Being a Bureaupreneur
reetings to the best and brightest: the class of '00, about to graduate from top-notch public policy and public administration schools across the country. I'll skip all the high-minded future-lies-before-you stuff and get right down to what you really need: career advice.
Put bluntly, the forecast is cloudy. A Democratic President says the era of big government is over, and he promises balanced budgets as far as the eye can see. The New Economy runs rings around the New Deal, and 20-somethings would rather sign on with an IPO than the GPO, GAO or CBO. These are all signs that the 21st century is not going to be as bureauphilic as the 20th.
But OK, you want to stay in the public policy game. Yet instead of mulling over game theory inside a bureaucracy, let's talk about gamesmanship among bureaucracies; let's talk about winners and losers, about bulls and bears. Let's talk about choosing careers in agencies where the turf is growing and the grass is greener.
Entrepreneurs and Geeks
In the mid 1970s, when I was in college studying international relations, the joke was, "The optimists study Russian, the pessimists study Chinese." In the aftermath of Vietnam, it seemed as though America was on the "wrong side of history"; the hot fields for grad students back then were Sovietology and arms control. And capitalism, too, seemed to be waning, as the United States waxed ever more toward Euro-style social democracy. So political science departments and public policy schools brimmed with would-be John Kenneth Galbraiths and James Schlesingers, experts who were destined, so everyone thought, to supervise such things as wage and price controls, or energy rationing and production.
But there was just one problem: It was all about to change. And lots of once-budding government careers were changed too-for the worse. In 1980, Ronald Reagan told Americans that if he were elected President, he would reverse the trend-line in government. He was, and he did. Remember the Council on Wage and Price Stability? It provided jobs for a couple of hundred people and operated out of the New Executive Office Building, a great location, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. In the '70s, it was a happening place: You could imagine working there and building a career out of price controls, guidelines, indexing, jawboning and so on. Members of Congress would call you up, lobbyists would want to lunch you, citizens would petition you, reporters would want to quote you. But then, in early '81, along comes David Stockman and his OMB cutting crew, and with the flick of an examiner's pen, you're out of a job, as all price regulation is wiped out. And there hasn't been much of a job market for price controllers ever since.
To be sure, the Reaganites didn't win all of their fights against "Big Gummint," or even most of them. But they did win the biggest fight of all. Before Reagan, the drivers of the economy were seen to be Keynesians and planners, with their multipliers and white papers. After Reagan, the impetus shifted to entrepreneurs and geeks.
That shift, from public sector to private sector, is the fundamental and enduring reality that will shape your careers, at least for the next few decades. You may not like it, but savvy players know they must shape their minds to the situation and not waste time attempting to remake reality. Besides, if you think like a smart "bureaupreneur," you'll find plenty to do.
Even the dreaded Reagan created some winners inside the Beltway. Anyone who had an idea for fighting communism-a plan, perhaps, for designing (or even just describing) strategic defense, aiding the Contras, or providing the mujaheddin with Stinger missiles-had a good run in the '80s. On the domestic front, free marketeers, budget crunchers and "competitiveness" experts were the rage.
Of course, government work didn't disappear; total government employment rose steadily during this period, as did revenues flowing to contractors and grantees. And by the end of the Reagan era, what was hot and what was not had traded places. The market for supply-siders dried up; even the Republicans were raising taxes. And all those experts on the Strategic Defense Initiative, Nicaragua and Angola were reduced to the point where they practically had to offer rebates to get anyone to take their advice. Then when the Soviet Union collapsed, decades of accumulated human Kremlinological capital was suddenly available at a deep discount, and there's been no comeback-not even a dead-cat bounce-in a decade. A Nov. 13 headline in The Washington Post says it all: "Soviet Scholars Left Out in the Thaw."
While Reaganism circumscribed the scope of the public sector, it was equally clear that the invisible hand wasn't going to solve all problems, from poverty to pollution. So George H.W. Bush was elected on a "kinder, gentler" platform that pumped life-money back into Uncle Sam's slightly thinned veins.
