Are government workers America’s dumbest people?

Summary:  Today a journalist explains that government workers are “America’s dumbest people.” It’s an episode from social media, the stages of our time on which people dance out their values and beliefs. These conversations provide a mirror in which we can see western society, and from which we can deduce the hidden forces molding our society.

Bainbridge Colby on hatred and faction

A conversation about our polarized time

A good story starts with the action. AP: “Federal Government Suffers Massive Hacking Attack“. Next we turn for a reaction from a notable journalists on Twitter, a intelligent person whom I respect. It’s a trivial vignette, but telling about our time (and the 2nd such conversation I had this week on Twitter). He tweets the AP story with this framing…

“Dastardly Chinese discover identity of America’s dumbest people. So what are they going to do with this knowledge?”

This is a commonplace of our time — quite daft but stated as obvious fact even by intelligent, educated people. Much like belief that Bush Jr. is like Hitler, Obama is like Lenin, Blacks are inferior (or degenerates), or 97% of scientists believe that anthropogenic global warming will prove catastrophic by 2100 if not stopped. What happens when these people have their belief questioned?

My reply: “Is that a statement of tribal identity? Does it seem sensible or funny otherwise?” His reply…

“No and Yes But YMMV.”  {Your mileage might vary”.}

Western culture had always had fractions with some characteristics of tribes. Religions, each with their own beliefs, difficult or impossible for outsiders to question (in the Eucharist does the host and wine really become Jesus’ body and blood?) Now we have new tribes, each with their own articles of faith which signal their allegiance — as resistant to logic and facts as medieval Christianity.

Lessons learned

Columnists chatter incessantly about “political polarization” — the different policy preferences of the two factions of the 1% who dominate our politics. But here we see the real polarization: the fragmentation of society into tribes with incompatible and immutable beliefs about the world. No surveys or quotations from the IPCC can dissuade a climate alarmist from his certainty that 97% of scientists believe in catastrophic climate change — or a left-winger about Bush Jr being somewhat like Hitler. Nor can facts or logic break the certainty of a right-winger that Obama is a Leninist (or Islamic, or a foreign usurper).

These tribal loyalties are held irrespective of intelligence and education. They keep us fragmented, and easy to rule.

Hatred of Government

Are government employees dumb?

It’s a core article of faith on the Right that government is ineffectual, its employees are some combination of corrupt, slothful, and dumb — and much of it (or all) should be transferred to the private sector or just closed down. Western history disproves much of this.

As for the casual bigotry of believing them “dumb”, what evidence supports this? I doubt most people saying that would last a week working in many government agencies dealing with the public, or in most of those doing technical work (or, to use a local government example, in a typical Child Protective Services Office). But these people seldom tell us which Federal workers are “dumb”. It’s an odd thing to say, since Federal employees are better educated than Americans in the private sector.

CBO report, February 2012, table 1
Comparing the Compensation of Federal and Private-Sector Employees“, CBO, January 2012 – table 1.

Perhaps these people would point to the Federal government’s law enforcement agencies and the military? Park rangers, Foreign Service officers, and public health officers? Who are these dumb people?

My guess is that if forced they would point to the government’s corps of janitors and clerks as the “dumb” people. Are they “dumber” than their private sectors equivalents, or is this a statement of class superiority? If only we’d get these people to confront the “dumb” folks. The conversation might prove interesting.

It’s bigotry towards our fellow Americans. It keeps us fragmented and weak. It’s quite pleasing to the 1%.

Age of Stupidity

What’s the larger game?

One of the major projects of the Right for generations has been to erode the legitimacy of the government and weaken our confidence in its ability to help us — destroying our most powerful tool for collective action. This requires erasing from our minds much of American history — such as the Erie Canal, Progressive-era trust-busting, the great Land Grant Universities, the New Deal, the Interstate Highway Program — and creating belief in well-developed faux history and faux economics.

