View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Coors and Coors - Business and Public Policy 

Ben raises some interesting questions about the relevance of business experience to politics. In particular, he asks why Pete Coors's business experience is relevant to fiscal politics but not his social politics. Clay asks the same questions. The short answer is that business is about making money, not promoting social goals.

The long answer is related to business in general, and to Coors Brewing in particular.

The first thing to understand is that the Coors family doesn't run Coors anymore. It's a public company, with a Board of Directors and hired management. When Pete Coors came in, one of the things he did was to hire the Pepsi Mafia to come in and run the company. (These were not "consultants," as one of Hugh's callers had it, but business professionals who had served in senior management in a major American corporation.)

This doesn't mean the Coorses are sitting on the sofa, drinking the family beverage, flipping back and forth between Rockies' games and DVDs of the Board meetings. It does mean that when Bill Coors left, management, including Pete, realized that the family business model wasn't going to work anymore. Returns were too low, the stock price had stagnated, and 800-lb. gorilla Anheuser-Busch was offering Ft. Collins brewery tours on the way back from Rocky Mountain National Park.

You can argue that this makes Pete a hands-off manager, but you can also argue that picking the right people is at least half the battle. Two words: Justice Souter. Maybe this means that he has more of an executive mentality than a legislative one, but you'd need more evidence than this.

Coors Beer was also under some pretty heavy social attacks at the time, too. They were under gay, Hispanic, and black boycotts, none of which can be good for business. They decided to be pro-active, get ahead of these groups before being held up by Jesse, and get off the boycott lists. Not a single one of the activist groups that holds voting stock in the Democratic Party has endorsed Pete Coors. If they can figure out it's just business, why can't we?

Businessmen are taught to think of the world they operate in as the environment. Laws, regulations, social constraints, the likelihood of fools lying down in front of bulldozers are all considered part of the environment. They are taught to make use of these rules to achieve competitive advantage. They are emphatically not taught how to spend a lot of time changing that environment, nor are they taught how these rules make whole economies more or less efficient. Our challenge is to change to meet conditions, not to affect these conditions.

(I should add that in the case of DU, at least, this is a somewhat one-sided proposition. When we're taught about labor regulations, the benefits of unions, ADA, and the value of balkanizing our workforce to reflect local populations, these conditions are presented as environment. When we're taught about circumstances where the goverment hasn't yet imposed regulation, those situations are presented as "ethical challenges," or chances to raise the ethical bar. This is a bait-and-switch that lets liberal professors frame the discussion to their liking, and it merits a whole posting on its own.)

The point here is that businessmen are too busy figuring out how to respond to the world to worry too much about how to change it. To the extent that they do affect public policy, it's usually either centered on their own business, or it's concentrated on raising barriers to entry. It's one reason that businesses tend to divide their campaign funds.

None of this is going to be very comforting to social conservatives, and it shouldn't be. If businesses decide to add in a Spanish-language hotline for questions about same-sex partner benefits, it's because they're responding to disturbing social trends that need to be fought at some other level.

As Michael Novak has repeatedly argued, the Founders set up this country as a commercial republic. But knowing what it takes to run a business is fundamentally different from maing judgments about how to organize society. So when Coors says he should be credited with business success, while you should look to the Heritage Foundation for his politics, he's not being inconsistent. It's not whether politics needs to be more like business. It's whether or not policy can be better informed by business.

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