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Another Kind of Bubble

 

Our elites really do stink” — David Brooks, oblivious elite media spokesman, faux conservative and militantly unoriginal writer.

I work in Washington DC. No longer a lobbyist or representative of companies or trade associations before federal agencies, I do more mundane things and am glad of it.

The most valued skill in this town is the ability to navigate the structure and processes of federal legislation, litigation, regulation, grant-making, and enforcement. These are legitimate skills with a market value for persons and groups with interests to be protected or advanced. Don’t knock it. Lobbyists protect you from most of the steady stream of cosmic stupidity that flows from the Good Idea Elves on Capitol Hill and within the agencies.

The problem is that these insider skills do not easily translate into useful tools for dealing with problems, issues, and realities outside of the federal processes. And people who are really good at these intra-Washington processes are often promoted to positions where the dominant tasks and issues are literally outside the box where their expertise and experience resides.

There are twenty-something kids in congressional offices who are the resident experts in environment, trade, or telecom only because more senior people have had their ticket punched and moved on to K street and/or because they once digested summaries from think tank briefing papers. The lack of awareness about the real-world consequences of legislative proposals can be staggering.

Over the years, I have known a lot of extremely bright young lawyers with no military or business experience whose academic excellence made then well-suited for complex appellate litigation but utterly useless in any context outside legal process or the confines of conventional political rhetoric. I have no problem with their skills being honed and richly rewarded by clients. I do have a problem with the upper echelons of government being almost entirely populated with such people. (Imagine Hillary’s arrogant yet incompetent campaign staff running the entire federal government.)

The Washington area is financially rich — the feds are taking more than their share of the economic pie at the same time they are expanding the federal process bubble to more and more areas where it does not apply nor offer actual solutions instead of additional burdens. The over-valuing of internal process skills is itself a dangerous bubble.

Consider the consternation within the State Department over Trump’s statement of the obvious: Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and federal law requires the President to act accordingly. The résumé-building fiction known as the Peace Process has always been an expensive farce that has rewarded both Palestinian intransigence and the careers of diplomats with the ability to craft highly nuanced yet obviously futile documents. The skills that make one a success within State do not necessarily advance American interests or generate real-world solutions.

Consider the spectacular idiocy of the Iraq Study Group. Unable to see the Iraq War outside of the prism of domestic politics, utterly unable to think outside the box, a bipartisan all-star panel of Washington insiders crafted an elaborate proposed surrender of American interests and those of our allies — all with the help of very bright staffers. Only an idiot (e.g., John Kerry) would try to affect it.

The collapse of the elite media, the politicization of climate science, the failure of experts to predict elections, economic behavior, or major foreign events — Brexit and much else — have fostered a grassroots awareness that the people in charge only know how to maneuver within the system for their own advancement and have little to offer by way of leadership, creativity, or substance to justify their privilege. The estimable Richard Fernandez has written a number of insightful articles about the growing failure of the methods, models, and skill-set of our ruling elite such as this most recent article.

Beyond the issue of competence, there is also the issue of integrity and ethics. For example, Comey, Mueller, McCabe, and Rosenstein have all indulged in the overtly partisan execution of their duties to the detriment of public confidence in key American institutions. They clearly feel entitled to do so because their superior insider skills entitle them to act how they please so long as they (skillfully) skirt the law. They are sending a message that they own these institutions, not us nor anybody we may choose to elect to the White House or Congress.

The great mass of us outside the elite circles can usually forgive failure if it is followed by honest introspection, genuine remorse, and ameliorative change. It is the arrogance and sense of entitlement in the wake of sustained failure that drives the rage. 

CNN summed up the prevailing elite ethos when they announced that the employees who produced the spectacularly wrong story about Trump getting a heads-up from Wikileaks would not be fired because they followed established procedures. (?!) In other words, all that matters is what works within the institution. The outside world and even the truth does not matter.

The overvaluing of internal process skills is not exclusive to Washington. Entertainment is even more controlled by people good at getting things financed rather than creative types. This is why we will probably have about a dozen more Spiderman remakes. The politics within academia has metastasized and threatens to devour the institutions. The news media is already an imploding joke.

