to: philosophical and analytical writings
Our Incompetent Future
by William McGaughey
I watched a documentary about Harry S. Truman on public television the other afternoon. It seemed like another world. I am old enough vaguely to remember the election of 1948. As a teenager and young adult, I lived through the decades of the 1950s and 1960s which were a gateway to the present. But now the world has changed and, in my opinion, it has changed for the worse.
In this paper, I will advance the thesis that Americans are becoming less competent. The crowning achievement of my life time was the first manned flight to the moon undertaken by Neil Armstrong and crew in July 1969 as well as the lunar flights that followed in the early 1970s. This was before we had today’s sophisticated computers. Humanity was venturing into the unknown. Yet, a cadre of research scientists, engineers, and manufacturing technicians created a rocket-driven machine that performed flawlessly during the flight. Those Americans were competent.
Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, I doubt that NASA could duplicate its feat of forty-two years ago. The technology is there but the human performance may not be. It seems to me that, while Americans are better educated, they may also be less capable. The bureaucracies that have developed in the years since the manned flight to the moon exhibit dysfunctionality both in their own operation and in the personnel they place in responsible positions. In other words, they are less competent than before. Would we dare today to set our sights upon another lunar expedition? I think not. The risk of failure witnessed by billions of television viewers would be just too great.
Back to Harry Truman. He was an ordinary type of man who grew up in Independence, Missouri, at the turn of the century. Education wise, young Harry went as far as high school. He worked as a timekeeper on the Santa Fe railroad and a clerk in a newspaper mail room before returning to the farm for eight years to help his father. Truman first tasted success and recognition as a captain in an artillery regiment during World War I. Then, after the war, he and a wartime friend opened a haberdashery in downtown Kansas City, but it failed. Truman took night courses toward a law degree but dropped out. It was only when another wartime friend recommended him to his uncle, Tom Pendergast, corrupt boss of Kansas City’s Democratic Party machine, as a candidate for county commissioner that Truman embarked upon a career path which
ultimately led to the White House.
It was this man, Harry S. Truman, who suddenly became President of the United States at one of the most challenging times in our national history. Unprepared for the Presidency, President Truman had to negotiate with Churchill and Stalin over the political arrangements of postwar Europe. He had to make the fateful decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring the war with Japan to an end. He had to deal with a rash of postwar strikes. He was reelected President in a year when southern Democrats and progressives were bolting the Democratic Party and no one gave him a chance of winning. When North Korean armies invaded the south, he had to respond to this event as well.
Yet, Truman did respond to each of those challenges. While one can quibble about some of Truman’s decisions, few would argue that he was not a competent decision maker. He was rational, informed, and decisive. In retrospect, President Truman seems to have made the right decision most of the time.
I have the same opinion of Truman’s successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. He, too, was a mature adult and a competent decision maker. To an extent, this is also true of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.
But then a generational change took place. With Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Barack Obama, we started having Presidents who talked more in sound bites. Both our foreign and domestic policy started to drift. These are persons who went to Yale or Harvard Law (or Business) School. But they seem to me to be less thoughtful and mature, less focused on real problems, than their predecessors in another generation. I have less confidence in their judgment even if they invoke God’s blessing upon the United States of America after each major speech.
This may be the opinion of a cranky 70-year-old man who feels that the world is fast going to ruin. But hear me out. I have reasons to support my view that the operation and management of our society is less competent than it was in the days of my youth. (Otherwise, why not go back to the moon?)
a competence gap
First, I would argue that individual Americans are less competent, by and large, than their forbearers because they lack exposure to life’s raw experience. Before American society became settled, people had to fend for themselves. They faced, among others, the grinding challenge of poverty. With no one to help them, they had to draw upon their own resources and experience to solve problems coming their way. The children had to help support their families. Doing what they needed to do to survive, they gained a certain competence. They learned about life.
With social progress came mandatory schooling of children up to a certain age. The classroom experience was highly structured. For twelve or more years, young people sat in small rooms listening to their teacher talk on particular subjects. The purpose was to learn something that needed to be known in order to pass tests. The courses bore little resemblance to real-life experience. They were comparatively orderly and directed toward a predetermined outcome: having the answers that the teacher wanted to see on tests. The school children learned to focus their attention to that end. Other experiences in life were thought to be of lesser consequence.
