Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 11, 2008
By: Hilzoy

Death To The "Czar"

TNR reports on Obama's energy and environmental team:

"In addition to Carol Browner as the energy czar (but not czar, because apparently the transition folks don't like that word), Obama reportedly has selected the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's director Steve Chu to be energy secretary; New Jersey's Lisa Jackson as head of the EPA; and Los Angeles deputy mayor Nancy Sutley as chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. All are low-profile picks, and diverse ones."

I don't yet know enough about these people to say much, though from what I can tell, they sound like very strong picks. (More on the whole team here, here, and here; on Chu here and here; on Browner here; and on Jackson here.) But I was absolutely thrilled by one fact in this post: the claim that Obama and his team do not plan to use the word 'czar'.

Thank heavens. We've had drug czars, energy czars; we may yet get a car czar. I'm tired of czars. And why czars, anyways? They didn't do all that well in Russia, as far as I can tell. If we have to go against our democratic traditions, why not an Imperator, or a Pharoah Pharaoh (oops), or a Basileus, or a Mikado? For that matter, why not an Energy Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or an Oba of Energy, or an Energy Tlatoani?

Personally, I think we should just embrace the silliness of all these titles and designate Carol Browner our new Grand Energy Poobah.

Hilzoy 1:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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"Khan." We should go with khan.

When a drug khan gets appointed, that's when you know drugs gotta watch out.

Posted by: brandon on December 11, 2008 at 2:04 AM | PERMALINK

I prefer "Grand Racoon."

Posted by: Michael Carpet on December 11, 2008 at 2:16 AM | PERMALINK

why not an Energy Yang di-Pertuan Agong

Comedy gold like that is why I keep reading this blog even when the Big Picture news is too depressing to keep me going.

I do rather like the assonance of "Obama's Oba of Energy", though.

Posted by: Equal Opportunity Cynic on December 11, 2008 at 2:35 AM | PERMALINK

I had to laugh out loud when I read the candidate titles. Personally, I like Energy Pharoah. It has a nice retro feel to it.

Posted by: DevilDog on December 11, 2008 at 2:55 AM | PERMALINK

I really don't think a baselius would have a prayer when attempting to deal with the fact that the car industry has totally crashed and plowed ten feet into the ground. I think the "car czar" title should be replaced with the title of the highest ranking official in the Byzantine empire the

(usually transliterated autocrator I admit).

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on December 11, 2008 at 3:30 AM | PERMALINK

If there is a car czar and a health czar and an energy czar and a drug czar, we may want to appoint a Czar Czar to keep track of all of them.

Posted by: mk on December 11, 2008 at 3:35 AM | PERMALINK

Also can't we have at least one Grand Poobah ?

(Assisted by a deputy Poobah, an under poobah, an assistent poobah and a deputy assistant pobah of course)

Posted by: Rober Waldmann on December 11, 2008 at 3:49 AM | PERMALINK

But seriously for a moment, this trend for having more & more White House advisors paralleling cabinet secretaries is kind of unsettling. We have a Secretary of the Treasury - and a National Economic Council head. We have a Secretary of State - and a National Security Advisor. We have an Attorney General - and a White House Counsel. We have a Secretary of Energy - and an Energy Tsaritsa (or whatever).

I can understand the different functions in these cases; you need someone to run the bureaucracy and carry out Congressional mandates, and you need someone else to develop policies and coordinate overlapping agencies (and, in the case of WH counsel, keep the President's ass out of court). But it's striking how, thanks to the logic of bureaucracy, the original functions of the cabinet have fallen away over the years, while the need for a team of high-powered advisors to the head of govt has not - necessitating the creation of a whole new quasi-cabinet in the West Wing. And none of the Czars/Poobahs faces confirmation by the Senate.

Maybe what's happening is the agencies have so much of their own power and personality that just having the president appoint a cabinet secretary isn't enough - he also needs someone to tell the cabinet secretary what to do.

Posted by: Basilisc on December 11, 2008 at 3:55 AM | PERMALINK

Czar = Ceasar, and is the imperial title used in a number of Slavonic languages.

Your "they didn't do all that well in Russia, as far as I can tell" is a bit of ahistorical sillyness.
Take a trip to St. Petersburg, walk about for a day, revise impression.