The bubbles are popping. I am too old and too close to it to figure out what that will mean or whether it will be for the good. But, I can see the problem clearly enough to know it has all to change soon.

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There are 25 comments.

  1. Member

    Old Bathos:The great mass of us outside the elite circles can usually forgive failure if it is followed by honest introspection, genuine remorse and ameliorative change. It is the arrogance and sense of entitlement in the wake of sustained failure that drives the rage. 

    CNN summed up the prevailing elite ethos when they announced that the employees who produced the spectacularly wrong story about Trump getting a heads-up from Wikileaks would not be fired because they followed established procedures (?!). In other words, all that matters is what works within the institution. The outside world and even the truth does not matter.

    Like! Like! Like!

    • #1
    • December 12, 2017 at 12:21 pm
    • 10 likes
  2. Thatcher

    Old Bathos: In other words, all that matters is what works within the institution. The outside world and even the truth does not matter.

    OldB,

    Halleluyah! I completely agree.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #2
    • December 12, 2017 at 12:28 pm
    • 5 likes
  3. Member

    This has happened in my field and it’s getting worse. Joy.

    The DOJ and FBI are rotten at the top.

    David Brooks is a piece of turd.

    • #3
    • December 12, 2017 at 12:36 pm
    • 14 likes
  4. Thatcher

    Very, very well said. I did not work in DC but for 30 years in the corporate world traveled there and interacted with trade associations, lobbyists, bureaucrats and congressional staffers and had the same experience. The longer I did it the more appalled I was at the limits of the self-contained world they inhabited and their lack of actual experience doing things outside “the process”.

    • #4
    • December 12, 2017 at 1:31 pm
    • 10 likes
  5. Member

    Well said. That bubble is where old wealthy institutions go to fossilize before they die. It occurs wherever market competition doesn’t reign. There is intense competition on K street and capital hill but it’s among the vultures tearing at the flesh, not really markets where failures shrink or die, success moves forward before it again faces life and death struggles. These latter are why so many hate markets, but the alternative are the vultures.

    • #5
    • December 12, 2017 at 2:52 pm
    • 2 likes
  6. Member

    Old Bathos: The estimable Richard Fernandez has written a number of insightful articles about the growing failure of the methods, models and skill set of our ruling elite such as this most recent article.

    I’ve always liked Wretchard.

    • #6
    • December 12, 2017 at 2:56 pm
    • 3 likes
  7. Thatcher

    I don’t have anything to add other than well said, Sir.

    • #7
    • December 12, 2017 at 3:35 pm
    • 7 likes
  8. Member

    Terrific post @oldbathos – a very well reasoned rebuttal to that ‘The Death of Expertise’ author and elitist meme that gained a bit of traction after Trump won.

    I’d love to hear you interviewed by David Sussman or on the Ricochet flagship podcast. What you’ve shared with us here deserves a wider audience. Well done & interesting.

    • #8
    • December 12, 2017 at 6:42 pm
    • 4 likes
  9. Member

    Great post. I hope bubbles are popping.

    • #9
    • December 12, 2017 at 7:32 pm
    • 3 likes
  10. Member

    Great post. All this insider gaming also leads to deliberately vague law making, where everything is open to interpretation by these self same, self styled elites. And not a productive atom amongst them.

    • #10
    • December 12, 2017 at 7:44 pm
    • 5 likes
  11. Member

    Well done, well said. Thank you.

    • #11
    • December 12, 2017 at 7:57 pm
    • 3 likes
  12. Member

    I think you hit the nail squarely on the head.

    • #12
    • December 13, 2017 at 5:01 am
    • 2 likes
  13. Member

    Old Bathos: The bubbles are popping. I am too old and too close to it to figure out what that will mean or whether it will be for the good but I can see the problem clearly enough to know it has all to change soon.

    Don’t worry about it. North Korea or Iran will end it soon enough. These idiots won’t even be able to protect themselves.

    • #13
    • December 13, 2017 at 7:03 am
    • Like
  14. Member

    Great post. Really great.

    It is alarming to know that five of the ten wealthiest counties in the country are suburbs of DC. And they are populated by smart people (by IQ tests, at least) who know nothing of the rest of the country.

