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“The United States of Incompetence” (“Can’t We Do Anything Right?”)

In morals, the family, education, work and quality, all seems to be in decline. 


Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine

February 25, 1990

By Art Carey


IT IS JUST A BRIDGE, A SIMPLE TWO-lane bridge that carries a busy road - Bowman Avenue - over the railroad tracks that give the Main Line its name. There is nothing special about this bridge, except that my neighbors and I depend on it to travel from one side of the community to the other.

 There is nothing special about this bridge, except that the state Department of Transportation allowed it to deteriorate so badly that a year ago last fall inspectors declared it unsafe and suddenly closed it.

 There is nothing special about this bridge, except that, because of bureaucratic wrangling, it won't be replaced, at the earliest, until the fall of 1991 - three whole years since it was shut. Griped Alan C. Kessler, a fed- up Lower Merion Township commissioner: "The bridge over the River Kwai was built in less time. "

 There is nothing special about this bridge, except that every time I want to use it - and can't - my blood starts to boil, especially since, in all that time, during 16 long, inconvenient months, no matter what the hour or day, I've never seen a single person working on it.

 What the hell is going on here?

 Why is it that in 1990, in one of the richest townships in one of the richest counties in one of the richest nations in the world - a country that once gloried in its engineering derring-do - we can't rebuild a simple two- lane bridge in less than three years?

 Where are Teddy Roosevelt and Robert Moses when we need them? Where's the can-do, take-charge, full-speed-ahead spirit that once defined the American character? What's happened to our political will and civic enterprise, our

 vision and moral fortitude, our ability and desire to tackle any problem, to take on any challenge, to do what needs to be done - with dispatch and care and pride?

 Yes, there's nothing special about the Bowman Avenue bridge - and that's the problem. For the Bowman Avenue bridge is just another dismal example of a disease that's consuming the soul of America. For me, it's a maddening symbol, right in my own back yard, of an epidemic of incompetence that is turning the United States into a second-rate nation and a Third World country.

 * In New Jersey, the State Commission of Investigation calls for drastic reforms to protect patients from drug-addicted, senile, mentally ill or incompetent doctors. One case cited: an anesthesiologist who left a patient's side during an operation to have sex with a nurse in a closet. The patient died on the operating table.

 * New York Telephone has to test 57,000 people before it can find 2,100

 qualified to become operators and repair technicians.

 * Because of inadequate soil testing, the Schuylkill Expressway's new Vine Street interchange begins to sink so badly that it must be torn down, redesigned and rebuilt - a bungle worth $50 million.

 * A Piedmont jetliner, with 100 people on board, makes an emergency landing in Greensboro, N.C., when its left landing gear cannot be lowered because it is jammed by a rubber wheel chock left behind by mechanics.

 WHAT DO I MEAN BY INCOMPEtence? Strictly speaking, it refers to a lack of ability, but today it has become a catchword for a larger malaise. We have lost our purpose, our moral ambition, our sense of social obligation. In this broader light, incompetence is failing to do what you ought to do - either

 because you can't or because you won't. Incompetents come in two varieties: those who lack the brains or skills, and those who are lazy, sloppy, careless and don't give a damn. Both kinds of incompetents are well represented in the United States today, at every level of society, among all kinds of people, in all sorts of occupations.

 Incompetence is the Exxon Valdez (cost: at least $1 billion for cleanup, incalculable damage to the environment), and the S&L bailout (cost: $306 billion and rising), and the HUD scandal (cost: $4 billion and counting), and mismanagement of the Energy Department's nuclear weapons plants (cost: $150 billion), and a nation that continues to ring up titanic budget deficits ($206 billion for fiscal 1990) and foreign trade imbalances (about $110 billion for 1989).

 Incompetence is the MOVE debacle (cost: 11 lives, 61 houses, at least $22.6 million) and a doped-up Conrail engineer running a string of locomotives into the path of an Amtrak passenger train (cost: 16 lives, 175 persons injured, millions of dollars in equipment and property damage).

 Incompetence is the high school graduate who can't read or write or do simple arithmetic, the U.S. citizen who believes the president doesn't have to obey the law, and the 94 million Americans who don't know that their own planet orbits the sun once a year.

 Incompetence is the mail-order house that sends you the wrong merchandise, the hospital that duns you for a bill you paid a year ago, the salesperson who acts as if you're imposing, and the telephone operator who repeatedly transfers your call to the wrong party.

 Incompetence is the painter who gouges your walls while scraping off wallpaper and spackles only half of them, the plumber who never shows up, and the auto mechanic who doesn't fix what he charges you for.

 Incompetence is professors who plagiarize and scientists who fudge data. It's doctors who are too busy to talk to their patients, and lawyers who make disputes so acrimonious they cost a fortune to settle.

