The Loss of Executive Function in the West

Posted on by

It’s a stretch to use anecdata to build a theory…save when the evidence is overwhelming, as it is here, of the widespread erosion of executive ability. It’s not be controversial to point out that the caliber of what passes for leadership in the West is now piss poor, and there’s a dearth of promising upstarts to challenge the old guard. When Jamie Dimon is as good as it gets, you know it’s bad.

The functioning of many important government and private institutions has deteriorated markedly in recent decades. Arguably, most of these fish rotted from the head. And if so, why has the executive function, which in very simple terms is assessing situations, deciding whether and how to act, and they carrying through, has decayed so quickly that poor top-level performance is widely visible?

This is such a sprawling phenomenon that I hope readers will chip in with examples from their business and personal lives. To help stimulate discussion, I’ll also toss out some possible causes. But a multi-symptom pathology that has infested already complex organizations can no doubt be attributed to many drivers.1 And the drivers may differ as a result of pre-existing conditions (social structures and norms, institutional focus).

Some of many many examples:

The failure of anyone in the Federal government with clout to show up at the scene of the East Palestine train bomb. Federal officials are supposed to appear to show concern, see first hand what needs are most urgent, promise to help and do so.

This stands out because it took very little effort to pretend to care, yet Team Biden could not be bothered. It’s a glaring example of government and elite neglect of rot in the body public: opioid abuse, gun violence (suicides still top homicides), falling life expectancy. Those at the top carry on as if these problems are no concern of theirs, when they are just as exposed to repeat Covid case damage as the lower orders.3

The considerable decline of the British civil service. Readers tell us it is almost entirely hollowed out, with (at least as of some years ago) a few very old farts as Keepers of the Knowledge, and the young ‘uns not of great caliber and not performing at historical levels. This decay became evident during Brexit, where the UK often produced rambling, grandiose position statements, in stark contrast to the spare, carefully drafted EU counterparts.2

Rotting infrastructure. The Volcker Alliance estimated the total amount of deferred maintenance in the US was over $1 trillion as of 2019. Building roads and fixing bridges puts money in local pockets and, crassly, can buy votes of the companies in the fix-up chain. It’s also a bennie for business, since bigger and better roads means more efficient movement of goods and workers. None other than hard core neoliberal Larry Summers pumped for precisely this sort of spending, saying it paid for itself, that every $1 of infrastructure catch-up could generate as much as $3 in additional GDP growth.

Promotion of and herding into bad business models. Only recently has the business press worked out that corporate superstar Jack Welch was singularly responsible for the destruction of a once-great American company, General Electric.4 GE used its finance arm to manage profits to a degree that smacked of fraud. Analysts should have been suspicious of, and weren’t, of GE’s Madoff-like ability to meet its numbers.

Mind you, it wasn’t that Welch was lauded. The media has a nasty tendency to over-hype and then attack. It’s that Welch became the archetype of a new bad American product, the CEO as celebrity, and his novel practices were adopted with as much scrutiny as Hollywood diets, like firing 10% of staff every year.

And it wasn’t just Welch, but he was an extremely durable case. Consider the go-go S&Ls. Enron. AIG. Uber. And to add insult to injury, plenty of solidly performing companies like Toys’R’Us were run into the ground by private equity overleverage and underinvestment.

Self-censorship among the influential One conservative contact argues that the US and Europe have unimaginably lousy leaders because that’s what the wealthy and powerful want. But what about Brexit? The business community failed to advocate for its own interests, particularly with respect to the need for much greater preparation for a hard border. I was told repeatedly that they were cowed into silence about the coming disruptions and costs out of fear of government reprisals. So who is in charge, exactly? Similarly, during the never-ending EU sanctions-gasm, German manufacturers were zip-lipped about how much more expensive energy would lead to permanent production cutbacks and even plant closures. Surely there would have been an acceptable way to broach the topic, like the cost to communities that would lose jobs and how that burden might be shared.

Inadequate climate change programs. Yes, it’s understandable, if also disastrous, that action to combat climate change has been woefully inadequate. Too many people will have to give up comfortable habits and many rice bowls will be broken. But the evidence of damaged executive functioning is the lack of any full bore, non-green-energy rainbows and unicorns plans.

The world has known climate change is bearing down on us since at least the 2007 IPCC reports. So where is the monster academic/NGO document laying out a systematic vision of how provisioning for society, around the world, has to change? It might take a very big team say 30 months to produce a report with two well-developed scenarios. Pointing out the military is a big part of the problem would be reason alone to gig up this sort of document. A systematic approach, even if critics could poke holes in it, would elevate the level of thinking and set a higher bar for other plans.

These problems are so wide ranging and deep-seated that they are very unlikely to lend themselves to reductivist explanations. But let me suggest a few possible culprits:

The erosion of local communities and with them, accountability. When I was a kid, the US had many companies headquartered in mid-sized cities like Dayton, Ohio. That plus the fact that smaller cities then routinely had a morning and evening newspaper meant there was a cadre of local notables who cared about their image and stature and were (compared to now) subject to being embarrassed in their town if caught out in self-serving conduct. Conversely, it was also comparatively cheap to gain cultural capital, say by donating to an important local charity or sponsoring work-study programs at the local uni.

Admittedly given regulatory approval costs, drugs are not local products. But do you think the Sacklers could have gotten away with almost single-handedly creating the opioid crisis had they been in any proximity to the communities they were destroying? They were straight out of the Third Man screenplay:

The related problem of complexity. As American and European industries first consolidated, shifting corporate action to fewer and bigger cities and then outsourcing and offshoring took hold, executives are managing much more sprawling, complex, and risk-exposed operations.

Humans have a bad tendency to want to rely on simple decision rules and the false comfort of metrics (see here for a long-form discussion…in 2006!). From a post earlier this year:

As companies and competitive settings have become harder to contend with, many business chiefs have fallen back on simple guidelines like “Maximize shareholder value.” But the principle of obliquity finds that in highly complex systems, we can’t get enough of a grasp of their behavior to chart a simple course. A brief introduction of this idea, from former Financial Times columnist John Kay, who stressed that when companies try to “maximize shareholder value,” they don’t succeed:

Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people. Obliquity is the idea that goals are often best achieved when pursued indirectly.

Obliquity is characteristic of systems that are complex, imperfectly understood, and change their nature as we engage with them…

Obliquity gives rise to the profit-seeking paradox: the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented. ICI and Boeing illustrate how a greater focus on shareholder returns was self-defeating in its own narrow terms. Comparisons of the same companies over time are mirrored in contrasts between different companies in the same industries. In their 2002 book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras compared outstanding companies with adequate but less remarkable companies with similar operations…in each case: the company that put more emphasis on profit in its declaration of objectives was the less profitable in its financial statements.

Reversion to tribalism and clientelism. In complex societies, participants face competing and often conflicting obligations. I am fond of the wisdom of the great social theorist Jamie Lannister:

So many vows…they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.

So what happens when just about no one, even high on the food chain, had a secure perch? Think of the fate of an exec that the CEO comes to view as a threat because said exec is questioning some regulatory corners cutting? Senior officers who are suddenly turfed out typically find it hard to land well. Bye bye not just ski vacations and the summer home, but potentially the Upper East Side coop and tuition at Dalton.

This greater perceived need to focus on career self-preservation dovetails with the tendency in the US for higher education to become an exercise in credentialing, not learning.5 The reason girls do better in math in Iran and other parts of the Middle East than boys do is, for the most part, educational attainment does not help with career prospects. They depend almost entirely on family/tribal connection. For girls, however, doing well in school gives them an advantage in a job market that is generally unfriendly to women.

