Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Something Borrowed–The New Version

with 4 comments

So, it’s Saturday, and I have transportation-related things to do, which means that I ought to be in a very bad mood.  As it is, I got up this morning early, and instead of just jumping into stuff I put on my very favorite Mendelssohn CD and read that book I was talking about a few days ago, and I’m presently in a very good mood indeed.

It’s not going to last.

But while we’re here–

I’m  not going to get into a debate about abortion at the moment.  I’ve said before, and in other places, that I think I know the only substantive argument for a complete hands-off policy by government on the issue of abortion–all nine months, for any reason, without exception–but that I also know of no substantive moral argument for having one. 

But it is an argument on a different topic, and it won’t help anyway, because at the moment neither side seems capable of having a rational discussion about the issue.  People just yell.

Instead, let me go back to that list about what I want, with another Important (numbered, not lettered) issue:

3) I want performance and competence to be the only thing that matters when we engage in projects.

That last word is vague enough.

Let me see if I can’t clean it up a little.

If we engage in building a dam, then the object of our exercise should be to build a dam–not to fix race relations, spread the jobs around a statitically predecided percentage of men and women, raise the self-esteem of Arabs and Zulu warriors, or whatever.

The same should be the case if we want to send a manned flight to Mars, build a bridge over the Columbia River, or anything else.

People should be selected to work on such projects because the have exhibited the best performance at the tasks (or similar ones) indicated. along with other qualities (perserverence, integrity) that could materially affect their performance at this particular job.

Note that I’m saying “performance” and not “merit.”

It’s a useful distinction I learned from Thomas Sowell.  The issue is not some intrinsic, spiritual quality, to be determined–how?  Apparently subjectively, or based on whatever definition anybody can hammer into the legislation.

The issue is something concrete and objectively recognizable: how well the candidate for the job has performed in other jobs, or in school, or on competitive examinations.

I want to see an end to the use of everything–including hiring for jobs and “public works” projects and college admissions–as an extension of social work.

The problem with doing things the way we’re doing them is that it not only doesn’t work, but that in the process of not working they screw up just about everything else.

A bridge project that has to hire people who have not demonstrated their ability to do the work has two choices:  either hire them over and above the number of people actually needed to do that work and then give the less competent hirees some makework kind of thing to keep them out of trouble, or hire the incompetent and hope they won’t do much damage.

Given the problem everybody is having with budgets, the usual thing is the second–and that means that it now takes longer to build that bridge, and the bridge is likely to have engineering problems that can hurt real people in real time.

This is, of course, only one of the reasons why we live in a world where Everything Takes Longer, where 11 years after the 9/11 attacks we still don’t have a replacement for the World Trade Center, almost twice as long as it took to put the twin towers up to begin with. 

And there are other issues here–the proliferation of rules and regulations about the environment, work conditions, and other issues that sometimes may make things better but often simply add to the amount of paperwork and the amount of time that needs to be expended before anything can start in any direction at all.

But at the base of all of it is the way in which we have turned almost everything we do into social work.  The purpose of building a bridge becomes not building the bridge, but “providing  jobs,” “promoting diversity” and a whole lot of other things that may be good ideas on some level or the other, but that don’t do much to get a bridge built both quickly and well.

And this is exacerbated by the professionalization/corporatization of everything.  There are rules, and we follow the rules whether they help with the project or not.

The issue is not whether a candidate got a piece of paper from a school down the road, but whether or not a candidate can actually do the engineering.  We used to have alternative routes to proving that–competitive examinations, work experience.  These days, we just demand the piece of paper and pretend not to know that in at least a large minority of cases, it’s absolutely worthless.

On this issue, unfortunately, NASA was one of the earliest miscreants, which is why Chuck Yeager never made it into the space program.

I do understand that there has never been a time when neptoism, corruption, bias and other factors haven’t entered into this, but there is a difference between an age when such things occur even though they’re recognized to be wrong, and an age when such things are prescribed by law.

And we did, in fact, have periods of time in this country when these things happened less, because there was a societywide consensus that performance ought to be the only thing that counted.  And with uch a consensus, individuals are more likely to seek competence for themselves and in the other people they work for.

And, in fact, pockets of such consensus still exist in areas that are under the radar of the bureaucracies.  Of course, as soon as they come out into the open to do material work in the material world, all that is likely to be over–once they’ve managed to get the environmental impact statement and the 27 other things they have to get before they’re even allowed to start.

I suppose I’d like to fix all that while I was fixing the thing about performance and competence, but I think my world would be well on its well to better if we got that fixed first.

I’m going to go off and see a man about a car.

Written by janeh

April 21st, 2012 at 8:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Something Borrowed–The New Version'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Something Borrowed–The New Version'.

  1. Thre cheers. There were indeed periods of time in our history when that sort of thing happened less. Does anyone else remember that the explicit purpose behind the “prevailing wage” clauses in Federal contracts was to prevent the hiring of black workers? They were disproportionately low-skilled, so if Federal contractors had to pay skilled labor rates regardless of efficiency…

    So now instead of simply opening up the bidding, which will sort out real bias fast enough, we have additional layers of officials to ensure that non-performance factors ARE considered in hiring and promotion.

    It makes sense if you consider that the control, and not the elimination of bias, is the objective.


    21 Apr 12 at 10:52 am

  2. One thing more. I don’t say it isn’t impossible, but isn’t it going to be tricky to reconcile hiring for performance and competence, treating the citizenry as adults and the government constantly monitoring those citizens to ensure they don’t engage in racial discrimination? Seems to me that was how this got started.

    I think the constant monitoring is the part we can do without. If we stick with a system under which the man who makes a widget for $4.95 beats out the man who needs $5.17 to make an identical widget, no one’s going to engage in irrational discrimination very long. The trick is to make sure no one enters the job market already lagging in the race, and for that I’d advise trading our stock of “diversity managers” for inner-city English teachers and reading tutors.


    21 Apr 12 at 5:33 pm

  3. Robert, I came across this today.


    I’d say he is right that there are too many special interest groups.


    21 Apr 12 at 7:13 pm

  4. JD, I think in some ways we NEED “special interest groups.” Individuals simply can’t contend with a massive and self-interested Federal bureaucracy. And, that article to the contrary, a government which in the past 12 years has conducted 2 1/2 wars, played with the tax code three times, spent several extra trillion, and rewritten health insurance law, finaicial regulaton and corporate accounting doesn’t look paralyzed from here. It’s not the quantity of government action which is the problem, but its quality.

    Watch the pattern Even if you could read Dodd-Frank, the “Affordable Care Act” and–I can’t even remember what the new accounting laws are called–you wouldn’t know whether or not you were obeying the law. The “laws” dictate that someone else will get to make decisions later. The HHS Secratary will decide waht your medical insurance has to include and at what rates. Committees made up of people not yet chosen will determine the details of allowable financial transactions. In some cases, they get to make the decision after you do, or they can simply keep you from acting until–and unless-they make a decision. It’s not that too many people have a say in the creation of a law. It’s that we’re not getting a finished product.

    Effectively, the law is whatever our lords and masters say it is. Legislators and senior bureaucrats have to be bought off continually–with speaking fees, post-government employment and a dozen other devices in that broad area where bribery and extortion meet. And that worries me a lot more than whether Senators are blocking to many appointments.


    21 Apr 12 at 10:23 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 592 access attempts in the last 7 days.