Monday, March 26, 2007

Bush's cronies screw up everything, Episode #144

(Update below)

There is nothing--absolutely nothing--George W. Bush can do properly, but I was told that wasn't going to be a problem. I remember before the 2000 election when I was ranting about the man's apparent cluelessness to everyone I knew, my Republican friends would say, "Sure, he's not the brightest guy, but he surrounds himself with geniuses." This was, you'll remember a talking point of the Bush apologists and a trap into which even America's best and brightest pundits sometimes slipped. Bush's vast supply of stupid couldn't hurt us, I was told, because someone would always be there to hold his sweaty little hand.

I was also told that Bush was going to bring a business mindset to governance. I used to point out that his own experiences in business didn't make me feel any better about that statement. With all the money he could ask for to toss into his ventures, Bush couldn't get a business into the black. I, like many others, was concerned.

And I was right to be. From Iraq to Katrina, the Plame Scandal to the recent political manipulation of America's legal system, Bush has shown that he's a terrible, embarrassingly awful leader--just as his résumé suggested he would be--and, more importantly, he's shown that those who predicted America would be protected from his intellectual failings by a buffer zone of genius were not only wrong, but believed exactly the opposite of the truth. Yes, Bush has failed again and again, but in every single failure you can dig down and find, at its core, a terrible human resources decision: Bremer, Brownie, Miers, Tomlinson, Gonzales, Small.

Who's Small, you ask?

Lawrence M. Small, if you haven't been paying attention, was Bush's choice* selected by the Smithsonian Board of Regents at the end of Clinton's term to head the Smithsonian. As the Washington Post points out today, he's become yet another scandalous hire forced to step down because of greed and incompetence.
Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small, the banker who took over the world's largest museum complex seven years ago, has resigned under pressure following revelations regarding his housing allowance and office and travel expenditures...

In recent weeks questions about Small's leadership and his personal expenditures had created a crisis at the Smithsonian. Small, 65, had been sharply criticized by members of Congress and his pay and expense accounts have been subjected to scrutiny by the Smithsonian inspector general. Last week, two separate committees were appointed by the regents to look into management operations at the Smithsonian, which includes 18 museums and research facilities as well as the National Zoo.
How could this have happened? Surely all Americans would want the best leadership for the Smithsonian, right? It is, after all, one of America's historical crown jewels and even the corrupt incompetents leading the Republican party and manning the ramparts of Leibercrattia wouldn't want it to fall into disrepair.

I'm sure they don't. But, in the past 20 years, Republicans--and some DLC Democrats--have come to believe in Corporate Pixie Dust. They believe, without any evidence to demonstrate the validity of their belief, that corporations are magical entities which always run smoothly and are led by the smartest goshdarned people in the whole wide world. Lawrence Small is just another example of the failure of that belief. A business-type in a job held throughout history by academics, Small promised--just like his benefactors--promised to bring to his public position the mindset of businessman. As WaPo puts it:
Small, the first Smithsonian secretary who was not a scientist or an academic, brought a corporate mentality to an institution that long resembled a university campus. The result was a culture clash, with Small pushing to rename facilities after wealthy donors, for example. That offended longtime Smithsonian researchers who thought he was compromising the institution's values.
The problem is this: Tattooed around the heart of every true Republican moneyman are the words of Adam Smith, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest." And, for many of those on the right, those words are sacrosanct. They believe that nothing should get in the way of one's self-interest: Neither laws nor the well-being of one's fellow man. This kind of mindset, oddly enough, seems incompatible with an organization like, say, the entire United States government, which is dedicated not to self-interest, but to the desire to "form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity..." While there are plenty of "I"s in those phrases, they basically amount to the creation of the American "team" and we've all been told a million times how many "I"s that word has.

Not only is the business degree fetishism of pro-corporate Republicans (and Dems) antithetical to the very idea of government, it's just simply bad management. The stories soldiers tell about the incompetence of contractors (many of whom admit being hired a couple of days after faxing their résumés to KBR or other companies) would be hilarious if you didn't think about the fact the average American's taxes only cover a small portion of a single, unqualified employee's six-figure income. Or that they don't pay taxes on the first $80K. And corporate lobbyists have gotten Congress to blow massive amounts of government money every year on studies which try to compare the efficiency of government employees against the efficiency of what corporations say they can do. Of course, when the company comes back and demands more money, it usually gets it and, in some cases, contracted companies who've created specific products for government can simply refuse to renew the contract, take the (for example) software they created on government time public and deny the government use of the software or database upon which it operates because the contract's dead, creating massive headaches for the government employees left behind to create entirely new ways of doing business from scratch.

