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Book review: The unbearable rightness of being Stephen Harper

The management pitfalls of surrounding yourself with too many yes–men.

The new book by Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin, Harperland (Viking), is many things. It is a peek into the engine room of a government that’s likely the country’s least transparent ever. It is a portrait of one of the most divisive leaders in recent Canadian memory, who’s skilled and brilliant but in constant struggle with the demons of his nature.

In a way, Harperland is also a case study in management and organization; Martin has left aside policy analysis, focusing instead on the unprecedented way in which Harper has centralized control, and how that has affected government performance.

“In just a few years, Stephen Harper came to amass executive power and dominate Ottawa in a way few, if any, other prime ministers have,” Martin writes. And though “executive” in this context isn’t synonymous with its business meaning, Martin makes clear that this Prime Minister’s Office has enjoyed privilege and authority more in the style of the corporate C-suite than the executive branch of a traditional Westminster government. That approach has been responsible for many of the Harper government’s successes, but it has also been at fault for many of its blunders and setbacks. And though the business and political worlds feature very different rules and accountabilities, executives can learn many lessons, both constructive and cautionary from Stephen Harper’s Ottawa.

The minority Conservative government that emerged from the 2006 election victory over Paul Martin faced media it considered hostile and a civil service populated by Liberal sympathizers. It also contended with a Liberal Senate and an absence of natural allies in the House of Commons. But perhaps the greatest challenge facing the Conservatives was internal. “We were probably 90% inexperienced at that level,” says one former PMO staffer. As Martin writes, “They knew how to oppose, how to attack, how to pull triggers. But they didn’t know how to govern. They had a rookie prime minister, all rookie cabinet ministers except one, and rookie staff.” Almost everyone within the inner circle assumed that their government would last less than a year. “To say the level of tension was high was to underestimate the degree of tension.”

Besieged and inexperienced, Harper and his advisers adopted the kind of hierarchical organization seen more often in business than in politics, opting for what Martin calls a “clampdown strategy.” In place of cabinet’s usual flattened structure, ministers received their marching orders in exacting detail directly from the PMO. Policy was handed down to ministers based on what could score the most political points. Communication was subject to strict new protocols: no event would be planned, no conversation would take place — at any level, however innocuous the subject — without careful vetting by head office.

Crucially, that office itself was rigidly siloed, with “very little cross-pollination,” Martin writes. “As opposed to the more circular patterns of organization where information is more broadly shared, only the prime minister and his chief of staff knew everything.” This was the structure chosen because “the top priority was discipline, [was] not screwing up.”

This approach was intended to last six months; instead, after two electoral victories and almost five years, it is still in effect. Certainly, credit is due — Harper is still in power — but the expected majority has proven elusive. Every time its popularity is cresting, the government finds some way — insult, prorogation, a debacle over the census — to shoot itself in the foot.

Martin hangs much of the responsibility for the stumbles on the top man himself. The angry tenor of this administration is said to flow from Harper’s own anger and his visceral hatred of the political opposition. And nearly everyone who’s worked with Harper describes him as a “control freak,” a micromanager with a remarkable grasp of policy who wants to be his own finance minister, his own minister of intergovernmental affairs, and his own goon squad.

This gets to the heart of the most important structural problem that Harperland identifies in Conservative Ottawa: the lack of checks and balances around this prime minister. Not in the way that parliament and the judiciary check the power of the PM, but in the sense that if we think about Harper as an executive, he is one sheltered from any dissenting opinions about his strategies, beliefs and decisions.

Those who once provided them have drifted away from the PMO over the years, and their absence became an acute problem, observes Martin, when Guy Giorno became Harper’s chief of staff in 2008. An ideological “movement conservative” in the same vein as Harper, Giorno has filled the PMO with “tougher-minded right-wing loyalists.” When the PM’s judgment is off, there’s nobody around him to slow him down, or to help him see things in another light. For example, the aborted decision to pull public funding from federal political parties in late 2008, which precipitated the opposition coalition’s attempt to take power, could have cost the Conservatives their government had they not managed to shut down Parliament. According to Martin, it also led to some of the darkest and most hopeless days for Harper personally. And that decision came directly from Harper Central, to the surprise of everyone, including the finance minister who announced it.

