Czars to the right, czars to the left

Much conservative angst has been expressed of late about a proliferation of federal positions designated as “czars.” These officials are given broad responsibility for a specific area with few obstacles to the exercise of their authority, hence the title, “czar.” There does indeed appear to be a raft of autocratic authorities in a presidential administration only seven months old. But, in fairness, it must be acknowledged that the president is doing nothing unprecedented in establishing these positions, which require no Senate confirmation, for the practice began with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

According to Wikipedia, FDR offered the country 10 czar positions, filled by 15 people during his 12 years in office. Thereafter, there were only either one or two of them, except for six in Harry Truman’s administration and seven in William Clinton’s. A total of 133 have served.

The biggest increase occurred under the administration of Barack Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, who authorized a full 36 during his eight years. Obama so far has established 32. The latter has at least three years and five months to surpass the former.

What matters have these czars been responsible for? Interestingly, all of Roosevelt’s czars were appointed during the Second World War, dealing with manpower, prices, rubber, censorship and economic stabilization (“the czar of czars”).

Most readers will remember the drug czar first established by Richard Nixon, a position continued by his successors., and an energy czar, which has not. The drug czar has since become subject to Senate confirmation.In fact, other czars have been regularized in that way, while retaining the same broad, largely untrammeled authority. The new automobile czar was appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury alone.

Some of these czars do not survive the administration in which they are brought into being, such as Bush’s for abstinence, bioethics and bird flu. Clinton’s AIDS czar has been continued. Other new czars deal with Iran, the Middle East, technology, urban affairs, weapons proliferation and weatherization.

So criticizing Obama for establishing so many czars is a baseless charge. Fair enough, although like anyone else serving in the government of the United States, they are accountable directly to the president and ultimately to all the citizens.

But it is worth remarking that a new administration that has been so determined to distinguish itself in multiple ways from its predecessor seems to be carrying on with multiple czars. Perhaps there is this distinction, that what it took Bush to do in eight years Obama looks like he will accomplish in eight months.

More generally, the resort to czars is explained by at least two factors. First, as was the case with FDR, wartime demands untrammeled authority if victory is to be obtained, so his czars, which understandably repugnant to republican sensibilities, are sometimes necessary.

But peacetime presents a challenge. Why do need czars then? I submit it is a way of coping with the huge growth in the federal bureaucracy, particularly in New Deal days, when FDR began with an annual budget of $3 billion dollars and a few thousand civilian employees, and grew to tens of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of civil service workers. (We are leaving out the military personnel here.) Today, of course, it's three trillion dollars and millions of civilian personnel.

Civil service reform was intended to put an end to the abuse of political patronage (known as the “spoils system”) by establishing professional standards and providing protection against capricious employers.

Those familiar with civil service know that it has long since tipped to the other extreme so that it is virtually impossible to fire an incompetent person. The millions who serve see cabinet secretaries and other administrators come and go, but they go on forever.

It is not surprising, and not unforgivable, then, that presidents have appointed czars to get around the bureaucracy in order to accomplish what they intended to when they ran for the office. Still there are concerns. 

Like everything else, we must judge officials and institutions by their results, and we must expect obedience to the U.S. Constitution by czars no less than officials with less restricted authority. Too, we must be mindful of the spirit that informs the choice of these czars, to be sure that they aren’t tempted to ignore the consent of the governed.

After all, we did not fight a revolution, establish a constitution, and fight a civil war and two world wars so that we would be indistinguishable from those despotic regimes of the old world, which also had kaisers, and which like czars, derive from the word Caesar.

Manual shows up the bureaucrats

There is lots of demand these days for government to “create” results. But policies pandering to that are misguided. Whether it's jobs, health care, or even successful schools, the idea that people in government, no matter how talented, well-meaning, and well-funded can create sound, sustainable, scalable improvement in the lives of Americans has been proven wrong time and time again. Our government’s attempt to “create” financial security for seniors instead created a Social Security system racing towards bankruptcy. A sustained attempt to “create” widespread homeownership – a bipartisan folly to be sure – instead destroyed the world’s greatest financial institutions. And, public school systems – an attempt to “create” a well-educated public – is a national catastrophe and disgrace, depriving particularly our most disadvantaged children of the opportunities everyone deserves.

That government policies and programs cannot create these things on their own should not be discouraging. Americans can have them, but they must be created through the initiative, motivation, and ingenuity of Americans themselves. What government policy can and should do is remove barriers to success created by government itself – establishing an environment where progress, rather than frustration, is a natural result.

This morning I visited Manual High School in Denver. Manual is an inner-city high school serving a challenged community – more than 80% of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. Nearly the entire student body is composed of minority children. In 2006, the school was closed for chronic failure – only 15% of students were proficient in reading. The school reopened in 2007 under an “autonomy” arrangement that provided new principal Rob Stein with relief from a handful of union and district rules including those regarding school schedules, hiring processes, and teacher compensation. Also, the school board reached an agreement with Stein to permit him to make key budgeting decisions at the school level rather than at the district level.

Stein describes himself as a “culture guy,” and he took advantage of the unusual autonomy to assemble a highly motivated staff and create a school culture of accountability and professionalism. At a twice-weekly school-wide meeting, the school-polo-shirt clad kids hear colleagues who’ve excelled or contributed in the past week receive ”shout-out” recognition (in one case accompanied by a $5 Burger King gift card); and at the same meeting noting that all seventy-one students who had been tardy during the week were required to attend detention that Friday evening. During “advisory,” small group classes meeting three times per week, the students follow a curriculum of social and life skills (e.g., constructive ways to deal with confrontation) – many of which kids from more privileged backgrounds may learn from their parents.

Today, Manual is tied for fourth-best-performing non-charter high school in the Denver Public Schools. It’s easy to imagine a well-intentioned “reformer” drawing the wrong conclusions from the Manual experience. “Let’s require shout-outs and logo polo shirts in all of the schools,” they might say, “and we can improve like Manual.” That would, of course, be missing the point. The terrific progress at Manual was not born of the particular tactics Stein employs, but of the autonomy that has permitted Stein and his dedicated team to implement their own innovative approach to serving the unique needs of children in Manual’s community.

By freeing the Manual team of district and union red tape, the autonomy agreements did not create success – that’s not possible to do from headquarters – but created the circumstances where success could flourish on its own. Freedom to succeed – that’s what American’s need in this challenging time.

MMS: Don't license the brothel, close it

Hearing of the sex scandal involving government employees of the Minerals Management Service, my first thought was “Are they hiring?” But seriously, why should it come as a surprise that government officials charged with oversight of any industry – and in position to influence policy and hand out favors – should be (literally) in bed with those over whom they hold power? This is a classic case of “your scratch my back, and I’ll scratch… ooh, a little bit lower...” Equally predictable are the reactions of those favoring ever more government intervention into (and oversight of) every aspect of our lives. They are shocked – SHOCKED – that such activities could take place, and immediately call for more investigations and (you guessed it) increased oversight, expanding the agency and imposing even more regulations.

But perhaps the problem lies in the nature of the beast. Why even have such institutions as the MMS in the first place? Why should government agencies be in the business of picking winners or even being in the position to “grant official favors” to industries or commercial enterprises under their “oversight?” Shouldn’t government activity in the economic sphere be limited to that of an impartial “referee” enforcing fair play, enforcing rules and contracts, and preventing fraud, theft, and other force?