Recently, I was contemplating how many things are screwed up bad in the USofA. This is a time of more than garden variety kvetching about how much better things could be, this is a time where nearly everything is falling apart. Our government budgets are hopelessly imbalanced, the dollar is falling, stagflation is arriving, real estate is imploding, education systems are strained, health care is unaffordable, and I have dogs and cats living together in relative peace and harmony. Real wrath of God stuff.
Then, while I was contemplating all of these things, the teevee set that was chattering relentlessly in the background gave me the answer: on it came President George Bush. It hit me as obviously as a summer thunderstorm: there have to be a lot of really stupid people running things for it to get this messed up.
As I think about it, my contact with government and everything else has had me run into a lot of people that I didn’t think were that bright. After all, that’s one of the great purposes of bureaucracy – to standardize a function to the point where you don’t have to hire bright people to carry it out effectively. The net result is that often intelligent and creative people stay far, far away from such a system as they look for something a little more exciting, and soon the standardized world is on auto-pilot. But even if that’s true, is it really the problem?
It doesn’t take a lot of smarts to be really good at what you do, after all. George Washington was once derided by Ben Franklin for not being all that bright, but you can bet that Franklin eagerly supported Washington as a General and later President. To be a great leader takes so much more than intelligence; skills like tact, motivation, and of course bravery are all more critical than smarts. If nothing else, being kind or genuinely helpful is appreciated in any person you have to work with on a daily basis.
So how did we get this messed up? What could possibly have gone so terribly wrong all at once, with so many obviously avoidable and stupid things happening? Whether we have smart people in positions where they can make a decision or not, what we need are people that know their limits. A bit of humility can cause even the smartest person to ask around on a topic to help make a good decision a better or at least more bold one. That’s worth something.
Arrogance is, in the end, the real problem that got us where we are. If someone isn’t quite bright enough to handle the office they are in, such as our President, the lease they can do is ask for a bit of help now and then. My experience with genuinely stupid people in some position of power is that they often react in exactly the opposite way; if you challenge them and hint that, as you are smarter, they could be “found out”, they only become more belligerent.
That’s how stupidity becomes an issue in any system, public or private. The problem is that even intelligent people may not know everything about a situation, given that we credential based on specialized “degree” tracks and experience in narrowly defined systems. As Scott Adams observed in “Dilbert”, we all pass in and out of idiocy many times a day. There’s just too much stuff to know.
What can we do about it? While it’s easy to fault stupidity, and it’s certainly the first thing that comes to my mind, we have to remember that we’re all in this together to some extent. We can all be stupid as individuals, but as a whole someone probably has it figured out. Arrogance is what makes us stupid. And boy, do we live in stupid times.