I believe that many or most of our new tribes have such origins, created by elements of our dominant elites to advance their own interests. Our gullibility is their power.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about our confidence in America’s institutions, and especially these…

  1. America is the new Rome. Late Republican Rome (not the best of times).
  2. Undercutting people’s trust in the Republic: another step to destroying the Republic.
  3. Learning not to trust each other in America, and not to trust America.
  4. Gallup warns us to prepare for fascism!



18 thoughts on “Are government workers America’s dumbest people?”

  1. The Register is “Hip IT” (it is the new home of “BOFH”, or Bastard Operator From Hell), so the existence of a minor, gratuitous snark on Twitter by an editor isn’t all that alarming, IMO. There is plenty of self-censoring, boring corporate IT “journalism” to read if one wants it.

    | Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, called
    | the hack “shocking, because Americans may expect that federal computer networks
    | are maintained with state of the art defenses.”
    [from the HufPo article]

    HAHAHAHA. If you want to identify a real idiot, I nominate Rep. Schiff, who is on the “Intelligence committee”! lol.

    Many areas of government IT have been chronically underfunded, and workers are faced with old, crappy, outdated systems that are difficult to maintain, secure, integrate, and so forth. The Federal Govt. has special hiring processes it has to use to overcome the usual HR bureaucracy when attempting to get “industry experts” to “parachute in” to solve IT disasters.

    Please examine the failure rate of large, government IT projects. You will likely find historical estimates of between 50% to 80% project failure, ranging from complete to partial failures, going back decades.

    The real problem is lack of effective oversight (by politicians and the public). When you combine that with organizational cultures that support mediocrity amongst workers that are led by incompetent, sociopathic managerial types, the default mode should be expected to be a culture of “dumbness” (inability to overcome organizational dysfunction).

    1. “Please examine the failure rate of large, government IT projects. You will likely find historical estimates of between 50% to 80% project failure, ranging from complete to partial failures, going back decades.”

      The government has not cornered the market on failure. Surveys of large private sector IT projects over the last five decades shows between 65 and 75% are considered five years after they were implemented. Below is a brief article on the primary causes. I expect that the primary causes of government IT projects will be about the same.

    2. Eric,

      “Please examine the failure rate of large, government IT projects. You will likely find historical estimates of between 50% to 80% project failure, ranging from complete to partial failures, going back decades.”

      As usual, these statements denigrating goverment are totally devoid of context. What’s the failure rate of such projects in corporations? From what I’ve read, it’s very high everywhere.

    3. Gary Molaskey

      Maybe if the gov. didn’t waste so much money they could spend more on IT. The amount and types of gov. waste and pork is mind numbing if you really look at it.

      1. Gary,

        True. But then no organization is very efficient. Some are highly effective by any measure (e.g., social security administration). Some are massively inefficient — like GM under the generations of decline from the world’s leading automobile company in the 1960s to its eventual bankruptcy in 2009. Under CEO Roger Smith (1981 – 1990) GM spent in capital expenditures a sum sufficient to buy Honda — and many analysts believe their return on investment was roughly zero on that sum.

        I would like to see an analysis showing that the amount of government waste is larger than in large corporations. Note that most people’s idea of government waste are fictional, fed by propaganda. For example, people believe foreign aid is a large chunk of spending, when it’s under 1%. I doubt they have any idea about how the government actually does by quantitative measures of efficiency.

  2. Citing educational attainment rates isn’t all that convincing. such rates do provide a very rough metric for the kind of intelligence needed to comply with the soul crushing system of rules used by the elites to control workers and citizens and to generally limit creativity and nonconformity to functions that support the establishment (or that do not threaten the establishment in real ways).

    Public education itself is an example of monstrous government failure, or “dumbness”.

  3. Generally, the origins of government dysfunction are clearly not primarily caused by the far right. What the far right does is exploit already existing dysfunction in government, and try to stop effective reforms of government that would benefit working people and thus increase popular confidence in government.

    My impression is that when you do see specific examples government failure caused by right wingers, it is usually due to corruption having to do with banking, land speculation (historically, railroad corruption), natural resource extraction (water, timber, minerals, oil, etc.) and the military-industrial-complex, including police. Those kinds of corruption involve an unholy alliance of corporate modernists, religious traditionalists and other conservatives. The mix of corporate realism (modernist rationalism) and cultural delusion (religious conservatism) is inherent to the system of corruption.

