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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Looking for scapegoats under lampposts

There are several versions of an often used parable that goes something like this (this version from here):
[A] woman notices a man on his hands and knees while he frantically searches for something under a streetlamp. "Excuse me?" she asks. "Do you need some help?"
"Oh, yes, I'm looking for my car keys," he replies, and gestures towards his idle car in the darkness half a block away.
As she kneels down to assist, she inquires, "Where exactly did you lose the keys?"
As he carefully scans the pavement around him, he points off down the block and replies, "Over there by the car."
She pauses and shoots him a quizzical look. "Then why are you looking over here?" she queries.
"The light's better."

Today's Boston Globe is filled with all sorts of stories (see its ongoing coverage) and even a poll (conducted, I might add, by my colleagues from the University of New Hampshire Survey Research Center) related to the Big Dig controversy, and as I predicted and feared, it is all about finding the scapegoat or fall guy (person?) to shoulder the blame. The problem is that in almost all cases they are taking the simple approach of looking at the top of the political/administrative hierarchy -- "where the light is...."

Most explicit in this regard is an article featured in the Globe's Ideas section authored by Robert Keough who is noted to be the "editor of CommonWealth, a quarterly journal published by MassINC, a nonpartisan think tank in Boston." Problem is that the article demonstrates that there isn't much thinking going on in that think tank, especially about the issues of accountability that are so central to the Big Dig tragedy. Since it is too difficult and costly to really investigate the causes of the Big Dig mess, Keough and the rest of the media are relying on the easy -- and wrong -- targets. Add to this the knee jerk effort to uncover a "culture of corruption" (highlighted in another article in Ideas -- this one by freelancer Dave Denison) that everyone assumes to be the cause of the Big Dig debacle, and you have the emerging narrative of what to expect over the next several months.

The simplistic notion that accountability -- or the lack of it -- causes concrete ceiling tiles to fall is, of course, absurd. What caused that accident are actions and decisions of a string of individuals who each had a hand (or two) in the many steps the led to the collapse of that concrete slab. But pinpointing the exact decision or act -- or decisionmaker or actor -- who is at fault (assuming there was such a single point to be "pinned") is unlikely perhaps to the point of being impossible. And so we don't even bother, and instead we ritualistically wander on over to the lamppost and try to figure out which of the "usual suspects" we need to focus on.

Sadly a very predictable outcome....

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