Diminished Expectations, Diminished Performance

I haven’t been particularly kind to several of our elected officials lately. Believe it or not, I take no satisfaction in criticizing the failures and foibles of those who’ve been elected to manage the affairs of the republic. Ultimately, after all, the fault lies with the voters who elected them.

We the People don’t have very high standards. We seem to regard these empty suits as “good enough for government work.” In short, the low esteem with which we view our governing institutions has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Let’s be brutally frank. Why would people who are moderately competent, let alone “the best and brightest,” want to work with the likes of Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Michelle Bachmann, Louis Gohmert or literally dozens like them? How can we expect capable management of agencies charged with oversight of complex and interrelated public functions when the politicians to whom those managers must report have absolutely no idea how government and the economy actually work?

We recently heard elected officials insist that an American default on the debt would be “no big deal.” We’ve heard characterizations of the Affordable Care Act and HIPPA that have betrayed total ignorance of the provisions of both laws. We’ve heard assertions of constitutionality and unconstitutionality untethered from even the most tortured reading of our constituent documents.

There’s nothing wrong with policy debates. Indeed, such disputes can be very productive—but only if the debate is grounded in reality, only if it addresses genuine issues and employs credible information.

When aggressive ignorance is a political virtue and professionalism, knowledge and expertise are vices, we shouldn’t be surprised by a deficit in competent public management.

In the jargon of economics, we get the behaviors we incentivize.


  1. I have believed for many years (because I was guilty of it myself as a young voter) that once someone has been elected to pubic office, they are reelected simply because their name is familiar. Voters are too often unaware and uninterested in keeping up with political and community standards and issues. They are not cognizant of the fact that they need to KNOW their candidates, what they stand for and what they have actually accomplished – or tried to accomplish – while in office. This is time consuming; it takes deep consideration and often research. The fault does lie with the voters who elected them; the fact that so many today believe they are too busy to learn or that they already know everything. The GOP has thrown everything but a dead elephant in the path of any progress President Obama has attempted to make. Then again; maybe the GOP is that dead elephant laying in the path forward motion and full recovery.

  2. I’m not sure the truth stopped being important. Now elections are about buzz words and misconstruing facts. See death tax, death panels, obamacare, etc… It would just be nice if the debates stopped using lies, but since the public is generally too ignorant to know when it is being lied to, there is no penalty for fabricating the winning argument.

  3. We also seem to have a tendency as a nation to elect people who are “just like me.” I’m sorry, folks, but I don’t want elected officials to be “just like me.” I want them to be smarter than me. I’m no slouch in the brainpower department, but I don’t have the knowledge base or intellectual fortitude to tackle the details needed to understand and fix big problems. We need smart people with the understanding of how reality works to be doing these jobs.

    After all, who among us would say “I want my brain surgeon to be dumber than me”? (OK, maybe Stephen Hawking would.)

  4. What Sheila mentions is such a huge and very important issue. People often have less respect for individuals in public service, which includes elected officials, those who work for them, teachers and non-teaching persons who are employed by the public sector. I think this is particularly true among people who have come to believe that the “private” sector is somehow better than the public sector–a destructive superiority myth for all kinds of reasons which fuels some of the nonsense that comes from many of our right wing politicians and is enabled by the others. I remember being told that people didn’t expect much from the attorneys who represented a wealthy south Chicago suburban school district, which proved to be a terrible miscalculation on their part. The firm that represented the district was famous for the attorneys who were specialists in every area–a situation that saved the district millions of dollars from the many frivolous lawsuits that came their way. That miscalculation stemmed from the nasty myth that public employees and their representatives are somehow less able when the opposite is the case.

    I suspect that there are some interesting psychological dynamics in that process, in which people have come to think that what they pay for privately is inherently better than what is paid for by the public, fueled by some need for that to be the case, but such a mindset is destructive for all kinds of reasons. People expect to pay less, to get less and treat public employees like they are less competent than private contractors in some sort of destructive self-fulfilling prophecy. I guess, in the long run, if that’s what you expect and pay for, that’s what you will get and regret the result, but get some sort of unhealthy (but misunderstood) satisfaction that you were right. I think that dynamic is taking place in the education sphere in our state, but also in many other areas.

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