Tod Lindberg Assesses the Presidency at Midterm, and My Query about Academics in Government

Tod Lindberg, editor of the Hoover Institution journal Policy Review, offers in the Weekly Standard an assessment of the President at the mid-term … President McCain, that is.  It is incisive, rather than played for laughs, and characteristically shrewd in its implied judgments.

But as long Tod is speculating, let me speculate in a different sense.  On account of being an academic in Washington DC, I happen to know a lot of academics who have joined the Obama administration.  The general university rule limits tenured professors to two years of leave in government before losing their tenure.  In many cases, particularly big name academics at the top schools, I doubt it would be much of an issue.  But in my conversations with academics in the administration – and this was true in the Bush administration, in my anecdotal experience as well – it just doesn’t seem like a prudent or attractive idea.  Apart from not wanting to take any risks with one’s tenure status – I wouldn’t – the work in government is intense, has long hours and weekends, and generally drains people.  Many of my friends have young children and are trying to commute from outside DC.  Professors often tend to think of themselves as academic free agents in the market, and figure that, from their personal point of view, two years is enough time to extract the value of the experience and the resume value of the credential and title.  So the two year limit actually turns out to be a kind of useful reason to make an exit.

But I have asked the question to a lot of academic friends whether two years is actually enough to implement and execute anything.  The answer is generally no – it is enough time in many cases to do what academics do best, which is design a system, but not to implement it.  But, in government (as in life), execution of an okay plan is better than non-execution of a perfect plan.  So this makes me wonder – given the number of academics in relatively senior positions of policy in the Obama administration – whether this externally imposed constraint by the universities has some unnoticed but perhaps surprisingly widespread effect on governance.  Quite possibly no; a lot of government seems to be just trying to keep up with day to day events, not really planning and executing things over time.  And those who plan are not necessarily intended to be those who execute in any case.  Query and speculation, that’s all; I’ve never worked in government, and would be surprised if anyone ever wanted me to.