Constitutional Coup: Privatization’s Threat to the American Public is one of those books that drive me crazy. It should be read by everyone who cares about good governance but is written with that kind of baroque academic language that ensures the people who need to read won’t get past the introduction.
Privatization of government services has expanded rapidly and dangerously over the years. It is aided by our tepid defense of public servants and the civil service. It has come to the point where the phrase “good enough for government work” is understood as minimal competence rather than the original meaning of excellence. We seem to have forgotten why we have a civil service in the first place, a rejection of the disgrace of patronage and graft that typified Gilded Age government.
The founders did not imagine this fledgling America would expand from thirteen to fifty states and two to two hundred million, so they did not imagine a need for any sort of expansive administration state. We’re missing an article in our Constitution, though Michaels is too polite to say so.
Michaels’ contribution is pointing out that the civil service mirrors the separation of powers the founders originally conceived. Presidents appoint several hundred executives who are tasked with managing departments to reflect executive will. Civil servants prove their professional competence through testing and standardized hiring protocols. With their positions protected from partisan leverage, they echo the learned independence of the judiciary. Then we Regulations.gov and other avenues to allow the general public to voice their opinion embodying the legislative function. Together, they conform to the three functions of government, a constitutional balance of powers we should be using to vigorously defend the administrative state. But we don’t.
We let opponents of government regulation and progressive government assert that the bureaucracy is unconstitutional, a usurpation of power. This allows them to push a new privatization that elevates the executive over the other branches of government. How critical this is was recently revealed by the bizarre no-bid contract awarded to a two-man power company in Montana to restore electricity in Puerto Rico. This is also reflected in the private contractor cook chopping onions earning three times the salary of the soldiers he’s feeding, not to mention the millions earned by the huge military contractor companies whose are insulated from audits, oversight, and even prosecution at times.
On one hand, I want everybody to read Constitutional Coup. I have already tagged friends who care about governance, pushing this book on them. We need the power of Michaels’ arguments, the scholarship, history, and evidence he marshals with precision and authority to defend the administrative state, public service and the idea of professional, nonpartisan, civil service. This book promises a lot and delivers everything it promises.
There is real integrity in Michaels argument. He presents the argument of those who push privatization fairly. He does not create straw men, move the goal posts, or engage in logical fallacies. His rigor in presenting his argument is sustained by his fair and painstaking consideration of its opposite. This is academic reasoning at its best.
On the other hand, this is one of the worst examples of dry academic writing I have read. For example, he used the word perdure. I have a wide vocabulary and recognized the word from other baroque academic texts. I am that word nerd who will log into my library account and see why perdure is better than a more common synonym and sure enough there is a small justification for using perdure. Unlike endure, persist, continue, or last, it actually means last forever. But, really? Even though folks will understand from context it means endure or continue, no one will know from context it means endure forever.
That’s just one example and it’s not what I found most tedious. My real problem was his rigorous adherence to Dale Carnegie’s advice to “Tell the audience what you’re going to say, say it; then tell them what you’ve said.”
Carnegie was talking about talking. It is still a good idea to introduce what you plan to say and recap when you’re done, but Michaels actually writes that he is going to tell us a, b, and c and then tells us when he will tell it, then tells us that he told us, and then repeats it again for the next section. Then he reminds us later what he told us and tells us what chapter he is going to tell us the next thing. I think if you cut out all the Carnegie structure, you would lose a third of the text.
So I am conflicted. What I really want is for journalists to read this book and distill its important contribution to our understanding of governance and the administrative state into articles and opinion columns that move his ideas into circulation. I want Rachel Maddow and Joy Ann Reid to interview him. I want Kevin Drum, Nancy LeTourneau, Josh Marshall, and Joshua Holland to popularize his ideas because his ideas are far too important to rely on him to communicate them.
I was graciously provided a copy of Constitutional Coup: Privatization’s Threat to the American Public by Harvard University Press.
- Constitutional Coup: Privatization’s Threat to the American Public
at Harvard University Press
- Jon D. Michaels Faculty Page at UCLA School of Law
- Trump and the Deep State at Foreign Affairs – an article by Jon D. Michaels