If you have "no place to go," come here!

Elizabeth Warren and the Curse of the Competent

madamab's picture

I'm sure that you've all experienced the phenomenon I call "the curse of the competent." It's monumentally frustrating, but quite common.

You are hired to do a job. You do it well. Unfortunately, as an unintended consequence of your competence, you make all the other idiots who aren't doing their jobs, or are doing them badly, look like, um, idiots. So then what happens?

You get the short end of the stick, of course. You get laid off, or you have to watch other people getting promoted before you, or you get demoted, or you never quite make it from temp to full-time. Meanwhile, the incompetent get the promotions, the kudos and the benefits of being a favored member of the group you have so cavalierly exposed. If you are a person who is already on the lower rungs of society - like, a woman, a person of color, an "out" LGBT, an older person, or some combination of these - it's even easier to make sure that you never get the recognition you deserve.

This is where Elizabeth Warren comes in.

For many years, Ms. Warren has labored under the mistaken impression that a consumer advocate should actually advocate for consumers. As Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel created to oversee the banking bailouts, Warren has been the bankers' worst nightmare, and has become a popular favorite because of it. In December of 2009, she wrote that the middle class was disappearing through no fault of its own:

Families have survived the ups and downs of economic booms and busts for a long time, but the fall-behind during the busts has gotten worse while the surge-ahead during the booms has stalled out. In the boom of the 1960s, for example, median family income jumped by 33% (adjusted for inflation). But the boom of the 2000s resulted in an almost-imperceptible 1.6% increase for the typical family. While Wall Street executives and others who owned lots of stock celebrated how good the recovery was for them, middle class families were left empty-handed.

The crisis facing the middle class started more than a generation ago. Even as productivity rose, the wages of the average fully-employed male have been flat since the 1970s.

(charts go here)

But core expenses kept going up. By the early 2000s, families were spending twice as much (adjusted for inflation) on mortgages than they did a generation ago -- for a house that was, on average, only ten percent bigger and 25 years older. They also had to pay twice as much to hang on to their health insurance.

To cope, millions of families put a second parent into the workforce. But higher housing and medical costs combined with new expenses for child care, the costs of a second car to get to work and higher taxes combined to squeeze families even harder. Even with two incomes, they tightened their belts. Families today spend less than they did a generation ago on food, clothing, furniture, appliances, and other flexible purchases -- but it hasn't been enough to save them. Today's families have spent all their income, have spent all their savings, and have gone into debt to pay for college, to cover serious medical problems, and just to stay afloat a little while longer.

Yup, that about covers it. The charts shown in the story linked above clearly show that the best time for the middle class was in the 60s, followed by the 90s, then the 80s. The 2000s have been, by far, the worst in a very long time. And people know it, and they know it's not fair, and that Wall Street is the one that's making money from their misery.

Pundits talk about "populist rage" as a way to trivialize the anger and fear coursing through the middle class. But they have it wrong. Families understand with crystalline clarity that the rules they have played by are not the same rules that govern Wall Street. They understand that no American family is "too big to fail." They recognize that business models have shifted and that big banks are pulling out all the stops to squeeze families and boost revenues. They understand that their economic security is under assault and that leaving consumer debt effectively unregulated does not work.

Imagine, a person who is unafraid to speak these truths in public; a member of the Obama Administration who actually does not blame the people for their own poverty and misery, but blames the bankers instead; a woman who understands that the role of the henhouse guard is to keep the chickens from being eaten, not to let the fox in. And, her biography is most impressive. What boss could not love this woman?

And look, there's a job opening that would seem to be tailor-made for her! The Finance Whatever Bill has created a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Elizabeth Warren is the perfect choice to run that Bureau. Indeed, no less a mainstream financial pundit than Paul Krugman has called for this very outcome. (Partially because it will make his dear Obama look better, but who cares.)

Nonetheless, Obama appears to have very little intention of giving the CFPB any teeth whatsoever. This is the guy who has given the bankers trillions of our dollars, after all, and thinks we will be gullible enough to believe the Republicans made him do it. Here is the latest from him and his team:

"Elizabeth Warren is a great, great champion for consumers and middle-class families across the country," White House senior adviser David Axelrod told reporters on a Friday conference call. "She has helped inform this effort greatly and what has been done here in many ways reflects something she's been advocating for years and years and years, so she's obviously a candidate to lead this effort."

"There are other candidates as well," Axelrod cautioned, "but Elizabeth is certainly a candidate to lead it and one thing I know for certain is however we move forward she's going to be a strong voice in helping shape this and make it the most effective voice for consumers that it possibly can be."

A consumer advocate intimately involved in the legislative efforts said Axelrod's comments could serve to lower expectations among Democrats that Warren would be the obvious choice, given that she conceived the agency in a 2007 journal article and has arguably served as the public face of the effort to get it enacted. The advocate added that Axelrod also opened the door to keeping Warren involved in consumer protection efforts even though she ultimately may not be picked.

