Tag Archives: public administration

The Case For Expertise

Michael Gerson is a political conservative who served in George W. Bush’s administration. He has also been a consistent “never Trumper.” He recently made the conservative case for Joe Biden, in a Washington Post column.

Gerson began by reciting some of the reasons conservatives should reject not just Donald J. Trump but the Republicans running with him, in order to crush the current iteration of the GOP.

Because of the terrible damage Trump has done to the Republican Party, it is not enough for him to lose. He must lose in a fashion that constitutes repudiation. For the voter, this means that staying home on Election Day, or writing in Mitt Romney’s name, is not enough. She or he needs to vote in a manner that encourages a decisive Biden win. This theory also requires voting against all the elected Republicans who have enabled Trump (which is nearly all elected Republicans). A comprehensive Republican loss is the only way to hasten party reform. Those who love the GOP must (temporarily) leave it and ensure it is thoroughly defeated in its current form.

Gerson then moved to the positive reasons to support Joe Biden, and in doing so made a point that is far too often ignored. As he reminds readers, the restoration of our governing institutions  requires the knowledge and skills of an insider. “We have lived through the presidency of a defiant outsider who dismisses qualities such as professionalism and expertise as elitism.”

As readers of this blog know, I teach in a school of public affairs. We teach students who are planning to go into government the specialized “knowledge and skills” that they will need in such positions. Those skills differ from the skills imparted in the business school; they include everything from public budgeting to the important differences between the private, public and nonprofit sectors, to political philosophy, to constitutional ethics.

I am so over the facile assertion that success in business (and yes, I know Trump wasn’t successful) will easily translate into the ability to run a government agency or  administration. The job of a businessperson is to make a profit; the job of government is to serve the public good. People who do not understand that distinction–and the very different approaches that distinction requires– don’t belong in public positions.

Gerson makes another important point: the complexity of today’s government requires administrators who actually understand how it all works.

There is a reason why the uninspiring Gerald Ford was an inspired choice to follow Richard Nixon. Ford had been a respected legislator for a quarter of a century. As president, he knew the personnel choices and institutional rituals that would begin to restore credibility to politicized agencies. Biden has the background and capacity to do the same.

Gerson characterizes this election as a choice between an arsonist and an institutionalist, and points to the assets of the institutionalist. I agree, but I also understand that some fires are set accidentally. Trump is, of course, an intentional arsonist, but his monumental ignorance has also done incredible–often inadvertent– harm to our governing institutions.

During his embarrassing Town Hall on NBC,  Trump defended his re-tweet of a conspiracy theory, prompting Savannah Guthrie to remind him that he is President, not “someone’s crazy uncle.” But really, electing a President with absolutely no understanding of government, the constitution, checks and balances or the way public administration actually works has turned out to be pretty much the same thing as putting someone’s crazy uncle in charge.

Not just Presidents, but all government officials need specialized knowledge and skills to do their jobs. There’s a big difference between expertise and “elitism,” and if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we shouldn’t listen to the crazy uncles who resent people who know what they are talking about.

If the last four years have taught us anything, it’s that Ignorance and self-aggrandizement aren’t qualifications for political office.


The Dunning-Kruger Effect

What do Mike Pence and Donald Trump have in common? They both exhibit the Dunning-Kruger effect— a scientific theory establishing the truth of Mark Twain’s observation that “It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Or–in other formulations–it’s what you don’t know that you don’t know.

There are plenty of politicians in both parties who exhibit the Dunning-Kruger effect, but few do so with such stunning obliviousness as these two. Here in Indiana, voters have been treated to ample evidence of our Governor’s ideological rigidity in the face of inconvenient realities (it will be interesting to see how “gung-ho for vouchers” Pence responds to recent research showing that Hoosier children using those vouchers perform more poorly than children remaining in public schools).

But I must admit that even Pence’s delusions pale next to those displayed by “The Donald” he has endorsed.

Again, the key to the Dunning-Kruger Effect is not that unknowledgeable voters are uninformed; it is that they are often misinformed—their heads filled with false data, facts and theories that can lead to misguided conclusions held with tenacious confidence and extreme partisanship, perhaps some that make them nod in agreement with Trump at his rallies.


For example, in a CNBC interview, Trump suggested that the U.S. government debt could easily be reduced by asking federal bondholders to “take a haircut,” agreeing to receive a little less than the bond’s full face value if the U.S. economy ran into trouble. In a sense, this is a sensible idea commonly applied—at least in business, where companies commonly renegotiate the terms of their debt.

