Thursday May 19, 2022

Seeing things that never were

By Ali Ahsan
June 22, 2021

Lina Khan, an American of Pakistani origin, is the new chair of the US Federal Trade Commission. Lina Khan is also 32.

In Pakistan, the only appropriate context for these phrases would be as a classical illustration of an oxymoron.Imagine a 32-year-old Lina as chair of the Competition Commission of Pakistan. Impossible – how dare one so young be entrusted with an office so high. Such sinecures require a lifetime of subservience to the system, someone deeply ingrained in its workings, excessively aware of its limits, fully cognizant of that which is not possible. In short, it requires grey hair, or no hair.

The mere thought of a youthful takeover of a high public office is enough to drive the uncle-babu nexus into a collective meltdown. Judges would be beseeched, hearings would be held, people would be abused, misogynist and ageist proclamations would be aired, and decisions to remove would be made.

It is the way it is in the Republic of Pakistan. It is the way it should always be. For we as a nation have failed at merit. Not in the abstract, indefinable way of our PM – who thinks merit is the issue but is convinced Buzdar is the answer – but at a fundamental, societal level.

The mere thought of capable young men (almost always men) in positions of high power derived not through family or fealty (for who here can take issue with that) but through effort and erudition is deeply threatening to our system. Most ‘uncles’ are where they are not because of a surfeit of IQ, but through an excess of patience – grinding away in progressively subservient roles answering to cautious, semi-competent bosses until – in good time – their own turn comes to become those cautious, think-inside-the-box bosses. The caterpillar transforms into a ghastlier caterpillar.

If only one were bold enough to name names in our target rich environment…but that would mean throwing caution to the wind and embracing personal ruin. And, of course, it would require a manuscript, not a column.

Anything that disrupts this Buggins’-turn system of control threatens many lifetimes of yearnings. The seniority system offers stability and predictability – keep your head low long enough and you too will end up someplace in good time. But the moment plum posts start being offered up to any qualified comer, deep insecurity sets in. What predictability is there if you live in fear that the post you’ve set your sights on is going to go to someone parachuting in from outside?

But the rot in Pakistan is deeper still. We are an experience-based society rather than a merit focused one not just because our insecurities demand it (though they do) but because we have proven fundamentally incompetent at measuring competence.

Our systems and processes are ill-equipped to identify, nurture and reward merit at scale. Where a Lina Khan can publish a seminal paper on technology antitrust in law school, and be immediately recognized and subsequently groomed for high offices – professorships at Columbia, high posts in congressional committees and now the FTC – we would hand Lina a ticket, and tell her to go stand in line for 20 years.

Afterall, the only thing worse than nepotism is youthful nepotism. It combines the stench of undeserved favoritism with the insult of reporting to people years younger than yourself. So, let’s kill multiple birds with the stone of ageist bars on employment.

Take the law as an example. You have to be firmly in your middle age to be eligible to join the superior judiciary. Is it because a thirty something is incapable of the intellectual rigor or the maturity of thought that middle age brings? Some certainly, but surely not all. Or perhaps it is just too difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff at such an early age. Let the young ones slog away so that the less dedicated wither on the vine, leaving only well-aged vintages to become ‘me lords’.

There is a real cost to this approach. Age as a proxy for competence is a hallmark of systems that have difficulty discerning actual competence. They inevitably end up rewarding time-spent rather than capabilities mastered. They are measures of input rather than trackers of output.

At best, we have perfected a recipe for mediocrity. And we have collectively absolved ourselves of the hard work to establish a better, more meritocratic system that is constantly seeking to renew, evolve and improve. Few people spend a lifetime conforming to a system only to reimagine it once they reach its pinnacle. Their entire journey – predicated on stability and predictability – makes them vetted guardians of the status quo.

Sprinkle some qualified young persons in positions of actual authority and who knows what might be questioned? Not having spent a lifetime in servitude, might they be more likely, to paraphrase Robert Kennedy, to not only see things as they are and say “why”, but to dream of things that never were and demand, “why not”.

Lina Khan has taken over the FTC not to ‘serve time’ but to shake things up. Once she’s done there, perhaps we can give her a call?

The writer, a former aide to UN Secretaries-General Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon, tweets @aliahsan001