 Incompetence is too many college grads chasing MBAs and BMWs, specializing in M&As and arranging LBOs, doing deals, shuffling paper assets, gutting companies, creating nothing of value - but scoring high on their MBOs. It's the go-go biz whiz who runs the company into the ground - and bails out with a million-dollar "golden parachute. "

 Incompetence is the Peter Principle and the art of failing upward. It's nice-guy managers who avoid straight talk and tough decisions. It's insecure company despots who filter reality through obeisant yes men. It's myopic, risk-averse CEOs obsessed with the next quarter's profit figures, and timid, passive boards of directors interested more in what's for lunch than in what's happening in R&D.

 Incompetence is arrogant reporters who mangle the facts. It's New Yorker journalists who fabricate quotes and invent scenes to portray a "higher truth. " It's newspapers that are so "reader-friendly" they've become puffed-up TV guides encapsulated in trivia and ephemera. It's video hype and glitz and "infotainment" - and anything at all associated with Geraldo Rivera.

 Incompetence is corporate and political leaders who, after a calamity, piously proclaim, "I take full responsibility" - and then don't. It's shoddy products and surly service and workers who say, "It's not my job," "Nobody will see it," "The customer will never know. " It's the urge, in the face of a difficult task or problem, to whistle "Don't Worry, Be Happy. "

 Incompetence is vanity and p.r. and people who talk about "massaging" or ''positioning" or "spin control. " It's a society that celebrates style over substance, image over reality, credentials over experience; a society that embraces the credo of Philadelphia Sheriff John Green - "Fake it till you make it"; a society devoted to consuming and acquiring, to self- fulfillment and self-indulgence, a society infatuated with money, power, sex and drugs, a narcissistic, solipsistic, materialistic society living only, always, for the here and now.

 "Our society is coming apart," says Amitai Etzioni, a professor of sociology at George Washington University, "because incompetence is practically all-pervasive.

 "We've lost our sense of discipline, integrity and devotion to diligent effort. We've become too permissive and laissez-faire. It's most apparent in the routine functions of life. Look at the next 10 people you have appointments with - no one comes on time anymore. You almost don't expect it. . . . There's a sense that the other person's not responsible, that you can't count on others, that their word is not a promise, that a commitment is a maybe. "

 "It's awful. The incompetence is just vast," says E. Digby Baltzell, a retired University of Pennsylvania sociologist. From a file cabinet in his study, he pulls out a bulging folder titled "Things Don't Work. " His voice thick with disgust, he reads the headlines from newspaper clippings he's saved: PE nuclear plant closed, operators found asleep. Thirty-three percent of MX missiles unusable, accuracy in doubt. Accidents increase on U.S. airlines.

 "It's epidemic - in schools, in universities, down at NASA, the airlines, public agencies, the government," says Baltzell. "We're aspiring downwards, not upwards. "

 Says Walt Rostow, professor of political economics at the University of Texas: "The rest of the world is laughing at us. We're like a giant who can't pull his pants up."

 * Thousands of pints of suspect blood and other blood components are released by blood banks and commercial plasma centers as a result of testing errors, computer problems and other mistakes. Blood transfusions, often unnecessary, spread hepatitis to at least 40,000 people a year. Since 1981, more than 2,600 patients have contracted AIDS through transfusions of infected blood.

 * The nation's fleet of B-2 stealth bombers, expected to cost $70.2 billion, will need 120 air-conditioned garages costing $1.6 billion because - among other reasons - the cockpit windows don't open and can't let damaging heat escape.

 * The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 23 million adults over the age of 18 are functionally illiterate and incapable of performing any but the most menial tasks. An additional 46 million adults are considered to be just marginally literate.

 * The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposes a record $6 million fine against USX Corp. for 2,000 safety violations at the Fairless Works. In the last two years, accidents at the Bucks County steel mill have killed three workers; one victim fell through a rusted platform and into a vat of hot metal.

 THERE IS, ADMITTEDLY, NO WAY to quantify a nation's incompetence and to prove that there is more of it today than, say, 30 or 130 years ago. Indeed, many experts and social scientists dispute the notion. Stop romanticizing the past, they say. Things have never been better. Besides, incompetence is all a matter of definition. And who's to judge?

 "People always have to have something to grumble about," says retired Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell. "If the only thing we have to complain about is that things don't work - instead of war and inflation - then I think we're doing pretty well. "

 "I don't see any massive rise in incompetence," says Arnold H. Packer of the Hudson Institute, a private, nonprofit research organization in Indianapolis that analyzes policy problems. "There have always been plenty of people who did their jobs poorly, and there's never been a shortage of lousy products.

 "Frankly, I think the idea that things worked better in the good old days is a myth. I think American manufacturing has made substantial improvements and that most products today are more reliable. We have the ability to get in an automobile and travel 100,000 miles without the car overheating and breaking down. Our watches are accurate to the second for years. I work on a word processor - an incredibly sophisticated piece of machinery - and the damn thing works! . . .

