September 15, 2014

Life in Washington's gradocracy

Over the past two decades, he Review has periodically reported on the gradocracy, a misguided takeover of the federal government by those with graduate degrees in things like business, law and economics, but lacking skilled in social intelligence. It's nice to have Thomas Frank join the cause. 

Thomas Frank, SalonThe powerful in Powertown love to take refuge in bewildering professional jargon. They routinely ignore or suppress challenging ideas, just as academics often ignore ideas that come from outside their professional in-group. Worst of all, Washingtonians seem to know nothing about the lives of people who aren’t part of the professional-managerial class.

... You can see this dysfunction for yourself in the headlines of recent years. Ever wonder why the foreign policy authorities never seem to change, keep coming back, despite racking up shattering failures like the Iraq War? It’s because of the way Washington worships expertise, and the way these authorities have perched themselves atop a professional structure that basically does not acknowledge criticism from the outside.

Ever wonder why the economic experts never seem to change, keep coming back, despite racking up such shattering failures as the housing bubble and the financial crisis and the bank bailouts? Ever wonder why a guy like Larry Summers gets to be chief economist at the World Bank, then gets to deregulate Wall Street, then gets to bail Wall Street out, then almost gets to become chairman of the Fed, and then gets to make sage pronouncements on the subject of—yes— inequality? It’s for the same bad reasons: Because D.C. worships expertise and because Summers, along with a handful of other geniuses, are leading figures in a professional discipline dominated by what a well-informed observer once called a “politburo for correct economic thinking.”

Some people are ignored in this town even though they are often right while others are invited back to the Oval Office again and again even though they are repeatedly wrong—and the reason is the pseudo-professional structure of the consensus. No one has described how it works better than Larry Summers himself. “I could be an insider or I could be an outsider,” Elizabeth Warren says Summers told her, back in the bailout days.

“Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.”


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