There is a lot of talk about how Bush's reign has damaged the long-term political viability of the Republican party. I can't say whether or not that's true. I will say this, though: Americans who are truly interested in the long-term viability of our republic should make it clear to their friends and neighbors that the Bush administration has fully tested whether contractors and corporate lackeys can run government better than the mythically cold, unfeeling government bureaucrat. What we got were hundreds of small-scale government versions of Enron, Tyco and Worldcom; self-interest running rampant with no oversight from the former Republican-led Congress.

So, while it's good to see Congress finally chipping away at the crust surrounding the Bushies warm, gooey center of corruption, it's important to make clear that this isn't simply a rogue, incompetent administration. This is a rogue, incompetent administration which is, nevertheless, following the exact recipes Republicans have written over the last thirty years. Americans need to understand that, in one sense, Bush hasn't failed. He implemented core Republican principles and they failed. And they always will.

I've always thought that this was an important distinction to make, but, with the Lawrence M. Small mini-scandal unfolding, it makes it even more necessary to pull America away from these dangerous ideas. I'd been worrying, you see, about the effects of Republican policies on the future of our country, but now I see that they might even be able to fuck up our past.

Update: Kos makes a similar point.

Update: Regarding the correction below, Cernig says Small is still a Republican problem.
Small is a staunch Republican. He owes his appointment to Chief Justice William Renquist, who as chair of the Board of regents at the Smithsonian appointed him as secretary even though he had no obvious qualifications for the job. Over the years he has donated to George Bush, Bob Ney, Tom DeLay, Trent Lott, Rick Santorum and Americans for a Republican Majority, among others. None are exactly strong supporters of evolutionary theory, preferring the pseudo-science of "Intelligent Design". So it isn't surprising that Small presided over the decision to show the ID propoganda movie "The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe" at America's premier scientific museum.


* In the initial post, I had erred in writing that Small was appointed by Bush because I read a date wrong. Far from proving my argument wrong, this shows, in fact, how ingrained the Corporate Pixie Dust belief has become in our society. It remains a major part of the problem with, as I mentioned, the DLC Democrats. In fact, the law which requires that portions of government agencies' jobs be put up for bid and scanned for efficiency every few years was signed by Bill Clinton in 1997. Again, I apologize for the error, but this only reinforces my point about the need to show that it's not just the current Republicans which are flawed, but the ideology which says government can do no right and corporations can do no wrong. Much thanks to doginfollow who helped point out my error in the comments.

34 Comments:

Anonymous Doginfollow said...

I loved the first part of this post, but I have a nit to pick with the second. I don't think Lawrence Small was a Bush appointee. According to Wikipedia, he was appointed in January 2000 (whereas Bush took office in January 2001). Plus he was appointed by the Smithsonian Board of Regents, not the president. In this case, the shoe might fit, but you still must acquit.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_M._Small

10:58 PM  
Blogger Nitpicker said...

True. I misread the date.

11:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nitpicker,

I have many friends and colleagues who worked for Smithsonian museums, or rather many friends and colleagues who used to work for Smithsonian museums. Back in 2000 and 2001, when I attended the American Association of Museums annual meeting, several friends [some of whom were directors and deputy directors] all told me they were getting ready to leave their jobs because of Small. He decimated the Smithsonian.

3:16 AM  
Blogger BobbyV said...

But the Bushes are men of social credentials who went to the right schools and passed through them without any detectable mark. They represent aristocracy with a populist gloss, borrowing what they can from the evangelical revival, siding with business and its distaste for time-wasting mind work, holding intellectual talent in contempt from both above and below.
Tod Gitlin, The Renaissance of Anti-Intellectualism

4:05 AM  
Anonymous crackpot said...

Thanks for the "corporate pixie dust" phrase. (Cleaning coffee off keyboard). The incessant pushing of the ooga-booga all wise all powerful corporate free market religion has sunk in to people's brains so deeply that it is an accepted thing that private business is always more efficient than government. What's so free market about a corporation anyway? Its officers are protected from personal failure and responsibility, the government props up failing ones to allegedly protect shareholders, it's all a big circle jerk.