 "Let's not kid ourselves: We do have a problem, but it's not because things have gone to hell in a handbasket. It's because the competition is stronger, the demands are greater and the expectations are higher. It's not that Fords now are worse than they used to be; it's that today, Ford has got to compete with Honda and Toyota. "

 Assessing the extent of incompetence is impossible without first agreeing on what the word means, says Elijah Anderson, a professor of sociology at Penn. "How do we judge competence? How do we determine what is competence and what isn't? It raises the whole question of social standards. How do we get those? And what are they used for? I would suggest that standards are created by those who can meet them. They are really a way to include people of a certain sort, and exclude others. "

 Adds urban planner Edmund N. Bacon: "When you use the word incompetence, aren't you really talking about alienation? Incompetence seems to reflect on a person's character. It implies a moral deficiency; it implies inferior human material. . . . Those who have guts have to ask themselves if they're conducting business in such a way that the people who work for them have a sense that it's a shared enterprise. . . . (Otherwise,) the motivation toward so-called competence is greatly reduced. "

 So the incompetence question is all a matter of perspective. Or so goes the argument. But such an equivocal attitude actually encourages incompetence. The implication is that all moral judgments are strictly subjective; right or wrong, good or bad, it's all in the eye of the perpetrator. Such a philosophy not only excuses incompetence, but also leads ultimately to the rejection of norms, the breakdown of law and order, and the collapse of society into anarchy.

 How close to the abyss are we already? Consider our heroes today. We have meretricious celebrities galore. But heroes? How about our recent national leaders: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan? Is your skin puckering into patriotic goose bumps? Or are you wondering how this mighty nation could spawn such a pathetic cavalcade of scoundrels and bumblers?

 In the last presidential race, competence - or the lack thereof - was perhaps the issue. In fact, Michael "Coming to America" Dukakis, the Democratic candidate, said as much. "This election is about competence, not about ideology," he solemnly declared. Dukakis and his earnest band of Harvard smarties then proceeded to squander a 17-point post-convention lead in the polls and blow the election.

 Of course, it hardly helped that Dukakis has all the warmth, geniality and charisma of a dead haddock - a fatal form of incompetence in a politician with presidential aspirations. Then again, what if he had won? Since returning to Boston, Gov. Dukakis has had to watch his unfavorable rating climb to an incredible 79 percent as his much-vaunted "Massachusetts Miracle" evaporates, the state's budget deficit swells to a stupendous $825 million, and its bond rating sinks to the lowest in the nation.

 Meanwhile, the man who beat Dukakis, George "I Coulda Been a Country Club Steward" Bush, named as his vice president an obscure Indiana senator, J. Danforth Quayle - blond, bland, telegenic in a Pat Sajakian way, and eminently unencumbered by brilliance - who has since emerged as a national poster boy for mediocrity and incompetence. Since then, Bush has won the hearts of many Americans by exhibiting the manic, aggressively agreeable personality of a

 college fund-raiser, exploiting any and every photo opportunity and, more recently, parading the troops in Panama.

 Some may argue that deploying 25,000 soldiers to nab drug thug Manuel Noriega was a bit heavy-handed. Maybe it's true, as one editorial writer noted, that this was a mission that could have been accomplished by the Butte, Mont., Police Department. On the other hand, in light of recent American military adventures (Vietnam, Grenada, the somnolent USS Stark, the trigger- happy USS Vincennes), it was probably a prudent move. It certainly reduced the chances of an American rout.

 So let's give Bush credit for that one. So he's not a wimp. But is he competent enough to join the pressing battles on other fronts? Can anyone else in Washington, for that matter?

 "Paralyzed by special interests and shortsightedness, Washington no longer seems capable of responding to its growing challenges," Time magazine proclaimed last fall in a provocative cover story that asked the question, ''Is Government Dead?" ". . . Under the shadow of a massive federal deficit that neither political party is willing to confront, a kind of neurosis of accepted limits has taken hold from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other. . . . "

 Congress has "repeatedly ducked or skirted major issues and problems," Time asserted, largely because of "the weakness, egotism, venality, and sheer political cowardice rampant on Capitol Hill today. "

 Government incompetence has always been something of a tautology. But today it is so chronic and overwhelming, especially in Philadelphia, that it appears that our political system is degenerating from a democracy into a kakistocracy - government by the worst. Of course, our public officials merely reflect us, their constituents, and according to Richard G. Darman, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, we Americans are infected with a severe case of "Now-now-ism. "

 "Now-now-ism is a shorthand label for our collective shortsightedness, our obsession with the here and now, our reluctance to adequately address the future," Darman says. "Our current impatience is that of the consumer, not the builder, the self-indulgent, not the pioneer. . . .