    Two things might fix this:

    1. Shrink the federal government. (duh)
    2. Break it up and move much of it to cities all across the country.
    • #14
    • December 13, 2017 at 7:19 am
    • 7 likes
  15. Member

    Songwriter (View Comment):
    Great post. Really great.

    It is alarming to know that five of the ten wealthiest counties in the country are suburbs of DC. And they are populated by smart people (by IQ tests, at least) who know nothing of the rest of the country.

    Two things might fix this:

    1. Shrink the federal government. (duh)
    2. Break it up and move much of it to cities all across the country.

    I’ve long been in favor of both of these, and still am in favor. But regarding #2 I also remember when environmentalists mocked the tall smokestacks that were built on the principle that “The solution to pollution is dilution.” It actually worked when the amount of pollution was small, but not so much otherwise.

    • #15
    • December 13, 2017 at 7:24 am
    • 3 likes
  16. Member

    When I worked for the university, I made it a point to seek out and buy lunch for a young conservative who was about to graduate, and was moving on to an internship at National Review. He was eager to go to Washington to get started as a writer and pundit; I advised him instead to separate himself from the journalists by actually learning about something, becoming an experiential expert. This would make him different from all of the 24 year old generalists at Vox and everywhere else.

    He smiled and chose to ignore my counsel (well, one can’t blame him for downgrading the thoughts of a middle-American schlemiel who is utterly non-famous), went to NR, served his limited time there with a small number of by-lined stories, and then promptly disappeared.

    No surprise there. Listen to Steve Hayward talking about this stuff with Jonah Goldberg on the latest Remnant.

    • #16
    • December 13, 2017 at 12:43 pm
    • 5 likes
  17. Member

    I agree with much of this. Its starting to sound more and more like 1848 around here.

    2.Break it up and move much of it to cities all across the country.

    –This is a really really bad idea. Unless you want to see those cities become even bigger Democratic strongholds.

    • #17
    • December 13, 2017 at 12:54 pm
    • 1 like
  18. Member

    ToryWarWriter (View Comment):
    I agree with much of this. Its starting to sound more and more like 1848 around here.

    2.Break it up and move much of it to cities all across the country.

    –This is a really really bad idea. Unless you want to see those cities become even bigger Democratic strongholds.

    Yeah, I’ve thought of that, too. Maybe fenced and gated compounds out in the country would be better.

    • #18
    • December 13, 2017 at 2:44 pm
    • 3 likes
  19. Thatcher

    A fine post. Insightful, informative, and well written, too. This is the kind of thing I read Ricochet for.

    However, I expect that despite all the rescent hoopla at the FBI, in Congress, and at CCN little or nothing will change, either in government, Hollywood, or the media. In fact, I predict that it will be business as usual in the new year. All that will change, I’m afraid, is that the limbo bar of standards and expectations in terms of competence, integrity, and decency, will be set a few notches lower.

    • #19
    • December 13, 2017 at 3:05 pm
    • 1 like
  20. Member

    Wow!! Your story hits it all – it seems there are really no bubbles except a big, large one….Your story ties in to @claire s story on the sexual harassment issue, the Russian issue, the North Korea issue, taking a knee, the race issue, Europe being taken over by communists and insanity, we could keep going but it seems everywhere you turn there is a crisis, and if you wait a minute, a new one will be created.

    There are many who don’t like Trump – I get it. He is a mouthpiece, has a big ego. However, your story talks about overpriced know- it- all young lawyers and in-experienced snowflakes running things (that could be good and bad – we have to let new blood in and get rid of the Pelosi’s, Schumers, and McCains – Obama is a lawyer and his whole administration who framed hope and change are those that you describe. But no one expected a Trump – a 70 year old successful businessman who likes to break things, cares nothing for popularity or those entrenched in your story.

    As crass as he is, he is a temporary hope to restore some semblance of boundaries, to undo the Pandora’s Box unleashed by Obama, and fueled by people with cash like Soros. It’s a temporary thing. Get on the armor – an agenda is being pushed that will literally challenge our souls –

    • #20
    • December 13, 2017 at 3:08 pm
    • 2 likes
  21. Member

    Every once in a while I get a glimmer of hope.

