Wishful thinking

The other day, Soviet-born demented NeverTrumper Max Boot tweeted this:

Leave aside the silly notions that:

1. Running government is the same as flying an airplane: does a pilot need to juggle dozens of competing interests with one eye on his job between takeoff and landing?

2. Government is about qualifications: if it were, why bother with elections?

3. People who think they’re the sort of expert who should be in government ought to be anywhere near the levers of power.

Let’s instead look at the idea that we want the best qualified people to design buildings. Is it true? Well, I’ve been involved in some civil infrastructure projects and I recall the contracts were generally awarded to the local company with the strongest political connections. I’ve also been involved in several engineering tenders and although lip-service is paid to quality and track record, it generally goes to the bidder with the lowest price.

And then there’s this:

State, local and federal government agencies regularly make a certain number of contracts open to bidding from minority-owned business enterprises, or MBEs. This minority business certification is a designation given to companies with women or ethnic minorities in control or in ownership. Learning how to bid on minority government contracts involves securing appropriate forms of certification and identifying and applying for contracts posted by various state and federal government agencies.

So we want the best qualified to design buildings, do we? If only.


18 thoughts on “Wishful thinking

  1. “Running government is the same as flying an airplane: does a pilot need to juggle dozens of competing interests with one eye on his job between takeoff and landing?”

    Flying a plane has a clear goal.

    Running a government is partly about choosing goals and goals are a matter of values which differ. You can’t hire someone to pick your values.

    Running a government also often has unclear goals – much of the time this is by choice so that the “fire the arrow then draw a target” method can be used. Or just because they don’t care and are focussed on a silly headline/etc. This is before we get into the entire principal/agent literature on why you can’t just hire experts.

    As an example, the tweeter here puts himself forward as an expert on government but seems ignorant (willfully) of these basic technical points.

  2. Pilots don’t argue about the relative benefits of Bernoulli’s Theorem vs some alternate theory of fluid dynamics which has apparently “never been tried (TM)” for the purpose of keeping an aircraft in the air…

    And no pilot would say with a straight face that the fact that this alternate theory has never permitted flight proves that it’s never been tried…

  3. abacab,

    Indeed, and no pilot would deliberately do something which has been shown countless times to crash a plane using the excuse that it’s never been tried properly.

  4. We already make strenuous efforts to ensure that the best qualified people “run government”. You’ll find that most senior civil servants in this country have good degrees and have been promoted on merit. Of course, we could go further and establish a national college of administration. And, of course, we can cynically claim that our civil servants have not been doing a very good job of late. But I guess they are doing better than most tweeting journalists could do.

    Mr. Boot might of course be making a point about democracy and selecting priorities, rather than administration. But he’s not clear, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is just a bit stupid rather than a neo-Platonist dreamer.

  5. The London Review of Books story on the Grenfell Tower made this point about safety inspections.

    “I went to Warwickshire to see a safety inspections guru called Dave Sibert. He was popular with fire chiefs but also with industry veterans, people who like plain speaking and who are worried about the dangerous new trend of ditching regulations. Mr Sibert was sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Stratford-upon-Avon. He didn’t waste time: the Grenfell Tower fire, he said straightaway, was about the contravention of safety rules by the building industry – ‘That’s the headline failure’ – and also about successive governments’ negligence in holding the industry to account. ‘Up until recently,’ he said, safety inspectors ‘wouldn’t look at the outside of the building anyway, because we’d have assumed that the construction control process would be right in the first place. So how did it get to be the way it is now? Well, building control has gone through similar problems to the fire rescue service. The introduction of approved inspectors introduced competition into the building control sector.’”

    The whole piece really underscores the utter vacuity of the central government, but also the sheer evil of C4 news and other journos who pushed the evil tories story. It really puts the Time person of the year “journos” into perspective. Although Andrew O’Hagan, the chap who wrote the piece, really does show the investigative spirit that we would hope to see in a journo.

  6. “We already make strenuous efforts to ensure that the best qualified people “run government”. You’ll find that most senior civil servants in this country have good degrees and have been promoted on merit.”

    Especially towards the top having demonstrated that you put the civil services interests ahead of everything else is key. A reasonably senior civil servant friend told the story of someone who spent a year trying to get people in that dept to do the right thing and was basically forced to quit. Compare with the windrush officials who were moved to senior jobs elsewhere in govt.

    Even the good ones have a very one dimensional understanding of the world. Maybe smart but they have one tool (process) and are thus a hammer short of a toolbox. e.g. customs understand risk based inspection, but huge swathes of government want to control everything rather than what is material. e.g. do we really need to license and inspect anybody at all growing tobacco plants (to stop the sale of untaxed tobacco), or just a regime to fine people who sell tobacco without paying the tax – which will see a tiny bit of uncollected tax.

  7. What qualifies a politician, is they are not qualified to do anything else except parasitism, and have no marketable skills that would get them a job in the competitive private, wealth producing sector.

  8. John B, indeed. A politician is somebody with no measurable skills.

    (Actually the person I heard say this was really talking about the HR department, but I didn’t want to hurt Tim’s feelings.)

  9. If having the ‘best qualified’ running government worked, the Soviet Union would have been far more successful than it was.

  10. People always cut short Goves ”People have had enough of experts’ quote short, the next (and most important part) is ‘who are always wrong’

  11. Ken: “Although Andrew O’Hagan, the chap who wrote the piece, really does show the investigative spirit that we would hope to see in a journo.”

    Poor guy just became a target of the Left. You wait & see.

