The Decline of Competence in America
Once we were a nation of doers. We controlled flooding on the Mississippi, once one of the most unruly rivers in the world. We eliminated yellow fever from Florida and neighboring states. While still a nation of farmers and traders, we arose from peaceful isolation and helped defeat the most fearsome war machine the world had ever known. To win World War II we invented atomic weapons and synthetic rubber. We also invented the phonograph, motion pictures, television, the airplane, the electric light, the laser, the integrated circuit, the Internet, and other marvels too numerous to mention. We put men on the Moon.
Once the rest of the world looked to us, literally, to do the difficult with ease and the impossible with sustained effort. We made reality of two of mankind’s oldest dreams---controllable flight and travel to celestial bodies. And we have invented a communications system to allow every person on earth to communicate with every other, singly or together.
Of late, however, our record is not so good. We have the biggest intelligence budget and the largest number of separate spy organizations in human history. Yet not only didn’t we prevent 9/11; crucial clues got lost in our vast intelligence bureaucracy. We relied exclusively on “safe,” high-technology methods; our “human” intelligence---the ability to spy---is virtually non-existent and will have to be rebuilt over decades.
For thirteen years we contained the Sunni in Iraq with air power. The cost was low and casualties minimal. Then we decided to invade, thinking the Sunni, like the Shia and Kurds, would cheer removal of a brutal tyrant. We were wrong. Now we have made Iraq into Hell on earth, without power, water, and sewage disposal, where lawlessness and insecurity reign. Innocent Iraqis, their security forces, and our troops die in large numbers every week.
We have the best, best trained, and best equipped military in the world. Thirty years ago, we fought another insurgency in Vietnam. Did we learn anything? Our people learned an important lesson---to honor and support our troops, whatever one might think of the policies that put them in harm’s way. But did our leaders learn how to win? Did they learn to listen to their military experts? Apparently not.
Now comes Katrina. We have the best and best equipped meteorological services in the world. Except perhaps for Japan, we have bested every other country in predicting storms and minimizing their consequences. For decades, our scientists have predicted disaster in New Orleans, yet we did nothing. The Big Easy slid into a Category 4 hurricane with levees designed to withstand a Category 3. Until recently, that was the kind of thing that happened on ferries in Bangladesh, not in cities in America.
If we are honest with ourselves, there are two words to describe these failures: gross incompetence. These are not words that usually apply to Americans, but they certainly fit here. These failures are the result of our collective failure to demand competent leadership.
We have excuses for the last election. President Bush had a grand vision. He spoke of liberty spreading worldwide, democracy in Iraq, and steadfastness in the war on terrorists. At home he promised an “ownership society,” an economic recovery, lower taxation, and greater excellence and accountability in our schools. In contrast, John Kerry offered no vision whatsoever, just more competence in execution. He lost, and understandably so.
But in Bush’s second term, we are seeing the results of our collective neglect of that important and elusive quality in our leaders: competence. All of us could agree with most or all of Bush’s grand vision (although we may have differed on detail and methods), but few of us asked “can he pull it off?” Now Iraq has become a practical demonstration of the old proverb, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
The 2004 election was a tough choice: demonstrated vision versus claimed but unproven competence. John Kerry didn’t make that choice any easier by having done little in his time in Congress, by being an abysmal public speaker, and by taking a shrilly defensive tone about his heroic service and heroic protest on Vietnam. And so we have a President with a glowing vision of the future who can’t seem to tie his shoes without a diagram and can’t seem to find advisors who can draw one.
Our problems of competence go far beyond the White House. Think of Bernie Ebbers. He was a high-school basketball coach. When he began his meteoric rise, he had no education and little experience in telecommunications. Yet he grabbed the job of CEO of one of the biggest companies in one of the most complicated businesses on Earth, and he did so at a time of explosive technological, economic, and political change. Did anyone wonder whether this former high-school basketball coach had what it takes for that kind of job? Did anyone mentally superimpose the image of their own high-school coach on one of the most complex, competitive and rapidly-changing businesses on Earth? Certainly not the directors and stockholders of all the firms Ebbers cobbled together during his rapid and ultimately tragic rise. Few raised a question until he had presided over one of the worst and most disastrous frauds in American business history.
