Tag Archives: incompetence

The Parable Of The Plumber

 Parables are short stories intended to illustrate general principles or moral truths. Although the term is generally used in a biblical context, it occurred to me that a recent, extremely annoying, definitely not apocryphal experience I had with a plumber might be a parable for our time.

I won’t use the name of the company, not because it deserves such consideration, but because the problem it represents is anything but unique.

We had used this plumbing company without incident previously, and its name was well-known, so when our 16-year old toilet needed a new flush valve,  my husband called them.   The young woman who answered the phone was intent upon enrolling us in a yearly “maintenance contract,” and kept him on the phone for a considerable time selling him on its benefits. She finally scheduled the repair during a 4 hour window on the following day. He rescheduled some errands  (I was at work) and waited, but the plumber never showed.

When he called to inquire what had happened, he got another young woman on the phone, who checked to see what had happened. It appeared that person he’d spoken with previously had been so focused on trying to sell him the yearly contract that she’d neglected to schedule the plumber. Young woman number two apologized, during what also became an unnecessarily lengthy conversation.

In order to expedite the repair, my husband gave her the make of the toilet (Kohler–a pretty standard brand) and the part number of the flush valve we needed. She had clearly never heard of Kohler–she asked whether that was a brand and could he spell it, which was disconcerting coming from someone who worked at a plumbing company. She did repeat the part number twice, to be sure she’d heard accurately.

This time, the plumber did show up (the following day), but without the part. According to him, she hadn’t passed on the information. He said he’d have to locate the part and come back, but that we really should consider buying a new toilet.

This was a Friday. The plumber left (without selling us a new toilet) saying he would secure the proper part and be back Monday. He did return on Monday, as promised, but with the wrong part. He left again, promising to find the right one and to call when he did.

At that point, I called our daughter who had mentioned that she had a plumber she liked. When I called that company, the phone was answered by a knowledgable person who immediately dispatched a plumber, and texted me to let me know he was on the way. (They even included a photo of the man they sent, so I’d know it was him.) That plumber was at my home within an hour of my call, and proceeded to install the new flush valve–properly and without trying to sell us a new toilet.

Guess which company I will use in the future?

Why do I say this mundane story is a parable?

The first company markets itself constantly. It runs lots of television spots and internet ads, and periodically mass mails “special offers.” It’s pretty obvious that the owners place more importance on image than on competence.

We live in an age that promotes celebrity over substance. We prefer pundits who tell us what we want to hear to “elitists” who actually know what they are talking about–politicians who give us slick sales patters over less-assured candidates who recognize the complexities of issues. But name-recognition and celebrity will only take you so far. At some point, you have to be able to do the job.

The Trump Administration has a lot in common with that first plumbing company we called.

Contracting–What Were They Thinking Edition

One of the unfortunate things about the daily tweet-storms and other indignities coming nonstop from the White House is that they inevitably distract us from the multiple reports of more long-term, ongoing damage being done by this Administration.

Case in point: Puerto Rico, where last week’s explosion at a power plant has once again deprived those who had actually gotten their power back of electricity.

For that matter, Trump has shown far less concern for the inhabitants of Puerto Rico than he has for the sensibilities of aides who are having a “bad time right now” because word of their wife-beating emerged. (Of course, people in Puerto Rico are brown…) His appointees at FEMA have made “Heck of a job, Brownie” of  Katrina infamy look almost competent by contrast.

First, there was the award of a 300 million-dollar contract to a two-man firm (“coincidentally” from Ryan Zinke’s home town) to restore power on the island. That generated enough blowback that it was terminated, but not before the entire fiasco further delayed efforts to return Puerto Rico to a semblance of normalcy.

Now, we learn that this is who got a $156 million Federal Emergency Management Agency contract to deliver 30 million meals in a matter of weeks:

[Tiffany] Brown, who is adept at navigating the federal contracting system, hired a wedding caterer in Atlanta with a staff of 11 to freeze-dry wild mushrooms and rice, chicken and rice, and vegetable soup. She found a nonprofit in Texas that had shipped food aid overseas and domestically, including to a Houston food bank after Hurricane Harvey.

By the time 18.5 million meals were due, Tribute had delivered only 50,000. And FEMA inspectors discovered a problem: The food had been packaged separately from the pouches used to heat them. FEMA’s solicitation required “self-heating meals.”

“Do not ship another meal. Your contract is terminated,” Carolyn Ward, the FEMA contracting officer who handled Tribute’s agreement, wrote to Ms. Brown in an email dated Oct. 19 that Ms. Brown provided to The New York Times. “This is a logistical nightmare.”

I am prepared to give FEMA a very dubious benefit of the doubt; unlike the power contract, I doubt this one was the result of “wheeling and dealing” or quid pro quo. My guess would be monumental incompetence–which has sort of become a hallmark of this administration. Whether corruption or incompetence is the explanation, however, Puerto Rican’s aren’t eating.