Because the role of “elite education as class preservation” has become obvious,6 its corrosive effects are being missed. It means that performance in college does not matter all that much. That is consistent with the reported dumbing-down of even supposedly top college programs.

If students learn they can skate in college, it’s not hard to think they’ll carry those habits into life. Hence the over-reliance on glibness and controversy-dodging.

I’ll pause here. I could easily write a post four times as long and barely scratch the surface. So perhaps it’s better to leave this piece as a forcing device and seek input and comment from our wordly-wise commentariat.


1 While many medical websites have sections on executive function impairment, Medical News Today points out:

Executive function skills help people complete tasks and interact with others. They include a range of skills, such as:

  • planning and organization
  • concentrating and managing mental focus
  • analyzing and processing information
  • managing emotions and behavior
  • remembering details
  • managing time
  • multitasking
  • solving problems

An executive function disorder impairs some of these skills, which can affect a person’s ability to manage and organize themselves to achieve goals.

However, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) does not recognize executive function disorder as a specific mental health condition. Instead, executive function issues are symptomatic of other neurological, mental health, and behavioral disorders.

2 Some may pooh-pooh the importance of preparing solid position papers: “Oh, the EU is a mess. What does it matter if they can produce nice documents?” This view reveals a major misunderstanding of how large, and particularly, highly political organizations work. The statement-drafting process is a means for (hopefully) achieving a consensus. Better and more careful drafting generally signifies that the participants thought long and hard about every word. In addition, being able to produce professional-grade output is a minimum standard, of being able to deliver completed staff work. That does not mean the EU can do well on higher-order tasks but it at least retains some basic competencies which the UK Foreign Office, formerly one of its most prestigious operations, has lost.

3 Elites thinking that Covid will let them off easy is another form of self-delusion (before you argue, remember all of the photos of presumed dirty help wearing masks at parties, serving unmasked guests?) Perhaps due to thinness being a status marker, they believe that not being fat or diabetic means Covid will be nice to them. But cancer survivors are at high risk. And IM Doc and others have observed the super fit often being hard hit by Covid. Fitness fanaticism has a strong following among the well-heeled.

4 A friend started her business career in clerical position at GE and worked her way up into operations management. She learned so much that she was later able to turn around and run a successful niche manufacturer that now has clients like Mercedes and NASA. Long before Welch’s halo was removed, she was giving chapter, book, and verse of how Welch had inherited a superbly functioning company from Reg Jones and quickly started to run it into the ground.

5 Please do not try saying Ivy League educations are worthless. I did learn a lot at Harvard, including the equivalent of hand-eye coordination in writing (as in how to make a sentence say what I intended it to say, and not more or less), synthesizing large amounts of information, and writing long papers (as in being able to structure a complex argument with supporting evidence).

6 When I was a kid, legacy admissions were not all that important to Harvard or Yale. Each school could have taken 4x as many applicants from the likes of Andover, Exeter, Groton, and St. Paul’s as they did, and many of the rejected were from legacy families. Similarly, only one student I met from an old family fell short in the intellectual/academic accomplishments area. The others, aside from sometimes showing off their particularly nice manners and admitting to being seasoned skiers and/or sailors, were otherwise pretty much on a par with other students.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Phil

    I work at Scottish Water. We have two types of manager, ex plumbers who started on the tools and worked their way up, and graduates put into the Future Leaders program, who are shifted around different parts of the business every year. One of these types of manager is very good at understanding the water network and problem solving, the other type not so much. Due to alot of the work involved means standing in a field in the rain in the middle of the night trying to find a burst water main, there is not a huge number of PMC types wanting to work here, so the company is still capable of getting things done. Which is good.

    1. GramSci

      Wikipedia tells me that … «Scottish Water operates under a regulatory framework established by the Water Services etc. (Scotland) Act 2005 allowing an economic regulator, the Water Industry Commission for Scotland, to set the cost of the service independently.»

      I think the answer to the PMC’s dissatisfaction with Scottish Water’s career opportunities are obvious: Scottish Water needs to be privatised and deregulated.

      1. Phil

        Scottish Water motto is “trusted to serve Scotland”. No mention of shareholders, as we don’t have any. Terrible. Long may it continue.

      2. Tom Doak

        Yes. In many of these scenarios it’s a simple matter of following the money to the group that wants to see executive fiction destroyed. The neoliberal scheme to defund government eliminates starter jobs for talented people, and it has gone on long enough that the competent older generation are now all aging out.

        The focus on money has also led the brightest young people to head to Wall Street, loot the economy and retire early and rich, instead of aspiring to become future leaders in other fields.

        1. flora

          True story: One of my small city’s public works departments made a huge, terrible mistake in carrying out their ordinary duties, the kind of mistake even 2 minutes thought by a non-expert would have prevented. A sort of “hey, wait a minute” pause and rechecking would have prevented.

          The city’s response? “We’ve lost institutional knowledge.”
          That is both true and appalling at the same time.

          1. flora

            Increasing centralization means fewer people at every step to make decisions instead of carrying out decisions made at higher, more centralized levels where the real knowledge about how thing actually work is scarce to non-existent. Spreadsheets uber alles. (This has been happening in US unis for the last 2 or 3 decades. You see the results.)

          2. David

            Did they forget to check the maps or schematics?

            One of the twin cities (not the big ones) in which I grew up was tearing up the streets everywhere you turned one summer. Most of those streets had been fine, but they were looking for utilities. I think it was sewer line junctions or something like that. Turns out that they had no map of the system!

    2. ChrisPacific

      I wish I could say the same for our water utility. They recently informed us that our water was in fact not being fluoridated like we thought, and in fact hadn’t been for nearly a year (and only intermittently for several years prior). They were eventually forced into coming up with a plan to address that and the CEO wrote a self-congratulatory little editorial on it with a token apology. The thing he was most proud of? Everybody had been able to keep their jobs.

  2. Joe Well

    The US and UK are moving toward the kind of income inequality that characterizes middle-income countries like in Latin America or Southeast Asia. They all are characterized by the type of pathologies mentioned here. Who knows exactly the mechanisms, but a cross-country comparison is called for.

    From personal experience, I can say that the PMC in these countries can be unbelievably arrogant almost on the cellular level. They never are even conscious of it. Meanwhile the rest of society tends to think that all wealth is ill gotten or inherited, so why bother doing things better, it won’t be rewarded. Politicians are held to a very low standard and the lack of transparency can be stunning.

    1. Cat Burglar

      In the US, you are describing the reverse engineering of the development of capitalism by going back to a rentier-run society. Nobody in power pretended to care about East Palestine because none of the people living there are their real constituents — a consequence of unequal wealth distribution. The power differential is so big between bottom and top, that the lower orders have no effective power.

      Leaning-out administrative spending to decrease costs (or taxes) in business or government means scanting training and no cultivation of people with enough experience to be competent administrators. Control measures, like simplistic metrics, are then instituted to make up for active administration– as in my lifelong contact with Federal land management agencies, where I have seen that whenever staff for restoration and public education are cut, law enforcement increases. Control increases as competence decays.

      1. Skip Intro

        I believe the rentier-society has also been referred to as neofeudalism. We can look forward to new forms of compulsory digital rents, as the means of ‘production’ are virtualised then enclosed. The erosion of central authority’s executive ability on the ground leaves de facto power in the hands of local warlords, and the global corporate behemoths they owe fealty to.

      2. Ben Gunn

        “Control increases as competence decays.” Is this general knowledge that I missed? I’m adding it to my NC truism list. Somewhere close to 1- Because markets, 2-Go die.

