At one point in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, one character asks another how he went bankrupt. His answer is instructive: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
Hemingway’s description of how catastrophe tends to creep up before, as with a pouncing tiger, tearing us to pieces in the blink of an eye, does not only apply to money. Many of the problems that befall us as individuals happen in exactly this way. The waistline that expands, the marriage that ends, and the addiction that destroys all begin as incremental and manageable concerns that grow until they become overwhelming—and leave us wondering how we could not have known that disaster was lurking right around the corner.
When we move from those problems that harm only us to those that harm our nation, a salient characteristic of many is that those in power typically assure us that there is no need for concern when the damage—or potential for damage—starts to be noticeable. These ex cathedra reassurances empower those who benefit from the dysfunctional status quo and call into question the motives of those who question the wisdom of the policy in question. Because the problem will likely be, as problems often are, of the slow-growing variety, the individual or group that raises a concern can easily be written off as alarmist, narrow, mean—or just plain nuts. After all, government officials—waving the conclusions of highly paid and educated experts—have concluded that there is no need for concern. Would you please, therefore, just shut up and let those who know better than you take care of it?
We all know how this ends because we have already seen it far too many times: When disaster strikes, we are told that “no one could possibly have foreseen” the outcome because the circumstances leading up to it were so unique and special as to render the wise counsel of experts useless in this situation.
However, today’s catastrophe notwithstanding, you should continue to follow all of our advice from this point forward, regardless. We are, after all, the experts who will tell you what you must do to avoid all problems in the future. Got that?
We have, over the past fifty years or so, largely turned over the management of our lives to experts. Experts manage our financial systems. Experts manage our educational system. Experts manage our government. Experts manage our healthcare system. Experts tell how to raise our children. Experts tell us what we should be allowed to say and do. Experts write the laws, rules, and regulations that govern every aspect of our lives—and often live off our tax dollars while they do so.
The question that we should probably be asking ourselves now is whether all this expertise is worth the cost we bear in higher taxes, higher prices, and a higher degree of intrusion into every facet of our daily existence. Gradually, then suddenly: it is not only the way that problems happen. It is, unfortunately, the way that we give away control of our lives until, before we fully realize what has happened, there is not much else left to surrender.
Unfortunately, when we start to ask questions and begin to wonder whether we are pleased with how our world is being managed, too often all we can count on are the knowing smirks of the experts who cannot believe we are foolish enough to believe our opinions, thoughts, and values are worth hearing. After all, we are told, you are not an expert on this subject. How could you possibly know what should be done to solve the problem? Therefore, gradually—and then suddenly—nothing the average person thinks is of any value or consequence.
So please just go on your way and let us take care of this behind closed doors. We know what is best. However, whether or not we care what you think, you must still do what we tell you and suffer for it if our expert judgment is dead wrong—and so does our democracy become yet one more step removed from those it is meant to serve because we are compelled to bear all the consequences of catastrophes that were created without our consent.
I wonder whether, as an experiment, we can try this for a few years: Except as it applies to critical health or safety needs, no taxpayer money may be expended to hire a consultant. All work must be performed by elected officials, salaried government staff, and citizen volunteers. That’s it.
Moreover, any non-governmental expert who wishes to hold forth must first submit to a public website a record of all payments received for past advice so that everyone can know who has been filling their pockets with cash before they offer their “unbiased” judgments on the topic at hand. There are, after all, those whose expertise is untainted by self-interest, and their thoughts should be subject to our keenest attention. However, as we are all too aware by now, there are also many whose souls are for sale to the highest bidder. It would be a great benefit to be able to more easily distinguish between the saints and the snakes before we let them attempt to influence our thoughts and actions.
We should not, obviously, ever ignore wise counsel. However, it would be helpful to understand who is offering advice meant to improve our world—and who is offering advice meant to line the pockets of their masters. This paid advice meant to deceive is not restricted to either the public or private sector. Corporations that pay an “expert” to reassure us a drug is safe or a money-making venture will not destroy the environment are swimming in the same water as public sector leaders who trot out their own “experts” to assure us that our tax dollars are being spent wisely and privatizing public services will cause a rain of toads. Each is playing the same game—and each justifies their deceptions by claiming they must counteract the “lies” coming from the other side of the debate.
Unfortunately, this battle of the smooth-talking shills does nothing to create jobs, improve our schools, spend tax dollars more efficiently, or help us live happier and healthier lives. Just as we routinely hit the mute button when the cacophonous commercials come on, we are trained by all this nonsense to tune out of discussions about our government, society, and individual needs because it is simply too painful to listen to the blather and bile being tossed back and forth by all those “experts” who claim to have only our best interests at heart.
If we can retake our country from the cult of the expert, we will see some improvements. First, we can wave farewell to all the self-appointed and well-compensated geniuses who have helped run our nation into the ditch. Second, we can begin to get the voices of our citizenry—now crowded out of the marketplace of ideas by armies of experts who are bought and paid for by special interests—back to the center of our public discourse. Finally, we will know just who is doing the talking—and why—when some new scheme to improve our lives is being proposed by “experts” who are whoring themselves without any regard for the wants and needs of our country and its people.
And gradually—and then hopefully suddenly—perhaps we can finally change the rules of a dollar-driven game that has, for far too long, benefitted the few at the expense of the many. I, for one, think it is worth a try.
Also published in The News-Gazette (news-gazette.com) January 26, 2014