09 February 2006

The Good Old US of Grant

Hiring practices, that is. The tempest-in-a-cracked-teacup involving the obviously unqualified George Deutsch at NASA reminds me all too much of the abuses of the Grant administration that, after tortured consideration, provided some of the impetus for the modern civil service system. I am not that big a fan of the civil service system, as it encourages careerism and some rather unsavory practices; however, it is relatively free of this kind of abuse.

The Deutsch incident only raises more questions, many of them pointing at the Prince of Darkness (Rove).

  • This isn't the first bit of resume-bloating that has supported an appointed official in the executive branch. However, it's the first one in quite some time in which the position was essentially that of a hatchet man or spin controller. This leads to a corollary question: Couldn't Rove find some young Republican—one who had demonstrated adequate loyalty to George III—better qualified than that? Rove may or may not have personally ensured Deutsch's appointment, but his attitude certainly did.
  • Is it really that dangerous to let rocket scientists speak on matters directly related to their research, so long as those matters aren't classified? It's not like anything that the NASA scientists might have said on cosmology would be radically different from mainstream scientific thought. Except, perhaps, on
  • Global warming. But then, some aspects of global warming remain a controversial scientific issue; all that should have been necessary was requiring scientists speaking on nonpolicy matters, or policy matters outside of their policy spheres, to remove their NASA logo and make clear that they were not speaking for the Administration. What is really disturbing is the implication that suppressing scientific criticism is so important to the preordained policy position that Rove et al. would risk getting caught by putting their own censor in place—however well qualified (or, in this instance, unqualified).
  • Last, but not least, is the question of intellectual honesty. If George III has certain policy preferences for nonscientific reasons that he believes trump any scientific concerns, he has a right to maintain those preferences. I may think he's stupid to do so (big surprise), but that's what elections are about—and, whatever my misgivings about the fundamental honesty of the American election system, it's what we've got. He and his lackeys can trumpet how out of touch the scientists are with real-world concerns, and with the "average working man." (It's not like they don't already.) There are even excellent value arguments available to refute scientific analysis of certain aspects of policy; "the greatest good for the greatest number" seems to be the dominant translational mechanism between science and policy when done by scientists, but it's hardly a guarantee of good policy.

I've worked with, for, and around a fair number of political appointees. On the whole, the system at that time seemed to work: They would at least give the appearance of listening to the professionals/experts around them who were not political appointees. Between NASA, FEMA, and various advisory councils that have already been coopted, though, I don't think that courtesy can be taken for granted under this administration.