        Excellent discussion, Yves. Thank you. I feel like I learn more here at NC than anywhere else since I found you these last 9 years.

        BTW, I think 1- Because markets, 2-Go die, is a corollary to a larger truth about the preservation of the billionaire’s control of power. Maybe something like 1-Because I can, 2-Go Die.

      3. Scylla

        As far as I am concerned, this is just the natural course of capitalism. It will follow a course predicted by many, and we will eventually end up back at an aristocracy, in all but name. You can push Capitalism backwards via regulation, but the capitalists will always undermine such efforts utilizing corruption in order to push Capitalism toward its inevitable conclusive end point. Capitalism always seeks to centralize wealth- once the wealthy have that wealth, they use the wealth to purchase power. It’s the mirror image of authoritarian communism, where power is concentrated, and those that attain power then use the power to attain wealth. The only answer is radical horizontalization of both power and wealth-complete reset, with the people empowered to pull down those that rise above the rest- as neither concentrated power nor wealth can be trusted to interact with human nature.
        Anyway- I went back and finished a degree about 10 years ago, and during a high level management course, I was absolutely shocked to be taught the importance of not criticizing managers, and always promoting the appearance of happiness. Smile more and accept whatever shit you are shoveled. I, an experienced former manager, called this out for the dreck it is, but of course that may be why I am a *former* manager. When you have a society that becomes unwilling or unable to point out past, present, and future errors in judgement of our betters, we get what we’ve got. The intelligent, motivated, and inspired people become exploiters if they are predisposed toward sociopathy, and angry cynical dispossessed workers, barely scratching out a living if they are even slightly ethical- if they are lucky. The rest descend into a destructive spiral. It’s a sad state of affairs.

        1. David

          So true. Yet for so many, a capitalist class which converts profits into ownership of both political, economic, and much of our social and cultural systems has nothing to do with the system of capitalism. The solution proposed is more freedom for the capitalists. Boggles the mind,

        2. Yves Smith Post author

          Sorry, this path is not inevitable. In Japan, entrepreneurs are revered for creating employment, not getting rich. Banks being more than thinly profitable was seen as bad because their profits were well understood as coming at the expense of industry. Post the Japanese real estate-stock market crisis, major companies engaged in wage compression, further lowering the not-that-large-by-Western-standards gap between entry and top level pay. That too was to preserve jobs.

          The Japanese bubble would have been much smaller, and its blowup therefore less destructive, had the US not forced rapid deregulation upon its banks….to make the world safer for US investment banks.

          1. tevhatch

            In both Japan and (more so) China, there are temples and gates built by the hands of the community to honour people who did great things, and to provide a moral education/marker to the youth. Sports had nothing to do with what was great, I should add.

            Once upon a time this was true in America too, but then the robber barons began, like Carnegie’s libraries, to co-mingle blood and theft with acts of attrition. After a while it was easy to discard the attrition and go for for the advertising buck – straight to the new übermensch – the corporation as superhuman. The Iraq war memorial will skip naming the men and women who died (losers one and all according to Donald) and list out the corporations who got their slice).

        3. Henry Moon Pie

          “the capitalists will always undermine such efforts utilizing corruption in order to push Capitalism toward its inevitable conclusive end point. Capitalism always seeks to centralize wealth- once the wealthy have that wealth, they use the wealth to purchase power”

          Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

          Why Socialism?” Albert Einstein

    2. Earl Erland

      Putin uses the descriptor “Anglo-Saxon”. I think he uses it in a racial way, to describe weakness in the West. Western Media and politicians proclaim the weakness of the Russ.

      FDR would be appalled by the behavior of our government. He watched and then counted on survival based on the strength and will of the Soviet Union.

      A change in name does not mean a loss of will.

      RT consistently writes about Western (US) Culture without using descriptive adjectives, yet has the ability to highlight our cultural delights. Taunting.

    3. BeliTsari

      Collapse cascades like a tsunami. So much going on under the surface, all at once, it’s hilariously out of control in no time? 3rd Party auditors could watch young nepo client engineers, clueless aquisitions, corrupted regulatory, CYA vendor sales, lying QC & complicit QA; flustered production & supervisory hammerheads spewing contradictory BS, none of the worst & cheapest gas company “professional engineers” has any interest in learning to detect, or take any notice of, since we’re there to take all the blame when five brand new pipelines blow up & PHMSA has to come up with “subsidence,” as this weeks’ euphemism for, “we forced out all the expensive old-timers, hired un-documented, 1099, temp & refugees from Rooski & Indian oligarch acquired 120yr old mills & hire marketing folks to replace empirically knowledgeable hands,” forced into early retirement? It took ~1997 through 2007 or so, once it got started. They’d gain some level of competence, try to do their job properly. Get FIRED or set up. Then, move onto the road, with us. Lose their families, get indentured into 1099 & start running?

    4. Adam Eran

      A footnote in Graeber’s work says this: In … Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990), James Scott makes the point that whenever one group has overwhelming power over another, as when a community is divided between lords and serfs, masters and slaves, high-caste and untouchable, both sides tend to end up acting as if they were conspiring to falsify the historical record. That is: there will always be an ‘official version’ of reality–say, that plantation owners are benevolent paternal figures who only have the best interest of their slaves at heart–which no one, neither masters nor slaves, actually believes, and which they are likely to treat as self-evidently ridiculous when ‘offstage’ and speaking only to each other, but which the dominant group insists subordinates play along with, particularly at anything that might be considered a public event. In a way, this is the purest expression of power: the ability to force the dominated to pretend, effectively, that two plus two is five. Or that the pharaoh is a god. As a result, the version of reality that tends to be preserved for history and posterity is precisely that ‘official transcript.’
      – From (footnotes) The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by Graeber and Wengrow

      So…inequality twists the thought process.

  3. John R Moffett

    All of these problems boil down to what is inherently wrong with modern capitalism. The incentives drown out virtue, empathy and intelligence. If you are more worried about job security and investor returns, you can’t be worried about the actual problems faced by companies or institutions. You can’t be worried about people, workers, the environment, infrastructure, or any other collective problems. The easiest way to fix this is to bring back very high taxes on the wealthy (starting with a 70% wealth tax on the extremely rich), as we had during the Eisenhower administration. That was a crude way to tame capitalism, but it worked well. It can work again if those in charge had the courage to take the rich kids money away from them. The rich could not own all the news outlets and bribe all the politicians if they weren’t swimming in cash. It may be too late now, as the elites have far more wealth now than at any point in history. That is more power than individuals have ever had before.

    1. GramSci

      «Discrepancies between low personal incomes and very high personal incomes should be lessened; and I therefore believe that in time of this grave national danger, when all excess income should go to stopping the pandemic and climate change, no American citizen ought to have a net income, after he has paid his taxes, of more than $25,000 a year.»

      Franklin Delano Roosevelt
      Message to Congress, 27 April 1942

      OK, FDR actually said “all excess income should go to win the war”, but given our global pandemic, economic, and climatic crises, this is war. We need a Maximum Wage Now. We need a #GreedLimit. FDR’s target number for a Maximum Wage was $25,000 per year. That’s the equivalent of $400,000 per year today: #GreedLimit400. It was a good idea in 1942; it’s a better idea today.

      FDR got close, but in the end, things didn’t work out so well. IMHO, he was assassinated.

      1. LAS

        What do you mean FDR was “assassinated”? He wasn’t.
        His values have been ideologically attacked and undercut through conservative persuasion theories in the subsequent decades after his death. It hasn’t been all straight downhill. While his programs have morphed into more regressive versions of themselves, LBJ extended some of them and introduced others that covered new and wider classes of people.

