Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Soul of Cronyism

The Washington Post reports that Bush's nominee to oversee customs and immigration -- four years after foreign agents crossed our borders and killed 3,000 people on American soil -- is facing some resistance, and not just from Democrats.

Why would anyone object to 36-year-old Julie Myers heading up the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, part of Michael Chertoff's Department of Homeland Security?

Per the Commerce Dept.'s web site, here are some of her credentials:

  • Associate Independent Counsel in the Office of Independent Counsel
  • Assistant U.S. Attorney
  • Deputy Assistant Treasury Secretary for Money Laundering and Financial Crimes
  • Chief of Staff of the Criminal Division for the Assistant Attorney General
  • Assistant Commerce Secretary for Export Enforcement
Now, given her relative youth, it's clear Myers has not spent much time in any one office. One year at Commerce, a brief stint in the A.G.'s office, two years as a federal prosecutor. It's been a pretty meteoric rise, though, which should indicate fantastic competence. But let's look at some of those credentials again, this time fleshing them out with some info not at the Commerce Dept. site, but up top in the WaPo write-up:

  • Associate Independent Counsel in the Office of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr
  • Chief of Staff of the Criminal Division for Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff, whose current chief of staff, John Wood, became Julie's husband on Saturday, although the wedding notice doesn't specify whether the ceremony was attended by Julie's uncle, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Richard B. Myers

and, most recently...

  • Special Assistant to the President for Presidential Personnel (known in civilian circles as "HR")
Myers told Congress that, at Commerce, she oversaw 170 employees and a $25-million budget. (It's safe to assume she'd be honest in her job application, I think, given her background in HR.) But now the president wants her to oversee six thousand employees with...I'm sorry, that's six thousand investigators, out of a total of 20,000 employees, in five separate law-enforcement agencies, with a combined budget of $4 billion, composing a bureau that, according to its web site, encompasses the following goals:

  • "To secure the nation's air, land, and sea borders."
  • "To prevent acts of terrorism by targeting the people, money, and materials that support terrorist and criminal activities."
  • "Identifying and shutting down vulnerabilities in the nation’s border, economic, transportation and infrastructure security."
  • "To be the nation's preeminent law enforcement agency, dedicated to detecting vulnerabilities and preventing violations that threaten national security."
The guy currently keeping Myers' new seat warm is someone named John Clark. I've never heard of him, but judging from his resume, he's been a little busy for the last 25 years (since January of 1980, when Julie was 10):

  • U.S. Border Patrol Agent
  • U.S. Customs Service Patrol Officer
  • U.S. Customs Service Special Agent
  • U.S. Customs Service Group Supervisor
  • U.S. Customs Service Desk Officer, Domestic Operations Division
  • U.S. Customs Service Desk Officer, Foreign Operations Division
  • U.S. Customs Service Assistant Special Agent in Charge, San Francisco
  • U.S. Customs Service Associate Special Agent in Charge, Miami
  • U.S. Customs Service Special Agent in Charge, Miami
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director of Investigations
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Director of Operations
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement Deputy Assistant Secretary
So, why would Bush go forward with this nomination so soon after the debacle of Michael Brown? That's what the Washington Post asks (although she was nominated well before Katrina struck).

Noam Schreiber has a theory for Bush's cronyism, which he articulates in the latest New Republic purely in response to the Brown fiasco.

"The problem may have less to do with the current president than with conservatism itself. Let's first distinguish between two very different types of cronyism. The first kind is what you might call "inner-circle cronyism": Pretty much every president has dragged a small collection of cronies with him into the West Wing....The reason for this phenomenon, as John F. Kennedy once explained, is that the White House is a lousy place to start making friends. Presidents need advisers they can trust unconditionally, and longtime friends and associates are often the only ones who fit the bill. If Bush is exceptional in this case, it's only because he so values loyalty that he refuses to fire these people even after they've proved themselves incompetent.

"It's the second kind of cronyism--call it "outer-circle cronyism"--that's truly destructive...handing out jobs to cronies of cronies... The Bush administration is infested with it. Mike Brown, the former FEMA director, is a college friend of Bush campaign manager Joe Allbaugh. Treasury [Myers' old haunt-JL] employs former political hands but few top economists...Meanwhile, as my colleague Spencer Ackerman has reported, the Bush administration insisted in 2002 that the Department of Homeland Security be exempt from having to stock its upper ranks largely with members of the Senior Executive Service--the elite cadre of civil servants who make the government's machinery run smoothly--in order to give it more political appointments...

"Why do conservative administrations specialize in outer-circle cronyism? The answer has to do with the fact that conservatism doesn't hold bureaucracy in very high regard...Conservatives believe that bureaucracy is inherently bumbling, inefficient, and, well, dumb. '[T]he brutal fact is, government tends toward bureaucracy, which means elaborate paper flow but ineffective action,' as David Brooks wrote on Sunday. Even Bush himself couldn't resist a jab at bureaucracy in a press conference shortly after Katrina. '[B]ureaucracy is not going to stand in the way of getting the job done for the people,' the president announced...

