June 2010

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Lessons From New York

By Thomas Vincent

Interested readers are invited to check out Tom's Political Blog "Certain Doubt"

Last week my wife and I visited New York to celebrate our wedding anniversary. It was a wonderful romantic weekend. But the most interesting thing for me was the fact that last week marked the first time I felt truly at home in Manhattan. As a shy introspective kid growing up in rural Connecticut, the New York of my childhood was an intimidating, scary place full of strange sights, sounds, and smells, and way too many strange people. Even as an adult I’d always felt vaguely uncomfortable visiting the city.

Neither New York nor I have changed that much in 50 years, a fact that makes my recent feeling of ease all the more remarkable.

What made this trip different? Last weekend, for the first time, I finally felt I understood New York. It was a true gestalt, an “aha” moment, as if the rules to a game I’d played all my life, subtleties that had heretofore escaped me, were suddenly revealed.

What is the secret? In a word: Competence.

New York has a limited amount of patience for incompetence. This is not to say everyone in New York is good at what they do. I have experienced lousy cab drivers and bad chefs in New York. But the difference between a large city like New York and say the small town where I grew up is that New Yorkers demand a certain level of competence from those that play the daily game. They expect that the lousy chef will be sacked and the inept cab driver to be given his walking papers. Why? Well, for one because they or someone they know is waiting in the wings to take that job and do it better.

As long as you fulfill the city’s expectations to be professional at what you do, New York will treat you with respect. If you can’t cut it, however, New Yorkers will give you about five minutes grace period after which they will let you know exactly how incompetent they feel you truly are.

This expectation of professionalism holds true for visitors as well as residents. If you pay attention to the pace of life and match your steps to the cities rhythm , if you tip generously, and in general, if you play the part of a tourist well, then the city will welcome you to its bosom like a maternally minded meter-maid. If, however, you are an incompetent visitor, then the city will shrug its 1.6 million collective shoulders and go about the business of ignoring you.

What has all this got to do with schooling the rest of the world?

I’m glad you asked.

I’m halfway to being convinced that a majority of America’s recent woes are directly related to competence. Or to be brutally honest, our problems are related to our tolerance for incompetence. How is it that we can successfully send a man to the moon but we can’t build a simple levee to hold back flood waters? Why is it that a barrista in Manhattan who makes lousy lattes will be fired quicker than you can say mocha-frappa-cino” but an oil company that causes what could be the biggest environmental disaster of the decade is still on the job after a month of inept unsuccessful efforts to cap an oil pipe spewing hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico?

“Nobody Expected the Dikes to Fail.”

There are those who would argue that what happened to the levees in New Orleans and to the BP oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico and to the recent mine disaster in West Virginia were simple cases of negligence. But I would respond there’s a fine line between negligence and incompetence. What is negligence if not intentional or even institutionalized incompetence?

If I am a TSA agent and I allow you to board a plane despite the fact you have fuses sticking out of your Nikes am I guilty of negligence or incompetence? Or to turn it around, if I intend on blowing up a plane full of people and all I succeed at doing is roasting my own chestnuts am I not the most incompetent bomber on the planet?

Can you imagine the underwear bomber, the shoe bomber and the Times Square bomber all trying to start a cab company in New York City? With the degree of skill they displayed at being terrorists they would probably run over a customer’s foot, lock the keys in the car and run out of gas all in the first half hour. New Yorkers would respond in typical fashion. They’d laugh them out of business.

The point I’m trying to make is that rather than getting upset by New Yorker’s perceived intolerance of incompetence, we all might be better off if we adopted a similar attitude. For example, with regard to the oil spill in the Gulf, we need to direct our anger, not at determining who is responsible for the catastrophe but rather why is it taking so bloody long to plug the leak? Forming task forces, fielding inquiries, and hurling accusations about while the oil continues to flow is like issuing an indictment to a robber while he’s still inside the bank threatening to kill hostages.

Whether the parties involved in the crisi in the Gulf are culpable of negligence in the explosion that caused the disaster is a question for future litigation. However, the fact that day after day, toxic crude oil continues to bubble out of the ocean floor and no one can seem to come up with a plan to turn the damn thing off is pure unadulterated incompetence.

This should make you angry.

With over six billion people on the planet I find it incredulous that there is no one out there who is professional enough about their job that they can figure out how to stick a damn cork in a pipe.

There is an old saw that runs: "If you want something done right, do it yourself." In this case I’d change the second part to: “...ask a New Yorker.” They may not know how to do it right, but they sure as hell know when it’s being done badly. And they won’t put up with it for long.

And neither should we.