The False God of Business

Rick Scott, our corporate-criminal governor here in sunny Florida, has said he wants the state’s colleges and universities to run more like businesses. This is a disease that is spreading to public education around the country.

I think this view would make Thomas Jefferson retch. So would being in the same room with Rick Scott.

Scott wants to charge less tuition for majors that prepare kids for jobs the economy needs now — engineering, technology, health care. On the surface it’s an intriguing idea. But it reduces education to job training, to providing work-units for business moguls.
Rick-Scott fraud

If students have to pay more for a history degree than a biology degree, fewer will study history. Or English. Or philosophy. Or government. “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe,” Jefferson said. He believed that, as political storms blew the country from right to left and back again, an informed electorate would be the safeguard against extremism and tyranny. He believed American democracy would only work if citizens were educated and aware.

If we treat higher education as just job training, how will we develop an informed citizenry? How will people learn how to think critically, to separate political lies from the record of facts, to understand how our government and our world work?

There may not be a capital market for citizenship, but without citizenship this country will become just market segments for ad buyers.

Scott, as CEO of healthcare giant Columbia HCA, ran a company that defrauded the federal government (which means all of us, the taxpayers) by swindling Medicare, resulting in a $1.7 billion fine. Scott made out just fine though — when the HCA board dumped him because of the fraud, they gave him a $10 million severance package and $300 million in stock. No wonder he wants to run state government like he ran a business. And no wonder Mitt Romney, who made millions by, in many cases, leveraging companies into bankruptcy and stripping and shipping out jobs, thought business was a great model for government. Business is a fine game for the winners.

Didn’t a majority of American voters just spurn a businessman’s pitch to treat this country like a business? A majority of voters decided that business’s main goal of funneling profits to the tiny group of Romneyfolk who already have most of the wealth isn’t a good governing principle for the majority of us.

President Obama pointed out that, running a government, he has to think of all the people; those running a business have to think only of some.

Should the Grand Canyon or the Everglades be run more like a business? Should a sunset? The human body? A marriage? Diplomatic relations with another country? Poetry? Absolutely; poetry should be run more like business. And so should the wonder of a playful kitten. And one’s youth — that should surely be run more like a business.

Cretin. Philistine.

— Bruce Benidt

18 thoughts on “The False God of Business

  1. Maybe Scott should try to figure out what “business model” calls for spending $75 million of your own money to run for an office that pays $130,000 a year.

    Or maybe somethings can’t be judged by a P&L.

  2. Hmmm. On the one hand, I think STEM degrees produce more than just work-units for business moguls. We all benefit from what they do. So sayeth the man with 23 monitors and more computing power within arms’ reach than existed in the whole world 50 years ago.

    But, on the other hand, Bruce is right that we need people who understand the arc of history and who study cultures and produce art and who understand both the words of the Constitution but their implications as well. In other words, we need people with liberal arts degrees.

    And, ideally, we’d have people who could if not walk in both worlds, at least appreciate their value. History geeks who understand the contribution of scientists. Engineers who could accept that not every problem is reducible to a single right answer. Journalists who – gasp! – understand statistics.

    I guess I don’t know how I feel about subsidizing STEM degrees. Maybe we should limit the number, make the applications competitive and match them with an equal number of subsidized liberal arts degree slots.

    And now for something completely different…

    I am full up to HERE with this whole government should be run like a business bullshit, a kissing cousin to the other false comparison of the federal budget to a household budget. Both tell me one of two things about any politician who utters such crap: either they don’t understand the fundamental differences between a business, a household and a government, in which case they are disqualified from office on the basis of stupidity, or they are the lowest form of agitator who is more interested in raising a mob than in governing and is therefore disqualified from office by reason of unsuitability.

    And, as long as I’m ranting, another disqualifier IMHO is any politician who makes statements that begin with the words “I will never…”*^ Watching the Republicans try to wriggle off of the Grover Norquist hook regarding taxes should tell you everything you need to know about how dumb such pledges are (and the politicians who sign them).

    – Austin

    *Save your breath constructing sentences like, “I will never betray the United States” or “I will never embezzle from my office account.” If a candidate is stupid enough to campaign on stuff like that, do we really want him or her making decisions for the rest of us?

    ^And, yes, I’m including stuff like “I will never believe that abortion should be legal.” and “I will never accept that abortion should be illegal.” I’d like my elected officials to be creative and fleet of mind so that they could entertain the possibility that there might be situations in which even their most deeply held principles might have to be subordinated to a greater good.

    And, yes, for some reason I’m feeling curmudgeonly tonight. Maybe it was the shoveling.

