The Price of Success

by Dave Schuler on June 3, 2014

James Taranto makes a good point: if the cause of the lousy management we’ve had for the lasty decade or so at the federal level is structural problems in the federal government, viewing the federal government as the primary vehicle for effecting change smacks of Maslow’s Hammer:

If Klein is right to find fault with the structure of the federal government, then the federal government in its current form cannot be “the primary answer to the nation’s ills.” Fundamental restructuring of the federal government is another necessary condition for progressivism’s success.

To agree that these are necessary conditions is not to establish that they would be sufficient ones. But that’s an abstract point. If progressivism cannot succeed absent these two exceedingly unlikely contingencies, it is as well to say it cannot succeed. The problem is ideology, not just competence.

I think our problems are more complicated than that. Recent presidents haven’t been recruited from among army generals or successful private sector managers. They’ve been bureaucrats, apparatchiks, and career politicians without meaningful managerial experience. For more effective government we’d need to change the structure of the federal government, our political system, and just about everything else about our society. That’s so high a price I can’t imagine it happening.

So expect more incompetence and expect it good and hard.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

James Joyner June 3, 2014 at 8:37 am

Exactly right. Our system is such that we almost invariably select amateurs to run the Executive branch. Our presidents tend to be former governors with next to no foreign policy experience, little knowledge of how Washington works, and only cursory familiarity with most domestic policy issues. Our cabinet secretaries seldom have any expertise in their department’s functional area and generally zero management experience. And we seem to like it that way.

Jimbino June 3, 2014 at 10:01 am

Our recent presidents are drawn from that class of politicos who are at once religious, ignorant of math and science, monolingual (sometimes barely so) and circumcised. The current members of SCOTUS are no different, except that they are not only all religious, but are all either Roman Catholic or Jewish.

It won’t happen in my lifetime, but I long for the return of a Jefferson–irreligious, skilled in math and science, multi-lingual and uncircumcised. How about an Angela Merkel, irreligious, with doctorate in science, multi-lingual and uncircumcised?

Guarneri June 3, 2014 at 5:06 pm

It seems to me James has just laid out the primary reason (which I’ve been saying for 20+ years and for the last 6 here and/or OTB) for a more limited, less intrusive government. Further, it doesn’t stop as we go down to cabinet heads. Further still, I don’t care if its structural or “just not the right people” as Dems and corporatist Republicans tend to rationalize, the results are poor. And what does one expect? BTW – given poll results I don’t think that’s the way we like it, but rather its the way many have been conditioned: look to Mommy government, and then act surprised when Lucy pulls the football. I can see only one solution that might – might – help both in Congress and the presidency: term limits. Mistakes don’t last as long, and the desire to meddle for re-election purposes is minimized.

Switching gears, the world waits for no one. It is what it is and must be dealt with. So foreign policy matters more than the electorate imagines and the stakes of James’ observation of amateurism are high. But again, if you are conditioned to believe that government is primarily a mechanism for redistribution or creating “well-being,” (listen to the speeches, people; just listen to the speeches) your eyes will glaze over at the candidate who switches from promising you candy to droning on about, say, the emerging dynamics in SE Asia.

As a last observation, I often draw parallels between corporate governance and executive ability and government. Although not preferred, I’ve seen many competent executives who have spent careers making vanilla widgets and who do not know crappola about chocolate widgets come in and do a fine job in a chocolate widget environment. There are transferable things called fundamentals: organization skills, leadership skills, functional skills, executive hiring skills, project management skills etc. You can apply these as you learn the specifics. Its one of the reasons I thought the country got snookered by the pretty smile, the smooth tongue and the inane promises of the current president. There is, and was, no there, there.

PD Shaw June 3, 2014 at 7:26 pm

I’m not sure what Ezra Klein means by a structural problem, but I hunted up his piece and it’s pretty good: Obama’s Management Problem

By structural problem he means there is an inherent conflict btw/ politically appointed managers and career civil servants. The problem Klein believes occurs when mistakes are made and the POTUS is far more likely to blame distant civil servants than management with whom he is more familiar. I don’t think this is at all unique to government, let alone the federal government. Its an issue with large hierarchical organizations.

Presidents need to appoint people with good management skills, but Obama has been let down by a general appointed to the V.A., and a governor appointed to DHS. I’m not sure what happened, and I’m pretty sure we won’t know while Obama is still President, but its not obvious to me that these were bad prospects.

PD Shaw June 3, 2014 at 7:33 pm

@James, our system was built for George Washington, a non-partisan “Patriot King,” who listened to multiple views, didn’t demean anybody of forget that he represents all of the people, and exhibited disinterested judgment and discretion. You can pretty much ascertain how a President is underachieving the office by comparison, not because Washington was the smartest guy in the room or familiar with all of the intricacies of a policy issue, but because of that design.

steve June 3, 2014 at 9:01 pm

What private sector business guys also performed well in government? Cant think of any offhand, but I am a little fried. Anyone? I can certainly think of some who flopped.


Guarneri June 3, 2014 at 10:29 pm

I think you once again miss the essential point, steve. The skills that make one a good politician (in the sense of getting elected – this appears to be Reynold’s criteria) are not the same that make good policymaking guys or executives. Hence, a large and influential government is doomed by basic design – it attracts the wrong executors. Obama won by being a great politician. And then he did a belly flop because he’s an empty suit, and not nearly as bright as given credit for. Hillary would do the same.

The best example recently of someone – a politician – who could operate in the space was Bill Clinton. A governor and policy wonk. He was a dishonest creep, but he could operate in the space.

... June 4, 2014 at 11:20 am

What private sector business guys also performed well in government?

What career politician has performed well in government?

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