The Power of Low Expectations

Nevada's 'historic' 2015 Legislature keeps it sane

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

In days of Vegas yore, a balding basketball coach in a short-sleeved, salmon-colored dress shirt and a maroon tie liked to smile dolefully and share his anxieties about the upcoming game: They’re just so big and strong, he would say about his team’s prospective opponents, I just hope we get out of there without a M.A.S.H. unit. The game would end with Jerry Tarkanian’s Rebels winning by 20 or 30 points and the coach telling scribes why his squad should be the underdog on Saturday at Fullerton.

Back then, Las Vegans were less cynical about the prospect of positive results. They knew the low expectations were a pose, and they processed the pose as one man’s loveable quirkiness. Fast-forward a few decades, though, and any politician will tell you that low expectations are not a quirk, but a strategy: The successful leader lowers the bar and then dazzles by achieving mere competence.

This brings us to the 2015 Nevada Legislature, which as we speak is being feted for its failure to be entirely unreasonable. If we are to believe our Legislators’ postmortems on these harrowing months of “historic” lawmaking, the just-concluded session is the single greatest legislative accomplishment since the Constitutional Convention. Our legislators have a right to bask in the afterglow. After all, we Nevadans will now have full-day kindergarten, a public medical school in our largest city, and the right to shoot people who attack us in our cars.

It is not uncharitable, though, to point out that the perceived elevation of the session’s achievements is in direct proportion to the depth of our prior expectations. Indeed, for this moment of democratic Zen—in which it appears that government by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth—we have Republican Assemblywoman Michele Fiore to thank.

In February, Fiore—who, with Sharron Angle out of the spotlight, has become the East Coast media’s favorite Nevada celebrity—was interviewed by The New York Times. In that phone conversation, as reported by The Times, Fiore spun her rhetorical six-gun and uttered the following words on the need for a campus-carry law: “If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them. The sexual assaults that are occurring would go down once these sexual predators get a bullet in their head.”

After this, Nevada’s media braced itself for the “Session of the Gun,” a Legislature so partisan that a circular firing squad seemed the only foreseeable outcome. Instead, with a healthy push from Governor Brian Sandoval, the Legislature passed a $1.1 billion tax plan for the state’s general fund and another $336 million in levees specifically targeted for education. The general fund measure includes $400 million in taxes that already exist and were due to “sunset”—that is, disappear—at the end of the month. So, to be honest, part of the big tax bill was about funding the state, and part of it was about refusing to defund it.

These bills, no doubt, took a lot of horse-trading and soul-searching. One can be forgiven for believing that the soul-searching was directly related to the horse-trading; that’s the way politics works, with avarice greasing the wheels of reason.

This is what the accidental competence of democracy can achieve: Nevada now has a law—the Hope Diamond of conservative educational thinkers for a generation—that allows parents to use the state’s per-student allotment of dough to send their children to private school. But we also have $336 million for public schools, provided everyone doesn’t pull their kids out so they can play football at Bishop Gorman. Gun advocates passed the car-invasion measure, but Fiore didn’t get her campus-carry law. Given the expectations of no new funding, less old funding, and Smith & Wesson in the lecture hall, it’s not a bad outcome.

The same week that Fiore delivered her comments to The Times, a leadership coach named Peter Bregman published a book called Four Seconds: All the Time You Need to Stop Counter-Productive Habits and Get the Results You Want. One of Bregman’s keys to getting the results you want? You guessed it: lowering expectations.

This seems ironic in a book that promises you can solve your problems in four seconds. But, if you think about it, how long did it take for Fiore to say those words to The New York Times? Well, I just read the words out loud and timed myself: If I was speaking at roughly the same rate as Fiore, we can safely say that it’s possible to lower expectations in 10 seconds.

Not even Tark could beat that.

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