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Time to Stop Saying Governments Should Run Like Businesses

Fall finally feels to be in full swing. The weather is cooling off, days are getting dark much sooner and it’s a great time to be a sports fan.


It’s also a time to finally retire some really dumb things people say during this season. Memes have spread on most social networks hilariously mocking the old Halloween adage to check your kids’ candy for dangers hidden inside.


News outlets, including the New York Times in 2015, will run feature stories next month debunking the myth that the tryptophan in turkey is what makes you sleepy on Thanksgiving. And inevitably, politicians are going to make their final pitches to voters before the general election saying, “governments should run like a business.”


I’ve had enough. The only reason to check your kid’s candy is to steal the good pieces, blood flow redirected to the stomach region to aid in digestion causes post-feast fatigue and effective governments simply not run like businesses.


I’m convinced perpetuation of these sayings that resurface each fall is because they sound like they should be true and they can briefly make the person saying it feel smarter. On the contrary, though, the saying reveals that the person neither understands government nor business.


A popular column from my birthday back in January compared the direction of the county commission to Seattle-based businesses. The point of the piece was that Nordstrom, a dominant retailer through much of the 1900s, was all but irrelevant now in a city dominated by Microsoft and Starbucks.


But a third Seattle-based company serves as a fantastic example of why the saying is so stupid. Amazon is a fascinating business case study. From its recent $13 billion deal to get involved in the NFL to Prime Early Access and other promotional holidays that are now as serious as the major traditional retail days, the company seems to remake itself in the relentless pursuit of staying competitive.


It might be tempting, then, if we believe that government should be run more efficiently that Amazon would be the perfect model of what that would look like. And yet, it would be a disaster of inefficiency if that was the case.


Many people know Amazon started as a book retailer. What many don’t know is that it almost wasn’t named that. Type in awake.com, browse.com or relentless.com and all of them will still to this day redirect you to Amazon as all three were considered by Bezos as potential names in 1994 and yet he can’t let the URLs go now 28 years later. These unnecessary redundancies might remind you of government, but would be the type of thing you would want cut if government were to run like a business.


We want our governments to be keenly aware of their direction whereas Amazon has pivoted several times into different industries. Though you might think this means Amazon morphed from online bookstore to mega retailer, it really is so much more than that with a majority of the company’s profit coming from the cloud computing AWS arm of the business and the digital advertising portion also rapidly growing.


Trying to pivot too much is where governments get into trouble. Our roads and growth preparations have been largely ignored for tourism and flashy economic development plans that haven’t played out.


Businesses also grow to corporation status not by offering a great product, but also through maximizing assets and acquisitions. McDonald’s real estate empire is the most famous example of this but Amazon has done plenty absorbing a wide range of companies from Whole Foods to iRobot. While I have recently argued that governments need some assets, I largely agree with Commission Jeff Kinnard who said at the last meeting that governments should not be acquiring assets.


Lastly, corporations that are publicly traded like Amazon have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize the bottom line. Sometimes, this can be in the form of providing services even at a loss in hopes of greater future profits, a philosophy that built Amazon Prime, but mainly this means a return must always be realized.


That’s just not the case with governments. They should run efficiently but acting in the public good will sometimes mean sunk costs with no expectation of a return. They need to do this because businesses inherently can’t. A well-balanced society embraces the roles of both rather than modeling one after the other.


The examples are endless, far too numerous for this piece. This fall do us all a favor and think twice before overblowing candy threats, don’t trod out a false facts about Thanksgiving tiredness and please let’s allow our governments to be of the people, for the people and by the people rather than reflective of some fake idealistic business practices.


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