The Delta Stewardship Council is not a business.

While I’m at it, I want to address a meme I’ve heard floating around the DSC finance meetings. I’ve heard Mr. Fiorini and others recommend treating the DSC finance plan like a “business plan”, one that tracks expenditures and prioritizes projects by the value they create. At some level, this is incontrovertible. I too am in favor of good accounting and acknowledge that we don’t have that now. I am heartily in favor of projects that create larger societal value. These are good practices for either businesses or governments. But the metaphor (DSC finance plan should be like a business plan) is as dangerous and misguided as comparing the federal government to a household (that should live within an austere budget during recessions).

Governments and their subsidiary agencies are not businesses. The purpose of a business is to sell goods or services at enough profit to continue to exist. The purpose of a government agency is to implement the aggregate will of the people, as expressed through the votes of their elected representatives. (These are likely to be the types of non-exchangeable benefits that business either cannot provide at a profit or incidentally destroy, like good air quality.) Governments should create value for the society they serve, but they will generally not do so in ways that lead to a direct profit that they can collect. A business plan would be a failure if it doesn’t identify a profit, but that criteria doesn’t apply to the Delta Plan.

More specifically for the Delta Plan, it is worth remembering what the Delta Plan has to achieve. The activities that the Delta Plan must fund generally fall into three categories: correcting the environmental damage caused by the negative externalities of our water and land use; bringing current deferred maintenance on a giant scale; and countering the scarcity-inducing effects of climate change. Those are not profitable activities. They are simply things that need to be purchased with a pot of money from somewhere. The DSC is not a business selling something here; it is the buyer of a whole bunch of changes and decreased risk. It could have a “spending plan”, but it cannot have a “business plan”.

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