Italian voters don’t have a lot of use for their leaders, and it’s hard to say they are wrong. The left wants to preserve the unsustainable, the right doesn’t have what it takes, and the center is dominated by short term, self centered careerists whizzing through the well oiled revolving doors that connect business with government. But how different are politics elsewhere? Voters ultimately weary of repeat policy failure by the well connected and well educated, and whether you look at Europe, the United States or Japan, the failures of national leadership keep piling up.
Americans often like to believe that our problems are as exceptional as our strengths, but our stale and ineffective political establishment looks a lot like its peers around the world. The American elite is not alone in its inconsequential futility and its lack of strategic vision; world leaders everywhere are falling down on the job.
The assumption that the people guiding the destinies of the world’s major powers know what they are doing is a comforting one, but there’s not a lot of evidence to support it. The “pass it to find out what’s in it” health care ‘reform’ in the United States, the vast stinking policy corpse that is European monetary union, the failure of establishments everywhere to figure out the simple arithmetical problems that our welfare states are encountering because of the demographic transition, the metastasizing tumor of corruption also known as the Chinese Communist Party: none of these suggest that the world is being governed with unusual wisdom.
But the problem is bigger than politics; in civil society as well as in government we are in an age of empty suits and stylish haircuts on hollow heads.
The people who run our affairs today come in many shades of bland. There are the elected officials and their direct appointees clinging more or less precariously to their posts. There are the career bureaucracies and civil servants who toil on regardless of the political winds. (This is a group that includes senior staff in national and regional governments and central banks; others in this category work for international organizations like the EU, the UN, the IMF and the World Bank.) In the developed world there are also the serried ranks of the leaders of the imperial non-profits: the heads of foundations, presidents of universities and think tanks, top staff at prominent NGOs. There are the intellectuals and academics whose views influence the decision makers, and there are the press lords—proprietors, editors and writers—who shape public and elite perceptions about what matters. There are the CEOs and financial movers and shakers whose views and deeds can move markets. More influential in some parts of the world than in others, there are the religious and spiritual leaders, officials and opinion makers. There are the cultural powers in Hollywood and elsewhere that both shape and express the zeitgeist.
As individuals, many of these people are outstanding: bright, hardworking, public spirited and dedicated to their jobs. They score well on tests and they get good grades in school. They can navigate the tricky path of advancement in the large and clumsy institutions that are the hallmark of our time. There are a lot of things they do well: they are mostly polite, they pay their bills and are reasonably faithful to their spouses and reasonably mindful of their kids. They are good company at cocktail parties and can at least appear attentive to panel presentations at multiday conferences. Whatever virtues are fashionable they are ready to exhibit, whatever opinions fit them for power they are eager to embrace. They look the part.
But they also have their limits: generally speaking they not only can’t think outside the box, they can’t conceive of a reality beyond the box’s comforting walls. They are bad at estimating probabilities, bad at anticipating consequences, bad at policy design and bad at managing change. Most are technical rather than strategic intellectuals; they often understand their own specialties pretty well, but cannot grasp the big picture. Incremental and cosmetic change they can process; deep change, not so much. They color between the lines and they play well with others, but under their mostly well meaning and eminently consensual direction the world is careening toward chaos.
During the 20th Century we saw the professionalization of the public sphere take place. “Public Servant” became a profession and “civil service” a career. This includes everyone involved in government, from the elected leaders down to the menial employees like file clerks and janitors.
Don’t get me wrong – in many ways this was both necessary and good. It was a definite improvement over the old patronage systems that it replaced. One example is the creation for uniform standards and training for police officers.
But there are always unintended consequences.
Lawyers tend to think in terms of law. Give them a problem to solve and they’ll come up with “legal” solutions. Business people tend to think in terms of business solutions. That’s because when you spend most of your days doing one thing it tends to affect your perspective.
People who spend their lives in government tend to think in terms of government. They think government is good and their solution to every problem is “more government”. They also tend to be risk-averse.
But the professionalization craze extended beyond government service. It included professions like journalism and business. And the key element to professionalization is education. More and more people went to college and got degrees. This resulted in an explosion of academia. Nowadays every profession has it’s own branch of academia.
In the computer science field there is an old programmer’s acronym – “GIGO” – that stands for “Garbage in, Garbage out.” It basically means that a program is only as good as the data you feed into it.
For several generations we have been feeding the same kind of people into an ossified system. Is it any surprise that we keep getting the same results?