THE BLOG
01/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Is This "Czar" Business?

The latest is the "car czar" who will purportedly oversee how U.S. automakers use the proposed billions of bailout dollars. I have three questions about this terminology:

(1) Given the propensity of people with power to abuse it -- Governor Blagojevich being only the latest in a long line of "me first" political players -- why should we trust a single person to oversee how taxpayer money will be spent by companies that have already demonstrated a narrow focus on short term profits and plumping the pillows of senior management?

(2) Given the need for domestic and international crisis management, financial, operational and marketing acumen, and the huge number and diversity of stakeholders in the auto industry, why on earth would we place all our bets on one person? Can anyone say Henry Paulson?

(3) Why do we keep allowing both the term and the concept of a "czar" to creep into our language? Aside from sending all the wrong messages to the people who assume such posts, why on earth do journalists and pundits use a term that smells of autocracy?

Barack Obama has remarked that his wife, Michelle, endeavors to keep his ego in check. As we have learned, being President of the United States can make you a "decider" - for everyone. But at least our presidents are elected. What on earth does a "czar" have to do with leadership in a country that is founded on democratic principles?

What would our forefathers and foremothers think of this "czar" claptrap? Whatever happened to "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"? Weird.

Explicitly using the term "car czar," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has suggested Paul Volcker as a good choice to lead US automakers out of the doldrums. But as industry experts have already pointed out, Mr. Volcker has zero experience running a manufacturing organization. Who has enough experience to know all of what could happen, especially AFTER the money has been given to the same guys who ran their company into the ground? What's to stop GM from using a few billion to bolster its China operations if the "czar" thinks that makes good financial sense?

This whole deal needs a lot more thought. Instead of a "car czar" we need checks and balances - common objectives - a team-oriented structure - a leader who emerges because he or she has what it takes in the minds of other superbly competent experts. In short, something more American than a traditional, dictatorial, corporate structure.

"Czar" in America is becoming code for a big shot who plans to fail while giving away huge sums of money to the wrong people.

And a final word. Remember the supposedly wonderful concept of a homeland security "czar"? There was also the drug czar. Need I say more?

Dr. Reardon also blogs at bardscove.