Politicians Can Learn From Running a Business

Thursday, 01 Sep 2011 01:41 PM

By George Will

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"Beer," said Benjamin Franklin, who knew a thing or two about pleasure, "is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

If so, perhaps He wanted John Hickenlooper to be Colorado's governor. Hickenlooper is a double rarity, the first brewer to become a governor (well, if you don't count Sam Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, the amateur), and, in this time of political dyspepsia, he is a happy man whose constituents seem reasonably happy with him.

People may be happier here because sunlight is filtered through less — a mile less — of the atmosphere. And because, Hickenlooper says, Colorado has become "the Napa Valley of Beer" and Denver is "the Munich of the West." He deserves some credit for this state having 142 licensed breweries.

Born near Philadelphia, Hickenlooper studied geology and came to Colorado during the 1980s energy boom. Then came the bust and he was cashiered.

Looking around for something to do, he noticed that for five years no one had opened a restaurant in downtown Denver, where the sidewalks were rolled up at dusk and rents were just $1 a square foot. He opened a brew pub — then opened others, here and around the country, in old railroad stations and other buildings that were, like him, ready for a new use.

In his pubs he placed advertisements for other restaurants nearby because he had a stake in getting people out of their homes: "Our competitors are not other restaurants but TV sets."

At 9 on a recent morning the governor — he is a Democrat, but immune to the progressive delusion that citizens cannot function for even a few minutes without guidance — is pulling on his socks after a morning workout. Coloradans can cope even if their governor is not scurrying around early, acting essential to everything.

Nine-year-old Teddy steps onto the back porch and, with a verbal economy one would welcome in politicians, addresses two syllables to the governor: "iPad?" They share one.

This domesticity suggests why, although Hickenlooper, 59, is in his first year as governor, you probably will never hear from him anything like Jefferson's guff about the "splendid misery" of high office. Jefferson actually had such a fine time as president he stayed for a second term.

Hickenlooper, who says, "I was 50 times better at running a brew pub than I was as a geologist," seems to be pretty good at running this state. This is probably because, having been in business, he appreciates the spontaneous order of a market economy, which does not need to be run by politicians.

For much of the political class, the private sector, with job creation through risk-taking, is as foreign as Mongolia.

Hickenlooper says of politicians: "Everyone should spend two years running a big, popular restaurant." Doing so, you learn about placating people: Not all customers are going to be happy, but the proverb has it right ("A soft answer turneth away wrath") and "there is no advantage in having enemies." Besides, in the restaurant business, even if you have a bad night, tomorrow night is another chance.

Hickenlooper has not endorsed the attempt to get a court to overturn what voters did in limiting, with a Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, the Legislature's ability to raise taxes.

He says, "We are such a purple state" — Colorado is about one-third Republican, one-third Democrat and one-third unaffiliated — "we can avoid the big fights." In spite of all the homogenizing forces of American life, from the population's mobility to mass media, regional differences remain remarkably durable.

Colorado, he says, "has always had a great receptiveness to fresh ideas," partly because people came here to get away from older places.

The United States is the only nation founded on a good idea — the pursuit of happiness — and, not coincidentally, it also was founded on beer.

Within two years of the founding of Jamestown in 1607, the colony wrote to London asking that a brewer be sent to Virginia. The Mayflower, which was looking for a haven farther south, landed at Plymouth Rock instead because, according to William Bradford's journals, "our victuals being much spent, especially our beer."

Jefferson brewed beer at Monticello and his boon companion, James Madison, diluted his limited-government convictions enough to consider a national brewery to provide an alternative to whiskey.

Manifest Destiny seems to have pointed toward Hickenlooper's Colorado.

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.






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