Stuck Around St. Petersburg

Now, people are talking about an “car czar” to restructure Detroit. This should not be confused with the “climate czar” that many have proposed, the “energy czar” that others have pressed on Obama (which itself should not be confused with the “energy czar” from the 1970’s), the “Iraq czar” that was briefly floated in 2007 by the Bush Administration, Tom Ridge’s brief tenure as “homeland security czar” before DHS’ creation, or, of course, the “drug czar” who still prowls the halls of the White House.

Could someone please explain to me:

1) How we can call someone a “czar” if they do not wield absolute power? and

2) Why it is that when someone decides to restructure the government, we recall a failed, deceased, corrupt, incompetent, unaccountable, and autocratic European monarchy?

Update: Lots of e-mails on this one. No one said so explicitly, but I’m coming around to the notion that a “____ czar” is apropos because these sorts of positions are virtually always ineffective. I’ll leave it to Mark to comment on the record of the drug czar, but the 70’s energy czar got nothing done and was unable to reorganize the government, and Ridge was ineffective in the White House (although his ideas were good, and he understood the issues better than most). It’s hard to move the federal government when you don’t have statutory authority and bureaucratic ballast. Czar creation, then, serves as a way of seeming to act without really knowing what to do. In that case, though, (as reader James Wimberley points out), it would be better to call the position a “Potemkin.”

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.