4:44 AM  
Anonymous Sky-Ho said...

crackpot,

You are so correct about the corporate myth.

I ask people what point they consider "waste" in a government service to become a problem. Many come up with about 5%. Shooting an example helps, $100 million project, at what point would you blow the whistle.

Then, I ask, what profit would you allow for an out-sourced service doing the same thing. Almost always I get a 8 to 15%.

I then point out that for 100 million cost, how much in goods and services could one rightly expect from that money for govt vs private (out-sourced).

Always leaves 'em quiet.

4:52 AM  
Anonymous Bugboy said...

I work in local government that has for at least the past decade been fighting infiltration by private contractors.

This business (mosquito control) is NOT a money making one, akin to firefighting, in which you spend much of your time waiting for the mosquito outbreaks.

But don't let the private contractors tell you otherwise; they are liable to scare the living daylights out of homeowner's associations and city/county boards of commissioners with stories of mosquitoes carrying viruses in their midst.

It usually takes 2 years for these municipalities to figure out they are being taken for a ride, not to mention a pile of money.

It's taken me 10 years, and the Bush Misadministration, to figure out a comeback to those who support privatization: NO ACCOUNTABILITY.

6:07 AM  
Blogger Nitpicker said...

New this morning: A Chesapeake defense contractor admitted in federal court Monday that his company bilked the Navy out of more than $600,000 by filing phony invoices.

Kennis Sigmon, president of The Sigmon Group, pleaded guilty on behalf of the company to two felony counts of filing false claims.

The company admitted submitting 33 phony invoices from 2001 to 2003 for contract work on Navy aircraft carriers the Carl Vinson and the Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The company was paid $642,000 for labor, materials and travel costs it never incurred, according to a statement of facts submitted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Alan M. Salsbury and signed by Sigmon.

6:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Take Jack Welch ,the tough talking , former GE CEO , I fail to see the free market prowess or brilliant business acumen in his legendary reputation .
He boosted the bottom line primarily by swapping American labor for exploited foreign labor and by feeding off protected Federal contracts ,which is more about having the right lobbyist than performance , where is the genius here ?

8:35 AM  
Anonymous P J Evans said...

I used to be a Smithsonian member, because the magazine had so much information in it - not just the articles, but the references attached to the articles. When Small took over, it was dumbed down to something like another travel magazine, and the 'additional reading' information disappeared. I dropped the membership. It wasn't worth the money they wanted for it any more.

8:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These Bushies have always told us that "It's government that is the problem." When will my fellow citizens realize that they were speaking the truth all along, that their form of governance would indeed be the problem? Worse still, with voter turnout in the 10%-20% range and public finacing of campaigns a distant dream, where is the possibility of things getting better anytime soon?

8:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I never understood why anyone would vote for a candidate that insisted that government couldn't do anything well. And why would anyone be surprised when they made the government worse?

I mean, would anyone take their car that said "well, you can't really ever get a car to run properly. They're all pretty crappy."

8:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

d'oh - that's "why would anyone take their car to a mechanic that said..."

8:58 AM  
Anonymous whetstone said...

I don't know that the problem so much is "self-interest" as a very narrow and short-sighted definition of self-interest. I think a lot of times the right takes self-interest to mean "how can I personally have the most economic gain now." Even if you are only interested in how public policy can benefit you in your own day-to-day life, that's still a disastrous way of looking at the world.

Take the whole ARM debacle. It was a great idea because it was going to benefit everyone right away and how dare anyone suggest people not be able to take advantage of such opportunities. Now it's a huge disaster, which anyone who's ever held any debt or wagered on anything could see coming. And it's not just going to hurt lenders and borrowers--it's also going to hurt the people who live in neighborhoods where people are defaulting left and right and killing home values.

10:05 AM  
Blogger alberich said...

They represent aristocracy with a populist gloss, borrowing what they can from the evangelical revival

As the used to put it, G.W. Bush has "the common touch". It's just that having the common touch automatically indicates that you are not, well, a commoner. That we insist on candidates having "the common touch" (i.e. "a guy you'd have a beer with") is actually a dangerous sign of how much of an aristocratic society we've become.

A truly democratic society views government as a service provider and hence the voters would wanna hire the best person for the job. That the electorate is convinced that other things matter besides being good at providing governance is a horrible omen. Those in the right who spead the meme that "gummint can't do anything right", which frames government as something other than a service we the people hire, are inherently un-democratic even if they wrap their rhetoric in the language of liberty.

