Unethical Practices Now Accepted in the US

By Paolo von Schirach

June 29, 2010

WASHINGTON – E-mails filters are reasonably sophisticated these days, so that the avalanche of “Congratulations on your win“, or, “Claim your free gift” stuff, goes straight into the junk mail box, where it belongs. I am not sure whether or not enough is being done to prevent people from concocting fraudulent or semi-fraudulent messages aimed at teasing unaware members of the public so that they’ll get ensnared into whatever scheme and end up buying products and services they really do not want. But, thanks to e-mail filters, at least most of this stuff is recognized for what it is: “junk”.

Advertising “free” services

In television advertising, though, there do not seem to be such filters. Case in point, an ad featuring well known TV personality and commentator Ben Stein who promotes a website called “Freescore”. This ad promises to give you, for free, the credit score of the three main credit bureaus: Transunion, Experian and Equifax. Given the importance of your credit score for almost anything in America, free access to it, as compiled and constantly updated by the three major credit services, would be really useful.

I watched the ad and decided to test it. In the back of my mind, I thought that there had to be a catch of some kind, something like, “We’ll give you free access to you your credit score; but first you have to subscribe to this magazine, or whatever…”.

But –believe it or not– I also wanted to be positively surprised. I wanted to see that, for once, what you see is really what you get. I wanted to be convinced that at least some advertisers are honest and that, indeed, they’ll give you what they say you’ll get. In this case: “free” access to your credit score.

“Free” is not at all free

And so I went on line and found the website. Nothing in the home page suggests anything other than what is advertised: “Follow these steps and you’ll get access to your credit score”. So, second click. And there there is a form to be filled on line. But right there the catch: in the lower right hand side of the page. In the almost statutory “small print”, one reads that the service is “free”; but only for a 7 days trial basis. After that, if you want to continue to have access, you are charged $19.99 a month. So, not free at all. Alright, before you sign up, you are told the truth. So, what do we make of this? After all, can we be reassured that in the end this is honest advertising for honest commerce?

May be not illegal; but unethical

Not really. This is pretty awful. Probably not illegal and not necessarily worse than average; but emblematic of openly unethical behavior. Nothing could be more misleading than calling “free” and advertising as “free” something that is not at all “free”. And then there is the complicity of the TV personality who lends his face, his credibility to this deception. And, of course, whoever controls that bit of TV space is totally uninterested in the content of the ads, as long as they are paid for airing them. Again, probably we cannot call this ad “fraud”, because the small print reveals the actual terms of the deal: you want service, you pay a fee.

But what is entirely wrong and what should be inadmissible is that, in order to get people to walk through the virtual door and go to the website, you tell them a lie. “Come on in….It’s free!” And what is even worse is that I suspect that nobody really takes exception to this now well established modality based on deception –more or less pronounced, depending on the issues– as a routine business practice.

The savvy consumer should know better……

Of course, if you talk about this to any savvy observer or battle hardened consumer, they would say: “Ha, ha…..You fool. So, you fell for it, eh? Didn’t you know that these offers of “free this or that” are just teasers, so that you lower your guard and become enticed? Come on, my friend…’Thought you were smart…..You should know better”.

And so, at least among the cognoscenti, the understanding is that these ads in fact are for the idiots, people so dense who believe that what they are told is actually true! Can you imagine that….

And so, the smart people skip the junk and concentrate on the stuff that is more likely to be for real. Well, this may be a good way of surviving in a universe of double talk and pervasive deception. Fine, as far it goes.

In a society that reveres ethics lack of ethics is normal

But is this really the way we want to live? Does anybody really believe that accepting such low standards in terms of business ethics is alright? Apparently so. These ads about free services that turn out not to be free are aired as legitimate marketing tools. Likewise, the same can be said for ads that make outlandish claims for the health value of a product that turn out to be exaggerated or just false. By and large, no public outcries. Few if any inquiries by any consumer protection agency or equivalent.

And yet, the very fact that we, as a society, accept deception as a totally legitimate business practice, the fact that well known personalities accept to be paid for something that, while not technically illegal, is certainly unethical, speaks volumes as to what we have come to accept as “the new normal”. “Hey, everybody does it. This is how you get customers. This is how business works”.

While this looks bad, it gets even worse if we consider that all this happens in a society in which religion based ethics is theoretically the unshakable foundation of our beliefs and behavior, a society in which libraries are full of volumes on ethics, a society in which a fair number of tenured university professors make a living teaching ethics as respected faculty members in thousands of Liberal Arts and Philosophy Departments. A bit of a disconnect, here, wouldn’t you think? We are in principle firmly devoted to strong ethical values that, in practice, we disregard in a most egregious way.

Before the Wall Street 2008 debacle, shady practices were unobjectionable

Again, without trying to make too much of it, let’s remember that until not too long ago, all the mortgage brokers who were aggressively selling sub prime mortgages to unsophisticated clients, knowing full well that they were getting their customers into veritable financial traps, thought nothing of it, because “Hey, everybody’s doing it….So, why shouldn’t I participate in this business”? Indeed, why not? Well, because it is based on deception and half truths and thus wrong. Something does not need to be technically illegal to be reprehensible.

“We do not do these things here”

A while ago I listened to a radio program about trends in Wall Street way before the financial meltdown of 2007-2008. A story was told by the interviewee about a young, aggressive MBA who wanted to work for one of the old brokerage houses in New York. In order to make a strong case for being hired, he proposed to the firm manager a number of very clever but may be a bit shady new ideas aimed at increasing business volume and returns. The firm manager terse reply was: “We do not do these things here“. The young MBA was not hired.

I do not know the details. Maybe the firm manager was just a very conservative practitioner, stuck in the past and unable to see the wonders of new financial products. Or may be he thought that the bright new ideas presented to him were unethical –and for this reason not to be pursued.

Be that as it may, I would like to think of a world in which deceptive  practices of any kind, mendacious spinning by public officials and political commercials that clearly manipulate facts in order to make a point, along with unethical advertising, would be rejected because, in this society, as it were: “We do not do these things”. 

In the meantime, if you want to get your credit score, remember that you have to pay for the service. “Freescore” is really not free at all. “Everybody knows it”, including, I assume, Mr. Stein.

Firing McChrystal Not Enough

WASHINGTON – The scandal caused by the openly dismissive and offensive language used by General Stanley McChrystal, US and NATO Commander in Afghanistan, and by his staff to characterize the upper echelons of the Obama administration is over. In a series of interviews with a Rolling Stone magazine reporter, amply documented in a long article, McChrystal and his staff described US national security leaders, starting with Vice President Joe Biden, as not so smart amateurs and worse. Mercifully, because of the immediate McChrystal forced resignation and the announcement that General David Petraeus, technically McChrystal boss as Central Command, (CENTCOM), Commander, will replace McChrystal, the White House put a quick end to this embarassment. Going forward, Petraeus looks good. He is well known and he enjoys a high degree of political bi-partisan support –something that should augur a quick confirmation process by the US Senate;  while his appointment to this difficult job should stabilize troop morale, as well as relations with the Afghans who know him well.

