Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Czars and Czarinas: Bush vs. Obama?

The numbers below come from the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center list of media-dubbed "czars" under the past two administrations. (They didn't actually do the czar vs. czarina gender breakdown. I added that part. It's a little tricky--for example, you need to know that "Cass Sunstein" is male, not female, and it's possible I got the gender breakdown wrong.)

President Bush: 33 czars, 2 czarinas Total 35

President Obama: 29 czars, 3 czarinas Total 32

Q: Does Obama have an unprecedented number of "czars"?

A: "Czar" is media lingo, not an official title. But our research shows that George Bush’s administration had more "czars" than the Obama administration.

A friend of mine sent me a link claiming that Obama has more czars than any other president ever and he is trying to turn the USA into a dictatorship. Please give me confirmation so I can give it to her that she has no reason to fear. Does hiring czars allow a president to bypass Congress for approval? And does President Obama have more than any other president?

It’s meaningless to ask a question about what "hiring czars" allows a president to do, because presidents don’t hire czars. "Czar" is a label bestowed by the media – and sometimes the administration – as a shorthand for the often-cumbersome titles of various presidential advisers, assistants, office directors, special envoys and deputy secretaries. (After all, what makes for a better headline – "weapons czar" or "undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics"?) ....

For the rest of the Annenberg Public Policy Center's answer to the question, see here.

As they point out, the usage of the term czar is rather silly, but it does help the media draw attention to important policy areas that a particular president prioritizes.

The usage of the term "czar" evokes some pretty powerful personal memories for me.

When I first started working as a brand new assistant professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in fall of 1981, I was slated to co-teach a course in the economics of regulation along with a more experienced colleague, Chris DeMuth. Two weeks before the fall term started, the Reagan administration tapped Chris on the shoulder to become the so-called Deregulation Czar for the Reagan administration. Deregulation was indeed an important policy priority for the Reagan administration, so Chris accepted the job. In his left few days before leaving town for DC, he spent some time trying to help me as much as possible as I prepared to teach the course on my own. (That sort of thing happened quite a bit at the Kennedy School. Faculty members were often called away on short notice to take positions in federal and/or state government, with the rest of us scrambling around like utility infielders.)

It was an exciting time to be teaching about regulation--there was a general consensus that there were way too many dysfunctional regulations in many industries, especially communications and transportation, and there was a lot of economic growth to be gained by allowing competition and markets to work more freely in those areas. We can thank deregulation for the cheap long-distance phone rates and airfares we have today.

Of course, that doesn't mean that all regulations are unnecessary and bad. Another of my former Kennedy School colleagues, Nick Nichols, also went down to Washington to work for the Reagan administration, later in the 1980s, where he was heavily involved in the development of new EPA regulations that banned lead from gas. As chief economist for the EPA he directed a highly persuasive and influential 1985 cost-benefit study of lead in gasoline, which caused the EPA to slash allowable lead levels in gasoline by an order of magnitude within a year. Nick took into account new evidence from scientific studies suggesting that emissions from vehicles burning leaded gas was leading to measurable increases in lead levels in children's blood, which in turn was leading to significant decreases in their cognitive abilities. [Note to my eco 339 students: the linked study is a prime example of cost-benefit analysis in action.]

There is a general stereotype of Republicans as "anti-government regulation" and Democrats as "pro-government regulation." The reality is more complicated than that.

When the press dubs certain appointees as "czars," they can reinforce those stereotypes, but, as I said, the reality is more complicated. Nobody called Nick Nichols the "Lead regulation czar," but perhaps if the media had done so, we would have a more nuanced view of the Reagan administration. And the deregulation of the communications and transportation industries really began in the Carter administration, even before Reagan took office. By the same token, during the Clinton administration, nobody called Robert Rubin and Larry Summers "Derivatives deregulation czars," even though many policy analysts are now calling attention to their late 1990s advocacy for allowing the exotic financial derivatives market to go unregulated.

Having said all that, it is instructive to look at the list of "czar" titles the media has given to Bush and Obama appointees, for what it says about the media's view of the two administration's priorities. I'll consider those lists in my next post.

No comments:

Post a Comment