The Tyranny of Consensus

If you’ve been following the Trump nominees’ confirmation hearings, you have no life. Sorry, just kidding. If you’ve been following the Trump nominees confirmation hearings, you have no doubt noticed that their comments often diverge from the positions Mr. Trump staked out in the campaign. I’m fascinated that the media doesn’t seem to understand this, not even the somewhat more conservative media outlets, like the Wall Street Journal. A front page article in today’s WSJ described these nominees as being on a “collision course” with the POTUS-elect. I’m not surprised the Washington Post and New York Times don’t get this, since having spent a single day in the real business world would be an immediate disqualifier for working at either paper. But, the WSJ should understand the business world a little better than this. Why is it that private enterprise runs so much more efficiently than government? That’s a much longer blog, but the high-level answer is that they’re run by people who know how to hire and manage other people.

Donald Trump is the first business person to become president with no prior government experience. For reasons that baffle me, that seems to worry people. If it worries you, then these confirmation hearings should help quell those fears. Here’s a quick primer in how effective managers build their teams. They go out and find the absolute best and most qualified person for each position, ideally finding someone much smarter than themselves. Effective hiring managers in business put little or no effort into figuring out, a priori, whether the person he or she is hiring agrees with them or not. It doesn’t matter. I’ve sat on numerous company boards of directors and the most effective management teams I have observed are the ones where the CEO not only tolerates, but actively encourages dissenting opinions. In my own partnership, when we discuss new deals we’re contemplating, we always make the more junior people voice their opinions first so that they won’t have their views influenced by what the senior partners are thinking. If that means a deal that’s being championed by a partner dies because a smarter or more insightful junior person had a key insight, that’s a fantastic outcome.

It is apparent from the Trump confirmation hearings that Mr. Trump has hired people in exactly this way. He apparently conducted a very thorough vetting process before he chose his cabinet. Indeed, he spent weeks deciding on a Secretary of State before choosing Rex Tillerson. Do you really think he didn’t ferret out over those many interviews the differences of opinion that Elizabeth Warren got out of him in a 3 hour interview? Of course he did. But, the difference between Mr. Trump and President Obama is that Mr. Trump has run large organizations very effectively and understands the importance of hiring smart, highly qualified people for key senior positions, independent of whether they agree with him or not.

Now, contrast this approach with that used by Mr. Obama. As a community organizer, he had no skills at anything when he came into the most challenging job in the world. And, instead of hiring the most qualified people, independent of their views, he hired sycophants like Ben Rhodes, whose primary accomplishment prior to working for Mr. Obama was winning his fraternity beer bong tournament and John Kerry, who may be a smart guy, but was nothing more than a yes man for the President. Hiring like that leads to disasters like the Iran deal because there’s nobody in the room to disagree with a clueless president. This is what James Mattis referred to in his confirmation hearing this week as the tyranny of consensus. Yet another reason to be excited about the transition that will take place a week from today is that we can finally end the tyranny of consensus.

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About brucecrobertson

Bruce Robertson lives in Maryland with his wife, 2 children and annoying dog. He is a venture capitalist and avid sports fan and golfer
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9 Responses to The Tyranny of Consensus

  1. Not sure if a career in business is a prerequisite for commenting – if so, skip to the next person’s comment. But I think one thing that has people scratching their heads is that the Trump campaign was based on a large number of apparently non-negotiable promises: 11mil immigrants departed, ObamaCare shut down on the first day, every single Obama exec order negated on the first day, waterboarding reinstated immediately, and so on. Trump made exactly the point you make: I’m a business guy, so I can get stuff done and get it done fast. In other words, you can trust me to do what I say.

    Then along come these nominees with opposing views. So the question the newspapers have to ask is: is DJT going to govern in the way he said, or were those promises mere rhetoric, to be reshaped by saner advisors later. Would a more honest campaign promise have been “I will bring back waterboarding unless smarter people tell me it is illegal and doesn’t work”? (NB that such people were saying that all along).

    So, I’m not sure what your beef with the media is, aside from the fact that you perceive a liberal bias generally (though that’s not your point here, I think). The papers are pointing out the disconnect between the campaign promises (which were to many of us outrageous but to many others absolutely compelling) and what is shaping up to become the reality. Isn’t that the job of journalists, even if they have never run a business?

    Not trying to pick a fight, just looking for some clarification.

    • Dan, you know I welcome all comments, from business people, music teachers, you name it. It’s a very big tent here at “Bruce’s Blog.” I have a couple of thoughts. First, Peter Thiel said it first (or best) about the Trump campaign, “Liberals took him literally, but not seriously. Conservatives took him seriously, but not literally.” When he said, “I’m going to build a wall on my first day in office,” liberals envisioned dump trucks filled with bricks pulling out of the White House parking lot, heading south, on January 20th. Conservatives envisioned a policy process whereby we end the madness of open borders. When liberals heard “I’ll reinstate waterboarding,” they envisioned torture on January 20th. Conservatives envisioned a more rational approach to getting information out of terrorists vs. turning them over to law enforcement and granting them Miranda rights the day we capture them, as Obama has done.

      Second, all campaign promises are lies. If you’re just figuring that out, I’m kinda wondering where you’ve been for the last, oh, 50 years. Do you remember, “if you like your doctor, you can keep him/her” or “my plan will bend the healthcare cost curve down.”

      I think points 1 and 2 are the same, actually. Politicians say what they have to in order to get elected. I think the most we can ever hope for is to get a general direction of their policies from their campaign rhetoric. I think we got that with Trump, but time will tell of course.