The strategy is still wrong

So, case closed? Can we safely conclude that, whatever the bizarre reasons for McChrystal egregious and unusual behavior, contrary to the most elementary norms stipulating that the US military works for the civilian leadership and not the other way around, with his removal there is no more reason to worry? Not really.

My contention is that, if McChrystal turned out to be the wrong Commander, the strategy for Afghanistan, crafted mostly by McChrystal himself, is still the wrong strategy. Both are bad. Replacing McChrystal was the right thing to do. In fact, there was no other way of dealing with this mess. McChrystal has been fired not on differences over policy but because of his open disdain for the most sacred of the rules that prescribe uniformed people to always recognize that, here in the United States of America, the president is the Commander in Chief and the military obeys. Sniping at the civilian leadership of the nation is not permissible. No exceptions. The prompt sacking of McChrystal reaffirms, with emphasis, this constitutional principle. But getting rid of him does not change much on the ground in Afghanistan. While announcing that David Petraeus will take over, President Obama reaffirmed the same strategy. And so we still have a problem.

Counterinsurgency may take decades

I wrote here, back in November, (“How To Win in Afghanistan“, November 15, 2009), that choosing a counterinsurgency strategy to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda would not work simply because, even if are lucky, this would take years, may be decades, and huge budgets; right at the time in which we are facing a massive growth of our national debt, something that is bound to cause strong frictions beacuse of conflicting spending priorities. In other words my point was that we have neither the money nor the staying power to mount, sustain and successfully end a counterinsurgency half a world away. If anything, the fiscal picture has gotten worse since last November;  while there is less and less political support for this conflict.

Counter insurgency in a very hostile and very difficult terrain is a dirty and long drawn business. The objective of “winning hearts and minds” as a way to deny the Taliban and assorted radicals the support of the Afghan people is laudable in principle. In practice, in the incredibly challenging conditions of Afghanistan, this is almost unachievable, at least under the terms of this strategy. This strategy contemplates building from the ground up credible Afghan institutions, along with the delivery of substantial economic development assistance, so that people will be convinced that they have a stake in peace under competent civilian rule, as opposed to throwing their lot with the Taliban.

The country is inhospitable

Let’s repeat what should be well known. Afghanistan is an extremely poor and underdeveloped landlocked country with harsh terrain and deficient infrastructure. With a per capita income of $ 800 a year, Afghanistan is near the bottom of any scale, ranking 219 out of 227 countries, (CIA World Fact Book). The country never had a strong, credible central government. The society is fragmented along ethnic and tribal lines. Nowadays, the overwhelming majority of the population is under 25. So, to the mix of a country in semi-chaos, involved in almost constant violence for over thirty years, you have to add tens of thousands of young people with no education, no job and very few prospects, whose lot cannot be improved any time soon even if we stipulated that a heroic, superbly crafted, economic development effort would begin today.

Not a good starting point for stability and building trust in weak public institutions, with almost grotesque levels of corruption. (An Afghan politician speaking recently in Washington indicated that it is routine to be asked for bribes even by those who are in charge of accepting normal payments. If you do not pay them a bribe, they will not accept your payment and you will then be delinquent on your bills).

No great results, so far

For the moment, little progress on almost all key fronts relevant to the key objective of winning hearts and minds. Let’s review them: a) Training of the Afghan armed forces and police; b) Instilling confidence in the Kabul Government headed by President Hamid Karzai; c) Creating a US significant “civilian surge” that would give some teeth to the notion of a State Department/USAID led effort at rapidly developing this wretched country; d) Countering opium cultivation and trade which in turn fuels a huge illegal economy, War Lords, the Taliban and assorted friends and (allegedly) family members of Karzai himself.

On all these key fronts things are not going well, or at least they are a lot worse than anticipated when the administration agreed to the current (McChrystal designed) plan contemplating a significant troop surge with the hope, though, of starting a draw down as of July 2011 –which is to say only a year from now.

Reports indicate huge unresolved issues

Recent news stories indicate the over estimation of actual Afghan forces combat capabilities. Simply stated, the Afghans are far less prepared than previously thought, something that puts in question their ability to provide serious support to current operations, let alone successfully take over once we start drawing down. Overall, we are making only slow and inconclusive progress in a variety of military theatres. Violence is rampant. There is no area in which fighting intensified after the surge that can now be rated as totally secure for reconstruction and development to begin in earnest. So, building a new modern and democratic Afghanistan, while showing to the population that the Kabul government is a reliable partner remain distant goals.

According to reports, it is highly questionable that political elections for a new Afghan parliament can be held, as about 50 per cent all electoral districts to date are considered not safe enough for elections. Another major item is the bribes involved in contracting to Afghans of huge logistics operations aimed at keeping US forces in Afghanistan supplied. It turns out that it is impossible to supervise this business, while bribes are routinely paid by contractors and subcontractors to ensure safe passage of convoys. It could very well be that some of these US funds end up financing the Taliban. The opium business continues.

On top of this, after the allegations of major electoral fraud at the time of last year’s presidential elections, the Karzai government does not enjoy any meaningful legitimacy.

Insurgents have the upper hand

In all this, let us remember the ABC of military strategy. As Carl von Clausewitz taught long ago, in any conflict, the fighting is over not when we declare victory, (remember George W. Bush unfortunate speech about the end of major hostilities on the aircraft carrier?), but only when the losing party admits defeat. As banal as this may sound, for any war to end, someone has to say: “I lost. No more”.

In the case of conventional wars this generally happens. In the case of insurgencies, especially when the terrain gives guerrilla fighters an advantage, while at least some segments of the population support them, this admission of defeat may never come; and the conflict will go on and on. As this is the war we are fighting, we should be prepared for fighting protracted well into the future.

Achievable goals via a low profile

I stated before and I restate now that if indeed “sanctuary denial” to the Taliban and al Qaeda is, as it should be, our objective in Afghanistan, then there could be easier and more cost effective ways of achieving this valid strategic objective.

First of all, we should be willing to recognize that building a viable central government is a daunting and may be impossible challenge. Thus we should focus our objectives on something that is both doable and still worthwhile. We should deal as best we can with the local tribal leaders and War Lords. They have more authority and more control on what happens in their regions than any official from Kabul who is not supported either by political legitimacy or sufficient force. If the idea is to have Afghans regain confidence, then allow local Afghans to be in charge. Let’s help them.

