The Blame Game

The other day I was chatting with someone (yes; people do occasionally talk to me).  My interlocutor was describing a video, or newsclip, or some representation seen of the private-sector computer geeks who were called in to fix the Healthcare.gov website.  You know, the website that, four years after its authorizing statute was passed, and after a $600+ million contract (to a Canadian company that had already been fired for incompetence in similar capacity for I think it was Ontario) still couldn’t do what it was intended to do.  Apparently one of the persons in the video expressed the thought to those assembled that “we’re not here to blame; we’re here to fix.”

The statement to me was that this was such a wonderful approach and one worthy of emulation across human existence because “blaming” someone else is to “absolve” oneself from the “responsibility for fixing it.” 

With reference to the superficial aspect of the computer geek quoted by the person I was chatting with, I’ll observe:  Congratulations.  You have a keen grasp of the obvious. 

But that’s not my point.  My point begins with the observation that my opposite number in this little chat has over the past years let pass almost zero opportunities (on the contrary, has strained mightily to invent them) to blame (i) Geo. W. Bush; (ii) Republicans in any office; (iii) anyone harboring any sympathy at any level to the Tea Party organizations; and, (iv) pretty much every breathing human who is not affiliated with sundry far-left — way far-left — political organizations for everything from unusually warm/cold weather to fluctuations in the business cycle to the Iranians wanting to nuke Israel to Israel announcing they weren’t going to stand for it to . . . well, you get the point.  In short, assignment of responsibility, by which I mean the attribution of a position in which the person to whom attributed could either have helped or hindered the observable consequence in issue, is made without any intelligently articulable basis, and on the basis of political affiliation.  The Koch brothers, who buy, sell, and refine petroleum, are eeeeeeevvilllll, because racism.  And shut up.  Besides, diversity.  George Soros, a major stakeholder in a Petrobras deep-water oil field, is a saint incarnate.  Even more to the point, the person with whom I was chatting has no more understanding of the internet, or computers, than the family dog.  I say that with complete sincerity; I know this person and I know their family dog.  Daylight does not show between them on this subject.

All of which is an insufferably long way of saying that my interlocutor had no meaningful basis on which to evaluate the statement so praised.

I pointed out that the mere act of identifying What Went Wrong necessarily implies a determination of in whose hands thing went wrong.  Events, especially events such as these, simply do not happen in a vacuum.  Building a website is not an organic process where one puts into operation processes the outcomes of which play themselves out independently of human intervention.  You might not “blame” someone for a crop failure (I lied: you can jolly well blame Geo. W. Bush and the Republicans) because there are multiple factors that go into making a crop which operate and interact with each other and which are entirely beyond the ability of any person (other than Geo. W. Bush and the Koch brothers) to control, or even influence.  The Healthcare.gov website fiasco was a series of conscious, affirmative decisions each last one of which had to be made by a specific human or group of humans.  So the ACA’s website failure was wholly unlike a crop failure caused by drought.  “The crop failed because it didn’t rain enough.”  “Who decided how much it would rain?”  To say that Healthcare.gov crashed because it was, for example, incapable of handling the ordinary traffic it needed to necessary implies the question, “How was it determined how much traffic it had to handle?” (you’ve got to answer that question because you don’t want to follow the same decisional rules and replicate your problem: garbage in, garbage out).  And asking how that determination was made cannot be answered without finding out who made the decision, and how.

But I was wrong, you see:  Even that limited inquiry is to seek to “absolve myself” from “responsibility” for fixing what’s wrong. 

I pointed out that identifying those responsible for a particular mess is important if only for the reason that you do not want to hire them again to create another mess.  This is of course especially true when the pool of vendors to accomplish a particular Task X is minuscule.  Gentle Reader will recall the uproar when Halliburton was awarded a no-bid contract to re-build Iraq.  Well, that was a legitimate concern to express.  The problem of course was that there were and are very few companies out there who have the expertise, the size, and the resources to re-build an entire country and its infrastructure.  And not all of them are American; Halliburton is.  The Canadian company that got the Healtcare.gov contract was awarded it on a no-bid basis.  Of interest in this particular case is that the company in question had already been fired from one huge IT project in Canada (I think it was for the Ontario government, but please don’t quote me on that).

