By Andrew Wilk
At one point in Ernest Hemingway's novel "The Sun Also Rises," one character asks another how he went bankrupt.
His answer is instructive: "Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly."
Hemingway's description of how catastrophe tends to creep up before, as with a pouncing tiger, tearing us to pieces in the blink of an eye does not only apply to money.
Many of the problems that befall us as individuals happen in exactly this way. The waistline that expands, the marriage that ends, and the addiction that destroys all begin as incremental and manageable concerns that grow until they become overwhelming — and leave us wondering how we could not have known that disaster was lurking.
When we move from those problems that harm only us to those that harm our nation, a salient characteristic of many is that those in power typically assure us that there is no need for concern when the damage — or potential for damage — starts to be noticeable. These ex cathedra reassurances empower those who benefit from the dysfunctional status quo and discredit those who question the policy.
Because the problem will likely be, as problems often are, slow growing, the individual or group that raises a concern can easily be written off as alarmist, narrow, mean — or just plain nuts. After all, government officials — waving the conclusions of highly paid and educated experts — have concluded that there is no need for concern. "Would you please, therefore, just shut up and let those who know better than you take care of it?"
We all know how this ends because we have already seen it too many times: When disaster strikes, we are told that "no one could possibly have foreseen" the outcome because the circumstances leading up to it were so unique and special as to render the wise counsel of experts useless in this situation.
However, today's catastrophe notwithstanding, "You should continue to follow all of our advice from this point forward. We are, after all, the experts who will tell you what you must do to avoid all problems in the future." Got that?
We have, during the past 50 years or so, largely turned over the management of our lives to experts.
Experts manage our financial systems. Experts manage our educational system. Experts manage our government. Experts manage our health care system. Experts tell how to raise our children. Experts tell us what we should be allowed to say and do. Experts write the laws, rules and regulations that govern every aspect of our lives — and often live off our tax dollars while they do so.
The question that we should ask ourselves is whether all this expertise is worth the cost we bear in higher taxes, higher prices and a higher degree of intrusion into our daily existence. Gradually, then suddenly: It is not only the way that problems happen. It is, unfortunately, the way that we give away control of our lives until, before we fully realize what has happened, there is not much else left to surrender.
Unfortunately, when we start to ask questions and begin to wonder whether we are pleased with how our world is being managed, too often all we can count on are the knowing smirks of the experts. After all, we are told, "You are not an expert on this subject. How could you possibly know what should be done to solve the problem?"
Therefore, gradually — and then suddenly — nothing the average person thinks is of any value or consequence.
"So please just go on your way and let us take care of this behind closed doors. We know what is best. However, whether or not we care what you think, you must still do what we tell you and suffer for it if our expert judgment is dead wrong" — and so does our democracy become yet one more step removed from those it is meant to serve because we are compelled to bear all the consequences of catastrophes that were created without our consent.
I wonder whether, as an experiment, we can try this for a few years: Except as it applies to critical health or safety needs, no taxpayer money may be expended to hire a consultant. All work must be performed by elected officials, salaried government staff and citizen volunteers. That's it.
Moreover, any nongovernmental expert who wishes to hold forth must first submit to a public website a record of all payments received for past advice so that everyone can know who has been filling their pockets with cash before they offer their "unbiased" judgments on the topic at hand.
There are, after all, those whose expertise is untainted by self-interest, and their thoughts should be subject to our keenest attention. However, as we are all too aware by now, there are also many whose souls are for sale to the highest bidder. It would be a great benefit to be able to more easily distinguish between the saints and the snakes before we let them attempt to influence our thoughts and actions.
If we can retake our country from the cult of the expert, we will see some improvements. First, we can wave farewell to all the self-appointed and well-compensated geniuses who have helped run our nation into the ditch. Second, we can begin to get the voices of our citizenry — now crowded out of the marketplace of ideas by armies of experts who are bought and paid for by special interests — back to the center of our public discourse.
Finally, we will know just who is doing the talking — and why — when some new scheme to improve our lives is being proposed by "experts" who are whoring themselves without any regard for the wants and needs of our country and its people.
And gradually — and then hopefully suddenly — perhaps we can finally change the rules of a dollar-driven game that has, for far too long, benefited the few at the expense of the many. I, for one, think it is worth a try.
Andrew Wilk is a former teacher at Urbana High School and a regular commentator on education issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.