The rhetoric of the right may appear to be "libertarian", but even the rhetoric adopts and spreads an ominously aristocratic frame. The right really does wanna return to manoralism (they cannot stand even the reciprocal obligations of feudalism).

10:11 AM  
Blogger alberich said...

Sky-Ho,

I use that same calculus, but I find the corporate suck-up types somehow refuse to view profits as an "inefficiency".

The way I look at it, a corporation is like a heat engine: there is a certain amount of energy in (money spent buying their product), in exchange you get a certain value (work out) of product. In order to maximize their competativeness, corporations do want to be able to produce the most work out for the least energy in. But, like a heat engine, for-profit corporations are able to produce the work out because the work out is never the same as the energy in -- in the case of the for-profit corporation, because they take a profit.

So profits are exactly the economic equivalent of thermo-dynamic inefficiency. Yet when you tell this to a free-market idolater, they just refuse to get it -- "how can a corporation be less efficient than the gummint?" -- and they react about the same way as the computer in Logan's Run did to being told "there is no sanctuary" or the Nazi dentist in Marathon Man did to being asked "is what safe?".

So maybe we should just start repeating this argument until all our opponants' heads explode from the cognitive dissonance? Let's call it the "Logan's Run strategy" of political gamesmanship ...

10:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting comment above about ARMs that Sir Alan promoted.

It should be very clear that ARMs are for the benefit of the lender not the borrower.

In fact, a very good deal for the lender.

12:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's another great Republican scam:

Small Government.

How in hell do you govern a massive, continent wide, highly sophisticated nation with small government.

Small government benefits one class of people, the very rich.

12:48 PM  
Blogger AnacherForester said...

Adam Smith just sat straight up in his grave and shouted "Mo Chreach!” “(My Ruin!)" As usual Republicans grab the Cliff Notes, find something in the first ten pages to justify their actions and throw the rest of the Notes in the trash unread. There is far more to The Wealth of Nations than one introductory statement. 600+ pages more.

While Adam Smith is widely touted as the original champion of free market economics, his work is open to wider interpretation. Furthermore, Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776. He was doing so at the very start of the dissolution of Europe’s feudal system. Still the stepdaughter of the United Kingdom, Smith’s native Scotland was then suffering mightily from economic restrictions imposed by “Mother” England. It’s also worth noting that Smith formulated his theories in the absence of the existence of a true democracy. If Adam Smith were alive today, the additional 200+ years of history would cause him to refine his positions and perhaps reach some altogether different conclusions.

It's worth noting that Adam Smith did a very un-Republican-like thing upon his death. He left his estate to charity. Smith was a humanist to the end not the free market super pirate “greed-is-good” caricature he is too often portrayed as today.

AF

"Malking and her ilk have grown both fat and crafty suckling at the teat of Rove."

1:32 PM  
Blogger artMonster said...

You might add the Veterans Administration under Secretary Jim Nicholson (former attorney, real estate developer, and even better, former Republican Party chairman) to the list of privatized clusterfucks that is the Bush "legacy".

7:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rent the movie "fierce creatures". You won't regret it and will be bowled over by the parallels.

http://www.amazon.com/Fierce-Creatures-John-Cleese/dp/0783225490

stars

John Cleese,Jamie Lee Curtis,Kevin Kline,Robert Lindsay (II),Michael Palin,Ronnie Corbett,Carey Lowell,Bille Brown

9:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's not just the current Republicans which are flawed, but the ideology which says government can do no right and corporations can do no wrong.

Hi Nitpicker,

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought these two ideologies are one and the same. :)

Great post!

KSH

4:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To quote a line from "Rosemary's Baby," - "...all of them witches."
I think that just about describes the current administration.

4:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the effectiveness of corporate pixie dust (w/o reference to politics):

http://agonist.org/ian_welsh/20070327/the_people_who_know_how_to_do_the_job

The economic theory most Republicans adhere to is mercantilism (which is win-lose), not Adam Smith's capitalism (which is win-win). Add in Social Darwinism, and some sound bites from a Nobel laureate who said what you wanted to hear (Milton Friedman) and go to town!

I *love* the fact that the Reagan mantra ("Government is bad") is finally getting turned around. For 20+ years I've been asking people why, if they needed to select a driver for a cross-country bus trip, they would pick the guy that hates to drive??

