New crop of old people takes power in Washington

This is the time of year when new members of Congress and new Cabinet Secretaries take to their desks. One thing that most of these folks have in common is that they are pretty old. John Kerry, for example, was born 70 years ago (1943). Chuck Hagel was born 67 years ago (1946).

Old people are more cautious and presumably wise than young people. But they (“we”; I might as well include myself since I will be 50 this year) have some cognitive deficits and one of those is that America is the world’s greatest collection of smart people.

One example is a dinner party that I attended back in 2012 hosted by a couple whose average age was about 70. The husband is a Harvard graduate. The two were fretting about global warming. I said “Well at least we won’t have to worry about continued pollution, including carbon dioxide emissions, from cars. As soon as there is a good battery technology people will very quickly switch to electric cars and they will be a lot more efficient. It might take 10 years, of course.” (I wrote about electric cars in this 2008 posting.) They said “You’re an MIT graduate. Why don’t you design a better battery?”

Their confidence in my ability, simply due to having attended MIT, would have been touching if not for the fact that this was shortly after A123 Systems, the best-known MIT battery spinoff, had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The Boston Globe had been running articles about how they were going to their corporate grave with $400 million in tax dollars plus another $400 million in private capital.

Last year was also tough on Harvard’s reputation for unusual brilliance. The most direct spinoff of Harvard Business School is Monitor Group, whose job was to tell companies how to be more profitable using the unique genius that could only be found among Harvard Business School professors and graduates. Monitor went bankrupt in November 2012 (see this Forbes story).

Leaders who came of age during a period of American dominance have a track record of complacency that has led to whole industries dying. When Kerry and Hagel were in college, for example, RCA and Philco were world leaders in electronics. Samsung had not entered the market.

Maybe the answer is to continue appointing older managers in order to benefit from their wisdom but decorate their offices with photos of the latest products designed and built in the world’s rapidly growing economies and also photos that will remind them of American hubris and the consequences of complacency. (Reader suggestions for the photos would be welcome!)

4 Comments

  1. Mannerheim

    January 23, 2013 @ 1:39 pm

    1

    Pretty sure those posts are given as rewards to political allies, not through sober evaluation of who will do the best job. Was Hillary Clinton really the best diplomat in the country ca. 2009?

  2. Renan

    January 23, 2013 @ 2:21 pm

    2

    Having worked for the government for nearly a year gave me enough material to draw conclusions on the matter. It’s more about having the patience to execute plans than having great ideas. Now it might be a bit stereotypical but I think the elders are more inclined to planning their decisions more carefully than the typical inspired young person who wants to make revolutions. Not to mention that people who work for the government tend to stick with their jobs, which allows for a very dense inside networking for older people.

  3. michiel

    January 24, 2013 @ 5:01 pm

    3

    I think you worry about complacency unnecessarily. The United States is going to decline in relative importance, but so what? It happened to the United Kingdom. Is there anyone in Britain who seriously would prefer to live in the Victorian age? I doubt it; modern-day Britain is a wealthier, better educated and more innovative economy.

    It’s true that people like John Kerry and Chuck Hagel grew up when Western Europe was still in shambles from World War II, when Eastern Europe was kept stagnant behind the Iron curtain, when East-Asia was playing with two hands tied behind their backs and when Latin America was ruled by corrupt dictatorships.

    These things are no longer true, and guess what? The ‘dominance’ of the US is fading. This is not a sign of decline, it is a return to normality, and leaving aside questions about how a growing world economy deals with scarce resources, a very good thing.

    The economy is not a zero-sum game, nor is it a race. The United States can thrive even without being number one.

  4. Mark

    January 25, 2013 @ 4:22 am

    4

    Phil,

    Not quite certain where this observation will fit with the complacency subject in US politics, but here goes:
    My family and I live on Smith Mountain Lake in southern Virginia. From a small town that is about 15 miles due east of the lake (Gretna) to another small town that’s about 15 miles due west of us (Rocky Mount) lies a population of less than four thousand people.
    Obviously it’s rural America, but with this absurd twist: in the approximately 30 mile corridor described above we have EIGHT different USPS offices with each having their own zip codes. Eight! And I’m omitting at least three more that are less than four miles off center of the 30 mile stretch.
    I don’t know in what category one should place this “Federal government at its finest” tidbit, but it sorta demonstrates how well our politicians can care for government employees.

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