US forces should take a very low profile. They cannot secure the country on their own. They are viewed as an invading force. Whatever the plan to help out the local population, young American soldiers, heavily armed, but mostly with little or no knowledge of the local languages and customs, are sore thumbs among villagers. It is a really hard sale for the Afghan population to believe that some boys and girls from Alabama or Kansas, dressed in odd, heavy uniforms, who do not speak their language and who are not Muslim can be trusted as reliable partners for the long haul. Empower the local leaders, allow them to consolidate their authority using their own methods. This may not be neat or pretty; but it is bound to be more effective than our complicated community building strategies along with our mind boggling rules of engagement.

The example of the 2001 invasion

Again, I go back to the CIA-led 2001 campaign in Afghanistan. Its stunning success, with relatively modest numbers of operatives and special forces on the ground, rested on the fact that prior to 9/11 the CIA had built fairly solid relations within Afghanistan. When it was decided to move in trying to defeat al Qaeda, those resources were mobilized. And the Americans who went in were in large numbers CIA operatives, that is civilians, usually wearing local clothes. Still foreigners, this is true. But not an invading army that to the local villagers may have looked like what a Martian invasion may look to us.

Well, the CIA-led operations, aided no doubt by many, many suitcases filled with cash, worked. The War Lords switched sides. The American military, called upon by the operatives on the ground, did a good job bombing Taliban positions, reinforcing the belief that the Americans were good for their word and reliable partners.

Deal with local leaders

Well, I am not suggesting that this is it. Clearly one needs more than a few CIA operatives to help organize and articulate something that will be sustainable. But I would submit that, as there is always a danger of waste, it is probably less wasteful and a lot more cost effective to build personal relationships at the local level, while giving money and some technical assistance to local tribal leaders, instead of funneling the same funds via disastrously incompetent contractors hired by USAID, as it has been done for years. While systems have been changed, along with the strategic overhaul decided by president Obama last fall, the record of achievement, and thus cost effectiveness, for the almost totality of all civilian programs directed by the US government prior to those changes was very bad.

The idea that the same system, even if overhauled and upgraded, may be able to deliver a lot more now, especially in the 50 per cent of the country that is quite unsafe, and thus unsuitable for running complex development projects manned mostly by civilians, is fanciful at best.

Here is a different plan

Here is an idea for president Obama. There is one man who really knows how to run this kind of semi-covert operation. And this man is George Tenet, the retired CIA Director. Tenet’s legacy is of course tainted by the Iraq weapons of mass destruction, WMD, fiasco, conveniently pinned entirely on him. He retired under a heavy cloud of incompetence. But, while I believe that he was treated unfairly regarding WMDs, his conduct of the early phases of the Afghanistan invasion using a light foot print was the right approach.

I wish General Petraeus all the best. Still, unless he decides to drastically modify the current heavy duty, “lots of US boots on the ground”, approach I do not believe that he can do much better than McChrystal –and certainly he will not be able to show major results by July 2011.

BP and the Mismanagement of Complex Systems

WASHINGTON – The story of the BP Gulf platform explosion and never-ending spill has been presented to the public as a clearcut, if tragic, case of corporate malfeasance. Here is the “official narrative”. BP, a major, accident prone, (due to lax internal standards), multinational oil corporation, trying to squeeze maximum profits from operations, did not spend adequately in creating a safe well for oil extraction in a very challenging deep water environment in the Gulf of Mexico.

Terrible accident

Because of this reckless behavior, a terrible accident occurred. In its aftermath, the company showed to be equally unprepared to deal with the consequences of its (criminal?) actions. Hence the 60 days plus oil gusher, and the almost incalculable environmental and economic damage to all the coastal states, (Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida); and to tens of thousands of individuals and businesses caused by this environmental disaster, already ranked the worst in US history.

Blame the rascals

The media, the experts and the US government –we are told–have rightfully singled out BP as the only culprit. BP, constantly referred to by its old corporate name “British Petroleum”, (may be there is comfort in pointing out that the bad guy is a foreign firm) has been publicly vilified by the White House. Its leaders, starting with CEO Tony Hayward, have been paraded and humiliated in front of a variety of congressional committees as the villains in this story. Later on BP management has been compelled to publicly agree to massive payments, (at least $ 20 billion), using an unusual format, an independent body that will dole out the payments, that in other circumstances might have been challenged, as it has shaky legal justification.

BP gets the blame

So, the consensus, (as the wise people knew all along), is that BP, just like other oil companies, is a greedy scoundrel interested only in maximizing profits even when decisions to operate below reasonable safeguards create the preconditions for horrible accidents such as this one. After all, this is how oil companies behave; and why would you expect anything different? The solution? Restrict offshore drilling. Impose new, really tough regulations. Better yet: stop consuming oil and put the criminal oil companies out of business. Simple, no?

Assigning blame or identifying causes?

Well, not so simple, both regarding diagnosis and cure. The cure may be correct in the long term. But it is going to take a long time before we can get out of a hydrocarbon based economy. As for the diagnosis, no disagreement as to the obvious BP responsibility in all this. But I disagree with this simplistic narrative. Indeed, this oversimplification, by focusing entirely on assigning blame for the accident to BP, discourages a deeper examination of faulty systems and practices, at BP as well as within the US government agencies charged with oversight responsibilities of all oil operations that most likely created the environment that allowed a relaxed attitude about safety standards.

Dig deep to understand systemic failures

My point is that catastrophic failures and other less visible but equally damaging systemic failures, (such as, for instance, the now well documented, chronic under performance of the US public education system), originate in flawed institutional cultures, outmoded models and corresponding bad value systems. These are hard to pinpoint and deal with, because usually deterioration is a slow, incremental process that is not easily captured, unless we have a trained eye used to vigilance. And even if there were red flags, how does one deal with huge, malfunctioning systems, with the complexity of a cultural and psychological make up, with entrenched ways of doing things? There is no “How To Manual” for any of this.

Experience shows difficulties in fixing failure rooted in institutional cultures

Armies of seasoned management consultants, usually dealing with  shortcomings much narrower in scope at the corporate level, often have a really hard time in understanding and then correcting bad practices related to entrenched ways of doing things, and, more to the point, showing concrete results in “turning things around”, changing attitudes and systems. So, one can speculate that, as the challenge of making even larger changes in bigger institutions may be considered too big of an effort, the attitude is that we may as well not even try. But, by giving up, we also have to accept systemic under performance and bad outcomes as the new norm. And, if so, we may also have to accept the occasional mega-accident that is almost certainly the product of dysfunctional systems produced by dysfunctional cultures and values.