That said, it is absolutely ridiculous to be appointing drug emperors, car emperors and energy emperors, and let's be pleased that the Obama administration doesn't do that.

Posted by: SteinL on December 11, 2008 at 4:05 AM | PERMALINK

yeah, but in modern american usage:

"Czar: an administrative appointee with a grand title, but no actual ability to DO anything more than hold press conferences"

Get rid of 'em, if your focus is on getting stuff done. If the focus is on sidelining potential political liabilities into dead-end positions where they are powerless, rename them "peons" and go for it.

Posted by: Snarki, child of Loki on December 11, 2008 at 4:11 AM | PERMALINK

Stephen Chu? Holy shit. An Energy Secretary who actually understands physics?

Maybe I'm biased but Obama's picks so far have looked almost universally outstanding.

Tsars? Pah. I'm disappointed no-one's suggested an Equal Opportunities Queen.

Posted by: al on December 11, 2008 at 4:26 AM | PERMALINK

Steven Chu as energy secretary may be one of those turning points in history that is recognized by few. I couldn't be more delighted! Best pick ever!

Posted by: President LIndsay on December 11, 2008 at 4:36 AM | PERMALINK

Your "they didn't do all that well in Russia, as far as I can tell" is a bit of ahistorical sillyness.
Take a trip to St. Petersburg, walk about for a day, revise impression.

Yes, it's a slowly crumbling city built on a swamp, at the cost of the lives of sixty thousand slaves, and you can't drink the tap water. Yay Tsarism! Also, key point: it doesn't have any Tsars in it any more.

IIRC, the robes of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court have four gold stripes on them because William Rehnquist saw a production of "Iolanthe" and liked the look of the Lord Chancellor's costume.

Along these lines...

Mikado - Barack Obama
First Lord of the Admiralty and Ruler of the Queen's Navy - Joe Biden
Lord High Executioner - Rahm Emmanuel
Lord High Everything Else - Hillary Clinton
Flower of Progress - Bill Richardson
Public Exploder - Robert Gates
Pirate King - Gen. James Jones
Duke of Plaza-Toro - Gen. Eric Shinseki
Grand Inquisitor - Eric Holder
Sergeant of Police - Tom Daschle
Bad Baronet - Lawrence Summers

Posted by: ajay on December 11, 2008 at 4:42 AM | PERMALINK

All civilizations find themselves on crumbling ground, eventually, right? :-)

And the slaves analogy holds for any society, including the US, methinks (both during the cotton, post-depression and automania eras). You have to wonder as to the cultural impulse engendered by the Tzar and the Russian nobility, strong enough to retain a powerful cultural force during Communism.
It took the reintroduction of unfettered Capitalism to place it on the back burner.

That said - Chu is en excellent choice. (And a word with quite a bit of prehistory.)

Posted by: SteinL on December 11, 2008 at 4:55 AM | PERMALINK

Why not use the term 'bureaucratic redundancy'?

All of these czar jobs can and should be handled by the Chief of Staff and his/her staff. What does the Chief of Staff do all day? Coordinate staff. What does the ____ czar do? Coordinate staff. It's silly. I'd rather add Deputy Chief of Staff for Energy, Deputy Chief of Staff for Defense, etc..

Posted by: joejoejoe on December 11, 2008 at 6:31 AM | PERMALINK

I would love to have an Energy Mikado.

Nothing could possibly be more satisfactory.

Posted by: z. Mulls on December 11, 2008 at 7:04 AM | PERMALINK

A gentleman named BIll Higgins came up with the correct title for the Car Czar, which is, of course, The Autocrat.

Posted by: Erik Olson on December 11, 2008 at 7:14 AM | PERMALINK

agreeing with you:

A car czar? Is this like the Iraq war czar, who was appointed one day and never heard from again? The energy czar who reduced our dependence on oil so drastically? Or is it like the drug czar who so successfully waged the war on drugs?

homer www.altara.blogspot.com

Posted by: altara on December 11, 2008 at 7:15 AM | PERMALINK

How about: The Crown Joule of Energy

Posted by: rick on December 11, 2008 at 7:51 AM | PERMALINK

Hilzoy, you're normally one of the most literate bloggers I read, on any subject. So I'm more disappointed in you than I might be in others for not taking the time to get the spelling of "pharaoh" right.

