THE MODAL MAN

Posted in Rants on February 6th, 2017 by Ed

(Title is part of my life quest to get people who mean "modal" to stop saying "average")

The Olympics would be much more interesting if each event included one randomly selected normal person in unexceptional physical condition. When ten of the world's fastest human beings race one another, no one ends up looking that fast. Oh, they look fast. But you can't get a sense of just how fast they are if you have no useful context in which to place what you're seeing. Everyone knows Usain Bolt is very fast. Watching him race a 41 year old truck driver from Omaha would drive that point home.

Obviously this will never happen; the International Olympic Committee realizes that athletics is best left to athletes. Us normal folk can barely manage to avoid hurting ourselves when we try to exert ourselves similarly. People (at least when sober) can look at high level athletes and recognize immediately, "That person is vastly better than me at this thing."

To a lesser extent we recognize that in other areas of our lives, too. We pay professionals for medical, financial, legal, and other kinds of advice. We pay other professionals for skills they have that we lack. And very few people go to a restaurant and demand to be allowed into the kitchen to bark orders at the chef. We might not always be happy with what we get, but generally we recognize that people working in a kitchen should have some vague idea how to cook. If a restaurant's pitch to customers was "No real chefs here – we staff our kitchen with ordinary Americans with common sense!" it is difficult to imagine many eaters taking them up on that offer-slash-challenge. Likewise, no one would submit themselves or a family member to surgery from "a real hard workin' guy" or "a woman of the highest moral character" unless those descriptions happened to accompany actual medical training. We may on occasion act or talk like we know better, but oddly enough people end up going to a real doctor or real lawyer when they're in trouble.

Despite this, Americans remain absolutely convinced in large numbers that the process of governing the third most populous and most economically and militarily powerful nation on Earth requires no particular skills of any kind. Anyone can do it! It's just like running a hardware store or balancing the family checkbook! Even more, many of us actively reject people who have skills or experience that might help them perform the tasks necessary to keep this unwieldy beast in working order. "I'm sick of politicians" is roughly similar to being unhappy with one's doctor and, instead of finding a different doctor, going to one's hairstylist for surgery.

This is not to say or even imply that everyone with skills and experience relevant to governing will succeed. Just as not all lawyers are actually good lawyers, elected officials and bureaucrats can be found at every level of ability and effort. But right now we are seeing the difference between public servants who may not be awesome at their job and a bunch of random people who don't understand even the basics of what they are supposed to be doing. This White House is a bunch of monkeys at typewriters randomly hitting keys in an attempt to produce the complete works of Shakespeare. These are people so clueless about the positions they've assumed that it never occurred to anyone to run Executive Orders past a real, JD-holding lawyer before issuing them. That this could have escaped the thought process of everyone involved is almost beyond comprehension. Then again, I'm at a severe disadvantage to them, given that I have a very basic understanding of the role of the Executive branch in our system.

Sure, politics and governing can be more forgiving than a lot of fields. A man off the street would do better as a Senator than as a surgeon or a bond trader. But that is only because there are institutions built up around these people to help them succeed. When one intentionally dismantles those institutions in favor of yet more people with zero relevant experience or skills, then we might as well give a toddler the job.

At least Americans can no longer wonder what it would look like to take someone who doesn't know anything about governing, politics, the law, or public service and putting them in charge of the country. It looks like this. It looks exactly like anyone who grasps that running the government is not in fact like running a business would expect.