Jim Baer Sees Mediocre People!

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Jim Baer writes occasionally in the Concord Monitor; I admit that over the 14+ years of this blog (and, for that matter, the 68+ years of my life) I've managed to pay him no attention whatsoever. Other than the Monitor having an obnoxious paywall, I have no excuse, and I accept full responsibility.

But his recent op-ed column, "Look around, and you’ll see mediocrity everywhere", triggered my Google News Alert for "Live Free or Die". And I found it difficult to pick out a short excerpt of the column to respond to, my usual M.O..

So I'll break out the old fisking template. I am reproducing Jim's entire op-ed here, on the (appropriate) left, with a lovely #EEFFFF background color; my comments are on the right.

Mediocrity is an equal opportunity human condition. It can be found in most fields of human endeavor. It appears to be growing worse.

Mediocrity is described as “the state of being average in quality and originality.”

It is a pungent word. It can be used to describe incompetence, crudeness, lack of talent, hypocrisy and disappointment.

We should be happy that Jim is able to look up the definition of a word.

But a warning sign: Jim goes on to ignore that definition in the very next paragraph. If you think (e.g.) that "mediocrity" and "incompetence" are synonymous, you're simply wrong.

So look back at that first paragraph. Of course mediocrity is commonplace. In fact, Merriam-Webster lists "common" and "ordinary" as synonyms for "mediocre".

But is mediocrity "growing worse"? That would involve a general decline of the average. I'm open to that. And one of the bits of evidence in favor: an actual newspaper editor let Jim's sloppy language appear on the website.

For extra irony points: browsing Jim's byline page at the Monitor, I note that a January column was titled Words do matter, regardless of what Trump says on Twitter. If words matter so much, Jim, why are you using "mediocrity" as if it meant, roughly, "bad things"?

Sigh. Well, let's move on…

I reference it when discussing politics, education and government.

Empires have been built to celebrate its virtues. They come, they go.

The former Soviet Union and client states were testimonials to collective mediocrity.

Hm. Not sure what damage Jim's badmouthing the USSR will do to the Monitor's reputation as "Pravda on the Merrimack". But seriously…

Once you abuse a word into near-meaningless fuzzy vagueness, it can be used to apply to anything and explain nearly everything. I find myself imagining a high school student's essay for world history: "The main cause of the collapse of the Soviet bloc was too much mediocrity."

Given the state of public education, I suppose this could fly with some teachers.

But I note that the New York Times claims that not everything was mediocre: the sex was great. Or so they say.

This is why Jim writes for the Monitor and not the NYT, I guess.

New Hampshire folk are not immune to it. Thankfully, we experience less of it here than in the rest of the nation. Less does not mean none. I think Jim means that New Hampshire "folk" are Above Average compared to … those "folk" in other states, I guess? But still there are average people here. We are not to be confused with Lake Wobegon.
Morals and ethics, in government, public education and the political arena, are on a long list of candidates susceptible to being described as mediocre. I strongly suspect this paragraph was clumsily inserted to get the column up to some predetermined word count. As previously established, Jim can describe just about anything as mediocre. It's a general-purpose slur.

And I thought we were talking about New Hampshire? Well, after that brief digression into nebulosity, we're back to it…

Our New Hampshire General Court has a long history of dealing with mediocrity. With 400 House members and 24 senators, a calendar of 1,000 bills per session and in a state with a population of only 1.3 million citizens, it is amazing that our Legislature functions at all.

The institution is too large. Because of advancing age, some members are ill equipped to address complex issues. The salary is too little to attract younger talent. Together, they are a witch’s brew of mediocrity.

The House has been muddling along with 400 members since 1942, and the state has somehow survived. And at first glance, it would seem that having more members allows the workload to be spread out more thinly, thereby allowing "complex issues" to be studied to greater depth.

Jim does have a point about age. NH legislators average older (average age: 66) than those in other states. Too old to "address complex issues"? Any actual evidence of that?

And I thought we were talking about mediocrity? Trust me, you can be mediocre at any age.

And we know about the low pay.

But the proper question here is "compared to what?" There are 49 other state legislatures with which we can compare results. Are there any out there that are (by some objective measure) delivering superior results due to (some combination of) smaller size, higher pay, and younger age?

I doubt that case could be made. Jim doesn't try to make one.

I have sat in the gallery when the House is in session and witnessed members nodding off. Sometimes, it appears to be an adult day care center. Some members look forward to two important parts of the day: lunch and adjournment. I think we can agree that we'd prefer our legislators to be attentive and interested. On the other hand, I've been in meetings like that myself, in a warm room, with the speaker droning on endlessly….

Oops! Sorry, nodded off there.

One of the greatest tragedies in the long history of our Legislature was the closing of the New Hampshire Highway Hotel and bar in 1988, to make way for the extension of Interstate 93 North. Many members wept. I think this is a sly way of indicating that the members liked to get drunk there. Could one of you diligent Googlers dig up a study comparing the per-member alcohol consumption of the 50 state legislatures?

But then we're back to ages, wages, and sleepiness:

According to the National Conference of State Legislators, the average age of a New Hampshire legislator is 66 years old. Members born between 1928 and 1964 make up 92% of the membership. A person’s age, young or old, is no guarantee of their effectiveness as a legislator, good or bad. The least we should expect from members of the Legislature is to stay awake during deliberations.

To compound matters, members receive the penurious salary of $100 per year, plus mileage, established in 1889. California legislature members receive $110,459 per year.

A salary of $100 per year and the perk of driving through a toll booth free of charge is not enough of an incentive to attract younger, able and more vibrant citizens to consider legislative membership. It is a great loss of talent.

"Vibrant". Sheesh.