And why didn't they all move to Somalia (whose gov't could've been drowned in a teacup) when they had a chance?

5:53 AM  
Blogger John said...

Adam Smith's "invisible hand," eh? When the game is rigged and completely corrupt, all of which the hand is capable is fist-fucking anyone still dumb enough to put their money down and take a spin in the market!

6:05 AM  
Anonymous me said...

"a terrible human resources decision: Bremer, Brownie, Miers, Tomlinson, Gonzales, Small"

I can't believe you didn't mention Cheney and Rumsfeld.

9:47 AM  
Anonymous me said...

"in one sense, Bush hasn't failed. He implemented core Republican principles and they failed"

That is EXACTLY the heart of the matter. Cons these days are claiming that "Bush isn't a real conservative" and christians are saying "Bush isn't a real christian".

But "christian" and "conservative" are PRECISE descriptions of Bush and his policies. He does exactly what christians and conservatives have been demanding for decades.

And we see the very predictable result - war, death, destruction, debt, recession, pollution and climate change, rich getting richer, poor getting poorer, the middle class disappearing, and our country widely hated around the world.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Batocchio said...

Thanks for a good post. I grew up in the DC area, visited the Smithsonian all the time, and took several classes there. It pains me to see poor management there. It is a jewel.

Private business is not inherently superior. And you make a great point about the purpose of government, although most movement conservatives seem to feel the real purpose of government is corporate welfare and more money for the super-wealthy.

Digby made similar points in a recent post. As he put it, this sort of behavior from Republicans isn't a bug. It's a feature.

10:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bush’s and Chaney’s Oil and Defense interest could hardly be happier , these people are neither stupid or incompetent, when it comes to their real objectives. For instance ,if you measure Iraq results in terms of filled coffers , failure is not part of the discussion :

• Oil interest , as a practical matter, control more oil and can more effectively manage its world price .
• Defense interest , thanks to Dick Chaney’s Machiavellian restructuring of the military procurement process , will be make huge profits and will be resupplying the Pentagon in perpetuity and far above the projected pre Iraq war levels .

10:27 AM  
Blogger tech98 said...

What's so free market about a corporation anyway?

The very purpose of scaling a business up to a typical 'corporation' size is to obtain market power, i.e. enough scale and influence to reduce competition and raise prices.

Policymakers seriously interested in free(-ish) markets give attention to levels of competition in industries and anti-trust laws. Rethugs do not. They start with a Jeebus-like ideological devotion to Adam Smith soundbites and think no further.

BushCo aren't free marketeers, they are corporatists, devoted to cronyism for favored corporations run by their pals. Government contracting exponentially increases the potential for influence-peddling, no-bid sweetheart deals, kickbacks and graft, especially when you have corrupt fucks like Cheney and Rove running the show.

11:32 AM  
Blogger Crystal Grace Rutherford said...

I am a member and get the Smithsonian Magazine. Smith was an excellent fund raiser, but had no other qualifications to lead an academic institution. Under Smith's leadership, after the invasion of Iraq, there were a few articles - "feel good" pieces about live under the occupation. I was highly suspicious since they were not the usual fare of science and history. I fear that like everything the Bush administration has touched, either directly or indirectly (Smith was a major donor) The Smithsonian has been politicized and no longer serves its primary functions. Like the White House website, I wonder if there has been any revisions of history, or scientific knowledge withheld to conform with the Republican Party's current ideology.

2:20 PM  
Anonymous Lancelot Link said...

Well, that explains why the Smithsonian sends me so much email spam these days....

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Philip the Equal Opportunity Cynic said...

Good post that I happened upon with a random Google search. I suppose I more or less played the role of your friends in that 2000-era dialogue. In fact, I was recently reflecting about a similar dialogue.

It's not that I ever expected GWB to be a great president, really, though I did derive hope from his compassionate conservative rhetoric. I just vastly, catastrophically "misunderestimated" the extent to which a bad president can do damage to the country. I always assumed that the President was a figurehead, that the corporate interests behind him would step in and make sure things were done more-or-less rationally. Rationally with a little graft for those involved to benefit, sure. But to put it bluntly, I would never have believed we would embark on a $500 billion military operation that provides no benefit to anyone except military contractors and al Qaeda.

Count me among the chastened.

5:42 PM  
Anonymous drShop said...

WooW =)

3:49 AM  

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