Identifying deep causes too difficult; vilification of the bad guys easy

Because of all this –difficulties in understanding dysfunctions, difficulties in devising corrective action– there is no clear consensus as to the need to investigate more deeply and then attack root causes. In the case of a major event, such as this mega accident in the Gulf, because of the public outcry, there is a frantic, irrepressible desire to quickly identify a culprit and to finger him as the scoundrel who should pay for the misdeeds. Once we are satisfied that we got “the bad guys” and that adequate penalties and restitution will follow, then the public feels vindicated. Case closed. Let’s move on to something else, without any need to go any deeper regarding root causes.

We do not engage in objective research aimed at understanding deep flaws

This narrow approach prevents a fuller and deeper examination of the dynamics that lead to bad performance or much worse. The truth is that the causes of sub par practices and performance leading to several huge disasters or just bad performance are manifold, usually layered over time, and therefore not easily pinned on this or that stupid, negligent or criminal decision-maker.

Indeed, we have to come to grips with the fact that problems occur not just because a single, (or a few), wrong decision, but because we allow the development and the implicit acceptance of bad standards and improper ways. And this is in part due to the sheer complexity of large multi-layered processes entrusted to a variety of different specialists, themselves often relying on ever more complex technologies. In this complexity where there is no one standard that fits all interlocked sectors, it is difficult to quickly identify bad practices. There is no one person or group that can competently understand all.

Easy to ignore slow deterioration of standards

For these reasons, sub par operations may creep up unnoticed and then they become established. But usually, when these practices make slow, incremental advances, we do not pay attention. Everybody discovers everything only when the spotlight is firmly trained on the bad guys, now under the microscope. For example, now that BP is under fire, all of a sudden we have countless news stories that tell us in detail how bad its safety record has been for years and –even worse—how all this was well documented.

Failure to report? Failure to take action?

Well, if this is indeed so, this becomes a fundamental issue that warrants serious scrutiny. If indeed government regulators supervising all these oil exploration and production activities knew about serious shortcomings within BP operations, why is it that nothing of real consequence was done to stop and correct such glaring bad behavior? Had action been taken, it is quite possible that this accident might have been prevented, as BP would have been forced to use really safe technology and standards in this as well as other operations. But somehow, as we have now the culprit before us, there is no serious appetite for a more comprehensive analysis aimed at understanding why the regulators failed.

We believe too much in our technologies

An additional blinder is our almost total trust in the value of our superior, high precision technological tools, so that we come to believe that we are capable of creating error free systems. Therefore, we create the fanciful myth that, as a norm, nothing bad should happen. If something does happen, it must be the fault of some negligent or wicked individual. But it is not quite so. We are so entranced with the notion that almost everything new is or should be “plug and play” that we fail to appreciate that almost nothing really is.

So, while it is essential to invest in and to encourage innovation, including in deep water oil drilling, we are having various reminders as to the inherent difficulties in any attempt to create management systems that can adequately oversee complexity that in large part rests on new technologies.

In the end good judgment still counts

In the end, although this may appear unsophisticated, much still rests on human judgment. And so “how” judgment is reached and its connection with value systems and institutional cultures within ever more complex systems should be the focus of much more intense reflection. Can we manage the complexity that we created as we keep pushing the envelope? This should be properly investigated, as the record, not just based on this extraordinary event, is not at all reassuring.

But we do little of this.

Superficial debates on what works and what does not

Instead, by and large we confine ourselves to sweeping, mostly ideological generalizations regarding the inherent superiority of reliance either on “private sector-led” or “government-led” solutions to almost anything. The underlying assumption held by both schools of thought, such as they are, being that systems that are inherently good will also be more effective and self-correcting; whereas systems that are inherently bad will also be plagued by dysfunction and poor performance.

This is usually how deeply the analysis of the inherent value of public or private systems goes. As it were, the prevailing opinion on whether the private sector or government are inherently good or dysfunctional, is largely determined by which one is pushed forward by the more fashionable ideological wind, as opposed to any real analysis.

Private sector systems not in fashion

And so, until not too long ago, the accepted wisdom in America, (and from America in many other parts of the world), was that the private sector had all the answers, while government was inherently cumbersome, inefficient, slow-moving and way too expensive. Then we had the epic financial debacle of 2008 – 2009 and that erased the private sector’s good image of competent stewardship. So, the private sector was not just incapable; but inherently prone to madness and excess; driven by greed and shortsightedness with a good dose of criminal intent, and bound to lead us all to ruin, unless we keep it on a very short leash. Hard for the private sector to re-emerge with a credible, clean image after this historic debacle.

Government is good, after all

But if the private sector failed, who will lead us? Well, after another major swing, the new consensus was that the much maligned government, finally led by competent people who believe in its inherent virtues, will take care of things. The policy wonks, the savvy technocrats will capably handle this mess and deliver us from evil.

The US presidential elections of 2008 were mostly about the resurrection, if not the triumph, of this idea of competent government; once treated by Ronald Reagan as a joke. (“We are with the Government. We are here to help”. Reagan used to tell this funny story to his audiences who broke in a roar of laughter. “Government” and “Help” could not possibly go together. Every sane person knows that).

The (brief) triumph of the technocrats

Do you remember when Barack Obama made campaign appearances talking about his courageous economic plans with at least 20 leading academic and policy geniuses lined up, right behind him, on the same stage? Well, this was a clever message. After the ruin caused by the bankers and the failures of General Motors and Chrysler, the calm army of technocrats standing behind the next president, all ready to go, conveyed, (at least on TV), an image of competent, poised determination. The message to the viewer was: “Rest assured. We know this stuff. We shall take care of things”.

Policy wonks stuck in the sand bar

But then, guess what? The policy wonks, while well-meaning, after all do not have “the magic touch”. And this is not because of lack of good ideas; but because of the inherent difficulty encountered in implementing vast changes, relying on not so good vast bureaucracies that are not up to speed. Government, it turns out, is slow; much slower than it would be desirable, and quite inefficient. Programs are enacted; but not implemented. Money is appropriated but not spent; or spent not entirely in the intended way or with the desired effect. Predictions about almost anything are usually wrong.

Resurgence of anti-government feelings?

But having noted all this, it is far too easy to conclude, along with the ideological opponents of this administration, that: “We should scrap everything. Wrong approach. There is no effective public policy solution to these issues”. Such blanket rejection is a sure way to avoid any serious analysis as to why certain things go wrong. But this ideological rejection is pretty much the extent of the constructive criticism offered by the Republican opposition in Congress. Their counter argument is of course to go back to the Holy Orthodoxy of low taxes and small government; and –honest– this approach will work like magic. If this is indeed the level of the debate, there is little hope of making progress in any attempt to improve the quality of systems.

BP would show that the private sector is still bad

In this ideologically tainted atmosphere, the BP debacle does not help the cause of the ideological proponents of private sector-led solutions to anything. Thanks to BP, the private sector these days is getting another huge black eye. According to the “Market Gospel” proponents, a huge mess like the one in the Gulf is what you expect of incompetent government. The private sector is another story. It runs things efficiently and smoothly.

