Seize Authority, Shirk Responsibility

Years ago, working full time and about midway through law school, I took a new job: more interesting work, flexible hours, and a project I could really sink my teeth into. Management gave me full responsibility for its successful completion; what they didn’t give me was any authority to shape the outcome. I had an hourlong talk about it with the area VP whose response to me was simply, “You will graduate and leave here in a year, so I don’t see any reason to make you happy.” The next day I submitted my resignation. Two years later the project failed precisely because my successor wasn’t permitted to make any critical decisions along the path. He had accountability but no authority; the results were a botched implementation and a lawsuit for wrongful termination.

Accountability and authority cannot be divorced from each other. In a well-run organization, individuals will be motivated to excel: their decisions are tested but not arbitrarily overridden by management, and failure is tolerated, up to a point, as an opportunity to learn and grow. Good managers know what they don’t know; and what they do know is that their subordinates often have better technical skills than they do — and in fact they almost always should. It’s not the CEO’s job to skillfully turn out widgets (though she should have a general knowledge of the widget-manufacturing process), it is her job to ensure that employees at every level have the resources they need to succeed and more. Put another way: line workers make widgets, managers make decisions.

The administration of Donald Trump turns this model upside down and inside out. Trump wants complete authority with no responsibility: the consequences of his actions can’t be laid at his door, and he is unaccountable for anything. At least, that is how it works in the fantasy world of Donald Trump — aided and abetted by both his lackeys in the White House and the Congressional bootlicks who put party above patriotism, career above country. In Trump’s world the Constitution of the United States grants the president not just authority but power: the power to do “whatever I want.” (This is not the language or rhetoric of democracy, and Republicans who decried previous (Democratic) presidents’ use of executive orders as “authoritarian overreach” should be seething in anger. That they are not speaks loudly of their commitment to principle and to the rule of law.) In the current crisis — incredibly enough, the first in three years not of Trump’s own making — his aversion to actual decision-making (what CEOs are paid to make) and shirking of responsibility have come into sharp focus for everyone.

In any business a Board of Directors faced with such C-level incompetence and mismanagement would fire the offending executive. Given the lack of interest, among Republican senators, to hold Trump and his administration accountable for the commission of actual crimes — bribery and extortion, not to mention Constitutionally-prohibited emoluments foreign and domestic — there is no way to hold him accountable for this. The only remedy left is for the voter-shareholders to fire both the executive and his enablers at every level of government. Incompetence and decision-avoidance are the stepsisters of grift and corruption; all four are brazen hallmarks of this administration. Corruption is always a problem in government, but in Trump and McConnell’s hands it is the governing principle.

Not everyone is cut out to be a manager, just as not everyone is equipped to be a carpenter, a sculptor, a musician, or an auto worker. People have different interests and skillsets which will intersect and interact in unique ways. Some people, it turns out, aren’t really equipped — by temperament, by skill, or by experience — to do much of anything at all. November 3, 2020 is the day we tell all of them, “You’re fired.”

Calvin Coolidge and The Business of Government

“The business of government is business.” Coolidge didn’t say that, exactly: what he said was, “The business of the American people is business.” In today’s Republican Party (indeed, the Republican Party of the last half-century at least) that is a distinction without a difference. We have, in this country — in the world — an awful lot of people who have taken much too literally the adage that “the government that governs least, governs best.” The GOP has, since that day in 1986 when Ronald Reagan — President of the United States, leader of the free world, and his own government’s Chief Executive Officer — declared war on the idea that government had anything useful to offer. “The nine most terrifying words in the English language,” he declared to a cheering crowd, “are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help!’” It was a great applause line, and it certainly caught on. But it begs the question which too few thought to ask at the time: If you don’t believe in government, why are you in it? And, mightn’t the energy and effort required to dismantle government be better spent improving it?

I have always understood Coolidge’s line — even, or maybe especially in its misquoted form — to mean that government, to be successful, must create and preserve the conditions that allow and enable its citizens (and their businesses) to thrive. Government’s role is to build out and maintain essential infrastructure: good roads, clean water, adequate sewerage, excellent schools. This infrastructure must be available to all regardless of station or stature. Established firms will rely on it; entrepreneurs will leverage it.

And when there is a disaster — a 100-year storm, say — government has to step in to provide emergency assistance to those suddenly in need: a roof, a meal, a helping hand with cleanup and rebuilding. Floods, being local matters, are generally left to the state governments; the federal government, with its wider reach and greater resources, provides a backstop whenever necessary.

Well, now it is necessary: we have a global pandemic that in three months has infected over 1 million Americans and killed over 56,000; to say nothing of the millions of other people around the world. And where is the federal government, whose coordinating role is essential to preventing the spread, mitigating the damage, and developing a vaccine? “I take no responsibility at all,” says Donald Trump. And, “It is up to the governors to decide when to reopen their states.” Reopen?? We’ve barely begun to understand how this new virus spreads let alone its mechanisms for ravaging the body; a speedy return to business as usual almost certainly will mean a second wave of infections and another tsunami of job losses and economic devastation. The “cure” of reopening will surely be worse than the disease of stay-at-home orders, quarantine, and social distancing.

Instead of a single, coordinated, and effective response to this crisis we have fifty separate jurisdictions each managing its own response; they have given up pleading with the federal government for leadership or even a single supply chain for essential medical equipment like protective gear and ventilators.  A crisis response regime under which the states must compete against each other in a world market for scarce resources while FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — sits back or, worse, seizes shipments arriving in New York for domestic redistribution by well-connected private companies? That’s not a system of government by and for the people, it’s kleptocracy and just one small step away from anarchy. That’s profiteering, aided and abetted by the feds.

“When you drown the government in a bathtub, people die.” That arresting headline in The Washington Post’s opinion pages got my attention a couple of weeks ago, because it is so very true. Sure, small government is great, and the government that governs least, governs best. Until there is a crisis. Until you actually need a government to step in and do what only governments can do. When that government is filled with apparatchiks and cronies, with people whose only purpose in being in government is to shrink it further, with men and women without relevant experience but who will pledge undying loyalty to the cult leader, the enormous and deadly consequences should surprise exactly nobody.

There is plenty more that big government can and should do; I hope to explore that soon. It seems I’ll have plenty of time because the governor of my state — unlike the governors of at least a few other states, and unlike the president — is proceeding with very sensible caution. He knows what he doesn’t know, and when he needs to rely on expert advice from epidemiologists and crisis managers who have spent years training themselves for this. (The day-to-day manager of the HHS coronavirus task force has also spent years training — labradoodles.)

Government exists to improve the lives of all people, not just a few. Because the business of government isn’t business: it’s governing. At the end of the day, competence and relevant experience matter.