A Terrible Thing to WastePaul Romer
Just after Barack Obama’s election in November, Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, made this memorable statement to an interviewer: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” The underlying insight is wise. In a sprawling, contentious democracy, competing interests suspend their antagonisms only when they have to confront an alarming common threat. The thought struck a universal chord and has since been attributed to Emanuel many times.
But there’s a problem: Authorship. Emanuel did not claim to be coining an epigram, only to be describing a moment of opportunity. Nevertheless, he was unwittingly echoing something that the Stanford economist Paul Romer said in November 2004 at a venture-capitalist meeting in California. Referring to the increasing competition that America faces from rapidly rising education levels in other countries, Romer said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”
Today, Romer says he is not at all upset about the current attribution to Emanuel. After all, he says cheerfully, his own sound bite played off the well-known slogan of the United Negro College Fund, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” coined in 1971 by Forest Long of the Young & Rubicam ad agency. That was the same slogan that Vice President Dan Quayle famously misrecalled in 1989 when he said, “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind.”
There are two lessons here. One is rhetorical. The pungency of Romer’s version has been diluted. Casual repetition has reduced a forceful sound bite to a homely homily. Emanuel’s version was already blander — and later rephrasings have inevitably become more so. Here are two recent examples from The New York Times. In April: Legal experts “should follow Rahm Emanuel’s advice about never allowing a crisis to go to waste.” In June: “There is opportunity in this crisis, as more than one mayor has proclaimed, paraphrasing Rahm Emanuel.”
The second lesson concerns credit. Romer graciously cites Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that any scientific discovery named for someone is not in fact named for its actual discoverer. For instance, Alzheimer’s disease was observed by several others well before Alois Alzheimer reported on it in 1906. Edmond Halley computed the orbit of the comet named after him in 1705; it had been observed by others since 240 B.C. Fittingly, Stigler’s Law is an example of itself. Stephen Stigler, the University of Chicago statistician who proposed the law in 1980, attributed it to the sociologist Robert Merton, who suggested something similar in 1968.
There’s also a larger point here, one that speaks to our era of contention over copyrights and wrongs. Once a word, phrase or sound bite wins widespread usage, it escapes the promulgator’s possession and enters the wide world of the public domain. As Romer says, “You can’t own a sound bite.”
The public domain: as it keeps mushrooming in this digital age, so does the challenge of accessibility, which accounts for the rising use of the term transparency. President Obama has promised to provide it: “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency.” Even so, the flood of information rises ever higher, and the word public becomes ever more corrupted. Government officials can proclaim that endless file cabinets are available to the public while knowing full well that if it’s hard to open them, in practical terms their contents remain private.
The president’s commitment to transparency received a boost from Vivek Kundra, whom the president has called on to serve as chief information officer of the United States. To applause from a thousand open-government activists at the recent Personal Democracy Forum in New York, Kundra announced the creation of an “I.T. dashboard” on the Web site USASpending.gov. It enables anyone anywhere to track the $70 billion the federal government spends on information technology annually.
That open spirit is not, however, universally honored, which is why Andrew Rasiej, a technology entrepreneur, urges a federal law that redefines “public” to mean searchable and readable online. Representative Steve Israel, a Democrat of New York, is drafting just such legislation.
In the wake of the British Parliament’s expense-account scandal, Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered in June that expense records of the House of Representatives be posted online. Only last month did senators finally agree to post their official expenses online — but not until fiscal 2011. And even that requirement does not apply to campaign-contribution information required by the Federal Election Commission. The Senate continues to provide that data on paper, even if it was compiled online to start with. That means it must be digitized by the commission, by which time the next election may well have come and gone. Transparent? Yes, but also emasculated.
Thank you and you’re welcome were once as connected as horse and buggy, but the buggy’s disappearing. A casual survey of acquaintances finds the most frequent response to thanks is now no problem. When National Public Radio hosts thank correspondents for their reports, other responses include sure, sure thing, my pleasure, any time, no sweat and you bet!
Why such wide reluctance to use a longstanding courteous expression? Probably precisely because it is so longstanding, leached by time of its sincerity. Might the same fate await no problem? You bet.