        What we’ve most lost from that progressive era is the progressive income tax.

    2. Scylla

      Capitalism cannot be tamed. It can only be *temporarily* restrained. The forces and incentives that you pointed out as inherent within the ideology cannot be removed from the ideology. Those that attain wealth will use it to corrupt in their search for what they do not have- power. These people will simply undo the work you wish to see completed, just as they undid the work that was completed during the Roosevelt thru Eisenhower administrations. If we want to solve this problem, then we must address the actual problem, which is capitalism.
      And I have come to the sad and depressing realization that there is only one way to solve it.

      1. Daniil Adamov

        If it is anything to the tune of the October Revolution, it is worth remembering that capitalist activity continued even under Stalin. It was just illegal and underground, but nevertheless ubiquitous and sometimes dramatically successful:

        1. Scylla

          Capitalism requires capitalists- it does not mean no markets for people to engage in. Remember that a capitalist only makes money from the work of others. No capitalists does not preclude people from doing business- it simply precludes people from having employees. I’m sure some slipped through the cracks in the USSR, but it was not the capitalists that brought down the USSR, it was the concentrated power that allowed a few people with that power to pursue wealth. What’s the saying I have heard- something like the USSR fell because Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s wives wanted Chanel bags? Seems someone from over there mentioned that.
          I have indeed come to the conclusion that insurrection is necessary, but I do not think that Soviet-style communism is what should come after it.
          Amfortas would probably see a similar setup, for the after insurrection part.

        2. Amfortas the hippie

          “…capitalist activity continued even under Stalin. It was just illegal and underground…”

          i call that tables turned, right there.
          as a currently black market farmer…let the ubermenchen try it for a while.
          one must hustle.
          i doubt they’d last long in my life.

          1. Amfortas the hippie

            and Scylla..
            maximum wage, coupled with Mores and Folkways that disincentive lording it over others…or sitting under a pile of whatever passes for wealth.
            after a period of chaos…perhaps decades worth…we’ll figure it out.
            we dont need no stinking bosses.
            throw TINA’s body in the frelling river.
            because there ARE Alternatives.

      2. Henry Moon Pie

        “Capitalism cannot be tamed.”

        Regulating capitalism is putting a serial killer under house arrest–and without even an ankle bracelet.

  4. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Yves.

    Great minds think alike. Readers may be interested to read NC stalwart David / Aurelien’s latest in conjunction with this post.

    Add the incentives, perverse incentives even, and agency issues to the above and one has a recipe for decline.

    1. Lex

      Indeed, Colonel. I was thinking of Aurelien’s latest essay as I read this. I think they should be read together because they point towards the same, fundamental issue.

    2. SufferinSuccotash

      BTW, where exactly is David Aurelian’s essay?
      Just asking a question…

        1. Colonel Smithers

          Thank you, all.

          I got distracted, shirking from home today, and forgot to paste the link to Aurelien / David’s blog. Thank you to Vao.

    3. Colonel Smithers

      Plus add a degenerate MSM as per John A and I have exchanged comments about this scandal on NC Links passim.

      The scandal at the Guardian overlaps with the one engulfing the Confederation of British Industry, as the CBI’s former director-general worked at the Guardian in the teens, and one covered up by New Labour / the Labour right, again involving the former CBI D-G and Guardian executive.

      Sexual harassment at the Guardian goes beyond Cohen and the ex CBI D-G and goes back three decades. Sexual harassment at the Labour Party goes back as much, sparked largely by the arrival of New Labour and its lad and drinks culture, one that attracted careerist civil servants on the make and helped facilitate the dodgy / sexed up dossier to justify the invasion of Iraq.

      Sexual harassment in the Labour Party continues to this day. There are complaints against two senior shadow cabinet spokesmen and some of their aides. It was put to Corbyn that he investigate, especially as the accused were sabotaging his leadership and campaign, but Corbyn felt the MSM would accuse him of witch hunting, not unfounded, and he does not do this sort of thing.

      With regard to the FT’s Roula Khalaf, she’s a boot licker and desperate to join the establishment. Sebastian Payne, Whitehall editor under Khalaf for a while, openly sought a Tory seat when covering Westminster stories.

      1. Colonel Smithers

        I forgot to mention that the former CBI D-G worked as a Labour advisor in the noughties. He’s the common thread between (New) Labour, the Guardian and CBI.

  5. Deschain

    We’ve so completely selected for sociopaths that anyone who is actually competent opts out to preserve their sanity.

    That’s not to say there aren’t competent sociopaths but Steve Jobs types are pretty rare.

    1. vao

      There is a model of organizations positing that its members will adopt one of three atitudes: loyalty, voice, or exit.

      It looks as if the disappearance of executive function and the pointlessness of “voice” cause a greater shift towards “exit”, with the much discussed “quiet quitting” a variety of it.

      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, Vao.

        Exit can be voluntary or, in my case at Equitable Life and Deutsche involuntary, dressed as cost cutting and / or Brexit related (at DB), but the price for thinking the firms have obligations and ethics to follow.

  6. Steve H.

    I’ll offer the composite metric of F*cks-To-Give.

    It is adjacent to perceived vs actual agency, in which (for most) actual agency is far more local than is perceived.

    Also adjacent to specialization in the oikonomic sense, when being very effective at particular behaviors is selected vs a generalist approach (which requires more FTGs).

    Cortisol also interferes with most of those executive functions, and after three years of one of our parents dying every nine months, Janet and I only have enough cumulative FTGs for a 3/4 unit of executive function.

    1. GramSci

      Yes, cortisol can drain the FTGs, but isn’t that why we visit NC? Knowing there’s a reservoir of FTGs out there is the best antidote to FTG depletion.

      But it’s also a matter of how we spend them. I have three sisters. One has never had any FTGs. She has embraced her cosmic insignificance. The other two have lots of FTGs, but they’ve invested them all in ridding the world of Putin.

      1. Steve H.

        > but isn’t that why we visit NC?
        > But it’s also a matter of how we spend them.

        Yes to Both And.

        > Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people. Obliquity is the idea that goals are often best achieved when pursued indirectly.

        How a source not devoted to News, but rather Critical Thinking, becomes the best source of news.

    2. What?No!

      FTG’s… this is a surprisingly (to me) deep composite metric for today’s world. I’m going to spend the rest of the day thinking about this.

  7. Taufiq Al-Thawry

    Agree with all the examples in the post that I’m familiar with, but want to add a unique one of my own – the US military. In my case, I was in intelligence, so can only speak to that specific experience – but in speaking with vets in other fields, the leadership is not better

    As you come up in intelligence, it is remarkable how how incompetent the leadership is comparative to their subordinates and it took a while to understand why.

    With ever-increasing privatization (I was in 2001-2009), young military intelligence (MI) personnel find themselves working alongside, and in some cases mentored by contract employees. As relationships develop, you find out how much more money these contractors make compared to the soldiers – often 2X, sometimes 3X or more, with so much less other BS. So, your talented MI personnel leave the military after the first or second enlistment to get the bag. This creates the situation where only the most anti-social, incompetent and/or institutionalized remain in and become leadership – and very often threatened and vindictive towards their more talented subordinates leading to further institutional rot

    1. JE McKellar

      I wonder if executive function is really about staff work – that the capability of a leader comes from assembling a team of subordinates and then using their collective efforts to solve problems. In my limited experience, small businesses fall apart when the boss stops listening to the crew, whether out of simple exhaustion or petty injured pride.

