I’m an American college student in my twenties, which means three things for certain.
One: I am helplessly addicted to my phone.
Two: I am embarrassingly bad at writing in cursive.
Three: I have watched entirely too much of “The Office.”
“The Office” is a great show, and like many other sitcoms, it has a way of getting at issues that are often hard to articulate.
In one of the best scenes, Michael Scott, in the wake of some financial troubles, announces to the office:“I declare bankruptcy!” When he’s told that he can’t just become bankrupt by saying he’s bankrupt, Michael simply replies, “I didn’t say it. I declared it.”
Of course, this doesn’t make any sense. Bankruptcy is complicated. If he wanted to go bankrupt, Michael would have to compile his financial records, hire a lawyer, go through credit counseling and complete all sorts of other boring, arduous steps.
Beyond that, there are plenty of other decisions he has to make. Should he file Chapter 7 or Chapter 13? Is he going to keep some of his assets or get rid of them all? What will he do in the future to be more responsible with his finances?
But Michael wanted simplicity. He saw his current situation – being in debt – and had a general idea of an end goal – to be out of debt. What happened in between those two was not his concern. He didn’t worry about the details or the process of bankruptcy, he just declared it.
This is more than just another classic Michael Scott moment, though, because it shows us something that we have all done before. We too want simple, quick outcomes in complicated situations. When faced with these situations, we often want to arrive at an immediate solution and hope someone else will figure out the details.
This type of thinking is on full display in the United Kingdom right now. For almost three years, they have been trying to figure out a deal for Brexit, and it has been an absolute dumpster fire (I guess in the UK they would call it a rubbish-bin fire).
Why has it been so terrible? Because the government in the UK is acting like Michael Scott.
In 2016, the UK decided that they didn’t want to be members of the European Union anymore. For the sake of argument, let’s put the referendum vote, social issues and economic logic aside and pretend that this was the right choice.
How did they act on this decision? Well, they knew they wanted out of the EU, so they declared that they were leaving.
But what does that even mean? Will they still have free trade with the EU? Will they change their immigration system? Will there be a hard border between Ireland and North Ireland? Will teams in the English Premier League be able to sign soccer players from other European countries?
It’s all a mystery. They didn’t take the time to figure out any details or nail down the specifics of their idea. Instead, they decided on a meaningless plan and hoped it would all work out.
Now, Parliament can’t seem to make a decision on what to do, and how could they? They are being asked to enact a policy with no clear boundaries. Brexit was pitched as a single solution, but it’s actually an infinite number of solutions packed into one. Defining any specifics or answering any of the questions posed above would please some people but alienate others who thought they were voting for the same thing.
The same sort of problem-solving happens on this side of the pond too. In January of 2017, President Trump saw a problem of his own. He thought there were too many immigrants coming from seven different countries, including Iraq, Libya and Syria. To solve this, he banned the people of these countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days with an executive order – the ultimate way to declare a policy into existence.
Once again, set aside the logical and ethical considerations on this one so that we can simply look at how this order was implemented.
As it turns out, travel bans – like bankruptcy and leaving international partnerships – are complicated. There are a lot of details to iron out before an order like this means anything concrete, many of which were unclear when the policy was announced.
For instance, would this ban include green card holders and international students? Can U.S. citizens who were visiting these countries fly back home? What should the legal system do with the people they detained at the airports?
Even with these issues clarified, the Customs employees and officials needed to know about the ban before it happened. They had to make plans of their own for handling this new policy to avoid chaos at the airports.
Instead of accounting for this, though, the president simply declared his policy, effective immediately. As one aide said, “They basically just pulled the trigger internally and watched it fly.”
Naturally, chaos ensued. The Department of Homeland Security scrambled to inform their employees. Customs agents were confused about what they were being asked to do.
Travelers were delayed or detained unexpectedly. It was an implementation nightmare.
This kind of poor execution happens, in part, because we are victims of our own success.
We have built an impressively stable society, and the fact that we would try to suddenly enact big changes and expect that it had a chance of going well is a testament to that.
But proper implementation is boring. It’s all about the weeds and the wonks, the bureaucrats and the bylaws. These changes take time, trade-offs and tough decisions. Impatience and thoughtlessness are the enemies of good policy, and they put us in bad situations.
It’s frustrating when the leaders of two of the world’s most powerful countries fail to see that. Instead of making careful decisions like thoughtful people and champions of governance, they make declarations, just like Michael Scott.
Evan Newell is a senior studying Chemical Engineering. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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