Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What's in a name? Czar titles under Bush and Obama

Theoretical economists are given to abstraction. They often dismiss the importance of words and labels. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. There is increasing evidence that's not so. The words that politicians and the media use to frame debate is important. You can create exactly the same economic analytic graph whether you call something a "fine," a "tax," or a "user fee," but the political and behavioral consequences can be quite different in actual practice.

So there is indeed some political significance and weight that comes from the media's choice to dub certain administration officials as "czars."

Here are some of the more fascinating media-dubbed "czar" titles on the complete list of Bush and Obama "czars" compiled by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Abstinence Czar

Birth Control Czar

Faith Czar (hmmmm, what about the First Amendment?)

Democracy Czar (What an oxymoron!)

Domestic Violence Czar (What an image that conjures up!)

Homelessness Czar (This conjures up a Marie-Antoinette-like image!)

Reading Czar (Yet another amazing image: a czar towering over little kids struggling to learn to read? or perhaps ordering their teachers to use his preferred method of instruction?)

Weapons Czar

Strangely enough, there's no "Tax Czar" on either the Bush or Obama list. Googling on "Tax Czar" turns up no media references to that exact term in the press, though there are a few obscure blog references suggesting that Timothy Geithner should get that title. (Also, Carol Browner, sometimes comes up as "Climate Czar," and sometimes as "Climate Tax Czar.")

In some cases, it's easy to guess which administration the so-called czar worked for. Some policy priorities are clearly associated with a particular president. In other cases, the answer might surprise you.

Based on the Annenberg Center's exhaustive research of conventional press references to the czar titles, here is the list:

"Czar" titles given by media to Bush appointees: Abstinence, AIDS, Bailout/TARP, Bioethics, Bird Flu, Birth Control, Budget, Cleanup (EPA), Communications, Counterterrorism, Cybersecurity, Democracy, Domestic Policy, Drug, Faith, Food Safety, Gulf Coast Reconstruction, Health IT, Homeland Security, Homelessness, Intelligence, Manufacturing, Mine Safety, Policy, Public Diplomacy, Reading, Regulatory, Science, War, World Trade Center Health.

"Czar" titles given by media to Obama appointees: Afghanistan-Pakistan, AIDS, Auto Recovery, Border, California Water, Car, Climate, Counterterrorism/Homeland Security, Diversity, Domestic Violence, Drug, Economics, Energy, Government Performance, Great Lakes, Green Jobs, Guantanamo Closure, Health, Intelligence, Iran, Manufacturing, Mideast, Pay (Executive Compensation), Science, Stimulus Accountability, TARP, Technology/Infotech, Technology, Urban Affairs, Weapons, Weapons of Mass Destruction.

[If you visit the source, you can find a list of the people who held those unofficial media-dubbed titles, along with links to articles in the press that used the title. Note that in some cases, more than one person held the same title during a given administration. As a result the number of "czars" is greater than the number of titles.]

The czar list is quite fascinating to me. During the 1970s and 1980s, I studied and/or worked with at least half a dozen people who later became "czars," beginning with Chris DeMuth (Deregulation) in 1981, and continuing through to Ash Carter (Weapons) and Larry Summers (Economics) in 2009.

Czar is not exactly a comfortable label to wear on one's head. There was a time in my life when I might have been on a career track to become a czar(ina?) myself. There are a lot of expectations placed on the head of a czar, there's a lot of political cross-fire and uncertainty confronting a czar, and of course, a czar has far less power than the usage of the word suggests. It's a burden I'm profoundly glad I never had.

The czar title was fresh and relatively new and exciting and empowering--if silly--when Chris Demuth assumed the role of "Deregulation czar" in 1981. (I've totally forgotten what his official title was--something long and bureaucratic.) But now the word is now so overused as to be almost meaningless. Yet, the term "czar" still has powerful associations and connotations, and could turn out to be part of a political football.

Update: I now know that the czar usage by the press is much older than I realized in 1981. Time Magazine says that the application of the term czar to an administration official dates back to at least World War I, when the press called Bernard Baruch the Industry Czar after President Wilson named him to head the War Industries Board. Time also pointed out that this happened just after the Russians deposed their last Czar, Nicholas II. (Perhaps the press felt there was a vacuum in the use of the title czar, at that point?) So I guess it wasn't actually as "new" in 1981 as it seemed to me at the time. I don't think people were as aware of the history of the term's usage back then--searches of newspaper archives were much harder to do in those pre-Internet days.

Post Script Note to Eco 339 Public Finance students: the timing of the current media focus on czars fits ironically well with this week's study of the Arrow Impossibility Theorem.

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