Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Career Politician v. Career Public Servant

This morning the Capital Times was nice enough to publish (online) a small part of my retort to Paul Fanlund’s column last week regarding experience and politics. Fanlund argues against term limits, using the analogy that when you need an electrician, you want an experienced electrician, and that voters should not turn against “career politicians” simply because they’ve been in office long enough to have mastered the system.

I heartily disagree.

For one thing, we require substantial classroom and on-the-job training before anyone can become even an apprentice electrician. We require that they spend many months as a journeyman, working with a master electrician, thoroughly learning every aspect of the job, and, if they’ve demonstrated their skill to a number of master electricians, they get to be a full-fledged electrician.

Same with other occupations in which we place our trust. Airline pilots, doctors, lawyers, accountants, just to name a few. Anyone who wants a career in these professions must do years of classroom work and serve an apprenticeship or internship or residency before they can be licensed to handle our business on their own. Even then, doctors, lawyers, electricians, pilots, accountants, and similar professionals must demonstrably stay current with their profession, through mandatory continuing education classes or “check-rides” with a senior pilot.

Anybody who’s rich enough or can raise enough money can be a Member of Congress, and once they’re in, the office is essentially theirs to hold – election cycle after election cycle – unless they do something so monumentally stupid or criminal that they get tossed out. And even then (drunks like Jeff Wood in our own state legislature, hypocrites like US Senator Larry Craig, tax cheats like Congressman Charles Rangel, etc.etc.etc.) they’re often allowed to stay in office until they decide to bow out.

At no point do any of them have to demonstrate they are prepared for the job they’re asking for and at no point do they have to pass a competency evaluation. If they can afford to run the ads (or get them paid for, like our newest state Supreme Court Justices, Madame Gut-Check and Herr Goebelmann), they’re in. Twits like Sarah Palin can tweet or post a comment on Facebook or give a stump speech, but that’s a far cry from sitting down in front of an honest-to-God reporter and explaining a position with some give-and-take.

What I’m saying is, Fanlund’s analogy does not hold. When I hire an electrician or architect or contractor or have an operation or get on an airplane, I’m in the hands of somebody who has successfully demonstrated that they’ve mastered their profession, and can produce a license that says other people who have mastered their profession will attest to it. Even civil service requires demonstrating a track record of learning and successful experience. Not so with politicians.

While I’m at it – I don’t want somebody (Mark Neumann or Ron Johnson or whoever) telling me they’re going to run the government like a business. Government is NOT business. I don’t expect my fire department, police department, the FBI or CIA or Medicare or Medicaid to turn a profit or outsource jobs. The principles of good business and good government may not be mutually exclusive at all levels, but the argument “I’m a successful business person” doesn’t move me one bit.

That said – get your butt to the polls today and vote.


  1. Mr. Fanlund may be one of the incredibly fortunate few who have never hired a tradesman with whose work he has been less than satisfied. The rest of us hire these guys relatively briefly for a specific job. If they bungle it we lose their phone number, perhaps after demanding our money back..

    Not so in the world of politics. As our blogger correctly observes, you don't need a license to become a politician. "Experience" in elected public office has more to do with how to become as entrenched as a bedbug and, for too many, how to game the system without getting caught. Career politicians may hone their skills as sharp operators, but from the standpoint of good public policy, they seldom improve with experience.

    Unhappy voters - dissatisfied customers, if you will - are stuck with the jamokes for years, at a mimimum, and have precious little leverage to fire them, because the parties choose the candidates. Our blogger points out that, once ensconced, incumbents usually have a ticket to ride.

    Political contests do not always feature a choice between the two finest candidates society has to offer. Has Mr. Fanlund ever noticed that?

  2. The way we privilege "business experience" over all other kinds of experience in our society says something about our unquestioned and unquestioning belief in capitalism, I suppose.