Posted by: dal20402 on December 11, 2008 at 7:59 AM | PERMALINK

Anybody remember LTG Douglas Lute? He's only been the War Czar since 17 May 2007. Gives one a measure of the usefulness of the position.


Posted by: Walter Olin on December 11, 2008 at 8:45 AM | PERMALINK


Frankly, I like the title "poobah". It gives a satirical, self-mocking tone which should help remind the holders that their exalted position may be important at the moment, but is temporary, and the sooner they can get the job done and get on with their lives, the better.

After all, how long would YOU want to be called a "Poobah"?

Posted by: Zandru on December 11, 2008 at 8:58 AM | PERMALINK

How about The Grand Wizard?

Posted by: Patrick on December 11, 2008 at 9:14 AM | PERMALINK

Secretary of Treasury: Count de Monet!

Posted by: MissMudd on December 11, 2008 at 9:23 AM | PERMALINK


Jun 14th 2007
From The Economist print edition
It is time to let the Russian royal family rest in peace

WHEN, a few years ago, word came that British bird lovers anxious about the decline of the house sparrow had appointed a sparrow tsar, it seemed that the tsar vogue must have reached its zenith. France already had a crime tsar, London a traffic tsar, Japan a banking tsar, the European Union a foreign-policy tsar, and America had tsars for adoption, baseball, B-movies, manufacturing, record labels, you name it. No one, however, could outdo the sparrow tsar, or so you might think. Surely he would prove to be not so much the reductio ad absurdum as the dernier cri, the ne plus ultra in the once-rarefied realm of tsardom? But no. The latest newcomer, unless one has been added since you started this paragraph, is President George Bush's war tsar.

In fact, tsar-creation has never even faltered. Newish title-holders include Canada's copyright tsar, New Orleans's recovery tsar, Singapore's baby tsar, Tony Blair's respect tsar, Thailand's condom tsar and America's nipple tsar (Michael Powell, whose job as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission was to prevent a repetition of Janet Jackson's televised bosom exposure). They join an ever-swelling band of AIDS tsars, counter-terrorism tsars, cyber-security tsars, economy tsars, food-safety tsars, learning-disability tsars, piracy tsars, water tsars and even mental-health-service-user tsars.

All of which is a bit odd. One of the few points of agreement for most of the 20th century was that tsars were a Bad Thing, a particularly nasty example of natural selection that started with some brutal caesars, took in some belligerent kaisers and found its most excruciating expression in the Russian variants. Their rehabilitation in almost every quarter must rank as the most sudden, surprising and complete in the history of brand management. Republican Americans cannot get enough tsars. The purist-nationalist French, overseen by the Académie Française, seem ready to embrace them. And the Russians—yes, of all people, the Russians—have succumbed to an advertising tsar. A haemophilia tsar cannot be far away.

Nowhere is the triumph of the tsars more evident than in the wicked world of drugs. This world is divided into countries whose citizens yearn to see a drug tsar appointed and countries that have already got one. Why is a drug tsar so universally necessary? To see off the drug barons, of course. Until quite recently barons were a Good Thing. They brought bad King John to heel at Runnymede. Now they are a Bad Thing. What next? Führers, Caudillos, Duci, Gauleiters and Generalisimos must be due for a comeback.

It is time to put a stop to all this. The English language, borrowing, as so often, from Latin, already has a word for a supreme head. It is supremo. Journalists should try using it (they can fall back on big cheese occasionally). For their part, governments should try using titles that accurately describe the activities of their officials.

Once upon a time Britain had a minister for war. Now the same job is done by the secretary of state for defence. It also has a Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard. No one would guess it, but he is a deputy government whip. Minister for delivery and quality sounds plain and straightforward, but no one knows what he delivers, never mind its quality. Does the minister for social exclusion promote social exclusion, just as the minister for education presumably promotes education? Perhaps it does not matter: in Britain obfuscation is all.

Japan, by contrast, has a minister for the privatisation of the postal services. That is explicit. Unfortunately, minister for the rechallenge is not. His job is to give people a second go in life, though that sounds very much like the responsibility of the minister for disaster management. In Japan, however, that title means what it says. Elsewhere it refers to damage limitation, a task for spin doctors.