Somehow, we Americans seem to have forgotten what competence means. We have lost our faith in doers and expertise and have put our trust in marketers. Our President is a marketer of grand and noble visions, and a highly effective one at that! Our captains of industry include many cheerleaders like Bernie Ebbers, with no other claim to fame than a cheerful disposition and a glib line.
Once upon a time, our business leaders knew how to do things. The first chiefs of Hewlett-Packard built their business from the ground up, designing and making products in that legendary Palo Alto garage. Now we have Carly Fiorina, a marketer, removed from the helm. Her firing may have been unfair and premature (as some claim) in what has now become a commodity business. But did anybody stop to think that a marketer who could not design or build a computer or printer if her life depended on it (her degrees are in medieval history, philosophy and business, and she began her career as an account executive) might not be the best person to lead a once-great firm out of the commodity business and back to leading innovation?
In our nation’s industrial heyday, CEOs rose from the bottom up. They learned by doing, and they demonstrated competence all the way up. The line of descent is strong and clear from Thomas Edison, through Andrew Carnegie, to Bill Hewlett and David Packard. It survives in Bill Gates. (Whatever you may think of his business practices and the quality of his software, he built a great business, and he did it from scratch.) Yet in the last decade or two, marketers and lawyers seems to have taken over from the folks who demonstrated competence all the way up from the shop floor. That may be appropriate for banks, insurance companies, and consulting firms, but is it appropriate for industrial companies? Is America’s manufacturing base declining because we have marketers and lawyers, not doers, at the helm?
Our media have been woefully complicit in the decline of competence in America. Indeed, they have led the way. They fill air time with “controversy” where none exists, at least among people who know what they are doing. They seek out crackpots who have never published a peer-reviewed article, seat them next to Nobel prize winners with hundreds of peer-reviewed publications and universal respect among scientists, and have a “discussion.” They put provenders of junk science and junk policy at the same table with intelligent, experienced folk with a long track record of success and declare a “debate.” They put independent researchers who have spent their careers studying an issue with an open mind alongside recent, paid advocates for corporate interests, without ever letting the audience know. Celebrity, not competence, is the coin of the realm, and the media make celebrities of crackpots and shills.
These increasingly widespread practices have two pernicious consequences. First, they confuse the public. When experts have “discussions” with crackpots or shills, the average viewer cannot tell the difference. Many problems today require years of training, experience, and expertise just to understand, let alone to solve. Confronted with expert, crackpot, and self-interested views, the average viewer can only make decisions based on personal impressions, prejudices, hunches, ideology, or wishful thinking. In short, neither the existence of expertise nor its substance---far less its value---gets communicated to the public.
Second, these journalistic practices encourage self-delusion on the part of our leaders and embolden scoundrels and liars. How can a leader acknowledge a mistake when there is always someone, somewhere on the twenty-four hour news cycle, insisting vociferously (and with a straight face) that a disastrous blunder was a cunning stratagem? Our poisonous political polarization is partly at fault here, but the media bear much blame for encouraging that polarization in order to sell news.
It might be understandable if this apotheosis of the fringe arose out of an attempt to insure evenhandedness and objectivity in reporting. But it did not. It is the lazy reporter’s response to the need to fill air time and provoke higher ratings. It exaggerates and overemphasizes extremes, neglects the mainstream and middle, and confuses the public and its leaders alike. It is journalism without editing. More aptly, it is journalism with “anti-editing”: the more extreme and wacky and less mainstream a view, the more air time it gets. Would Walter Cronkite call that objectivity?
As a result of this relentless disinformation from the media, “we the people” have forgotten that some things are not matters of “values” and “positions” and eternally up for grabs. In the real world, there are right and wrong answers to problems, especially on matters of expertise. Having umpteen-odd bureaucratic fiefdoms that don’t talk to each other is a wrong way to organize intelligence services. Building levees to withstand a Category 3 hurricane is a wrong way to protect a city beset by 4s and maybe 5s. And failing to provide the number of troops specified by the nation’s foremost military experts is a wrong way to plan for an insurgency. Probably President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld are the only people in America who still can’t understand that the extra troops demanded by Generals Shinseki and Zinni could have guarded and disposed of the vast caches of explosives that are now blowing up our troops and innocent Iraqis, could have kept the Iraqi people from looting their national patrimony, and could have protected reconstruction workers, guarded areas cleared of insurgents so they wouldn’t return, and sealed the borders against foreign terrorists.
