Tag Archives: experience

I Was Wrong

During the Democratic primary–as regular readers of this blog will remember–I was pretty adamant about America’s need for generational change. I was convinced that both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were simply too old to tackle the monumental task of rescuing the nation (or what is left of it in the wake of the train wreck that is the Trump administration). I thought that a restoration of hope, of possibility, required a younger, more energetic, more “woke” set of actors.

What I failed to take into account was the immense importance of competence borne of experience, especially at a juncture as perilous as the one we approach.You would think that–as an old woman myself–I would have recognized the value of lessons learned over a lifetime, many of them the hard way.

The Democrats have a truly impressive “bench” of very smart, very idealistic young people: Mayor Pete, AOC, a number of others. But they will still be smart (and hopefully, still idealistic) 4 or 8 or 12 years from now, and the experience they will have gained in those years will deepen their understanding of the political process and sharpen the skills it takes to negotiate the convoluted structures of governance.

The (virtual) Democratic Convention reminded me that Joe Biden–who was also a smart and idealistic youngster “back in the day”– offers America fifty years of successful public sector experience. Unlike the reality-show buffoon who currently occupies the Oval Office, he knows what it like to do the hard, grunt work of governing. He knows what it is like to encounter new facts and perspectives that make you recognize and admit that you’ve been on the wrong side of  a policy issue. His deep experience with foreign leaders has allowed him to forge relationships that will be critical to re-establishing America’s reputation abroad (younger people simply haven’t had the time to establish those relationships, and President Obama drew heavily on them during his first term in office.)

His relationships with others in government, on both sides of the political aisle, have established his reputation as a person who can be trusted to keep his word, honor a commitment, and “tell it like it is.” That reputation simply cannot be established overnight; it requires time.

There’s another relationship that has been established over the years–Biden’s relationship with the American public. He’s a known quantity, which is why the efforts of the Crazy Guy In Chief to define him have fallen flat. GOP spin doctors may be able to paint AOC as some sort of communist (after all, she wants rich people to pay taxes! and she wants to save the environment!), but Joe Biden has already defined himself in the years that he has been a public figure.

These are assets that only come with experience.And time.

I still favor a generational shift, probably sooner than later, but I failed to appreciate the value and importance of Biden’s self-described status as a “transitional figure.” Assuming (as sane people must) a Democratic victory in November and a successful (probably ugly) transition of power, Joe Biden will bring extensive knowledge of government and how it does– and doesn’t– work to the monumental effort of repairing the damage.

If we are very lucky, if we give him the tools to work with by electing a sufficient number of thoughtful, non-lunatic people to the House and Senate, the government he hands over to a younger generation will be recognizably American again.

So,  mea culpa. And think about Joe Biden, a competent and empathetic adult, as you watch the GOP convention nominate– and genuflect to– the child-sociopath who currently occupies the Oval Office.

The Business of Government

Americans like to believe that government should be run like a business. That belief–pernicious and naive– helped elect Donald Trump, and its persistence is evidence (as if any additional evidence is needed) of the public’s profound lack of civic literacy.

Should government be run in a businesslike fashion? Of course. Is managing a government agency “just like” managing a business? Not at all.

A former colleague recently shared an article addressing the differences between business and government. Addressing the “myth” that anyone who can run a successful business can manage government, the author noted

This is not a 21st-century — or even a 20th-century — phenomenon. In a classic 1887 article, Woodrow Wilson, then a professor at Princeton University, maintained that there was a “science of administration” — arguing, in effect, that there were principles of management that transcended the context in which they were applied. “The field of administration is a field of business,” wrote Wilson. “It is removed from the hurry and strife of politics.”

