Sunday, May 11, 2014

A thought about expertise and government in modern society

The scientific and technological revolutions of the past couple of centuries has made expertise more and more useful and necessary.

There is an average of 87,000 airplane flights per day in the USA. A third of these are airline flights, most of huge planes with many passengers. Yet there are few crashes and very few deaths per mile traveled. In part this is due to the huge effort made over decades to make the aircraft themselves safe. In part it is due to the air traffic control system with its radars, computers, and highly skilled people. The safety is the result of expertise of the designers, builders and operators of the planes and air traffic control system.

The electrical grid of the USA and the generating capacity based on fossil fuel, hydro and nuclear as well as renewable generation plants obviously has required expertise of the highest order.

Walmart with more than 11000 stores and 2 million employees obviously requires expertise in marketing, logistics, purchasing, and other management functions. So too all the successful large multinational corporations require expertise in their management.

The modern U.S. military in battle involves coordination among ground, air and naval forces. Vehicles all carry computers, and there is a complex system providing remote sensing data on the battlefield. Weaponry is highly complex. Again, experts have been involved in creating and operating the systems involved as well as in there various components.

Today your doctor is obviously a certified expert. He/she is supported by an amazing array of complex imaging equipment and radiologists to interpret the images. So too, the doctor is supported by a complex laboratory capable of rapid analysis of many different kinds of samples. The doctor has at his/her disposal thousands of pharmaceuticals of demonstrated effectiveness and safety. There are surgical suits with complex equipment and  highly trained experts working as teams to provide curative interventions. Again, the health care system is a highly complex one, built on an amazing variety of expert services, including expert management of hospitals, medical schools, etc.

I could go on and write about many other systems today that demand expertise -- the management of financial institutions, telecommunications, weather forecasting, scientific research, farming, mining, forestry, higher education, and on and on. Modern society differs radically from that of the founding fathers, or indeed that of Abraham Lincoln in that its technological systems are far more elaborate and far more dependent on expertise. This is true too of its institutions, such as its financial markets or police and courts.

The people in government (legislators, executive branch policy officials) who make the laws governing all these (and other) expert systems are not experts in the technology that they oversee. Indeed, they are politicians. Their own field has areas of expertise as politicians -- fund raising, polling, public speaking, managing campaigns. They also have expertise in the art of legislation and the management of bureaucratic organization. Without these forms of expertise they can not obtain and hold office, nor fulfill the duties of the offices they hold.

People are limited. Why would one expect someone who is a good enough politicians to get elected to Congress, and a good enough legislator to exercise influence in the Congress, also to be expert on foreign policy, or medicine, or telecommunications, or ........

Another difference of today's society from that of the founding fathers is geographic scale. Of course in 1775 there was trade between the British colonies and Great Britain, but nothing like the global trade of today. Finance flows globally today, as does communications. We have satellite remote sensing that provides data to our computers that synthesize global images of the environment. There is medical tourism, movies and television programs that go international, airlines fly around the world...... The technological systems are not only vastly more complex and demanding of expertise, but also more global. Yet the governance not only fails to have the expertise in the technology, but it is limited by the geographical imagination of people 200 years ago.

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