It's an element of faith that higher salaries produce higher quality employees. Sometimes that's true. But is it true in this case?

Here's a bit of data:

One of the primary tasks of a state legislature is to align revenue and expenditures to put finances on an even keel, making hard decisions as necessary. How do New Hampshire's poorly-paid, elderly, drunk, napping legislators do at that job? According to this 2018 study from the Mercatus Center, not too bad: we are ranked #12 ("above average"). For the record, the other Northeast states are in much worse shape: Maine #34; Vermont #39; Rhode Island #40; New York #41; Massachusetts #47; and (gulp!) Connecticut #49.

But those well-paid "vibrant" California legislators must be in the top 10, right?

No, sorry. Mercatus ranks California #42 in fiscal health ("Below Average").

But I bet they stayed awake while mismanaging the state finances.

Defenders of the large size of our Legislature claim that size matters. I agree. They argue that it supports institutional memory and promotes the intimate connection that members have with their electorate, particularly in remote constituencies. That may have been valid in our 19th century agrarian economy but it holds little water in today’s New Hampshire. You can check out (as of 2010) the population represented by state legislators at Ballotpedia. For "lower house" representatives California and New Hampshire are at the extremes: a California representative "represents" 465,674 citizens; a New Hampshire rep a mere 3,291.

California's also on top in their Senate: 931,349 citizens per senator. New Hampshire scores 54,853 citizens/senator. (Fourteen states score lower than NH on this measure.)

But how can decreasing the size of the legislature not make the representatives less connected to the electorate? You'd expect a better argument than "holds little water".

For the sake of discussion, I suggest that members of the Legislature be paid $10,000 plus mileage per year and all of the usual perks. The average salary for a state representative across America is $50,531.

A bolder idea would be to increase the salary to $20,000 per year and reduce the number of House members to 200.

I believe we would see a remarkable number of younger and enthusiastic new faces in our Legislature if we instituted both suggestions. New faces and new ideas.

A smaller Legislature and increased compensation for members will have the added benefits of better accountability, increase the possibilities for membership advancement to leadership positions, and savings in office, clerical, parking and other operating expenses.

I don't find this argument by assertion that interesting, let alone convincing. But if you'd like to see an actual discussion of the pros and cons, the National Conference of State Legislatures has a discussion here.
The “Live Free or Die” crowd have managed to do their best to poison the well for any chances of meaningful reform or improvements in how the institution works. They are so wedded to all of the “firsts” in the Legislature’s history that any constitutional changes will be considered heresy. Welcome to 1889! Ah, there it is. This is why Google alerted me to Jim's op-ed.

There are all sorts of ways to invoke LFOD. Jim chooses "scornfully".

You can’t argue with the old New Hampshire saying, “You get what you pay for.” It should be the motto over the front door of our state Legislature offices. Probably roughly true in market transactions. But when dealing with the government, it's more accurate to say:

  • You pay what government tells you to.
  • You get what government feels like giving you.
Mediocrity has not been kind to public education. To amplify how insidious mediocrity has become, standards that once honored individuals for talent, merit and scholarship are now being abandoned. They are replaced with policies that promote mediocrity.

Educators, fearful of offending or stigmatizing a group or individuals, regardless of their abilities or proficiencies, promote policies that consider every student to be a winner.

That is not a practical, fair or equitable solution to a quality education. It dilutes laudatory and exemplary achievement by elevating mediocrity to standards it does not deserve.

Mediocrity is like a jealous lover: It suffers fools. It is the handmaiden to dictators, politicians, bullies and theologians. It is notable for a lack of self-examination and a stubbornness to always be right, on any subject.

Well, I said I would reproduce Jim's entire op-ed. But now he's ranting on a totally new topic.

Not that he doesn't have a point. Taking things from the other side, see the Test-Optional Admissions Policy at the University Near Here. Which is desperate for warm, tuition-paying, student bodies. That doesn't bode well for academic quality.

The American Academy of Mediocrity is accepting new applicants for membership. There are no admission fees or entrance exams. Lack of interest in education or knowledge is not an impediment. Bigotry, boorishness and extreme partisanship are character traits to be applauded. The apostasy of critical thinking is common among members. A predilection for the Second Amendment of our Constitution, to the exclusion of the other 26 amendments, is obligatory. “Might is right” is their clarion call and a slavish devotion to nationalist political nonsense is a hallmark of membership. Well, this is just dumb. Jim, op-ed writing and alcohol do not mix.
One of the functions of the academy is to present its annual “Most Mediocre Person of the Year” award. Past recipients have all been United States senators. Moscow Mitch may continue that tradition. Great job, Mitch. Keep up the good work. I'm becoming increasingly convinced of that "padding for word count" explanation. Again, Jim has kind of lost track of what "mediocre" means.

And we are about to lose coherence altogether…

A note of caution: Mediocrity is contagious. There is no vaccine available to prevent it. If infected, symptoms may include the following: an aversion to all “intellectuals”; an impulse to always vote a straight-party ticket, even if it is a vote against your own self-interest; a need to repress any attempt at social justice on the ill advice that doing so will ensure that you will not be heading down the slippery path toward socialism.

Drink lots of fluids and call your doctor if things do not improve.

If you become depressed because of the current state of national politics, try consulting this book dedicated to mediocrity: Mein Kampf. It will illustrate how a bright and well-educated people succumbed to the charm of a man who championed the merits of mediocrity, cloaked in the disguise of honor, duty and country.

If you have any questions concerning mediocrity, contact the home office at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20500 or phone (202) 456-1111. Tell them I sent you.

Bottom line: Jim thinks people who disagree with him are Nazis. Or Commies. Or Republicans. Or perhaps professional educators. They're all part of the mediocrity conspiracy, I tells ya!