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Posted on Jan 7, 2010

By Ruth Marcus

After the screw-up comes the inevitable demand for a head—or, even better—heads to roll. Call it faux-countability, the phenomenon by which someone takes the fall for a mess for which he or she is at most only partly responsible.

So a would-be bomber gets on a plane: Fire Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano!

Three people sneak into a state dinner: Fire White House social secretary Desiree Rogers! Fire the head of the Secret Service, too!

I’m all in favor of real accountability—canning the incompetent, in government and out. If you’re in over your head, then by all means: out the door. When a senior official demonstrably flubs a crucial task or demonstrates bad judgment, then by all means: out the door in time for the evening news.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is a good example of a man who got it wrong and stayed—or was allowed to stay—too long. Michael Brown, the hapless former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is a good example of a man who never should have been in the job—and was appropriately ousted when it became clear that he had fiddled while New Orleans flooded.


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And there no doubt were, in the Christmas almost-bombing and the state dinner security breach, human as well as systemic failures. Someone was so dazzled by Michaele and Tareq Salahi that he forgot to check the official guest list to see if the couple was actually invited. Someone, or ones, failed to take seriously enough the warning from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father about his son’s growing radicalization. These things should go, as my kids would say, in their permanent record.

But as satisfying as it might feel to haul out the guillotine, as mesmerizing as the descent of the glittering blade, the only real problem these public beheadings solve is political. The lapses that let Abdulmutallab onto the plane with explosives sewn inside his underwear are not likely to be traceable to any individual Cabinet secretary. Playing another round of musical chairs with the counterterrorism bureaucracy would only serve to add to the disorder, not resolve it.

The faux-countability instinct is even stronger in sports, as the recent firing of Redskins Coach Jim Zorn demonstrates. But is this a rational response to a bad season? A 2006 economic study of the six seasons of the Portuguese soccer league suggests not.

“Our results show that firing the coach does not improve the team’s performance and, on the contrary, seems to have a harmful effect in the long run,” the study’s author, Sandra Maximiano, concluded. “Teams that fired the coach after a spell of bad results seem to recover after firing. But this would also have happened if they had chosen not to fire the coach, simply because luck would eventually turn on their side.”

Indeed, Maximiano finds, compared with similarly underperforming teams that kept their coaches, teams that fired coaches tended to score fewer goals and concede more goals.

“Our results suggest that the coach is merely a scapegoat,” she writes, “used by the team’s board to appease disgruntled fans and perhaps to distract attention from their own bad management choices.”
Sounds awfully familiar, to close observers of sports and politics alike.
Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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Spooky-43's avatar

By Spooky-43, January 11, 2010 at 3:05 pm Link to this comment

“Teams that fired the coach after a spell of bad results seem to recover after firing. But this would also have happened if they had chosen not to fire the coach, simply because luck would eventually turn on their side.”

This is the most demeaning statement ever made regarding the impact of a good coach. 

Every coach, sometimes along with a general manager, gets to scout and hire from the same pool of talent.  Their job is to put together a winning team.  Good coaches and GM’s know how to do this consistently.  Less competent ones always seem to have a very hard time doing it.

To say that you should just wait around until your “LUCK” changes is the most outlandish, foolish statement that I have heard in my life.

To even hint that the security of a nation requires “LUCK” is even more ignorant. 

Luck can get you by every now and then, like the bomb not going off in the lap of the “underwear bomber”, but good consistent results rely on a lot more than luck. 

I think Ms. Marcus should apologize for insulting us with such outlandish statements. 

And the Redskins made a super good move in hiring Mike Shanahan and canning Zorn.  Zorn is a nice guy, but he is not a super bowl quality coach. 

Just like Janet Napolitano is not a quality Secretary of Homeland Security.  Get someone in there who can set the tone.  We definitely don’t need someone to go 6-10 in the Homeland Security Arena.

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By Mary Ann McNeely, January 11, 2010 at 1:11 pm Link to this comment

Ah, yes . . . Ruth Marcus.  If anybody can write 500 words and say less than nothing, it’s this Obama apologist.

