Category Archives: management

The worst president was John Adams

Every now and again a magazine cites a group of historians to pick the best and worst presidents. And there, at the bottom of the scale, I typically find James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson; Warren Harding, and/or Ulysses Grant, none of whom deserve the dishonor, in my opinion. For Pierce and Buchanan, their high crime was to not solve the slavery /succession problem — as if this was a problem that any PhD historian would have been able to solve in a weekend. It was not so simple; the slavery question bedeviled the founding fathers, tormented Daniel Webster and Henry Clay; George Washington and Thomas Jefferson wrestled with it. None could solve it, at all when the country had relative levels of good feeling. Now, in the 1850s Pierce and Buchanan inherit this monster, and we blame them for not solving it when the nation was at the boiling point and Kansas was burning. They did the best they could in impossible circumstance, buying us time (Pierce also bought us southern Arizona).

Similarly, with Johnson: our historians’ complaint is that he didn’t manage reconstruction well — as if any one of them could have done better. You can’t blame a person for failing in a hopeless situation. Be happy they filled their terms, avoided war with our neighbors, and left the country richer and more populous than they found it.

Moving on to Grant and Harding, their crime was to be president at a time of scandal. But the very essence of this condemnation is that it presents the scandal, a non-issue in the large sweep of America, as if it were the only issue. Both Harding and Grant drank in the white house, and played cards while members of their cabinets stole money. These are major scandals to blue noses, but not so relevant to normal people. Both presidencies were periods of prosperity, employment, and growth. Both presidents paid down the national debt. Harding paid down $2,000,000 of debt, a good chunk of the debt incurred in WWI. Grant paid down a similarly large chunk of the debts of the civil war. Both oversaw times of peace and both signed peace treaties: Harding from WWI, Grant from the civil war and the Indian wars. Both left office with the nation far more prosperous than when they came in. No, these are not bad presidents except in the eyes of puritans who have require purity, and care little for the needs of the average American.

The worst president, in my opinion, was John Adams, and I would say he set a standard for bad that’s not likely to be beat. How bad was Adams? He oversaw the worst single law ever in American history, the sedition act. This act, a partner to the sedition act (almost as bad) was pushed though by Adams a mere 8 years after passage of the bill of rights. The act made it illegal to criticize the government in any way. In this, it made a mockery of free expression. Adams put someone in jail for calling him “his rotundancy” — that is, for calling him fat. The supreme court had to step in and undo that law, but this was a horrible law and only one of several horrible acts of Adams.

Another horrible act of Adams is that he decided to pick a war with France, our ally from the revolution. Adams himself had signed the treaty of Paris guaranteeing that we would never go to war with France. So why did Adams do it? He didn’t like French immorality and French Catholicism. He was insulted that French officials wanted bribes, and presented this to the public (the XYZ affair) as the reason for war. So Adams, pure Adams, got us to war with our oldest ally. But Adams didn’t stop there, having decided to go to war, he also decided to stop paying on US debt. He was too pure to pay debt to a nation that overthrew its king and set up a more-egalitarian state than we had. One where slavery was abolished.

Adams, of course did nothing to address slavery, though he berated others about it. And it’s not like Adams didn’t pay out bribes, just not to the despised Catholics. At the beginning of Adams’s single term a group of Moslems, the Barbary pirates, captured some American ships. Adams agreed to pay bribe after bribe to the Barbary Pirates for return of these US ships. But the more we paid, them the more ships the Barbary pirates captured. So Adams, the idiot just bribed them with more. By the end of Adams’s term, 1/4 of the US budget went to pay these pirates. When Jefferson became president, he ended the war with France by the simple solution of buying Louisiana, and he sent the US Marines to deal with the pirates of North Africa. Adams could have done these things but didn’t; Jefferson did, and is ranked barely above Adams as a result. So why is it that no historian calls out Addams as an awful president?.I think it’s because Adams wrote beautifully about all the right sentiments, especially to his wife. Historians like writers of high sentiment. According to 170 scholars, the top ten presidents, not counting those on Mount Rushmore are FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Reagan, Obama, and LBJ.

The bottom ten presidents. And there's Trump at the very bottom, with the usual suspects. Harrison was only president for a month.

The bottom ten presidents. And there’s Trump at the very bottom, with the usual suspects. Harrison was only president for a month.