    2. ilsm

      I was in weapon systems acquisition, as a civil servant, with 10 years active duty, and another 20 reserve…..

      we had mix of military, civil service and support contractors.

      to define, design, and test a weapon system requires at least: mission knowledge, system science knowledge, project management skills, and critical thinking to test the diverse hypotheses that the system works, and we can field it w/o taking resources from other priorities.

      skills and knowledge diverse, and competitive for resources.

      critical thinking is awol.

      and no failed or incomplete test point will delay a milestone bc no one cares for customer risk….

      if they even know basic quality, a multi million $$ w edwards deming education kick before everyone paid lip service to lean.

      so complex, we gat f-35 which needs a new engine bc it has to run too just to fail op tests

      the issue portray as pushing, when the thing overheat to try and deliver engineer requirement to meet mission requirement.

      the op requirements are seldom linked to design until a big fail, the the arms wave, and the user’s needs because strawmen

  8. Cetra Ess

    Perhaps the fundamental flaw is that we have leaders at all, that we’ve created this dependency on leaders, that we expect to be led and we create structues and hiearchies around this premise. Then we’re sad when our leaders fail us but we could have solved problems another way.

    To me society is a metaphor for the Marshmallow challenge:

    The worst performing group in the challenge were the business people. And our society revolves around business people, we worship business.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      over perhaps 30 years, the statement “The System selects for Psychopathy” ,makes people cock their heads and side eye you in a good way…the wheels suddenly turn, and the lightbulb flashes in the darkness.

      much different if one holds forth about money as a fetish object, or USA! as an Evil Empire(these will get yer ass kicked in any beerjoint in Texas.)

    2. Henry Moon Pie

      “The worst performing group in the challenge were the business people. And our society revolves around business people, we worship business.”

      That’s my one line summary of American politics: let the businessman decide.

      The businessman team may not have built the tallest tower, but did they make money? That’s what determines which projects shall be undertaken in America and which shall not.

      1. GramSci

        In my days volunteering with Billionaires for Bush, our favorite bumpersticker was “One dollar, one vote”. One share, one vote. Run the country like a business.

        1. JBird4049

          I can just see a successful drug lord during the 80s having the most votes in an average hollowed out American city.

    3. David

      You may have something there. Isn’t this how our educational system has been set up? You have teacher as leader and he/she directs all learning and is also the reservoir of all correct knowledge. As far as your grades go, your answer must nearly always align with teacher’s preconceived answer.

      Perhaps it is that our “leaders” are fixed and seldom changing. If you were leader today and I were leader next week and a third leader steps in for the following two weeks and there is a continuous rotation, perhaps more solutions would surface.

      It is common in the workplace to see the not-your-job and not-my-job attitudes. Of course they effect not just habits of thinking, but also habits of behavior. “Not my job? I’m here. I’m closest to it. I know how to do it, so why shouldn’t I do it?” I say this at work and it is like I have sprouted horns out of my head! “Get back to YOUR work!’ A lot of this comes from what and how a business measures things. My taking a minute or less to attend to a safety issue is simply not in the production calculation and so “my numbers” will suffer and perhaps the whole team’s numbers will suffer. Too much deviation from the straight line and you’re out of a job. Your boss can’t justify your non-standard/irregular behavior because it cannot be fit into the their tight calculations. Tolerance is so small. Spend more than a few seconds for something that comes up occasionally or irregularly and you might need two hours to make up for that lost time, if you can even do it.

      It is difficult to work as a team when your livelihood depends upon and is evaluated on the basis of your individual effort. I have seen many a real team player be ground down to a thoughtless drone who won’t take initiative and simply waits around for the next orders. When initiatives to help your team and independent thoughts or actions are punished, what would you expect?

      Maybe more creative jobs are different, but creativity, I would think, could benefit any type of work to some degree. Thing is, you do need some uninterrupted time for that. If you think your supervisor is going to interrupt you any second then it won’t be conducive to creativity.

  9. Palaver

    Robert Putnam wrote about an “I We I” curve in his book, “The Upswing”. The indicators of transformation are lagging. The new metrics and institutions won’t reflect the moral indignity we are feeling now. The New Deal and Great Society Era was a culmination of the Progressive Era which labored under great inequality. On the flip side, Reagan came into office a decade after union membership, wages, and progress on racial inequality had peaked.

    The metrics don’t show improvement now, but we are in the midst of transformation. I have faith in our young people to speak in the moral tone that will lead us into the Upswing. The great leaders are here among us, working their way up from the bottom in local communities, testing their tactics and strategies. Keep an eye out for them and support their movement any way you can.

    Have faith.

  10. Lex

    Whoa boy. Like Colonel Smithers I recommend that this and Aurelien’s latest be read together.

    My business experience is mostly at small firms. I started at this one when it was only about 20 people. The leadership was eccentric but also the most technically capable person at the company (owned by the leader). So executive function wasn’t displayed in the traditional way, but it worked and worked well. It was atypical but very efficient in its own way.

    And then 9 months ago a former employee purchased 51% of the company. This former employee wasn’t particularly good at the reality of technical consulting when they were employed the first time and lasted <3 years before going to a corporate job. Now we have the worst aspects of modern corporate management and the issues Yves details. We also have the old issues of a node-and-network ad hocracy organizational structure, so in new management's brilliant plan we all get to enjoy the worst of both worlds. The nepotism has started.

    Disappointing but simply means I'm on my way out.

  11. Bart Hansen

    Speaking of newspapers, this week the only daily paper in nearby Charlottesville announced that it is dropping to a Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday schedule.

    1. Bsn

      As a recently retired public school educator, I would move much of the blame to computerization, the rise of cell phones, social media and the diminishment of the lessons we used to learn via nature and the environment. Stupid and distracted people don’t vote, don’t complain, don’t question and don’t learn (from neither mistakes nor successes). It’s divide and conquer 101. Taking the time to meditate while using a variety of resources to “answer” a given question is much depleted in these times. It’s so easy to “look it up” and move on. Executive function relies on many data points and connections to find an “answer” as opposed to using a cell phone to “google” it. Using a keyboard to take a note uses many less data points than writing it down on a pocket file (no touch, no movement of the whole arm, too fast to excite a wide variety of neurons, etc). A comparison of students from the mid-late 90s to those of today, night and day. A good example is the brain and wisdom of Michael Hudson. In a panel discussion of his recent book he had a yellow notepad in front of him, referenced 4-5 times over an hour. Two of the 3 other panelists used their phones, had their heads down, and conspicuosly nodded a few times while doing God knows what. Facts are emanating from your phone, not wisdom.
      Bart’s example of a newspaper is perfect. All the tactile actions involved in reading (arm movements, commuter folding, back and forth between pages, fighting a breeze, scratching your chin off and on, etc) a rag are far more complex and rewarding to neurons and dendrites than taping the screen of your phone.
      The young student of today could not explain what an aphid is, but they can sure look it up. No offence intended to anyone, but more than a few NC commenters refer to Wikipedia. Need I say more?

      1. JBird4049

        Having had to do research for a college paper and then type using a typewriter, I can say that parts of the new computerization of everything has its benefits.

        I still prefer books for the detailed studying and a fountain pen for the initial outline and first drafts because my understanding and ability to express it is so much greater. The internet helps greatly in creating a mental outline and deciding just where to focus my study, which was often a problem before.

        It is still much more work than just using the internet and a computer to read and type. But that is just why reading a book and handwriting is not popular.

