Another Perspective

Czars Along the Potomac

There are so many -- yet not enough -- of them.

By 11.10.09

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All along the Potomac, we now observe an array of potentates not seen since the days of imperial Europe. Were they to stand side by side, they would equal the width of a U.S. Navy destroyer. These government chieftains, now loosely known as czars, are so numerous as to almost constitute a shadow government. A visitor to our country might ask if the Russian empire has been resurrected and Constantinople is being threatened again.

These czars have been quietly and purposefully appointed while the American people were looking the other way -- at Afghanistan, health care, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, missile defenses in Europe, and outrage over bailouts and executive pay -- at things that matter. There are reportedly thirty-two and possibly more to come, with ten evidently reporting directly to President Obama, according to media sources. To be fair, there were numerous czars in the previous Administration, and some positions are holdovers. But these appointments present many questions, and the czars of President Obama seem to have come under more scrutiny than those of President Bush.

Because these czars are dedicated to many different things, we must wonder how the President can possibly manage, guide, and yes, mentor so many of them -- especially when his cabinet already comprises fifteen federal departments, and there are numerous federal agencies whose directors are appointed by the President. Even czars need nurturing.

There is also the disturbing question of why someone would now wish to serve in that cabinet, when an array of czars, festooned with the accoutrements of power, has the ability to countermand, intimidate, undercut and shadow -- furtively watching cabinet members do their work on both sides of the Potomac -- even as they sip Evian or French roast at Starbucks. And why would the President even bother to have a cabinet, when he can get a quick reading on a crisis from a czar?

In specific terms, we have the potential confusion over responsibilities that is an auditor's dream: there is a car czar and an auto recovery czar. One wonders how they decide who gets to read Car and Driver first -- or listen to Jan and Dean. There are separate czars for science and technology even though one can drive the other. Having an information czar further confuses information with information technology, making it hard to keep passwords straight. The possible appointment of a cyber czar will only add chaos to the mix. The existence of a faith-based czar suggests that agnostics and atheists are disenfranchised. A czar for the Great Lakes means that other freshwater sources, and algae, are being ignored.

The weapons czar must be tripping over the WMD czar, and California gets attention with a California water czar, while other western states must remain parched. Sudan is singled out for a czar, suggesting that all dysfunctional states should have one, including Somalia and Illinois. Interestingly, there is a green jobs czar but not an employment czar, implying that trendy, switched on workers will receive sponsorship, but not those toiling for decades in basic industries such as concrete, steel and glass. Further, a health insurance czar may reportedly be added, obscuring the control of the health czarina.

The fact that there are so few czarinas in the lineup tells us that much of our work force is not engaged and that we are an underperforming country -- with much GDP upside. There is also the disturbing question of whether the pay czar, like the policeman, is actually your friend. The existence of an urban affairs czar says that we have forgotten about the farmer and the need to eat. The government performance czar, a position bound to make some people smile, seems on a collision course with the economic czar, stimulus accountability czar, TARP czar, numerous cabinet members, advisers, and members of Congress.

Not all czars are equal of course, as some report to cabinet or other senior officials. But in view of the proliferation of czarist positions, it might be wise to appoint a czar of czars who will manage the affairs of other czars and critique their performance -- ideally 24/7, using cyclical 360 feedback, or 720 just to be sure. The number of questions raised by this pool of czarist talent might also suggest that a questions czar be appointed, whose principal qualifications would be inquisitiveness and the ability to poke around with a stick.

Sometimes we learn more about a country by the czars they do not have: there is no czar for combating narcissism and there is no stiff upper lip czar. Nor is there a czar to prevent grandstanding and empty posturing by Congress.

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About the Author
Frank Schell is a business consultant and former international banking executive. He serves on the Dean’s International Council of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago where he is a lecturer.