Following Rome

So. As the Roman Empire got too large and complex they went to a Eastern/Western Empire situation. If you take as given that the job in front of today’s US executive is too complex to be handled by one man, would instead of a geographical a similar separation of responsibilities might help allow someone with who could be more expert in the area and a smaller contingent of responsibilities make sense? For the following take it as a given (as in we won’t argue that point) the job needs to be broken up and concentrate instead on how to do so.

This question it seems has two parts. The first is, wow to best break the job up. Foreign/domestic seems an obvious choice, but there may be other ways. Bertrand de Jouvenel suggested in his political philosophy that there were two types of leadership, one that drives forward toward a goal and one that can reconcile differences between people. Perhaps that would be another way to divide the two. Any other suggestions?

The second part is, how to implement this? Could this be done by dogmatic precedent (like the two term limit which followed Washington’s example for so long)? Could a President announce at his inauguration that he was doing this, and his vice President was going to, say, handle 100% of foreign affair issues and he would 100% concentrate on the domestic affairs.  The titular President would promise to rubber stamp any decisions made by his VP as if he were signing them as long as there were in the foreign affairs sphere and vice versa. Would this fly? If not, why no? Or would a full Constitutional amendment process be required to effect this?

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11 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    What exactly are ‘foreign policy decisions’ and why would a President give that up? Consider Obama’s opening of relations with Cuba from the domestic angle. Only US older Cubans are rabidly against it, and since they will almost never vote Democratic there is no gain to placating them. Many others are tired of the policy and while generally supportive of changing it, few are passionate about it. A single President, then, can offset the political damage he may take from anti-Castro Cubans with support from the general public.

    What if your idea was implemented? VP Biden would be making that call and Obama would be ‘rubber stamping’ it. Obama would get the heat for rubber stamping the policy from those who hate it, but Biden the glory from those who love it.

    The geographical distribution of power in the Roman Empire breakup made more sense IMO because they took domestic and foreign policy with them. If things are too complicated a geographical division instead of a responsibility divisions is called for by your historical analogy.

    In reality, I think your idea is based on a false premise. Both foreign and domestic policy scales. The President doesn’t have to make all these decisions himself, he just has to mange those who do by making the directional decisions (i.e. open relations with Cuba but the State Dept. can work out where the Embassy will open in Havana and what its hours will be).

  2. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Your rejection is based on a false premise. The premise is that one person cannot make informed decisions about everything, that the job is too large to do well and it needs to be broken up. The suggestion was two person and the “whether” this is needed was tabled, i.e., I didn’t want to talk about that.

    Assume that the President (or a consensus) has decided that breaking it up is the thing to do. Then the question I wanted to talk about was (a) how and (b) does it require Constitutional change or can it just be done by common practice within the Constitution.

  3. Boonton says:

    I do reject your premise. No evidence is at hand that the job is too much for one man, nor that if it is a break between foreign and domestic policy would yield manageable jobs.

  4. Mark says:

    So. What. You can’t discuss a hypothetical?

    And does this mean you are of the “harvard school of business” philosophy (that an MBA to take over and do well, doesn’t need to know the details of the job, just knows some abstract business rules). A President doesn’t have to know anything well, just how to Administer. Is that it?

  5. Boonton says:

    Knowing how to administer isn’t ‘knowing anything well’?

    This is a problem with being at the top. Suppose you are Bill Gates in the late 90’s. You are the best coder in the company. Does it make sense for you to code? No it doesn’t. Time allocation is your biggest problem…there is only one of you. It makes more sense to hire two, three, four, even 100 coders to ensure you never have to actually code yourself. When you look at time costs, you’d need to be able to code probably something like 1,000 times faster than an average coder to ever justify doing it yourself at that level.

    Likewise what exactly would a potential president be good at? Crafting laws? Negotiating with foreign powers? Understanding the impact of tax policy on the national economy? Which of these things could not be done by other persons (or people) equally as well as the President himself? Why would it not always make sense for the President to focus on selecting and managing people to do those things for him well rather than trying to do it himself?

    Consider, say, Richard Nixon, who was notable for being very keen on foreign policy. Did he do it himself? No, actually he selected and managed a very strong foreign policy person (Kissinger). Even if he would have been better at doing it himself, it’s easier to scale by, say, giving Kissinger aides, helpers, advisors to beef up his potential output.

    So the question is how far does administrative ability scale? IMO it scales pretty big. Google doesn’t need more CEOs than Yahoo, even though Google is many times larger. As an enterprise gets bigger, a top administrator can add layers under him scaling up administrative power.

    Which gets us back to Rome. A notable issue with Rome IMO was the difficulty in maintaining communication. As Rome became stressed, communications got worse which made administration more difficult. That, probably caused its split more than growth or expansion.

    The US has grown a lot since the late 1700’s but administrative communication and control has grown even faster IMO. The last battle of the war of 1812 took place weeks after the Treaty ending the war had been signed. Today it is impossible to imagine something like that happening, pretty much impossible to imagine it happening in WWII or for that matter the Civil War.

    I suspect you are not going to find natural limits on administrative scaling until you get to colonies in the solar system where the speed of light is an absolute limit that it appears cannot be violated.

