Electing the next CEO of America

Will your life change very much after the election this November? No matter whom you vote for, your mail will still get delivered; the government will still take money out of your pocket each week and give it to all the wrong people; you’ll still get caught in the same traffic jam every day; your boss will still be the same old jerk. In short, voting for president is a lose-lose situation.

But what if we got to vote for the CEOs of the Fortune 500 companies? What if the head of Ford had to run for election? What if we got to vote for the president of American Airlines? What if CNN and Fox News followed a six-month-long campaign to see who would be the CEO of Exxon? What would interest rates be like if the CEO of your credit-card company had to campaign for the job? How many of you would vote to give your stockbroker $100 million salary? Wouldn’t you be tempted to vote for the guy who said he’d do the same job for $5 million? Until the Drudge Report reveals that he worked his way through college as a male escort, of course.

Is one CEO really worth that much more than another? Didn’t all investment bankers fall for the same mortgage scam? It seems they all pretty much think alike. Why should one get paid more than another? Shouldn’t they be paying us for that mess?

Don’t you think your health-insurance premiums would go down if the president of the company had to campaign to get your vote?

Critics say shareholders and boards of directors elect CEOs. “You can always change the channel, you can always use a different company,” they say. That’s not quite the same as have televised debates where the candidates slug it out, is it? What if the candidates for CEO had to answer the same hard, even frivolous questions we expect political candidates to deal with?

“Can you please explain, sir, why, as president of an automobile company you have voted yourself use of a private company jet? Why don’t you drive to meetings like ordinary people?”

“In some countries, they have a rule that the CEO can only make seven times as much as his lowest-paid employee. It means that if the CEO wants a pay raise, he must give all his workers a raise. Would you agree to that?”

“Could you please tell the voters why you took 24 weeks of vacation last year and then gave yourself a $10 million bonus?”

There would be two immediate advantages to this system. First, most big companies would be run more efficiently. Sure, the voters will make mistakes now and then, but that would still be a big improvement over any board of directors’ track record. Second, you would notice a difference very quickly. Vote for the president of the United States and you might see a change in a minor tax bill three years from now. Whoopee!

But elect the president of an airline and you’d never sit on the tarmac for 10 hours again. The newly elected president and his staff would be on board faster than you could stuff a ballet box passing out free doughnuts and coffee trying to get your vote again for the next term.

Do you think the elected president of an oil company would give himself a big, fat raise when gas prices got higher?

If we voted for car-company presidents, who do you think would win – the guy pushing the Hummer or the guy pushing the electric car?

Some of the better CEOs would keep their jobs. I’d vote for Steve Jobs. I’d vote for Warren Buffet. I’d vote for the guys who run Google. But my banker? My broker? They should be on the low end of the food-service industry, not running big companies.

A lot of people say we should run the government like a business. Like Enron? Like the airlines? Like the mortgage lenders? Like your health-insurance company? How’s that working out?

For real change, meaningful change, maybe we should change the way we do business, not the way we do government.

Jim Mullen is the author of “It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life” and “Baby’s First Tattoo.” You can reach him at jim_mullen@myway.com

Copyright 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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