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Longing for Competence in a Land Where Nothing Works

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The stunning capture and death of Osama bin Laden belies the widespread and ever-insistent notion that nothing works in America. After receiving high quality intelligence about bin Laden's whereabouts, President Obama carefully and skillfully orchestrated a dramatic mission to take down the world's most wanted terrorist. What's more, he set up the mission in a way that authenticated bin Laden's identity and disposed of his body in respectful accordance with Islamic burial rites -- a sensitive and effective tactic. When President Obama announced Osama bin Laden's death he did so without bluster or bombast. He let the events speak for themselves -- the hallmark of competence.

President Obama pursued Osama bin Laden not as a bounty hunter seeking a "wanted dead or alive" reward, but rather as a man whose patient and precise planning reflected true grit. In a few very well-planned minutes the 10-year mission to capture bin Laden came to swift and flawless end. Can you imagine Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, Donald Trump -- or any of the other potential Republican presidential nominees -- planning and executing such a complex and daring plan? Can they measure up to President Obama's demonstrated competence?

Although it would be amusing to score the competence of potential Republican presidential nominees, there is a much more profound issue to consider: the presence in America of a longstanding and tenacious aura of incompetence. The sad fact is that in contemporary America, many of us expect incompetence. We particularly expect government to be incompetent, an expectation that led President Ronald Reagan to remark in his first inaugural address: "In the present crisis, the solution to the problem is not government; government is the problem."

Such a view long ago led to widespread social cynicism about competence in America. More than 25 years ago the late Marvin Harris, a prominent anthropologist who taught at Columbia University and the University of Florida, published Why Nothing Works: The Anthropology of Daily Life. In that work, Harris attempted to explain the unraveling of the American social and economic fabric: outsourced jobs, reduced American manufacturing, the ubiquity of shoddy goods and workmanship, rising crime rates, transformed family structures and gender relations -- all of which led to the idea that nothing worked well in America. Although many of Harris's ideas produced more heat than light, his more general premise that "nothing works" seems to resonate today with much of the public.

The notion that nothing works is reinforced in routine mundane activity. Think of your experience when you try to fix any kind of billing problem with your credit card company or your telephone or Internet service provider. No one knows what to do. You are put on hold and transferred to someone else who also doesn't know what to do. What a feeling of elation you get when, after hours of frustrating non-conversations on the phone, you finally get transferred to someone who not only understands your problem, but can also offer you a solution.

The expectation that nothing works in American daily life extends to the public domain. In July 2010 a Gallup Poll found that only 11 percent of the American public had confidence that the US Congress might be effective and competent -- the lowest percentage since 1973. Some of my university students like to say: "If there's a problem, the government will make it worse."

Coming back to the death of Osama bin Laden, many of my students doubted that our government had the competence to find him. Beliefs in this governmental incompetence led to jokes about our operational shortcomings. At the annual White House Correspondent's Dinner, which turned out to be the eve of bin Laden's death, comedian Seth Myers indirectly joked about our inability to find the world's most wanted terrorist. "People think bin Laden is hiding in the Hindu Kush," he said, "but did you know that every day from 4 to 5 p.m. he hosts a show on C-SPAN?" In a similar vein, if you wanted to find Osama bin Laden, one of my colleagues told me recently, you should go to the Plaza Hotel in New York City and look for the tall bearded gentleman in a three-piece suit who goes there everyday for afternoon tea.

The belief that nothing works, which often leads to cynical joking about incompetence, is an expression of a deep sense of powerlessness. "It's not what you know," my students like to say, "but who you know." Why work hard if hard work is not amply recognized? Why take pride in your efforts when incompetence seems to be rewarded? Isn't it better just to get by or better yet, get over? Think of the incompetent CEO who ruins the company only to be "let go" with a multi-million dollar golden parachute severance package.

The comments of my students reflect an emerging culture of incompetence. Such a culture is not something most of my students like. It is something, however, that they need to confront each and every day. And so when they see a rare example of competence, as in President Obama's successful mission to bring down Osama bin Laden, they feel a measure of pride and sense of possibility. The recent spontaneous merriment on our college campuses was, I think, less a celebration of bin Laden's death than an appreciation of competence, of a job well done, of a fleeting sense of control in a world that seems increasingly incomprehensible. We need many more such examples of such competence from our craftspeople, teachers and public officials.