      My beef with the media is that they’re idiots. And, note that I lumped the WSJ in to that, even though it’s probably the best written and most even-handed paper I know of. It’s a conservative lean, but far more balanced than any other. Read Rob’s comment below yours. They are totally incapable of any real thought or analysis. To suggest that Trump’s nominees’ propensity to disagree with him is a “collision course” misses a huge point, which is why I wrote the blog. Could nobody on the entire editorial staff at the WSJ realize that Trump is deliberately getting really good people on his team without regard to whether they totally agree with him? I read their front page article on the hearings at 5:30 AM, half awake, at the gym and it took me 0.034 nanoseconds to figure it out. And, seriously, I’m not that smart. I have zero patience for writers who spew crap without thinking about the next level analysis. I know they work on deadlines, but so what. Just use the extra 0.034 nanoseconds. Or hire someone who can!

      • Seems like we have politics on the one hand and reality on the other. When a new party comes into power, the other side howls. In the case of Obama, his promises were, imho, things that he really wanted to get done. “You can keep your doctor,” for example. In fact, that is probably something you yourself would support, were you forced into ObamaCare (g-d forbid…). Obama faced virulent opposition from the Republic Party, which vowed to oppose anything he proposed. So, when he is not able to enact his program, is he a liar, or merely politically ineffective? I found him to be very much the latter. Was “You can keep your doctor” a metaphor? No, it was a goal.

        In the case of Trump, I have to wonder if the things he promised were actually things he wanted, or just things that played well with his audience. He certainly spoke like he meant them literally, with every “promise” followed by a liberal (so to speak) spicing of “believe me” or “you can bet on that” or other such phrases. Perhaps I was not equipped to view Trump as a metaphorically talented symbolic speaker, given that in real life he is a blowhard. But I do have to wonder what he really wants, besides making a lot of $$.

        Nonetheless, imo the journalistic comment is not as absurd as you make it out. For instance, if a Democratic president brought in a bunch of cabinet members from the Republic party, the papers might report that the sparks will fly, and that these members were on a collision course with the President.

        I think, on purely anecdotal evidence, that most on the left feel that Trump is a fast-talking big-mouthed oaf, and that makes us scared. He has had a tenuous relationship with the truth, denying saying things that he obviously said (perhaps he said them metaphorically?) and so on. If we are right, then it would be lucky that he wasn’t merely hiring yes-men for the cabinet. But, if the journalists’ point is really that it’s going to be an interesting presidency, I suspect they are right – they are just speaking metaphorically!

      • I think you are way off base with your analysis of the “keep your doctor” analogy. It was not aspirational. It was a either a bold-faced lie or a comment by someone who knew nothing about healthcare. Having spent my entire career in healthcare, when he said that in the context of his health plan it was abundantly clear there was no chance you could keep your doctor if you wanted to, certainly not in every case. I can’t prove a negative, but I am 99.99% confident Obama knew this too. He also knew he would neither get elected nor get his health plan approved if he said, “the uninsured will get insurance, but those of you with insurance may just have to go find a new doctor.”

        With respect to journalism, you’re trying to make it political and it’s not. It’s bipartisan. Had the media made the comment about a democrat president with a cabinet member who disagreed with them, I’d have the same reaction. It’s stupidity and lack of analysis, not politics.

      • No, with respect to journalism, I was actually saying it would be the same with the parties reversed – the journalists would say this one is going to be a humdinger, and they’d be right. On health care, I don’t know the ins and outs of it, so I’m not able to comment. What if I told you (making it up) that Obama was, like Trump, being metaphorical, and not meaning literally “you can keep your doctor” but more figuratively “We know this is hard, but we’ll do everything we can to make it work.” Is it ok for Trump but not for Obama to issue statements to express implications rather than literal truth?

      • I think we’re going in circles on the journalism thing. I agree that, with the parties reversed, they’d say this one is going to be a humdinger and they’d be wrong. What the media (and you, apparently) are missing is that really good executives deliberately bring in dissenting views and, yet, it does NOT create a humdinger. It creates a very healthy dynamic of a wide range of views and a chief executive who values it.

        I think we’re now in agreement on your “keep your doctor” metaphor, though you’re changing your story about it. If you’re now saying it wasn’t aspirational (he knew it would never happen), but rather it was metaphorical, then you’re just making my original point that all politicians lie during the campaign and the best you can hope for is a directional indication of their policies. So, yes, if you acknowledge that Obama was lying (like Trump probably was about the wall), then they’re identical. Indeed, the Obama lie was completely transparent to me (as was the wall). Thus, I voted against Obama b/c the directional indication was a bad one and for Trump b/c the directional indication was a good one.

      • Sorry to be unclear. I was merely asking your opinion if what Obama said about keeping your doctor had been metaphorical. I don’t think it was – I think it was his plan and his hope. I just wanted to make sure the scales were balanced (never should have doubted you, though!).

        I think the loss of ObamaCare will probably be good for you financially. Not so much for my friends who rely on it. If, as you would probably argue, things will get better for those people in the absence of OC, I’ll be quite pleased. I hate to be a sceptic, but…

        It is NOT typical these days for any president to keep opposing voices in the cabinet. Indeed, when Obama retained one Republican, it was big news. I guess journalists, as you say, don’t understand that that is the smart way to run the show. Though I feel I’ve read stuff from a lot of smart journalists…

  2. Rob Hays says:

    George Orwell would have understood today’s media quite well:

    “Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc [English Socialism], and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.”

    • That’s brilliant. Indeed, that describes today’s media quite well. I’m so intrigued that there’s a college major called “journalism.” What exactly do they teach in that major? It would seem to me that being a good journalist requires two skills: (1) the ability for in-depth and critical thinking and analysis and (2) good writing. The second would surely be taught in the English department. The first would be better learned by studying history to understand the context or engineering to enable critical analytical skills.

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