A Rube Goldberg machine, contraption, invention, device, or apparatus is a deliberately over-engineered or overdone machine that performs a very simple task in a very complex fashion, usually including a chain reaction.
When each of my five kids hit 5th grade, they had to build a Rube Goldberg machine. It had to include a pulley, a lever…each of the simple machines. Thankfully, my children have an engineer father. Had it been left up to me, they would have gone to school with a shoe box, a rubber band and a note of apology. It simply isn’t my area of expertise.
Peggy Noonan has pointed out that our president has given us a shoe box, a rubber band (but no apology) in Obamacare:
Everyone understands in their own rough way that ObamaCare is a big mess. And that it’s not the website, it’s the law itself. They have seen systems crash. In the past 20 years they’ve seen their own computers crash. They know systems and computers get fixed.
But they understand a conceptual botch when they see one. They understand this new program was so big and complex and had so many moving parts and was built on so many assumptions that may or may not hold true, and that deals with so many people with so many policies—and they know they themselves have not read their own policies, for who would when the policies, like the law that now controls the policies, are written in a way that is deliberately obscure so as to give maximum flexibility to administrators in offices far away. And that’s just your policy. What about 200 million other policies? The government can’t handle that. The government can barely put up road signs.
The president told us he’d build this fabulous system of health care; we’d love it, and if we didn’t love it, we could keep what we did love. Instead, we have a rolling wreck of a website, a handful of public lies, and a lot of people scratching their heads as to how this could have gone so, so wrong. Noonan’s explanation is that Barack Obama – who sold himself as the smartest guy around – just doesn’t know how to do this job.
It’s a leader’s job to be skeptical of grand schemes. Sorry, that’s a conservative leader’s job. It is a liberal leader’s job to be skeptical that grand schemes will work as intended. You have to guide and goad and be careful.
And this president wasn’t. I think part of the reason he wasn’t careful is because he sort of lives in words. That’s been his whole professional life—books, speeches. Say something and it magically exists as something said, and if it’s been said and publicized it must be real. He never had to push a lever, see the machine not respond, puzzle it out and fix it. It’s all been pretty abstract for him, not concrete. He never had to stock a store, run a sale and see lots of people come but the expenses turn out to be larger than you’d expected and the profits smaller, and you have to figure out what went wrong and do better next time.
People say Mr. Obama never had to run anything, but it may be more important that he never worked for the guy who had to run something, and things got fouled up along the way and he had to turn it around. He never had to meet a payroll, never knew that stress. He probably never had to buy insurance! And you know, his policies were probably gold-plated—at the law firm, through his wife’s considerable hospital job, in the Illinois Legislature, in the U.S. Senate. Those guys know how to take care of themselves! Maybe he felt guilty. Maybe that’s to his credit, knowing he was lucky. Too bad he didn’t know what he didn’t know, like how every part has to work for a complicated machine to work.
Noonan is calling this “low-information leadership.” Obama doesn’t have the knowledge to do what he’s trying to do. Overhauling a massive system like American healthcare is not something you can watch a TedX video on, check out Wikipedia and roll with it. You need deep, intense, hands-on expertise, garnered over years.
Otherwise, you end up with a shoe box, a rubber band, and a note of apology. Unfortunately for all of us, this isn’t 5th grade science.
Read “Low-Information Leadership” at The Wall Street Journal.