Saturday, July 4, 2009

Czar You Go Again, Mr. President

The recent appointment of Kenneth Feinberg as "Compensation Czar" brings the total number of Obama administration "czars" to over two dozen... and brings up any number of questions, the most obvious of which is, how can you have over two dozen "czars"? Weren't the Russian czars the equivalent of emperors? And aren't emperors even higher ranking than kings? It seems like we're unnecessarily dumbing down the definition of "czars" -- before you know it, we'll have a "panty hose czar"... "swiss cheese hole czar"... a "Sunday hours czar"... and so on -- not that those ideas are any more ridiculous than the czarships that already exist (like "Sudan czar", "Guantanamo Closure czar", and "Faith-Based Czar"). (And after all, isn't _any_ work that anyone does for the Obama administration "faith-based" in some sense?)

But I know what they're getting at when they use this term. The term "czar" implies absolute authority, which one defies at one's great peril. It implies a person who gives orders and actually sees them getting carried out without argument. And -- at least in the modern-day sense -- implies the application of exceptional authority and "muscle" to probems that are perceived as severe, or intractable, or both. Thus, we have a "Drug Czar" because the "drug problem" admits of no known or even imagined solution. We have an "Intelligence Czar" because that is the one thing that is most lacking in all of our foreign policy. And we have a "Compensation Czar" because everyone, right up to the president, is helpless to stop CEOs from continuing to loot the companies they run.

But the "czar" craze implies more than this. Whenever a "czar" is appointed, it's because the existing government agencies are not doing their job -- given though they already have all the laws and regulations they need to get it done. But they have sunk into the same morass that all government agencies sink into, namely the placing of self-perpetuation at the top of the priority list... or, ultimately, as the only thing on the list. But what evidence do we have that a "czar" and his office will not suffer the same fate? Aren't they just another agency, imposed over older agencies as part of an endless layering process? And please note that the appointment of a "czar" never means that an existing agency is eliminated, or its numbers reduced. It may be incompetent and failed, but it's allowed to stay in business even while someone else takes over its business and, presumably, performs it better. And do "czars" ever go out of business, once the crisis is past? No, because, by definition, the crisis is never past -- it is maintained in perpetuity, in order to keep more jobs and high-paying executive positions on the books. No "czar" is ever charged with putting himself out of business; he is charged with "fixing" a given problem, with an implied promise that, after that problem is "fixed", another one will be identified, or a variation on the first one, and thus the money will keep rolling in because the crisis will continue in some form.

And don't be fooled! It's easy to believe that "czars" are only appointed to deal with the biggest, baddest problems the country faces. This is far from the case. They are appointed, maybe, to deal with problems that are getting more media attention at the time... but as to the really big problems, well... have you heard of an Inflation Czar recently? How about a Social Security Czar, hmmm? How about a Wilsonism Czar? An Israel Czar? How about a National Debt Czar? Forget about it. These "czars" are handed big, floppy, expensive bandages with which to dress big, simple, obvious wounds, particularly those for which there are no criteria for success or failure. The only criterion is action, i.e. "doing something" and the czarship is ideally suited for that. We have images of men in shining uniforms riding out on white chargers, sword in hand... whereas what we actually get is just another layer of wizened, gray bureaucrats who add their spoon to the stew pot but, basically, get nothing of significance done... as intended.

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