 "The deficit is but one more symptom of our Now-now-ism . . . a kind of silent Now-now scream. It is the mathematical representation of our wish to buy now, pay later - or, more accurately, buy now and let others pay later. . . . Collectively, we are engaged in a massive Backward Robin Hood transaction - robbing the future to give to the present. . . .

 "The great '60s and early '70s metaphor for expanding human possibility was moonwalking, escaping earthly bonds, leaping to the moon. This captured the imagination and excitement of a generation. In the '80s, 'moonwalking' has become an equally attractive excitement. But its meaning has changed. The moonwalking of the '80s is an earthbound dance . . . a set of steps that give the appearance of forward movement, when they are really a backward slide."

 * In place after place along the Blue Route, contractors pour defective support columns and weak concrete. One state engineer says one of the highway's bridges may be unsafe and another may deteriorate early. Some bridge columns are pocked with holes so deep that the steel reinforcing bars are visible.

 * A City Council law that was supposed to grant an exclusive tax break to the Rittenhouse condominium-hotel is so loosely worded that developers and buyers of other luxury condominiums also cash in. The potential tax loss to financially strapped Philadelphia: $20 million.

 * About one in 200 of the 107 million tax-form packages mailed by the IRS - 566,000 in all - contains a return envelope with the wrong address.

 * On New Year's Day, a 12-inch Exxon pipeline ruptures under the Arthur Kill Waterway, which separates Staten Island and New Jersey. A leak-detection alarm flashes, but employees fail to take it seriously for nearly six hours,

 because the alarm is known to be defective. Result: 567,000 gallons of heating oil foul surrounding wetlands.


 A teacher at a Philadelphia public school:

 "The incompetence is incredible. A lot of teachers simply can't teach; they just don't know the material. A second-grade teacher at my school came up to me and asked me how many weeks in a year. I couldn't believe it. I said, 'Fifty-two. ' She said, 'How did you know that? ' I said, 'I learned it in elementary school. ' Then she asked me how many days in a year. She truly did not know. And this is a person who is going to be teaching.

 "Many of the teachers can't teach because they don't know the basic content. How can you teach vowel sounds, fractions and polar coordinates if you don't know that stuff yourself? Some of the teachers are threatened by the curriculum because it's just too difficult for them. In sixth grade, they're supposed to teach the kids about electricity, magnetism and circuitry, and they simply don't teach it because they're afraid to. . . .

 "We have a lot of teachers who don't care, who come in late, who take

 days off whenever they want - usually clustered around the weekend - and

 they get away with it. One girl was out two and three days a week. She

 would take extended holidays and come back with a suntan. And she's not

 an exception. . . .

 "It's frightening what the kids are not getting, and yet we continue to graduate students who are basically illiterate. "

 A partner at a Philadelphia law firm:

 "We have entirely too many lawyers for the number of people in our society. We have entirely too many bad lawyers, period. It appalls me how poorly some lawyers write and speak. If you can't do that, you're in the wrong business. After four years in college, three years in law school, a year of judicial clerkship, they can't put words on paper. It's a frustrating process to have to spend your time educating young lawyers while they're supposed to be handling a client's matters. And we get the top graduates from the top law schools. I can't imagine what's going on with graduates in the bottom half of the class from bad law schools.

 "There's a general sense that pride in craft is going out of the business, that we're churning out paper - churning out mediocre paper - and that we've lost the edge of being a special person in society, a counselor, someone whom the public looks up to and the client respects. We bitch and moan that we're no longer a profession, but we've done it to ourselves, because we don't act like a profession. We're consumed with minutiae, we're macho for the sake of being macho, we're obsessed with making money. . . .

 "The danger is that the law is so complicated today. I could no more plan your estate than perform brain surgery. The areas of the law are as different one from another as the specialties of medicine. You wouldn't expect a psychiatrist to perform reconstructive surgery on your knee. But that's what some lawyers do, lawyers who desperately want to hold on to any business that walks in the door. They somehow have the notion that because they have a law degree, and because all a lawyer does is work with words, they can handle anything.

 "God help their clients. "

 An executive of a Philadelphia construction company:

 "Incompetence is a big issue today. The skins are coming off buildings more now because architects are not designing them properly. Many subcontractors are totally irresponsible. . . . They don't do what they're supposed to do. They don't work. The unions don't recognize quality. They believe in the brotherhood concept - everybody's equal. They don't reward excellence or punish substandard performance.

 "People don't care the way they used to. They don't have pride in the product. There's no real dedication to the principle of the work ethic. You see it in management as well as the trades. (Young managers) work as assistant superintendent on one building and think they're ready to be superintendent. . . . Ambition has replaced quality, dedication and loyalty.

