When lousy is good enough

Since when did “not breaking the law in any way that a prosecutor can prove” get to be the standard of performance for our public servants?

Mike O’Hare, who teaches public management, is puzzled by l’affaire Rove.

I’m trying to put this story in terms simple enough that even I can understand it:

No matter who said what about it, to whom, when, since, someone in the White House obviously did something very bad, maybe criminal.

[ As my host in this space recognizes, the idea that it’s actually a good deed doesn’t pass the laugh test (does the WSJ ever use the laugh test?)].

How might this be OK?

Well, sometimes it’s OK to do a bad thing to accomplish much better things. In this case, the better thing was to suppress a truth that might have interfered with a war against the wrong party, that hasn’t come out as predicted by anyone who advocated it, that’s ruined our military capacity to deal with anything else that might come up (like North Korean or Iranian nukes), that so far shows little sign of having helped the Iraqis, who are still dying at our and each others’ hands by the thousands, and that put our fiscal national security in the hands of Asian creditors.

It does seem to have helped W with some psychological issues related to his dad.

I give up. I guess the utilitarian justification is sort of a bad joke.

Sometimes a bad thing has trivial consequences, like running a red light and not hitting anyone. Perhaps Plame’s assets were already dead, or maybe not very nice people anyway, or their secret police are of the redemptive/rehabilitative, rather than the thumbscrew, type (Putin’s liberal democrats, Mr. Rove?) or Plame had already discovered all the WMD’s in the world so she had nothing more useful to do in that line of work.

It’s true that no-one has shown us a single hard fact that Plame would have turned up but now can’t. Perhaps we have to believe this one, but why have Rove’s defenders completely missed this line of argument?

The best I can do here is to see the Republican defense of Rove as part of a larger pattern redefining “good performance” in government and management to comprise “anything not (provably) criminal.”

The idea that just doing a lousy job is not grounds for dismissal, or even criticism, is quite novel and almost certainly a bad one, but there seems to be a lot of it around (though the sheriff down in Fulton County isn’t buying).

If you can’t indict, pin a medal? (That makes sense of Tenet’s Medal of Freedom.) Bizarre, but maybe we’ll like it when we get used to it.

What remains puzzling to me is that the boss is so paralyzed regarding his numbers 2, 3,…n that he needs Patrick Fitzgerald to find out if any of them did something. I’ve had many bosses, all of whom had no trouble asking me “Hey, O’Hare, did you talk to Smith about this? What did you tell him?”

It must be some high-level phone thing: sometimes I’ve arranged to be away from my phone or busy when the boss called, and I guess when you’re Karl Rove defending freedom and the American Way, that can happen for two years.

But Rove was right in the room yesterday, on TV, not busy with anything, when Bush was saying he just didn’t know what to say until Fitzgerald told him. That would have been a great time to turn around and ask Rove.

It’s too deep for me. All I can say is that I’m glad we have distinguished and highly trained patriotic grownups handling these things for us.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com