Later observers and scholars of public administration thoroughly discredited this notion. The pithiest statement on the topic came from Wallace Sayre of Columbia University, who argued in 1958 that “public and private management [were] fundamentally alike in all unimportant respects.” In 1979, Graham Allison, then dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, used Sayre’s comment as a launching point from which to examine similarities and differences. He noted that both private firms and governments must set objectives, develop plans to achieve those objectives, hire people and direct them toward the achievement of objectives, and manage external environments. But he observed that the way in which these things occur is often fundamentally different from one sector to another.

The article lists some of the important ways in which private enterprises differ from public ones.

Government is about this thing called the “public interest.” There is no such animal in the private sector. Private firms care about their stakeholders and customers; they do not generally care about people who do not invest in their businesses or buy things from them. Thus, accountability is by necessity much broader in government; it is much more difficult to ignore particular groups or people.

Private-sector performance is measured by profitability, while performance measurement in government needs to focus on the achievement of outcomes.

Compromise is fundamental to success in the public sector. No one owns a controlling share of the government…. The notion of a separation of powers can be anathema to effective private management. It is central to the design of government, at least in the United States.

Government must constantly confront competing values. The most efficient solution may disadvantage certain groups or trample on individual or constitutional rights. In the private sector, efficiency is value number one; in government, it is just one of many values.

Government has a shorter time horizon. In government, the long term may describe the period between now and the next election. Thus there is a strong incentive to show relatively immediate impact.

Government actions take place in public, with much scrutiny from the press and the public. There is no equivalent of C-SPAN showing how decisions are made in the corporate boardroom. Corporate leaders do not find it necessary to explain their every decision to reporters.

When corporate executives are elected to run cities or states, they often expect to operate as they did in their companies, where they made the decisions and others obediently carried them out. But legislative bodies–even those dominated by the political party of the chief executive–are not “minions.” They too are elected officials, and they bristle (rightly) when a mayor or governor or president presumes to issue orders. Successful relations between the legislative and executive branch require negotiation, diplomacy and compromise–and those aren’t management skills generally found among corporate CEOs.

Trump and most of his cabinet nominees lack any government experience. Most also lack any education relevant to the missions or operations of the agencies they have been tapped to lead. They don’t know what they don’t know.

And it has become quite obvious that the concept of “the public interest” will be new to all of them….

Learning from Experience

I know I have harped on the dismaying extent to which our policymakers legislate on the basis of ideology rather than evidence, but I want  to revisit that theme again today.

Several people have commented on my recent post/IBJ column about the drug war–and the enormous sums we continue to spend (in a time of austerity, no less) on a policy that everyone sentient knows has not only failed miserably, but in many ways has been counterproductive.

As a civil libertarian, I would have great qualms about the drug war even if it HAD been effective. But let me suggest another policy area where ideology has trumped experience.

It always seemed to me that the argument against confiscatory tax rates having a negative effect on job creation made sense. (Leave aside the question of what constitutes a “confiscatory” rate for now.) If I am a wealthy person, and I know that even a successful investment in a new factory or other job-creating enterprise will yield a minimal after-tax return, why should I take that risk? And even if lower tax rates leave me with more dollars in my pocket that I DON’T invest, filling my order for that fur coat and yacht creates jobs, too.

Unfortunately, experience has not supported that eminently logical proposition. As a number of economists have documented, job creation has actually IMPROVED after tax increases. Again, actual performance depends on how much of an increase, on what, and how steep the rate is following the increase. But increases in the general income tax rates have demonstrably NOT harmed job creation-quite the contrary.

There are many reasons why we have experienced this puzzling departure from theory. The most likely is that–contrary to the belief that people are  “rational actors,” humans are more complicated, and what constitutes a “reward” or “incentive” will vary widely from individual to individual. I can attest that many academics who could make much more money in the private sector work as hard for the recognition of their peers as many private-sector folks work for financial rewards. (As I so often tell my students, “it’s more complicated than that theory might suggest.”)

The real question, however, is not why a particular, perfectly reasonable, theory didn’t hold up. The real question is, why do so many people stubbornly cling to the theory and ignore the evidence provided by actual experience?