Tag Archives: expertise

The Case For Expertise

Michael Gerson is a political conservative who served in George W. Bush’s administration. He has also been a consistent “never Trumper.” He recently made the conservative case for Joe Biden, in a Washington Post column.

Gerson began by reciting some of the reasons conservatives should reject not just Donald J. Trump but the Republicans running with him, in order to crush the current iteration of the GOP.

Because of the terrible damage Trump has done to the Republican Party, it is not enough for him to lose. He must lose in a fashion that constitutes repudiation. For the voter, this means that staying home on Election Day, or writing in Mitt Romney’s name, is not enough. She or he needs to vote in a manner that encourages a decisive Biden win. This theory also requires voting against all the elected Republicans who have enabled Trump (which is nearly all elected Republicans). A comprehensive Republican loss is the only way to hasten party reform. Those who love the GOP must (temporarily) leave it and ensure it is thoroughly defeated in its current form.

Gerson then moved to the positive reasons to support Joe Biden, and in doing so made a point that is far too often ignored. As he reminds readers, the restoration of our governing institutions  requires the knowledge and skills of an insider. “We have lived through the presidency of a defiant outsider who dismisses qualities such as professionalism and expertise as elitism.”

As readers of this blog know, I teach in a school of public affairs. We teach students who are planning to go into government the specialized “knowledge and skills” that they will need in such positions. Those skills differ from the skills imparted in the business school; they include everything from public budgeting to the important differences between the private, public and nonprofit sectors, to political philosophy, to constitutional ethics.

I am so over the facile assertion that success in business (and yes, I know Trump wasn’t successful) will easily translate into the ability to run a government agency or  administration. The job of a businessperson is to make a profit; the job of government is to serve the public good. People who do not understand that distinction–and the very different approaches that distinction requires– don’t belong in public positions.

Gerson makes another important point: the complexity of today’s government requires administrators who actually understand how it all works.

There is a reason why the uninspiring Gerald Ford was an inspired choice to follow Richard Nixon. Ford had been a respected legislator for a quarter of a century. As president, he knew the personnel choices and institutional rituals that would begin to restore credibility to politicized agencies. Biden has the background and capacity to do the same.

Gerson characterizes this election as a choice between an arsonist and an institutionalist, and points to the assets of the institutionalist. I agree, but I also understand that some fires are set accidentally. Trump is, of course, an intentional arsonist, but his monumental ignorance has also done incredible–often inadvertent– harm to our governing institutions.

During his embarrassing Town Hall on NBC,  Trump defended his re-tweet of a conspiracy theory, prompting Savannah Guthrie to remind him that he is President, not “someone’s crazy uncle.” But really, electing a President with absolutely no understanding of government, the constitution, checks and balances or the way public administration actually works has turned out to be pretty much the same thing as putting someone’s crazy uncle in charge.

Not just Presidents, but all government officials need specialized knowledge and skills to do their jobs. There’s a big difference between expertise and “elitism,” and if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we shouldn’t listen to the crazy uncles who resent people who know what they are talking about.

If the last four years have taught us anything, it’s that Ignorance and self-aggrandizement aren’t qualifications for political office.

 

Elevating Ignorance

By now, most people have heard about the twitter storm in the aftermath of NPR’s 4th of July tweeting of the Declaration of Independence. A number of Trump supporters responded angrily to the descriptions of King George as a tyrant; unfamiliar with one of this nation’s founding documents, these “patriots” assumed that the tyrant in question was Trump and unleashed their ire accordingly.

Pretty much everything to be said about that episode has been said, and I don’t intend to belabor yet another example of the lack of basic civic knowledge. (I’ll  even resist the temptation to say “See, I told you so.”)

What is worth thinking about, however, is what has been termed “America’s Cult of Ignorance.” An article addressing that issue began with my favorite Isaac Asimov quote:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

The linked article is an excerpt from a book the author has written on the subject. He gives several examples of the harms done by widespread ignorance, then gets to the point:

These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything. In the United States and other developed nations, otherwise intelligent people denigrate intellectual achievement and reject the advice of experts. Not only do increasing numbers of lay people lack basic knowledge, they reject fundamental rules of evidence and refuse to learn how to make a logical argument. In doing so, they risk throwing away centuries of accumulated knowledge and undermining the practices and habits that allow us to develop new knowledge.

The author grapples with the phenomenon of “stubborn ignorance”in the midst of the information age, and concludes that “hilarious” as examples may be (see the NPR episode, for example) it is ultimately no laughing matter.

Late-night comedians have made a cottage industry of asking people questions that reveal their ignorance about their own strongly held ideas, their attachment to fads, and their unwillingness to admit their own cluelessness about current events. It’s mostly harmless when people emphatically say, for example, that they’re avoiding gluten and then have to admit that they have no idea what gluten is. And let’s face it: watching people confidently improvise opinions about ludicrous scenarios like whether “Margaret Thatcher’s absence at Coachella is beneficial in terms of North Korea’s decision to launch a nuclear weapon” never gets old.

The problem, as he readily admits, is not that we do not have experts. We do. The problem, he says, is that we use them as technicians, as conveniences. We don’t engage with them.