But stretching it to governmental finance strains reason beyond acceptability. And in his suggestion, Trump illustrated not knowing the horror show of consequences his seemingly modest proposal would produce. For the U.S. government, his suggestion would produce no less than an unprecedented earthquake in world finance. It would represent the de facto default of the U.S. on its debt—and the U.S. government has paid its debt in full since the time of Alexander Hamilton. The certainty and safety imbued in U.S. Treasury bonds is the bedrock upon which much of world finance rests.

Even suggesting that these bonds pay back less than 100 percent would be cause for future buyers to demand higher interest rates, thus costing the U.S. government, and taxpayer, untold millions of dollars, and risking the health of the American economy.

Those of us who teach public administration–whose academic mission is to give prospective government workers the specialized knowledge and tools they will need in order to perform adequately and in the public interest–get pretty disheartened when voters who would never ask a non-dentist to extract wisdom teeth, a non-electrician to wire their homes, or an auto mechanic to draft a lease, blithely assume that anyone with “business sense” (or in Indiana, the “right” religious beliefs) can therefore manage a nation or a state.

Too many voters think of their ballots as a form of symbolic speech, rather than as the act of making a real-world choice between inevitably imperfect alternatives.

The fact that our alternatives may all be flawed is not to suggest that all flaws are created equal.

In November, Indiana voters will have a choice between pretentious piety and managerial competence.

Nationally, voters will have a choice between the unthinkable, a Democratic candidate that many find unsatisfactory, and a smattering of minor-party candidates with absolutely no chance of winning the Presidency. If the electorate doesn’t know what it doesn’t know–if voters fail to understand the difference between less than ideal and dangerously, monumentally unfit, we’ll all suffer the consequences.


The Root of the Problem

Paul Volcker is a longtime, widely respected public servant. Most of us know of him through his service as head of the Federal Reserve, but his interest in good government is wider than fiscal policy. That interest has led him to create a new organization–the Volcker Alliance. This new initiative has grown out of what is described as Volcker’s deep concern about public mistrust of government, partisan polarization, and the low level of status/prestige associated with career public service in the United States.

I share his concerns. And I hope that the Volcker Alliance will focus upon the roots of the problem.

Any reader of this blog can probably guess what my analysis of our current situation is.  I am absolutely convinced that public administration practice–the daily decisions of the elected and appointed people who run government at all levels– take place in a culture that has been shaped by  American constitutional, legal, and political values.  Public decisions and actions must be seen as consistent with those values in order for citizens to  trust them.

One of the reasons I am so concerned (okay, maybe obsessed) about civic literacy is that I firmly believe the electorate must be sufficiently knowledgable about our national principles/values to make accurate judgments about their elected officials’ compliance with them.

Our constitutional values create the framework for moral decision-making in the public sector. Public confidence that policymakers are guided by them is an essential element of perceived legitimacy–and the electorate’s belief in the legitimacy of governing institutions is a precondition to the ability of public managers to govern at all.

I teach at a school of public affairs, so I obviously believe in that it is important for our public administrators to have the requisite skills to implement chosen policies. But even the most able technocrat can’t function properly without legitimacy: public acceptance of his role and his right to exercise authority.

If I am correct about that (and there is a good deal of scholarship suggesting that I am) then the widespread belief that public officials are just beneficiaries of political gamesmanship–gerrymandering, vote suppression, etc.–is corrosive of the public’s confidence and undermines the public manager’s ability to do her job.

Let me suggest a somewhat weird analogy.

In Florence, Italy, in one of that city’s many museums, there is a famous marble statue of two men wrestling. One of them has his hands around the testicles of the other, and ever since we first saw  it, my husband has always referred to it as the  ”fight fair, dammit” statue.

A functioning democracy depends on the citizenry’s confidence that the “fight” was fair.  The idea is that we contend in the public arena for the support of the voters; we make our respective cases, our voices are heard and our arguments considered, and citizens choose whom they prefer in a fair election, after which, we come together and work with the people the voters freely chose.

If the election wasn’t fair–if boatloads of special-interest money drowned out the voices of certain candidates, if one party or the other abused the redistricting process, or gamed the system to dissuade some constituencies from voting–the winners cannot expect the losers to cheerfully abide by the results. People who use these tactics may win elections, but they lose legitimacy and the public trust.

If we want to restore public trust in our government, we need to fight fair, dammit.