  12. The key word here’s “qualified”. Depends on what you mean by qualified. Taken literally, it’s credentialised & what are credentials worth? Depends on who’s handing them out. The university system produces credentials that claim the holder has been examined as having absorbed what the university teaches. It says nothing about whether what the university teaches is of any value. Those issuing the credentials may have gained their credentials by exactly the same method as those they are issuing.
    To take Tim’s final example. How far back up the recursive string to you have to go to find someone with actual experience of building buildings? Especially, as those with that experience can command a far higher remuneration building buildings than sitting in a university teaching it.
    There’s a lot of truth in the old saw “Those who can, do. Those who can’t teach.”

  13. Jonathan,

    I think history is unfairly critical of WW1 generals. Yes there was for too long a ‘just keep bashing away’ plodding lack of creativity and verve. But…from late 1916 onwards the quality of leadership was hugely better. We forced Germany into collapse. Look at the Battle of Amiens. We comprehensively out-generalled the Germans to force a win.
    Interesting also how our self-image of WW2 is so different. That was badly managed too until we got our shit together. Our WW2 generals were not better than WW1.

  14. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t teach.”

    I have failed on many occasions to find the source of the following little ditty. With luck I shall be credited for posterity by Google as the progenitor:

    Those who can, do
    And those who can’t, teach.
    But mine the higher goal,
    Mine the Higher Reach,
    To teach those who teach the teachers how to teach.


  15. Anyone who has been anywhere near central government knows it’s run by total tossers and incompetents. It’s a disaster. I avoid working for it after previous experiences (local government ain’t too bad).

    There’s 2 big problems
    a) the “independent civil service”. This has to go. It doesn’t make them independent. It makes them their own self-serving beast.
    b) the shitty, politics-is-a-jolly-wheeze of political commentary. This is because journalists have been corrupted, become connected to the politicians, obsessed with minutae and Westminster gossip. It should be a national scandal that a government spent £12bn on an NHS computer system that delivered nothing. Or however much they spent on that crap aircraft carrier without aircraft. Or how crap treasury forecasts are, constantly. And I hate to agree with Ken Clarke, but the idea of Boris Johnson as PM is just ridiculous.

    Thankfully, the internet is fixing 2). Bloggers and tweeters who aren’t part of the circle are getting onto them and I think it’ll fix 1) as well.

  16. Just to say;

    Do take the time (quite a bit of time actually) to read the LRB article on Grenfell linked in Ken’s comment above. It’s long, but very good indeed.

  17. The essential error is in thinking that a government can fix most of these problems, in the first damn place.

    Government has certain inherent characteristics and capabilities; we consistently fool ourselves into thinking that writing a law or a regulation is going to make something happen or not happen, when the reality is that even if we want it to happen as a society, there are inherent limitations to what is possible to accomplish. You can have your laws against murder, but will they actually prevent anyone from killing you…? All such things really accomplish is to somewhat regulate the reactions of the rest of society, and even then? You can’t mandate that you’re going to be mourned, after you’re murdered.

    Government, bureaucracy, and any of our shaky institutions are inherently weak and ineffectual; were they effective and strong, then the legislature could say “No more killing!”, and there would be none. To think that they can fix any of the multitude of things that we throw government at as a solution…? Madness; there is a limited amount of actual effective influence that any set of laws or agencies of governance can have, and after you’ve used up that influence on trivialities, you can’t do much about any other things you decide to throw government at.

    Here’s a rule of thumb: There’s only so much patience and attention to detail available in the average person–If you are running a dangerous industrial operation, like a chemical plant, and you micro-manage everything to the extent that the workers have to log in and out of the bathrooms when they use them, what is the net overall effect? Will they somehow discern what is truly vital to the safe operation of that plant, and expend their limited attention and diligence to that which prevents the place from blowing up, or will they actually just ignore every onerous little thing you and your plant managers throw at them…?

    You design a system for people to work within, you have to understand the limitations of people. You can’t have an operating manual that’s six inches thick, and which needs to be consulted for every little thing that comes up, or it’s never going to be consulted at all–People will make their own damn rules, will he, nil he, until something breaks.

    The more control you reach for, the less you will actually be able to attain. This principle is one that anyone seeking to govern should keep in mind; save your effort for the larger issues, and don’t try to do everything for everybody, all the time. You can’t–Best to determine what is truly necessary, and leave the rest to the fates.

    RE: The Grenfell towers debacle… What actually happened there was a failure of governing philosophy; were the people living in that tower to have been living under a philosophy that said “Hey, buddy… You’re on your own… No safety inspection was done here, and if the place burns to the ground, it’s on you…”, they would have probably been a lot better off, because then they would have taken their own precautions, and not relied on the whole “someone else is responsible” effect. Either that, or they would have died through their own damn misadventure, and the loss of their contribution to the gene pool would have been negligible.

    You try to pad every surface so that the kiddies can’t hurt themselves, and what you’re actually doing is preventing them from learning not to ram their heads into everything. Government is a vast set of mistaken ideas that say “Yeah, we can protect you from your own folly…”, and which are manifest lies. You can use government to accomplish a lot of things on the macro-level, but when you attempt to use that same gross power of the established state to do things like prevent schoolyard bullying…? It’s all going to blow up in your face. Government simply isn’t capable of that sort of thing, and the demand that it should solve those problems is both immature, and the mark of fearful creatures who cannot face the fact that many things in this universe of ours are simply not amenable to being “fixed”.

    In short, pass all the laws you like against that asteroid hitting the Earth, and see what happens when one comes calling. You’re still going to go the way of the dinosaur, despite whatever legislation you manage to pass making it illegal. Legislative law is not physical law; we would do well to remember that.

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