Now did the tsars have spin doctors? They certainly had lifestyle gurus. Time, surely, to rehabilitate Rasputin.

Posted by: bert on December 11, 2008 at 9:49 AM | PERMALINK

1. If Tzars lasted 600 years or so in Russia that is not so bad, even if they ended badly.

2. Why no votes for Grand Panjandrums?

Posted by: catclub on December 11, 2008 at 10:14 AM | PERMALINK

A "czar" is what you call someone that you appoint with no power, staff, authority or responsibility to sweep a problem you don't know how to solve under the rug, so you can tell the public you've taken care of it.

Czars tend to fade away in time. People forget all about them. In some ways, they are more effective than "task forces," which usually reappear two or three years later with a voluminous report which no one pays attention to, but which reminds everyone that there was some reason that we needed them in the first place. Sometimes task forces issue "recommendations," which can be thorny issues themselves, because they have to be acknowledged and ignored at the same time, which can be tricky for a few news cycles until everybody gets bored and tired of it all.

Posted by: hark on December 11, 2008 at 10:18 AM | PERMALINK

Russia's tsars built a breath-takingly beautiful city and at times exposed their country to useful influences from western Europe. At the same time, while wanting certain technological and industrial innovations from the West, they were allergic to political reform that would have given the middle class experience at running the affairs of the country.

This was particularly pronounced under the last 5 tsars, from Alexander I in 1801 through the sad demise of Nicholas II in 1917-18. In some regions, particularly Tver near Moscow, there were powerless assemblies of nobles and merchants who proposed eminently reasonable measures for devolving certain authorities onto local bodies. The tsars rejected these as unacceptable infringements on their indivisible autocratic authority. The local assemblies could have been training schools of democracy and self-governance, allowing the transition of the tsardom into a constitional monarchy like Britain's, or into some sort of a republic with only a modest revolution or civil war.

Instead, the political development of the middle class was hamstrung, so when they got a limited measure of real power after the 1905 revolution, they didn't know how to work it (and the pig-headed Nicholas II made even their best efforts near-futile).

When the tsar abdicated in February 1917, there was a political vacuum which the nobility and middle class had trouble filling. The Bolsheviks were a tiny faction when they seized power in October 1917 (old style), but were able to consolidate their hold partly through the lack of any other existing institutional weight in the absence of the tsar.

The upshot was a civil war costing millions of lives, famine costing millions more, and purges and forced collectivization of agriculture costing yet more millions, and leaving the country impoverished, able to industrialize (with poor quality at that) only through unimaginable sacrifice on the part of the country's industrial and agricultural population. In addition, the Bolsheviks went on to destroy much of the physical and cultural wealth that the tsars had built (or in many cases, wealth that had built up despite them).

But yeah, St. Petersburg was worth all that.

The tsars held on for 600 years, but their attempt to preserve their medieval style of rule into the modern age brought a cataclysm down on them and their country.

The tsars are no kind of model for a modern, sane, democratic country to emulate.

Point Hilzoy on this one.

Posted by: Karl on December 11, 2008 at 10:40 AM | PERMALINK

Whatever happened to that war czar that Bush appointed a couple of years ago and, as far as I know, was never heard from again?

Posted by: JRD on December 11, 2008 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

Excellent, ajay, and damn you for beating me to it and doing a better job. (Though I would have worked Patrick Fitzgerald in there. "He has a little list and they'd none of them be missed.")

Posted by: Prup (aka Jim Benton) on December 11, 2008 at 11:45 AM | PERMALINK

Excellent analysis by Karl! (Also, I appreciate his use of "tsar" rather than "czar" - "czar", while techinically acceptible is like fingernails on a blackboard!)

Posted by: Chesire11 on December 11, 2008 at 12:48 PM | PERMALINK

Personally, I prefer the term "Energy Tai'Pan".

Posted by: earthworx on December 11, 2008 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK

The person appointed to the position is supposed to fix the crisis and save us all.

Energy jesus.
Drug jesus.
Car jesus.

Posted by: Tx bubba on December 11, 2008 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK



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