Would firing Centers for Disease Control Director Thomas Frieden help contain Ebola?

Question Day: Is 'Fire That Official' the Answer?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Reader Bill Mackenzie asks:

I read this morning about a Congressman from Texas saying the director of the CDC should be fired. Why do so many politicians jump to the "Fire him" solution to complex public problems? Seems to me it just makes government policymakers even more timid and less innovative and aggressive.

Well, for starters, most politicians don't have serious answers to complex policy problems. That's not their fault. There's no reason the average member of the House should know more about Ebola than the rest of us. There are countless policy issues, and we can't expect our politicians to have sophisticated analyses readily available for most of them.

Nevertheless, those politicians need to say something. Or at least there are serious incentives for them to say something: for example, cheap positive publicity or an opportunity to bash the president.

So calling for someone to be fired is low-hanging fruit. Besides, people like simple, decisive action, and tend to blame individuals for problems that have complex or institutional causes.

What about the effects, however? It's probably true that the willingness of politicians to call for someone to be fired in response to a complicated problem isn't much of an incentive for a policy maker to be bold. Sending a message to "work hard to avoid any noticeable problems" may not encourage anyone to try risky policies, either, but it's better than no incentive -- and it's also better than purely bureaucratic incentives such as increases in agency budgets or an insistence on maintaining standard operating procedures regardless of how well they work. In other words, crude oversight beats no oversight.

Now, "off with his head" from backbenchers is surely better when it's accompanied by substantive oversight by the appropriate House and Senate committees, where chairs and staff have some knowledge of the targeted agency. But for those not on the committee (and even sometimes those on it), calling for someone to be let go may be better than the alternative. After all, plenty of oversight committees have wound up spewing nonsense when they tried to come up with real solutions to complex problems. So, for all its limitations, "fire him!" does have its virtues.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net