Special Masters, Not “Czars”
Mainstream media all used the colloquial “czar” to report yesterday’s Treasury Department appointment of a “special master” for executive compensation at companies getting exceptional financial assistance from the federal government. This is a longstanding but poor media word choice to describe an equally longstanding political expedient to manage public perceptions of intractable policy problems.
The coinage is costly because it implies powers special masters lack, which can lead to two contending but undesirable consequences. On one hand, it can lead the special master to wield power for which he lacks authority; on the other, it makes media unwitting partner in achieving the political goal of providing a public relations palliative to thorny problems accountable officials would rather duck.
The label matters. In American usage, czar is the word for “overseer” or “person in complete charge.” Its root is from Caesar, the Latin word, taken as Kaisar in German, thence into Russian and then English. First US use appears in 1832 when used to describe Nicholas Biddle, director of the United States Bank, dubbed Czar Nicholas for the autocratic power he wielded. The mainstream media’s influence in word choice appears in how, when The New York Times officially adopted czar as a shorter word than autocrat, in the late 1800s, it stuck as the pejorative label to describe House Speaker Thomas Reed. (See generally William Safire, N.Y. Times, Nov. 13, 1983.)
But no modern special master, or task force leader, dubbed a czar by the mainstream media, is given any such autocratic authority. In the case of the special master for compensation, authority is carefully limited to reviewing and approving certain compensation payments and plans and requiring disapproved proposals to be revised and resubmitted. Treasury provides detailed guidance for the exercise, including a safe harbor for certain payments and plans to which the special master has zero authority. These are not the powers of a czar. Indeed, today’s Times , though using the term czar throughout and in headlines, quotes the special master as objecting to the label, emphasizing he does not have and does not wish to have such powers.
The label can nevertheless matter in another way, leading the appointee to wield power greater than authority granted. Yesterday, a federal bankruptcy judge rebuked the Obama Administration’s appointee overseeing the automotive industry, whom mainstream media likewise calls the “auto czar,” for pushing a deal to resolve the bankrupt auto parts supplier Delphi. The deal, orchestrated by that appointee, failed to canvass other possible deals as required by law, according to the judge. A separate Times story today says this shows how this appointee is “pushing the legal limits to get deals done” and is “sometimes playing close to the line.” Yet he is subject to federal law and judicial review and so cannot lawfully wield any such power. This does not mean calling him a czar explains the overreaching, but it seems likely that using accurate and legitimate descriptions, like special master, would not risk that effect.
Finally, presidential and administrative resort to the special master technique is “a time-worn public relations palliative,” as William Safire put in his Times On Language column of June 17, 1999. It has been used to relieve political leadership of perplexing policy challenges to which the public demands responses for which there is scarce supply of solutions. So Jimmy Carter put Alfred Kahn in charge of fighting inflation; Ronald Reagan named Don Regan to address economic strife early in his term and Wall Street ethics later; the first George Bush put William Bennett in charge of the “drug war” and C. Boyden Gray in charge of ethics; and Bill Clinton put Harold Ickes in charge of health care and Mary Good in charge of the automotive industry.
These appointees offer a mixed substantive record, some being forgettable and a few known for overreaching. But all generally did a good job as public relations tools by quelling public interest in heated subjects and easing public demand to tackle thorny and sometimes intractable public policy issues. Executive compensation is a great example of this problem type. The public seems furious about certain corporate pay; but Treasury knows it cannot possibly regulate compensation effectively or successfully. Better to hand off the baton to a special master and let the media mislead the public into thinking he is a “czar” with commanding powers who will solve the problem.