Magic Bullets

Years ago I was sat in a meeting at work explaining to my boss that a situation had gotten into a bit of a mess and would require quite some effort to put right. I wasn’t responsible for the situation but it fell to me to fix it, at least in part. I had no problem doing this, but if I was going to do it properly then it would mean the hierarchy confronting some unpalatable truths, making some tough decisions, and committing to expenditures they’d probably rather not have to. I explained to my boss what needed doing and why, and that I would happily take charge of the works from then on. My boss, alas, did not have any experience in this area of work whatsoever but was nevertheless drawing a salary and enjoying the authority that comes with the position and so found himself owning this particular mess. He was also, like all good corporate ladder-climbers, very aware of the consequences of having to pass on bad news to his own management.

Even though he didn’t much like the course of action I was offering, he wasn’t in any position to argue: the problem had landed on my desk and I was happy to solve it, albeit my way, and he lacked the knowledge and competence to challenge my methods. He was just on the verge of accepting my proposal when one of my colleagues from an altogether unrelated department piped up:

‘We can do it, no problem.’ All heads swung over to young George, who had spoken.

‘You can?’ said my boss hopefully.

‘You can?’ said I skeptically.

‘Yes, sure,’ said George. ‘We won’t need to do any of that stuff Tim is saying, I’ll get one of my guys to do it.’

My boss grabbed hold of this like a drowning man clinging onto an empty Fosters can in the hope it will support his weight and stop him being dragged ‘neath the waves.

‘Okay, good!’ he said. ‘Can I pass this over to you, then George?’

‘Yes, no problem!’ said George, bobbing his eagerly. He then looked at me slyly, knowing he’d made himself look smart and me stupid, and gotten his boss out of a hole. If I’d given two figs about my career in that place I may have said something, but instead I just grinned back and said ‘Good decision!’ and gave everyone a thumbs-up while sporting a shit-eating grin across my face.

Note that at no point did my boss ask George how he intends to do this work, let alone how he intends to do it easily and quickly when I’d been suggesting it would be neither. And nor did my boss seem to mind handing off work that my department was supposed to be doing to George, who worked in a quite different line of business. My boss heard what he wanted to hear and didn’t ask any questions: a magic bullet had presented itself to solve his problems, and he’d gladly accepted it.

Only of course George’s solution was no such thing: as soon as he tried to do the work he found he couldn’t and his department faffed around and obfuscated for months afterwards making one excuse after another, still assuring the boss he was on top of things, until eventually the work got wrapped up in a larger project and let he and my boss off the hook. Nevertheless, George was seen as being “helpful” whereas Tim was viewed as being “difficult”.

This situation is extremely common in large organisations: management is told what they want to hear by their subordinates, who get a reputation for being “helpful” and a “team player”. Ambitious people offer magic bullets in order to boost their careers and undermine possibly rivals, and managers accept them uncritically. Nobody wants to take the tough path when somebody has provided them with a magic bullet that allows them to avoid it.

I can’t help thinking a similar thing has happened with Emmanuel Macron being elected president of France. France has some serious problems which successive generations of politicians have failed to address. The EU also has serious structural problems which nobody has even tried to address because that would entail first admitting these problems exist. This latest election campaign started off with the incumbent Socialist party wiped out. the centre-right party’s François Fillon offering the same as Sarkozy did previously, and Marine Le Pen saying quite bluntly what she thought the problems were and how she intended to fix them. Fillon’s campaign was brought down by a scandal involving payments to his wife, which cleared the path for Emmanuel Macron to sweep in as the only “decent” or “moderate” candidate.

Aside from a few people who follow French politics closely, nobody has a clue who Macron is. Indeed, most of the media thinks this man who until very recently worked for a Socialist government is a centrist and an outsider. Insofar as his policies are concerned, he has basically done what George did in my meeting: he has wandered into the middle of the election and said:

‘No problem, just leave everything to me! I’ll solve X, Y, and Z without us having to make tough choices or suffer any pain, don’t listen to what that nasty Le Pen is saying! Vote for me and everything will be all right!’

