>> Monday, December 07, 2009

Over at Salon, Emily Holleman takes on a recent claim by some pundits that President Obama's administration has some kind of shortage of people with private sector experience; as Ms. Holleman writes, this claim simply isn't true, with President Obama indeed drawing some 78% of his appointments from the private sector. The false statement that fewer than 10% of Obama appointees have private sector experience appears (unsurprisingly, I have to say) to be based on a subjective estimate that was subsequently withdrawn by its author.

What Ms. Holleman doesn't address, however, is that the correct answer to the conservative punditocracy's claim is actually, "so what?" This is the thing I find most interesting about the criticism, personally: that it's yet another example of the right's fetishization of the corporate or business sector, a point-of-view from which business experience would appear to be a sole qualification for holding an administrative (or any other governmental) position.

Understand, please, that I'm not knocking private sector experience. Nor am I knocking the idea of filling the bureaucratic ranks with people with business experience--if they're qualified for the job. Indeed, I'd even say that having a range of people with a variety of experiences (public sector, private sector, or some combination thereof) is, all other things being equal, preferable to having a monolithic body of advisers and administrators who all come from one sector or viewpoint.

However, when I read what some conservatives were saying about an alleged shortage of private-sector appointees in the Obama Administration, I couldn't help thinking of the man whose picture appears next to the first paragraph of this piece. For those of you who don't recognize him, the man in the thumbnail is a former president of the Ford Motor Company, Robert Strange McNamara, who led the corporation during one of its most successful eras and is often credited with saving Ford from a massive slump that threatened the company's existence during the middle years of the 20th Century. He might well have been the best Ford executive ever. Brilliant guy. Savvy businessman.

Oh yeah, after he left Ford, he became John Kennedy's Secretary Of Defense, a job he kept through Lyndon Johnson's administration until 1968. They had a war. You may have heard about it. (SPOILER ALERT!) It didn't go very well.

Seriously, though? Donald Rumsfeld's signature accomplishment as Secretary Of Defense under George W. Bush may be that he managed to steal the title of "Worst Secretary Of Defense In American History" from Mr. McNamara. Robert McNamara was widely considered the hands-down worst Secretary Of Defense in history until Rumsfeld; I'll bet even Otto Eisenschiml would have agreed.

McNamara's chief qualification was--wait for it--that he came from the private sector. Kennedy, a wonk, recruited McNamara because McNamara was King Wonk, a man who would apply the business principles he'd used to return the Ford Motor Company to its glory days to national defense, and kept around by the infamously insecure LBJ because McNamara was so goddamn smart. And let's be crystal clear about something: for all of JFK's and LBJ's faults, they were both decent judges of character and of men's mettle--the problem with Robert Strange McNamara wasn't that he wasn't the man Kennedy and Johnson thought he was, the problem with RSM was that he was exactly the man they thought him to be. RSM was probably one of the goddamn smartest sons-of-bitches (as LBJ might put it) to ever sit down in the Pentagon. But he was the wrong man for the wrong job. The Vietnam War wasn't a problem anybody was going to solve statistically, McNamara's deep analyses and computer simulations were worse than useless. Fighting the Vietnamese wasn't the least bit like selling cars. Or running the World Bank, for that matter, where McNamara acquitted himself well after he was shoved out the door of a moving train by an exhausted, exasperated Lyndon Johnson voluntarily retired from the Pentagon.

The point should be reasonably obvious, shouldn't it? Private sector experience--not even really, really, stellar private sector experience--is not, in and of itself, qualification for any cabinet position. There really shouldn't be any question of whether President Obama (or any other president) has hired "enough" people with private sector experience, the question should be whether or not those people are qualified for the jobs they're being asked to do for the next four-to-eight years. If they're all former CEOs but they can hack it, fine, and if they're all lifelong Federal and State bureaucrats who can hack it, fine; and if they can't hack it, to hell with them, wherever Mr. Obama found them.

As for the fetishization of private sector experience by some conservatives--it's stupid, to put it plainly. It's not defensible in any way, deriving from deep-seated prejudices and faulty assumptions about the way things work. It's not the stupidest thing some Obama critics have said (that would still be a toss-up between "death panels" and "he's from Kenya"), but it's a bit more mischievous insofar as it's one of those things that almost makes sense if you don't think about it; I mean, CEOs order people around and manage money, and government bureaucrats boss people around and deal with taxpayer funds, so they're almost exactly the same thing, right, just like manufacturing and marketing automobiles is almost exactly just like the civilian side of prosecuting a war against a popular indigenous insurgent movement with strong foreign support? Or not.

If you're the least bit susceptible to this bit of foolishness, then the next time you see someone saying it on TV or hear it on the radio or read it a magazine or newspaper, I want you to come back here to Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets or click on this link for the Omigoditshuge Bigass version, and I want you to recite the following mantra 'til cured:


And maybe slap yourself a few times. Okay?


Janiece Monday, December 7, 2009 at 3:56:00 PM EST  



Nathan Monday, December 7, 2009 at 8:34:00 PM EST  

That really was masterful, Eric!


Lee Wednesday, December 9, 2009 at 12:47:00 AM EST  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee Wednesday, December 9, 2009 at 12:48:00 AM EST  

Hey, how do I get a hold of you by e-mail? I think you're a genius, and not just because you are a distant cousin of mine by marriage.

Eric Wednesday, December 9, 2009 at 9:28:00 AM EST  

Well, Lee, if your last name starts with an "H" (and you're not the cleverest robot I've ever seen), does my Dad or Aunt Anne have a contact number for y'all? I can try to get a hold of it this week and maybe call y'all this weekend.

(Forgive the paranoia--you know how the internet is. "Nobody knows you're a dog" and all that.)

Lee Wednesday, December 9, 2009 at 10:09:00 PM EST  

Your Aunt has my contact information, so that would work. Also, I e-mailed you at your office account, so you could just reply to that.

No need to be paranoid. I'm large, I have a beard and you last saw me at a lake in North Carolina. Also, I love White Castle burgers.

Eric Wednesday, December 9, 2009 at 10:18:00 PM EST  


My Dad's also trying to get contact information via your father-in-law/one of my uncles.

The office e-mail isn't a reliable route--I'm not sure if the published version is actually correct, and I know it's failed people in the past. But I'll check it tomorrow just in case.

Hopefully, I'll talk to y'all this weekend and/or have a chance to e-mail y'all before then.

Lee Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 11:37:00 AM EST  

Just e-mailed with your sister. She has our info as well, so that might help.

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