Thursday, July 20, 2006

In His Grave, Orwell Does Another 180

It's annoying when conservatives try to claim the mantle of George Orwell--that proud, committed socialist--especially since they almost invariably distort his real attitudes and beliefs in the process.

Andrew Sullivan is a chronic offender. Here he quotes his own description (from the pre-Iraq-war debate) of opponents of the war as being "objectively pro-Saddam," then here he defends it on the grounds that he is merely echoing "Orwell's original usage."

It's true that Sullivan has stolen a verbal formula originated by Orwell. But when Orwell wrote in his famous essay on Gandhi that "pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist," it was 1942. The UK had been at war for three years. It stood virtually alone in Europe against the vast armies of three allied totalitarian regimes that had overrun country after country and were clearly bent on world conquest.

In the context of an ongoing global struggle in which both sides had millions of men fighting for sheer national survival, there was justification for Orwell's remark. Once a total war is under way, sides must be chosen. And while I don't share Orwell's judgment that Gandhi's pacifism was irresponsible, I understand and respect his point of view.

Sullivan chose to echo Orwell in the very different context of 2003. Not only was the US not yet at war against Saddam, but Iraq clearly posed no mortal threat to our country--and perhaps no threat at all. The question then was not which side to support in an ongoing struggle to the death; it was whether there was any compelling need to launch a war against a nation that had attacked no one in many years. Under the circumstances, writing that opponents of the war were "objectively pro-Saddam" was merely a version of Bush's "with us or against us" rhetoric given a pseudo-intellectual veneer by the echo of Orwell.

Parroting the language of your betters doesn't elevate you to their level. Andrew, you're no George Orwell.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

MBA Government: Using Public Power for Private Ends

In The New Republic, Clay Risen is of course correct to say that the collapse of the Bush administration demonstrates (among other things) the failure of the notion of the "MBA presidency." In retrospect, the more remarkable thing is that anyone would think that business principles represent a valid model for democratic governance in the first place. (And I write this as a person who has dedicated most of the last two decades of his life to writing and editing books about business principles.)

Oh, I know: The longing for an MBA president (which produced, in past decades, the illusory political boomlets for people like Perot and Iacocca) has obvious roots, especially the perceived inefficiency of government as contrasted with the perceived efficiency of private enterprise. (Actually there is just as much waste, fraud, etc. in the private sector as in government--sometimes a lot more.) And great business thinkers like Peter Drucker can certainly teach government leaders a thing or two about specific skills like increased productivity, customer-centered service, innovative information management, and so on.

But the idea that business management and government management are one and the same is ludicrous. Business management is about finding ways for companies to earn a large and growing profit by selling products and services to customers in a competitive marketplace. Government is about serving the needs of the citizens. The differences that flow from this basic divergence are huge:

  • Government is not about making a profit. If it were, the acknowledged goal of every administration would be to rack up the largest possible fiscal surplus. (Whereas Bush was so horrified by the existence of the Clinton surplus that he demanded massive tax cuts "to return the people's money.")
  • Government doesn't take in money by selling products and services (except in a very, very minor way, as when the Smithsonian Institution sells souvenir books in its guest shop). It takes in money through taxation--i.e., by force of law.
  • Government doesn't compete with any other organization (again, except in very minor or indirect ways, as when national parks "compete" with private resorts for leisure travelers). In fact, trying to set up a competitive government is called treason (the Confederate States did this a while back, as you may recall).
  • Governments can compel private individuals to obey them (within the confines of the law, generally speaking). Businesses can compel no one; they can only persuade.

If government is supposed to be run like a business, and the president is the CEO, what are the citizens? Are they the shareholders? (Then where are their dividend checks? And where do they sell their shares if they want to do so?) Are they the customers? (Then how do they switch brands, or ask for a refund if the product is faulty?) Maybe they're the raw materials that get fed into one end of the factory so that profits can be generated at the other end . . .

Given that the purposes, structure, mode of action, and arena of operations of government are all totally different than those of business, why exactly did anyone in the media or academia ever buy into the bogus notion that an MBA would be better equipped to run the government than a politician?

Perhaps the most important difference between government and business has to do with accountability. Both are accountable to the public, but that accountability is embodied in dramatically different forms. Government officials are chosen by the people either directly, through elections, or indirectly, through appointment by those who have been elected. To keep them responsive to the popular will, those officials are supposed to operate in public and faithfully observe restrictions on their power that are established by law and the Constitution and enforced through the system of checks and balances.

Businesses, on the other hand, are established by individuals who appoint themselves as leaders and organize the businesses in pursuit of their personal objectives. They can operate in relative secrecy and can do whatever the hell they want with the business (within very roomy legal limits). If Steve Jobs and his management team decide to stop making iPods and switch to manufacturing glow-in-the-dark neckties instead, they can do it. (And the ties would probably become cult classics overnight.) The only accountability pressure business leaders face--and it's enormous--comes from the marketplace: Will the people buy the stuff you sell or not? If not, you'll soon be out of business.

