Confidence and competence

A week or so ago (like, forever in Internet time) I replied to a friend’s Facebook comment (a meat-space friend, that is, you know, who I drink beer with) about competence. I cited a piece about Dick(head) Cheney written in 2002 or so. But couldn’t find it. And now, lo, it has emerged from the Pile.

It’s by Joshua Michah Marshall and it’s called Confidence Men “Why the myth of Republican competence persists, despite all the evidence to the contrary.” It was published in September 2002, so Marshall doesn’t have the Iraq debacle or Katrina to use, but he still presents a great case.

Here’s a couple of interesting bits-

The Bushies also excel at the atmospherics and trappings of competence. Meetings start punctually. Everyone stays on message. Staffers don’t leak. Everyone wears suits. The early Clinton administration’s relative openness and extreme leakiness made the White House like a body with translucent skin. Not just every goof and foul-up, but every normal but unappetizing political process was on perfect and oftentimes excruciating display.

and this-

The Bushies have the added advantage of another sort of media bias that often goes unnoticed. Most journalists are Democrats. But that doesn’t necessarily help Democrats or hurt the GOP in the way whiny conservatives like to imagine. In a Democratic White House, journalists identify with the administration, whose policies and beliefs tend to mirror their own. But this familiarity makes it easy to criticize when things go wrong (and even when they don’t). Reporters understand a Democratic administration’s flaws more readily because it’s made up of people much like themselves. This is a large part of what made the media’s relationship with the Clintonites so toxic. At its nadir, coverage of the administration got caught up in a vortex of baby-boomer self-loathing; familiarity bred contempt.

Quite a different dynamic applies in a Republican administration, particularly one whose business savvy enjoyed so much advanced billing. Most political reporters don’t identify much with wealthy CEOs, and even less so with corporate honchos from the oil patch. But rather than this hurting them, members of the Bush administration benefited tremendously from just how alien they seemed to many in the press. Bush campaigned and assumed office against the backdrop of the go-go, boom-market culture of the late ’90s, which showered praise on the sort of corporate leaders who made up the Bush team. In the long run, the fact that the administration is stocked with ex-CEOs like Dick Cheney and Don Evans might hurt it. But in the short-run, many reporters had a hard time seeing through their mumbo-jumbo and conceits. Until recently, few could believe that the Bushies could run such a tight ship and yet still not know how to steer it. It’s Dick Cheney, after all! He must know what he’s doing!

Anyway, you can be so stupid you don’t know you’re stupid, or simply up yourself so you think you’re ‘above average’ when you ain’t (Dunning-Kruger)

Also, you can be so under-confident as to be useless (what Simon Hoggart called the KL ratio). Here’s the relevant bit of Grauniad website, from April 19 (2003) – [how cool is my GLIB filing system, eh?]

At the conference in Colorado I attended a week ago I met Barbara Thompson, who is a senior project manager at Nasa, which means that to her, it all really is rocket science. Scientists love to categorise and measure concepts, and she and her colleagues have found two useful ones: “K”, and “L”. L is a measure of a person’s competence compared to how good he or she thinks he is. Someone who is 2L thinks they’re twice as clever as they are. These people are dangerous, but they tend to rise high in bureaucracies, where their excessive self-confidence creates terrible problems.

But to have, say, 0.5L is just as bad. Barbara writes: “We were stuck with a lot of people who were competent, but because they had no backbone, they had no impact on the process. It would have been better if they hadn’t been there at all.” A person who is 1L is just right: they know the limits of their abilities, but always use them to the full.

K is close to what we usually call charisma, meaning someone who can lead a group simply by force of personality or aura. When a high-K person says, “let’s do this,” everyone thinks it’s a great idea, though if he is vociferously supported by a low-K person, the others might turn against it. You can spot them through body language; in Japan, the higher your K, the less you need to speak.

World leaders need high-K and usually have high-L too, though this can be fatal; take Hitler’s attempts at military strategy. John Major is an interesting example; he seems to have had low-K and low-L, hence the disasters of his government, but he got there because Margaret Thatcher liked people who not only didn’t threaten her, but never looked as if they’d dare. Edwina Currie, by contrast, is 3L or higher: she thinks she is terrific and is baffled by those who disagree.


About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
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