And, like my boss, the French have seized on this reasonable-looking man as their magic bullet. I can understand why a lot of French didn’t vote for Le Pen – the name alone puts a lot of people off, as well as some of the more right-wing elements of her policies and followers. But she at least made it clear who she was, what she wanted, what she thought the problems were, and what she intended to do about them. You don’t have to agree with her views or proposed solutions to appreciate that she didn’t take the easy route of pretending things can and should continue as they are and the population need not suffer any sort of economic or social disruption going forward. But in telling the population what they don’t want to hear, even if they desperately need to hear it, she left the way open for Macron to come in and tell them what they wanted to hear.

I am not surprised that the media and various Establishment figures around Europe have accepted Macron uncritically, and not even bothered with a cursory attempt at due diligence as to who this person is. After all, he told them what they wanted to hear as well. Even if we ignore the supposed financial scandal that was leaked a day or two before the election, the media seems uninterested in doing anything other than praising him for saving France from the fascists and Europe from oblivion. How an election in which two thirds voted for an unknown youngster making vague promises to solve problems that have confounded three or four previous generations and a third voted for radically altering the country and its relationship with the EU is cause for celebration and relief I really don’t know. But I have a feeling both are going to be rather short-lived.

Macron was plucked from oblivion as a 15-year old by his now-wife, who is 25 years old than he is, and propelled upwards. In the 24 years since, he has lead the same charmed, privileged life – grand ecoles, cushy positions in industry (in his case finance), parachuted into the highest levels of politics – that all of the French elite enjoy. I doubt he has had to deal with a major problem in his entire life, yet here he is about to run a country facing serious difficulties. How much influence his wife had over his career thus far, and how much she will have over him as president, is something nobody knows because nobody bothered to ask, but the French are about to find out.

My guess is he will not know what’s hit him. He’s been propelled into power thanks to either good fortune or the deliberate sabotage of Fillon’s campaign and the fact that he’s the nice, reasonable young man who can’t possibly offend anybody and says all the right things: just like Tony Blair, David Cameron, Barack Obama, and Justin Trudeau. The first three of those left office having been massacred by the realities of politics, their “legacies” in tatters, and thought of fondly only by a handful of sycophants who occupy metropolitan bubbles that shield them from the vast majority of their fellow countrymen; and Trudeau is proving to the world why electing Prime Ministers on looks is a bad idea. Such “big tent” people are good at meddling, tinkering, nannying, and pandering to fashionable causes but utterly useless at dealing with serious issues such as immigration, unemployment, horrific public debt, terrorism, collapsing rural and industrial communities, an entrenched elite, an over-regulated economy, and unions that hold a gun to the heads of ordinary citizens. They are too preoccupied with being liked than doing anything that might make people dislike them, even if it is the right thing to do.

I suspect in a few months Macron will have his first real test in office and he will be found wanting. People will begin to wonder how this person was railroaded from nowhere to the French presidency in a matter of weeks without anyone bothering to find out who he is. By then it will be too late, of course.

Not that any of this is Macron’s fault: the French people for too long have been too ready to accept the magic bullet solution, and Macron simply told them what they wanted to hear. As I am fond of saying, people get the government they deserve and in Macron the French appear to have exactly what they want: somebody who promises them comfort but changes nothing. Good luck to them.

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19 thoughts on “Magic Bullets

  1. “people get the government they deserve and in Macron the French appear to have exactly what they want: somebody who promises them comfort but changes nothing. Good luck to them.”

    Good point. But surely, Mr Tim, with you living in France then what Macron does isn’t just for the French but for all you non-French residents too.

  2. “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” – H. L. Mencken

    France is about to get it good and hard.

  3. International Socialist vs National Socialist
    Rosthchild blood sucking giant squid & elder of the leaders of Zion vs Some inferior gender who wants to kick you back to Turkey or Algeria
    MacRonaldMacDonald vs hereditary flame grilll BurgerQueen
    etc
    No. I wouldn’t have bothered to vote for either of the two queens even if I’d had the vote.
    Abstentions and spoilt ballots quadrupled, surprised it wasn’t more.

    On the bright side, Belgium managed for a couple of years without a government. Maybe even won a couple of football matches.