Yeah! I mean, just because she thought of the agency herself, and has been pushing for it for three years, doesn't mean she should LEAD it. Isn't there some Chicago crony of RahmBo's or Obama's who could handle it better? Forgawdssake, Warren doesn't even have a PENIS. How embarrassing it would be to have a woman in that position, who couldn't be bribed with meth, coke and sex like the employees of the MMS?!

Axelrove's hemming and hawing about Warren, added to the recent, explosive story (not denied by the Administration) that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is opposed to her nomination, has people worried. Lots of people.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank supports her nomination, as does virtually every consumer group and liberal organization across the country. On Friday, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) circulated a letter to colleagues, in order to get signatures of support, urging Obama to nominate Warren. The letter says Warren is the "best person" to lead the new bureau, adding that she's "simply the perfect choice." [MB: Way to go, Carolyn Maloney. That's more like it.]

I think it would be great if just once, Obama actually did the right thing and appointed a competent person to do the people's work, don't you? With your help, there might actually be a light in the darkness for the next couple of years. And competency, for Elizabeth Warren, might end up being a blessing, not a curse.

Here's a petition you can sign. Or, you can contact the White House here, or call these numbers:

Comments: 202-456-1111
Switchboard: 202-456-1414

No votes yet


Submitted by lambert on

Of course Warren is competent.

It's not a matter of her competence vs. the competence of Obama and Company -- they have different values and interests and, hence, policy objectives. Obama and Company have the objective of hastening the continued transfer of America's wealth as fast as possible (the Rs have a different assessment of "possible"). At that, they are extremely competent. Warren might get in the way of that. They will be extremely competent at either getting rid of her, or preventing her from do it.

By all means call the WH -- it's better than not. But let's not let value-free, technocratic language like "competence" distract us from what's going on

madamab's picture
Submitted by madamab on

Obama and Company have the objective of hastening the continued transfer of America's wealth as fast as possible (the Rs have a different assessment of "possible"). At that, they are extremely competent.

I couldn't agree more: in fact, I wrote something similar just a couple of days ago here on Corrente.

As long as Obama's in charge, everyone but the top 1% is going to be scrod anyway. There is quite literally not a speck of ideological difference that I can find. His first instinct will always be to re-distribute the people's resources upwards to those who need it the least.Because this is his starting point, he will never do anything to help "some poor sucker" get a break, whether it be women, the poor, people of color, or any combination thereof.

However, the word "competence" is neither value-free nor technocratic to me. Competence is about doing the job you were hired to do, doing it well, and taking yourself and your responsibilities seriously. That is the definition of a competent employee.

Obama is not competent at his job because he does none of the above. As you point out, he is good at other things, which go completely against his job description of being faithful to the Constitution and being a good steward of the people's resources. Those talents do not magically transfer his competence to his actual job. That would be like saying that you hired a person to dig a ditch, and he did not dig the ditch, but proved to be competent at hitting the toilet when he peed. And?

A person who doesn't do the job he is hired to do, should be fired. Instead, Obama has a history of hiring people who have secret agendas (like him, of course) and do not actually do the job they are hired to do. See, pretty much everyone he has hired, ever.

I don't use words the way the "progressives" use them. I'm sorry if that causes confusion, but I've gotta be me. And at this point, I would think my point of view could be taken for granted. ;-)

Submitted by lambert on

And Obama is doing exactly the job he was hired to do.

As was Bush.

Both of them have been quite "competent" at normalizing torture, "competent" at looting the treasury for the banksters, and on and on and on.

So, the only "button" "pushed" here is that I've seen the "competence" meme used over and over again since 2003, against both Bush and Obama, and it never achieves anything.

There's no confusion whatever on my part. I just hate to see smart and well-intentioned people on my own side use lousy rhetorical and analytical tools, that's all.

madamab's picture
Submitted by madamab on

I don't think your tools are designed for activism. I think mine are. If that makes them "lousy," then so be it, although I think that's a pointlessly judgmental term.

But the meme that I don't think is effective, is saying that Obama is competent for his "real" employers. His "real" employers are the American people, despite who he THINKS they are. We need to take back our power, not shrug our shoulders and say, "Oh well."


Gotta go back to work. You guys really get me going, ya know that? :-)

a little night musing's picture
Submitted by a little night ... on

as to exactly what and how much is to be "done". And I do mean all jobs, including ones that are supervisory or managerial in nature.

There was some research which established this, and I read it a few years ago, but now I can't find it. Readers, any leads?

The research suggested to me that in the workplace, there comes to be an understanding of how much effort is to be put into the work and so on, and people who violate that understanding are pushed back into line (or not) by the usual forces of peer pressure. It reminded me of the following parable from Richard Powers's novel Gain:

Team bosses at the Knick-Knocker packaging plant in Caracas come to reprimand the new nineteen-year-old hire. They told him when he joined a month ago that if he could manage a hundred packs an hour, that would be fine. By dint of discipline, practice, and hard work, the boy has gotten up to a hundred and twenty. "You don't understand," the shift foreman says gently. "A hundred would be just fine."

