Taking Credit and Being Held Accountable
Reflections are a period of thinking, musing,
pondering that considers some external thought, action,
or series of events. For some time, I have been alternatively
mildly amused and mildly irritated by politicians taking
credit for a strong U.S. economy, when it is the result
of millions and millions of largely individual decisions
made daily of which the politicians know little or nothing.
Moreover, many of these individual decisions affecting
today's economy were made well before the current politicians'
terms of office.
While they will take credit for the economy
in general, few politicians publicly take credit for some
of the most obvious aspects of our strong economy. They
are not, for example, taking credit for higher oil prices.
They don't claim the increasing differential between executive
and worker compensation. They seem not to take credit
for higher stock market prices, presumably because prices
may retrace at any point and, besides, it is the presumptively
the more well-off who own stock and bonds. (This may change
as stock and bond ownership, directly or indirectly, continues
to expand throughout the population.)
This, itself, would be only mildly interesting,
and I would not waste the bandwidth, but for a flurry
of recent instances where the same politicians taking
credit for the individual decisions of millions in the
economy have avoided taking any blame for matters within
the federal government that are more or less within
their responsibility and control.
For example, where the security of classified
information at the Los Alamos labs, at the State Department
or the CIA/Defense Departmentmatters that are
the direct responsibility of these politiciansare
involved, these politicians seem genuinely surprised that
this sort of thing could happen, and if they volunteer
any action at all, it is generally to pledge to look into
the matter to determine which individuals are to blame.
Unlike the taking credit for a global economy, they do
not hold themselves responsible for what goes wrong within
a governmental department.
It is precisely the responsibility of politicians
to understand the governmental systems and structures
needed so that the government bureaucratswith all
their strengths, weaknesses, and human frailtiesare
optimally effective and efficient. Indeed, this is what
organizational ethics is all about as a part ethics and
excellence: developing the structures and systems so that
good people can do the right thingand succeed.
The conduct of the prosecution of Wen Ho
Lee is perhaps the most egregious example of this phenomenon.
Conducting the national defense and enforcing the federal
law of the land are two functions of the federal government
that most can agree are legitimate roles. Both come together
in the Wen Ho Lee matter, yet for both the classified
materials breaches and the conduct of the prosecution,
neither is the current administration coming forward to
take responsibility nor is it being held accountable.
Especially in an election year, what can account for that?
My guess is the dirty little secret that
all politicians want to be able to take credit for matters
largely out of their control and want to maintain the
myth that they are actually in control of the governments
they are responsible for.
In sober moments, it is the case that government
officials will concede that they do not have the resources
to completely and effectively control matters directly
within their purview, and there is nothing inherently
wrong with that. It could hardly be otherwise in a free
society, perhaps even moreso in an unfree one. As John
F. Kennedy once famously said: the only part of government
he truly controlled was the Marine Corps band.
But who is really to blame? We are. It is
past time for us to hold politicians accountable for what
is within their purview and to discount their claims of
responsibility for matters largely beyond their control.
Kenneth W. Johnson
Comments or suggestions