Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Governing Adds Value and Requires Professionals

Brad DeLong provokes:
I would put it differently. I would say that you want to draw your White House staff from successful managers--people who have had lots of experience bossing other people and who have done very well at it--and that there are only three groups of successful managers who are Democrats: Hollywood studio executives and their ilk, people who have made careers in government and academia, and executives who have worked for traditionally-Jewish investment banks.
And, after Felix Salmon complains and recommends that Democrats should find people who have created "real value," Matt Yglesias gets it exactly right.  I have to quote at length; it's very good:

This is a charming right-populist conceit, but I think it does a fundamental misservice to both capitalism and government. There’s a certain “parasitical” element to a lot of life in an advanced economy, including in the government and politics sectors. But effective government and decent macroeconomic conditions are extraordinarily valuable things and people who contribute to their creation are creating real value for society just like anyone else doing anything useful. And it’s a big mistake to think of the job of creating good economic conditions for a market economy as just an extension of the job of doing effect work as an executive.

Trying to think of an appropriately “flyovery” business I immediately thought of my favorite restaurant chain, Olive Garden, owned by Darden Restaurants, whose CEO seems to be a Democrat (or at least a donor to Rep Ron Klein). So should Clarence Otis, Jr become the guy who gives Barack Obama his morning economic briefings, the guy who manages the flow of economy-related memos to the President and the Chief of Staff, one of the administration’s key arm-twisters on the Hill, an explainer of economic policy ideas to members of the elite press, a hand-holder of occasionally pissed off interest groups, etc.? Well, it’s possible that he’d be good at that stuff. Or that Coscto CFO Richard Galanti or some other successful figure from corporate America would be. But it’s hard to see why their success in the business world would lead you to expect that any more than I think Bill Clinton’s successful career as a politician indicates that he’d be a good choice to run chain restaurants.
Two points there: one is that government creates real value, and the other is that the jobs of running a business and running a government call on different skill sets and different knowledge bases.  Both exactly correct.  There's more; go read the whole post.  It's excellent.

I need some value added of my own in this post...I'd say that there's some slippage of terms here, and it's worth being clear.  DeLong began with the broad "people who have made careers in government," which Salmon translated as "wizened political strategist."  Yglesias talks generally about "policymakers."  I'll just add that while there is migration back and forth (see: Rahm Emanuel), it's sometimes useful to distinguish between politicians and other who specialize in either governing or campaigning.  The sorts of skills and experiences that go into being Gene Sperling (governing professional) are different than those that go into being David Axelrod (campaign professional) or Barack Obama (politician).

The other thing I'd say is that if we're to have a system in which we have very large numbers of presidential appointees rather than civil service bureaucrats making decisions, then all those appointees need somewhere to go when they're in the out-party.  Our party structures, partially as a consequence of political regulation and partly for reasons of historical happenstance, and partly just because of the sheer number of them, aren't very good at providing suitable employment.   That actually has some advantages, because it helps preserve party permeability, which in my view is very important for democratic governance.  But it also has a downside in actual conflicts of interest, and in our Goo Goo political culture the dreaded "appearance" of conflict.  If we had a designed party system, it would be worth doing something about it.  As is, it's probably just worth keeping in mind that it's a real consequence of how we organize our politics, and that we should take it into account as we think about how administrations are going to be staffed.


  1. then all those appointees need somewhere to go when they're in the out-party.

    Like the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise institute, Cato . . . ?

    Somehow Scooter Libby got left out in the cold, though.


  2. I wish that the conceit that what works for business works in government would just die.

    It's not just "CEOs make good governors." It's also "we should have no deficit, because that's a business in the red." Really? You want government to make a profit? Because, actually, government is a monopoly, and you REALLY don't want government to want to make a profit.

  3. One of the great virtues of federalism is that is creates more high paying government jobs. Many top level local government officials earn salaries near the top of the federal pay scale, despite having jobs more comparable to their private sector counterparts that pay similar amounts.


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