Assigning total blame to BP avoids serious investigations

Whereas BP shows us that the private sector can be enormously incompetent. Still, from this to conclude that BP, (and by association, all the other oil companies), is essentially a criminal enterprise whose aim is to siphon off oil and gas and-who-the-hell-cares-about-consequences is a bit much. And yet this is the most convenient, crisp and short explanation for all.

BP: convenient scapegoat

In fact, convenient for the government that needs a clear political scapegoat; but also convenient for the defenders of the private sector orthodoxy who can explain away this disaster on the ground that it was an aberration caused by bums who should not have been in charge in the first place. This way, reassured that now we know all we need to know, we fail to undertake the more complex work of investigating the root causes of systemic failures which in this case involve, at different levels, both BP and the government.

Government responsibilities overlooked

Indeed, there are government responsibilities. But they have been completely overshadowed by the anger against BP. By leading the charge against the callous oil company, the US government cleverly managed to deflect any attention from its own egregious failures in the exercise of its statutory functions of oversight on the very activities of this oil company that eventually led to this disaster. Unfortunately, as all the focus is on BP, the public is not getting the full picture of all the key dynamics leading to this tragedy.

The US government clearly failed in its role of steward of the public interest. If BP went ahead with reckless plans, these very plans were vetted and approved by the Minerals Management Service, MMS, a branch of the Department of the Interior. MMS should function as the oversight government body created with the precise objective of making sure that safe procedures would be followed.

Why MMS did not fulfill its oversight mandate?

Why all the regulatory checks on BP failed? How is it possible in these days of mandatory disclosures, multiple reporting obligations, required vetting and authorizations, for a huge, high-profile multinational corporation operating all over the world to routinely engage in semi-criminal behavior without being caught and stopped? Again, now, with this immense disaster before our eyes, everybody is an expert at reading a long trail of damning evidence. But how about beforehand, especially if there was indeed so much available proof pointing to chronic malfeasance?

So, either the alleged BP reckless behavior is now conveniently exaggerated, or the various oversight and control systems in the US and around the world failed miserably in carrying out their statutory responsibilities. Either way, all this should warrant deeper investigation, so that we can find ways to correct aberrations.

We should investigate and analyze

Indeed, a deeper, truly comprehensive investigation would allow us to better understand the failures of oversight bodies, such as the MMS. But the fury against BP has shifted the spotlight away from the role of the US government in all this. We have essentially forgotten that, in principle at least, all of the activities of all oil companies involved in any type of exploration on the outer continental shelf, are supposed to be under the supervision of The Minerals Management System. And that is the Federal Government, otherwise known as the Obama administration.

The MMS website indicates that the MMS has a strong institutional presence in the affected Gulf of Mexico region: “The Gulf of Mexico Regional, GOMRD, Director [of MMS] is Lars Herbst.  Many disciplines are utilized to conduct the program.  Occupational categories include Petroleum Engineers, Geologists, Geophysicists, Inspectors, Physical Scientists, Technicians, Environmental Scientists, Oceanographers, Meteorologists, Marine Biologists, Economists, Mineral Leasing Specialists, Archaeologists, Paleontologists, Computer Specialists, Information Specialists, and Administrative Specialists, and a variety of clerical positions.  The GOMR currently has 542 employees on board.  The GOMR has District Offices located in Houma, Lafayette, Lake Charles, and New Orleans, Louisiana, and Lake Jackson, Texas“. So, MMS has jurisdiction and staff. Where were they?

MMS chief fired

As this accident quickly became political, at the end of May, the first political victim was indeed the incumbent head of MMS, Elizabeth Birnbaum, unceremoniously fired. Whether or not Ms. Birnbaum was directly culpable, MMS failed. It is true that the now controversial “long string design” for this particular BP oil well, (deemed by experts to be less safe than others), was reviewed and approved by MMS. If indeed that design was to be considered inadequate from a safety standpoint, then it was up to MMS to point that out and compel BP to adopt a better, more secure system –a judgment call that might have avoided this tragedy. But they did not do any of this, while they failed to act on other issues as well. And may be this is why the head of MMS has been thrown out.

Interior Secretary distances himself from MMS

And yet, in all this, it is almost bizarre that Birnbaum’s boss, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, talked about the MMS, this agency under his supervision, as an alien body that he knew not much which apparently engaged in obscure practices that, as a minimum, would suggest improper ties with the oil industries that it is supposed to supervise. But, hey, he –Secretary Salazar– knew nothing about it. Was he supposed to? Of course he was; they work for him.

And so, here is the emerging picture. MMS, a critical piece of the puzzle, representing the crucial function of government control, inspection and supervision, failed in a stupendous way. But, somehow, the media gave cover to the Obama crew, stating that bad, unethical practices within the MMS started under president George W. Bush, who, as you all should remember, was a product of the Texas oil industry, and thus guilty of any sort of favoritism towards his friends.

MMS relaxed standards really George W. Bush’s fault?

May be so. But last time we checked Barack Obama has been President of the United States as of the end of January 2009. This accident occurred at the end of April of 2010. Whatever the alleged and real flaws of the disgraced former president George W. Bush, doesn’t this administration bear responsibility for the poor performance of its own MMS watchdog; a watchdog placed there, let’s not forget, to safeguard the public interest? Of course, it does.

But, somehow Obama has been given a pass by the generally sympathetic media. And this is wrong, because this omission of government failures –present as well as past administrations all included– creates a distortion, allowing everybody to concentrate their rage on the easy target, the big and fat (and conveniently foreign) oil company, without properly examining how the regulators, those who are paid to protect the public interest, completely failed in their primary mission.

Systemic failure not properly looked into

This gist of all this is that with the easy demonizing of BP, already convicted many times in the court of public opinion, we are not focusing on the relevant components of this problem which is “systemic failure in the management and oversight of a complex operation”.

The fixation is and will be on “Who did precisely what at what precise moment”; without full appreciation that the causes of systemic failure rest in habits and ways of doing things that tend to be created over time. Accidents of this magnitude are fortunately rare; but their genesis usually can be found in a series of smaller or bigger aberrations carried on over a long period of time.

Gulf clean up operations also sub par?

But we are not done with the “Gulf Spill” yet. There is more, concerning techniques used to manage the oil spill. A retired CEO of the Shell oil company, John Hofmeister, in several media appearances has forcefully said that the techniques used by BP and the US government to contain the impact of the spill are old and ineffective. He also indicated that the Jones Act, an old law of 1920 that forbids the use of non US flag ships in US waters, so far prevented the US Government from accepting many offers coming from a variety of countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, that do have vessels better equipped to vacuum oil from the sea surface.