It is not a dialogue between experts and the larger community, but the use of established knowledge as an off-the-shelf convenience as needed and only so far as desired. Stitch this cut in my leg, but don’t lecture me about my diet. (More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight.) Help me beat this tax problem, but don’t remind me that I should have a will. (Roughly half of Americans with children haven’t bothered to write one.) Keep my country safe, but don’t confuse me with the costs and calculations of national security. (Most U.S. citizens do not have even a remote idea of how much the United States spends on its armed forces.)…

Any assertion of expertise from an actual expert, meanwhile, produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy. Americans now believe that having equal rights in a political system also means that each person’s opinion about anything must be accepted as equal to anyone else’s.

A society that knows nothing, elects a know-nothing.

Bleeding Expertise

Drip, drip, drip…

No, I’m not alluding to the daily emergence of new evidence confirming the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia. I’m talking about the accelerating rate at which people who actually know what they are doing are abandoning this bizarre administration.

When the CEO of your company, or the Executive of your political subdivision, or the President of the United States is intellectually and emotionally unfit to lead, the people who work for that company or city or branch of the federal government face an uncomfortable choice: do they hang in there and try to make things work despite the dysfunction at the top? Or do they weigh their ability to do their jobs against the likelihood that their continued employment is simply enabling dangerous incompetence?

One long-time American diplomat who concluded that he had to resign wrote a column in which he explained his decision. David Rank had been a member of the U.S. Foreign Service since 1990. Most recently, he ran the U.S. Embassy in China.

This month, I resigned from the State Department’s Foreign Service, stepping down as the senior U.S. diplomat in China and ending a 27-year career. I served five presidents — three Republicans and two Democrats — and, like my colleagues throughout the Foreign Service, took pride in the tradition of loyal, nonpartisan service. I also took seriously my oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and the obligations that came with representing the American people.

When the administration decided to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change, however, I concluded that, as a parent, patriot and Christian, I could not in good conscience be involved in any way, no matter how small, with the implementation of that decision.

The job he held all those years was hardly what you’d call “cushy:” Rank had his close calls with bombs, guns and grenades;  his father died when he was on assignment in Taiwan. His mother died while he was in Afghanistan. He missed both the birth of his first child and his only son’s senior year of high school.

Government workers make those sacrifices because they believe in the importance of the service they are rendering.

Rank says he leaves with gratitude for his experiences, for his colleagues and for the opportunity to serve his country. But he also leaves with deep-seated concerns.

I worry about the impact my departure will have on colleagues who remain. Many of these colleagues, some with decades of contributions ahead of them, share my dismay not just at the decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement but also at the unraveling of 70 years of bipartisan foreign policy that has made the world and the United States safer and more prosperous. Rather than encourage them to follow my example, I hope my departure will send a message on their behalf so that they can continue to work within the system to make things a little bit better, a little bit at a time. That work will always be honorable work and, I suspect, will be more important than ever in the coming years.

I worry about the frequently politically motivated portrayal of those who work for the American people as members of some mythical elite, separate and suspicious. Such false characterizations drive talented Americans away from public service or discourage them from entering it in the first place. My experience has been that those who work for America look like America. For my part, I certainly never felt particularly “bicoastal.” I was raised in a decidedly working-class town south of Chicago. My wife grew up showing hogs and cutting corn out of beans. Like many of my colleagues, I am a product of a public education, from grade school to grad school.

I worry about the denigration of expertise at a time when a complex world demands it more than ever.

For my part, I worry about the loss of people like David Rank. And I especially worry, as he does, about the future of a country that sneers at knowledge and education as elitism, competence as snobbery, and uncongenial facts as “fake news.”

What Do THEY Know??

The Trump Administration’s war on expertise continues to expand.

Jeff Sessions (memorably identified by a Facebook friend as one of those Confederate monuments that should be removed) ignores 40+ years of criminal justice research and intensifies the drug war.  Betsy DeVos gives a feminine finger to the mountains of data rebutting her insistence that vouchers improve educational outcomes. Scott Pruitt spits on the 98% of climate scientists who agree that climate change is (a) real; (b) accelerating and (c) caused by human activity, especially fossil fuel use.

There is a reason that terms like “Know Nothings,” “Keystone Kops,” and “Gang that Can’t Shoot Straight” are being retrieved from past usage and applied to this sorry band of incompetents and theocrats.

When it comes to economic policy, Trump’s alternate reality isn’t limited to his belief that he invented the term “priming the pump.” As a column from the Washington Post recently reported,

President Trump’s administration says his tax cut will pay for itself. It turns out it’s really hard to find an economist who agrees.

The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business regularly polls economists on controversial questions. In a survey the school published last week on Trump’s tax plans, only two out of the 37 economists that responded said that the cuts would stimulate the economy enough to cancel out the effect on total tax revenue.

Those two economists now both say they made a mistake, and that they misunderstood the question.

So there is not a single economist in the Chicago poll who agrees with the President that his proposed tax cuts would pay for themselves.

Not that the opinion of 39 out of 39 experts has a chance in hell of influencing a Commander-in-Chief whose residence in a very bizarre alternate universe becomes more apparent every day.

In Trump World–a world shared to varying degrees by the members of his spectacularly ignorant and incompetent cabinet–Trump knows more than those elitists who actually studied their subject matter. Sissies read books and conduct empirical research; superior beings (i.e. rich guys) surround themselves with lackeys and listen to their guts.

What did Stephen Colbert call it? Oh yes–Truthiness.

To use a term dear to the heart of our linguistically-challenged President, SAD.

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.