Jon D. Michaels: Business titans -- like Rockefeller, Mellon, and McNamara -- have been Cabinet secretaries before
What's different today is a lack of experience in public service and a new relationship between government and business, he says
Editor’s Note: Jon D. Michaels is a professor of law at the UCLA School of Law, where he teaches and writes about administrative law, national security law, privatization, and the separation of powers. He is currently working on a book, tentatively titled “Still No Angels: America’s Enduring Commitment to Separation of Powers from Madison to FDR to Trump” (forthcoming, Harvard University Press). Unless otherwise noted below, facts reflect research for his scholarly projects. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
President-elect Donald Trump’s proposed Cabinet looks straight out of central casting – only it’s for the wrong movie. His choices to lead the Departments of Education, Labor, State, and Treasury are all former business executives. They’re perfectly suited to serve as corporate directors of any Fortune 500 company. But as heads of America’s most important agencies, they’re a troubling fit.
In fairness to the president-elect, corporate chieftains have a long and distinguished history of public service. Banker and industrialist Andrew Mellon directed the Treasury Department for over 10 years. Automotive executives Charles Wilson and Robert McNamara both headed the Pentagon, while former American Motors Corporation chairman George Romney led the Department of Housing and Urban Development (after a stint as governor of Michigan). And Nelson Rockefeller ran various Rockefeller family businesses before serving in the Eisenhower White House, as a four-term governor of New York, and as Gerald Ford’s vice president.
But there is something different – and more vexing – about CEOs descending on Washington today, and under this particular president.
The business world has changed. Business leaders are far less public spirited than they once were. In generations past, business leaders like J.P. Morgan aspired to be public statesmen. Let’s not sugarcoat the past: they weren’t angels. But they did regularly work to promote the general welfare, at times disadvantaging their firms in the process.
Today’s business leaders are cut from a different cloth. Their “experience” with government is more in line with that of Trump’s choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. To the extent we can speak of Tillerson as having experience, it is as a globetrotting cheerleader for ExxonMobil.
Business leaders today are also differently situated within their own firms than they were when executives served the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations – that is, far more removed from the common wage worker. The rise of the celebrity CEO, which Trump himself epitomizes, is a relatively new phenomenon. It coincides in no small part with gaping economic inequality: CEOs now make 300 times what average employees earn, up from 20 times in 1965; the weakening of labor unions; and the overall diminished standing of the American workforce.
Past generations of executives more regularly consulted with (and lived among) those different and rivalrous stakeholders who prioritized any number of considerations over profit maximization. Those employee and community stakeholders are now relatively marginalized, and the executives more socioeconomically cloistered. These dynamics leave corporate leaders ill situated to run highly pluralistic government agencies – where career civil servants and the public writ large exercise considerable influence – let alone take account of the interests, needs, and lived experiences of working Americans.
Government too has changed. For the longest time, government service was considered a noble calling, and the core projects of government – anti-poverty, education, consumer, workplace, and environmental protection – enjoyed widespread, bipartisan support. This isn’t to say that there weren’t challenges and critiques. But critics for the most part raised strategic or tactical objections, all the while reaffirming the legitimacy and sensibility of government regulation.
Now, however, government is despised, distrusted, and denounced at every turn – with corporate executives regularly leading the charge. Trump’s nominees are no exception, some of whom reject the very premises of the modern welfare state – not to mention the core missions of the agencies some of them have been tapped to run. Imagine appointing judges who don’t believe in the rule of law. That’s essentially what’s in store for us.
Meanwhile, government is being fashioned to run like a business. This signature reform strategy of the late 20th and early 21st century entails a far greater focus on cutting so-called red tape, increasing control over the career federal workforce, and treating citizens more like customers. All of these efforts are very much in keeping with what we find in the business sector. But that’s just the problem. Government is different and special.
What’s derided as “red tape” are critical procedures designed to ensure that the state exercises its sovereign powers in a responsible, accountable fashion. And what’s decried as an independent, even unruly career civil service is a critical guarantee that true, generally apolitical expertise is brought to bear on matters of public consequence.
The very fact that the Trump transition team is seeking to upend civil service protections and seems ominously to be compiling lists of career employees working on climate change regulations should tell us all we need to know about the dangers of CEO-like control over federal agencies.
Views on the Trump Transition
And the norms of statecraft propriety themselves seem to be changing. We have a president-elect reluctant to put aside his own substantial business interests. Already appearances of conflict abound and more will no doubt surface as we approach Inauguration Day. Here, too, we should be concerned about business leaders directing key government agencies. If the President is himself inextricably and unapologetically tethered to any number of commercial endeavors, can we really expect the Trump Justice Department to seriously investigate allegations of corruption or self-dealing among Cabinet officials?
Given these challenges to government, its mission, and the ways it operates, businessmen and women may be considered natural fits to run these transformed agencies. The CEOs are, in other words, perfectly cast for the business of governing in the Trump era. But in order to embrace that conclusion, one must first endorse the neo-liberalism of unfettered capitalism, the Reagan-Thatcher indictment of government as pathological, and the coarse cronyism of a wheeling-dealing presidency.
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The months and years ahead will present us with no shortages of opportunities and challenges. The upcoming confirmation hearings will prove an early and powerful test of the Trump agenda. We should use these hearings as a wake-up call. We should use these hearings as an occasion to articulate a vision of a just political economy in which the government and business sectors respect one another, complement one another, and constrain one another. That can’t happen so long as the Cabinet looks like a boardroom.