        As some here have commented, the shallowness that comes from just using a screen and keyboard makes deep thinking and planning hard to do. It is much like a muscle after all, which only becomes good after much use and like sports, it can be really hard, even painful, to do at first, whereas a computer is much easier and better at first use.

        I guess this is a roundabout way to partly explain why our civilizations, as well the societies in it, has lost its executive functions. It is easier, faster, and cheaper to not do it the old ways, and unless you think to ask if it is good even in the medium run, you will not know if, what, and why things are falling apart; however shallow thinking prevents you asking those questions. It is self inflicted, reinforcing, mental damage.

        This does also explain why those grinning non-entities are grinning as the ship sinks because they can’t even see that the ship is sinking.

        1. Lambert Strether

          > The internet helps greatly in creating a mental outline and deciding just where to focus my study, which was often a problem before.

          I was only able to finish work that I had begun when I encountered Acta, a “desk accessory” for the Mac (remember them?). I could write my sentences and paragraphs down in any order and without judging myself, and later to re-arrange and cut. I could not have done this on paper (though IIRC Wodehouse hung sheets of paper round his room, clipped to clotheslines, and Nabokov wrote on index cards; that was their solution to rearrangement. Too hard for me, and not easy to see an overview). IOW, the computer made planning very easy for me. When I started with Acta, I finished an article right away. Then I wrote another! Quite empowering for me.

          That doesn’t mean that society as a whole — as opposed to me, the person — hasn’t lost executive function. The Internet seems vast, but the totality of books in libraries is still vaster. And we lose more and more of the works of the past every day. Even work of a decade ago is gone.

          1. Amfortas the hippie

            i prefer typing my various narrative efforts on a laptop at the foot of the bed, with a wireless keyboard on my lap.
            i dislike writing…im often illegible to myself,lol…and was encouraged in junior high to jess ferget about cursive…print , man, print.
            explanation 40 years ago: my brain moves faster than my hand.
            so be it.
            i dont think this tech has dulled me in any way…although i dont fondle the fondleslab like my boys and their cohort does…nor like my wife and her cohort.
            (its a tool)

            1. eg

              We have that much in common. My grade 8 teacher forbade me to use cursive and taught me a form of linked printing using tails from one letter to the next. I also abandoned using a ballpoint and switched to pencil because it afforded more resistance on the page which helped reduce illegible scrawl when writing at speed.

  12. Michael Hudson

    It’s not only in the West. My student-guide at PKU said that when he graduated, he would be an assistant to the local CP leader in his home town. He expected that his job was to follow the policies handed down. Just like here in the US, that’s how you get promoted — by going along. That’s a kind of hierarchal loyalty. And it means that passive yes-people rise.
    It wasn’t this way in the 60s when I went to work on Wall St., even at big institutions. Just look at the CIA as described by McGovern and Col. McGregor who said it turned into straight party-line top-down direction, not when they were there. Same thing in Academia.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      i’m congenitally an outside the box guy…cant help it, really(im sure theyre working on a DSM category for the next issue,lol)
      and i spent most of my working life in commercial kitchens.
      including a handful of corporate eateries(Olive Garden is TV Dinners).
      these give lots of aspirational verbiage to Innovation and Input from Associates(sic) being wanted….but it’s just BS, it turns out.
      This is why i tried to stay in Mom and Pop Land…i could have a little bit of influence in order to refine processes and mitigate stupid/ineffectual/inefficient methods and practices.
      my favorite jobs were the handful where the boss…somehow…had a bit of Socratic Perplexity at the core of their being…and therefore weren’t necessarily threatened by an employee saying, “if you wanna do that, lets try doing it this way, instead…here’s how it would work/save$/etc…”

  13. LAS

    I’m not persuaded by this theory of lost executive function. I’m more persuaded by the theory that people today have too little knowledge of their own political, legal and social history, and what people in the past suffered.
    It has never been a picnic in this country; from day one it has always been a wild west of exploitation, opportunism and oppression, if not by one means than by another. There has never been any particular superior problem solving cohort that didn’t have somewhere behind it dirty, open underware flapping in the breeze, or lots of social damage dropped onto one poor, vulnerable group or another. Leaders with power and influence have always subordinated others to achieve their ambitions.

    1. Kouros

      The problem is definitely complex. However, the fact that the material well being is relatively high and the Maslow levels of satisfaction are fulfilled at the bottom, does not compel people to stick their necks out to loose what they already have.

      When what they have will be less and less, when the accumulated fat will be extracted from the society at large by these parasites (a la Hudson and Aurelien), people will be fast to learn what is affecting them, and take actions.

    2. Michael Fiorillo

      Yes, all the things you list, but I think previous elites, vicious as they could be, were more intent on capital accumulation via production, rather than extraction, which seems to expand by the hour.

    3. JBird4049

      I would not blame individuals. America has always had some problems with historical memory. It was founded by malcontents, revolutionaries, opportunists, and fanatics looking for that shinning city on the hill, none of which is good for creating longterm societal memories. The whole nation is infamous for not remembering its past and probably has been that way for close to four hundred years.

      However, there was always a core of bookish, even scholarly people who thought about both the past and the future with writers and institutions willing to past the knowledge along. That core was always thin even if it did do enough, barely, of the work needed for a society to function.

      Then along came anti-communism, Powell Memo, neoliberalism, the computer revolution, the internet, and oh, so much corruption. At each appearance, the desire to strip the old knowledge and skills, and money needed to keep them increased. It is not an accident that political economy became just economics, which devolved into just neoliberalism; the various people in academe, or even the various writers anywhere, holding ideas other than neoliberalism were fired, not hired, or just denied to even the ability to express themselves. The United States Post Office would not ship any media like newspapers that were considered subversive as happened during the First World War. People lost their jobs for being “fellow travelers” often meaning just being friends of communists and socialists. Teachers were fired. Also, as higher education became more dependent on donations from the wealthy, it removed anyone even slightly left from neoliberalism. I can point to similar processes in the arts and publishing.

      Mind you, this included conservative writers and teachers who did not adhere strictly to the simplified, deracinated, money is all, “conservatism” also enjoying the same process.

      As people could not work, or were not taught, or had the FBI visit them, if they even verbally espoused ideas deemed heretical, evil, even treasonous, the past went away as the instigators wanted. That this included the very people who kept those memories was fine with the elites who enforced the cleansing.

      Please, remembering to pass on history and knowledge does not agreeing with what people did, but just remembering is often considered more dangerous then doing, which is why people make much effort over generations to see them not remembered. Just look at what the Chinese communist party did to the Tiananmen Massacre or the Turks with the Armenian Genocide. They have been memory holed. Then the thoughts of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mills were selectively used, if not denied altogether. Then the atrocious Dunning School, which created the myth of The Lost Cause. Or one could use the successful efforts of the fossil fuel industry to deflect from global warming. The people who rule the United States do not want Americans to be knowledgeable of their collective past.

      Americans were deliberately lobotomized after being made amnesiac.

      1. Amfortas the hippie

        ergo, maintaining a physical library in a 30 year old “mobile home” in the wilderness is a revolutionary act.
        see: War of the Flea(on the shelf)
        or any number of dystopian SciFi books from the last hundred years(also on the shelf)
        or approximately 5000 years of recorded history(also on shelf, as much source material as i could manage)

  14. Stephen

    I think your explanations make sense, Yves. Always tricky to distinguish cause and effect as well as factors that are simple correlations in these situations. I do wonder though if an overarching theme might be the increasing financialization of western economies and the rise of rent based / extractive business models. In an oligarchic, extractive society competence in terms of getting things done is almost a “bad” thing when it comes to individual career paths. This is as opposed to virtue signaling and other non productive type activity that typically earns “rent”.