Clean up efforts also sub par

Likewise, several media accounts indicate that local elected officials and ordinary citizens are not happy with the speed and effectiveness of actions now under the general direction of the US Coast Guard. So, while the focus is now on how much money will BP have to cough for restitution and compensation, we are still not using the best technologies to effectively mitigate the consequences of this spill.

Uninspiring picture

If this is indeed true, and this critique comes from a former industry leader as well the people affected, then we have another type of systemic failure that would point to lack of understanding and mastery of international best practices related to oil spills on the part of the US authorities officially in charge of the post spill operations, coupled with crippling and outmoded legislation that should be either suspended or repealed. We had a show of massive government failure in 2005, in the organization of the post hurricane Katrina relief operations. Now, while this is a different type of emergency, we still see a combination of bad planning and poor execution.

This is not an inspiring picture in a country supposedly built on solid foundations of reason, checks and balances and accountability; and certainly no indication of a healthy attitude aimed at understanding causes and remedy deep-seated problems, as opposed to shaming the guilty.

Systemic problems in the public sector, says OMB Director

On a different but related topic, on June 8, Peter Orszag, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, OMB, the functional equivalent of a Minister of the Budget in the US government, gave an interesting speech at the Center for American Progress in Washington about effectiveness of public policy.

The juice of that presentation was that Government may have great ideas, but, if they are not properly implemented because of ineffective delivery systems, then there is little or no practical added value from the adoption of such policies.

US patents in three years

He proceeded to tell the audience that the US government as a whole is way behind the private sector in productivity. He cited as an example the inability to consolidate and streamline IT operations in various agencies. He also said that the US Patent Office, while it accepts filing done electronically, since it lacks proper IT systems, it then has to store filed forms manually. Yes, you got that: they print what they receive, and then store it manually. Average processing time: 3 years.

He also said that in 2006 the US government authorized a big project to produce computers to be used for the Census project now underway. Well, $ 600 million was spent on this with no results; and so the program was cancelled with no visible product, while “census workers out there today are still using pen and paper”.

Dysfunctions in the public agencies we increasingly rely upon

Now, all this is interesting. Mr. Orszag does not have “Line Ministry” responsibilities. He is the big picture guy who is supposed to put all the numbers related to public spending together so that there is policy and fiscal coherence. Fine.

But he was talking about the US government as some kind of bizarre specimen that he just run into, and not as the system that he and many others are running and on whose efficiency we all depend.

In truth, Orszag also talked about many administration initiatives aimed at improving this rather uninspiring picture; but they do not appear to be treated as matters of high urgency.

The problem

And here is the problem, magnified by the fact that this very administration of which Mr. Orszag is a senior representative was elected largely on the assumption that public institutions would be capable of rectifying the damage caused by the reckless private sector.

Therefore, fixing key components of public administration should be a high priority. Mr. Orszag told us about glaring inefficiencies. And it is good to begin by recognizing them. But how fast are we going to reach a higher level of performance? One thing is certain: not anytime soon.

Any quick fix…..?

True, in the cases that the OMB Director brought up in his speech there are no examples of dramatic errors that cost lives and environmental catastrophe. But it should be clear that embedded in all these dysfunctions there is the insidious, if hidden, damage caused by slowness, inefficiency, waste of resources, poorly used human capital, and bad allocation of money.

While Peter Orszag was performing a public service by pointing out these failures, it would be reassuring to learn that adequate resources are devoted to work on solutions. But we are not there. It seems that only crises require furious reaction. The malfunctions that set the stage for crises are largely ignored.

(In all this, it is of no great comfort that several days after delivering this speech, the news appeared that Peter Orszag is about to leave the Obama administration, the highest ranking member of the economic team to resign).

Apparently not……

OK, where am I going with all this? It is very simple. Government, just like an oil company, or a US Coast Guard managed oil spill mitigation operation, has become an ever more complex system that we do not know how to run well –and much has to do with its sheer magnitude and myriad of component parts, each with its own specialized technologies, its own quirks and its own “culture” and communication systems. But unfortunately we are unable to have a proper conversation about the malfunctions originated by complexity.

No honest debate about how to make large systems perform better

In part this is due to a political climate inauspicious for serious non partisan analysis. For a while at least, we accepted with almost blind faith, (except of course for the vocal ideological opponents), this idea that President Obama and his crew of supposedly competent, “with it” technocrats wisely maneuvering the levers of public policy were absolutely capable of rescuing us from the horrible damages caused by the insane leaders of a private sector that appeared to be a criminal enterprise.

They said they could do all

For a while at least, we were willing to believe that huge public policy rescue programs announced right after the November 2008 elections were going to not just extricate us from the financial catastrophe created by the evil Wall Street gang, but that this Wise Government had the smarts to address and fix all major problems:

  • education
  • health
  • employment
  • energy;and, last but not least
  • the systemic fiscal imbalances due to the cost of huge entitlement programs exacerbated by the growing numbers of senior citizens requiring more and more costly public services.

And they would do so competently, with an appropriate mix of near term fiscal stimulus, somehow magically blended with long term fiscal austerity. And this careful balance was supposed to convey to the markets that we needed to spend a lot now to revive the patient. But later, after normality would have been reestablished, we would deal with the systemic problems of growing public spending.

Record not so good

Well, while progress was achieved in many areas, most notably avoiding financial catastrophe and reconstituting some trust in the broader economy, practically nothing worked exactly as planned.

The vast short term fiscal stimulus was applied; but the actual scope of the recession was misdiagnosed, and the stimulus impact therefore much smaller than anticipated. The recession turned out to be worse and the rate of unemployment much higher. Thus a very, very slow jobless recovery.

Health care reform was passed with the promise of reduced costs down the line. Nothing so far indicates real cost savings. New initiatives are underway in education.

But the very nature of this sector does not allow us to see measurable near term results. Nothing much was done on energy. Nothing at all on immigration reform.

Domestic counter terrorism operations seem to be accident prone, with sloppiness in catching even amateur criminals with modest training.

In foreign policy, President Obama, declared that Afghanistan is a “war of necessity” and ratcheted up the war effort, with enormous military and fiscal consequences and trust in a strategy that in his intentions is magically supposed to do the trick before next summer when we shall start withdrawing troops. A fanciful target at best.

Bad reviews on Afghanistan go unnoticed

Indeed, on Afghanistan, another example of systemic failure. A recent report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction concluded that the metrics used to evaluate combat readiness of NATO-trained Afghan troops were wrong, thus vastly overstating Afghan capabilities.

The metrics used to create a rather optimistic capabilities assessment measured length of training and equipment provided; but failed to evaluate how all this works in actual combat operations.

