Businessmen make lousy presidents
ey’s business experience might not be a good thing, Simon says. | AP Photo
By ROGER SIMON | 5/24/12 4:29 AM EDT
My experience with vulture capitalism is limited. A vulture could not make even a snack out of my capital.
I don’t own any individual stocks. I did only once. I bought stock in a newspaper that I worked for. When I left the paper, I dumped my stock, figuring that without me, the paper would be largely worthless.
Today, that newspaper is bankrupt. I would like to apologize to any stockholders or employees who got hurt because of the 15 shares I sold. But that is capitalism. It is nature, “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it.
Mitt Romney ran a venture capital firm that Democrats say sucked profits out of companies and heartlessly fired employees.
Romney says this is nonsense. He was a champion of free enterprise and created tens of thousands of jobs. Did people sometimes get laid off? Yes. But free enterprise entails risk. “I know why businesses hire people and why they become forced to lay them off,” he says.
Romney says his experience as a businessman is the chief reason he should be elected president. (He lists running the 2002 Winter Olympics as second and mentions his single term as governor of Massachusetts hardly at all.)
But do businessmen actually make good presidents?
I put my crack research staff (Google Search) on this, and I expected to find a difference of opinion. I did not. There appears to be nearly unanimous opinion that businessmen have not made good presidents.
Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Bloomberg View columnist, compared the economic records of two presidents: Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. Both were Republicans.
Coolidge may be best remembered for saying that “the chief business of the American people is business.” And, as Shlaes writes, under Coolidge real wages grew, growth averaged more than 4 percent a year, unemployment stayed below 5 percent, and Coolidge’s budget was lower when he left office than when he came in.
But Coolidge had never spent one day as a businessman. He studied philosophy and economics at Amherst and then became a country lawyer. His real talent was politics: He was a mayor, state senator, lieutenant governor, governor, vice president and finally president when Warren Harding died in office. Coolidge had never owned a house, had never taken out a mortgage.
Choosing not to run for a second term, Coolidge was succeeded by a mighty businessman, Herbert Hoover, who was a mining engineer and an investment banker and had helped organize the feeding of devastated Belgium after World War I.
Hoover appeared perfect for the modern, complicated presidency: He was a cool-headed businessman with a warmhearted philanthropic streak. He was a disaster.
The stock market crashed, and unemployment rose to 25 percent. Hoover raised tariffs and increased taxes. He was branded with a word that described the shantytowns that sprang up everywhere: Hoovervilles. (The name was coined by the publicity chief of the Democratic National Committee, by the way.)
·But is Hoover the exception? Have other businessmen-presidents done better? Not much.
Daniel Akst, a columnist for Newsday, consulted with Barbara Perry, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, to determine the employment background of every president. His conclusion: “It’s important to know whether a president has worked in business. It’s important because having worked in business is associated with being a lousy president, at least in the modern era.”
Akst counts Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman among our best modern presidents, none of whom had real business backgrounds. (Truman was a failed haberdasher.) Akst also counts Bill Clinton, again who had no business background, as a successful president.
Two successful businessmen — George H.W. Bush, an oil man, and Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer — both presided over bad economies and served single terms.
You can count George W. Bush as a businessman. He was in the oil business and was part owner of a baseball team before entering politics. And he is our only president to possess an M.B.A. (from Harvard, no less, just like Mitt Romney). Yet in his second term, Bush presided over a massive economic collapse.
You can make your own list, but it is awfully hard to come up with historic proof that businessmen make good presidents. You can make the case, however, that a lot of non-businessmen made lousy presidents, too.
Paul Krugman, an economist and New York Times columnist, wrote a few months ago that “businessmen — even great businessmen — do not, in general, have any special insights into what it takes to achieve economic recovery.”
Mitt Romney disagrees. “The president’s a nice guy, but he’s never had a job in the private sector,” Romney says. “He’s never created a job. I think it helps to have had a job to create a job.”
Romney is willing to forgo a vastly lucrative future in the private sector for a public-sector job that pays a mere $400,000 a year.
It is the presidency, and Romney is willing to make a sacrifice to hold it. That’s the kind of guy he is.
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