Public Service is NOT Amateur Hour

I had a disquieting exchange yesterday with a very nice woman who is apparently enamored of Ben Carson, and considers him qualified to be President. Because he’s a brain surgeon.

Carson–as political observers have noted and as his interviews have made painfully clear–is a seemingly nice man with no previous experience in government who has displayed a truly appalling ignorance of the issues America faces, the operation of our legal system and the current world situation.

And of course, I need not remind readers of this blog that the current front-runner for the Republican nomination is Donald Trump, who–in addition to sharing all of Carson’s deficiencies–is so monumentally narcissistic and un-self-aware that he is a walking joke.

Here’s the thing: none of us–including Ben Carson and Donald Trump–would hire someone to do a job who lacked any relevant experience, training or basic understanding of the most rudimentary requirements of the position. So why do so many Americans consider ignorance of how government works a virtue, and why do so many candidates seem to think that parading that ignorance should win them votes?

I teach in a school of public affairs. One of the majors we offer is public management–a course of study intended to prepare people for public sector positions. The skills we teach as essential for even entry-level bureaucrats include public finance (which–surprise!–is considerably different from balancing your checkbook), statistical analysis, the ways in which law constrains public policy, the effects of globalization, the operation of the policy process…the list goes on.

Like it or not, we live in a complicated world. Americans expect government to protect us from terrorists and e coli, to regulate utilities, to administer social insurance programs, to encourage economic development, to ensure that our air is breathable and our water drinkable, to prevent economic monopolies, to control air traffic, to wage our wars, to educate our children, to pave our streets and highways, and much more. Most of those functions require specialized expertise, and managing the public servants and contractors who provide these services is no small task.

Running a city, a state or a country is not a job for amateurs, or for people who have only the dimmest understanding of the  myriad foreign and domestic challenges the nation faces on a daily basis, and the often difficult and surprising interrelationships among them.

It isn’t brain surgery–and the ability to do brain surgery, or to star in a television reality show, doesn’t make someone even remotely competent to run a country in the 21st Century.


  1. So many Americans consider ignorance of how government works a virtue because they themselves are ignorant of how government works. Not knowing how it works they are at constant odds with their own government expecting to see it operate the way their imaginations have led them to believe. Too many politicians and would be politicians play to this with simplistic answers to complicated problems or bombastic statements or racism all vailed in nationalism and Christianity.

  2. I am new to this blog, so I am uncertain of the answer to this question, but here goes. Is your position on Carson consistent with your position 7-8 years ago? I noticed you did not cite current occupant as support of you emphasis on experience. I agree that Trump is just bluster, publicity, and ego and should not be President. Carson’s success as a brain surgeon has nothing to do with being a successful President, but he is not off my list because he is incredibly smart, has the strength of his convictions, and will surround himself with competence. He will appoint an attorney general who will enforce the law. He will find people to advise on economic problems who are not ideologues. He will not consider Secretary of State to be a patronage reward. The current President turned the entire health insurance industry upside down without a single medical professional in the mix. unlike the current President, If Carson thinks immigration and minimum wage are top priorities, he will not wait until his party is out of power in Congress to begin working on them.

  3. “Public Service is not Amateur Hour”

    Hoping not to bore you to death with another return to the Goldsmith mis-administration of this city but…he was a seasoned politician and crony to the upper echelon of the GOP…no amateur. He knowingly and deliberately placed amateurs in positions of authority throughout City government and brought in others from out of state; who better to easily lead where he wanted them to go than someone who knows nothing about the job they are handed or the city they work for? What will someone like Trump, and especially Carson, do if elected? Trump can throw elaborate parties for world leaders at his hotel/casinos and Carson will ask for decisions to be placed into his hands like surgical instruments. And, Sheila, you think you are jaundice!

    Goldsmith seemed to like former real estate agents; he replaced the competent Administrator of Planning and Zoning Division with the former Director of the Male Infertility Clinic at the IU Medical Center. Secretly and illegally named the Vice President of a Columbus, Ohio, Bank as Director of the Department of Metropolitan Development; the man didn’t even live here and spent only a few days a month in the office. I can’t remember the position of the man he named to replace the president of the Metropolitan Development Commission but…he knew nothing about what they did and the members had never heard of him…kept asking me who he was and where he came from. He asked me if there was written information to know how the Commission operated.

