Close, But No Big Czar


Now that George W. Bush's victory has been sealed, it's time to start thinking seriously about government and technology in the new administration. One idea being floated is to have a high-tech "czar," perhaps with Cabinet rank. I think it's a terrible idea.

First of all, the connotations aren't good. Czars were Russian despots, often decadent and often shot for their sins. Paul Dickson, an old friend of mine who is a word maven in Maryland, says that the first positive use of the word came when Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was named commissioner of baseball, with broad powers to clean up a game dirtied by the Black Sox scandal of 1919.

Richard Nixon named the first U.S. government czar in 1973: energy czar William Simon, who officially headed the Federal Energy Office, which later became the Energy Department. Jimmy Carter appointed two inflation czars: Washington superlawyer (also ambassador to Russia, U.S. Trade Representative, Democratic National Committee chairman, etc., etc.) Robert Strauss and then Alfred Kahn, who was teaching at Cornell University at the time. Even with the czar mantle, neither Canute could hold back the tide of inflation. That job fell to the Fed chairman, Paul Volcker.

Since then, there have been drug czars, AIDS czars, even a border czar.

The title is both too big and too little. "Not to sound sniffy or anything, but 'czar' is a term that tends to make the office look less serious than it is," said John Podhoretz, who is now editorial page editor of the New York Post and was a top aide to William Bennett when he was drug czar. "I think 'czar' came into use because it's a short word that fits easily into newspaper headlines. It's generally used to describe an interdisciplinary job that requires a head honcho."

Well, yes, but it also describes a job that's not easily done. Few czars have been successful at their czarist tasks – probably through no fault of their own. It's an ill-defined position that either falls of its own weight or, worse, leads to the creation of a huge bureaucracy (like the Energy Department) where none is needed.

The notion that the Bush administration needs folks with a high-tech sensibility, however, is a good one, and many of the names that have been bandied about as potential czars deserve attention: Floyd Kvamme, a partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm of Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield & Byers, or Rick White, the former Washington state Congressman and creator of the Internet Caucus, would each be a find addition to the Bush team.

But, please, not as czars. Put Kvamme or White in the White House as counselor to the president on technology – a kind of emissary to and from the high-tech world. If Bush creates a czar, then the czar will feel that he will have to promote new legislation or new regulations – the Washington bureaucratic imperative. What high tech needs from government is not more attention, but less.

Leave the New Economy alone, and it will thrive. Try to pick winners or favor one producer over another, and you have created a recipe for disaster. Oh, and by the way, Jim Barksdale is one of the Silicon Valley types being mentioned as a possible high-tech czar. Barksdale, when he was running Netscape, helped persuade the Justice Department to file the antitrust suit against Microsoft that became the symbol of destructive federal intervention in high-tech. He's not my top choice for czar.

No, counselor – or whisperer-in-the-president's-ear—is what we need. Someone like Kvamme can remind Bush that government can do some helpful things for high technology: like establishing the legality of Internet signatures, cracking down on cyber-terrorists and vandals, preserving property, and expanding immigration and free trade. But mainly, a hands-off, no-czar policy is best.