The competence achieved in a classroom setting is too narrow to be of any real use in coping with life’s unbounded challenge. It might have been better to have spent the same number of years in a less structured environment. There would then have been a greater variety of experiences and less guidance. You learn to cope with life’s problems by trying to cope, not by following a set of instructions.
So it is that persons who were on their own during the formative years of youth may actually be stronger and more resourceful than those who had the “privilege” of being in school. It is the early years when most learning takes place. Either a person can learn by trying different things or he can learn by doing what others tell him to do. The first way is actually better. Harry Truman worked as a timekeeper and clerk and then spent eight years on the farm after graduating from high school. Yet, he became an effective leader of the free world. He picked up those skills on his own.
Today’s generation of young Americans have mainly the classroom experience. They were never exposed to the day-to-day struggle of earning a living. Almost compulsively, they are told to concentrate on their school work if they hope to make something of themselves later in life. Consequently, they go through their formative years wearing blinders. They do not pay attention to the many details of actual living because a well-established system takes care of them. They therefore do not know about such things and are less competent than they otherwise might have been. More and more we conform to systems that deprive us of real-life experiences whose met challenge builds competence. That is why Americans today are less able to perform.
It is not just education but also the corporate career system that deprives us of authentic experiences from which we learn. The better-performing graduates of the educational system are steered into the better jobs with established companies and professional firms. Here, too, a system guides them to success within the institution. The lower-ranking employees have little idea of the challenges faced by the firm as a whole. They know only the job that they are expected to handle in a certain way under a supervisor’s guidance.
Some of the better performing employees may be promoted to higher positions where they are exposed to greater challenges. At the level of CEO, one would assume that the job occupant would be knowledgeable about most parts of the operation. A certain competence would be assumed. However, if this person’s entire life was spent conforming to bureaucratic requirements, that may not be the case.
A hundred years ago, when Harry Truman was a young man, both industry and education were in a creative phase. Both were still in the process of being invented. But then these institutions attained a measure of success and the experts took over. There were gatekeepers who screened out the “bad ideas”, some of which, if tried, might have turned out to be good.
Large and successful organizations tend to become more bureaucratic, which means that people have to conform to their institutional requirements instead of having the freedom to try what seems best. Bureaucracies tend to lose their competence over time. Persons accustomed to taking orders instead of solving problems creatively now manage the organization. The name of the game in being promoted within such organizations is to please the boss. Show counts for a lot.
Outside the career path that runs from education into bureaucratic organizations there remains a sector of independent, small-scale enterprise where real-life challenges remain. The shop keeper, the peddler, the free-lance handyman, the person willing to climb up ladders and do roofing jobs, the landlord with a building or two, the solo inventor and marketer of a new product or, in glorified terms, the “entrepreneur” sinks or swims on the basis of his own decisions.
Recent immigrants tend more to live within this sphere of enterprise. Yet, the educational system aspires to suck everyone into its vortex. And, as the big organizations strike deals with politicians that rig the system to their own advantage and as licensing requirements stifle small-scale initiatives, this sector of the economy becomes less able to compete and survive.
That is why basic competence is threatened in the United States. We talk of living in a free society while powerful interest groups work systematically to undermine it. More and more our population becomes educated and enslaved to institutional routines. Harry Truman was lucky to have escaped this trap as a young man.
That is why, when America was still young and unorganized, our nation was able to improvise its way to victory in two world wars and send men to the moon. Today our well-equipped armies are unable to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. Our intelligence agencies are yet unable to locate Osama bin Laden if, indeed, he is still alive.
In these and many other areas, the most “qualified” persons cannot perform. The best performers are those who have tried and failed and tried again until they succeed. For that, however, you need freedom. You need the willingness to risk failure on difficult missions. Our career-supporting organizations are failure-phobic and risk-averse.
