Cindi Ross Scoppe

Still want to run government like a business? That’s insane

SCE&G is charging customers an extra 18% to help pay for two unfinished nuclear reactors at the VC Summer facility that it abandoned this summer.
SCE&G is charging customers an extra 18% to help pay for two unfinished nuclear reactors at the VC Summer facility that it abandoned this summer.

KOBE STEEL fakes inspection data for aluminum, copper and steel products used in cars, trains, aircraft and space rockets.

Takata makes faulty airbags that explode and injure or even kill people.

Volkswagon manipulates its diesel cars to cheat on government emissions tests.

Equifax, the massive credit bureau that collects every conceivable bit of our personal financial information, fails to take basic security measures and gets it all hacked away — and follows up by allowing malicious software to attack our computers when we try to sign up for protection against the hack.

Every day, businesses close because they’re inefficient or badly managed or providing goods or services that people don’t want.

In South Carolina, HomeGold gambles with what were sold as super-safe investments, and 12,000 people lose $275 million in one of the biggest bankruptcies in state history.

The SCANA Corp., according to its own consultant, fails to manage construction of two new nuclear reactors as the project spirals billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. It keeps pouring in more money without alerting investors or regulators — and certainly not the customers it expected to charge for every penny of waste — that the project might be impossible to complete. Then it abandons the project and leaves billions of dollars worth of potentially reusable material sitting exposed to the elements.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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Want to run government like a business? Not so fast

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Waste. Fraud. Incompetence. Mismanagement. The examples abound, and we pay for it with our treasure, our health and our lives.

Yet even today, even right here in South Carolina, if you talk long enough to most conservatives about government — and if you can keep the conversation away from the culture wars and other D.C. melodrama — eventually they’ll tell you what we need to do is run it like a business.

To which the proper response is: Are you out of your mind?

I am not suggesting that all businesses are evil or incompetent, that business failures are commonplace, that government is inherently superior to business — or that “conservative” equals bad or wrong. That would be just as ridiculous and dishonest as suggesting that all government is evil or incompetent, that its failures are commonplace, that business is inherently superior to government — or that “liberal” equals bad or wrong. Neither black-and-white view of the world is true.

The business world has plenty of failures. It is not inherently superior to government.

Kobe Steel and Takata and VW and Equifax and HomeGold and SCE&G and all of the other spectacular mistakes in the business world are rare. And SCE&G is a regulated utility, which plays by different rules than most businesses. Many businesses are in fact models of efficiency that don’t squander money or get bogged down by their own internal red tape, although anyone who has worked for a large corporation — or a mom and pop, for that matter — can cite some wasteful practices, and some internal rules that make government rules look like the epitome of sanity.

But as spectacular as some government failures are, they are also exceptions. We hear and think a lot more about them because we in the media pay a lot more attention to government — as we should.

We don’t think about all the roads that are in good shape, that get us where we need to go — just the ones that don’t get taken care of. We don’t think about all the counties that pull off elections without a hitch, or even all the ones that the Richland County Election Commission has done well — just the ones that are a mess. We don’t think about all the South Carolinians who live successful lives because they get a good education in our schools — just the small portion who don’t. We don’t think about every day that the prisons don’t have an assault or an escape — just the rare days they have them. We don’t think about all the times police interact with people innocent or guilty without shooting them — only the very few times that things go bad.

The difference between government and business has nothing to do with honesty or efficiency. It’s that our government will answer to the majority of the public. Businesses answer their stockholders.

The difference between government and business has nothing to do with honesty or efficiency. It’s that our government can work as well as we want it to work; our government will answer to the majority of the public. Businesses answer to their stockholders. Businesses answer to the rest of us only if our government forces them to.

Of course, SCANA nuclear partner Santee Cooper is also government. And the only way it looks like purdent is when we line it up next to SCANA. Santee Cooper knew for as long as SCE&G did that the V.C. Summer nuclear construction project was falling apart, and it was worried, but what did it do? Held a bunch of secret board meetings, wrote some pointed internal emails, and at one point held up an operational change in order to get the Bechtel analysis underway. It didn’t release the secret documents that told the truth about how badly the project was deteriorating, didn’t even warn regulators.

But remember this: Santee Cooper isn’t a regular governmental entity. It’s one of a tiny handful that the state has freed from most of the restrictions we place on government. That is to say: We have tried running government like a business. And while Santee Cooper did attempt to behave a little less irresponsibly than the business it partnered with, I can’t think of a regular governmental entity in South Carolina that has frittered away anywhere close to $4.5 billion in less than a decade.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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