So also students come to an understanding about how much effort should be put into their work (why we try to send our kids to good schools: so they will be at a place where this understanding is of more effort, not less): teachers come to an understanding as to how much effort will be put into trying to reach their students (and I can testify that it is dulling to the sol to teach at a place where the understanding ahs come to be set very low): and of course, regulators come to an understanding of the extent to which they will be on top of the regulations and enforce them. Anyone could go on with this list...

And some will try to do the job they suppose they have been told to do, rather than "grokking" the consensus that has come to be. (I'm deliberately using language of lack of agency to describe this consensus, because it is in the nature of a consensus that it feels as if it has descended from above magically - one reason I hate consensus-run meetings.) They are then seen as outsiders, however much they may be true to the ostensible aims of the job they do. They are subject to all the usual forms of peer pressure. If a member of a marginalized group, all the moreso.

So yes, "competence" is not the right analytic tool. And it isn't the language we should be pushing. We need to push to explicitly define what the person should be doing. Warren because she has the right ideas to protect us from another meltdown instead of protecting the financial industry from us.

madamab's picture
Submitted by madamab on

someone who insists on doing her job according to its actual definition, rather than someone who does not do it according to its definition. How can a person who doesn't do his or her job, be described as competent at that job? That's simply incorrect, isn't it?

I detailed exactly why she is competent in my post: she is a consumer advocate who stands up for consumers. Where is the issue here?

By my definition, there are very few government officials who are competent at their jobs. As my employees (and yours, and everyone else's), they are not doing what we hired them to do, are they? Then how can they be competent?

I know this. My first question when wondering whom I should back for President was, "Can that person handle the job, and be good at it?" My answer in Obama's case was a resounding "No." And he can't handle it, and he isn't good at it. See: OilMageddon, Gulf.

Obama is incompetent at being President. That is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of looking at what he was hired to do by the people, and seeing if he has performed those duties. Obviously, he hasn't upheld the Constitution of the United States, so right there he's an epic fail. Etc. etc. etc.

a little night musing's picture
Submitted by a little night ... on

Lambert and I are (I think) trying to discuss another issue, and the arguments about what that words "means" or what you are using it to mean are kind of off the points I was trying to make - can't speak for Lambert.

I'm really not trying to argue about the word "competence", only trying to point out that - whatever you may be using it to mean - it may not be the most useful word to describe what you mean.

If you read what I wrote about teachers, I'm actually agreeing with you on the basic issue. People who try to do the job they are ostensibly hired to do, but go beyond the consensus of how much is enough, are actually punished in a number of ways. And I'm hoping someone will recall the studies that I remember reading about. (I didn't take notes, and I now regret that.)

madamab's picture
Submitted by madamab on

I thought we were in agreement, really, so that's where my confusion lay.

But I think it's too bad that this perfectly good word is causing problems because the "progressives" have decided to use it incorrectly. "Harry Reid isn't a bad person, he's 'just' incompetent." Uh, who cares if he's a bad person? I would think "incompetent" would trump all.

Submitted by gmanedit on

jobs,* a hundred packets an hour seems just fine to me, too. Why make everybody work at the pace of the fastest? That's how you get a line with no bathroom breaks.

*Actually, I think robots should do the work and give us the stuff. With their free time, the former workers learn to play a musical instrument.

Submitted by gmanedit on

we worker bees questioned our group leader closely to get explicit parameters for the scope of our job and the deadlines. There are three components to a project: time, money, and quality; pick two. In practice: deadline, budget, and what corners can and can't be cut. I think this would apply to many jobs above the rote level.

The Deepwater Horizon timeline is fascinating. Somebody over at the Oil Drum is keeping a list of the bad decisions. There was no consensus: repeatedly, workers pointed out problems, and a decision came down to press on regardless. There was no consensus, but a top-down determination to cut corners regardless; time and money, no quality control at all.

Interestingly, BP accounted for 97 percent of its industry's problems. Astounding.

Interestingly, the former head of BP—the one who preceded Hayward; the one who insisted on outsourcing and cost-cutting throughout the company—has been named to a group to come up with austerity programs for the masses in England. That high level is where you see consensus at work.

And the media, of course.

"We need to push to explicitly define what the person should be doing." Yes.

Submitted by libbyliberal on

And BB she was allowed to "twist in the wind" by the boys' club.

Will sign your petition but with that learned (near) hopelessness.

One more opportunity for Obama to spit in the eye of liberals? (Tomasky and Brooks gotta get ready with rationalizations.)

Elizabeth, not a political gamesperson, she has a moral imperative. She's no Liz Fowler or Elena Kagan.

Re Obama, "anything worth doing, including appointments to be made, is worth doing badly. Appearance not substance uber alles."

How inconvenient it would be, wouldn't it, to have someone in there with a real moral compass? Competence and morality. Geeeeezzzz. How annoying to the crony patriarchs.