THE BLOG
11/04/2013 10:03 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Accountability M.I.A.

Accountability is on the endangered species list. No - not the word. Indeed, "accountability" reverberates around the electronic ether almost as frequently as "thwarking." It is the reality of persons, especially public persons, taking responsibility for acts of malfeasance in ways that entail exemplary punishment and personal costs. Just this week, we have heard from Secretary of Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, that she "was accountable to you for fixing these problems" with Obama's Affordable Care Act - accountable in the future. "Sorry" for the foul-up, she's given no thought to resigning for this epic display of ineptitude. Nor will her deputy who oversaw the implementation plan - such as it was. Marilyn Tavenner, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), answering a question about the pre-launch testing of the web site, Healthcare.gov, replied that "We were comfortable with its performance." She is staying on and promises to make it right eventually.

Nor will penalties of any kind be paid by the consortium of Canadian contractors who made a hash of the job. After all, these parties had only three years to set up the website. And who could have imagined the need to test its operational effectiveness more than ten days before it was scheduled to go live. Free of contrition, they blame the government, each other, and the inordinate complexity of the project for what went wrong.Simultaneously, we were treated to the embarrassing new revelations about the universal scope of NAS' mania for cataloguing every electronic communication sent or received on the planet. The decade long surveillance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone caused the most furor. Although only slightly perturbed by the attention given German citizens by American snoopers, in violation of German law, she threw a fit when it became known that she herself has been a target. Then there were the other 35 heads of government, then the Vatican, then the Google and Yahoo subscribers were added to the list that already included the United Nations Secretariat, the European Union Commission, the residents of greater Port Moresby (via Australian sub-contractor), and Haddad's kebab joint on Main Street in Peoria.The Obama administration has justified all of this spying - except for Merkel - on vague grounds that American national security requires it. So, accountability could be affirmed in the expectation of receiving laurels from a public newly apprised that their safety was so diligently being looked after - rather than punishment. The German affair was a different matter. As soon as the White House realized that its standard practice of soft-soaping the aggrieved party, and then burying the matter under the mantle of a self investigation, wasn't working, it had no choice but to acknowledge that it had done something that it should not have done. Who exactly was accountable, though? The President is neither big on admitting error nor offering more than pro forma apologies. Yet, he looks like a bystander to the actions of his own administrator if he claims that the NSA had not informed him. After a hectic few days agonizing over the best spin strategy, the White House opted for the ignorance excuse. By implication, the Keith Alexander at the NSA and the National Intelligence Director, James Clapper, were cast as rogue operatives. They were not amused. Unhappy with being designated 'accountable" by the Chief Executive, they made it known that the White House was routinely informed when other heads of government were "wire-tapped." The "White House" is a plural noun; therefore, we are left with uncertainty as to which individuals - including President Obama - were informed about what. Since no one is keen to clarify this mystery, is it the building that is declared accountable - for the time being at least? What punishment will be imposed on the bricks-and-mortar is unclear. But since "accountability" no longer leads to punishment anyway, that question seems to be moot.

Responsibility, is as popular - and as deformed - as "accountability," as in: "the system failed, but I take full responsibility." This is a favorite of elected officials and of organizational leaders more generally. The meaning is that the unfortunate matter at hand may in some sense be my fault - indirectly and inadvertently, of course - but in a very abstract, objectified way. The literal definition implies accountability which, in turn, implies penalty or chastisement. None is envisaged by the resolute statement of 'responsibility.' Just the opposite. The declaration is designed not to open the way to some sort of reckoning. Rather, it aims to foreclose any further consideration of the issue. The speaker is pronouncing closure. In plain English, the true message is: yes, what occurred was most unfortunate; it was pretty much inescapable though given the circumstances. Yes, I am the one who as the Boss is ultimately 'responsible' in that I am supposed to know what's going on, but we all know that it is impossible for any mortal soul to oversee and monitor everything in this vast government/organization, so I'll do everything I reasonably can to prevent things like this happening again. Now let's get this troubling affair behind us and fix our attention on other pressing problems - going forward. The old pledge 'the buck stops here!" has been reformulated: "the buck makes a brief stopover here before being cast into outer orbit - with luck never to be seen or heard from again." Luck comes in the form of slack media who miss the launching ang ignore the orbiting object.It is a commentary on our feeble power to scrutinize critically the conduct and speech of our rulers that this formula invariably succeeds. Evidently, the part of us that desires comity and faith in high officials outweighs the part of us that seeks to place blame as a prelude to exacting a penalty. The latter, after all, means doing something about it - and that is time-consuming. Skepticism is not ingrained in our political culture even as Americans vaunt their staunch independence and strong belief in the republican virtue of not deferring to the holders of high office. Rugged individualism itself is manifestly now a phantom phrase itself.These latest exercises in non-responsible pleas of "accountability" conform to a pattern that has become well entrenched since the great financial crisis of 2007-2009. The devastating record of malfeasance and misfeasance by financial leaders has not led to a single public personage of note admitting that (s)he had done something wrong for which a penalty should be received. Alan Greenspan, one of those who share the lion's share of the blame, has just issued a 400 page mea exculpa wherein he asserts brazenly that the entire affair was beyond his ken, his control or the ability of mortals even to have foreseen. The laughter recorded at a Federal Reserve meeting when someone timidly suggested that the housing market bubble deserved careful attention is taken as normal exuberance at a job done as well as could be. The same bashfulness about accepting responsibility for their baleful doings is exhibited by Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, the moving spirits behind the fateful Clinton administration deregulation frenzy, by all of the predatory Wall Street prodigies, and the legion of renown economists who lent all of the authority their profession - and a few Nobel Prizes -empowers them with. Summers has pronounced Greenspan's self-serving tome "a splendid book."In the financial sphere, we have witnessed the logical extremity of theno accountability phenomenon. For the malefactors personally, the term itself has been placed on the Index - despite its having lost any practical significance. In that respect, it would be analogous to a Vatican's diligent prohibition on its flock's reading Lady Chatterley's Lover. In a culture of non-responsibility, the self-righteous fight tenaciously the slightest hint of impropriety. Hence, they are fain even to go through the motions of a feigned "accountability" statement.

The "war on terror" is equally rich in examples. The authors, executants and cheerleaders of the catastrophic invasion of Iraq have fared just as well - despite the extravagant moral, human and political costs. No one has suffered penalties except a few foot soldiers at the very bottom of the pyramid. They hold endowed chairs at distinguished universities or senior professorships from Harvard to Yale to Georgetown. They are avidly sought out for their views on current developments in the Middle East. Their dogmas are treated with respect, even deference. Indeed, they dominated Mitt Romney's team of foreign policy advisors. They have risen from the ashes of the Iraqi charnel house because Americans failed in their collective responsibility to fix responsibility and to hold accountable. "The cruelest lies are often told in silence" - as Stevenson said.

Each successive instance of accountability evasion degrades further standards of American public life. It lowers expectations of honest communication between rulers and ruled; it lowers the performance measures we apply to public servants; it encourages lax performance of official duties; and it contributes to making spin and gesture the hallmarks of contemporary politics. Most insidiously, it models behavior for the rest of society - with especially pernicious influences on the young. A powerful message is sent that this is truth, that this is life. A mature sense of responsibility and a measure of integrity are devalued - where they are recognized at all. The full consequences are foreshadowed by the unseemly behavior that is common today.