As a post to Daily Kos put it,

FEMA can’t claim to be an innocent victim here—Brown had a history of canceled government contracts for failing to deliver food to the prison system and for getting an order with the Government Publishing Office wrong. She also had no experience in this kind of disaster relief work. FEMA hired her despite having absolutely no reason to believe she could deliver what she was promising.

In more ordinary times, with more conventional Presidents–i.e., adults–the continued suffering of people in Puerto Rico would have been front-page news for months. With this Administration, however, the hits just keep on coming: ICE agents breaking up law-abiding families, Presidential aides accused of domestic violence, budget proposals to slash the already-inadequate safety net in order to fund the recent tax giveaway to the rich, an infrastructure “plan” that is equal parts fantasy and privatization…

Speaking of “thoughts and prayers,” I pray we aren’t all too emotionally fatigued by the daily doings of the Kakistocracy to vote in November….

About That “Reign of Error”….

I never thought I’d be grateful for incompetence, but that was before Trump.

Paul Krugman recently addressed the “qualifications” of several of Trump’s appointees, under the headline “The Gang That Couldn’t Think Straight.”

A few days after President Trump was inaugurated, Benjamin Wittes, editor of the influential Lawfare blog, came up with a pithy summary of the new administration: “malevolence tempered by incompetence.” A year later, that rings truer than ever.

In fact, this has been a big week for malevolence. But today’s column will focus on the incompetence, whose full depths — and consequences — we’re just starting to see.

Krugman then takes readers on a stroll through some of those “best people” Trump promised us. There’s FEMA, of course–over half of Puerto Ricans still lack electricity, and the delivery of food and water is, shall we say, less than optimal.

And what about that opiod epidemic? As Krugman notes, we’ve heard rhetoric, but seen zero action. Recently, however, Trump has chosen a nominee to handle that effort:  a 24-year-old former campaign worker, with no relevant experience and who, it appears, has lied on his résumé . Trump has been in office a year, and is just getting around to appointing someone to an important senior position in the Office of National Drug Control Policy. You might think, given that length of time, that his administration would have at least vetted their potential nominee.

Meanwhile, the Trump-appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention resigned after Politico reported that she had purchased tobacco-industry stocks after taking office. This was unethical; it was also deeply stupid. And the C.D.C. isn’t some marginal agency: It’s as crucial to safeguarding American lives as, say, the Department of Homeland Security.

As Krugman notes, these aren’t isolated examples. A lot has been made of the fact that so many positions in the administration remain unfilled a year into the President’s term; there has been less public discussion about the unprecedented number of appointees who have been forced out over falsified credentials, unethical practices or racist remarks.

The obvious question is “why”? Why are so many positions unfilled? And why are so many of the people who have been appointed so…undistinguished (to put it mildly)? (Okay–ragingly incompetent.) Krugman says it reflects both supply and demand: “Competent people don’t want to work for Trump, and he and his inner circle don’t want them anyway.”

I have a number of former students who work for government agencies; they aren’t at the “appointee” level–they are the “faceless bureaucrats” who actually keep government functioning. When Trump was elected, I got anguished emails from several of them, asking whether they should stay or go. Most elected to remain, explicitly to protect the missions of the agencies they serve.

At the level of appointees, however, it is hard to disagree with Krugman’s statement that competent people don’t want to work for Trump. The likelihood of emerging from his cesspool unscathed diminishes every day. (Would you hire Sean Spicer? Kellyanne Conway? Any of the current White House doofuses? )

By now it’s obvious to everyone that the Trump administration is a graveyard for reputations: Everyone who goes in comes out soiled and diminished. Only fools, or those with no reputation to lose, even want the positions on offer. And in any case, Trump, who values personal loyalty above professionalism, probably distrusts anyone whose credentials might give some sense of independence.

Krugman goes on to point out the dangers inherent in incompetence, and I  know he’s right. But I’m just grateful; think how much more damage these yahoos could cause if they actually knew what they were doing!

Amateur Government

Voters seem to love it when candidates for public office proclaim “I’m not a politician.”

I always wonder if those voters take their car repairs to businesses proclaiming “We’re not mechanics!” or get their cavities filled by “dentists” who never went to dental school. Probably not; evidently, however, there is a widespread belief that anyone can “do” governing.

Hey, America! How’s that working out?

Michelle Goldberg, the new New York Times columnist, considers the consequences  of electing a profoundly and proudly incompetent President.

A little more than eight months ago, the United States inaugurated one of its worst people as president, a nasty showbiz huckster whose own staffers speak of him as if he were a malevolent toddler. Yet the country has held up pretty well, considering.

Yes, there were emboldened Nazis marching in the streets, and crucial intelligence on the Islamic State casually passed to the Russians. Striving young immigrants who’d been protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program have seen their lives upended and trans people have been barred from enlisting in the military. Yet most of the institutions of American governance continued to function.

Then came hurricane season, and the stunning devastation of Maria. After detailing multiple administration failures in the wake of that disaster, Goldberg makes the obvious point:

For months now, observers have been noting that all the crises in the Trump White House have been self-generated, but that eventually the president would be tested by external events. Now a test has come, and he has performed about as badly as his worst critics could have feared. Hurricane season isn’t even over, and more catastrophes are surely on the way.

