You may recall that the Dunning-Kruger Effect shows that whereas people who do things well tend to underestimate their performance, the inept have no idea how bad they are. Indeed incompetent people consistently over estimate their abilities and success. What a metaphor for the past ten years!
First up, of course, is the Bush-Cheney administration. When W was running in 2000, he was asked about his inexperience on the national stage and in foreign policy. His stock answer: “I’ll have great advisers.” He didn’t. Not one. Stupid, venal, mendacious incompetents every one of them. The Presidential Briefing memo, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US?” Why Condi Rice said that was a “historical piece.” And she was supposed to be one of the best and brightest of the group. Dunning-Kruger in a nutshell.
Next-and a close second it is-the financial lords of the universe who had the reverse Midas touch. Rating agencies that could rate, insurance companies that couldn’t insure, investment houses that couldn’t invest, watchdog government agencies that couldn’t watch, compensation plans that rewarded failure. Arrogance and ignorance packaged as free-market enterprise. It’s enough to make one go back to Karl Marx-but he’s another dude who illustrates the Dunning-Kruger effect.
All of this was breathlessly described (always after-the-fact) by a declining media system with reporters who can’t report, editors who can’t edit, news analysis featuring Newt Gingrich. Two words: Fox News. Two more: arrogance and ignorance.
In Massachusetts we did not escape the decade’s theme. Tom Finneran, Sal DiMasi, Dianne Wilkerson, Jim Marzilli (well, he may be genuinely sick). But doesn’t “arrogant and ignorant” fit these birds to a T? Massport. Big Dig mess, tunnel collapse. The late and not-very-lamented Turnpike Authority. After half a century we haven’t learned that handing over clout to governmental “authorities” breeds A & I.
No, there wasn’t a golden age of competence either recently or long ago, nor was arrogance ever diminished in our public life. But it’s chilling to read Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? To see how closely is the correlation between arrogance, and ignorance, decline and fall. Tacitus said of the assassinated emperor Galba, “All pronounced him worthy of empire, until he became emperor.” All pronounced AIG, Donald Rumsfeld, Enron, Bernard Madoff, Goldman Sachs, Countrywide Mortgage, worthy of exalted status. Think of Larry Summers in his (mercifully brief) presidency of Harvard University. We need to stop making such pronouncements. Please make that your New Year’s resolution number one. I ask this humbly and thoughtfully.