Several years ago I attended a panel discussion featuring Thomas Barnett, who then headed the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. Barnett bragged about his office’s success in thwarting “price fixing” in the marketplace — his proof was the escalating amount of fines levied each year against companies. Since each succeeding year yielded a “record” amount of fines, Barnett concluded the government was succeeding in its larger goal of “deterring” future price fixing.
An antitrust lawyer in the audience challenged Barnett’s premise. If the fines kept going up, wasn’t that a sign of the Antitrust Division’s failure to detect and deter illegal activity? Barnett danced around the issue and tried to claim the increases in fines coincided with a decrease in undetected price-fixing activity. I don’t think anyone in the room bought that.
The eternal problem of bureaucracy is the inability to show clear-cut results. Private businesses can do this through profit. Bureaucracies don’t generate profit; they merely consume resources. As a substitute for profit, the bureaucratic manager will point to meaningless, consumption-based statistics, as Barnett did with his precious fine totals.
What prompted my recollection of the Barnett anecdote was this article by Joseph White of the Associated Press summarizing Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan’s end-of-season news conference:
The no-nonsense coach’s attempt at bringing stability to a franchise that has bred turmoil and mediocrity for nearly two decades is proving to be a mightier task that most in the organisation would have imagined. One piece of evidence speaks volumes: The final tally of money collected from players who showed up late for meetings and committed other indiscretions.
“I’ve had more fines here my first year than I did with Denver, then I did with the Raiders,” Shanahan said Monday. “That’s what I mean (by) just a sense of responsibility, people doing things the right way. Sometimes it takes some time for people to understand that everybody’s got a piece of the puzzle, that everybody’s got a sense of responsibility, and unless you have everybody going in the same direction, it’s hard to get to that next level.”
Shanahan, like Barnett, wants the public to believe that consumption — fines — are tantamount to achievement (or profit). And like a government regulator, Shanahan believes he knows the one “right way” for the Redskins to be a successful organisation. This despite the fact that Shanahan’s way has produced one playoff victory in his last 11 seasons as head coach — and a 30-34 record in his last four campaigns.
Now, Shanahan supporters will argue that his primary objective this year was to “change the culture” of the Redskins, and his record fines are an example of that. I admit that I’ve never understood how precisely one “changes” a “culture.” In any organisation, the culture merely reflects the people who participate. Culture is not some bureaucratic mandate from above. The only way to change the culture is by changing the people in the culture — not trying to browbeat the people who are already there into doing your bidding without question.
This leads to the second talking point of Shanahan acolytes: He inherited a terrible roster that will take time to fix. This is a half-truth. Shanahan actually turned over a good deal of the Redskins personnel from the end of the 2009 season. At least 14 free agents did not return for 2010. The team had six draft picks. Most notably, Shanahan completely overhauled the all-important quarterback position, bringing in a new starter and two new backups.
The real question, which nobody seems to have asked Shanahan yesterday, is whether the coach maximized the available talent on this year’s roster. All of the evidence strongly suggests he did not. Exhibit A was Shanahan’s ideological insistence on switching the team’s base defence to a scheme that most of the defensive personnel were unfamiliar with. Similarly, Exhibit B was the coach’s decision to allow his son, the offensive coordinator, to destabilize the quarterback position through his ongoing feud with former starter Donovan McNabb. Shanahan made it clear that his ideology — and his family — took precedence over maximizing the talent available. And that was partially reflected in the team’s final 6-10 record.
Having failed to produce on the field, Shanahan is reduced to talking about how much he fined players and doing things the “right way.” I don’t know how much more “profitable” in terms of wins next season, but at least we know he’d make a fine Antitrust Division boss.
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