Jim Baer: Look around, and you’ll see mediocrity everywhere

For the Monitor
Published: 9/8/2019 8:00:06 AM

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.

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.

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.

Morals and ethics, in government, public education and the political arena, are on a long list of candidates susceptible to being described as mediocre.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

(Jim Baer lives in Concord.)

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