Watching the chaotic operating style of the Trump White House reminds me of something I had seen before. The penny finally dropped. The operating style of the Trump White House in its first days reminds me of the Brooklyn Cosa Nostra as described in Jimmy Breslin’s classic work, “The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight.” This must read book describes a group of mobsters who were so inept they could screw up a free lunch. Their continued survival was only made possible because the Brooklyn Attorney General’s office was similarly inefficient. Their interplay makes for a real page turner.
So far, the Trump White House has bumbled, botched and mishandled just about everything that they have touched. Donald Trump is smarter than that and he has hired some good people. What is going on?
During my career I have undertaken major research projects for the California Legislature Interim Committee on Revenue and Taxation, the California Public Utility Commission study of truck insurance and assisted the California Attorney Generals office in their conflict with their insurance carriers over the Stringfellow Toxic Waste Site. Each of those studies lasted more than a year.
I mention this only to establish that I have spent some time deep inside the corridors of power that constitute the government of the State of California. I have seen a fair number of high powered business executives and academic business experts from the private sector get their first inside look at the mechanism of government. Their first reaction is usually “ Holy sxxx! Are you kidding me?” This reaction is triggered because the operation of government on a day to day basis looks really easy from the outside. But when you lift the hood, so to speak, and come face to face with the hard reality it is a different story. The first problem is that everything is much, much larger than it looks from the outside. The California Attorney General’s office for example had over 4,000 employees the last time I looked. The second problem is that much of the day to day operation of government is mandated by prior legislation. It is as if you jumped into a shiny sports car and roared away from the curb only to find that your steering wheel only controlled the left front wheel and someone buried in the mechanism that you can’t see, controls the other one. Crashes are frequent.
Remember, I am just talking about the State of California. As large as it is, it is roughly a tenth the size of the Federal Government.
I think what I am witnessing in the Trump White House are rookie errors which are totally expected for someone just taking on the job. People are expecting Donald Trump to walk right in to this complex mess and perform at a higher level than his predecessor from day one. I do not care how bright Donald might be, or how good his staff, that is not going to happen.
It is unrealistic to expect efficient reform from someone who is still learning the location of the men’s room. You have to walk before you can run.
I worked in Ronald Reagan’s first campaign for governor. Not only was Ronald new to government administration, many of his staff were also rookies. Sometimes the results were comical. In a speech, Ron promised to cut the welfare budget by something like 20 percent.
Suddenly some panicked higher level campaign staff people showed up in my office. “We need you to put the State of California welfare budget on a program basis.” they stated. (In a program budget you relate the budget items to your goals so you can measure the effect of funding cuts.) “How long do I have?” I asked. Six weeks was the answer. They were a bit dismayed when I burst into laughter. I said, “with a good tail wind I might be able to do it in six months.” I was quickly told they did not have six months. They were afraid the Democrats were going to hand Ron the welfare budget and a blue pen and ask him what he was going to cut. He would have had to admit he didn’t have a clue. The Democrats never asked the question and Ron dodged a bullet. When he got in office he hired a bevy of accountants and similar number crunchers to transform the budget. I was wrong on my six month estimate – it took two and half years.
Eventually, Ron got his feet under him and performed so well he got to do it again on a national scale. I suggest that people give Donald Trump a little time to figure out how government works before you ask him to improve it.
In the eyes of most of the public and much of the media, the Federal government is a monolithic entity. The Obama administration has given way to the Trump administration. The reality, upon a close look, is much more complex. What we refer to as the Federal government is a bewildering group of departments, bureaus, boards, agencies and work forces. Each major department reports to a cabinet member who is a new appointee of the Trump Administration. New appointees fill many of the top jobs. These new executives need time to learn the dimensions of their new job and to install their own management style. It takes time to complete a change in top management in any organization from the Federal Government to a football team.
It is important to realize that the vast thousands of employees of each and every one of these government entities are holdovers from the Obama administration. They are the civil servants who do the actual jobs of governing. They are disparaged by some as bureaucrats but a more accurate term would be professionals.
The professional civil servants in any governmental agency had been doing things one way under Obama and now suddenly they are told to listen to the different drummer called Donald Trump. This change is not going to happen in an afternoon. Consider the plight of the environmental agency employees who regulate the coal industry. Under Obama, coal was the Great Satan. Now, under Trump, coal is the Great Savior. The governmental employees have to shift from trying to shut coal mines down, to trying to clean up the coal uses and increase its production. That transition has got to be messy.
The bottom line is that Donald Trump is doing better than I expected. I am confident that each week will see improvements as the massive engine of government is shifted onto a new, upward path.
Professor Joe Launie is a Professor Emeritus of Risk Management at California State University,
Northridge. His latest book is “The Road to the Ox Carts:, where he warns that continued abuse of the middle class by the government may lead to an insurrection.