• On being mediocre
    March 29,2013

    The Rule of Demonstrable Mediocrity prevails in places where the paramount concern is to save money. Those who believe the public interest sometimes demands more than the minimal expenditure of money know that the rule maintains a tenacious hold.

    The rule often plays a role in the deliberations of local boards that face the job of drawing up budgets that must win voter approval on Town Meeting Day. Thus, to prove that they are not spending too much, they strip their budgets of anything that could earn the label of “fat.” The result is that maintenance is deferred, personnel are laid off, purchases are delayed.

    How does a local school board know it has pared away enough fat? The best way to tell is when a school achieves a level of Demonstrable Mediocrity. It has nothing special, nothing extra, nothing glittery or extravagant. It is just getting by, because getting by is good enough.

    The only way to counter the effect of the Rule of Demonstrable Mediocrity is to assert a value that goes beyond the saving of money — for example, the value of education. It is often a battle, especially in hard times when the saving of money becomes a more pressing imperative. But unless we are willing to allow mediocrity to extend to every walk of life, the assertion of values beyond money remains a contrary imperative.

    Now the Rule of Demonstrable Mediocrity is extending its reach beyond local politics to the state. Budget shortfalls during the Great Recession required austerity from our policymakers as they contended with declining revenues and growing demands on state services. But it appears the Shumlin administration intends to strive for new levels of mediocrity to demonstrate its fiscal virtue.

    One example is the administration’s plan to change the state’s principal welfare program, Reach Up, which is designed to move low-income residents from welfare to work. By all accounts it is a successful program with most participants benefiting from a variety of services designed to help them train themselves and find jobs that will lift them toward self-sufficiency.

    But it appears the Shumlin administration has decided there is room for deterioration within the program, making the program mediocre as a way of demonstrating the willingness of state officials to do what it takes to save money. Thus, Gov. Peter Shumlin has proposed imposing a five-year limit on a person’s ability to receive Reach Up benefits. To make the program even more mediocre, this limit would come in two stages — after three years and then, if a dose of cold water doesn’t work, after two more years.

    Only a tiny fraction of Reach Up participants ever reach the five-year limit, but it can be surmised that they are the most troubled or impaired among the program’s job seekers and there are probably good reasons, beyond laziness, why they have been unable to achieve independence. Yet the new strictures on the program would throw their lives into chaos and impose unnecessary hardships.

    It could turn out, however, that once a good program has been made mediocre, the governor will be able to boast that his state does not provide extravagant treatment of the poor.

    There are other areas where the state is trending toward mediocrity. Failure to address the pollution of the state’s waterways, as a result of failing sewage treatment plants and unchecked agricultural and stormwater runoff, promises to demonstrate to the world that a state once celebrated as an environmental leader is now governed by the Rule of Demonstrable Mediocrity.

    The benefits of mediocrity largely accrue to the wealthy. Their tax bills remain low, and they can send their kids to private schools. If the nearby lake becomes polluted, they can travel to distant places. If their local drinking water is laced with chemicals, they can buy filtration systems.

    It is possible to be more than mediocre, but we have to be willing to pay the price, which means we have to be willing to demand that those who have the money provide the money. That is a step the Shumlin administration appears reluctant to take.

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