 "We used to have a program where we hired one MBA a year. We ran them through courses and put them in different departments to get experience. It failed miserably. MBAs are the most useless people operationally. You can't succeed in the building business without hands-on experience. But the MBA types believe their degrees are more valuable than spending years on the job. That kind of arrogance is the first sign of incompetence. "

 A physician at a Philadelphia hospital:

 "Whole groups of people are taking care of an individual patient, and they don't talk to each other or the patient. This leads to redundant tests, doctors not keeping the patient informed or listening to the patient's concerns, and different doctors telling patients different things and confusing them. Everybody wants control but nobody takes responsibility, and nobody has all the information - including the patient, who has only bits and pieces and doesn't know what it means.

 "I have a relative who has cancer and is being taken care of by an oncologist, a specialist she never sees, and a fellow, a physician in training to become an oncologist, as well as our family doctor, a generalist. But the doctors rarely talk to each other, so no one knows what the other is doing. The oncologist doesn't talk to the internist, who doesn't talk to the physical therapist. The same tests are ordered at different hospitals to diagnose the same problem. It all results in significant confusion about her care.

 "My relative . . . feels like she - the sick patient - should be responsible for coordinating communication, for making sure one doctor talks to the other. What's so egocentric is that each doctor says to her, Let me take care of it. But then the ball drops. It doesn't go any further. "

 ON JULY 20, 1969, NEIL ARMstrong set foot on the Sea of Tranquillity, 250,801 miles distant from Planet Earth. John Kennedy's 1961 promise to reach the moon by the end of the decade had been kept, and when Armstrong proclaimed, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," it was the climax of one of history's most difficult and challenging feats. And we Americans had done it! We could do just about anything!

 On Jan. 28, 1986, 73 seconds after blastoff, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven crew members. America was horrified, all the more so when a presidential commission later reported that NASA had known for years about the design flaw that caused the disaster and could have fixed it - but didn't.

 The history of the space program can be viewed as a metaphor - a metaphor for how high we once soared and how low we've since plummeted. Since the Challenger explosion, NASA has been drifting, demoralized and listless, without an energizing goal. Clearly, the thrill is gone.

 Today, many Americans don't take space exploration seriously. They have lost the faith. They question how sincerely Bush will pursue his extraterrestrial aims (he deputized chief space cadet Dan Quayle to lead the charge), and they wonder where the money ($80 billion for a ride to Mars) will come from, and whether America still has the right stuff to rocket human beings to a planet 35 million miles away and bring them back alive. After all, would you want to travel in a spaceship that far, and that long (2 1/2 years, round trip), knowing that it was made in the U.S.A. - the same country that gave the world the Pinto and the Gremlin?

 Near the end of his life, when his career seemed to have sunk into obscurity, F. Scott Fitzgerald said of his great rival and erstwhile friend Ernest Hemingway, then at the peak of his fame as a novelist: "Ernest speaks with the authority of success. I speak with the authority of failure. " For more than 200 years, America has spoken with the authority of success. Optimistic, energetic, naive, we accomplished great things and made history, embellishing a grand myth of blessed invincibility that only inspired us more. We believed in our manifest destiny and knew that when it came to civilization and progress and competence, nobody could do it better.

 Now, alas, America can speak with the authority of failure. It is not an altogether bad development; chastened, we have become perhaps more humble, more reflective, less apt to embark on rash and ill-fated ventures. But there is also a cost: a tendency to despair in the face of daunting problems, a loss of faith in ourselves and the value of noble exertion and the prospect of a more promising future.

 How have things come to such a sorry pass? Why are we wallowing in incompetence? Consider these factors:


 No society can function without widely accepted norms of behavior and standards of conduct. Since the 1960s, in the name of freedom and fulfillment, Americans have become self-centered, irresponsible and undisciplined, as we grab for all the gusto we can get and boogie into the apocalypse. Knowingly, we are squandering our resources and shortchanging our children. Lawyers enforce our promises. Sleaze greases the wheels of commerce and industry. Our iniquitous culture excretes such covetous grotesques as Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley, such insolent hypocrites as James Watt and Jim Bakker.

 "It's no accident that all this stuff is happening," says Digby Baltzell, the Penn sociology professor. "We have a society that hasn't got any moral center. . . . We tolerate anything. "

 Individual accountability has disappeared, says Baltzell. At the top, politicians and corporate chieftains rarely pay for their blunders. "The president of Exxon should be in jail," he says, for the Valdez accident. At the bottom, people often blame their personal failures on abstract scapegoats - Racism, Drugs, Poverty, the Economy. "There's a tremendous cult of the victim," says Baltzell, "a tremendous feeling sorry for people who are just plain irresponsible. "

 In a provocative 1987 essay titled "A Nation in Decline?", Barbara Tuchman, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, observed: "It does seem that the knowledge of a difference between right and wrong is absent from our society. . . . So remote is the concept that even to speak of right and wrong marks one to the younger generation as old-fashioned, reactionary and out of touch. "

 "If we're going to talk about incompetence, let's talk about moral incompetence," says Noel A. Cazenave, associate professor of sociology at Temple University. "What happens when there is no moral outrage? When Zsa Zsa

 slaps a police officer, she gets three days. If a 17-year-old black or Latino male had slapped a police officer . . . chances are he wouldn't live for three days.

