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My Favorite New Analogy & The State Department

A few weeks back, in our series on Trump and Tillerson wrecking the State Department in 2017, I had to write a post called, “Why is this Bad?”. Just think about the state of American politics that I had to write that post in the first place. While I was writing, I couldn’t stop thinking about an analogy I just heard on NPR’s The Indicator. I hadn’t heard it before but it’s just perfect:

“Stocks take the stairs up; the elevator down.”

This phrase could apply to the situation in Foggy Bottom right now, even with Mike Pompeo taking over as Secretary of State. In fact, it ties into a long held On Violence positions in general.

First, it summarizes the difficulty in promoting democracy and liberalization around the globe.

We at On Violence always advocate thinking in the long term. It is exceptionally hard to do in politics, especially democracies, but it is so vital. More than just long-term, a lot of what we argue for is slow, incremental change. Slow progress isn’t flashy, but it’s crucial to growth.

Democracy promotion is slow and incremental. You don’t suddenly get a ton of democracies. It takes time. And you have to not just have people vote, you need democratic institutions to help reinforce democracy, like a free press, the right to organize, independent judiciary and the rule of law. Those are the things that separate strong, liberal democracies from weak, illiberal democracies.

Building up the liberal world order was also slow and incremental. It took years to create international treaties, international institutions and free trade. It takes years to trust they are working. They help undergird the international system and have prevented interstate war.

Wars--in the case of the global order--and coups--in the case of democracies--can undo all the gains very quickly. Taking the elevator down, if you will. We need the State Department to help with these long term efforts.

Second, institutions are built slowly, but can quickly be destroyed.

You could take that analogy above and apply it to the State Department (or really any institution). You take the stairs up: hiring people, implementing systems, gaining experience, and building capabilities. You can take the elevator down with mismanagement. Or crisis.

What do I mean? Well, think about a start up. You hire a few people to get the project off the ground. Then you hire teams of people to expand past what a few can do. Eventually, after years of hiring people, you develop institutional skills and strategies and teams and staffs. You gain experience to solve problems. Eventually, you have a company with lots of employees. That takes time to build.

The State Department was built up in a similar manner over decades. Sure it can improve, like anything, but it already has a ton of capability and experience. It was already pretty darn good.

By cutting the budget 30% and firing a thousand people--especially senior people with lots of experience--President Trump and former Secretary of State Tillerson could overnight eviscerate the organization. Cause it from being great at its job to being terrible. It would be like an elevator plunging down the shaft, but President Trump cut the cable.

Don’t try to argue it is about efficiencies or improving the organization. Sure, lots of organizations have lots of fat. But they also have a lot of lean muscle. The key is wisely cutting the one while boosting the other. When he was devastating the State Department, Tillerson wasn’t doing that. He’s trying to just cut the fat, but he was slashing at a lot of meat. In fact, when companies do mass layoffs, there is good evidence that actually the best people leave first. I’ve made this argument about the military and entrepreneurship: the people who want the job security of 20 years of work and a retirement stay; the people who embrace entrepreneurial change may leave. This makes a less risk averse organization and a less entrepreneurial one.

The State Department will have that, plus the fact that the people with the best prospects will be the most likely to leave. If the State Department becomes a lousy place to work, and you could be fired anyways, why not leave if you have the best prospects? The people who will stay are those with the worst prospects.

So you have an organization shredding tens of thousands of “knowledge-years”--the accumulated knowledge of years of work. And that will make it better?

It won’t. And it will take decades to rebuild.