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Acclaim without the blame

Posted: November 2, 2013 - 2:52pm

Consider this a modern-day law of human nature: If you quietly work real hard and consistently perform very well, you can expect to be stuck in your job forever — unless, of course, you get laid off. Keep your nose to the grindstone, and you’ll lose your nose. Your supervisor, meanwhile, can be counted on to take full credit for your accomplishments, but if something goes wrong, the boss will see that you get all the blame while claiming he knew absolutely nothing about what you were doing.

If that seems a bit cynical, then look at the headlines. I’m thinking of President Barack Obama, whose spokesman says the president did not know that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone conversations were being monitored by U.S. spooks, along with those of other leaders from our nation’s so-called close friends. He didn’t know! How could that be? Even assuming, for the moment, that he was not in the loop with details about the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance effort, it boggles the mind that he wasn’t informed that those in his exclusive heads-of-state club were being wire-tapped.

At least Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was out front to claim “accountability” for the “debacle” that healthcare.gov has become. But how in heaven’s name did she allow it to happen? And what possessed her boss to allow her to allow it? The beginning of Obamacare would be the biggest hallmark of Barack Obama’s legacy, and yet, the executives in charge insist they had no clue the IT people were weaving such a tattered mess. That’s incomprehensible.

For that matter, why does the head man at JPMorgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, keep his job while the bank he leads must pay billions upon billions of dollars for egregiously deceiving investors, wrecking the lives of so many homeowners and devastating the world’s economy. I avoided the word “fraud” because thus far, neither Dimon nor his financial corporation has been criminally charged with that. Why not?

Right now, someone will interject that it’s not fair to demand that Dimon and those at his level know everything their subordinates are doing. Well, then, why do we pay them the big bucks — actually, obscene bucks? Isn’t that supposed to be compensation for the brilliant way they handle their corporate responsibilities? Is there something subversive about suggesting that those responsibilities include knowing what’s going on beneath them?

In government, somebody always likes to pretend that he or she is the heir of Watergate and will ask “What did he know, and when did he know it?” It’s a tired cliche generally aimed at the president. The better question is, “Why didn’t he know it?”

Another one would be, “Why didn’t we know” about some of the dubious actions of our “transparent” government (that word is becoming quite Orwellian, in that it has come to mean “shrouded”). It’s bad enough that it took an Edward Snowden and a Chelsea Manning to bring out some of our country’s darkest secrets, bad enough that they have been hounded by a vengeful U.S. government, but even worse is the way that those responsible try to avoid coming clean, using mealy-mouthed PR tactics. The latest comes from White House press secretary Jay Carney who, following the Merkel disclosures, was sent out to say, “The United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of the chancellor.” That was transparent all right, clearly a “denial” meant to confirm that she had been spied on before the spooks were caught.

In business and finance, we get the same kind of subterfuge, where scandal brings a deceptive response in the hope it will bewilder enough people that the story goes away. What they cannot obscure in either the private sector or the public one is that what the world has is a gargantuan management problem.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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