"Now, if you happen to think bureaucracies are structurally incapable of improving people's lives...then you have two choices: You can either slash the bureaucracy and refund taxpayers' money, or you can reconcile yourself to the existence of bureaucracy and run it as a patronage operation. (If, by definition, a bureaucracy can't get any less competent, you might as well make appointments that benefit you personally or politically.) But, in reality, it's just not politically feasible to cut bureaucracy very much...conservatives have generally opted for choice B--reconciliation. About the worst thing you can say about Bush is that he's more reconciled than most."
The logic here is spectacularly poor -- it's almost an act of cognitive derring-do. Here's the argument laid out, if not quite in Boolean terms:

1) All presidents need cronies
2) Bush values loyalty
3) Bush's loyalty-valuing protects incompetent cronies
4) Inner-circle cronyism breeds outer-circle cronyism
5) Conservatives don't value bureaucracies
6) Conservatives have two choices: Kill bureaucracies or use them for patronage
7) All bureaucracies are immortal
8) Conservatives have no choice but to fill bureaucracies using outer-circle cronyism

(The logic of 5-8 is just non-existent. The premises are unsound, for one thing. Number six is simply not the case: Why should patronage be the only alternative to death? You don't have to value bureaucracy to abhor patronage, you only have to value meritocracy. Clinton and Gore proved #7 false by reducing the size of government. And once you take away 6 and 7, there's no logical way to make the leap from 5 to 8.)

But let's go back to Noam's more interesting error. Let's give him #1. I'll even uncynically spot him #2. But #3 should be understood with the following nuance: Crony incompetence isn't a test to Bush's loyalty, it's irrelevant. When you look at who Clinton's "cronies" were, they were, for the most part, astonishingly capable people who had achieved much on their own. Clinton was too smart, too engaged, too intellectually curious ever to have a meaningful circle of incompetence. Incompetence wouldn't test Clinton's loyalty at the end of the crony process, it would have torpedoed the very start of crony formation.

Not so with Bush (see: Rove).

And this explains why (let's call it) Clintonian cronyism doesn't yield Michael Browns -- because Clinton didn't form crony circles based on loyalty the way Bush does; he formed them with the necessary stipulations of competence and intelligence. Therefore, Clinton's trickle-down cronyism yielded concentric circles of ability, while Bush's yield concentric circles of floodwaters.

All of this, though, leaves us with the question of why does Bush now, after Sept. 11, after Katrina, after Michael Brown, still feel comfortable relying on trickle-down cronyism to fill spots of vital national security?

Oddly, John Kerry unknowingly provided the key to understanding this pivotal part of Bush's personality. In a debate discussion utterly unrelated to this one, he said: "The president and I have a difference of opinion about how we live out our sense of our faith. I talked about it earlier when I talked about the works and faith without works being dead."

Pres. Bush is a faith-based president. More importantly, he's a faith-based person. He's a new breed of Christian; seeing the world and everyone in it solely through the lens of personal salvation. I don't mean he literally has a religious litmus test. I mean that he's embraced a viral, mutant strain of Christianity that pays no heed to the teachings or works of Jesus, but focuses exclusively on a new, ephemeral, poorly defined notion of faith: Personal acceptance of (something you call) Christ as (something you perceive as) your savior. That's it. That's how you get to heaven. You don't even have to accept the biblically defined Jesus, you just have to think you do.

And once you understand that Bush has, in effect, annointed his subconscious as his internal Christ, then everything else makes sense. That's why his eyes can see Vladimir Putin's soul. That's why he's comfortable appointing buddies (those in whom he has "faith") to positions of importance despite their lack of qualifications (i.e., "works"). That's why we saw the following non sequitur in the 2000 debates:

GORE: I believe there are 1.4 million children in Texas who do not have health insurance. 600,000 of whom, and maybe some of those have since gotten it, but as of a year ago 600,000 of them were actually eligible for it but they couldn't sign up for it because of the barriers that they had set up.

MODERATOR: Let's let the governor respond to that. Are those numbers correct? Are his charges correct?

BUSH: If he's trying to allege that I'm a hard-hearted person and I don't care about children, he's absolutely wrong.
Bush was fundamentally (pun intended) incapable of even understanding that the issue was performance and works. He can only see himself (and others of "faith") through the lens of "faith." That he means well (i.e., is not hard-hearted, i.e., has faith) is all that matters. That's why he could issue the following flabbergasting observation about the Katrina response: "I am satisfied with the response. I'm not satisfied with all the results."

It's a hugely revealing, staggeringly cognitively-dissociative statement to make. A normal, reality-based person understands that when the results are not satisfactory, you change the response that yielded them. It is, in essence, impossible for a satisfactory response to yield unsatisfactory results. The only person who can't intuitively see that is one who deals exclusively with internal states, with intentionality, with "heartedness," with "souls," with faith. When Bush called Jesus the most important political philosopher in his life, he wasn't just covering for his lack of familiarity with actual political philosophers, he was sincerely identifying the person (or, more accurately, the concept) that had freed him to make decisions based on a divinely-inspired "gut," rather than on the tough, grueling boring work of work. And works.

