Is It Too Much to Ask for a Little Boredom in Washington?

Image source: Black Country Museums

Phew! Crisis averted. Well, for a few months, anyway.

Earlier this year, we confessed to nearly losing track of all of the brinksmanship in the nation’s capital—over “sequestration,” the debt ceiling, the “fiscal cliff,” etc., etc. It’s no way to run a country.

The deal reached this week by the House and Senate to restart the government after 16 days of shutdown and meet the nation’s debt obligations is hardly reassuring. Instead, it is “going to kick the can down the road,” Joel Prakken, co-founder of the forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisers, told NPR. “In which case we’ll have set up yet another near-term, calendar-driven fiscal crisis that will perpetuate the elevated level of uncertainty for the last several years.”

It’s a malady with which Peter Drucker was well acquainted. “Poor management wastes everybody’s time,” he wrote in The Effective Executive. “The symptom to look for is the recurrent ‘crisis,’ the crisis that comes back year after year. A crisis that recurs a second time is a crisis that must not occur again.”

Government is especially fond of the recurrent crisis. Drucker pointed out that one reform made by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was to put a halt to an annual crisis that gripped the Pentagon every spring. “Every manager in the defense establishment, military or civilian, tried desperately in May and June to find expenditures for the money appropriated by Congress for the fiscal year,” Drucker noted. “Otherwise, he was afraid he would have to give back the money.” McNamara, seeing how wasteful and unnecessary this was, made sure that the unused sums got placed into an interim account.

As we’ve discussed before, Drucker felt that a well-managed organization was a dull one: “The ‘dramatic’ things in such an organization are basic decisions that make the future, rather than heroics in mopping up yesterday.”

Our politicians have proven capable of planning and long-range decisions in the past, at least at times. But, at present, such dullness seems out of reach.

How, if at all, can Washington escape the perpetual crisis?