Anything But Expertise

During the 2016 presidential campaign, many Republican leaders (and voters alike) justified their support of President Trump by arguing he would surround himself with good people. After all, the president is an individual, the presidency is a couple thousand administrators. The President himself pledged to assemble the “best people.” That leaves a lot to the imagination, but it is reasonable to paint the following picture of the kind of administration the public expected. President Trump would bring in people who know what they’re doing. People who have dedicated their lives to some specialty, and excelled at it. People with expertise.

Presidents, regardless of party, have generally sought to find people who are good at what they do – and to leverage the knowledge of experts. Many scholars write about trade-offs between loyalty and competence, or patronage and performance. But the key is that presidents generally try to balance these trade-offs. In other words, they rarely employ hardline loyalists who are absurdly unqualified (or, conversely, free agents who understand quantum mechanics). President Trump may not be an expert in anything, but he would certainly find some good people and put them to work.

But even two and a half months in, it is clear that the Trump administration is set up to do the opposite. This is because expertise itself, not disloyalty, is at odds with powerful forces in the Trump administration that show no signs of fading.

As of this writing, most appointed positions remain vacant, and the administration appears intent on keeping it that way. The Office of Science and Technology Policy – which has put experts in advisory positions to presidents since the late 1970s – currently has a single appointee. In anticipation of budget cuts, and with dozens of unfilled, appointed positions, Trump’s State Department has been described as “empty.” Naturally, these vacancies leave the offices out of the loop – they don’t provide the president with advice, and the president doesn’t ask for it.

For the most part, the officials who have been appointed are not the best and the brightest – to say the least. Andrew did an excellent profile on Sebastian Gorka, whose scholarship was recently laid to waste by an expert who took the time to read it. Steve Bannon and Steve Miller’s utter lack of governing expertise can be summed up with two words and a number: Executive Order 13780 – so poorly written and executed it was defeated in court within hours.

The pinnacle of this trend is, without doubt, the new reform outfit at the Office of American Innovation to be headed by one of the President’s closest advisors, Jared Kushner. The President promised to reform government (as all modern presidents have), to “drain the swamp,” and make agencies more efficient. Who has he tasked with doing so? His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has no experience in government, who was admitted to Harvard after his father made a multi-million dollar donation, who was admitted to NYU Law after his father made a multi-million dollar donation, who is already tasked with ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, who inherited a real estate empire because his father was convicted of tax evasion and witness tampering. There are six current members of Congress who have been in office longer than Kushner has been alive. As Ankit Panda put it, Kushner is “playing dress up.” You don’t have to be a scholar to detect that. Just read Kushner’s comments after the new Office was announced:

“We should have excellence in government […] The government should be run like a great American company. Our hope is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are the citizens.”

I try to avoid overstating things in this blog. But this is the kind of thing you say when you have no idea what you’re talking about. Governments aren’t run like “great American companies” for good reason. Others have written better opinion pieces on this point, but in brief: private companies measure success with profit – there is no comparable measure in government. Private companies have rigid power structures that are totally incompatible with democratic accountability. Citizens aren’t customers, they’re owners (and they’re not even like share-holders, because they have far more rights). Private companies attract talent with lucrative compensation, governments rely on alternative motivators (like having say over policy, and job security). I would like to be in the room when Mr. Kushner tells Republicans in Congress he wants the federal bureaucracy to mimic Wall Street’s bonus patterns. Finally, governments exist to solve market failures that private companies would otherwise exploit or fall victim to.

Initially, it would be fair to give the President the benefit of the doubt. Presidential transitions pose difficult management problems, and it takes time to get good people in the right positions. Moreover, there are, of course, key exceptions to this trend – Secretary Mattis and H.R. McMaster, among them. Scott Pruitt may have a clear policy agenda, but no one can argue that he does not understand what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does.

But these experts are largely an exception to a general rule in the Trump administration. By all indication, the power centers in the White House are united in their opposition to expertise. That is because the sway of the President’s most loyal advisors is deeply threatened by facts, knowledge, studies, and nuance. Bannon, Miller, and Kushner can tolerate anything but expertise because it is what they do not have. Alternative viewpoints with better information risk undermining their influence over the President. Experts are equally problematic for the President himself, whose governing ideology requires that no point in space be fixed. In the words of John Adams, “facts are stubborn things.” They would require the President and his advisors to consider the possibility that they are sometimes wrong, that their inexperience may doom the policy goals they have in mind, and that they need help.

In the short term, the lack of expertise in the Trump administration may show only minor signs of making a difference. But a lot of damage can be done in 4 years. Often, expertise in government is the only force competing against the negative externalities created by private corporations. Draining the government of expertise can leave the public without competent defenders. People sometimes forget that when government agencies fail, it is not just a matter of your mail being delivered late – or a punchline to be laughed off. Empty positions and bad hiring decisions aren’t examples of “small” or more “efficient” government. When government agencies fail, people sometimes die – pipelines explode or veterans wait endlessly for medical care. The task of governing is unforgiving to amateurs, but for the public, the cost of being governed by amateurs is worse.

 

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