The Closet Moderate: Cabinet v. Bureaucracy

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cabinet v. Bureaucracy

President-elect Obama has delighted his most hard-core constituency -- nerds -- by naming a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Steven Chu, to be Secretary of Energy. And this guy won a real Nobel, not one of the ones they give to obscure Europeans who hate America. While a physicist might be useful as an advisor on physics, being the head of the Department of Energy will be a waste of Chu's brain.

I know what you poindexters are thinking: "It's the Department of Energy; this guy studied lasers, the awesomest kind of energy; therefore he should run all things energy. Q.E.D."

Not so fast, nerd. Answer me this: what does the Secretary of Energy do? Wikipedia says the DOE is in charge of "the nation's nuclear weapons program, nuclear reactor production for the United States Navy, energy conservation, energy-related research, radioactive waste disposal, and domestic energy production." OK, these are some scientific jobs, but what does the Secretary himself do? It can't be that technical, since Clinton nominated a couple of lawyers and a former Congressman with a political science degree to do the job. Bush picked another lawyer, then a chemical engineer. All of these people may have been good cabinet members, but I doubt any of them (except maybe Bodman, the engineer) knew dick about energy. In fact, the greatest use most Presidents have for the job is balancing the cabinet's race and sex quotas.

The cabinet is not supposed to be a collection of experts; it is a group of executives who run their departments and give the President advice. Being the smartest guy in the room -- and Dr. Chu probably will be -- doesn't mean you're smart or give good advice on governance. Politics is full of questions that don't have a single right answer. The cabinet should be made up of people who are practiced in the art of the possible, i.e., politics. Smart folks like Chu should advise the cabinet members, and occasionally advise the President, but as the head of a bureaucracy, their talents are wasted.


Anonymous said...

Well I hope you're happy, Cal. I suppose you had fun writing those slighting remarks about Harold Pinter. And now the man's DEAD. Was it really worth it?

Your status as a murderer aside, I don't think it's remotely fair to call Pinter "obscure" (that he was European, and that he hated America, are pretty undeniable). I mean, unless you want them to start giving Nobels to Stephen King and Mr. Da Vinci Code -- and I can see the argument for that -- Pinter really is about as famous as you can expect. We're not talking about Wislawa Szyzmzbzorskzygyskicxkiyliwa here. Hell, he was even from an English-speaking country!

Also, though it certainly helped that he hated America, I submit that the real reason Pinter got a Nobel is that he was a KICK-ASS playwright. Seriously. Read "Betrayal," or, better, see a good production of it, and I defy you to come away sneering at his prizeworthiness.

Silent Cal said...

James Joyce. John Updike. Marcel Proust. Kurt Vonnegut. Graham Greene. Philip Roth.

All better than Pinter, none of them Nobel Prize winners. It's a joke.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I think you're dead wrong about Greene and Vonnegut (I like both, but think Pinter's better), though I might grant you Roth, and I hope he wins a Nobel some day (also, I've never read Updike). But in the end, I don't think a literature prize can be expected to pass a test of "all winners are better than all non-winners," and not just because there's so much disagreement about relative quality.

Few would dispute Joyce and Proust. But neither of them was in competition with Pinter, of course. Look at it this way: next year, they'll have to award another Nobel. I hereby say of the upcoming winner, "Humph! He's not as good as Joyce or Proust!" Is there any possible winner who wouldn't be open to that complaint? Does the committee really have to find one every year? Or does the failure to award Joyce and Proust make the whole enterprise of giving awards eternally, irredeemably "a joke"?

With a prize for aesthetic achievement by living artists, I think the most you can demand is "all winners are really amazingly good writers." I don't know that the Nobel has always lived up to that standard, but Pinter certainly passes it.

Anonymous said...

And, what's more, I don't intend to let you weasel out of your original claim so easily. You refer to Pinter in your post as "obscure." I submit that he is not obscure, not by any measure that would be reasonable in context.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that you're looking at prominence/obscurity in the world of what is often, and irritatingly called "literature," but is really just the novel (or at least long narrative prose). All your examples fall into this category (and the qualifier is only necessary for Proust). Pinter achieved prominence primarily in the world of theater, which tends to be treated separately. But there are plenty of theater people who have never heard of Updike or Greene, yet recognize Pinter as a toweringly influential figure.

Anonymous said...

(I'm not done yet!)

I usually think of it as cheating to have any idea what I'm talking about in this sort of argument, but I got curious and looked up some stuff about the history of the prize. this site,

gives a pretty impressive defense of the committee's decisions, at least since World War II (part of his defense is to admit that the committee when the prize was first instituted, and also in the inter-war years, was basically incompetent to its task). And he makes some convincing points toward the end about why certain deserving writers could miss out but leave the committee largely blameless. Proust, for example, died only a few years after "Temps Perdu" came out, not giving them much of a chance to give him the award.

In general, though, my purpose was to defend Pinter in particular, not the prize in general.

Anonymous said...

Whoops. That site should be: