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Reflections on Ethics & Values in Policy 2 October 2000

Taking Credit and Being Held Accountable

Reflections are a period of thinking, musing, pondering that considers some external thought, action, or series of events. For some time, I have been alternatively mildly amused and mildly irritated by politicians taking credit for a strong U.S. economy, when it is the result of millions and millions of largely individual decisions made daily of which the politicians know little or nothing. Moreover, many of these individual decisions affecting today's economy were made well before the current politicians' terms of office.

While they will take credit for the economy in general, few politicians publicly take credit for some of the most obvious aspects of our strong economy. They are not, for example, taking credit for higher oil prices. They don't claim the increasing differential between executive and worker compensation. They seem not to take credit for higher stock market prices, presumably because prices may retrace at any point and, besides, it is the presumptively the more well-off who own stock and bonds. (This may change as stock and bond ownership, directly or indirectly, continues to expand throughout the population.)

This, itself, would be only mildly interesting, and I would not waste the bandwidth, but for a flurry of recent instances where the same politicians taking credit for the individual decisions of millions in the economy have avoided taking any blame for matters within the federal government that are more or less within their responsibility and control.

For example, where the security of classified information at the Los Alamos labs, at the State Department or the CIA/Defense Department—matters that are the direct responsibility of these politicians—are involved, these politicians seem genuinely surprised that this sort of thing could happen, and if they volunteer any action at all, it is generally to pledge to look into the matter to determine which individuals are to blame. Unlike the taking credit for a global economy, they do not hold themselves responsible for what goes wrong within a governmental department.

It is precisely the responsibility of politicians to understand the governmental systems and structures needed so that the government bureaucrats—with all their strengths, weaknesses, and human frailties—are optimally effective and efficient. Indeed, this is what organizational ethics is all about as a part ethics and excellence: developing the structures and systems so that good people can do the right thing—and succeed.

The conduct of the prosecution of Wen Ho Lee is perhaps the most egregious example of this phenomenon. Conducting the national defense and enforcing the federal law of the land are two functions of the federal government that most can agree are legitimate roles. Both come together in the Wen Ho Lee matter, yet for both the classified materials breaches and the conduct of the prosecution, neither is the current administration coming forward to take responsibility nor is it being held accountable. Especially in an election year, what can account for that?

My guess is the dirty little secret that all politicians want to be able to take credit for matters largely out of their control and want to maintain the myth that they are actually in control of the governments they are responsible for.

In sober moments, it is the case that government officials will concede that they do not have the resources to completely and effectively control matters directly within their purview, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. It could hardly be otherwise in a free society, perhaps even moreso in an unfree one. As John F. Kennedy once famously said: the only part of government he truly controlled was the Marine Corps band.

But who is really to blame? We are. It is past time for us to hold politicians accountable for what is within their purview and to discount their claims of responsibility for matters largely beyond their control.

Kenneth W. Johnson

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