    Amateurs to political office will have no idea where to begin; but the old boy’s club of the Tea Party/GOP will gladly advise them. Especially now that Trump has finally Pledged his “Loyalty” to the Republicans.

  4. An educated, competent and ethical staff is the key. Remember, though, that the only job requirements for elected officials are age, residency and citizenship. Their job is much more values based and should take into account the recommendations of the expert staff.

  5. Hard to say who can do more damage an Amateur Politician or one that has been seasoned. Locally we have as JoAnn mentions Gold$mith who was experienced. Then we have the arrival of Amateur Ballard. Both Gold$mith and Ballard were and are exceedingly damaging.

    I always wondered that other than being the wife of the President what qualifications Hillary Clinton had when she ran for the New York Senate. That was quite a leap. Ike had never been elected to public office when he ran for President. Ronald Reagan was just an Ex-Actor, when he ran for Governor of California, and then we have Arnold.

  6. What about a presidential contest between Donald Trump, for the Republicans and Jerry Springer, for the Democrats. I think we’re headed in that direction. Do you all agree?

  7. I really believe that the path the the GOP has been forced down is due to one primary factor. The main factor is the very poor performance of their Presidents for half of the last 40 years. Nixon, Reagan, two Bushes (+ Cheney). That dismal streak by actual results has required them to make deals with devils in order to stay relevant. Oligarchs, evangelists, the NRA, southern democrats, and political strategists of the like of Lee Atwater, Karl Grove, and Roger Ailes and entertainers like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Michael Savage, etc. They have had to ally with those voters most easily misled and entertain the heck out of them to maintain their base. Then of course they maintained much of their base of congenital Republicans who aren’t even aware that there’s a choice of parties. Of course the incompetence of their Presidents has now spread to Congress and state and local government in many cases.

    They have no choice, no alternative at this point to the strategy of dragging government in general, the country, the successful Democratic politicians and especially the greatest American President, down to their level through their pseudo news media. That is all that their Ministry of Truth has been focused on for 40 years.

    When one looks at their almost complete lack of accomplishment for those 40 years, in fact the depths to which they’ve dragged us you have to admit that their strategy has been successful. Despite near utter failure they are still hanging on. A political miracle.

    One diversionary tactic has been the deification of business in their service to oligarchy. Business is not politics. It is closer to military with their absolute hierarchical organization.

    When professional politicians are honest, rare though that may be, I’m sure that they would agree that no American President has had better preparation for the job than Barak Obama with perhaps Dwight Eisenhower and Jack Kennedy following. And that shows in their performance in office.

    Ben Carson in his prime would be high on my list for neurosurgery but has virtually no experience relative to being President. I think that his next career will be as a successful TV evangelist like Mike Huckabee.

    America is being led astray by the GOP desperately trying to recover from years completely devoted to politics but devoid of governance. They’ve lost it. We should all hope for their recovery but it seems years off.

    Governance requires expertise in law, economics, diplomacy, science, education, military, yes politics, leadership, public relations, organization, networking, history, culture, and grace under enormous pressure.

    I’m afraid that the candidates that seem to the best that the GOP could muster all fall way short of remotely qualified. And their Ministry of Truth is finding itself exposed to more and more scrutiny.

    They will like many addicted have to collapse and rebuild. I wish them success.

  8. i agree with your premise but what public policy experts frequently miss is the importance of populism in the US both now and in the past. As a NY Times columnist recently explained, our decentralized two-party federal system (when it works) allows two partisan elites to govern through compromises within a system of checks and balances. When that system deadlocks or ignores popular concerns, political insurgents mount populist campaigns against the two-party establishment. The populist protests are not about competency and they don’t focus on policy. Left-wing (Sanders) or right-wing (Trump), they focus on anger and resentment and they ultimately fail at the polls in our winner-take-all system. They succeed only in the degree to which one or both of the two parties adapt their policies and cater to their concerns. At the moment, Democrats are accommodating their populists. However, the Republican Party elite has encouraged and used the GOP’s populist-wing but still treated them in a patronizing manner. Now, two populist candidates (Trump and Carson) have the party elite on the run. Public policy experts don’t seem to understand that this insurgency isn’t about policy and administrative experience. Coxey’s Army, the Know Nothings, James Weaver, Huey Long, Free Soilers, George Wallace, the Occupy Movement — populism has a long history in the US. I would trace it as far back as the conflicts between The Regulators and The Scovilittes in South Carolina in the 1760’s. So even as you and I agree on the importance of political/administrative competence, we’re describing an issue that is irrelevant to the populists and ignoring their real concerns. This is about politics at its rawest, not about policy.

