By Jonathan Wallace

Incompetence at all things has become a major part of American life. We are becoming resigned to the fact, quite complacent about it really, that the people of just a few generations ago were far better at solving problems than we are.

After grounding the shuttle for more than two years after the Columbia's explosion, we launch again--just to stare befuddled as another huge chunk of foam falls off, striking the orbiter. Aftrer more than a decade of trying, the FBI has still not succeeded in upgrading its software system to be able to handle simple compound searches. After four years of war, we are still sending soldiers into battle with inadequate armor on their bodies and vehicles.

I blame an artificial stupidity induced in us by politicians and lawyers.

Since Nixon resigned in the '70's, we have had weak presidents, a weakening judiciary, and an increasingly dominant legislative branch. This is a bad model of governance, and it sets a bad example for the rest of our society. Of the three branches, the legislature has always been the one which can thrive with the murkiest thinking. The very nature of the committee system dictates a slipshod approach ("a camel is a horse designed by a committee"). The legislature's extreme diffusion of responsibility means that its members are rarely held accountable for bad or dishonest initiatives. The public memory is very short (only the NRA has the desire and means to punish Congressfolk years after the event). Much of the time, it isn't really possible to determine who did what in Congress (important matters are handled by voice vote, or a legislator can vote for a bill with perfect foreknowledge that the other house will kill it, or it will die in committee, or be vetoed by the President).

Of course, the framers designed the system to make sure that too much did not get done. But they did not foresee the consequences of the machine becoming even more impeded than they way they designed it.

By its nature, a legislature is much better at discouraging independence and initiative in the executive, than it could ever be at fostering it. A strong legislature confronting a weak executive creates an environment in which administrators are fearful of calling attention to themselves. Nobody wants to get lopped like the tallest sunflower in Tarquin's garden. There has been endless analysis since September 11 of management failures in the CIA and FBI where the focus has changed to keeping one's head down and getting through to retirement without controversy.

Congress can create fear in executive branch administrators, but it cannot instill courage or independent thought in them. The only means Congress has for solving a problem like the FBI's antiquated system is to throw money at it--an inadequate solution if that money is going to be spent (as it was) on huge consulting firms themselves too hidebound to stand up to their client about the right way to make changes. Congress cannot make itself into a software expert (no matter how many hearings it holds, and how much blame it places). Congress can make the FBI's problems last for years longer than they would have, but the only thing that culd solve them would be innovative, strong FBI leadership able to stand up to Congress.

And that is why, after more than a decade of wasted money and huge, failed software development projects, the FBI still has a system which cannot search on two fields at once ("fundamentalist" and "aviation school")-- a simple approach available in the most rudimentary commercial database for more than thirty years.

Or look at the example of two shuttles. The Challenger exploded because everyone was in a hurry to launch; no-one wanted to go against the flow by acknowledging that O-rings sometimes freeze, and that a shuttle had never been launched in temperatures as low as the ones they had that week. Two decades later, after a frozen chunk of foam bounced off the orbiter at launch, there wasn't even a team formally studying the dangers. A NASA executive countermanded an underling's request for powerful intelligence photos of the Cokumbia's tiles. After it exploded, the excuse "There was nothing we could have done anyway" spread through the political waters like an oil slick. This is a far cry from the American can-do spirit of the Normandy invasion or the 1969 moon launch.

Given the public's short memory and general navel-gazing, Congress specializes in gross oversimplifications for the purpose of getting the public's attention when it needs it. Everything must be immediately categorized and judged, advanced or discarded, without resort to ratiocination, studies, or anything which would require too much time. Congress can legislate idiotically with perfect confidence that no Congressperson will ever be held accountable; each will always be able to pass the blame to someone else, or retire in the confidence that the uselessness or active evil of legislation won't be known for certain for years yet. The much heralded Gramm-Rudman act of 1985, which was supposed to force balancing of the federal budget, has clearly failed, but who remembers or cares?

Contrast the Athenian system, in which the sponsors of bad legislation could be made to redress the damage they did from their own pockets. Then ask who had the better democracy.

Although Congresspeople of every stripe promote fuzzy thinking today, those promoting faith over science accelerate our descent into ineptitude. In an age when science museums are afraid to show films about evolution--where powerful politicians believe that the world is 7,000 years old and will end soon--it is increasingly miraculous we can fly a shuttle at all.

Private lawyers have played a role in our stupidity as well. The type of culture they generate around them carries over to government with ease, as lawyers become, or buy, politicians. The perfect jury for a personal injury attorney is one that will elevate emotion and impulse over logic and causation. "Rich arrogant doctor" versus "beleaguered working class mom" becomes more important than the question of whether the physician actually failed to live up to the standards of her professionin a way that proximally and scientifically caused the patient harm. Lawyers work hard daily to break chains of causation and logic; and millions they make as a result are funneled back into the coffers of (mainly Democratic) politicians.

Because emotion, faith and impulse are so much more important than science or logic, we have an American electorate of unparalleled obesity, ignorance and complacency. It is the perfect gallery for President Bush to play to, imagining WMD and Al Qaeda links where they don't exist, like a personal injury attorney rousing a jury to nail a rich defendant in the absence of evidence.

A new kind of cost-benefit analysis, which came in with supply side economics in the 1980's, promotes incompetence by assigning a very high value to saving money and a low value to human life. Why spend money engineering better armor when people are so cheap?

Essentially, there is no remaining reward for being good at your government job--and every protection for those who are not.