Friday, March 04, 2011

The Glasgow housewives' theory of political management

Ezra Klein offers a reality check on how politicians function in the real world:
I can't believe in guys in suits with the ability to plan things.

That's the main thing I've learned working as a reporter and political observer in Washington: No one can carry out complicated plans. All parties and groups are fractious and bumbling. But everyone always thinks everyone else is efficiently and ruthlessly carrying out complicated plans...

There's also a lot less long-term planning than you might think. In general, politicians are overworked and understaffed. They're traveling constantly, buried under too many meetings and constituent requests, and working desperately to stay one step ahead of whatever they're getting yelled at about that week. That isn't to say they don't take on long-term projects, but in general, the way they take them on is one day at a time. 
Of course, it's not just politicians; that account fits for most human endeavor, at least those endeavors that involve managing people. Take a (fictional) Glasgow kitchen in the Depression, for example.  In Men Should Weep, playwright Ena Lamont Stewart's photorealistic account of economic and family stress in a working class family, a harried housewife's riposte to an attack by her (unemployed) husband regarding her working methods might also serve as a politician's lament. In fact, Obama delivered a version of it in the aftermath of the midterm elections. 

Below, Maggie is the housewife, Lily is her unmarried sister, and John her unemployed husband:
LILY   Whit aboot you ironin?

MAGGIE      Och, never heed. I'm that tired it wad kill me tae watch ya.

LILY   It'll be steamie day again afore ye've got that lot done.

MAGGIE   Well, I canna help it.

JOHN   Yous women! Ye've nae system.

LILY   Oh, I suppose if you was a woman you'd hase everythin jist perfect!  The weans a washed and pit tae bed at six, and everyhin a spick an span. Naethin tae dae till bedtime but twidde yer thumbs. Huh!

JOHN   I'd hae a system...

LILY/MAGGIE   He'd hae a system!

JOHN   Aye, I'd hae a system!  Ony man wull tell ye, ye can dae naethin properly wi'oot ye hae a system.

LILY   And ony womman'll tell ye that there's nae system ever inventit that disna go a tae Hell when ye've a hoose-fu o weans an a done aul granny tae look efter.

MAGGIE   Never heed him, Lily. Ye should see him tryin tae mak the breakfast on a Sunday; ye'd get yer kill!  If he's fryin bacon, he's fryin bacon, see?  He's no keepin an eye on the toast an on the kettle, an breakin the eggs intae the pan a at the same time.

JOHN  Well, it's no ma job. If it wis ma job...

MAGGIE   We ken: ye'd hae a system.

Compare Obama's apologia on Nov. 3, 2010 on 60 Minutes to Lily's:

But I think that in terms of how I operated on a day to day basis, when you've got a series of choices to make, I think that there are times where we said: let's just get it done, instead of worrying about how we're getting it done. And I think that's a problem.

As I said before, in a crisis situation, in an emergency situation -- which is really what we were in the first six to nine months -- I think it's fair to say that, you know, we made the right decisions in making sure that we stabilize the economy. But in terms of setting the tone and how this town operates, we just didn't pay enough attention to some of the things that we had talked about. And, you know I'm paying a political price for that.

Elsewhere, he said that he was too busy governing to communicate effectively. You know how it is when the weans are screaming and granny's moaning...

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