Looking at the sorry grab-bag of candidates the conventional
political system threw up for our consideration during this abbreviated
primary season -- and at those who emerged as the major-party candidates
-- it is more than possible to wring one's hands in despair, as many
have done. I prefer to see the emergence of tired mediocrities as
political leaders as a healthy sign that the old order may be passing
away. First-rate people are less interested in government or politics as
a vocation, a way of making a constructive mark on the world than they
were even a generation ago, and the signs are present not only in
politics as such.
Last November the Associated Press reported that "Competition for
high-tech employees has left state and local governments in the dust,
trailing private-sector employers. Not only are recent graduates with
top-notch computer or technology skills less inclined to go into
government than into private employment, the state [California] had
actually lost 648 more information-technology workers than it had hired
over the four years ending in mid-1998." Government can't offer hiring
bonuses or stock options or pay off student loans. Civil-service
regulations make the hiring process so tedious that even those with an
interest in government work hire on elsewhere before the government can
get around to making a concrete offer.
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Since November numerous articles have appeared chronicling similar
high-tech recruiting difficulties being faced by the federal government
and other state governments. Also in November, the CIA, through news
services, let it be known that it is working to "bring the CIA's image
in from the cold." Finding potential recruits turned off by secrecy and
hangover cold war attitudes -- not to mention, which the CIA can't bring
itself to admit, the fact that the agency has no coherent mission in
today's world -- the CIA is cooperating in the making of cable-TV movies
that glamorize spying and try to show a friendlier face. It seems
intelligence is more about information technology than about
cloak-and-dagger derring-do these days, and you can't look too stodgy
and secretive if you want to attract techies.
In January the military hired a new ad agency, underscoring, as a New
York Times article put it, "the nagging difficulties that all the
nation's armed services are having signing up new recruits at a time
when the economy is booming and more young people than ever are finding
college an attainable goal." The Army fell 8 percent short of its
recruiting goals in the fiscal year that ended last September. The Air
Force missed its goal by 5 percent, while the Navy fell short by 12
percent. In January as well, my newspaper, the Orange County Register,
ran a series of articles, based on a GAO report and its own reporting,
explaining how much trouble the Border Patrol is having hiring as many
people as it is authorized to have employed. Congress directed the
Border Patrol to hire 1,000 new agents last year and provided the money,
but the Border Patrol could find only 369 that fit the criteria, passed
the tests and stayed interested in the job long enough to sign on.
Because of the high rate at which agents leave, the agency would
actually have had to hire 1,757 new agents to meet the goal of expanding
by 1,000 agents.
In April the Washington Post did an article explaining some of the
military's problems. Alarmed by the alacrity with which younger officers
are leaving before staying long enough to qualify for the most generous
pension benefits, the Army commissioned a survey of mid-career officers
(mostly majors and a few lieutenant colonels). A summary of the comments
claimed that "Top-down loyalty doesn't exist. Senior leaders will throw
subordinates under a bus in a heartbeat to protect or advance their
careers." The younger officers were scornful of phony combat-readiness
reports, knowing from their own experience that the Army isn't close to
being combat-ready. The Army will form two blue-ribbon panels to study
the problem. They will probably miss one of the most important factors,
that political leaders are eager to convert the military into social
workers to the world. (See Al Gore's foreign policy
speech this past Sunday.) Compared to serving as a universally resented policeman or operating a food bank in Kosovo or Bosnia, a risky dot.com start-up or a job as a technician or machinist in a company that seems to have a purpose and a future can start to look pretty good. This trend of bright young people preferring almost any alternative to government "service" or politics seems alarming to some. The distinguished theologian Martin E. Marty recently wrote:
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- "Weep, however, for the talent drain away from the profession of politics. To much of the public, the very idea of being a professional politician smacks of corruption or flies in the face of what populism demands. The notion that only amateurs, or 'losers' in other professions, are interested in mastering the complex role of politicians is a sign of the low status given aspirants."
Marty sees in this trend a danger for civil society, for the sense that there is a common good that first-rate citizens feel some sort of calling to promote, in these modern trends. "Why could little America in 1787 find so many great politicians, and why, in 2000, do we have trouble finding one?" He attributes it mostly (and quite incorrectly) to "the greed culture."
It is more likely beyond the fact that founding a new country and a new government is inherently more interesting and challenging than tending an established one that one could talk about "little America" in 1787 and include government in the "little" category, and today we live in the era of the mega-state. Even for those inclined to want to serve the power structure, the possibilities for anything resembling a sense of personal accomplishment in so doing are virtually nil. The modern state is too large, too complex, too impersonal, too bureaucratized to offer avenues for even the most sincere statist to believe he or she is really serving humanity or fulfilling a personal goal.
A few Americans still feel a zeal akin to that of the founders, to restore or reinvent a government limited enough that something close to the full potential of the information revolution will be spread throughout society rather than captured by a power structure. But few among them believe they can do much within the present political structure to achieve those worthy goals. So they leave politics and government service to the mediocrities and concentrate on building a genuinely civil society rather than serving the highly politicized and impersonal abomination that passes for public service these days.
Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, in his book "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," offers numerous foolish policy prescriptions in the second half of his book, but the first half, where he applies his reporting skills to analyzing the emerging global economy, is quite good. He speaks of the "Golden Straightjacket a country must either adopt, or be seen as moving toward, the following golden rules: making the private sector the primary engine of its economic growth, maintaining a low rate of inflation and price stability, shrinking the size of its state bureaucracy, maintaining as close to a balanced budget as possible, if not a surplus, eliminating or lowering tariffs on foreign goods."
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Thomas Friedman isn't so sure that's an unalloyed good thing, but without claiming this is some kind of utopian perfection, by and large I do. So rejoice in the flight of first-rate people from politics and government "service." In the age of Clinton and Reno, why would a first-rate person want to be involved in serving such brutal and lawless institutions? How much healthier it is that those with real ability choose to concentrate their efforts (whether they understand the concept fully or not) in civil society, that enormously complex and productive web of relationships built on voluntary rather than coerced interactions and personal choices.
By focusing on civil society, it is still possible to believe, we have a chance to eclipse or outgrow the political society that has dominated the scene for the past century, leaving untold bloodshed and misery in its wake.