 "It seems like no matter how raw the injustice is . . . there is no moral outrage. And the implications of that are terrifying. It means the end of democracy.

 "We don't have leaders who are able to motivate other people, to walk hand in hand toward some type of common goal for the advancement of the nation. We've lost that common sense of purpose. It's everybody out for themselves. It's gold that motivates, drugs that motivate, exploitation of sex that motivates. We have a distorted view of the purpose of life. We have this notion that what we should do is take our personal buckets and fill them with as many material things as we can. We don't conceive of ourselves as being linked to other people in other generations. "


 It is the basic unit of society, responsible for nurturing the young, shaping values, instilling ethics, transmitting culture, developing competence, and producing contributing citizens. But today, as Doris Harper, supervisor of the custody unit at Philadelphia's Family Court, remarked, "the family is nothing anymore. "

 The breakdown is documented in academic studies and newspaper stories: 13- year-old mothers, crack babies, slowing marriage rates, high divorce rates, fathers who shirk child support, abandoned children, neglected children, abused children. The consequences are frightening: Such children are less likely to become competent workers, citizens and parents themselves; hence, incompetence ramifies and multiplies.

 "We are less committed by any indicator to performance of traditional family roles than we were in the '50s and '60s," says Samuel H. Preston, a University of Pennsylvania demographer. "Twenty-three percent of the kids are born out of wedlock; of those born in wedlock, half will have parents who separate or divorce in the course of childhood. A majority of American children will spend some years of their childhood in one-parent families. "

 Because of the collapse of the family, more children are impoverished. More children are emotionally disturbed and psychologically distressed. More children are receiving psychiatric counseling, and more teenagers are committing suicide. Children whose parents split up, studies show, are more likely to do poorly in school or to drop out.

 What's worse, the children of America cannot defend themselves against this assault, and too few advocates are fighting for resources on their behalf. Meanwhile, older people are increasingly using their political power to skew the country's laws to their own advantage.

 "Younger families and children are worse off today," says Preston. ''There's been a big twist in the age profile of wealth in favor of older people. We now spend 51 percent of our federal domestic budget on three programs - federal retirement, Medicare and Social Security. To me, that reflects a change in attitude about what we want to do collectively, away from children and economic growth, and toward the elderly and satisfying personal material needs. It goes hand in hand with the federal budget deficit and is another illustration of 'enjoy now, pay later. ' "


 In 1983, the U.S. Department of Education, declaring that America was a ''nation at risk," issued a report on the dismal state of education in this country and warned that the foundations of our society were being eroded by "a rising tide of mediocrity. "

 Since then, many states have poured more money into schools, revamped programs, raised teacher salaries and toughened graduation requirements.

 The results?


 Last month, the U.S. Department of Education announced that scholastic skills have remained virtually unchanged and show signs of declining in the 1990s. "Frankly, there has been very little education progress made in the United States," said Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos, who termed the reading and writing ability of U.S. students "dreadfully inadequate. "

 Just how abysmal is American education?

 * Only 42 percent of 17-year-old high school students can comprehend a newspaper editorial or a 12th-grade textbook.

 * Only 6 percent can compute simple interest.

 * Only 26 percent can spot Greece on a world map.

 * Many high school seniors do not know who Winston Churchill was or what happened in 1914.

 * From 1969 to 1989, the combined average score on the SAT examination for

 college-bound seniors has fallen 53 points, or 5.5 percent.

 "I am convinced that the sloppiness and lack of pride in workmanship of many Americans is instilled in elementary school," says Uwe E. Reinhardt, a professor of political economy at Princeton. "I have watched the homework of my children, and I'm appalled at the junk they're allowed to hand in. Eighty percent of the teachers have zero work standards; most don't check homework at all. American teachers accept work for which in Europe a child would literally get slapped. "

 The prevailing attitude is that education should be fun. And so today's ''students" - jaded by video sensation, their attention spans reduced to nanoseconds by MTV - are showered with entertaining, often frivolous electives. Many teachers are themselves awesomely witless, more high school students are taking "dumbed-down" general-education courses, and grade inflation is rampant. Says Robert Eisenberger, a professor of psychology at the University of Delaware: "Kids today think a B is their right, and an A is a reward for minimal effort. "

 As it is, over one quarter of the nation's youth never finish high school. Among those who graduate and go on to higher education, many need remedial reading and writing courses, which about two-thirds of U.S. colleges now provide.

 On many campuses, ignorance is bliss, education an accident. Teaching seems to interest fewer professors, many of whom are craven windbags spouting hermetic cant and pseudo-scientific humbug.

