Has anyone else begun to suspect that the Peter Principle is hard at work in America? With all the other trendy theories that have passed through our culture in the past 40 years (Remember Total Quality Management? Remember when we thought the Japanese had all the answers? Now we’ve got Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point and his theory of outliers), you rarely hear anyone cite Dr. Laurence Peter’s 1968 principle that “employees within an organization will advance to their highest level of competence and then be promoted to and remain at a level at which they are incompetent.”
I have a feeling this principle may apply to countries, too.
The Peter Principle certainly explains George W. Bush and his entire administration, but I have a sinking feeling that it may explain a whole lot else about our country and my generation in particular. We seem to be losing the ability to get things done right.
I started thinking about the Peter Principle over the holidays when the younger of my two brothers suffered excruciating pain for weeks on end and, despite hospital stays and consultations with several physicians of various specialties, no one was able to diagnose his problem or do a damn thing about it. The problem more or less got better on its own.
More recently I have begun to apply the Peter Principle to the leaky ceiling of my office. Over the past 10 years we have had the roofing replaced twice and removed the skylight in an attempt to stop the leak, yet even when I drag my aging bones up onto the roof to shovel off the snow, it still leaks. No one seems to be able to figure out where the water is coming from or what to do about it.
The Peter Principle also nicely explains the Baldacci administration and its misguided efforts at school consolidation, an initiative that is wasting millions of dollars and tons of time and that close to 200 communities have now rejected. At this point, abolishing the entire Maine Department of Education is starting to seem like a good idea.
Over the past year or so, we have also witnessed the wholesale incompetence of mortgage bankers, investment bankers, stock brokers, government regulators and congressional leaders when it comes to managing the U.S. economy. It’s pretty clear that no one understands how it works. Get-rich-quick gurus understand that if you jiggle this or that level a pile of money falls out, but no one understands how the whole machine works. If they did, they would have foreseen the collapse of the U.S. economy.
You want to believe that people in charge of things know more than you or I about how things work, but that is demonstrably not the case. It’s proving to be true of the real estate market, the auto industry, higher education, health care, foreign policy – you name it. It even applies to the newspaper business. I mean why would anyone buy a newspaper if newspaper publishers put their content on-line for free?
Now we’re being treated to the sorry spectacle of the folks in Washington who got us into this mess refusing to help get us out of it. Kudos to Sens. Collins, Snowe and Specter for at least recognizing that doing nothing is not an option. The rest of their GOP colleagues are like a ship of fools. They sunk the ship of state by drilling so many holes in it and their only answer to the sinking economy is let’s drill some more holes.
No one seems to know what they’re doing anymore. We’ve gotten to the point where the people in charge are out of their depths, over their heads. We can only hope that Barack Obama knows how to swim.
The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s weekly personal look at the world around him.