“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.Published in