 Contemporary "academic culture is not merely indifferent to teaching, it is actively hostile to it," declares Charles J. Sykes, the author of Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education. At many universities, he says, teaching is a minor factor in promotion decisions, so students are corralled into "mass classes" and pay thousands of dollars a year for professors they rarely see.

 No wonder many students view the university as nothing more than a credential mill. "American students are shying away from difficult courses in areas like engineering, mathematics and chemistry," says Eisenberger. "The reason is that these are hard courses that haven't been dumbed-down to the same extent as other courses have. Students want to get their degrees, and make a lot of money, without having to work hard for it. "

 Already, the failures of American education are causing seismic shocks in the job market. David T. Kearns, chairman of Xerox Corp., calls it "the making of a national disaster. " James E. Burke, the chief executive officer of Johnson & Johnson, says it is "the American Dream turned nightmare. "

 What they are seeing is employees who can't plot numbers on a graph, and machine breakdowns because workers can't read operating instructions. Such major companies as Motorola, Ford, Xerox, Polaroid and Eastman Kodak are spending millions of dollars a year on basic reading and arithmetical instruction because America's schools have fumbled the ball. Ominously, the United States is developing into a nation of educational haves and have-nots, who are fast becoming employment haves and have-nots.

 The problem is double-edged: Many workers are less competent, and more of today's jobs demand workers who are more competent. Experts call it "the upskilling" of American industry. As companies invest in automation and new technology, such as robots and computer-aided machinery, they want workers who can think on their feet. Explains Arnold Packer, co-author of a Hudson Institute study titled "Workforce 2000: Work and Workers for the 21st Century," "It used to be that you could go to work in a steel mill or an auto plant and make a decent living, and the company didn't want you to think very much. Today, that's all changed. Most of the jobs require much more in the way of cognitive skills.

 "The problem is that there is a growing gap between what jobs require and what skills people have. We have a severe challenge on our hands, and it's not at all clear we're going to meet it. "


 America used to be famous for hard work. Now, work has become a four-letter word. For most people - whether stuck on an assembly line or in the ranks of middle management - work is tedious, unsatisfying, a necessary evil that earns the paycheck and buys the food. Americans no longer believe that work is its own reward. Craftsmanship - and the delight it once inspired - has become extinct. In a society that idolizes wealth and worships leisure, work is the terrible drudgery that stands between the average American schmo and the weekend. TGIF! It's Miller time!

 Corporations salute quality but bow to Wall Street. Television bombards us with images of the good life, proselytizing for hedonism. Unions protect the mediocre and indolent, sabotaging excellence, demanding more money for less labor. As productivity sags, our standard of living slips. The proletariat - blue- and white-collar alike - is fractious and disgruntled, and an attitude of entitlement has swept the land. You owe it to me, man! Suddenly, the American Dream - the chance to better one's life through effort - is no longer a promise but a right. Somehow, the idea of equality of opportunity has been transmuted into economic parity - equal rewards for all. So why bother to work?

 "More than ever before, Americans view school and work as an unpleasant interlude in their relaxation and entertainment, to be gotten out of the way with a minimum of effort," writes Robert Eisenberger in Blue Monday: The Loss of the Work Ethic in America. "The decline of the work ethic has produced a majority culture of affluent Americans who will not work hard to maintain their comfortable standard of living, and a minority culture of poor Americans who will not persevere to overcome their impoverishment. "

 "In Japan," says Eisenberger, "a person can take pride in being a superb janitor because you are taught throughout your life that any job you take is extremely important because you're rendering a service to society, and if you do poorly, it's a source of great personal shame.

 "In America, it's money that talks. You can be the most competent janitor or housekeeper in the world, but if you have a low-prestige job, you're a loser, whether you do it carefully or sloppily. In fact, if you do it carefully, you're considered a sucker. "

 More and more, work engenders frustration, not satisfaction. Automation and computers have stripped work of its humanity, and many service jobs offer no hope of betterment. Says Temple sociologist Cazenave: "You can't buy a rowhouse working at Roy Rogers. " Over the last decade, corporations have become mere commodities, bought and sold by "takeover artists," cannibalized for cash, merged into debt-burdened conglomerates. In the holy name of ''restructuring," these mega-companies frequently sacrifice their employees - and quality.

 In such a predatory atmosphere, many once-loyal middle managers feel anxious and betrayed. Hustling paper in glorified clerical jobs, others are bored and benumbed. Promotions are rarer, and many hard-chargers, hitting their career ceilings earlier than expected, are fizzling out as their ambition sours into apathy and resentment. "It's the middleness of everybody," says Larry Hirschhorn, a consultant with the Wharton Center for

 Applied Research. "Everybody feels in the middle, no one's on the top. There's a sense of people enmeshed in systems, so you can't control anything anymore. . . . "

 In other words, we Americans feel angry and powerless, and it's affecting our work and attitude toward life.

