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Why is business a good model for government?

Now that funding for cultural groups has been rescued by the Oishei Foundation, perhaps it is time to review the mantra used by County Executive Chris Collins, Carl Paladino, Meg Whitman and others who rely upon a single shopworn sentence to sum up their leadership platform: "I'm going to run government like a business."

No one ever asks, "What kind of business?" Businessmen who run for public office aren't talking about mom-and-pop outfits, most of which fail eventually. They're speaking of big business and multinational corporations, organizations predicated on basic human greed. Business is supposed to maximize profit, which it does by concentrating wealth at the apex of a pyramid, where the average CEO makes 400 times the salary of the average employee. By contrast, government is supposed to serve, protect, and educate the citizenry so that our egalitarian society will continue.

When people beat the business bass drum, I want to scream, "Enron! General Motors! Lehman Brothers!" as I remind them of the Great Depression, the savings and loan scandal, and now the Great Recession. Add to those the Ford Pinto and Vioxx and the $30 consumers pay for a nickel overdraft on their checking account.

Are businesses inherently more ethical than governments? Ask anyone whose job was shipped overseas or who lost a home through foreclosure. Ask Hinkley, Calif., back in the news after PG&E polluted the drinking water with hexavalent chromium and made Erin Brockovich famous. Business will not hesitate to skirt laws or shaft individuals for profit. What a wonderful value for governments to embrace!

Are businesses inherently more efficient than government? Ask anyone who has had to unbolt and remove the entire front bumper panel just to change a headlight on GM's HHR. Ask anyone forced by his or her company to replace the streamlined, usable MS Word 2003 for the cumbersome, frequently incompatible Word 2007, which eats four times the hard drive memory and slows the CPU. And now, God help us, there's a Word 2010 out there.

I am weary of the deification of business as the answer to all problems faced by local, state and national governments. Whether they're Bernie Madoff, a James Bond villain (most are businessmen), or the heads of Disney, IBM, and Bank of America, most CEOs are as hopelessly human as the rest of us.

Maybe it's time we ran government like a family, where in good times we all prosper and in bad times we all sacrifice but no one is ever left completely out in the cold.

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UB professor Gary Earl Ross is an Edgar Award-winning playwright.

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