America has to understand that President Bush responds to everyone and everything in terms of this only-superficially-religious faith. Because until America declares it's unsatisfied with Bush's response, it will remain unsatisfied with the results.


Anonymous said...

ICE is composed of two bad law enforcement agencies: Customs and Immigration. Raymond Kelly, who had years of experience as the NY police from a street cop to be the police commissioner and then to be the Treasury's undersecretary for enforcement, failed to "fix" an eliminate the corruption and good-old system that permeates the Customs service, why the president believes this nominee can do what others like Ray Kelly and Mike Garcia failed to do?

Petty Larseny said...

In fairness to Kelly, I believe his tenure preceded Sept. 11, when, in theory, political impetus for reform supposedly arose. As for ICE's composition, according to the bureau's site, it's composed of five agencies:
Office of Detention and Removal (DRO)
Office of Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS)
Office of Federal Protective Service (FPS)
Office of Intelligence
Office of Investigations
How many of them are bad isn't specified.

Anonymous said...

It's pure Republican logic that, because bureaucracies are immortal and inept, you should choose people with absolutely NO qualifications to fill positions of authority and responsibility in the same bureaucracies.

Let see, we've had several really bad disasters in the NASA space program. By Republican logic, we should probably appoint James Robertson to head up the agency.

I think we are all toast.

Vinnie from NJ to FL said...

You beat me to it I must say. I have blog on blogspot.com also and I was going to go to Rachel Maddow's source to get my opinon out there. I must first thank you for gettting it up. Cronyism is the legacy of Bush's Adminstration.

Please come visit my blog at

Theo McCarthy said...

While I broadly agree with most of this article and find your depiction of Bush's "faith based" mentality insiteful, I have to take issue with the way you blithly dismissed the main thrust of Noam Schreiber's article. You claimed, "The logic of 5-8 is just non-existent." and as a matter of fact you were correct, but Noam wasn't talking about facts he was talking about Conservative ideology. Noam's point was that the Conservative belief that government is inherently inept and corrupt leads them to inevitably govern ineptly, corruptly or both. And that arguement, that Conservatism is the problem not just Bush, is born out by the history of cronyism, missmanagement, and at times out right criminallity of the Nixon, Regan and Bush1 administrations. Your point about Bush2's dependency on his 'sub-conciouse christ' was well made and goes a long way to explain why amongst all of the inept and corrupt conservative presidents we've had he seems the worse, but before you let Conservatism at large off the hook you should remember that at every misstep this administration was backed to the hilt by a Conservative congress that has proven equally inept and corrupt.

Petty Larseny said...

Theo, thanks for sharing your thoughts. But I wasn't dismissing the thrust of Schreiber's piece. I was pointing out that his logic doesn't work. And just because he's discussing an ideology doesn't mean logic doesn't apply. If his argument had been that chocolate is superior to vanilla, THEN logic wouldn't apply. But he's claiming that the conservative ideology LOGICALLY and NECESSARILY must foster cronyism (and, specifically, cronyism of a very different stripe than competence-based Clintonian cronyism). I'm not even making the case that there's NOTHING about conservatism that doesn't necessitate "bad" cronyism. All I'm doing is establishing that Schreiber's claim to logic fails. (And, yes, I'm proferring my own theory regarding religion-based "magical" thinking, which applies to the current Congress, I think. As for previous administrations, as we've seen, neither Bush1, nor Nixon nor even Reagan practiced the brand of conservatism Bush2 does!)

iWzthnkin said...

5) Conservatives don't value bureaucracies
6) Conservatives have two choices: Kill bureaucracies or use them for patronage
7) All bureaucracies are immortal
8) Conservatives have no choice but to fill bureaucracies using outer-circle cronyism

I think your interpretation is wrong. Conservatives don't understand bureaucracies, they can't get rid of them, so might as well make the best of them:outer cronyism.
It is very logical - for conservatives, or anyone, to make the best of a situation they think they are stuck with. They cannot understand, therefore they cannot even see why to hide what they do when they are so blatantly 'loyal' to their friends.

On the other hand, your explanation of 'You don't even have to accept the biblically defined Jesus, you just have to think you do.', and Bush's decision making process is brilliant. You just have to think you are doing the right thing for it to be alright.

Man, that explains so much, why reason or questioning a decision by BAC (born again christians) is met with such misunderstanding and confusion. "It feels right, can't you see that?", they say in defense.

(I hope I make sense, somehow it doesn't feel quite right, LOL>

Petty Larseny said...

thinkn, you may be right that conservatives don't understand bureaucracies. But I was analyzing the argument made by Schreiber, which doesn't make that argument. Schreiber claims only that conservatives don't value bureaucracies. I was taking Schreiber's premises at face value to demonstrate that his logical reasoning didn't work. Thanks for the kind words, though!

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