October 11, 2023

The Age of Incompetence
How did Israel fail to see the Hamas attack coming? The same way the we failed to see 9/11 coming. There are far too many “not ready for prime time” players on our rosters.

By: Martin Hackworth

I was discussing the terrible current situation in Israel a few days ago with a friend at a local coffee shop when he posed the question that’s on a lot of minds right now: How could the heretofore very effective Israeli intelligence agencies have missed what must have been months of preparation for the attack by Hamas, right in their own backyard?

That is something that is, at least in my view, not overly difficult to discern. It is, plain and simple, incompetence. There is no apparent dearth of that in public life anywhere anymore.

We missed multiple opportunities to thwart the 9/11 attacks here in our own country in the same manner. When flight school students from countries on our terrorism watch-lists tell their American flight instructors that all they need to know is how to fly a plane but not how to land, and that information is reported to federal authorities who ignore an obvious sign of ill intent, that’s bad. You are simply not dealing with the intelligence varsity.

Worse, no one in government really faced any consequences for this failure. I’m sure that every member of federal law enforcement in this chain of command who passed this klaxon of malevolence off as background noise, later claiming that hindsight is 20/20, retired with a nice federal pension somewhere sunny.

At a time when it is easier than ever to easily avail oneself of expertise on virtually any subject within minutes, we live, quite paradoxically, in an age of incompetence. It defies all reason, but it’s as plain as the nose on one’s face. This is not just simply a failure of education; it’s a failure of societies to hold people accountable.

Incompetence permeates our society. It exists everywhere along the employment spectrum, from the retail store clerk who can’t count change after years at a register to doctors who operate on the wrong body part to nimrods in intelligence agencies. If something vitally important can be screwed up, you may be assured that someone is making a lot of money doing it right now. And odds are that the majority of that money comes from taxpayers.

I had a front-row seat for this for about a quarter of a century in higher education, where credentials trumped experience and competence at nearly every level and in almost every situation. Universities are particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon. Since universities are in the business of granting credentials, they are loathe to recognize that anyone holding one or more of them can be anything other than top-notch. It takes a lot of convincing to get them off of this.

In my time in higher education, I had the misfortune of working with some of the worst presidents, provosts, deans, program/department heads, and faculty that bad dreams were capable of conjuring. Though most of the people I worked with in higher education were outstanding and wonderful in almost every way, far too many were not.

In one case, I was tasked with supervising an astronomy postdoc with a PhD from a top-ten school who could not, to save his life, operate a simple telescope. His imaging expertise, as it turned out, was in pornography. Shearing an expensive telescope off of it’s mount by operating it with the roof of the observatory closed wasn’t enough to send him packing. It turns out that it took the discovery of a library of over 5,000 inappropriate images on his university computer to encourage him to seek employment elsewhere.

I’m sure that he’s a department chair somewhere now.

I also once worked with the head of an institute in nuclear science and engineering, who knew next to nothing about nuclear science or engineering. Somehow this highly compensated and much ballyhooed individual was allowed to burn through tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on cloaking devices (I kid you not), magic crystals, and nuclear batteries that would have depended on the production of kilograms of an extremely dangerous isotope that fortunately exists in supplies of less than a few grams around the world. After years of gross incompetence, which included student employees being paid late, in cash, he resigned for a position in private industry.

So yeah, I can see how this intelligence failure occurred.

Incompetence is, everywhere it occurs, a self-inflicted malady. We reap what we sow. And when we allow individuals to matriculate through school or vocational training without ever properly assessing whether or not they are learning anything, we’re going to produce a fair share of duds. Add to that the fact that education and training in many fields have been watered down to the point that many graduates cannot demonstrate the ability to read, write, do mathematics, or otherwise perform at even a grade school level, and it’s “Houston. We have a problem.”

Then there is the current prevailing social paradigm, which posits that intersectionality trumps competence and identity trumps everything. Employers, after all, have to be able to check all of the right boxes. Toss in the woke concept that meritocracy is inherently racist, add a dash of postmodern nihilism, and you have a recipe for a confederacy of dunces running things.

Which pretty much describes a lot of modern life.

It’s hard for me to imagine what motivates smart individuals to struggle to succeed anymore when the boxes one checks on an employment application seem to count a lot more towards success than experience and competence. Why work hard when all you have to do is figure out who needs you to check off some box?

I’m reasonably sure that at some point I’ll be able to augment my retirement with an NBA salary because there are so few elderly white guys who can’t dunk in the league. Someone, sooner or later, is bound to notice this inequity.

At that point, I’m all set.

Associated Press and Idaho Press Club-winning columnist Martin Hackworth of Pocatello is a physicist, writer, and retired Idaho State University faculty member who now spends his time with family, riding bicycles and motorcycles, and arranging and playing music. Follow him on Twitter @MartinHackworth.

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