One of the central skills needed for a democratic society is the ability to imagine what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself. Rabindranath Tagore
In the early 90s, before I went crazy and became a teacher, I worked at Denver Regional Council of Governments, which serves the eighteen or so local jurisdictions in the metro area. I staffed meetings of fire chiefs, police chiefs, inspection services and city managers. Unlike elected mayors of the big entities like Denver, city managers are professional career staff, hired by city councils. For the most part, those I knew were competent men who read the handouts before the meeting, had formulated their questions and knew what their city’s position would be on the matter. Utilities, roads—all manner of services cross city limits, from Littleton to Englewood, from Thornton to Westminster. Inter-jurisdictional cooperation happens daily on the local level.
While I was staffing this group, a manager of one of the larger suburban cities resigned to take an executive position with a private company. The following year we asked him to speak to his former colleagues about the differences in private and public sector administration. His presentation made an impression on me. I am paraphrasing, but this is the substance of what he said.
“When you work for citizens, with taxpayer money, you are subject to restraints,” he told them. “Everything you do is in the public eye, apt to be reported in the local newspaper and you are always answerable to your city council. I know many of you work more than 40 hours most weeks. Bob, when your town had that flooding last spring, you were out there 15 hours a day for ten days straight.”
The audience beamed approval in Bob’s (not his real name) direction. He flushed over the unexpected recognition and gave a shrug that said, “you do what you got to do.”
“You work a full day and come back for council meetings at night. I did the same. And when you travel on city business you fly coach and stay at hotels in an approved price range, am I right?”
City mangers in their grey suits and ties nodded agreement around the room.
“I can tell you this about the private sector: I worked a lot harder as a city manager. I now have a virtually unlimited expense account. I fly first class, stay at the best hotels, take people to lunch and buy drinks—as a city manager I could never buy someone a drink.”
Heads were nodding vigorously now and a responsoral murmuring had begun. That gathering of white middle-aged men seemed on the verge of shouting “amen!”
“Because,” our guest continued, “the private sector doesn’t answer to taxpayers, isn’t in the public eye. You can do much you’d never dream of doing in government. Few are watching.”
Our speaker tactfully didn’t add what we all knew: that his private sector salary was considerably above what he’d earned as a city manager.
I don’t remember the speaker’s name or any other particulars from that day—it was nearly 30 years ago—but the memory of his speech has returned to me often since 45 came into office. Besides 45’s other failings, I think a major obstacle to his being successful as president is the fact that he’s a businessman. The very thing his supporters named as the reason to vote for him, I thought was a reason not to do so.
He didn’t know he had to hire a whole new White House staff. He thought the staff came with the position, like a private sector takeover. He didn’t realize his life was no longer private and we millions of taxpayers would be counting his trips to Mar-a-Lago, monitoring his every tweet. He didn’t know a president couldn’t necessarily pressure other branches of government into doing his bidding; that other readings of the law might prevail. If he wanted to fire the FBI director, he didn’t know he ought to look at historical precedents for or against such a move and likely repercussions before deciding.
In the private sector, he never had to consider any of those things. In your own business, you go to Mar-a-Lago whenever you want and nobody cares. 45 had never worn public sector shoes, couldn’t imagine what the government world was like. Tagore, quoted above from his 1917 Personality: Lectures Delivered in America, thought the ability to imagine such a thing was what “motivates us to act for the common good.”
It was clear that day with the city managers that acting for the common good was on their side of the room. And working for the common good is what keeps a democracy alive.