In the latest Claremont Review of Books released this week, William Voegeli reviews Time magazine reporter Michael Grunwald’s The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era. Voegeli’s review is worth reading as usual, but I am excerpting this passage quoting Grunwald’s account of the sclerotic legacy of New Deal bureaucracy for its value as an admission against interest:
One of his book’s heroes is Claire Broido Johnson, an investment banker hired by Energy Secretary Steven Chu to run the department’s Office of Weatherization and Intergovernmental Programs. The Recovery Act allocated $5 billion to a three-year program to weatherize 600,000 low-income families’ homes through such prosaic enhancements as better windows, insulation, furnaces, and air conditioners. The effort was snake-bit from the start. Johnson took over the weatherization office-known informally as the “Turkey Farm” for the number of subpar civil servants sent there over the years when no other agency would take them—at a time when it had finished the program’s first year of operation by weatherizing not 200,000 but 30,252 homes. Johnson came into the job “like a hurricane hitting the building,” setting goals for every agency receiving money from the program, holding weekly calls to monitor progress, and creating a call center where staffers helped local officials navigate the elaborate procedures for getting and spending stimulus dollars.
It worked. “The program ultimately surpassed its goal of 600,000 homes three months early,” Grunwald reports. The success story convinced Mark Schmitt, former editor of the American Prospect, that with “one of the two best books ever written about government,” Grunwald has shown how the Obama Administration made “government more responsive, imaginative, tough on failure but supportive of promising ideas.”
But even one of Grunwald’s most inspiring stories has an equivocal moral. Predictably, Johnson “was not hailed at the Turkey Farm.”
Early on, when she asked all of the division’s staffers what they were accountable for, two responded: “You can’t make me accountable for anything.” One employee buried his nose in a newspaper whenever she approached. When she chastised another lifer for napping on the job, he filed a union grievance.
Increasingly frustrated, Johnson launched a secret “Operation Cupcake” to try to fire the worst laggards, but she never stood a chance against the cupcakes. They knew that political appointees come and go, but civil servants are forever. They call themselves “WeBe’s,” as in “We be here, you be gone.”
Eventually, those enemies got their boss in trouble with Energy’s inspector general when they reported that she circumvented cumbersome hiring procedures preventing the appointment of an urgently needed deputy. The investigation “ended Johnson’s career at the department,” and left her vowing never to work for the federal government again.
So, yes, 600,000 homes got weatherized in three years after it looked like it might take 20. But the official who made it happen be gone and is never coming back. Meanwhile, the turkeys who were making it not happen be there and are never going away. Johnson also left behind and intact the maze of regulations so conducive to getting nothing done, slowly and expensively, and so lethal to responsive, imaginative, and efficacious government. The extent to which renewed confidence in the activist state is justified by the attainments of prodigious high-achievers like Johnson, who overcome government dysfunction before being overcome by it, is highly debatable.