Friday, July 7, 2017

The electorate wants competence but the political class promises philosopher kings

I missed this from a few months ago. From Don’t Sweat the Big Stuff by Victor Davis Hanson.
Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg used to offer all sorts of cosmic advice on the evils of smoking and the dangers of fatty foods and sugary soft drinks. Bloomberg also frequently pontificated on abortion and global warming, earning him a progressive audience that transcended the boroughs of New York.

But in the near-record December 2010 blizzard, Bloomberg proved utterly incompetent in the elemental tasks for which he was elected: ensuring that New Yorkers were not trapped in their homes by snowdrifts in their streets that went unplowed for days.

The Bloomberg syndrome is a characteristic of contemporary government officials. When they are unwilling or unable to address pre-modern problems in their jurisdictions — crime, crumbling infrastructure, inadequate transportation — they compensate by posing as philosopher kings who cheaply lecture on existential challenges over which they have no control.
Hanson is a little strident but his insight is significant. Around the world, electorates are demanding competence from their political class. The political class doesn't do competence. They are focused on aspirations of philosopher king leadership.

The gap between the low bar of what the electorate wants and the high bar that the political class promises and fails to deliver is likely a major element in all the "unexpected" outcomes of the past several years. Obama, Brexit, Sanders, Trump, Corbyn, Le Pen, etc. This gap shows up in forecasting where expertise has produced forecasts (implied philosopher king promises) widely divergent from reality in the economy (recessions), in climate change (forecasts not matching data), in security (known wolf attacks), in science (failures to replicate), etc.

In my home city, neighborhoods have birthday parties for steel plates the city leaves over pot-holes on degrading roads. One neighborhood recently had a block party for the sixth birthday of a steel plate. This despite the city having recently issued a quarter of a billion dollar bond to do routine maintenance work. A fiscal abomination in the eyes of a sober electorate but a routine demonstration of incompetence by the wannabe philosopher kings.

The mentally ill on the streets because there are no shelters, nightly acts of low level property crime (rummaging through cars, stealing packages off porches, etc.), episodic water alerts owing to loss of pressure, felons who spend no time in jail for their crimes, rising taxes and falling services, the list goes on and on.

It is no wonder that the electorate is exasperated. And no wonder that the wannabe philosopher kings are so outraged at the ignorance, inadequacy, and moral short-comings of an electorate so unenlightened as to insist on mere competence.

Competence is not hard to achieve but if you are blinded by visions of philosopher king heroism, then it is not even on the check-list of things to do.

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