    I would be surprised if establishment liberals/progressives were not also found to be deeply involved in many of those types of corruption as well, with the Clintons being the ultimate example of “liberal sell outs” to corporate wealth and power.

    The main difference in the area of culture being that the corporate realists on the “liberal side” exploit the delusions of consumerist urban liberal culture (and its intellectual elites), such as the need for incremental instances of progress based on “feel good” pluralism and inclusive “celebrations of diversity” intended to distract workers from the need for radical economic reforms.

    1. Eric,

      “the origins of government dysfunction are clearly not primarily caused by the far right.”

      I agree, but disagree that the US government today is dysfunctional by any historical or even rational standards. That is the myth about the US government circulated by the far Right.

  4. To summarize: “America: smart, educated people doing dumb stuff”.

    (Arianna Huffington herself wrote a chapter on that theme in a book a coupe of years ago about the need for spiritual discovery and renewal.) Educational failures are mainly collective, cultural, and reinforced by the economic structure of consumption, not production.

    Public education is full of rot of various kinds at all levels. According to the Merrow Report (several decades of analysis), about 1/3 of public K-12 education is effective, 1/3 is mediocre, and 1/3 very bad. The worst K-12 failures are in low income communities, a horrible tragedy and failure of the “liberal” political establishment. (not that conservatives, or the far right really care about the poor either.)

    The mediocre schools are mainly in middle class and working neighborhoods. The best schools are in upper middle class and wealthy areas. While academic success is high, a toxic atmosphere of snobbery and privilege is prevalent.
    John Merrow began his career as an education reporter with National Public Radio in 1974 with the weekly series, “Options in Education,” for which he received the George Polk Award in 1982. He is currently President of Learning Matters and scholar in residence at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching at Stanford.

    — Higher education has been largely taken over by a form of neolib “corporatization” that is very comfortable allowing kooky forms of postmodernism, thought policing and political correctness to flourish so as to deflect any tendency to generate radical challenges to the economic and political structure, including challenges to failed higher education institutions themselves.

    The result? Crisis, rot and dysfunction.

    Credentialism is rampant, with the result that people running the show (administrators) are frequently immune to any kind of effective internal accountability. Sociopaths that have graduate degrees, the higher the better, “rise to their level of incompetency” and only allow fellow travelers access to the levers of power and influence. The result is growing incompetence as people with practical skills and common sense, that can actually solve practical problems, are marginalized by the Credentialed Educrats. The ability to actually solve problem is seen as a threat by the Educrats because such Educrats are rarely competent in practical skills, or in handling complex analysis of issues that do not fit into conventional categories. Innovation that does not support the regime is heavily discouraged.

    excerpt: We Pretend to Teach, They Pretend to Learn. At colleges today, all parties are strongly incentivized to maintain low standards. By Geoffrey L. Collier, Dec 26, 2013

    1. Eric,

      I don’t believe that is what this guy — or anyone — means when they say “government workers are dumb.” You’re overthinking this.

      Also, I think most of what you write here is useful aspirationally, but is devoid of any historical sense. College education used to be mostly an ornament for the rich — professional mostly for the clergy (medicine and especially law were taught by apprenticeship with practitioners). “credentialism” might be “rampant”, but through most of history high offices went by birth — so the current system is hardly a step backwards.

  5. Maybe what people really mean when they say that government workers are dumb is that government workers are generally much less intelligent for the role of governing than is acceptable. That, anyway, is my position, and I tend to think it is justified.

    Speaking from my own experience, as someone who has had occasion to spend a lot of time hanging around many staff assistants/secretaries/etc. who work in various departments of our government, my impression has been that while these people probably are smarter than the average person, they aren’t all that much smarter. They tend rather to be extremely uninterested in reading, in thinking over and debating ideas, in the world at large and what is going on in it, as one would expect from smart and well-educated people, and are mostly obsessed with such things as “social change” and whether or not America is actually “ready” for a woman president. This, in my opinion, is what is most aggravating about these people.

