kurt's nightmare

Generally, I post once a week. Topics are randomly selected and depend mostly upon whether it's baseball season or not. Other topics will include sex, politics, old girlfriends, music, and whatever else pops into my little brain. If you'd like to read, or ignore, my blog about China: http://meidabizi.blogspot.com/

Location: Dayton, OH, Heard & McDonald Islands

I'm an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton. I represent no one but myself, and barely do that. I'm here mostly by accident.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


There are a variety of statements of "The Peter Principle"; Wikpedia's is as good as any (with links!):

The Peter Principle is a theory originated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter. It states that successful members of a hierarchical organization are eventually promoted to their highest level of competence, after which further promotion raises them to a level just beyond their highest level of competence. The term is a pun on Sigmund Freud's theory of the pleasure principle.

My current question is whether our President, George W. Bush, is an exemplar or a counterexample of this principle.

Clearly, he keeps getting promoted, particularly if one considers "promotion" an extension of opportunities, wealth, connections, and choices. (Hence, on this view, a mediocre high school student who gets into Yale qualifies as having been "promoted.")

There are a number of biographies available on W., short and long. One might think the Ivins and Dubose Bushwhacked! is a bit tendentious, although both followed W.'s career closely, and understand Texas politics and history, which is important in this context. Be that as it may, certain aspects of W.'s biography are clear enough:

a) academic career: mediocre student at all levels (Yale, Harvard MBA; he was denied admission to the University of Texas law school)

b) military career: . . . well, let's say it threatens the reputations of neither Blackjack Pershing nor Smedley Butler

c) business career: let's see, there's Arbusto, and Harken, and the Texas Rangers. The first was a failure, bought out by the latter--feel free to consider SEC filings and stock sales in all of this--and somehow W. comes out with enough money to buy into the Rangers, then sell that share at a generous profit. The Rangers went from a bad team to an adequate team back to a bad team while W. was running the show; perhaps the highlight was trading Alex Rodgriguez. The Rangers now feature prominently as one of the teams that has waited the longest of any franchise in the MLB for a championship. (They used to get sort of close, until the Yankees invariably polished them off, with ease. Call it "Sherman's Revenge.")

d) political career, Texas: lost a Congressional race, then won one; became Governor of Texas (and in Texas, the governor isn't exactly the most powerful person around) by beating Ann Richards in a pretty dirty campaign, aided by lots of connections, lots of dough, and the Texas political scene in general. It may not have hurt that Grandpa was a U.S. Senator, and that Dad was President, although one may wish to dismiss such things as standard advantages.

e) political career, US: became President by a slim margin (5-4 in the Supreme Court is a pretty small margin), in an election that was marked by a remarkably inept Democratic candidate, serious irregularities in Florida, and some rather dubious coverage by the "liberal" media that most accounts indicate favored W. (there are a number of studies quantifying "favorable" and "unfavorable" things said about W. and Gore; W. is ahead on every one I've seen). The most damning account of the Court's decision I've read is Vincent Bugliosi's The Betrayal of America; all told, obviously enough a "mandate."

W. then became President again, by a less slim margin--although it wasn't exactly Johnson v. Goldwater or Reagan v. Mondale, and it isn't hard to beat a 5-4 margin--based on a campaign grounded in a war on terrorism, which is a war sort of like the War on Poverty, with an opponent that is difficult to identify. This allowed a campaign to take someone who actually went to Viet Nam and make him a Jane Fonda-lovin', medal-throwin', Purple Heart fakin' liberal commie fifth-columnist, while the guy who was drunk and avoiding onerous medical exams to be the genuine martial hero, sort of like Audie Murphy with an MBA and a smirk.

This is quite a curriculum vitae; as far as I can tell, W. has been promoted at every level, in spite of having accomplished virtually nothing (you'll have to ask those better informed than I what W. did in Texas, other than lie about his support for a patient bill of rights. But make sure, if talking with a W. supporter, to ask about his bold initiatives on immigration!), beyond some tax cuts--and we can argue about the wisdom of those some other time--and the overthrow of Sadaam Hussein.

I'd like to think that one of the corollaries of the Peter Principle is that incompetence is exposed, whether through lies, obfuscations, and confusions, or by making embarrassing appointments (FEMA? SCOTUS?) or having high-ranking officials indicted, or saying something kind of, well, stupid. Just in the last week, W. has told us

1) Were he to encounter Hugo Chavez (on the worse than Hitler! list, with a bullet), he would be polite, because the American people expect their President to be a "polite person"

2) The CIA should be exempt from laws prohibiting torture--even though "we don't engage in torture"--because such things "make it possible for us to do our job . . . more possible."

I know they teach logic at Yale; maybe W. needs a refresher? It is unclear to me why, if we don't engage in torture, we need to have an agency exempt from being prohibited to engage in torture. It is also entirely unclear to me what metaphysical conceit underlies the modal distinction between "possible" and "more possible."

The Bush administration seems to me to finally have been exposed as thoroughly incompetent; not venal, or evil, but incompetent. The problem is, of course, that incompetence may well lead to results that are, objectively, venal or evil; do you really care if you starve to death whether it was done intentionally or unintentionally?

W. will, soon enough, go his merry way; I'm predicting his post-presidency career will resemble that of Gerald Ford's, with lots of vacation time and lots of remuneration from sitting on corporate boards.

The tragedy about all of this is that the US may well not be able to afford to elect another candidate who so strongly confirms the Peter Principle, or elect another candidate who is such a salient counterexample. And I don't see any particular reason to be optimistic that the current US political system is providing an alternative to such a scenario.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the primer of the Peter Principle and thank you for a thoughtful piece on a man with none.

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Blogger kmosser said...

You're welcome. Who are you?

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Blogger VD said...

Kmosser google for 'Failure' and see the first result.

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