    A few years ago, some federal agency (probably agriculture) issued some proposed rules about labeling stuff and about child labor on farms that were the sorts of rules that would make theoretical sense to some “smart” person with a university degree or two, but made no sense whatsoever to anyone who had actual experience on a farm. The silliest was that a person under the age of 16 could not use or work on a piece of equipment that had a motor. To the “smart” theoretical person, they were protecting children from harm. But there’s no way a farm (particularly a family farm) can survive if the children can’t even touch the refrigerator in which the milk is stored. Fortunately, the proposed rules were quietly dropped after becoming the subject of much mockery. So maybe sometimes sanity might penetrate the bubble. Unfortunately, not often enough.

    • #21
    • December 14, 2017 at 7:11 am
    • 1 like
  22. Member

    Old Bathos: The great mass of us outside the elite circles can usually forgive failure if it is followed by honest introspection, genuine remorse, and ameliorative change. It is the arrogance and sense of entitlement in the wake of sustained failure that drives the rage. 

    @oldbathos, from the opening description of David Brooks– you could not possibly have picked a more perfect fit for your writing about these condescending bubble residents–through every line like the “spectacular idiocy of the Iraq Study Group” and “Only an idiot (e.g. John Kerry) would try to affect it.” through the “news media is already an imploding joke”, I loved, and appreciated every jot and tittle of your superb essay! And, I don’t know about you or any of our fellow Ricochetti, but the incredible display of establishment haughtiness put on by the second highest law enforcement officer of the United States (I almost gag when I have to say that), DAG Rosenstein, was to prompt one, and actually did one of the questioning Congressmen, to just scream “this is unbelievable!”! After watching just a few minutes of the likes of Nadler and that beastly Congresswoman from California (of course!) telling him how great he was, I told my wife: “We are in such deep trouble in this country!” and this is how I feel, more and more each day, no matter how hard I try to be optimistic, with such open and in-your-face demonstrations of sleaze and corruption as that displayed by both Rosenstein and, the day before, the “new and improved” Director of the FBI.

    Sadly enough, in our law practice, we dealt with many of those critters you write about–we had a special word for them–“sniffers”, as they were always “sniffing” at others with pure disdain and a sense of disbelief that they were required to even be around such ignoramuses as us common folk and “little’ people.

    Thanks again; this is one of the best pieces describing where we are headed I have seen in quite some time!

    Sincerely, Jim

    • #22
    • December 14, 2017 at 7:18 am
    • 2 likes
  23. Member

    Excellent post – and very useful insight into how Washington works. The only thing I can add is that it’s always struck me that one of the major problems with bureaucrats is the constant need to justify their existence. Thus, someone who is tasked with writing regulations has no incentive to conclude, “That’s it! I’ve written enough regulations – everything’s taken care of now!” They will always be incentivized to see one more problem that requires their unique regulation-writing skills to set right because if they’ve done enough, then there’s no reason for their position to continue to exist. Hence, they never stop making our world more complicated.

    • #23
    • December 14, 2017 at 7:56 am
    • 3 likes
  24. Member
    Old Bathos Post author

    Jim George (View Comment):

    Sadly enough, in our law practice, we dealt with many of those critters you write about–we had a special word for them–“sniffers”, as they were always “sniffing” at others with pure disdain and a sense of disbelief that they were required to even be around such ignoramuses as us common folk and “little’ people.

    Jake Stein, one of Washington DC’s storied lawyers and the very first special counsel (the Ed Meese investigation) once wrote that if when he was a young lawyer if he had written the kind of snippy, snotty letter he gets from young ‘sniffers’ these days and had sent it to opposing counsel, that older lawyer would likely have walked over to his office and punched him in the mouth.

    There are 50,000 lawyers licensed to practice in DC. The sheer impersonality of what had been a more collegial profession is well-suited to narcissism, credentialism and the political ideologies more conducive to those particular pathologies.

    Below is a photo of a large poster of the DC law establishment in 1934 that used to hang in a firm law library. (I took the photo because my wife’s grandfather is one of the lawyers pictured.) The point is that in 1934 there were no megafirms and you could fit every established DC lawyer and every judge on a single poster.

    • #24
    • December 14, 2017 at 8:38 am
    • 2 likes
  25. Member

    Excellent work. Thank you!

    • #25
    • December 15, 2017 at 9:54 pm
    • 1 like