    As Colonel Smithers notes, Aurelien / David wrote an interesting Substack essay yesterday on these broad themes, and I agree very much with his argument.

    I will add to your anecdotes. We are spoilt for choice. The attached blog from today relates an example of a new railway station in the UK that took fifteen years from idea to creation and is arguably still not fit for purpose – eg it has bus stops without buses that stop there and no obvious need for buses ever to do so, given its location. Still it cost £21m. I wonder how much of that was direct construction related and how much was all sorts of consulting / legal fees / overhead. In the 1840s pretty much all of the primary UK railway network was created in the space of just a few years: the Victorians are looking aghast at us. Agree with your comment that anecdotes are not proof but there are just so many when it comes to this topic that this is the exception that proves the rule!

    I came across a group of ex GE executives at a client a few years ago. My sense from observing them was that the GE school from the Welch / immediate post Welch era was very process oriented with limited focus on actually getting stuff done or understanding the core business. Can believe that it might have appealed to business school mindsets. Good that your friend learned their trade there in a different era.

  15. Kengferno

    In my own field of TV/film, an easy example of this lessening of leadership is the elimination/erosion of apprenticeship programs. When those in charge undermine the future of their own industry then you know that leadership is focused on the wrong things. The is a major reason for the WGA writer’s strike, which is trying to find ways to increase the writer talent pool and also train them to be able to actually make a show. The studios responded with offering unpaid internships for prospective show producers. The WGA is fighting for the future of the industry and are facing people who really don’t care or understand what is even at stake. I think that goes to the core of this post, that executive leadership has hit bottom and is now finding new ways to keep digging. When the destruction of your own industry isn’t enough to get your attention then there’s a whole lot of stupid going on.

    1. Kengferno

      And I just want to add, this is not limited to just writers. It’s all fields, camera, editing even set designing and costumes. Lack of training and clear paths for career growth and development is a problem across the board.

  16. eg

    This is a wickedly complex problem to grasp, let alone analyze, so kudos for even taking the first tentative steps in what is likely to be a lengthy and arduous mental journey.

    My first reaction to the series of examples outlined is to recall Thatcher’s assertion, “And you know, there’s no such thing as society.” It seems to me that this atomistic view of the human experience has exerted such an extraordinary influence over the minds of virtually everyone who has wielded executive power over the past 40 years (I know the quote is from 1987, but she had already been acting on the principle for years) as to make a kind of nonsense out of the kind of collective action problems I take to be characteristic of the sort itemized here.

    Combine this with what appears to be the increasing popularity of an IBGYBG (“I’ll be gone; you’ll be gone) ethos and you have a recipe for what looks to me to be systematic looting.

    When I originally read Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed it bewildered me. How could these people have been so careless? Stupid, even. Looking around me now I think I have a better appreciation for how this process happens.

    As Fitzgerald wrote, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

  17. Lexx

    Welch was a troll, he had always been a troll, and he advanced in his career to CEO precisely for his trollish ways, to become the Ultimate Troll. There was thousands of enablers along his road to success. Anything in the press that suggested he was ‘not a troll’ served the press and whoever paid to have something nice printed there.

    Welch was from an era when only proven trolls got to be CEO’s, driven by their inner fears/demons of long residence. Demons and a pathological desire for social status ran Hollywood as well. I don’t think that’s uniformly true any more of A-listers and executives. Hollywood parents bribing their kid’s way into college not withstanding.

    I hadn’t thought of ‘class’ as tribalism, but a few years reading here has changed my perspective. It’s not necessary to have blood ties or to marry in. Membership is extended automatically if you have enough money and ‘the right attitude’, since it’s unlikely you’ve become rich while retaining your humanity and a conscience (assuming much). ‘Like recognizes like’. This is what the Ivy League and other top schools are turning out as graduates. Less about an education, more about trollishness of high caliber. Not surprised that a show as repellent as ‘Succession’ was so popular. We like to continue to nurse the illusion that ‘tribe’ is defined by ‘family’ alone, but money has the greater voice now. Loyalty was expected, now it’s just a bonus and not mutually enjoyed.

    If I see a photo of a team of executives for any start-up today, I’m 99% certain some or all of them won’t be in the photo ten years later. They are there to grow the company just enough to get the attention of the acquisition arm of a much bigger fish, sell, and get rich. Frat boys build them and private equity carves them up, sucks out the marrow and sells off anything that can’t be eaten, like a meat-packing plant. What kind of ‘leadership’ can we expect from these fine bunch of cannibals?

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      “… private equity carves them up, sucks out the marrow and sells off anything that can’t be eaten, like a meat packing plant.”

      Yes, and as people in the packing industry delight in telling visitors, “We Use Everything But The Oink.”

  18. PdB

    Yves, between Ukraine Bleeding Out and this one, you are on roll. Thank you, again. As I am a long septuagenarian, I have over the years been really lowering my expectations regarding all manner of things. I have not been disappointed with the species devolving, it’s just deserts.

  19. Carla

    My great, late brother was a career man at GE, hired out of Amherst with a BS in physics to work in the lab of the Lamp Div. in the early ’50s. He famously loved his job and worked damned hard at it. Never was there a happier guy. At one point, he decided he should pursue an advanced degree (since all the new hires had them) and enrolled in a Master’s program. However, he found he could not perform in the lab at the level he demanded of himself while pursuing a Master’s at night, so he withdrew from graduate school and continued doing his customary excellent job.

    After a decade or two, all his co-workers had PhD’s, and my bro just kept doing his job in cutting-edge light bulb research. Then came Jack Welch. My brother started to dislike GE — not the work, but the financial behemoth the corporation had become. Over time, one by one, the PhD’s were laid off, and my brother took over their work. Finally, before GE exited the light bulb business entirely, he retired from the company he had loved as a young man, but had learned to hate. He was an incredible guy, and had a good retirement with his absolutely wonderful wife. We all miss him greatly.

    Yves, thank you for your very important post, and for requesting contributions from the commentariat. I’m not sure my brother’s story belongs in this thread, but somehow I feel that maybe it does.

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, Carla. It absolutely does. Thank you for sharing. Many of us have similar to share,

    2. upstater

      Related to your comment and Phil above… my uncle was a PhD EE. He said GE Schenectady had the best high voltage laboratory in the world. It was repeatedly gutted by Welch. There are tiny remnants left.

      Uncle started at Ontario Hydro in the late 50s. All the new hires spent a year or more on line crews and transformer shops learning by doing. I knew a couple of guys that started their electric utility careers at CEGB in England; part of their training was becoming a licensed electrician.

      Very few people in C-suites have gotten their hands dirty…

    3. Susan the other

      Can we call all this late stage American corporatism? Wherein profits come unhinged from reality. Not to get too woo-woo, but it’s like the world immediately knows this is evolving. And a subliminal panic sets in. I’d like to see a serious discussion about how to “profit” in a non-profit, non-expanding economy. Because bottom line, we are all parasites on this planet and to kill the host is very rude. And massively expensive as we are about to experience first hand. Competition is a euphemism for winner take all. And that spells extinction. Because if we are all indeed parasites then life on the planet, all of it, is symbiotic. And our mantra, capitalism uber alles, isn’t working; and all the while we religiously practice it. The definition of insanity. I’m digesting my latest read, the newest edition of Freeman Dyson’s Origins of Life. I keep thinking “next time I read this I’ll understand it better.” I am understanding it on a socio-economic level.

  20. jefemt

    Loved the opening paragraph. Saw a headline last night Jamie is looking at running for President, just not yet.