But no:  That, too, was just a smoke-screen to evade “responsibility” for doing something positive.

Had I not run out of time for this little head-exploding conversation (had to leave), I could have pointed out that, when you’ve spent over $600 million on a four-year project that isn’t even close to being functional for any critical task, the people who ponied up that money have a damned good right to know who took them for a ride.  Governments are trustees; what they hold they hold (at least in theory; I know better than to confuse theory with the actual world) not for themselves but for their citizens.  Accordingly all governmental decision makers have an affirmative duty to engage in the exercise of finding out what went wrong, or right, and assigning blame or praise accordingly.

But most of all, without responsibility there can be no accountability.  While we’d all like to assume that government employees and government contractors will always Go The Extra Mile, always give 115%, always ask of themselves what they can do to make themselves better and less burdensome . . . we all know that’s not how human nature is wired.  The depressing truth is that we’re no better than we ought to be, the vast majority of us.  That’s so universally the case that when we meet someone who actually does do all those things or more, we revere him or her and (inwardly, at least) hang our heads in shame. For most of us, the most immediate motivator is a high regard for the consequences that will be visited on us if we fail to perform.  And by “consequences” I don’t mean just financial consequences.  The determination that you will never let yourself be known as a sloppy plumber, or a framer who can’t build a house square, level, and plumb is every bit the moral equivalent of grinding it out so that you don’t get sued or fired.

When you add to ordinary human nature the opacity of modern government work (either within or on a contract basis) you get a brew that is toxic to civic life unless powerful antidotes are prescribed and regularly consumed.  This isn’t, by the way, anything new under the sun.  I like maritime history; I’ve got shelves and shelves, most double-stacked, of books on the subject.  For hundreds of years it was just standard practice to pawn off on the navy short weight of rotten meat, contaminated flour, defective water casks.  Even Admiralty officials made a handsome living stealing timber and cordage, selling them on the black market, and re-supplying with second-hand or cast-off supplies.  Samuel Pepys in the mid-1600s made his bones down at the Admiralty by cracking down on precisely those habits.  Later in the Soviet Union the practice of tukhta (sometimes spelled “tufta”) was such an integral part of Soviet life that Solzhenitsyn described it as one of the pillars on which the entire Gulag existed.  Even later, in MiG Pilot, the story of Viktor Belenko’s Soviet Air Force career and defection to the West, you can find stories about warplanes unable to fly because the ground staff has drained the alcohol from the cooling systems to drink or sell.  Even after the Soviet Union was dead and gone (at least until Smart Diplomacy™ came along to give it another shot), you could stay in a Moscow apartment house where there would be rotting garbage in the stairwells, for days on end.  Adam Hochschild in The Unquiet Ghost describes exactly that experience.

I would — were I to finish my conversation — observe to my interlocutor that Pepys did not make such headway as he did by piously intoning that he wasn’t there to fix blame but rather to see that the Royal Navy got anchor cables that wouldn’t part in a storm.  He made progress by finding the thieves and getting rid of them.  The Soviet Union never did manage to learn to deal with the broad absence of a sense of ownership of one’s responsibilities.  It was the ground crews’ jobs to see that their aircraft could get into the air.  They didn’t, and nothing happened.  It was someone’s job to carry out the garbage in Hochschild’s apartment building.  And he didn’t, and nothing happened to him either.  It was the job of the Gulag administrators to account for — correctly — the cubic meters of timber belled in the taiga, to pour concrete without rubbish contaminating it, to make bricks that would not fall apart in a matter of a few years.  And they didn’t, with the result that within three years of Stalin’s death the system of large-scale slave labor essentially fell to pieces.