  9. Republicans should have been forced AWAY from the path they have taken due to the actions and consequences of Nixon, Reagan, two Bushes (+Cheney) – in lives and money – that we are all paying for now with no end in sight even if we put Democrats in more Congressional seats and the White House.

  10. To Ken Glass:
    “The current President turned the entire health insurance industry upside down without a single medical professional in the mix. “????
    Actually, all the large medical insurers are prospering quite healthily under the new law. Their lobbyists were quite involved in the crafting of the legislation. Indeed there are many people who believe that the major flaw in the Affordable Care Act is that it did not go far enough in the direction of replacing profit-driven third parties. And perhaps you need to check the credentials of Ezekiel Emmanuel before you claim “not a single medical professional”…

  11. Let’s get back to reality and Nancy’s idea of Sheila running for President.

    Let’s face it, men have already screwed up everything. This is the time for a woman to be President. But who do we have running as a Democrat, Hillary Clinton with a noose around her neck over her personal E-mail account. She’ll never win. Let’s use our “TRUMP CARD.”

    Sheila, do we have to stop?

  12. Nancy,

    It’s so obvious, that it didn’t cross my mind until you suggested it.

    I own the URL: That might be a starter. Trump doesn’t own the word “trump.” It’ll receive a lot of hits from various search engines.

    We can start raising money thru crowd funding, I forgot the name of the site.

    And it should be very easy to come up with a terrific video. Maybe we can get George Clooney to help. He understands powerful women. I’ve never met him, but he was a partner of my partner, Professor Harvey Wheeler. What about a short female version of “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” on youtube.

    Sheila will win. The only baggage Sheila has is that she is HONEST.

  13. Marv Kramer sounds like a “boots on the ground” Republican war-mongering candidate. “Let America do it” Netan-yahoo loves him, I’ll bet.
    Barack Obama and John Kerry should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for choosing diplomacy the value of which George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and others never learned choosing to spend blood and treasure for what? They have to smear Hillary: she is the most qualified.
    Great posting again by Pete today.

  14. Ben Carson might get appointed to the Trump cabinet but why in the world would a “skilled neurosurgeon” who can collect big fees for probing into the human brain ever want to enter the fray of Republican politics”? Somebody counsel him that surgery is relatively clean work and something he already knows how to do.

  15. OMG,

    I’m not responsible for smearing Hillary Clinton, she is. By her own mistake. I’m the last person in the world that Netanyahu would ever love.

    You’re pretty good at smearing yourself. What does “OMG'” stand for?

  16. Don, you and many others use the term “populist” but I wonder how well it’s defined. Obviously democracy is based on populism because, at least roughly, the person with the most votes wins. Is that by definition the populist candidate?

    Your term “partisan elites” I assume means those candidates who have ingratiated themselves to party leaders and therefore enjoy a larger helping of party resources in their campaigns. Valuable for sure but only to the degree it renders them populist. Right?

    I think that the real question for our future is, is it possible for candidates anymore to transcend party affiliation? Given the hold that the Ministry of Truth has on the media I would say that if one is a Republican only good things will be broadcast and if one is a Democrat only bad things. So the use of media and pseudo news is inherently polarizing and institutionalizes partisan politics (as we’ve seen over the last 40 years.

    As a huge fan of democracy I’m worried about the whole trajectory of the Republican Party. I’m afraid what we’re seeing is continued failure at governance hardening their need for “political tricks” to stay relevant.

  17. At this stage of the campaign it’s mostly the passionate being heard from. As time goes on more and more seasoned adults will enter the fray and we’ll get more and more insight into the sorting out process.

    I personally would be surprised if that does not boil down to Hillary and Jeb, the seasoned politicos.