  3. Erik says:

    At the grass roots, political journal, and think-tank level, conservatives have been talking about the cost of college education for quite a few years. I don’t know what Rick Scott quote it is we might wrangle over, but his “college more like a business” themes are in context to a feeling that college is too expensive. Which it is. And that perhaps the institutional footprints of these institutions can be trimmed to manage ongoing costs. Which would seem reasonable. And that institutional footprints of these institutions can be trimmed to manage ongoing effectiveness. Which would also seem reasonable.

    You’re strawman-ing Bruce.

  4. PM says:

    I do have a specific gripe about running colleges and universities as businesses.

    We already have quite a few examples of colleges and universities run as businesses–the for profit colleges and universities. And they are the ones who are acting like many a profit maximizing business would–defrauding the government, accepting all sorts of unqualified students, loading them up with government provided/guaranteed student loans, and then failing to educate those students, who are stuck for the rest of their lives with these student loans.

    So before we go and ask anyone to run anything “like a business” lets be very careful about what we mean. It is a stupid political slogan.

  5. You want to run schools like businesses? OK. Then if you are a high school principal, or a college dean, or a university president your objective should be to grow your school as big as you can get it, put your competitors out of business, and charge the maximum for your product that the market will bear while manufacturing it as cheaply as possible.

    Education. Schooling. Instruction. Training. >> what do the 1% get, and what do the 99% get?

    If you care about these issues, tune into John Taylor Gatto. He was New York City Teacher of the Year three times when he worked in Harlem. He quit his job, while still holding the title of Teacher of the Year, in an OpEd article in the Wall Street Journal saying that he no longer wished to hurt children.

    His research into the origins and essential mission of the public education system presents a picture very different from what we’ve been shown.

  6. Joe Loveland says:

    Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina had a degree in Medieval History and Philosophy.

    Disney CEO Michael Eisner had a degree in Theater and English.

    Corning CEO John Loose got a degree in East Asian History.

    Federated Department Stores CEO Sue Kronick got a degree in Asian Studies.

    Blue Shield of CA CEO Bruce Bodaken got a degree in Philosophy.

    Apple CEO Steve Jobs said “I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.”

    A liberal arts degree is designed to help you analyze issues, and those skills can then be applied to many issues outside of the direct subject matter of the degree earned.

    God help us if we become a nation of all Philosophy majors. But God also help us if the politicians incent us into becoming a nation of MBAs and engineers. Governor Scott, let freedom ring.

    1. Dennis McGrath says:

      Amen, Joe. What a CEO needs perhaps most of all (if integrity is a given) is intellectual curiosity. George Dixon, the former Chair and CEO of First Bank System (now part of US Bank) and Deputy Secretary of the Treasury under Gerry Ford once told me, “If I had it to do over, I would have been a liberal arts major.”

      1. Erik says:

        Philosophy majors. Not liberal arts majors generally. And not that average liberal arts majors aren’t smart, but there is a lotta material to contextualize if you are a philosophy major, which might explain the mental adeptness of those who pursuit that.

        I have a liberal arts undergrad and engineering masters, and work in business / commerce / production. It should go without saying that liberal arts majors can ‘succeed’ in business. Or at least earn a living. You don’t need a degree for that even.

        What there is among liberal arts majors is a fairly prevalent resistance to working in business / commerce / production. They think it’s beneath them – won’t sully themselves by taking good pay for work that’s not sufficiently self actualizing / socially beneficial. The old barista with an MS stereotype.

      2. Erik says:

        MFA, I should say.

        Thing is, schools are derelict to let 22 year olds graduate with $100k in debt if these graduates are going to set out to be tour guides at museums.

        As a general point, I would protest that in the thread here we’re accepting apparently that liberal arts majors are educationally well rounded and STEM majors are not. That’s bunk. Most STEM programs have something of a liberal arts core.

      3. PM says:


        I definitely agree. Further, in many top US schools, philosophy is really all about mathematics–logic. Analytic philosophy is the dominant form of philosophy in the US, and it involves rigorous math. Further, in many top US schools, math majors are part of the liberal arts curriculum.

        There is another issue to consider as well–how much of success is due to knowledge, versus people skills. An awful lot of success in business (particularly the ability to get promoted) depends not just on what you know but also who you know, and your ability to “relate” to those at the top of the social/corporate ladder. This is where an MFA will come in handy. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu ( looked at the role of “social capital” and found that art history majors had the most–apparently the ability to recognize that Matisse on the wall and talk about its provenance can count for a lot in terms of getting a job/promotion.

      4. Joe Loveland says:

        Erik, agree about philosophy being rigorous and worthwhile. My point was that lets not have everyone studying the same thing. Let’s have diversity in our collective mindset.

        Also, I am not dissing engineering and business majors. I have no problem with that choice, if that’s what you love, and most engineers and businesspeople I know love their fields. I’m just defending liberal arts majors, because they have to endure a lot of small thinking crap all through college about “what are you going to do with that major (tee hee)?” With that background music, it takes courage to go in that direction.