But then came Bill Clinton, the first Democratic President in a dozen years, who couldn't recapture the old pre-Reagan magic. His neo-Keynesian "stimulus package" was defeated, as was his neo-Swedish health care plan. As Clinton himself put it, he came in wanting to be another Franklin D. Roosevelt-there was a man who made lots of careers in government-but ended up being just another Dwight Eisenhower.
So here we are today: The government is bigger than ever, in terms of peacetime share of the GDP, but there's a rolling realization that market forces and privatization are eroding not only the government's reach, but also its rationale.
Consider education. In terms of funding, schools have been a boom zone for 15 years, but all that new money hasn't done much for the prestige of either teachers or the education establishment. The social engineers who oversaw the vast expansion of the federal role in education in the '50s, '60s and '70s looked forward to utopian visions of a French-style system, where education is run from the center. From such a centralized citadel, education engineers could oversee not just school funding; they could also supervise laboratory experiments in integration, sex education, new math and multiculturalism.
But today, the cutting edge of change in education is not at the core; it's at the periphery. Choice-magnets, charters, even vouchers-is the wave of the future. The Department of Education today is little more than a grant-making machine; the yokels out there in Middle America want the department's money, and more of it, but not the advice or the strings. Meanwhile, right-wing philanthropists and private-sector entrepreneurs are moving in. At this rate, education will be run like Medicare, with the public sector simply dispensing the money to the private sector and hoping for the best.
Speaking of entitlements, look at Social Security. It's not going anywhere, but its solidarity-creating function is shot. The politicians and the actuaries can do all the "saving" and "lock-boxing" they want, but nothing short of a 1929-style crash will change the popular perception that Wall Street, not Washington, is the best future source of retirement income. And other agencies, too, are suffering from creative destruction. The General Accounting Office says the Postal Service is in a "precarious situation" because of e-mail. Like, duh.
Aristotle said the purpose of politics is to order people's relationships. But my purpose here is more modest: to help you prioritize your career options. So here are four sectors in and near the public sector that should buck the trend in the new century.
First, war and peace. Nothing new under the sun, you might say. But as Aristotle would say, the United States today is that rare bird: a republic and an empire. As such, it suffers from perpetual tension; republics are peaceable and frugal, but empires need big standing armies and the high taxes to support them. Today, after a decade of decline, military spending has hit a plateau. And an odd coupling of internationalist interventionists on the left and defense-contracting capitalists on the right is likely to push it back up.
Yet one of these days, a "peacekeeping" mission is going to suffer a bad blow-back, in terms of terrorism, nuclear weapons or both. That would be a tragedy for America, but it would be good news for the military-industrial complex. And of course, Kofi Annan wants to establish a U.N. army: Now there's a career track!
Second, the environment. Every day brings new revelations about what causes cancer, genetic defects or global warming. From Old Leftists who have recycled their Marxism into the political equivalent of a watermelon-green on the outside, red on the inside-to Old Rightists who sentimentalize blood and soil, to yuppies who don't want their sunsets obstructed, just about every affluent American has become an environmentalist.
To be sure, there will still be conflicts, as when environmentalists seek to demolish the big dams astride Western rivers where the salmon once ran, or when a judge rules that the entire coal mining industry in West Virginia violates the Clean Water Act. And of course, some day a U.S. politician will seek to ratify the Kyoto global warming accords; that will be a multivariate epic of cost-benefit analysis. Indeed, the more fully people see the United States as just another passenger on "spaceship Earth," the more hypocritical our environmental desires will look next to our environmental depredation. Indeed, it's not hard to imagine fights of the future based on such transnational eco-issues as global warming, toxic waste, even endangered species.
Third, social ecology here at home. Crime is going down, but fear and alienation seem to be rising. The rash of high school shootings has left everyone wondering if there's a worm in the heart of the heartland. Other symptoms-trash TV, even trashier videos, latchkey children, cybersmut, kiddie porn-fill parents with vivid concerns about kids growing up fast, getting armed and dangerous fast, and having no values and morals when they reach nominal adulthood.