    Overall in that race the “Clinton” name will be a + and the “Bush” name a minus to the degree that truth and actual results prevail. And I believe that the country’s trajectory is bending towards truth now. In climate change in wealth redistribution in race relations and in diplomacy vs war people are starting to think for themselves and abandoning opinion TV.

    Overall not a bad race but first we have to listen to the clowns strut their stuff and make their bucks before being flushed

  18. Ben Carson is a brilliant neurosurgeon who separated the first twins conjoined at the head in 1987, BUT nobody has to be concerned about him possibly becoming president. The hatred that has been thrown at the Obamas over healthcare and everything else about them indicates very strongly that no Black President will be considered again probably ever in our lifetimes. Maybe a Latino but another Black President? Ain’t gonna happen! Qualifications be damned! Prejudice never dies easily and in the USA it definitely has not died yet!

  19. Why is this a surprise? The “conservatives” have been trying to hold back progress since the loyalists favored King George over George Washington. Government, particularly democratic government, can implement progress in a meaningful way, therefore government is the enemy. The anti-progress people have always been the same: those with a stake in the way things are and those of limited IQ for whom change is scary. Kochs + tea party. Pretty simple.

  20. I did not say that big insurance companies did not like ACA. In fact, the provision “limiting” profits guarantees that there will not be new companies ever. Not affordable, can’t keep your coverage, can’t keep your doctor, doctors leaving the profession in droves and most of the “gains” in coverage come from expanded Medicaid. Most of you seem excited about “professional” politicians. The pros gave us a war on poverty than has successfully maintained the poverty rate at 15% for 50 years. They also gave us a department of energy with the sole mission of reducing dependence on foreign oil. In the first 35 years of that agency, the dependency rate doubled. Then there is the department of education with cabinet level status resulting in steady declines in our world ranking in education. Please save me from the pros!

  21. I have been saying this for years. Why shouldn’t those who run for office have to take a test to see if they are capable of doing the job if they win? Some go into the job with no clue of what the job entails then cleans house of the prior administration’s employees who did know the job. The elected official then completely revises the job to be what they want rather than what the job was meant to be.

  22. Ken, I just couldn’t disagree with you more.

    Let’s see……ACA. I guess that you were OK with covering the medical expenses of those who simply chose not to insure, as long as it was hidden away in your medical expenses,right? And absorbing their bankruptcies and welfare when the poop hit the fan. I was not, so ACA was a tiny finger in the hole in the dike to me of our most expensive healthcare in the world by far. Hopefully it will lead ultimately to the solution that virtually every other developed country in the world uses to avoid the economic disaster that you are so accepting of.

    I guess you thought that poverty could be eliminated despite the fact that no other country has. It’s too bad business isn’t as capable as you hoped and leaves so many un and under employed because the haves make more by using foreign slave labor and have American taxpayers pay the cost of poverty.

    Oh and DOE having the sole mission of reducing dependence on foreign oil? Are you kidding? Incoming Ken, our energy supply and consumption is virtually 100% based on make more money regardless of the cost to others. It’s business not government. And people like you scream government over reach when government take a moderate role in things like CAFE standards.

    What we need to be saved from Ken is business finding ways to avoid competition. Of make more money regardless of the cost to others. Of privatized profits and socialized risk. Of oligarchy. Of take make waste with the tax payers footing the waste bill.

    You see Ken, Reagan lied. The problem is not government. It was him not knowing America.

  23. Pete! Haven’t you read? The walkin ER visits have increased, health care is less available, premiums are way up, and, as I said before, doctors are leaving in droves. As for poverty, if you will check history, you will see that the poverty rate was in steady decline from 1950-1965. Enter the war on poverty which saw a few years of decline followed by a climb back to 15% where it has stayed ever since, in spite of $10-30 trillion spent to end poverty. When “evil” business owners embark on a strategy to solve a problem, they assess and adjust. Government just keeps going

  24. I am not surprised that amateurs are surging in the polls when the candidates with public-office experience are endorsing violating court rulings and laws. Walker, Jindal and even Bush are do desperate to cater to the Christian Right in their support of Kim Davis that they cease to be credible to the general electorate.