It's interesting to note that the Bush administration's basic method is to circumvent both forms of accountability by cherry-picking elements from government culture and business culture as they like. They certainly believe in exercising government power, with a vengeance--invading foreign countries, handing out taxpayer-funded contracts to cronies and partisan supporters, expanding police powers and curtailing civil liberties, and using unlimited debt to support expansive public spending on the projects they favor.

But they mimic the private sector in insisting on boardroom-like secrecy for their deliberations, corporate-style "discipline," "loyalty," and "sticking to message" from their subordinates, and use of the entire organization to foster their personal strategies and goals--much as a beleaguered CEO may marshal the resources of the company, from lawyers and PR flacks to marketers and financiers, in his defense.

If carried to its logical conclusion, the Bush method would create a sinister hybrid in which government is a mafia-like private enterprise that wields uncontrolled public power.

Thank God the Bush people may not be allowed to achieve that end, since we still have free elections in this country (I think).

And as one small element in the ongoing struggle, let's hope that the near-total discrediting of the Bush administration will go a long way toward dispelling the meretricious glamour that has hung around the notion of "running government like a business" for such a long time.

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Friday, July 07, 2006

A New Way of Evading Global Warming Realities

Now that conservatives who pride themselves on their self-image as thoughtful and open-minded, like economist Robert J. Samuelson, have been forced by the overwhelming weight of evidence to admit the reality of human-caused global warming, they are groping for a fallback political position that will allow them to continue to resist any actual response to the problem.

Here is Samuelson's effort. After detailing some of the technological and economic difficulties in the way of solving the intertwined climate/energy challenges facing a growing and modernizing world, he concludes:

The trouble with the global warming debate is that it has become a moral crusade when it's really an engineering problem. The inconvenient truth is that if we don't solve the engineering problem, we're helpless.
Samuelson's dichotomy between "moral crusade" and "engineering problem" is a neat way of caricaturing and marginalizing Al Gore and other Democrats who are confronting the problem, but it's totally bogus.

Apparently Samuelson hasn't noticed that solving a massive engineering problem with enormous, complex social, business, and political implications calls for political will . . . a commitment by the nation to finding workable technological solutions and then investing the time, energy, and money into making the necessary adjustments in lifestyles, business mores, and regulations that adopting those solutions calls for.

And creating that political will in a world where massive financial interests, conservative ideology, and the sheer inertia of ingrained habits all militate against such a shift will require a dramatic, forceful, effective PR effort aimed at mobilizing national understanding, interest, and concern. One might even call it a kind of "moral crusade."

By disavowing any interest in the "moral" (i.e. ethical, social, and political) aspects of the problem and insisting that it be addressed purely as a bloodless technocratic challenge for engineers, people like Samuelson are guaranteeing that the resources needed to solve the engineering challenge will never be made available.

I wrote above that "Samuelson hasn't noticed" these obvious realities. I take it back. A much more accurate phrasing would be "Samuelson chooses not to notice." His Wa Po column continues to represent one of our country's more irresponsible wastes of valuable journalistic real estate.

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Either We Have a Free Press or We Don't

In today's Wa Po, David Ignatius ponders the dilemma of how journalists should deal with information allegedly linked to national security:

We journalists usually try to argue that we have carefully weighed the pros and cons and believe that the public benefit of disclosure outweighs any potential harm. The problem is that we aren't fully qualified to make those judgments.
True. But right-wing Republicans, control freaks, and others who want to undermine freedom of the press rarely consider the question: What is the alternative? If journalists aren't going to decide what they should or shouldn't print, who will?

Do we want the government making those decisions? It's patently obvious what would happen then: The administration will happily trumpet any news it thinks is politically beneficial while covering up or lying about any news it fears will hurt them politically. (And this is more or less true no matter what party happens to be in power.) In short order, people will learn not to believe anything in the news--which of course is exactly what happens in totalitarian states where the media are controlled by the government. Does anyone think this would be a desirable state of affairs, or an improvement over the current situation?

And ultimately, these are the only two options--to let journalists run their own shops, or to hand control of the media over to government. In the long run, there are no in-between or compromise positions. Sometimes you hear people talk about creating some sort of "board" or "institute" or "foundation" that will issue "guidelines" or "directives" or "rulings" limiting press freedom. But this just kicks the problem of ultimate control down the road a few yards. If this "board" is fundamentally answerable to the newspapers and media companies themselves--and relatively immune to government pressure--then we have a variation on today's system, only one with less diversity and variety. Conversely, if the board is fundamentally under the government's thumb, then we are simply handing over control of the press to the administration, only with a fig leaf of phony independence.

In one sense Ignatius is right--journalists aren't "fully qualified" to make all-wise decisions about publishing information related to national security. But neither is anyone else--and especially not our self-interested, politically-motivated government leaders themselves. In the end, there's really no viable alternative to having the press run by . . . yes, the press.

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