Sly as a fox…or a hedgehog?

fox_hedgehogOne of the earliest posts on this blog, since trashed, was one on the famous distinction made by Sir Isaiah Berlin that divided great minds into the “camps” of foxes and hedgehogs. This was in turn based on a fragment by the Greek philosopher Archilochos, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin applied this nugget of wisdom to the world of writing and thinking, dividing famous poets and philosophers into two categories:
Foxes, who divide their interests among a wide variety of experiences and thoughts and who can’t be associated with a single big idea, and Hedgehogs, whose view of the world and reputation is founded on such a single big idea.

In Berlin’s view, examples of hedgehogs include Dante, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Proust, whereas Shakespeare, Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, and Joyce are represented as foxes.

In the field of politics, an exemplar of a fox might be Jimmy Carter – a typical micro-manager, who famously even involved himself in the scheduling of the White House tennis court, as opposed to Ronald Reagan, who focused his Presidency on a few major goals (“lower taxes”, “defeat communism”), set the agenda and then leaned back and let his staff do the work, who might be classified as a more or less typical hedgehog. As for Barack Obama, we may have to wait and see, although at the time of this writing, I fail to see the one overarching theme or goal of his Presidency, so he would seem to fall into the “fox” category. I’m certainly inviting comment and discussion when I venture that in presidents, it may be one of the signs of lasting greatness to focus on one big thing – independence, say, or the Union, or peace, or victory. Or, perhaps, normalcy and prosperity.

If we examine the life and career of Calvin Coolidge, I think we will come to the conclusion that he was of the hedgehog persuasion. While he certainly did “know many things,” the lodestar of his work as president undoubtedly was the theme of economy in government. This was his “one big thing” which occupied most of his time and was preeminent on his mind at all times. Nowhere did he wax more lyrical than when addressing the seminannual meetings of the Business Organization of the Government: he reports that he “rejoiced in keeping down the annual budget”, he avers that the real purpose of economy in government is nothing less than “the true and scientific progress of humanity”, he exults that “peace hath its victories no less than war.” The one cabinet member most influential and  closest to him was Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, and the one individual with whom he conferred longest and most often was the Budget Director General Lord, these two men being his closest allies in the fight against fiscal excesses.

Now, my literary and philosophical knowledge is not sufficient to analyse how fitting Berlin’s categorizations are. The point I want to make is that all of us human beings have to deal with getting through life successfully, given a limited set of resources. And those who single-mindedly invest those resources into a single goal or interest (the specialists or “hedgehogs”) will likely go farther in that field than those who spread their resources and interests far and wide (the generalists or “foxes”). Conversely, while they may end up more successful in their (narrower) chosen field, the hedgehogs miss out on many of the joys of dabbling in various hobbies, interests and domains.

Maybe the idea of hedgehogs being “better” or “wiser” than foxes (or vice versa) is not correct. Maybe, as is true in many things, there has to be a “goodness of fit” among the individual’s thinking style and his environment. There will be situations where the ability to juggle many things simultaneously is adaptive, whereas other situations may demand that one focuses on one or two big issues. From a lifespan perspective, it would seem foolish to focus on too few things too early in life, before you have had a chance to sample a wider selection of options and interests. Then, as life goes on, it may indeed be wise to focus on a few ideas and concepts that have turned out to make sense to you. Another possibility is that we need to be focused and goal-driven in our professional pursuits, while it will enhance our personal growth to have many interests in the private domain. Coolidge was a widely read man, with interest in philosophy, law, and the ancient languages. Detractors may say that his “one big thing” was to remain in whatever office he held, but it is true that in his case, the nation was lucky to have a “hedgehog” at the helm who was single-mindedly focused on the key goals of prosperity, solvency and peace.

 

 

Back when the government still valued every cent

I’ve reported before on the tireless efforts of the Bureau of the Budget under Brig. Gen. Lord to root out government waste and to drive down the deficit.

In a bit of correspondence from 1928, it appears that Gen. Lord didn’t shy away from demanding that the White House join in these efforts. This is all a bit quaint, but sometimes one wishes the government would be as savings-minded as it was in Coolidge’s day.

Here, Lord relates a new scheme to place a reminder of the cost of letters on each correspondence clerk’s desk:

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Pecking away at waste and extravagance

I have a sense that after decades of budgetary profligacy, America may be in the mood for more economy and efficiency in government, exemplified by leaders such as Governors Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie who are showing an almost Coolidgean willingness to take on spending excesses.

I haven’t tallied up the numbers and don’t know whether our situation is similar to, or possibly even exceeds, the fiscal calamity America found itself in after World War I caused an almost 20-fold increase in the national debt. In other posts I have begun to report on the efforts by presidents Harding and Coolidge, and their respective Directors of the Budget, to instill a sense of purpose and urgency at all levels of the federal bureaucracy but can’t resist adding a little item on General Lord, second Director of the Budget, taken from the book The Office of Management and Budget and the Presidency, 1921 – 1979, by Larry Berman:

Lord actually checked employees’ desks for excessive use of official stationery, paper clips, and other government supplies. He also engaged in such quaint-sounding ploys as establishing a “Two Per Cent Club” for agency heads who trimmed that amount off their estimates, a “One Per Cent Club” reserved for the less efficient, and the “Loyal Order of Woodpeckers,” whose motto read: “All hail to the Loyal Order of Woodpeckers, whose persistent tapping away at waste will make cheerful music in government offices and workshops the coming year.”

Quaint as this may sound to the author of those lines, I can’t help but feel that it would be nice to hear that tap-tap-tapping sound emanate from government offices today – they sure would have their work cut out for them!

Please see also this more substantial post on the Business Organization of the Government.

The Business Organization of the Government

Incredible as it may seem, procedures for government spending up until the early 1920s were mostly fairly haphazard. The Treasury Department submitted yearly estimates of expenses for all government departments, which resulted in as many as fourteen separate appropriations bills. In 1919, President Wilson had called for the establishment of a national budget system as Congress was separately working on such a proposal, but a compromise worked out between a House and Senate bill was not satisfactory and ultimately vetoed by Wilson.

Wilson’s successor Warren G. Harding had the good fortune to secure from Congress a budget measure that gave the president complete authority over all budget matters. Charles  G. Dawes, who had been Harding’s first choice as Secretary of the Treasury, was named as the first ever Commissioner of the Budget. Dawes warned Harding that “you must realize that you are the first president to tackle the job of a coordinated business control over the departments. I doubt if you recognize the strength of the 150 years of archaisms which you must fight.” Nevertheless, Dawes accepted the job, on the proviso that it be for only one year.

Successive budget directors Charles G. Dawes (left) and Herbert M. Lord in 1922

Harding and Dawes inaugurated the Business Organization of the Government, which first met on June 29, 1921. All members of the cabinet and 1200 bureau and divison chiefs met in the auditorium of the Interior Department. Harding told the assembly that “there is not a menace in the world today like that of growing public indebtedness and mounting public expenditures…we want to reverse things.” With something close to evangelistic fervor, Dawes then spoke for an hour, indicating his specific goal as the removal of “fat” and extravagance from the government. He concluded by requesting all those in the audience upon whom he could depend in this quest to rise – the entire audience rose. Harding later commented that Dawes was the only man he had ever seen who while talking could keep “both feet and both arms in the air at once.”

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