  25. Ken the cost of health care goes up every year. More people with insurance doesn’t cause that, more expensive treatments do. That and zero competition.

    How about some evidence of “doctors are leaving in droves”. You’re saying more business causes Drs to leave the profession?

    As for poverty read all about the failure of business to provide employment for every body or pay them a living wage.

    The government can’t eliminate poverty. They can only prevent people from starving to death while waiting for businesses to provide living wage jobs. Are you saying that letting them starve is a better bet?

    I don’t frankly know why you call business owners “evil”. Like every category of people they are a similar mix. Good, bad, competent, incompetent, honest, thieves, a little bit of everything. Just like government, any profession, religion, bowlers, foreign countries, genders, races, any group.

    You suffer from conservativitis. A debilitating condition causing excessive whining and no problem solving. The main reason for the republicans complete lack of any progress for America over the last 40 years.

    We need problem solving not whining.

  26. Max, Mrs Davis would like to use her Faith as an excuse for her unwillingness to do her job and her contempt for American law and courts. She might get away with that in a theocracy like Iran but not here.

  27. Remember the “melting pot”? One people living under similar ideals like equality and freedom. One man one vote. Old Americans, new Americans, educated more or less, diverse races and religions and backgrounds. The land of opportunity. Home of the brave and free. Home of the American worker, and educator and inventor and business owner and householder.

    All torn asunder by turning over politics to entertainers who issue whatever opinion pays best.

  28. To be sure, there are good and bad governmental policymakers who are experienced, but I’d rather have someone with experience than without – especially at the federal level. The federal government is complicated enough to understand and manage, but then there’s the need to understand the various balances of power internationally that keep us a whisker short of nuclear destruction.

    Besides experience, national leadership in the highest office in our land also requires a judicious temperament. Bullies, braggarts, the ultra-thinned skinned, and shoot-from-the-hip headline grabbers can set off not just powder kegs but nuclear destruction of the planet.

    I used to think Dr. Carson had that temperament and was an honest broker, but he has shown he’s quite capable of pandering and over-reacting. He’s a doctor whose training and research are based on evolution, but he says he doesn’t believe in evolution. He said being gay is absolutely a choice since people go into prison straight and come out gay. He would defund Planned Parenthood for honoring a patient’s decision to donate fetal tissue to research, yet he published a medical paper based on his own use of aborted fetuses for the research.

    He’s in over his head. Running for office is very hard, but serving as President is perhaps the most difficult job on the planet. It’s not the place for beginners.

  29. Americans need to be educated concerning the differences between a candidate who will serve as a figurehead for their political party and a candidate trained to succeed in political office without political party control.

  30. Dr. Carson running for the presidential nomination reminds me of an acquaintance of mine long ago whose uncle was a judge and father was mayor of Indianapolis…or vice versa…I won’t mention the name. Some may remember the article in the Star the day after the election in November 2001 (I think); she had been elected County Surveyor, probably on her name, I wasn’t aware she was running for office but would love to know her platform. When asked what she would do as County Surveyor she responded, “I know nothing about surveying so will depend on my staff to handle that. I will use my elected position title to continue my social work.” Maybe Dr. Carson plans to drum up brain surgery jobs from his political campaign publicity…just sayin’

  31. Only the most partisan people will buy this argument. It sounds good but is fundamentally elitist, and helps make the opposing argument that the “professionals” have gotten us infinite debt, a broken Washington, and all the conditions we currently suffer.

    And as it’s said, why would doing the same thing result in a different outcome?

  32. And simply as a follow up, a leader does not have to know the details: they need to surround themselves with trusted advisors and in the end make and present the decision.

    Through History, great leaders were rarely bred for the part, but were often outsiders who stepped up at the right time. They were people with conviction, an absolute dedication to the truth, and an inner strength.

    One of the hallmarks of our system is to put the Military under Civilian leadership. Think about that in the context of your commentary.

  33. Pete! I late responding to your last post. I agree that we need problem solving. Government’s history of problem-solving is abysmal and the real problem is there is never any accountability. President Kennedy wanted a program that would lift people out of poverty and after 50 years therecarectwicevas many people living in poverty. 30 trillion dollars to lift 20-50 million people out of poverty seems excessive with no one assessing success or failure, don’t you think?

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