Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

21 May 2008

Revolt of the Experts


For months I have been searching for a word to describe Barack Obama’s core constituency. I don’t mean African-Americans, at least not as a bloc. Many of them were late to jump on Obama’s bandwagon. Like so many others, they thought that someone with African blood had little or no chance to become president, no matter how well qualified he might be.

No, I mean the people who supported Obama from the very beginning, before Iowa, before South Carolina, before the primary season even began. I mean the people who jump-started his campaign by maxing out their $2,300 individual contributions long before anyone really knew that racism in America—though far from knocked out—is on the ropes.

Who are these early supporters? Most of them are not rich; $2,300 is a significant sum for them. Why did so many pony up for a relatively unknown candidate facing a racial barrier of unknown height? The answers to these questions say something about what may be a new movement in America.

History is myopic. It focuses largely on presidents, prime ministers, monarchs, autocrats, tyrants, and other strong leaders. Yet it often neglects the next levels down. It neglects the layers of society that mediate between the top leaders and the so-called “common people,” i.e., the average worker in today’s society.

Some of the most successful societies in history relied heavily on the next layers down. The great Chinese emperors had their Mandarins. Rome had its Senators and leading merchants. At their heights, the British and French empires had their aristocrats, many of whom were great statesmen and scientists. We Americans once had more than a handful of Senators and Representatives who could think for themselves in the public interest, as well as industrialists who occasionally considered the public good (as long as they were making money).

In all great societies, the next levels down had three things in common. First, they involved highly educated folk, trained in the best schools of their nation and time. Second, the social norms under which they worked gave them considerable power and independence. Far from being lackeys or sycophants, they served as advisers to the top level, as a reservoir of talent in times of need, and often as a check on capricious or misguided initiatives from the top. Finally, in large, complex societies they served as the “glue” that bound the nation together, translating edicts from on high into practical governance for diverse localities.

When the next levels down enjoyed these virtues, life was good for everyone, including the common person. Every golden age had at least one vibrant next level down.

The need for vibrant next levels down is greater today because society is more complex. There are an infinite number of jobs that no top-level leader can do, no matter how wise, smart, or strong-willed he or she might be.

No political leader can personally run an air traffic control system, let alone design an airplane. None can predict the weather, manage a health-care system, design highways or ports, run (let alone design) a nuclear power plant, build computer networks, manage a modern economy, or teach anyone else to do these things. Modern society needs experts, and their expertise inescapably gives them a certain power: the power of knowing.

The United States’ experts are unique in two respects. First, the United States is still the world’s scientific, technological and economic leader, so it has more experts per capita than any other nation. It has to. Second, the United States educates its experts differently than does any other society. Rather than forcing them to focus early on narrow technical expertise, it insists on every expert receiving a well-rounded “liberal” education before proceeding to specialization, usually in graduate school. It expects engineers, doctors, scientists and computer programmers to know something about law, politics, history, literature and government.

Until recently, this huge mass of highly trained and liberally educated experts has been silent and invisible. Its members have been content to ply their specialized trades, leaving the messy business of politics and government to others.

But there comes a time when, even as you focus happily on your own work, you become aware that the fellow at the next bench is repeatedly smashing his hammer into his thumb. When you see that the person smashing his thumb is your supreme leader, you begin to look up.

As every expert knows, some questions go beyond ideology and moral relativism. In our complex and technical society, there are increasingly right and wrong answers to a variety of social and political questions—as matters of expertise, not moral perspective.

Building bigger and less efficient cars and subsidizing the oil and gas industries will not secure energy independence or lower energy costs as global demand rises. Dismantling all the regulatory precautions of the New Deal without regard to the reasons for them or the risks of new financial instruments will not avoid something like our mortgage meltdown. Neglecting to strengthen the levees around new Orleans will no more save the city than neglecting the nation’s bridges and highway infrastructure will facilitate commerce, travel and trade. Starting an optional war without insuring that you have the necessary troops and resources—and without committing those resources—is no way to win. Continuing to hope that global warming will reverse itself despite decades of evidence to the contrary is not rational policy. Allowing an epidemic of obesity to overtake our children in the name of freedom of consumer choice will not produce a healthy society.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Our experts are people with years (sometimes decades!) of training to solve real problems using reason, logic, education, experience and common sense. In the last seven years, they could see that our leaders were bunglers who repeatedly smashed their hammers into their thumbs. So they revolted.

Their revolt is silent and invisible. You won’t see them out on the streets picketing. Only occasionally will you see their op-ed pieces in mainstream media. But you’ll find them on the Internet, contributing to campaigns, persuading, writing, teaching and working behind the scenes.

The revolt began in 2004, with the flawed candidacy of John Kerry. The experts’ effort failed—in part because Kerry proved a poor candidate and in part because their effort began too late.

But experts are as persistant as Hillary Clinton. When they have a problem to solve, they keep trying to solve it until they find a solution. As 2008 approached, experts studied the field early and carefully. Unbeknownst to anyone but themselves, they picked Barack Obama.

The experts’ choice struck the pundits as naïve. Why pick someone so unknown, who would have to fight the apparent handicap of racial prejudice? For an expert, the answer was easy: Obama is an expert, too.

He’s superbly educated and highly intelligent. He’s dispassionate, steady and thoughtful. He’s listens and thinks before coming to a conclusion. He doesn’t let ideology get in the way of thinking or problem solving. Already that puts him light-years ahead of John McCain, whose lack of knowledge of economics allowed him to buy the neoconservative twaddle that has brought our economy low.

Obama has similar advantages over both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. Like Edwards, Hillary is quintessentially a legal advocate, a litigator at heart. As her own campaign reveals, she is trained to fight and push even a lost cause to its bitter end. In contrast, Obama was a law professor (although he practiced civil rights law for a short time). He is trained to see the law as a means of solving social problems. His education and temperament let him see all sides and find a middle ground.

So the vast majority of experts are foursquare for Obama. What they find most attractive about him is not his charisma, his unusual family history, or his message of hope—although all are attractive qualities. They see him as a dispassionate, thoughtful, expert problem solver like themselves.

Experts hope and trust that Obama will soon be in the White House, and they’ll work hard to put him there. But whatever happens, experts will not go away. Now aroused, they will not let mediocre minds, ideologues and demagogues usurp and destroy our nation, the greatest social creation of the human race so far. And that goes for Hillary, too!

The last seven years have taught us a lot about demagogues. Every one of us now understands that the thumbs they smash may be our own. So experts will continue to work hard, behind the scenes, to pick leaders who can make the hammer hit the nail. And they’ll continue to prime the pump for any candidate who promises expert decisions untainted by ideology or demagoguery.

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