the bottom on wages, benefits, and workplace rights—and leave out the ideologically inconvenient bits like growth and the importance of revenue. We’ve seen its extremity in the Ryan budget, the attempts to turn Medicaid recipients into the new “welfare queens,” the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy and the insistence on keeping them going despite (or because of) what they’ve done to the economy.
It’s time for a change of thinking about government and business. Instead of trying to jam government and education into the language and the most destructive logics of business, we have to, as Corey Robin writes in The Nation, unveil the ways that the unfettered profit motive hurts us and makes us less free, as individuals and as a society.