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By Hammond Eggs, January 11, 2010 at 1:08 pm Link to this comment

And exactly what Portuguese soccer team does Obama play for?  “The Shits of Martinez” folded decades ago.

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By jack, January 11, 2010 at 4:10 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

RE:  ed_tru_lib: So many people of intelligence, experience, and good will
trying to determine what’s best for the country

And, if only all of them were - it only takes a few moles working, not in service to
the citizenry and in defense of the constitution, but rather on behalf of shadow
operatives in service to the Global Finance Oligarchy - exactly why JFK fired the
Dullas Bros., but who then exacted revenge in Dallas.

To be sure, Obama, who knows he’s a Wall Street / Trilateralist / Bilderberg / CFR
sock puppet, also knows that like JFK, he too is dispensable. It’s a no-sum
proposition, either the POTUS does as told, or he’s hung out, and right now it
sounds like Lieberman is calling the shots: “Preemptive Bombing of Yemen.”

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By DaveZx3, January 9, 2010 at 11:46 pm Link to this comment

By ed_tru_lib, January 9 at 10:45 pm #

“Fire Napolitano for the failure of a few people many levels removed from her in the chain of command, lose her skill and expertise in the future, and give more aid and comfort to the Becks and Hannitys”.

Napolitano is the puppet of a puppet.  She projects no mastery of the issues or conviction of purpose.

She is the personification of the bureaucratic, impassionate, entitlement mentality which believes it is more important to quote the party line than it is to actually have a positive impact on the issues impacting the population one serves.

She has no fire. She is empty, like a desert cloud without water, she is there, without effect, without benefit, and you can almost see right through her.  It would benefit all, including Napolitano herself if she were to resign her post. 

Besides what has that got to do with talk show hosts?  Since when have talk show hosts ascended to a level of power that they must be taken into consideration when making national security decisions? 

I realize the left is totally paranoid because of the popularity of Beck, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, et al, but please, don’t admit that the White House factors that into national security.

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By glider, January 9, 2010 at 8:47 pm Link to this comment

This whole affair is just an absurd show for lowest common denominator public consumption.  However, if someone wants a story about “faux-countability” one should examine Obama’s “buck stops here” disingenuous rhetorical absurdity.  While I don’t think there is any reasonable cause for anything other than a review and corrections to be made regarding this airline security issue, the “buck stops here” is the same as saying I will take everyone’s criticism (which he would take regardless) but no one will take a fall, and no one will pay a price for bad behavior.  It is Obama’s preferred mechanism for shielding the government from any public accountability.  Obama should be called out on the bullshit ‘faux-countability’.  If it comes down to the public demanding accountability Obama will likely apply it to the Banksters, Tim Geitner, and the war criminals responsible for the death and destruction from a war based on lies, and his corrupt lobbyist ridden secretive behind doors policy making mechanisms.  Accountability, my ass!

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By ed_tru_lib, January 9, 2010 at 6:45 pm Link to this comment

Was there EVER a less-rational sounding, MORE genuinely pathetic commenter to a Truthdig post than this diedailey character? So many people of intelligence, experience, and good will trying to determine what’s best for the country and dd KNOWS the answer. Fire Napolitano for the failure of a few people many levels removed from her in the chain of command, lose her skill and expertise in the future, and give more aid and comfort to the Becks and Hannitys.

Sorry-you didn’t die today. Better be dead by midnite or change your name before you comment here again. Duh.

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By Paul J. Theis, January 9, 2010 at 9:13 am Link to this comment

I have to disagree with this piece. Clearly, the problem in this country is the lack of accountabilty, not too much. For example, how many US Catholic bishops resigned for their roles in the clergy sex abuse scandal? Some in other countries did.

Also, the study of a Portugese soccer league seems a strange source to cite, especially since I am fairly certain the evidence indicates that success usually follows the late-season firing of a manager in Major League Baseball.