 "The most motivated Americans today are the immigrants - the Cubans, the Japanese, the Koreans," says Eisenberger. "It used to be that America would shape a stronger work ethic, teaching immigrants the idea of getting ahead by doing a good job. Now, the immigrants are coming here with stronger work values. But the longer they stay, and the longer they're exposed to American culture, the weaker those values become. "


 Attention, K mart shoppers!

 We are wasting our money on cheaply made junk and plastic schlock. We are living in cardboard houses filled with particle-board furniture in a land of fast-food joints and gaudy shopping malls, those cathedrals of consumerism that run up our Visa bills and run down our souls.

 We are drowning our better instincts in a sea of "popular culture" (a

 rarely acknowledged oxymoron). In art, in music, in literature, the trashy and transient are celebrated. Have you read Vanna's autobiography? Television has become the window into our collective psyche. And what does one see when one peers into the tube? Entertainment Tonight! We have confused democracy with the apotheosis of mass taste, our national vitality with fierce vulgarity.

 Little wonder, then, that incompetence is rampant in America, for incompetence is both the cause and result of the decline of quality. Incompetents do not produce quality; when quality is not expected, incompetents thrive. It's the dynamic of terminal philistinism.

 America, of course, has always had an uneasy relationship with quality. In our capitalistic economy, business seeks to create the widest possible mass market for its goods and services, often compromising quality to play to the lowest common denominator. As consumers, however, we hope for quality, and are properly dismayed when we don't receive it. Quality is also a component of superiority, and being on top, being No. 1 (or at least feeling that we are), has been, at least until recently, a salient American ambition.

 On the other hand, quality implies standards, and we Americans have always been suspicious of standards. Standards imply discrimination - making decisions about what is better, what is best - selection and, possibly, exclusion. The setting of standards militates against our bedrock belief in egalitarianism. It smacks of elitism, the most heinous of democratic sins, especially at a time when all moral and cultural values are deemed to be relative.

 Equal rights and equal opportunity are admirable principles of state, but egalitarianism, as interpreted and understood today, is a form of good-hearted wish-fulfillment that violates natural law. Way back in the 18th century, the French philosopher Montesquieu saw political egalitarianism as a "dangerous fallacy" that could lead only to incompetence - and, he added, mob rule.

 More recently, Barbara Tuchman, in an essay titled "The Decline of Quality," rued the fact that "the new egalitarians would like to make the whole question of quality vanish by adopting a flat philosophy of the equality of everything. No factor or event is of greater or less value than any other; no person or thing is superior or inferior to any other. Any reference to quality is instantly castigated as elitism, which seems to inspire in users of the word the sentiments of Jacobins denouncing aristos to the guillotine.

 "In fact, elitism is the equivalent of quality. Without it, management of everything would be on a par with the United States Postal Service, which, mercifully, is not yet quite the case. Difference in capacity does exist, and superiority makes itself felt. It wins the ski race and promotion on the job and admission to the college of its choice. There are A students and D students, and their lives and fortunes will be different. "

 A sense of quality is essential to any nation that aspires to progress. As Allan Bloom, the author of The Closing of the American Mind, observes: "The awareness of the highest is what points the lower upward. " Put another way, a society afraid of excellence should not be surprised by incompetence.

 INCOMPETENCE HAS ALways existed and always will - as will ardent lamentations about it. But today incompetence is so ubiquitous in America that it is sapping our economy, hampering our ability to compete, threatening our well-being, impinging on our quality of life, and eroding the social contract. Slowly, the bonds of mutual trust so essential to the survival and progress of any society are beginning to unravel.

 What's most terrifying is that incompetence is like a cancer; if left unchecked, it will metastasize, spreading from the individual to the organization, from one generation to the next, growing more virulent and

 inexorable, invading all parts of the body politic until our nation ceases to function.

 Incompetence feeds on moral cowardice - "the mistaken idea that moral issues are purely subjective and personal and therefore there's no point in talking about them," says Christopher Lasch, a history professor at the University of Rochester and the author of The Culture of Narcissism. "There's a tremendous fear of disagreement today. People believe that serious disagreement is likely to lead to trouble, and so this puts a premium on avoiding any issues that might be divisive or controversial. "

 So the "cure" for incompetence - our best chance of driving it into remission - is a resurgence of moral bravery. We must remind ourselves that there is no dignity or majesty in life unless we strive: to make the bad good, the good better and the better best. We must overcome our fear of offending, our pathological eagerness to be considered nice or hip or ideologically correct. We must not be afraid to insist on quality, to assert and defend standards of excellence, to condemn incompetence in all its manifestations.

 We owe it to those who have gone before us but much more to those who come after. Too many are depending on us, and too much is at stake, to surrender America to the enemies of effort, achievement and civilization.

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