If you read yesterday’s blog, and you understand how far off the rails President Obama got in his attempt to achieve the “Grand Bargain”, you might be wondering why some in his administration did not walk away. Maybe some did, or at least expressed grave reservations (it would have been a walk away moment for me), but we haven’t heard about them. But I think I know the answer and it is something every good leader is well aware of and guards against: Groupthink. In this case they became so focused on a deal, that the deal became the ultimate goal, not the policy it represented.
Now one could argue that they saw the deficit as a real political issue, but wasn’t someone on this train wreck understanding that this short term political win would further damage our economy, and in the long run make Obama and his policies seem suspect? If you have any Econ 101 experience, and if you are paying attention to Europe, further contracting spending would be a disaster for a weakened economy. But they either could not step back and see that what they were doing was both politically and economically stupid, or they really don’t get Econ 101. Either way, groupthink was affecting their reasoning and Obama was oblivious to it, maybe because he has never been a creature of the bureaucracy.
I hate to say it, but the best example of this behavior and its dire consequences is Dick Cheney’s hunt for WMD. Dick believed in his heart of hearts that WMD existed. So he told the Intelligence Agencies to bring him the evidence. But they kept saying we can’t find any creditable evidence that supports that. Dick has a lot of power so he establish his own intelligence gathering group within the agency to find him evidence. So they were shifting through any evidence and picking out only things that supported their case. And lets face it, anything brought forward to counter his argument was, to say the least, frowned upon.
Now here is where you have to understand how bureaucracies work, not just government bureaucracies, but all bureaucracies. Bringing the chief what he wants he hear is a career maker, whether it is sales statistics or WMD. Those who could help their superiors become one of the favored boys, also became favored. Worse, it is self-reinforcing. As you get rewarded for your information, you start believing in the stuff yourself. Believing your own bullshit is the technical term.
Did that mean that independent analysts were co-opted? In a word, yes. Many still had grave reservations about the data. But they are also career people who don’t want to end up in a closet office going nowhere. So you lay low and mute your criticism, because your criticism could be the end of your career. Then as more people jumped on the band wagon, you started to wonder if maybe you are just wrong. This is where good leadership is critical to understand this phenomenon and ensure that dissenting voices are heard. This is where both Dick and Barack failed us. Dick only wanted to hear one message and soon enough it became a self-fulfilling truth (lie actually although I am sure Dick still believes they are out there somewhere). Barack had the same issue as he focused on the deal instead of the good of the nation. They became enthwined in his mind. It is just a good thing the conservative’s intransigence saved us from our madness. Too bad the same thing cannot be said about the War in Iraq. Of course Dick took his fixation to a new level when he tried to smear public people for their dissent. One is just a victim of the system, the other is a Machiavellian manipulator of the system.
So where does that leave us? Well with Dick, we hope he goes away, or better yet finally gets charged for War Crimes. For our President, let’s hope it was a lesson in groupthink and he now understands that he needs strong people around who can stand up and dissent. The other lesson here which few bring up, is that letting the politicos talk you into gaming the system is just failure waiting to happen. It is not that complicated. Just decide on what the right thing is (assuming you know) and then fight for it. We would all be a lot better off.