Disillusionment with government officials

When you’re a kid you feel secure imagining that the people who manage critical government functions are old, wise, and well-qualified.  There comes a sad point in many lives when the cruel facts shatter this illusion.  You wake up and realize that folks running multi-$billion programs are younger than you and, objectively, no better qualified to do their tough job.


For me this moment came about seven years ago at a friend’s house in Cambridge.  Another guest was a high official in the Clinton Administration charged with supervising $billions in health care expenditures.  She was about my age, pleasant, a friend of Bill Clinton’s, and had absolutely no relevant experience for the job.  She was not a medical doctor, had never worked in a hospital, had never managed a large business or budget.


For much of the rest of the country the moment seems to be now, upon learning that the federal government’s $6 billion/year emergency management capability is being managed by Michael Brown, a guy whose last job was running a horse show association.  One would naively have expected a retired military logistics expert to be chosen to head up FEMA.  Instead we get the lawyer/horse guy.


A lot of folks in Latin America remain convinced that the Man (Uncle Sam) is keeping them down.  Considering that the Man is actually mostly guys like Michael Brown they ought to be really embarrassed that they are such pushovers.

11 thoughts on “Disillusionment with government officials

  1. Actually losers like Brown end up in low prestige jobs like running FEMA because all the competent people are busy keeping the Latin Americans down.

  2. Everybody who’s paying attention knows that Bush appoints people based on political hackery, not experience or qualifications, and FOBs were common enough to get their own acronym, but I would have at least had confidence that there would be bureaucrats following some procedure which would sort of work, actual professionals who don’t get hired and fired every time the political wind shifts. People sort of like letter carriers, who usually deliver your mail, often to the correct address, regardless of who’s President or Postmaster General. What a naive optimist I was.

  3. At least when this sort of disaster hits other states they have competent local governments to fall back upon. No such luck for Louisiana.

  4. Consider W, whose only job before entering politics on his daddy’s coattails was owning a loser baseball team (being AWOL isn’t a job). Patrick, you don’t actually think Bush makes appointment decisions, do you? I doubt he’s allowed to choose his own neckties.

  5. Something that has deserved attention for years! Very few of these people could get an entry-level job at their agencies! It takes a lot more credentials to work as a barber, sell insurance, be a stockbroker, or get an entry-level public health job than to head a major federal agency.

    I was surprised that Tom Ridge was appointed to Homeland Security. Perhaps he was a decent governor, but no training or experience in terrorism, international relations, disaster management, public health, or anything else relevant.

    An interesting example is the FAA Administrator. Early ones were Air Force general Quesada (obviously a background in aviation and administration), Navy test pilot / Stanford & Yale grad / future CEO of Pan Am Najeeb Halaby (father of Queen Noor), and Alexander Butterfield (Distinguished Flying Cross member / F-111 project officer).

    In contrast, neither of the two FAA Administrators who have been appointed since 1997 even holds a basic private pilot’s license.

    As a counterexample, Surgeon General Richard Carmona (see Wikipedia) is a qualified physician (first in his class), qualified surgeon, holds a master’s in public health, is a qualified peace officer, and has been a hospital CEO.

    One thing that connects Brown, Allbaugh, and new Wal-Mart CIO Kevin Turner (previously discussed in this blog): They all received their higher education in Oklahoma.
    [this time with formatting]

  6. Also, Mike Parker, the fired “Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works),” who has been frequently quoted, holds a BA in English and operated a funeral home for 17 years before becoming a congressman. So his practical “civil works” training and expertise seems to be limited to digging graves.

    Fortunately, the top brass within the Corps generally hold degrees in civil engineering.
    http://www.hq.usace.army.mil/cepa/biograph.htm

  7. Phil – you’ve nailed this one on the head. I went through exactly the mental process you described when I discovered that FEMA was led by, as you described, by a “lawyer/horse guy”. When I apply for a job, I actually care if I’m qualified.

    Actually, I’ve discovered that if you want to lead a scientific, medical, or engineering-based branch of government, the best degree you can get is a JD. Want to architect the nation’s universal health-care plan? Get a law degree, and make sure you marry the president. Want to manage FEMA? Get a law degree, and make sure you meet the president. Want to chair California’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine (and oversee the 3 billion dollar initiative for stem cell research)? Get a law degree and make sure you know the governor.

    For anyone curious about that last point, here’s an exerpt from the SF Chronicle… (full link at the end of the post)…

    “Robert Nicholas Klein II, 59, has no scientific or medical expertise, but managed to convince everyone who mattered, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, that he was the obvious choice to lead one of the world’s most closely watched medical-research ventures, an enterprise that may serve as a model for states wanting to finance their own “intellectual infrastructure” in the stem-cell field… He is a well-to-do, twice-divorced, Stanford-educated lawyer and housing developer who bears more than passing resemblance to actor Warren Beatty. He has a long background in public finance, and enjoys deep connections among the elites of Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Sacramento.”

    Fortunately, he’s also quoted as being “totally committed to making this happen.” You know, just like building a block of flats.

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article/article?f=/c/a/2005/04/11/MNGKIC697P1.DTL

  8. Requiring cabinet members to take the Civil Service Exam would be a good start. I’d like to see them score better then people who work under them.
    Actually, we should require it of anyone who runs for office.

  9. What gets to me is that, even after realizing government officials are no more qualified than the average Joe, people still want to be told how to run their lives.

    The solution to incompetent/corrupt government is not more government; it’s better citizens.

    If “better citizens” is the answer, the question becomes “How do we develop better citizens?” and that opens up a real debate (I favor teaching objectivism but others disagree).

    At any rate, so long as we focus the debate on creating a better government instead of better citizens I think we are doomed to not make progress.

    PS: by “government” I mean “organization of authority”. Such an organization need not be secular; it could be religious and the results would be just as bad (if not worse).

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