And that brings us to the new poll. It includes William Henry Harrison among the worst. Harrison took office, became sick almost immediately, and died of Typhoid 31 days after taking office. The white house water supply was just down river from the sewage outlet, something you find in Detroit as well. He did nothing to deserve the dishonor except drinking the water after running a great presidential campaign. His campaign song, Tippcannoe and Tyler too is wonderful listening, even today.

And that brings us to the historian’s worst of the worst. The current president, Donald J. Trump. This is remarkable since it’s only a year into Trumps term, and since he’s done a variety of potentially good things: He ended a few trade deals and regulations that most people agree were bad. The result is that the stock market is up, employment is up, people are back at work, and historians are unhappy. What they want is another FDR, someone who’ll tell us: “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” whatever that means. By historian polls FDR is the second or third best president ever.

Robert Buxbaum. April 25, 2018. Semi-irrelevant: here’s a humorous song about Harrison. 

New Chinese emperor, will famine not follow

For most of its 2300 year history, the Chinese empire has rattled between strong leaders who brought famine, and weak leaders who brought temporary reprieve. Mao, a strong leader, killed his associates plus over 100 million by his “great leap forward” famine. Since then, 30+ years, we’ve had some weaker leaders, semi-democracy, and some personal wealth, plus the occasional massacre, e.g. at Tiananmen square, and a growing demographic problem. And now a new strongman is establishing himself with hopes of solving China’s problems. I hope for the best, but fear the repeat of the worse parts of Chinese history.

Two weeks ago, Chairman Xi amended the Chinese constitution to make himself emperor for life, essentially. He’s already in charge of the government, the party, and the military. Yesterday (Tuesday), he consolidated his power further by replacing the head of the banks. The legal system is, in theory, is the last independent part of government, but there is hardly any legal system in the sense of a balance of power. If history is any guide, “Emperor” Xi will weaken the courts further before the year is out. He will also likely remove many or all of his close associates and relatives. It is not for nothing that Nero, Stalin, and Mao killed their relatives and friends — generally for “corruption” following a show trial.

China's Imperial past is never is quite out of sight. Picture from the Economist.

China’s past is never is quite out of sight. Picture from the Economist.

Xi might be different, but he faces a looming demographic problem that makes it likely he will follow the president of the stronger emperors. China’s growth was fueled in part by a one child policy. Left behind is an aging, rural population with no children to take care of the elderly. As top-down societies do not tolerate “useless workers,” I can expect a killing famine within the next 10 years. This would shed the rural burden while providing a warning to potential critics. “Burn the chicken to scare the monkey,” is a Chinese Imperial aphorism. Besides, who needs dirt farmers when we have modern machines.

Lazy beds (feannagan) use only half the soil are for planting. The English experts were sure this was inefficient and land-wasting. Plowing was imposed on Ireland, and famine followed

“Lazy beds” of potatoes were used in Ireland for a century until experts forced their abandonment in the mid 1800s. The experts saw the beds, and the Irish as lazy, inefficient, and land-wasting. Famine followed.

Currently about 40% of the country is rural, about 560 million people spread out over a country the size of Canada or the US. The rest, 60% or 830 million, live concentrated in a few cities. The cities are rich, industrial, and young. The countryside is old, agricultural and poor, salaries are about 1/3 those of the cities. The countryside holds about 2/3 of those over 65, about 100 million elderly with no social safety net. The demographic imbalance is likely to become worse — a lot worse — within the next decade.

What is likely to happen, I fear, is that the party leaders — all of whom live in the cities — will decide that the countryside is full of non-productive, uneducated whiners. They will demand that more food should be produced, and will help them achieve this by misguided science and severe punishments. Mao’s experts, like Stalin’s and Queen Victoria’s, demanded unachievable quotas and academic-based advice that neither the leaders nor the academics had ever tried to make work. Mao’s experts told peasants to kill the birds that were stealing their grain. It worked for a while until the insects multiplied. As for the quotas, the party took grain as if the quotas were being met. If the peasants starved, they starved.

I expect that China’s experts will propose machine-based modern agriculture, perhaps imported from the US or Israel: Whatever is in style at the time. The expert attitude exists everywhere to this day, and the results are always the same. See potato famine picture above. When the famine comes, the old will request food and healthcare, but the city leaders will provide none, or just opioids as they did to ailing Elvis. When the complaining stops the doctor is happy.