The government, which has had a hard enough time managing drug enforcement and treatment, now seems poised to make a major push on gun control. Yet beyond such blunt-instrument measures, the public sector, to put it mildly, has yet to prove that it can master the nuances of personal behavior modification. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try!
I'll get to No. 4 in a minute, but allow me to pause for a moment about career prospects I foresee in other areas, such as a new global financial architecture. Questions of trade, investment flow, international property and so on will surely keep many of you busy for the rest of your life. The annual meeting of the World Bank, for example, clogs Washington with limousines every September. There's still gold in global anti-poverty programming.
And don't forget another issue for the millennium: cloning and genetic engineering. There's some interesting turf for you to work on. And what about space exploration? That's an opportunity for global cooperation that could bring tears to Ted Turner's eyes-and could come in handy if the gloomy scenarios for war, terrorism and pollution, or Armageddon-causing comets, prove true.
Love the Law
But I've saved the biggest category of career advice for last, because it may involve the most pain to you, who have just finished umpty-ump number of years in school. But please bear with me when I tell you that three additional years in law school could be your best three years ever. Trust me: I'm from Washington, and I'm here to help you. A law degree could cinch both your income and your influence.
Look, the real action in politics today is not in the bureaucracy, or even in Congress; it's in the courts. And that's where the real money is, too. Look at cigarettes. For decades, public health officials and politicians floundered around on warning labels, advertising bans and the like. Then along come the trial lawyers, and quicker than you can stub out a butt, the tobacco companies are out $246 billion in a settlement with the states. And hundreds of billions-maybe even trillions-are still to come. Thanks to the contingency fee system, the trial lawyers take home a hefty percentage of every dollar.
Now you might say that the tort system imposes enormous transaction costs, that it's arbitrary and inefficient; after all, it targets not the guiltiest defendants, but rather those with the highest profiles and the deepest pockets. To which I say: You're missing my point. Cost-benefit analysis is interesting, but litigation is truly fascinating.
Why be a staff attorney for the EPA getting injunctions against some Superfund polluter, when you can be a trial lawyer and collect millions-and maybe even get a movie such as A Civil Action made about you? Why plow through discrimination cases in a back room at the EEOC, when you can join hands with Jesse Jackson and sue the pants off of some big company in a civil rights class action? Why work at the FDA and worry about drug approvals, when you can work at a law firm and share in billions after the drug is withdrawn and the suits are settled? Why lobby for gun control, when you can sue and put the gun makers out of business? Even the Justice Department's Microsoft case was substantially subcontracted out to a private lawyer, David Boies, who will take a lot more than SES-level compensation.
Consider maybe one of the biggest political issues of the decade: health care. The Clinton administration tried to remake health care in 1993-94 but was stymied, in part because Americans were already being rolled up into various "alliances" more commonly known as HMOs. That left a lot of problems unsolved, but politicians were too clueless-or gutless-to try to solve them. Enter the lawyers. Without waiting for Congress to give them permission to sue, trial lawyers have dramatically expanded the "rights" of HMO patients. To be sure, it's far from clear that health care coverage is being improved, let alone universalized, by the actions of trial lawyers. But as I said at the outset, my talk is about you, not everyone else.
You don't think that litigation is the way to go, career-wise? You still want to face the world with just that MPA or MPP? Fair enough: Then at least take my advice and concentrate on wars, pollution and social breakdown. That sounds like fun, doesn't it?
But remember what Bob Dylan sang: You gotta serve somebody. In the future, lawyers will blaze a lot more new public policy trails with their trials than will politicians, with their familiar posturing and promising.
The choice is yours: You can join the new class of "legalpreneurs," or you can watch from the sidelines. And so I say to you: take history-and a lawbook-into your hands! The trial lawyers have proven that you can make a difference, and make a million, all at the same time.
James Pinkerton is a former White House staffer in the Reagan and Bush administrations and author of What Comes Next: The End of Big Government and the New Paradigm Ahead (Hyperion, 1995).
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