Saturday, January 30, 2010

We Are All So Damn Fallible

If something's excellent, there's nothing to fix. So I tend to look for problems.

In recent years, I've trained my sights on the U.S. government's failings:
  • Going into such great debt that we've mortgaged our children's future, with China the main bank that will decide whether to modify our loan or leave us hanging.
  • How despite repeatedly being told, the government let Bernie Madoff rip off billions of dollars from people. How despite being repeatedly told of dangerous conditions in a peanut processing plant, the warnings were ignored. How despite the Christmas bombers' father credibly warning the CIA about his son, he was allowed to fly--while the government spends a fortune to screen all of us at airports. The most recent report said that despite spending billions, we are utterly vulnerable to terrorist attacks, especially biological.
  • The major federal "entitlement" programs: Social Security and Medicare teeter on the brink of bankruptcy despite ever increasing funding from us.
  • Since the Korean War more than a half century ago, the big mighty U.S. military has a poor won-loss record let alone cost-benefit record: Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan. We can't even capture the person we say is our highest priority: Osama Bin Ladin.
  • Our public schools, despite our spending ever more, near the world's top in per capita spending, are near the bottom in international comparisons of student achievement. The main way we seem to be able to reduce the racial achievement gap is by stunting Whites' and Asians' achievement rather than by improving Blacks' and Latinos'.
Yet my friend Warren Farrell made an on-point criticism of me: He urged me to come to grips with the fallibility of the human condition--that there is ample fallibility not just in government but in nonprofits and for-profits, as well as, of course, in individuals. I also need to remind myself that the world simply hasn't been around long enough for us to solve many problems: for example, cancer, slow learners, and getting the warrior to resolve conflict peacefully.

I'm trying to be more accepting of the human condition.


ST said...

The mark of a true scientist is that they secretly hope they're wrong, despite overwhelming evidence. Alas, the human condition is hard to overcome.

Anonymous said...


Of course Warren is correct, there is mistake-making in the private sector as well as in the Government. However, there are a few crucial differences to consider.

First, private sector mistakes lead to shrinking profits, whereas mistakes in Government agencies lead to increased funding.

Second, if your private sector company makes too many mistakes you can withdraw your patronage and go to their competitor. If your Government makes an abundance of mistakes, you get charged more (in taxes).

Yes, as Warren says, everyone makes mistakes. Sadly, the private sector gets penalized for their fallibility whereas the state gets rewarded, so we see who has the incentive to make fewer mistakes and who can afford to make more.

Dr. Michael R. Edelstein

Marty Nemko said...

Good comment, Michael. Thanks.

Sean Dulin said...

I just finished Colin Powell's auto-biography and this post made me think about it. In that book, he points out that in the conflicts that most characterize as a tie or a loss (Korean and Vietnam, the book was written before Afghanistan and Iraq 2), clear military objectives were not given to the military.

In Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the military was told to defend this area and to capture that area. They did both those things.

I would say our cost-benefit ratio is getting better with the disarmament of nuclear weapons after the fall of the Berlin Wall. What would be the cost today of maintaining a 500,000 person standing army with enough nuclear missiles to destroy the world 18 times?

I agree with the human condition idea.

Frustrated Fed said...

As someone who joined federal service in 2007 after 25 years in the private sector, I agree with Dr. Edelstein up to a point. However, the private sector does not always get penalized. The bailout is just one example.

Anonymous said...

Dear Frustrated Fed,

Right you are! And it's wrong for the Government to bail them out.

Again it's the Government creating perverse incentives, in this instance for business.

The solution, IMHO, involves the the mistake-making Government getting out of our lives.

Dr. Michael R. Edelstein

Frustrated Fed said...

Let's fact it Doc, we Americans have a love/hate relationship with government. It reminds me of a dysfunctional parent/child relationship.

ST said...

I was thinking more about my comment about scientists and I think it might be more accurate to say they secretly FEAR they're wrong ...

E said...

This is pretty funny stuff, mostly because it's true.
Dr. Nemko, I was wondering (let's play a very wild thought experiment)
if you believe someone could ever fix the education system and make it "good" if they were given the power to do anything they wanted?

Marty Nemko said...

Indeed, I have issued blueprints for the reinvention both of K-12 and higher education:


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