One of Donald Trump's biggest attractions is that he is a successful businessman, one who says he can apply business principles to reform the workings of government. Trump claims he can run the U. S. like he runs his businesses -- with attendant efficiencies and savings.
That siren sound of the self-made man is alluring. We'd all like to believe in the myth of the free enterprise white knight brandishing his capitalist sword to slay the bloated dragon of overgrown government. But that's not how the world works. Here is my cautionary tale about the false promises of the entrepreneur turned politician.
It all started nine years ago in my hometown of Ottawa. City politicians had been unsuccessfully struggling to bring in a budget with no property tax increase.
Then along came Larry O'Brien, a local high-tech multi-millionaire, who decided to run for mayor. Mr. O'Brien said he intended to run the city like a business and he guaranteed there would be no tax hike. At the same time, he pledged to kill a recent deal to build a light rail line.
The other candidates warned voters that O'Brien's promises were unrealistic but the lure of no new taxes was too much to resist. The electorate soon came to regret their choice as one by one Mayor O'Brien's initiatives failed.
His first action was to convince councilors to vote with him and cancel the light rail contract. The immediate effect of that decision was to invite two lawsuits from the companies involved which resulted in a $36.7 million payout.
The long-term effect was even worse. If the contract had proceeded, Ottawa would today have at least one major light rail line and probably be well on its way to a second.
Instead, almost ten years later, we still have no modern mass transit system. Luckily, a new politically-minded mayor and a savvier city council had the foresight to go ahead with a light rail line. By 2018, the city will finally have the first link in a modern transit system -- only a dozen years late thanks to Mr. O'Brien.
The rest of O'Brien's tenure was filled with quixotic attempts to bring the annual tax increase down to zero. Initially, he almost made it but at a severe cost to basic city services and eventually he raised taxes.
Throughout his tenure, O'Brien stubbornly persisted in his "businesslike" approach to governing. However, what he failed to recognize was that politics is not business. As the mayor, he was not the CEO of Ottawa; he was simply first among equals on a large, unruly city council.
O'Brien couldn't simply order things to be done his way. He had to engage in that messy process called democracy. He also finally had to realize that, for the most part, government services are not the same as business services. Governments don't operate in a competitive, free market environment; they generally provide basic common services that all citizens require.
Not surprisingly, O'Brien's windmill tilting and his nascent political career came to an abrupt end when he was soundly defeated after one term in office.
Luckily for Ottawa, its citizens were not entirely naïve. They had been fooled once and chose not to be fooled again. They replaced O'Brien with a career politician who didn't promise no tax increases, didn't incur giant penalties for broken contracts and addressed the issues of mass transit, basic services and infrastructure repairs.
American voters would do well to learn the lesson that we learned the hard way here in Ottawa rather than have to re-learn it from the likes of Mr. Trump. Governance is not like The Apprentice. It's not a dictatorship run by an all-powerful CEO. It's democratic, complicated and messy and it's the electorate who does the firing.
My advice to the American voter? Choose someone with political experience and tell Donald Trump: "You're fired!"
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