Why Be Competent if Competence Doesn't Pay?


Every now and again the media present stories about exceptional people who, despite all odds, make a go of a particularly difficult endeavor.

A school principal manages to graduate inner-city youths with honors, keep classrooms free of truancy and find ways to direct students away from drugs and street crime.

Or someone in a run-down public-housing project by sheer, drive, energy and determination manages to make that project a fine place to live.

But the stories are few. The sad fact of the matter is that our society no longer produces competent people in sufficient numbers to run it.

The examples are everywhere. The financial sector is in shambles through the efforts of a number of con men and an even larger number of savings-and-loan and bank managers who led their institutions into extinction.

Everyone has a story of federal, state and local government incompetence. It is taken as a given that government workers operate with less than a full load. Legislatures are always passing laws so poorly drafted that the sharpies easily find loopholes to thwart the original intention of the law.

And the society becomes more complex all the time. People are now tested for all sorts of things from AIDS to the ability to drive a car. But the tests are imperfect and the results are so problematic that often they may not be used in court. Medical tests come back from the laboratories wrong about 30 percent of the time.

Getting anything fixed has become an exercise in frustration. Billing mistakes are endemic. The scam is in selling a repair-insurance contracts on a product that shouldn't be expected to break down in the first place. The policies sell. People expect products to fail.

What has happened? The American gene pool has not suddenly shrunk. People are not dumber than ever, even if that appears to be the case.

Hustle has replaced competence as the route to riches in America. Manipulators score big. Makers of things get short shrift. To make it big in America today most people look to the lottery or to a lawyer who can parlay some real or imagined medical or product failure into a big-bucks lawsuit. Juries side with the plaintiffs because they no longer believe that doctors or manufacturers are competent.

The mafia state of mind has become a role model for bright, alert Americans. The United States is still a society open to talents. The problem is that men and women have learned to use their talents to maximize life on the edge. The wage gap between managers and producers has grown steadily. It is only in the much maligned arena of professional sports that the working stiff on the field is paid more than the manager.

It is not that the work ethic has disappeared. The inner-city youth pushing drugs is really maximizing his opportunities in a high-stress, highly competitive environment. Michael Milken put in an enormous number of intensive hours becoming a kingpin in the demise of the American economy.

Expenditure of energy, talent and imagination is not lacking, but the people who see to it that the garbage is collected efficiently, that you and your automobile do not disappear during a bridge collapse and that your Social Security check comes on time are routinely denigrated and often poorly paid. The scammers make headlines, have big houses in the suburbs, and wear Rolex watches or pump-up designer sneakers.

Simple competence does not pay. There is no future in it. And the result is that there are ever fewer men and women of ability who will expend their energy in making our society run well and efficiently. When the monetary and social rewards disappeared from doing a job competently, people stopped expending the effort to be competent.

We are all sliding through a general lowering of expectations. We are afraid to put money in a bank or walk city streets at night.

One of the themes in Michael Dukakis' inept presidential campaign was that the government was suffering a crisis of competence. This argument hardly raised a ripple in the polls. The public had already decided that the concept of competence was irrelevant.

Richard W. Smith is a retired public-television official.

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