Maria should be a lesson: We need a working executive branch.

Our need for competent governance–or at the very least, elected officials with some idea of what government is and how it is supposed to operate–was also highlighted in a recent post by Robert Reich, in which he asserts that America really doesn’t have a President. Sure, Trump has the title,

But he’s not actively governing the United States. That work is happening elsewhere – in Congress, the courts, the Fed, the career civil service, lobbyists, and in the states. Or it’s not happening at all.

It’s not just that Trump lost the epic battle to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Trump never understood the Affordable Care Act to begin with, and played no part in developing Republican alternatives….

Meanwhile, Trump has run out of Obama executive orders he can declare void. Major regulations, such as the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, can’t just be repealed. They have to go through a legal process that could take years.

Trump doesn’t seem to be aware of this. He told a cheering crowd in Alabama recently that he had ended the Clean Power Plan by executive order. “Did you see what I did to that? Boom, gone.”…

Trump’s Cabinet secretaries don’t seem to have a clue. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos still wants to spend taxpayer money on for-profit schools and colleges that cheat their students. Won’t happen. The EPA’s Scott Pruitt is trying to strip the agency of scientists. Another brainless scheme.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin still has no idea how to deal with Congress. He tried to persuade Republican House members to support Trump’s budget deal with the Democrats by asking them to do it “for me.”…

By the start of September, more than a third of the leadership positions at the Federal Emergency Management Agency were still vacant. Not a good way to begin hurricane season. Puerto Rico, anyone?

As of mid-September, out of 599 key government positions that require Senate confirmation, Trump had made only 159 nominations, according to The Washington Post. Trump had yet to submit nominations for 320 positions.

Both Goldberg and Reich include much more detail on the cluster**** that is today’s Executive Branch.

It is really past time for Americans to grow up and accept that we live in a complex modern society that requires a functioning government, staffed with people who understand their jobs and have the specialized skills and technical knowledge that today’s public sector administration requires.

America isn’t amateur hour, and it definitely isn’t Reality TV.





A Confederacy of Dunces

We now know what an “anti-elitist” Administration looks like.

It isn’t simply Keystone Kop Cabinet-level appointees who know nothing about the agencies they lead: Betsy DeVos, who lacks any background or training in education, never attended public schools, and never sent her children to public schools; Rick Perry, who barely eked out an agriculture degree and cheerfully admits he had no idea what the Department of Energy did; Scott Pruitt, who scorns “elitist” scientists, denies climate change, and is methodically dismantling the EPA at a time when its expertise is most needed. Etc.

Trump’s roster of White House advisers and Cabinet officials has been called the least experienced in recent presidential history.

But Trump’s war on “elitists”–defined as people who know what they’re talking about–extends well into the bureaucracy. Some recent examples:

  • Sam Clovis, a former right-wing radio talk-show host and failed Senate candidate from Iowa, has been nominated to be the chief scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ProPublica reports that Clovis is a vocal climate change denier who has no formal training in science at all.
  • Appointments to the Department of Health and Human Services have been anti-evidence culture warriors. The Hill reports that “Trump has appointed some of the nation’s worst anti-women’s health extremists to top cabinet posts in the agency, including the designation of birth control skeptic Teresa Manning to lead the nation’s family planning program.” One of the newest HHS additions — Valerie Huber — is a vocal advocate for discredited and misleading abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.
  • Of the 28 appointments to the Department of Energy analyzed by Pro Publica, only 10 had any relevant experience, and most of those had worked as lawyers, advocates or spokespeople for coal, oil or gas companies. (Then there are those appointees that Pro Publica calls “wild cards,” like Kyle Yunaska, a tax analyst at Georgetown University whose primary connection to the administration appears to be his status as the brother-in-law of Eric Trump.)

Media has focused more upon Trump’s paucity of nominations than the appalling nature of the nominations he has made; hundreds of positions remain vacant seven months into his term. Given the “quality” of his nominees, that may actually be a blessing.

The one area in which he has sent numerous nominees to be confirmed is the Judiciary, and those nominees are terrifying. Two examples:

  • John Kenneth Bush, Trump’s nominee for the Sixth Circuit, contributed regularly to Elephants in the Bluegrass, a political blog run by his wife, posting far-fetched parallels between Barack Obama and Monica Lewinsky and calling slavery and abortion two of America’s greatest tragedies. He consistently cited WorldNetDaily, an extremist publication known for peddling conspiracy theories and white nationalism, including the lie that Obama was not born in the United States.
  • Damien Schiff is Trump’s nominee for the US Court of Federal Claims. He has called Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy a “judicial prostitute” in a post,  strongly disagreed with the Court’s decision ending punishment for sodomy in Lawrence v. Texas, and criticized a school district for teaching students that homosexual families and heterosexual families are equally moral.

When “elitism” is defined as expertise, and people who know what they are doing are for that reason disqualified, ideology and incompetence fill the void.

There’s a saying to the effect that the only foes that truly threaten America are the enemies at home: ignorance, superstition and incompetence.  Trump is the trifecta.