    They collect a check from the government for doing work which really isn’t all that deserving of the salaries, benefits and job security that they get, but then they’ll turn around and exhibit such an extreme condescension towards common Americans, and such contempt for their basic beliefs and values. I should say at this point that I’m not exactly referring to the ordinary folks at the lower rungs but rather the kinds of government workers who live and work in DC. I’m a pretty young guy and so the people I’m talking about tend to be people who graduated college within the past 5 years.

    1. Irving,

      First, these people are speaking of government workers, not government leaders — as is clear from the context, referring to the theft of millions of workers’ records.

      Second, I think your analysis is quite flawed even on its own terms. It’s a commonplace in America to say that people running organizations of thousands or millions — with budgets of billions or tens of billions — are easy, and not “deserving of the salaries and benefits they get”. They are usually paid far less than their equivalent in the private sector. Running anything that large is very difficult, and more so under the restrictions imposed on US govt leaders (e.g., civil service limits on hiring and firing people).

      Third, I wonder at your standard of comparison. I doubt it is either US history, or foreign governments now or past. I suggest reading Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly. Our government is poorly run compare to Heaven’s, but you must die to get there.

  6. “America: smart, educated people doing dumb stuff”

    I think we’ve all seen that… not just America by the way, it’s got to be human nature, or the nature of organizations.

    It’s just that we as a country have a superbly very well developed finance industry, advertising industry, and military, so we can play this game at a truly “pro” level, inventing new dumb power moves, showing the world spectacular tricks of freestyle dumb that’ve never been done before.


  7. I am a Federal employee, I’ve been on my city’s city council, am part of statewide ballot initiative efforts, and am President of our local humane society. I love to talk local and national politics, world events, global warming, you name it. I can’t express my personal political opinions at work as federal employees are not allowed to do so. I work hard at my job, which I enjoy, and am proud to work for my country.

    The key thing people don’t get is that government employees are only implementing the laws and regulations passed down by Congress. All we get are more and more DUMB laws that we have to layer on top of other laws to accomplish our jobs. It’s not federal employees who are dumb, it’s most of the members of Congress that we ALL elect. Who is dumb, then, if we keep electing dumb representatives who make dumb laws?

  8. FB, Some government workers do waste money because it is not their money. A guest at a friend’s party who belonged to a government organization was discussing examples of such waste and was appealed by it. Also do not want to rock boat as that puts own job on the line. Whistle blowers su\ffer hugely.

    Pe3ter van Buren often mocks State Department Waste, one example was a fiberglass camel for quarter million dollars.

  9. Hello Fabius and FedWorker,
    I very much agree with what you have posted.

    In my career, I have been employed at federal, state, county government levels. I have worked for large and small corporations. I have also worked with, and consulted at, small start-ups and family-owned businesses.

    There is always some amount of waste, mistakes, and simple stupidity at any level of human endeavor. Whether the organization is public or private makes no difference. I think it is a necessary result, something like organizational ‘entropy’.

    I have seen private employees waste obscene amounts of money with the total acquiescence of their supervisors and those further up the management-chain, knowing that their lobbyists and political-levers at the county, state, and federal levels could deal with the situation. I have seen corporate dealings that followed the letter of the law, while undermining the spirit of the law, knowing the public sector would be required to clean up the economic, and many times physical, debris. All this happened while the same entities were beating their political drums for less regulation and more tax-breaks.

    Having traveled extensively across Europe and observed their public organizations, I can say our government functions are, for their size, complexity, and goals, amazingly efficient. We ask them not to be risk-taking, attack them relentlessly, yet whine when personal and local services are not immediately available.

    I would like to think that somewhere, sometime in the 21st century, a group of people will come to the understanding that there can be no private ‘enterprise’ without a public enterprise, that business (in any of its myriad forms) cannot survive a day without strong government protection and regulation, and that any movement otherwise is effectively unilateral disarmament in the ongoing global economic game. I hope that group is the U.S.A.

    However, the jury is still out on that hope.

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