Readiness exaggerated

This created an over optimistic picture of growing Afghan army capabilities, while the actual quality of training and thus combat effectiveness of many units remains modest.

The implications of this finding are immense and they clearly affect the key assumptions of a strategy largely based on our ability to turn very soon operations to a capable Afghan force, as we think about a draw down that should supposedly start in the summer of 2011.

Big news?

This report indicates that we cannot reliably turn much to an unprepared, not combat ready, Afghan military. This is big news. This is the stuff that should invite a comprehensive reappraisal of the whole strategy.

And yet, while such an exercise may very well be going on behind the scenes, this news item came and went, without any significant ripples or outcries. So, double damage here. A huge hole in the strategy is revealed indicating systemic failure in determining capabilities, and nobody thinks much of it.

Underperformance rampant in private and public institutions

All these examples indicate that the very government whose ability we want to rely upon to correct the crisis created by the private sector does not work so well either.

So, where do we go from here? Well, at the very least we should recognize that we do not really know how to manage complexity very well, be it in government or the private sector. It is quite obvious that the most technologically advanced nation in the world is not living up to its image of competent management.

Which model? 

If we agree on this, at the very least we should behave like adults and stop treating this as an ideological battle. There is no “Private sector-led only”, or “Government-led only “viable model. The future is not about “either, or”. We need both; and both clearly need fixing.

A better future rests on our improved ability to understand institutional cultures and how they may be improved upon in order to enhance clarity of purposes, priorities, positive feed back and responsibilities. The examples of the last few years show huge systemic failures of operations run by a variety of institutions, private and public, supposedly designed to deliver results while containing risk and avoiding failure.

As a minimum it would be good to acknowledge that we have a serious problem here.

We have to find better ways

While this picture is worrisome, we know that the United States has the intellectual capacity and the innovative drive to successfully address all of this. But first of all we should stop ideological fights between the “private sector-led” or “government-led” supposedly more efficient model and get to work realizing that systemic failures occur in both spheres, while they originate in a lack of proper understanding of institutional cultures, their difficult interactions with one another and the psychological make up of leaders and line officers in both Government and the private sector.

End the ideological fight: look for real root causes

This is where the real investigative and analytical work should be; and not in selling or debunking this or that supposedly superior model –an exercise whose only objective is to reinforce established biases, with the hope of winning an ideological fight, and with that the next election.

As the OMB Director correctly indicated, in the end the value of public policy is in its results. If our systems are flawed, you cannot expect good outcomes even from the most clever, innovative ideas.

And the same applies to whatever the private sector undertakes. If we want better results, it is time to study how people think and how they interact.

In Arcadia, Playing for South Africa’s Future

PRETORIA, South Africa – (Notes from October 2009). The other day I was walking from my Court Classique Hotel to a nearby little Spar supermarket. Only a short walk; however not without dangers. There is a standing warning not to walk there alone after dark, as crime is rampant in Pretoria; thus no need to take chances. Anyway, it was day time and I went. To get to the Spar supermarket I had to walk across nearby Arcadia Park.

Soccer in the park

It turns out that this was the time of day in which several soccer teams composed exclusively of black young people congregate there, taking advantage of the large, open and grassy terrain to play on. Walking back from the store, I strolled by one of these impromptu soccer matches.

Well, I am no expert. But I saw an impressive action. One young man, fit, very athletic (and good looking) had the ball. He raced across the field like a missile. An opponent was confronting him. But he retained control of the ball.  As he was racing towards the goal area which happened to be close to where I was standing, I clearly saw the expression of his eyes. I saw in him a genuine spark of keen intelligence and determination. He was running with the ball towards the goal area; then a faint, a stop, a double faint and dribbling and racing past all opponents, almost effortlessly. All this in a matter of a few seconds.

I was astounded by the energy, by the display of athletic elegance, by the supreme mastery of the game. Speed, intelligence, drive, intensity, focus. I saw all of that. And I was riveted in admiration. This is part of young South Africa. Only a small part; and it should be nurtured and helped. But how?

Sad looking workers

A different day, another venue near the hotel. We are in Arcadia, an old white area in Pretoria. So, as a legacy of apartheid, there are so many public amenities, including another big garden: Venning Park. And it is quite nice. Because of some recent rain, all is pretty: the grass and the flower beds. A few days ago, as I strolled through the big garden, there were many workers tending to the grounds.

There must have been more than 30, all wearing blue overalls. And I looked at them. Moving slowly, very slowly. Looking forlorn, sad, certainly uninterested in whatever their tasks might have been. Most of them doing basically nothing. One here slowly raking something. Another pulling some weeds. In essence, it was not just lack of a spark: this was a dispirited lot.

Most of them probably illiterate, speaking only their local language, and no English. Most likely temporary workers hired under some kind of “make work” public works program aimed at cutting down the staggering  “official” unemployment of about 25%. (The real unemployment is estimated to be well above 30% nationwide). But these are the black faces I see the most around here: sad, dispirited. And here we are, in Pretoria: this is one of the richest cities in South Africa and therefore in the whole of Africa.

South Africa’s future?

What will happen to the young man who displayed such athletic artistry in Arcadia Park? And why is it that the only great display of energy and talent I saw in this city was during an engaging soccer game?

Can these South African kids go to school? In theory, yes. In practice the system is in poor shape. And what do these kids learn? In what physical conditions are the schools? There was a story in the papers of one particular school in which all the windows are broken — all of them. And when winter comes, here in Gauteng Province, (starting in May, when it is Summer in the Northern Hemisphere), it gets really cold because of the altitude.

Well, if we have problems with our rather disorganized schools in Washington DC, imagine what is it like, not so much here in (relatively prosperous) Pretoria, but in the more remote and much, much poorer Provinces of South Africa: in rural Limpopo or Mpumalanga. Imagine those schools, (assuming they exist). Imagine the quality of the teachers. Imagine the conditions of the buildings. And here is where the seeds of South Africa’s future supposedly are planted and cared for.

Cooking Up Jobs Numbers at The White House

WASHINGTON – On June 4 President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden went just outside of Washington, in Hyattsville, Maryland at the K. Neal International truck company to tell us the good news of yet another month of job increases in America. The President acknowledged that the majority of the 431,000 new jobs added in May are temporary workers hired by the Government to fulfill the once every 10 years national census data gathering. But he also said that all the other jobs created indicate that we are on an upward trend. The trajectory is good. “We are moving in the right direction”. The economy is healing. With new jobs families will have income, they will be able to spend more and thus boost the prospects of other businesses across America, etc. etc.

May jobs data good?

Watching this performance of the President with a viable, sturdy small business, representing America’s resilience, as an appropriate background, the average American could feel somewhat heartened. While the President was not bombastic, he certainly wanted to tell us that the jobs data is good and that it validates all his policies. Message: “America, we are still not out of the woods, but we are making progress; and my policies are working just as intended”. Well, not so, Mr. President.

