Short on Experts

The system in NH is the reason
Illustration by Peter Noonan

Recently I was asked why this one person from New Hampshire was being treated as an expert on a matter of public policy by a national news hot shot when that person didn’t have any real background in the subject.

My answer: New Hampshire doesn’t have a lot of real policy experts, but we have plenty who play them on television.

In the Granite State the volunteer nature of the political world is well documented. Most elected officials in the state can’t be in it for money. The elected positions — from school board to the state senate — don’t pay. As a result, politicians here may not be as polished and most will serve just a few terms.

This is the way that the founders of the state wanted it. Power cannot be accumulated in Concord over the years because power is decentralized and fleeting.

Another well-documented trait of New Hampshire is its frugal nature. A state that lacks a revenue spigot from an income tax or sales tax lacks an ability to do much beyond the status quo.

Again, this is by design.

All of this is to say that, when you combine the volunteer nature of politics with the fact that there is little loose money in the system, you have a state without much political infrastructure.

In other places, state representatives are given an office and staff. In New Hampshire, they are given a locker and a parking spot. In other state capitals, there are fat cat lobbyists who make money and drive political donations. Since relatively little is taxed and relatively scant money is spent, only a handful of lobbyists make significant bucks. And since the political players are so transient there is little incentive to network beyond a few key players who stick around.

Which brings us to the self-appointed experts. States need experts to do research and provide guideposts on areas from economic development to transportation to public health to housing to the environment to the state budget and education. Indeed, it would be optimal that states have more than one expert in each field so that there could be debate.

In New Hampshire, however, one of the structural flaws of the volunteer and frugal nature of politics is that it doesn’t provide an incubator for experts. Heads of state agencies have an obvious path after leaving state government, but their expertise and experience just goes away.

In other states, there would be money in the collective system of non-profit organizations to fund a research role for that person. From there, they could serve on panels and write papers for legislative committees and be quoted in the newspaper.

Since New Hampshire doesn’t allow for that, the experts are often those who simply raise their hand and call themselves one.

Categories: Politics