CLEVELAND — Throughout his campaign, Mayor-elect Justin Bibb kept uttering a phrase I found curious, particularly given the campaign’s portrayal of Bibb as a progressive who stood in stark contrast to the depiction of his opponent: the “establishment” and “boardroom” candidate Kevin Kelley. Bibb’s utterance was this: “City Hall must move at the speed of business.”
It’s a phrase he used in debates and uttered on “Good Morning America.” Its omnipresence thus serves as a window into his worldview of governance. The issue is that this worldview has a terrible track record when it comes to governing, as illustrated in The New Republic’s 2020 deep dive, “The End of the Businessman President.”
Now, it can be argued it’s a throwaway line that, on its face, harmlessly suggests government needs to be more efficient. But taking Bibb’s mantra at face value would be a mistake, especially given the societal effects that stem from this ideology.
The lionization of the manager with a suitcase — who needs Superman when you got Clark Kent? — has been decades in the making, culminating in the “You’re fired!” presidency of the anti-politician King Kong of capitalism, Donald Trump.
In his first Inaugural Address, for example, President Ronald Reagan exclaimed: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
The gist of the thinking is that, no matter the issue, the free market is the solution. The machinations of change are greased through the gospel of efficiency wherein profit is king and profit is pure, with the invisibly-handed market punishing those processes that aren’t lean and mean but rather awash in redundancy.
This chorus Mayor-Elect Bibb is lending his voice to is by no means out of step with convention. It’s in line with conservative thought. The ideology has been dubbed the “Washington Consensus,” pushing economic prescriptions originally applied to developing countries that emphasized the free market and less government intervention. Think the deregulation and privatization of many public-facing industries, including transportation, utilities, health care, and education — not to mention labor-displacing strategies like automation and outsourcing that, while making production more efficient, have left a stain on the societies of deindustrialized economies through the erosion of good-paying jobs.
These stains go beyond the payroll and pocketbook, ultimately landing in the breadbasket of human well-being. As shown in the book, “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism,” rates of addiction, suicide, and chronic disease have increased — and life expectancy has decreased — for America’s non-college-educated working class, a demographic comprising two-thirds of the country and over 80% of Clevelanders.
This is to say, then, that a strategy that prioritizes cost-cutting-at-all-cost market economy principles is wasteful when extending barometers of success beyond profiteering and into societal well-being.
And then there’s the reality of how this worldview stood up to the existential threat that is COVID. “[I]f there is a single economic policy lesson to learn from the coronavirus pandemic, it is that the United States’ obsession with efficiency over the last half century has brutally undermined its capacity to deal with such a catastrophic event,” notes management theorist Roger Martin in a March 27, 2020 Washington Post essay headlined, “The virus shows that making our companies efficient also made our country weak.”
Never mind the May 19 New York Times headline that I still can’t unsee: “Too Big to Fail: The Entire Private Sector.”
This isn’t to rain on the parade of Bibb’s momentous run to Lakeside Avenue. I’m a longtime Cleveland resident and voted for Bibb. I believe in change, and the extinction of bad policy, tired sloganeering, and sloppy worldviews. But I also know the hands of path dependency are heavy and abhor a letting go. Let’s hope Bibb’s promise of progressive thinking doesn’t succumb to the status quo.
After all, making a broken system more efficient is only going to make things sufficiently worse.
Richey Piiparinen is a Cleveland writer living in Collinwood.
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