I say, let’s go back to the moon. Let’s see if we Americans still have the right stuff.
an inability to reason
Through the millennia of world history, humanity has acquired new techniques of determining truth. A new approach arrives with each new wave of civilization. Twenty-five hundred years ago, during the so-called “Axial Age”, philosophers probed the nature of being. Their common objective was to discover truth which, in practical terms, meant the proper delineation or definition of generalities. Thus Socrates engaged in a series of conversations designed to learn what justice, beauty, or goodness were. How should those words be defined? The path to truth lay in a process of dialectics by which persons of opposing view would present their theories, argue, and compare alternative explanations until the best one emerged. Meanwhile, geometry and logic developed a technique of moving from known propositions of truth to the knowledge of previously unknown propositions. Euclid and Aristotle created this process of deductive reasoning by the use of abstract concepts.
During the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, scholars criticized the approach of philosophers and theologians on the grounds that their truths bore little resemblance to observed reality. Aristotelian science, supported by religion, came under attack from persons having closer acquaintance with nature. Therefore, a new approach to truth developed. It was not to be found in dogma but in the facts of nature. The empirical scientist who emerged during this time began his studies by observing nature and reporting his observations. Alternative theories were presented to explain what was observed. Scientific experiments made new observations under different conditions to see if the theory still fit the facts. Theories which did not were to be discarded. Truth lay in general propositions or theories which remained consistent with patterns observed in nature under various conditions.
Fast-forward to the entertainment age. Today people believe to be true what they see or hear on television. If a television commercial tells you to ask your doctor about Aleve and images of Aleve-taking adults who once had knee or back pain but now lead healthy, active lives flash upon the screen, the viewer comes to believe that taking this medication might help to relieve his or her own ailment. Certainly, one should believe this if a doctor says so. The more one sees the Aleve commercial, the more deeply engrained in one’s consciousness is that message. While technically truth is not synonymous with belief, in practical terms it is. People do not know the truth unless they believe it to be true. In other words, the contemporary idea of truth comes through the manipulation of belief via repetitious advertising on television.
Certainly there are communities of scholars who continue to believe that truth comes from following the scientific method. There are also philosophers, mathematicians, and logicians who seek truth in manipulating abstractions. Such persons are able to reason. However, the public discussion that takes place in the mass media is governed by another principle. It is the principle of the brand name. You choose to buy a branded product because you recognize it. You know roughly what the product is supposed to do. A product becomes branded by presenting its image to the public many times and under various circumstances. Repetition of messages is the key to persuasion in this milieu.
Of course, commercial and other messages appearing on television are not chosen because philosophy, the scientific method, or another reasoning process have determined them to be true. Such messages appear because the seller of the product has bought air time for the commercials. Determinations of truth have little to do with it. Even if people come to believe what they see on television, the purpose is not to enlighten but simply sell products. The electronic media are a tool for reaching large numbers of potential customers. Advertising firms skillfully craft the images that psychologists and others have devised to persuade people subliminally.
With respect to the future of society, I am less concerned with the selling of commercial products than the setting of political agendas. If television networks will sell air time to anyone who has money, I also believe that they design or control air time to prefer some political messages over others. The “news” can be politically biased. It may be that the owners or top managers of television networks or stations dictate what messages will be allowed to be seen or heard on their programs. It may be that cadres of writers, producers, or news anchors make such decisions. However it is done, there is a consistency of theme that suggests a deliberate attempt to have people accept certain versions of the truth and reject others.
I do not believe that the television networks prefer Democrats to Republicans or Republicans to Democrats. That would be too obviously biased. Viewers might complain. However, there are some rigidly consistent patterns. For instance:
1. You will not ever see the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacists, or anti-Semites presented in an attractive light. You will not have a balanced discussion that includes their point of view.
2. You will never have a balanced discussion of 9/11 conspiracies - the allegation that the World Trade Center twin towers were brought down by a controlled demolition or an
explosion in the basement rather than by jet-fuel fires - or any discussion, for that matter, except with statements or insinuations ridiculing believers in such theories.
3. The nation’s continued support of free-trade policies, despite the chronic trade deficits and loss of U.S. jobs, cannot be seriously questioned. There is no respected economist who favors “protectionism”.
Questions such as these are addressed by labels rather than fact-based discussion. “White racist”, “anti-Semite”, “conspiracy theorist”, “protectionist” are some of the labels used to dismiss certain points of view and the people who espouse them. Labels are a type of brand name. As such, their “truth” is established through repetitious broadcasting. The persons who deliver the labels to the public are well-groomed, articulate individuals having respectable credentials. They look like someone who knows what he or she is talking about.