        So, I’m not saying liberal arts majors are superior. I’m saying they are valid and worthwhile, and shouldn’t be disincented by government.

        I tell my kids to study what you love, and the career stuff will follow naturally. Among my college friends, the saddest cases are those who study X because it looks like a lucrative career at the time, only to learn that a) they hate X or b) the field of X has crashed.

      5. Erik says:

        I love theme, narrative, trope, archetype. Analyzing by these has really helped me. But I blanche at the idea of someone getting promoted because they ingratiate themselves with the CEO by talking Matisse. Too rote a scene, and it doesn’t happen that way. That’s not how the corporate ladder is climbed.

        But people skills in business are as important as technical skills. In commerce you have to get along with people. Counterintuitive to the prevailing archetypes though, I don’t see that as a deficiency among the technicians and then a strength of the liberal arts people. It’s among the liberal arts people that you hear. “I’ll never work in a corporate cubicle environment. It’s soul killing.” I had that sentiment myself for a time, and know it for what it is: something of an adolescent misanthropy that’s become pervasive in this age of abundance.

        Now yes, I do think we should have experts in say medieval poetry, and they should live on public stipends, and be called professors, and work at colleges. But most people end up doing practical commerce for their income. There’s a feeling that colleges are indulging the impractical whims of their students a bit much, giving them things that won’t help them be self sufficient adults, and charging them a lot for it to boot.

        Among R governors, there’s some coalescing around the idea of a $1ok practical college education, Rick Perry and Rick Scott being prominent adherents. This can’t be a bad thing.

      6. Joe Loveland says:

        Re: $100K in debt and only qualified to be a tour guide in a museum.

        That’s the business and engineering school superiority play I hear a lot, that you can only get pathetic little jobs with liberal arts degree, not “real jobs.”

        If you take off the delusional, narrow-minded “art history majors can only work in an art museum” blinders, you will find that more art history majors are working in other fields than in museums, and doing quite well. I was a political science and history major, and probably about 90% of my classmates are not working directly in those disciplines, and a couple of them are even not living under bridges!

        Erik, you’re asserting “liberal arts people look down their noses at people working in corporations” victimhood here, and that is no doubt out there. I’m sorry if we have hurt your feelings. But keep in mind a) corporations are full of contented liberal arts majors and b) you’re also doing a more than a little looking down your nose yourself.

        Bottom line (a little term I picked up from by B-school pals): We all apparently feel the need to feel superior, and defend our educational choices, so we construct our respective victimhood scenarios. Can’t we all just get along?

      7. Erik says:

        I’m missing your point and you’re missing mine. I get redass about various things as you’ve seen, but I haven’t created a victimization scenario to wear around because I’m an engineer and not an MFA or because I think the MFAs think I’m dumb.

        I didn’t assert liberal arts grads are not qualified to go corporate. They certainly are. 22 yr old liberal arts grads are well qualified to enter the lowest rungs of general business. And I don’t say lowest rungs as if that’s some kind of slight. That’s about all the trust you’ve earned as a 22 yr old with a degree.

        My adult working career is not yet 20 years in length. What you did then, in 93-95, having graduated with an ambiguous bachelors, was get a job in a call center or as a claim processor, etc. These were ostensibly entry level jobs where a degree was required, and starting pay was $8.65 an hour. Very low prestige, but there’s always that first job you have to take so that you can someday actually get to the job you think you deserve by virtue of your college education. Your liberal arts degree provides a basis of credibility, but not really a skill set. You end up gaining skills on the job, but that college education anchors a broader knowledge and worldliness that you’ll need in the white collar world. This ought not to be news to anyone, but in the prevailing discussion I think we overlook that most people come out of college and make diddly in their 20s. Yet we talk as if a college degree is an immediate ticket to prosperity.

        In terms of the career arc, I’d like to say it’s same as it ever was, but the entry level jobs still pay $9 an hour, there’s less of them, and kids come out of college with house mortgage amounts of debt. This is new and disconcerting. Most of the responsibility to navigate this falls rightly on parents and students, but the critique is that colleges are driving some pernicious cost trends. Liberals perhaps have a better idea of ‘wise consumption’ than conservatives. Colleges are not consuming their students resources wisely.

        To circle back… that’s why these guys are coalescing around the idea of a $10k bachelors degree. That’s what “more like a business” is in context to. More bang for the buck.

  7. Newt says:

    In a state where most people can barely read, I’d say Scott isn’t the source of Education’s problems. Nor is business.

  8. But, here’s a phenomenal quote from MPR News this week: “If Minnesota were a country, its 8th grade science scores would rank near the top, outscored only by Singapore and Taipei, according to a new report called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.” The full story is here:

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