Tuesday, May 14, 2002

Orrin Judd suggests that Bush's critics misunderstand him. When the American Prospect pointed out that Bush, while promising to stress education, submitted a budget which guts education programs, cutting more than $1 billion out of even programs cited for support in Bush's own No Child Left Behind Act, Judd riposted that:

One of the great mysteries of media coverage of George W. Bush is how the press can have completely failed to understand his administration's roots in the world of business.

Businessmen, of course, being noted for their lack of concern about money. Or something like that:

Think of this bill as a car and the administration as Ford Motor Company. The president promised buyers a spiffy new car. The various vice presidents of the company each have their own vision of what that car should be like and they have powerful constituencies behind them. The president lets the vps who he disagrees with claim some victories in the design process, knowing that he'll be able to cut and trim once manufacture begins. The car starts rolling out and, even if a very few of the vps are still willing to fight, their own constituents aren't. Meanwhile, the buyers get their car and they're happy.

Of course, when Ford was actually run like that in the 1950s, with the heads of divisions (particularly Jack Reith) clawing and scraping for advantage, pursuing their own big-picture ideas with, shall we say, a certain disregard for financial projections, the car it produced was the Edsel, and the ensuing fiscal bloodbath nearly sank the company. And the guy who sorted out the mess was Bob McNamara --- a compulsive micromanager whose head for detail was as legendary as his ineptitude at, and disdain for, backslapping personal politics, and whose tour in government, as Secretary of Defense, was a failure.

Beyond that, there are just a few problems with this analysis. Let's start with the characterization of Bush as a "big picture" guy who lets subordinates handle the details. The most basic way that shows up in government is federalism, where the details of a situation are left to local governments to handle in so far as is feasible. Except that isn't always the way it works under Bush --- see this WaPo op-ed by Jesse Ventura, pointing out that the Bush welfare proposal would ban programs in his state which have been quite effective, because Dubya just doesn't think that an education for welfare moms is a good investment. (What, after all, did he gain from his own?)

Then there's the characterization of Bush as a successful businessman. When the ExPatPundit pointed out that Bush's business career consisted of running three tiny Texas oil companies successively into the ground (probably with a few dozen employees each --- hardly Ford Motors), selling each of them off and somehow winding up twice in charge of the buyer, Judd dug himself in deeper, suggesting that the same skills are required to run a business of any size, which would certainly come as a surprise to the venture capitalists who try earnestly to ease successful founders out of their companies, because they believe those founders don't have the skill set to grow them to hundreds of employees, let alone thousands. (He also brings up Bush's busienss experience with the Texas Rangers baseball team, which also lost buckets of money on his watch, and where the main achievement of his tenure was soaking the taxpayers for a new ballpark).

Then there's the characterization of businessmen. It's true that a lot of executives don't pay much attention to the details of the companies they're managing --- in part because they aren't necessarily trained to deal with them; business schools often teach them that a trained manager can manage anything. (To be fair, it sometimes works out that way; Gerstner's career at Nabisco and AmEx seems to have been fine preparation for cleaning up the mess at IBM, to judge by results). But the one thing that they do care about in detail, sometimes obsessively, is fiscal results, in part because that's what they're judged by, particularly in the post-WhizKid era. Rock-star CEOs like "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap got their reputations by demanding his subordinates fire or sell whatever it took to get good numbers without worrying about the damage; Dunlap's reputation is suffering now because the hollowed out shells of his companies couldn't support their own weight.

That was certainly the case in the particular business culture which spawned Dubya's business career --- it's now known that when one of Dubya's early oil ventures was nearly belly-up, it got bailed out by Enron, a firm whose management was clearly dedicated to producing good-looking quarterly financial reports, even at the expense of substance.

Whatever Dubya's administration is producing, it isn't that.

(Two footnotes. First, for more on Ford, see "The Whiz Kids", by John Byrne. The "Whiz Kids" had run logistics for the Air Force during World War II, and actually were brought into Ford as detail guys and controllers. Before they arrived, Ford was run so loosely that Henry Sr. had actually banned org charts --- trying to make one was a firing offense --- and they were responsible for imposing strict financial controls, over the next twenty years or so, which ultimately left the company badly hobbled by its own red tape, but that's another rant. That all makes the excesses of Reith, a Whiz Kid himself, even more peculiar, but they happened anyway.

Second, Glenn Reynolds thought Judd's argument was worth citing. That should give pause to folks touting the new wonders of the blogosphere; even though it collectively delights in debunkings of community enemies like Fisk and Chomsky, it is all too often an echo chamber for its own brand of comfortable nonsense. But that's a topic for another day).


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