In short, failure of accountability has real-world outcomes.  Serious outcomes.  Outcomes that can literally bring down a superpower.  Remember that there was not a single foreign boot on Soviet soil in 1991.  There was not so much as an infantry platoon poised to invade.  Not so much as an unarmed hostile airplane occupied its airspace.  It had legions of well-wishers (including Dear Leader) throughout the world.  And in the absence of all of that it literally shut up shop and went out of business.  Just like that.  I can’t think of a single other instance in all of recorded human history where that’s happened (althogh I suppose you could make something of an argument that Czechoslovakia did the same thing, but that was not a bankrupt state falling apart but rather two pretty distinct ethnic groups mutually deciding they no longer wanted to be lumped in together, as had happened to them after the Great War).

I recently read Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace.  It’s a book-length treatment of the few years before the war.  In fact, the war itself takes up only the epilogue.  MacMillan’s central question is why, when so many crises had come and gone without going over the edge, did things go so badly wrong in summer, 1914.  It’s a good question and one any scientist would ask himself.  If I’ve observed X on Y prior occasions, with a range of outcomes ech time excluding Z, and suddenly I get Z, what was different?  Of the points MacMillan makes, the one that is most pertinent to this post is that the switch-points, the triggers, the places at which those paths that could have lead to peace or war went one way rather than the other, were all specific decisions made by identifiable people.  People who had options, who could have done one thing and determined to do another.  It was a consious decision by a small number of men to accept no resolution with Serbia that did not involve war.  It was Kaiser Wilhelm’s personal statement to Count Hoyos that gave Austria-Hungary the famous “blank check.”  It was Nicholas II’s choice to threaten war on Serbia’s behalf.  It was a long-thought-through feature of the Schlieffen Plan to violate Belgian neutrality for the sake of avoiding the French border fortifications.  It was a bitterly-contested question in the British cabinet and in Parliament whether to deliver that ultimatum to Berlin when Belgium was invaded.  Each and every one of those decision-points has known names associated with it.

Is it irrelevant to call those names?  Was it irrelevant to do so in 1919?  History has seen the consequences of Germany being called out for its role in starting the war.  Of all the Versailles Treaty’s objectionable points, the one that rankled more than nearly any other was that war-guilt article.  Why?  It was the stated basis for the reparations claims, but then the reparations could have been demanded in any event.  I suggest that it was the consciousness of guilt that made it so repugnant.  You can pay the reparations.  You can re-conquer lost territory.  You can negotiate down all the material clauses of a bad agreement.  You can even just give the world the Bronx cheer and re-build your military.  But it’s the accountability that sticks:  You did this; you caused this; we are not going to pretend that you did not cause this, and you can never un-cause it.  I will suggest that it was the sense of moral outrage at that war-guilt clause, the having it rammed down their throats what their leadership had done, that so altered Germany’s moral awareness that fourteen years later it could go to the polls and return the Nazis to power.  Relative morality is a siren song, and it can’t be very surprising that Germany succumbed to it.

Would we nowadays?

You can sermonize about “avoiding having to take responsibility for fixing the problem” until you’re blue in the face, but unless you hold accountable those who made the problem you will always have more problems than you can take responsibility for fixing.  Worse, over time they will become problems which deteriorate to the point of no longer being fixable.  Worse even still, without the naming of names, without the holding accountable of those who are responsible, we subvert that sense of morality which is in the final analysis the basis of free government.  I didn’t figure that out myself, either.  That point figures prominently in Washington’s Farewell, a highly instructive essay on several levels, as I’ve noted before, here.  “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . .  It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”

It is thus altogether well and proper that we should ask who made a pig’s breakfast of Healthcare.gov, how they did so, and how they came to be in a position to do so.  Not to do so is to be, in Churchill’s wonderful expression, “neutral as between the fire brigade and the fire.”

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