No CEO is going to make the right call every time, and what Harperland offers the business reader, beyond a guide to the inner workings of the current government, is a reminder of the importance of the independent-minded naysayer or devil’s advocate in the boardroom. It’s a lesson the best executives know well, and one hopes that when Bay Street golden boy Nigel Wright takes over from Giorno in January, it’s a lesson he’ll bring with him to Ottawa. Because by Martin’s account, what the country’s top executive evidently needs is someone to tell him to think twice.

Executive summaries

King Of Capital: The Remarkable Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Steve Schwarzman and Blackstone (Crown Business)
David Carey and John E. Morris

Predictably enough, the authors — current and former staffers of financial periodical The Deal — begin their story at Schwarzman’s infamously decadent 60th birthday party in February 2007, a $3-million ‘self-coronation for the brash new king of a new Gilded Age.’ But whatever Schwarzman’s party represented, it was his company’s subsequent IPO — at the time, the largest by a private equity firm — that ‘laid bare the fantastic profits that Schwarzman’s company was throwing off’ and vaulted him onto Time‘s list of the world’s most influential people. Based on a dozen interviews with Schwarzman himself, as well as extensive conversations with other key figures within Blackstone and elsewhere in the financial world, King of Capital recounts the quarter-centurylong history of Blackstone and of the private equity world it stands astride. Though the secretive Schwarzman and his firm cooperated unusually extensively with the authors, this isn’t a hagiography. King of Capital seems as even-handed a treatment as its subject is likely to get, and if you’re interested in the field, or in the story of Schwarzman as entrepreneur, this is close to definitive. – J.T.

FUTURE BABBLE: Why Expert Predictions Fail — and Why We Believe Them Anyway (McClelland & Stewart)
Dan Gardner

In the past few months, this space featured a number of books debunking the cult of the expert. Such books are thick on the ground lately, a response perhaps to the massive recent failure of economic expertise that we’ve all enjoyed so much. But the Ottawa Citizen‘s Dan Gardner is one of the country’s few genuinely thoughtful newspaper columnists, and he has been on this file for some time. Future Babble explores why experts are so poor at predicting the future, and why, with our brains’ ‘hard-wired aversion to uncertainty,’ we continue to indulge them. Gardner begins with research by Berkeley prof Philip Tetlock, whose years-long study of expert predictions confirmed that as a group, experts have a forecasting track record that could be equalled by ‘a dartthrowing chimpanzee.’ Especially susceptible to failure were those who built their prognostications around ‘One Big Idea,’ eschewing complexity. From there, Gardner’s curated tour of behavioural sciences explains why we intrinsically crave the control that knowledge of the future seems to give us, and why we’ll never reliably have it. ‘The world is infinitely complex and the human mind fallible,’ he writes, ‘so the future will forever be uncertain.’ – J.T.

Zombie Economics : How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us (Princeton University Press)
John Quiggin

‘Even when they have proved themselves wrong and dangerous,’ writes Quiggin, a prof at the University of Queensland, Australia, ‘ideas are very hard to kill.’ Less frivolous than its title suggests, this is a field guide to five economic ideas that Quiggin, a contributor to the excellent blog Crooked Timber, believes have unnaturally survived what should have been their deaths in the financial crisis and are now ‘reviving and clawing their way up through the soft earth.’ In his crosshairs are the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, Trickle- Down Economics, Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium, Privatization, and The Great Moderation. In five engaging but serious essays, he traces the life of each theory, the factors that contributed to its eventual discreditation, and why each has proponents unwilling to abandon it to its rightful grave. You can infer which side of the Keynes-Friedman divide Quiggin stands on from his targets, but the professor isn’t merely interested in holing up in the economic sportinggoods store and blasting away at the undead. He uses Zombie Economics to argue for a 21st-century version of the discipline that focuses more on realism, less on rigour; more on equity, less on efficiency; and more on humility, less on hubris. – J.T.