    During my brief tenure in education, I used to marvel at how every time some governor set up a "blue ribbon" commission on education, he/she always touted the inclusion of the state's top business executives, as if they had some special knowledge about education not available to other people. Precisely what that knowledge was supposed to be was rarely made clear at the start, and was often not apparent once the commissions started deliberating. A business executive can, to a certain extent, rule by fiat--which neither an educator nor a politician can do.

  3. As near as I can tell, journalism is like politics. One can become a practicing member of the "profession" without ever completing any required coursework, apprenticeship, or the like. The best, of course, toil in their respective fields of expertise for years and know as much about the subject as the people they cover.

    Unfortunately for what's left of the Cap Times' readership, Mr. Fanlund does not fall into that category. He manages to fudge the details in his official bio, but he spent most of his career as a middle-manager for Lee Enterprises before becoming the chief bean-counter at Madison Newspapers. He was brought in to facilitate the merger of the Cap Times and the State Journal and now, having demolished the Cap Times franchise, he fancies himself as the Sage of Fish Hatchery. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    He would be well to remember that the wisest words about the noble practice of politics were written by Tiny Krueger more than a quarter-century ago and require no further interpretation. But since his political memory is probably as lacking as those of his reporters, what follows is a refresher course:

    Elected office is a noble calling. There is nothing lazy, immoral, or selfish about being a career politician. The giants of our Republic were political animals. They spent their lives at politics because being good at it demands a great deal. The career politicians -- the Adamses, the Jeffersons, the Clays, the Websters, the Lincolns, and the La Follettes of our system -- have kept us together in times of crisis. They put party interests aside when the going got tough.

    What we needs are politicians who desire to be giants, whether they practice for a few years or a lifetime. And we could, these days, use a few more journalists who aspire to be giants, too -- instead of bean-counters promoted well beyond their level of incompetence.

  4. I am humbled by the quality of the comments posted on my blog - comments which frequently display insight far greater than my own, and which uniformly advance the discussion. Thank you, all.

  5. Well, then, I'll lower the bar. Seems to me the qualifications for becoming a politician are the same as for becoming a parent. Then, it's what you do after getting the job that counts, and no matter what, you will get all of the blame and none of the credit.

    Quoting Tiny Krueger was brilliant, by the way.

  6. Colonel,

    A bit of support for Mr. Fanlund's position...

    For the longest time I figured that being a career politician was a big contributing factor to the growth of government, corruption, gridlock...all that stuff.

    Then I read something in the book, "Socialism", by Ludwig von Mises. Von Mises is one of the founders of the "Austrian School" of economics, the darling of the libertarians.

    While discussing something else, von Mises took a slight detour to talk about politics. He had this very interesting thing to say:

    "Democracry is not less democracy because leaders come forth from the masses to devote themselves entirely to politics. Like any other profession in the society dividing labour, politics demands the entire man; dilettante politicians are of no use."

    While your point about journeymen electricians and physician internships is well-taken, I have to admit to an appreciation for von Mises' point, too.

    Another aspect of the matter comes from a one-term state senator who was a speaker at one of the local Ron Paul for President meetings I attended in '07 and '08. This fellow, Tom Reynolds, spoke about some of his experiences in the Senate, what it was really like.

    He talked about pending legislation at the time ('05 or '06) dealing with gas stations, I think. The Republican party leader came to him to ensure that Reynolds would vote along with the party. Reynolds resisted. That resulted in the party acting against him in his re-election bid...at least, that's what he claimed.

    It was entirely plausible, though. If one takes advantage of the party machine to get elected, one will be expected to toe the party line...at least most of the time. If you're not seen as a "team player" then things don't work out so well: one can't get co-sponsors for one's proposed legislation, committee memberships are given to other legislators, and re-election support is lacking.

    It sure seems to me that if you've got lots of newbie legislators who want to "clean house" in the state capital or in Washington, they're going to have to come to terms with the system. A pretty problem.

    The Town Crank