THE BLOG
10/24/2013 03:06 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Obamacare as Metaphor

I turned on Morning Joe with my breakfast, as I usually do. The discussion of the horrendous rollout of the Affordable Care Act touched on whether there should be firings, who was hurt politically, why the Republicans, who have no alternatives, stink, etc.

The discussion missed the point, as it always does when we discuss such situations. The real problem is that we are awash in mediocrity. In seven years at the Pentagon, I saw countless mini-examples of the same mess represented by the healthcare software debacle. There were always high-quality individuals trying to stem the tide of government sloppiness and ineptitude, but never enough. And even at lower levels, where employees were simply cogs in the vast machine, no one ever seemed to be called to account, no matter how grand the disaster. Almost never is there malice involved. No one wants the failing project to, in fact, fail. It's just that the levels of leadership and ability to which we have become inured are low enough to ensure repeated failure.

Ever watch a Congressional hearing about disasters like Libya or the Iraq War? Panelists always ask government witnesses about accountability and who would be fired. The routine answers: no one was really responsible; no one was getting fired.

Now think about the movie Apollo 13. There's Gene Kranz, head of mission control for NASA, directing rescue efforts for the astronauts put in mortal danger due to an electrical failure within their spacecraft. What's so great about this movie? It's a true story about what America used to be. Kranz didn't build the craft. He didn't come up with any of the numerous fixes necessary to bring the astronauts safely home. What he did was lead. He made decisions. He chose among competing strategies. His subordinates, led by his example, refused to accept failure. This is what I thought government was like under the hood, even if it looked silly at times when its working were revealed to the public. Eugene Kranz was the kind of person I expected to find in profusion in Washington. I should have known that things had changed.

When I was in graduate school in 2002, I took a course in government and its dealings with the intelligence community. One of my young classmates asked the lecturer, someone highly placed at CIA, what would happened if the China desk officer pulled a major boner. The CIA person responded, "We'd move him to the Belize desk, or something like that." The student came back with, "Why don't you just fire him?" The lecturer made reference to the annoying process of firing anyone.

What's gone wrong over the last half century? Sure, the country has gotten bigger, but not that much bigger. Somewhere in there, the Cold War ended, and that added complexity to the foreign policy landscape. But these are not sufficient to explain a basic upheaval in the way we do business.

I would suggest that the latter part of the Clinton presidency was the beginning of the slide. Coincidental changes took place. First, Washington entered a deepening swamp of partisanship that made governance increasing difficult. Second, the baby boomer generation came of age, narcissism and all, and realized that it was more fun to make a million than to be altruistic. Talented people chose the boardroom over Washington, and even local government, for that matter. A vicious cycle was initiated, in which the swamp got messier because of a shrinking pool of talent that could help clean it up, and those with talent became more and more reluctant to enter the swamp, a place that didn't seem to offer rewards for those with real talent.

What does this mean for us, and why is the technological healthcare failure vastly more important than just signifying a delay in when people can get healthcare? Because the same bureaucracy responsible for leading and prosecuting this effort also make decisions about weapons, foreign policy, and the economy. Why should you be surprised by the levels of Medicare fraud; welfare and tax cheating; cost overruns in virtually every major Pentagon program; foreign policy failures; intelligence failures; and on and on? Why wouldn't one think that a massive immigration bill would be another recipe for failure, overly complicated and poorly executed?

This is not a Democratic failure alone; I'm not a Republican. It is a universal failure, and the Bush II presidency is ample proof of that. Is there anything that can be done?

A glib answer would be to get better leadership, but we have not yet seen any increase in inclination among our most talented to forego rewarding careers in the private sector. I certainly know what the answer isn't. Howard Dean was asked on Morning Joe about a response to the healthcare mess. His horrendously partisan answer: "We'll get through this. We always do." Yeah. Why worry? The mess will get a little less messy after we've spend five times as much as we should have to hire new contractors to help contractors we never should have chosen to fix something that shouldn't have been so bad in the first place.

The political system is flawed and suffering from a dearth of talent. There are states moving toward fixing the way Congressional representatives are chosen to lessen the likelihood of "safe seats." That's a start, but the real help needs to come from our younger generations who have been so crucial in reducing racism and increasing awareness of planetary damage. Unfortunately, many have walked away from Washington, and even voting. We need them to gain the belief that they can build a different country. We need a critical mass coming forward to address the problems that, after all, will hit them like a ton of bricks after we're finished screwing everything up.