  4. Yes no big surprises in France on Sunday and yes he doesn’t come across as the type of leader that will lance the Euro boil but at least Frexit has been averted for now. All I want from the French now is for Alstom to award us this contract that I am sweating on.

    So just one more strong and stable election campaign to go.

    Is anyone feeling a bit of election fatigue yet?

  5. I don’t have much to say on the election, but I will point out that “George” in your story may well have had a more strategic vision than you did. He may well have known that what seemed to be an intractable complex mess in the short term would become irrelevant with time and scope. And if the problem could go unresolved for months before being handed off for someone else to deal with, then he was right.

    Something I had to learn myself working in very large organizations is that size and inertia are very powerful things, and that very little is ever an existential threat to the business. It’s demoralizing if you’re the kind of person that wants to solve problems permanently and efficiently, but often “leave it be until the greater tides of circumstance render it moot” is often the best solution.

  6. The NRO points out (http://www.nationalreview.com/article/447422/emmanuel-macron-win-french-election-marine-le-pen-disaffection-european-union ) that one of his first challenges will be to form a government given that En Marche! has essentially no grass roots organization and thus will struggle to get candidates for the Assembly elections next month.

    Then he’s going to have a scrap with Mutti Merkel because he wants to mutualize Euro debt so that the Germans pay for everyone else and that’s going to go down particularly well in Berlin seeing as they have elections in September. I’m pretty sure he’ll be told “Welche Teil von NEIN hast du nicht verstanden?”

    And of course sometime in September or October he’s going to have formed some sort of government and will be starting to pass some of those baby steps to reform stuff that are going to annoy all those ouvriers who’ve just got back from their august hols and need an excuse to go “en greve”

    I give him six months before he hates the job.

  7. With Trump and Pe Pen, I’m reminded of Hayek’s description of a “strong man”. I wonder whether there’s a way of avoiding the malevolent strong man by electing an incompetent strong man first?

    i.e. perhaps the Republicans and Democrats might realise they need to change now because of the car crash that is Trump? The French have postponed by at least one more election cycle their strong man experiment.

  8. Good point. But surely, Mr Tim, with you living in France then what Macron does isn’t just for the French but for all you non-French residents too.

    True, but it’s their country: I’ve chosen to live here, I’m not going to go about trying to change the way they do things. If I get caught up in the mess…well, I can always go back to the UK, can’t I?

  9. I will point out that “George” in your story may well have had a more strategic vision than you did.

    I daresay you’re absolutely right! He certainly knew how to prosper in a large organisation better than I did.

    It’s demoralizing if you’re the kind of person that wants to solve problems permanently and efficiently, but often “leave it be until the greater tides of circumstance render it moot” is often the best solution.

    Indeed: if you’re a goal-driven person it is rather frustrating to work in an organisation where the process is everything and the goal irrelevant.

  10. It’s part of this ‘if we pretend it’s going to be OK, it will’ syndrome. And it doesn’t.

  11. Hmm. Good thing the French chose Tim and not George then

    The closest thing the French had to a Tim was Fillon, and even then he was unconvincing. Le Pen at least acknowledged the problem but her solutions were rather George-like.

  12. perhaps the Republicans and Democrats might realise they need to change now because of the car crash that is Trump?

    I’m glad you said it: Trump is proving to be an absolute clown, which many predicted. I am glad he won because Hillary would have been an order of magnitude worse, but I hope the Republicans put up a decent candidate in 2020 and persuade the ageing Trump to step aside (having done his job). I doubt it though. The Republicans will probably nominate Jeb Bush again.

  13. How an unknown youngster can seem preferable to a known catastrophe? I guess there may be some ways. Having never lived in France, a purely theoretical ovservation, of course.

  14. How an unknown youngster can seem preferable to a known catastrophe? I guess there may be some ways.

    Oh yes, I can see why people voted for Macron, but some caution ought to have been expected and a lot more than what we’re seeing now.

  15. “How an unknown youngster can seem preferable to a known catastrophe?”

    That’s why Obama was a decent gamble when the alternative was bloody McCain.

  16. >Trudeau is proving to the world why electing Prime Ministers on looks is a bad idea

    I see him more as an example of why hereditory Prime Ministers are generally a bad idea. But I am sure he is both.

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