Well, no; May jobs data bad

It turns out that the very same job data hailed by the president as comforting reassurance of an economy moving in the right direction caused one of the worst days on Wall Street this year. The Financial Times June 5 front page headline reads: “Markets Rocked as Jobs Data Disappoint”. Indeed, the good jobs numbers cited by the President as positive news have been interpreted by the markets as very bad news; so much so that the Dow Jones lost 323 points, closing below 10,000. Well, how’s this possible? The market reacting badly to good news?

Orwell-lite manipulation

The truth is that the census workers are not just “the majority” of new hires that caused the May jobs growth, as Obama indicated. They are 411,000, (the President somehow forgot to mention this), that is to say 90 per cent and thus virtually the totality of new jobs. Subtract the temporary census workers paid by the Government and we have a dismal net national increase of only 41,000 jobs. All sources quoted in the article referenced above indicated that the data is truly disappointing, showing a much slower pace of economic recovery than previously anticipated and a much tougher road ahead. Hence the stock market sell off.

Presidential spin no big deal?

So Obama misrepresented the facts related to new May employment data in a way that is pretty close to an outright lie. So what? Is this really a big deal? Can we blame a President for giving a positive spin to bad news that may otherwise create a negative mood? Isn’t the President supposed to use his office as a “bully pulpit” so that we are inspired instead of being depressed?

Defending one’s policies and manipulating data is not one and the same

My answer is that the President cannot do this. It is quite alright for Obama to point to possibilities and to identify his policy goals. But it is not alright to openly manipulate numbers to prove one’s point, in the process creating distortions that amount to falsehood. You cannot say that the sun shines at midnight. Sure enough, this bad May jobs data may turn up to be just a blip, a temporary set back. But the President loses credibility by not calling a spade a spade. This was a bad day for the economy. Instead of dancing around and saying that all the new jobs created, even discounting Government jobs, indicate that we are on a good course, when it is not so, Obama would have looked a lot better if he had recognized the data for what it is: bad. One month of bad jobs data by itself does not invalidate a policy; but the clever spinning that the President engaged in is deceitful and it ultimately undermines his personal credibility.

Obama did not change the old politics, in fact he practices them

More broadly, this very episode, while in itself not incredibly egregious, is bad enough and indicative of a far worse truth: nothing, absolutely nothing has changed in Washington after Obama came along as Savior in Chief. The really bad news is that this new breed of supposedly saintly policy-makers doggedly dodge, spin and deny, always concocting a version of events that furthers their political advantage, just as the old ones; this way slowly poisoning the atmosphere, because a constant diet of half truths, manipulation and distortion reinforces a cynical view of Government.

And this continuation on the part of Obama of the old distortion game is especially bad because Obama –surely we all remember– promised to us all that he would radically transform all this. No more spin. “I’ll tell you like it is. I’ll level with you. I will not lie. Because I am not afraid of the truth, Ill be able to build coalitions”. This is what candidate Barack Obama promised to us during the campaign of 2008.

Obama had promised a transformation that did not happen

Remember that Obama was supposed to be not yet another Democratic Party machine politician (a la Hillary Clinton), fighting with the usual weapons to regain a White House about to be vacated by a very unpopular George W. Bush. He was the total outsider. He was supposed to be the incarnation of a new way to do politics, away from stratagems and cleverness and all about substance and open coalition building, all solidly grounded on truth telling.

But it turns out that the biggest promise of this “New Era” is also the biggest disappointment. This New Man with no Washington experience, (and thus no Washington related baggage), was going to reconnect us with the intrinsically good spirit of America, making us whole again. And he did not. 

Obama was elected because he incarnated a new vision of politics

Of course, other Presidents at the beginning of their mandates promised to change the atmosphere, to “reach across the aisle”, to engage all people of good will, for the benefit of America, etc. etc. But in the case of Barack Obama and the enthusiastic, cyberspace connected, grass root adoring movement that poured an avalanche of money into his coffers during the campaign the “Age of Obama” was prophesized to be something like an Advent. “He knows”. “He will do things”.

Obama practices what he condemned

Well, he did not. Certainly it would be unfair to blame Obama alone for the increasingly vitriolic mood prevailing in Washington these days. The Republican Party is also greatly at fault. The opposition by and large proposes nothing that can resemble a real, constructive alternative. Saying “no” to everything may be expedient to get some more votes in the November mid-term elections. But this is not enough as it does not energize the country.

Still, President Obama provides an even worse example because, in practice, he is engaging in the very same manipulative tactics that he run against while a candidate. The little June 4 show is just indicative of a willingness to distort and rewrite bad news so that facts will appear different.

Washington insiders uninterested in niceties about truth telling

The Washington “inside the Beltway” crowd of lobbyists, power brokers, and consultants is far too jaded and cynical to even notice these, shall we say, creative interpretations of reality. For them a spinning White House is par for the course. Everybody does it. Lying is a serious matter only when it is under oath, before a Grand Jury or a Congressional Committee. This crowd smells blood only when someone within the inner circle of power may get indicted, and the closer to the President the better.

A steady flow of half truths undermines Government’s credibility

But instead I maintain that it is exactly this garden variety of everyday, “Orwell-lite”, manipulation, spin and half truths that undermines the credibility of office holders and eventually the prestige of institutions. People may not follow all the details of public policy; but at some level they know that they are being lied to and they do not like it. In many cases their frustration may remain inchoate, passively swallowed with resignation.

The “Tea Party Movement” as an expression of frustration

At times this discontent may flare up just like with the present “Tea Party Movement” phenomenon, born out of frustration with a Government that appears to take us along a dangerous course of debt and more and more interference in the lives of private citizens, all the time telling us that they know what they are doing.

This is not about Obama’s political future

Nobody knows what will happen with the Obama presidency. In American politics positive surprises, just as upsets, are routine. Likewise, “coming back from behind” stories are almost mandatory for all self-respecting politicians. Bill Clinton’s Democrats were routed by the Republicans in the mid-term elections of 1994; and then Clinton ended up sailing to re-election in 1996. So this is not about forecasting political fortunes.

America cannot work without confidence in the institutions

This is about re-creating in America an atmosphere of trust in the institutions that, according to repeated opinion polls, is now at historic lows. Simply stated: Americans do not believe in their Government anymore. This has to be reversed. And the healing process has to start with leveling with the public and telling the truth. So, Mr. President, go ahead and defend your approach and your economic policies in public debates. But do not point to fake evidence to support your positions. Do not cite distorted statistics to prove that things are working out well even when they are not. Do not hide behind manipulations. When the new jobs numbers are bad, level with America, and just say so.