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The United States of Microsoft?

In a poll, Americans picked Microsoft, IBM, General Motors and GE to run the country. 6/01 Diversions hed: The United States of Microsoft? dek: In a poll, Americans picked Microsoft, IBM, General Motors and GE to run the country. by Michael Finley

A poll recently asked a sampling of Americans what corporation would do the best job of running the country. For now, let us pass over the two most obvious questions: Why do we have to choose one corporation? And aren’t all of them together doing a good enough job?

Instead let’s just turn to the top four answers, in order, and contemplate how each of these organizations would do justice to the founding fathers’ vision.

1. Microsoft

The idea that Microsoft would run the United States well seems logical. Bill Gates is admired by many Americans for his vision, intellect, and toughness. Microsoft understands the advantages of monopoly, and the beauty of pushing other people around. Microsoft could do better than the existing government at things like keeping secrets, maintaining internal discipline, and avoiding deficit situations.

At the same time, there are questions. If Microsoft and the United States effectively merge, what happens to the antitrust suit? It doesn’t seem right to have the government suing itself, but given other conflicts the government is not embarrassed about, this one is probably surmountable.

Picture Bill Gates being debriefed about the new organization’s capabilities. “Let me get this straight. We have the power to charge whatever we like, throw people in jail who don’t cough up the dough, we have zero competition, and we get nuclear weapons? And no phone support?”

2. IBM

This choice signaled to me that the American people might be out to lunch a little. IBM is still a major corporation in 2001, but its glamour days are long gone. But let’s imagine that IBM is able to recreate the company’s glory at the national level. We’d see a strong return to centralization, with the country functioning as an all-powerful mainframe of administrative power. One can imagine defense spending being very high, and the Treasury Department being very robust–a good government to wage a Cold War against.

But would such a government be alert to the comings and goings of smaller, more furtive enemies? One can imagine IBM manning effective global satellite surveillance of the entire planet, but missing the mouse in the wall that creeps in to sign a licensing agreement, and skitters away.

3. General Motors

This selection floored me. It has been more than 75 years since General Motors had a big idea, and it was a bad one. Remember the famous dictum of “Engine Room Charlie” Wilson: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the United States!” That was the idea, and it launched the world’s biggest manufacturing company on an endless plateau of mediocrity. The result: A company that once had the world eating from its hand must use international sales and financing schemes to paper over its inability to compete on engineering, price points, or styling.

Seeing that so many Americans think this toothless behemoth could guide our nation through the dangers of the new order explains why we elect the leaders we do. As a wise Stooge once said: “We can’t help it; we’re morons.”

We’d be better off putting the Yugo people in charge.

4. General Electric

G.E. is probably the best choice after Microsoft. The company traces its origins way back to Thomas Edison, and yet here it is today, racking up price-earning multiples like a frisky colt. Jack Welch, chairman of the company during its long run-up, is the most celebrated manager of modern times.

But consider a couple of things. First, Welch is about to retire, and he has given no indication of being willing to scatter his magic dust on the U.S. government. Second, he achieved success at G.E. through ruthless cutting. If a company or product line in the G.E. portfolio couldn’t pull its weight, Welch slit its throat. That’s a conversation I’d pay a buck to hear:

“This is the part of the job I hate the most. I’m sorry, New Hampshire, but we have to cut you loose.”

Columnist Michael Finley also writes his Future Shoes column every Friday on

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