As these examples show, not only don’t we recognize or reward competence any more. We don’t even respond to abject failure. George Tenet presided over the hollowing of our nation’s human intelligence and our worst intelligence debacle since Soviet spies stole secret designs for atomic weapons. Yet he retired in dignity with the Medal of Freedom. So far as I know, not a single person, at any level, has been fired, demoted or reassigned as a result of the failure to share intelligence that might have prevented 9/11.
Once we Americans knew how to find and use competence. Abraham Lincoln was not known for sharp political elbows. He was famously forgiving. Yet he fired some half dozen generals before he found one, U.S. Grant, who could almost match wits with Robert E. Lee. Only after Grant’s appointment did the North exploit its clear superiority in numbers, industry and technology and begin to put an end to slavery and a long, bloody war.
World War II and its aftermath saw men like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur. They were irascible, intemperate, impolitic, and insubordinate. They had to be reprimanded (in Patton's case) and removed (in MacArthur's). They were not pretty, politically correct or smooth, but they got the job done. Harry Truman ultimately fired MacArthur because he wouldn’t follow orders and risked all-out war with China. That president knew how to use and control expertise, both when it was right and when it was wrong.
Where are men and women like that today? Where are the ones with the guts and brains to tell us honestly what went wrong, how to fix it, how long it will take, and how much it will cost? Where are those who will even admit that something went wrong, that someone, somewhere screwed up? Without admission of error, we can never improve. We cannot move forward if we blanch at replacing blunderers and bureaucrats with doers.
Fortunately, we still have a few good role models left. Consider Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. When they address a problem, they have a good idea of its source and a plan to fix it. They are cautious, careful, and thoughtful. They have comprehensible reasons for every step in their plans. They always have backup and fall-back plans. They know that bugs and their mutations are often one step ahead of Man, so they never declare “Mission Accomplished” prematurely. So far, they and others like them have prevented a new plague from emerging despite hints that several are brewing, and despite the enormous risks that modern travel poses in spreading communicable disease. They know what they are doing.
Another example of well-heeded expertise is Alan Greenspan. With a brilliant mind, a first-class education, and uncanny intuition, he guided this country’s economy successfully for the better part of three decades. He recently decided to retire, and the universal praise he has received was well deserved. If you superimpose a graph of the stock market bubble and its bursting in 2000 over a similar graph for 1929, the resemblance is astounding. Yet the Crash of 1929 caused a decade-long depression and helped provoke the world’s most destructive war, while the Crash of 2000 caused only a mild recession. There were many reasons for the difference in outcome, but certainly Alan Greenspan and better understanding of economics can take some credit there.
What bears notice and careful study is not just the extraordinary value of Alan Greenspan’s advice. The next Federal Reserve Chairman may not be so competent. Equally amazing is the fact that politicians and bureaucrats listened to him and refused to tread on his turf. If only generals, civil engineers and meteorologists could have found the same respect for their expertise, things might be much better in Iraq and New Orleans.
We probably couldn’t find better people than Gerberding and Fauci to do the job of staving off the next plague, or than Greenspan to guide our economy. Can we honestly say the same about Donald Rumsfeld for managing the war? Since the War in Iraq began, the most positive thing I have read about him is that he is a skilled bureaucratic infighter. If that is what we value in leaders, we are all in great trouble.
Why can’t we let generals, scientists, and engineers do their jobs without the intervention of wishful thinking, ideology, supervisory arrogance, and political manipulation? Why couldn’t we heed the repeated warnings that New Orleans was a city waiting to die? Why can’t we understand that global warming is not political platform or a Marxist ideology, but a sober, open-minded conclusion of the vast majority of the world’s scientists, based upon decades of research in many different fields of science? Why can’t we hold anyone accountable for fragmenting our intelligence services into multiple fiefdoms that don’t talk to each other and depriving them of human intelligence? Why can’t we select and heed experts like Gerberding, Fauci and Greenspan in fields other than public health and central banking?
Until we begin to answer these questions, we are all at risk. As Iraq and Katrina have shown, the modern world is complex and dangerous. There are many aspects of it that ordinary people, politicians and bureaucrats simply can’t understand. They have to rely on experts, and they have to be able to identify the right experts on whom to rely. If nothing else, Iraq and Katrina showed that people die in large numbers when real experts go unheeded. We Americans have stumbled, and stumbled badly, because our leaders did not understand that simple lesson. How long will it be before our leaders put that lesson to work?