And I was struck by the author’s failure to mention Janet Napolitano’s widely panned comment about the system having worked. Was that her own assessment, or was she mostly just repeating the administration’s line? If the comment was hers, I think she should and can be held accountable for it, but probably not fired for a first offense or one of this nature. 

The attitude displayed by the intelligence officials who have been making public statements in recent days I find hardly reassuring. Again, I believe the pendulum in this country has swung to too little accountability and too few firings and resignations, not too much and too many.

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DieDaily's avatar

By DieDaily, January 9, 2010 at 1:18 am Link to this comment

It’s a time honored tradition to sack the head of an
institution for any serious failure of that
institution. It’s nothing personal, it just makes
sense. A huge train-wreck? Sack the head of the
department of transportation. A CPS child-rape ring?
Sack the head of CPS for that district. Stock fraud
devalues the stock of a company? Sack the CEO.

Any other approach is sheer madness. Unless and until
the highest leaders of an organization’s heads are on
the chopping block, there is no reason to expect that
they will undertake the due diligence required to
insure against serious problems on their watch. This
article is stupid. The Captain must accept
responsibility for any mishaps his ship is involved
in. Period. Duh.

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By bozhidar balkas, vancouver, January 8, 2010 at 10:16 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

if there r incompetents in the spy agencies, it wld mean that they were hired by incompetents; these in turn hired by others like that and onto WH and, not to mention, onto the voters.

Who, according some people r the first line of defense, offense, or incompetence.
I, self, am so incompetent that there is hardly a post of mine that does not contain some typos, bad syntax [or is it sintax?], and grammar.

But i don’t get paid for my post; so, i am not biased! tnx

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By rudyspeaks, January 8, 2010 at 8:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Missing the point (again). The problem isn’t whether to fire an incompetent, it’s
why virtually every institution you deal with in the course of your day is staffed
with incompetents. Why fire a loser if the promotion process that put him/her
there in the first place is merely going to replace him/her with another moron?
40 years after the publication of The Peter Principle, no one has read it. You
rise through an organization by exhibiting skills appropriate for the LAST job
you did… even if those skills are inappropriate for the next level. Further, as
Daniel Quinn has pointed out, when a society assumes some strategy will work
and it fails they don’t drop it, they double down on it. Jail drug users. Doesn’t
work? Jail MORE of ‘em! Look at your public (or private, for that matter) school
teachers. They must have a BA. Because, of course, w/o one they can’t be good
teachers and with one they will be! Doesn’t seem to work? Well then, maybe if
we require an MA! Pathetic…. You want to fly safely? Close down your 800
overseas military bases, stop stealing the resources of helpless countries, stop
funding Israel’s Palestinian genocide.

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By vlad, January 8, 2010 at 6:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Real smart.  Keep entertaining a totally fraudulent event.  Keep running different scenarios in response to the original fraud.  Has everybody gone insane?

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By omygodnotagain, January 8, 2010 at 1:44 am Link to this comment

Good article, to the skeptic, the issue becomes are these lapses systematic errors, or are these lapses deliberate to create cover for stealth policy decisions, aka 9/11 and the Iraq war

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By gerard, January 7, 2010 at 7:56 pm Link to this comment

The point needs to be clearly made that firing a few individuals is much easier than re-examining the system’s effects and revoking or changing it in accordance with new or better information based on experiences of failure. 

The entire surveillance system was radically revamped under the hysteria post 9/11 with more fear than common sense. or reasoning based on historical experience.  Knee-jerk is the word for it, and now it is backfiring—not surprisingly. 

A major overhaul is due, including the reinstallation of habeas corpus, the restoration of civil rights and the use of bonafide systems of democratic justice.  That has not happened, and the reason is that the “fear syndrome” is still operating and the Bush-era hysteria is still being used as a way to control public reaction to events, and to promote the ongoing wars. 

To move this problem from the military field to the field of sports (as you do in this article) is a bit disingenuous because it is the military reach for absolute “accountability”—meaning “security”—that so heavily causes our present inability to act as a democratic government.

I would hope you will address this important point.

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