Of CEOs, Private Equity Titans and presidents

Jim Manzi has had an excellent discussion on the relation between Mitt Romney’s professional background and what he might be like as a president. Megan McArdle has also been discussing this at length.

I’ve made no secret that I think Mitt Romney should not get the GOP nomination, as now looks inevitable, and should not be the next President, as looks likely if the economy does not improve over the next year (but, on this score, I’ll probably be lucky).

I believe that the fundamental and egregious dishonesty that has characterized every step of his political career to date ought to disqualify him from city dogcatcher, let alone wielding the launch codes.

All that said, I think the background of a Harvard JD/MBA, private equity investor and occasional turnaround CEO is great for running the executive branch.

The job of a President is basically two-fold: getting his agenda through the legislative branch, and running the executive branch. The former mostly requires political skill.

As to the latter, which is incredibly important in our era of the Imperial Presidency, a widely spread idea is that in the private sector you learn “management skills” and how to “get things done”. That’s the President-as-Jack-Welch meme. I think that’s largely an illusion for three reasons:

  • The public sector works very differently from the private sector;
  • The Federal government of the United States is immensely more complex than any private sector business;
  • Most “management skills”, at least as taught in business schools, are largely a crock.

CEOs actually have much more leeway in terms of management than do presidents. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos famously spends a few weeks each year working in Amazon warehouses to get a better understanding of that side of the business and improve it. President Romney isn’t going to intern in the Patent Office for two weeks to see how applications could be streamlined. A CEO can decide to spin off, merge, or shut down departments. If President Romney (or Perry) wants to shut down the Commerce Department, he’s going to need an Act of Congress.

99% of the work the President does as manager of the executive work is the following: – Setting priorities – Hiring and firing

The other 1% are the Big Decisions, that are the least frequent but also the most important. It’s the part that can’t be taught and where the background is irrelevant.

In other words, the President behaves much more like an “executive chairman” of a company who has a hand over major strategic decisions than a CEO who runs it day to day.

This is also very similar to what a private equity investor does in a buyout: analyze the business, decide on a strategy and hire, retain (and fire) managers. He should have a “nuts and bolts” understanding of the business, but he’s not going to go into the factory to make widgets or tell the factory manager how to make widgets.

In other words, to reprise Ronald Reagan’s excellent phrase, to be a good manager of the executive branch, a President should know who to trust, and how to verify. These are also the skills a (good) private equity investor has in spades. Mitt Romney has decades of experience analyzing stuff and then hiring, holding to account and firing people.

Of course, when someone who is also a fundamentally dishonest liar with obvious contempt for his fellow citizens has these excellent skills, it’s an additional argument AGAINST nominating them to the position where they would have the power to detain fellow citizens indefinitely, appoint judges to the federal bench, and start wars.

But the question of whether Mitt Romney would make a good president is distinct from the question of whether a co-founder of a successful private equity firm, as such, would be suited to managing the executive branch.