  6. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    As I pointed out sometime in the past, I have no intimation whether or not Mr Obama is a smart person. He is a lawyer. I can’t tell a smart lawyer from a slick but not smart lawyer. I have no intuition as to what makes a good legal mind. Mr Obama almost certainly (and many others) have little intimation whether or not another person is a smart mathematician or physicist. A person who is good at economics may be good at recognizing another good economist but may be a very poor judge of a good foreign policy expert or military strategist. Knowing how to administer well (in the non-Harvard and I think correct model) requires you know something about what you are managing. A good manager who doesn’t have any judgement about (say) military strategy will not make a top general. He doesn’t know which of his subordinates are talented. He can’t see the difference between a good idea and a bad one.

    The suggestion is that one man cannot be good enough at the different things required of him to manage to actually be a good President.

    And no. Mr Gates was not an outstanding programmer. He was a good businessman and good enough coder to recognize other people’s coding talent. And, coding is a funny thing, if you are the “best coder in your company” good practice would be to maximize your time coding not managing. The best coders can do 2 to 3 more work than an average coder. A good software manager has to be competent at coding to know what the jobs entail and to ask intelligently what his people need to do and how to recognize and maximize the different skills his people have. Again, this is the sort of reason why the Harvard model fails. To manage you have to be competent at the thing you manage and have those management skills. Abstract management skills don’t suffice. This is also why you might have to break up a job like the President which requires competence in too many things.

  7. Mark says:

    oh, and yes. Communications have gotten faster. But the world is also a lot more complicated. Polymaths like the Adamses and Jefferson don’t exist.

  8. Boonton says:

    A good manager who doesn’t have any judgement about (say) military strategy will not make a top general. He doesn’t know which of his subordinates are talented. He can’t see the difference between a good idea and a bad one

    Lincoln, I believe, gave his generals a run for the money despite no personal military experience. It does not follow that being a good, say, physicist, will necessarily make you good at managing an organization dedicated to making advances in physics. In fact, I can see it sometimes hurting one.

    Mr Gates was not an outstanding programmer. He was a good businessman and good enough coder to recognize other people’s coding talent. And, coding is a funny thing, if you are the “best coder in your company” good practice would be to maximize your time coding not managing. The best coders can do 2 to 3 more work than an average coder.

    Only if Mr. Gates was not a good administrator/leader. Let me return to the classic economics example of comparative advantage. The world’s best lawyer is also the world’s fastest typist. Should he type his own briefs when the secretaries available can only do 40 wpm? The answer is no because what he can save by not hiring the 40 wpm typist for 8 hours a day is smaller than what he can earn by billing another hour as a great lawyer.

    Even if Lincoln is better at military strategy than his generals, he should still run his generals rather than trying to run the war. Administration scales faster than more specific skills.

    oh, and yes. Communications have gotten faster. But the world is also a lot more complicated. Polymaths like the Adamses and Jefferson don’t exist.

    Not really. What is really more complicated about the world today than in 1800?

  9. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    Lincoln, I believe, gave his generals a run for the money despite no personal military experience. It does not follow that being a good, say, physicist, will necessarily make you good at managing an organization dedicated to making advances in physics. In fact, I can see it sometimes hurting one.

    Citing Lincoln makes for a poor choice as he was remarkably bad at finding good commanding Generals. Grant’s saving grace was that he could obey Lincoln’s insistence to continue putting pressure on the enemy when his former leading generals failed to do that. Lincoln’s original choice, McClellan. Hmm. Good choice there eh? The point is that your “manager of physicists” to make advances in physics needs to have some ability at Physics or he will fail. If you can’t tell a good Physicist from a bad one, how are you going to manage? eh?

    Even if Lincoln is better at military strategy than his generals, he should still run his generals rather than trying to run the war. Administration scales faster than more specific skills.

    Lincoln admitted to having no skill at generalship. Indeed this was proven by his inability to select the best general with any method than “try X for a bit, if it doesn’t work, change horses”.

    What is really more complicated about the world today than in 1800?

    Seriously? Seriously??!!!!! Uhm. I give up. If you can’t figure that out there’s no point. Ben Franklin could be conversant and suggest advances with the top experts in all scientific fields with others who were doing the same in the late 18 century. Today you cannot find anyone who can do that. It is impossible to be a cutting edge researcher in math, physics, materials science, chemistry, biology, and (oh, the list goes on for a page or so of fields in which to be expert). And that’s just science.

  10. Mark says:

    Let me return to the classic economics example of comparative advantage.

    This isn’t relevant to the point that a manager needs skill and personal insight into what he is managing to do it well.

  11. Boonton says:

    Seriously? Seriously??!!!!! Uhm. I give up. If you can’t figure that out there’s no point. Ben Franklin could be conversant and suggest advances with the top experts in all scientific fields with others who were doing the same in the late 18 century. Today you cannot find anyone who can do that. It is impossible to be a cutting edge researcher in math, physics, materials science, chemistry, biology, and (oh, the list goes on for a page or so of fields in which to be expert). And that’s just science.

    This is not really about complication but volumn. Is there evidence that, say, diplomacy, is more complicated today than in the 1800’s or even the ancient world? I don’t think so.

    And you haven’t really demonstrated administrating an organization of people gets harder or in fact scales. Consider a university. Everything you’ve claimed about a nation applies to a university too. For example, has the world of academic knowlege gotten more ‘complicated’ since the days of Newton? Clearly it has. Does that mean Oxford University should split into several smaller ones? Being that physics is a much larger subject now than then has it become ‘too big’ to fit into a single university? Yet it really isn’t.

    How can that be when back then you could say a single man could learn ‘all of known physics’ by a finite course of study yet now that seems impossible? Because running a department to teach ‘all of known physics’ does in fact scale much better. For example, imagine how powerful the Excel spreadsheet alone is in simply being able to schedule classes, align courses and so on.