China's population pyramid as of 2016. Notice the bulge of 40-55 year olds.

China’s population pyramid as of 2016. Notice the bulge of 40-55 year olds. Note too that there are millions more males (blue) than females (pink).

In single leader societies, newspapers do not report bad news. Rather, they like to show happy, well-fed peasants singing the leaders’ praise. When there’s a riot too big to ignore, rioters are presented as lazy malcontents and counter-revolutionaries. Sympathizers are sent to work in the fields. American academia will sing the praises of the autocratic leader, or will be silent. We never see the peasants, but often see the experts. And we live in a society where newspapers report only the bad, and where we only believe when there pictures. No pictures, no story. As with Stalin’s Gulags, Mao’s famine, or North Korea today, there are likely to be few pictures released to the press. Eventually, a census will reveal that tens of million aged have vanished, and we’ll have to guess where they went.

I can expect China to continue its military buildup over the next decade. The military will be necessary to put down riots, and keep young men occupied, and to protect China from foreign intervention. China will especially need to protect its ill-gotten, new oil-assets. Oil is needed if China is to replace its farmers with machines. It will be a challenge for a wise American leader to avoid being drawn into war with China, while protecting some of our interests: Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc. As with Theodore Roosevelt, he should offer support and non-biassed mediation. Is Trump up to this?  Hu Knows?

Robert Buxbaum, March 21, 2018. The above might be Xi-nephobia, Then again, this just in: Chairman Xi announces that Taiwan will face punishment if it attempts to break free. Doesn’t sound good.

Health vs health administration

One of the great patterns of government is that it continually expands adding overseers over overseers to guarantee that those on the bottom do their work honestly. There are overseers who check that folks don’t overcharge, or take bribes, or under-pay. There are overseers to check shirking, and prevent the hiring of friends, to check that paperwork is done, and to come up with the paperwork, and lots of paperwork to assert that no one is wasting money or time in any way at all. There have been repeated calls for regulation reform, but little action. Reform would require agreement from the overseers, and courage from our politicians. Bureaucracy always wins.

The number of health administrators has risen dramatically; doctors, not so much.

By 2009 the number of health administrators was rising dramatically faster than the number of doctors; it’s currently about 20:1.

The call for reform is particularly strong in healthcare and the current, Obamacare rules are again under debate. As of 2009 we’d already reached the stage where there were fourteen healthcare administrators for every doctor (Harvard Business Review), and that was before Obamacare. By 2013, early in the Obamacare era, the healthcare workforce had increased by 75%, but 95 percent of those new hires were administrators: we added 19 administrators per doctor. Some of those administrators were in government oversight, some worked in hospitals filling out forms, some were in doctors offices, and some were in the government, writing the new rules and checking that the rules were followed. A lot of new employment with no new productivity. Even if these fellows were all honest and alert, there are so many of them, that there seems no way they do not absorb more resources than the old group of moderately supervised doctors would by laziness and cheating.

Overseers fill ever-larger buildings, hold ever-more meetings, and create ever-more rules and paperwork. For those paying out of pocket, the average price of healthcare has risen to $25,826 a year for a family of four. That’s nearly half of the typical family income. As a result people rarely buy healthcare insurance (Obamacare) until after they are too sick to work. Administering the system take so much doctor time that a Meritt Hawkins study finds a sharp decline in service. The hope is that Congress will move to reverse this — somehow.

With more administrators than workers, disagreements among management becomes the new normal.

With more administrators than workers, disagreements among management becomes the new normal. Doctors find themselves operating in “The Dilbert Zone”.

Both Democrats and Republicans have complained about Obamacare and campaigned to change or repeal it, but now that they are elected, most in congress seem content to do nothing and blame each other. If they can not come up with any other change, may I suggest a sharp decrease in the requirements for administrative oversight, with a return to colleague oversight, and a sharp decrease in the amount of computerized documentation. The suggestion of colleague oversight also appears here, Harvard Business Review. Colleague oversight with minimal paperwork works fine for plumbers, and electricians; lawyers and auto-mechanics. It should work fine for doctors too.

Robert Buxbaum, September 19, 2017. On a vaguely similar topic, I ask is ADHD is a real disease, or a disease of definition.