If, for instance, Paul Krugman, an economist from Princeton University, says that protectionism is bad for America, his statement has credibility. “Princeton” is a prestigious brand name. If a tenured professor from that institution makes a policy statement, one would assume that the statement is correct. One would assume that Princeton University is a place where serious research and policy evaluation takes place. Professor Krugman might be someone involved in those fact-based discussions. But none of the discussion itself is revealed. We are asked to accept Krugman’s opinion because he is an economist from a respected institution of higher learning and a familiar face in the media. He also has a Nobel prize - the ultimate in branded credentials.
Columns by people like Paul Krugman, newspaper editorials, television news reports, statements by expert spokespersons or panelists on cable-news programs, and the like are the vehicles for whatever discussion of public policy takes place in the media today. You seldom, if ever, find reasoned arguments where an argument for one policy is offset by a statement of support for its opposite, or anything resembling Socratic dialogue. You seldom, if ever, see the factual sources to prove a position. The question “Is this true?” seldom enters the picture. All you have is experts giving their personal conclusions. You are asked to have faith in the person and not question his point of view.
The same opinions are repeated time and time again on television and in other media until the viewer gains the impression that this is the only reasonable position possible. The consistency may lie in the fact that the network moguls and producers will not allow the other side of the question to be heard.This is another kind of incompetence. Branded opinion drives our discussion of public policy. The opinions do not represent the product of reasoned inquiry and evaluation but decisions made by the owners and managers of the media to promote certain points of view at the expense of others. In turn, the opinions cultivated by the mass media drive public policy to the extent that government officials listen to their constituents.
That means that policy makers do not make up their minds after going through the kind of mental exercises that philosophers or scientists would employ in their deliberations. Instead, they pay attention to poll results. Those results may not lead to sensible policy decisions such as those that President Truman made by himself with the help of a few knowledgeable advisors.
Media-driven policy is based on stereotypes and features hot-button issues because television audiences are looking for that. Insensitive to reality, such policy is unlikely to be well conceived. Repetition of branded messages is a terrible way to produce truth. Our society will likely suffer as a result.
It is a shame that, when humanity is facing problems of unprecedented danger and difficulty, the decision-making process is breaking down. Those persons charged with deciding policy on behalf of our community have become incapable of using reason to guide their decisions. In short, the political high command for setting policy is no longer competent.
It could also be that our society is becoming incompetent because people are not as smart as they used to be. Some studies suggest that lead poisoning or chemicals in the food supply has impaired brain functioning. With loss of intelligence may come more bad decisions.
At the risk of raising politically incorrect arguments, I would also suggest an impairment in the average level of intelligence due to selective breeding. Prolonged education creates a disincentive for young people, especially women, to bear children at an early age. Public assistance creates a positive incentive for women of similar age to bear children if their male partners are unable or unwilling to provide financial support. The system therefore encourages one type of woman to have children while discouraging another type.
A case can be made (and often is) that advanced education is positively correlated with intelligence and other attractive characteristics. It would therefore have a deleterious effect upon intelligence levels in our society if, over a long period of time, the women who had better grades in high school were encouraged to continue their educations while the women who had poorer grades did not. Both the intensity of the educational experience and the immense debt acquired as a consequence of going to college act as a deterrent to finding a mate and having children. Many graduated women and men want to pay down some of their debt before incurring family obligations; they’re told this is the “smart” thing to do. The gene pool is thereby impaired with respect to intelligence, at least of the book-learning kind.
I would accept that book-learning capacity is not the only type of intelligence. “Street smarts” also count for something. Perhaps it’s time for the young women or men steered so urgently toward entering college to acquire some “street smarts” and reflect upon the long-term consequences of that move, especially since today’s careers are less promising than before. From a policy-making standpoint, to create financial incentives for the more intelligent persons to breed faster than the less intelligent makes sense down the line. However, such thinking is taboo in political circles.
In summary, I’m not sanguine about the future of American society as it faces problems of unparalleled scope and difficulty. Who will come to the rescue? The
educated class of political or managerial bureaucrats is unaccustomed to thinking outside the box. The public discourse has lost any sense of reasoned decision-making. Book-learning intelligence is being bred out of the species.
Well, it’s been a good run in America while I was alive. Good luck to posterity.
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