David Segal: Stopping the buck
Last month, Amazon Web Services went offline for several hours after a cascade of server outages. An employee trying to take just a few servers offline mistyped the command and started a system-wide failure. Amazon blamed the employee. I’m no software engineer, but maybe someone should ask Amazon why their web service could be taken down with a single typed command. A design flaw like that makes me wonder whether their system was created by the architect of the Death Star, the master of fatal flaws. According to the Wall Street Journal, Amazon’s server mishap cost S&P 500 companies a total of $150 million.
Passing the buck is an ancient pastime. Confronted in the Garden of Eden about eating the fruit, Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake. Confronted about the whereabouts of his brother Abel, Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The first family had a knack for avoiding responsibility.
A case study in dodging blame came up recently in my weekly bible study on the book of Exodus. In the episode of the golden calf, Aaron exercised questionable leadership. After 40 days of awaiting Moses’s return from the mountain, the people grew impatient and demanded that Aaron make them a new god, one to lead them now that Moses was gone. Aaron acquiesced — or, in a more generous reading, stalled for time. “Give me your gold,” he said. Then he “cast it in a mold and made it into a molten calf” (Exodus 32:4).
Moses returned and confronted Aaron about his complicity in the people’s rebellion. Aaron’s defense blamed everyone but himself: “Do not be angry, my lord. You know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” (Exodus 32:22-24). A few paragraphs earlier, Aaron made the golden calf. When it came time for a reckoning, though, Aaron sang a different tune: “Out came this calf!” You can almost hear him shrugging, “It wasn’t me!”
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Aaron’s slippery leadership stands out in even starker contrast to Moses’s behavior in the same scene. Up on the mountain, God reported the incident of the golden calf to Moses and then threatened to wipe out the entire people and start over with Moses. For an opportunist like Aaron, this would have been an intriguing offer — a chance to be the father of a new people. But not for Moses. He did not hesitate. He chose to stand up for the people he had been sworn to lead, even at personal risk, even in the face of God’s judgment. “Turn from your anger,” he said. And God relented in response to Moses’s earnest plea.
I’m not sure our Washington set is cast in the Moses mold. After the health care reform failure, pointed fingers were more plentiful than mea culpas. “It wasn’t me!” was heard throughout the land, and on Twitter. The problem with governing, it turns out, is that it entails taking responsibility for winning and losing. As I mentioned above, we humans are naturals at evading blame, especially in the midst of failure.
An encouraging counterpoint came from the newly formed Problem Solvers Caucus. These 36 congress people — half Democrats, half Republicans — asked the president for a meeting back in February to discuss areas where bipartisan consensus can move the country forward. Maybe if all else fails (has it, yet?), he’ll accept their prudent invitation. It seems like the responsible thing to do.
With Passover around the corner, I’m reflecting on the first column I wrote for this paper exactly five years ago. It was about how the Exodus inspired America’s founders. The Israelites’ march toward freedom prefigured their quest to build a more perfect union. As I wrote five years ago, we are always marching together in the wilderness toward a better future, always reaching for a promised land.
We need responsible leadership to guide us — leaders who care more about the principles and people they serve than they do about maintaining power or avoiding blame. Of course, in a democracy, elected leaders are in some way a reflection of those they represent. Holding our leaders accountable starts with holding ourselves accountable — to our values, to our neighbors, to our children.
We can start by refusing to keep passing the buck. President Truman famously kept a sign on his oval office desk that said, “The buck stops here.” If we want our leaders to take that to heart, then we should, too.
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