    Can’t wait to see Pam and Russ Martens get their keyboards primed and rolling.

    Hire the outside-expert panacea: St. Jamie, Save Us!

  21. Matthew G. Saroff

    In the case of Jack Welch, it was not just that his model was emulated, but that many of the executives that Jack Welch hired at GE, Immelt, Nardelli, McNerney, Calhoun, Cote, Hogan, etc. went on to lead other companies, and brought his accounting fraud to them.

  22. Carolinian

    Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This IMO is the ultimate truism and the theme, btw of the quoted Game of Thrones. And if it’s all about power then clearly the gigantism of modern businesses is, as stated above, a big part of the problem.

    Ayn Rand is popular among elites because that’s how they see the world and how they justify their often arbitrarily acquired privilege. So the tendency to rationalize is also a big part of our social malaise. Some of us think America’s problem is that we are just too big and now too rich and no going back unless we once more have to struggle like everyone else. Getting there?

  23. Rolf

    I strongly second Palaver’s remarks above: the country’s youth are its primary resource and change agent. I think that many young people already realize they are well and truly f*cked, and correctly perceive widespread government dysfunction in the US for what it is: a feature, not a bug. Increasing impoverishment from wealth asymmetry will deny them a decent place to live, meaningful work, the means to start a family, protection from disease, etc.; these denials will only strengthen this recognition.

    Older generations, survivors with both the memory of a functional economy, and the wealth derived from it, still cling to the idea that the system can be reformed from within the current uniparty. They may be only dimly aware of the decades-long degeneration of the system to its current state. For myself, periods of economic stress and uncertainty earlier in life were always buffered with hope for the future, a sense that things would get better. Because in the past, they had. Youth today have no such memories to sustain trust in the system.

    I think youth will ultimately refuse to participate in the economic and political game as currently played. The hubris and naive stupidity of our current elites reflects only the deception and insulation that wealth affords. Youth will be under no such illusions. They are fully aware of the impending disaster of environmental degradation, the early death of their parents and grandparent from COVID, the barrens created by privatization, corporate consolidation, etc. They will say: no!

    1. Travis Bickel

      As I query the random twenty or thirty-something guy sitting next to me at the bar, I find this comment most pertinent. The malaise I sense is generalized and not just the lament of old-f**t’s syndrome: moaning and groaning of old guys who no longer can keep up with a world that has moved past them.

      Nobody is sleeping well. And society was already trending in this direction before covid bent the the trends 80 degrees north.

      My sense, however, is that the following generations have NOT thrown in the towel: they have too much energy for that. What I sense is more of a cynical rejection of pretty much everything, with a reconciliation to do whatever it takes not for the community but for themselves, focusing on the practicality of primordial relationships.

      It’d be more interesting to find evidence of increased prepping (prepper) activity. It’s what I’d expect.

      Re the OP, there are no more California’s to move to once things have gone irredeemably to hell. Credit agencies and modern communications are there to cut fresh starts cold. This thinking links to post on NC yesterday re Michael Hudson’s books about debt over the ages. Until the last, let’s say twenty years, there was always someplace where a debtor could make a fresh start. They didn’t need to stick around when abused by oligarchs and debt peonage. No longer.

      We’re all rats on a sinking ship.

    2. Carla

      Rolf: “They will say: no!”


      And then what?

      Two-year-olds also say: no! And mean it. “No” does not build a new world in the best of circumstances, let alone this wreck we’re leaving them.

      1. Amfortas the hippie

        like i been sayin, depending on a starting point, we’re well into Nietszche’s predicted centuries long period of Nihilism, here.
        i’m torn between 1900(his death) and 1970, or so.
        gonna hafta work through it.
        nihilism might be the only purgative/vermifuge that will work against this all encompassing bullshit machine
        i had hoped not…30+ years ago…but now thats just baked into my figgerin

      2. Rolf

        “No” does not build a new world in the best of circumstances, let alone this wreck we’re leaving them.

        True. But by saying “no” to Business As Usual®, they also won’t dig the same hole. To me, that difference is critical.

        Previous generations willingly locked themselves into the system. They graduated college, started careers, got married, bought new homes in the burbs, bought a new car, had children, bought another car, went into debt — debt that demanded they stay in the race, keep going, keep chasing the promise of future rewards.

        Current high schoolers, for example, may not understand the full parameters of their predicament, but they know it’s grim. Even if they’re unfamiliar with neoliberalism as a formal term, they certainly recognize its outcome — they have known nothing else. And more often than not, their reaction is “Broh, FTS“.

      3. Yves Smith Post author

        I very much disagree. Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway nailed it years ago. Quoting from our 2008 Conference Board Review article, and then a 2014 post further elaborating on it:

        In the business world, we’ve moved from hardheaded to feel-good management. As Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway observed recently: “For people in any position of authority the ability to say no is the most important skill there is. . . . No, you can’t have a pay rise. No, you can’t be promoted. No, you can’t travel club class. . . . An illogical love of Yes is the basis for all modern management thought. The ideal modern manager is meant to be enabling, empowering, encouraging and nurturing, which means that his default position must be Yes. By contrast, No is considered demotivating, uncreative and a thoroughly bad thing.”

        Readers who have done time in Corporate America can no doubt attest to this sort of thing, either the weak form (being exhorted by managers to be upbeat) or the stronger versions (being sent to motivational training and team-building sessions).

        Now on the level of social skills, being cheerful generally goes over better than being a sourpuss. And in sales roles, being able to hear the objections of customers and not get defensive is essential.* But there’s a world of difference between knowing which flavor of pleasant persona to put on in a particular setting versus elevating America’s strong social preference for chipperness into a religion.

        My big objection to this belief in this sunniness as a form of exercise is that it’s a form of censorship. People try to shut those who convey unpleasant truths down by claiming they undermine creativity or as Lambert likes to put it, following Vast Left, are “harshing my mellow.” And that sort of refusal to allow certain topics into conversation because they might be upsetting makes critical thinking and analysis impossible.

  24. square coats

    Community and accountability…

    I think also there’s a lot of social reproduction going on in the west that’s intensifying narratives with individual or narrow in-group focus. I would distinguish it from tribalism in that I see it more as a sort of overall perspective of life that places oneself as the hero of one’s own story. Admittedly I’ve really lost touch with movies, tv, popular culture etc these days but whatever I do happen to encounter seems to reinforce a dramatization mostly populated by a small group of main characters and then various flat and insignificant extras, or maybe like video game npcs.

    I guess this might be insignificant in the grand scheme of factors but I do think it becomes imbued in a lot of the most basic assumptions/taken-for-granteds people have so that thinking meaningfully about communities/societies/states/the whole world requires much greater cognitive burden.

    All this assuming big yuck decisions makers would care about others were they to think of them.

    1. semper loquitur

      There are UToob channels dedicated to “NPC” interactions in real life. Essentially videos of homeless, drunk, enraged, etc. people doing odd and crazy things. The producers overlay an older fantasy video game HUD over the footage to create the crude impression that one is playing a game and interacting with NPC’s within.

    2. Amfortas the hippie

      the hero thing is yet another archetypal motif hijacked by the neoliberal dispensation…hyperindividualism, smeared over everything.
      thus losing the Lesson of the real Hero’s Journey/Fools Journey/Parsifal/etc(see:J Campbell)

  25. Keith Newman

    My personal experience supports Yves’ second footnote, i.e. the importance of working out complex positions in a very political organisation that have general buy-in. This is not easy to do. I worked for a private sector union that included workers from the forest industry, oil and gas (including the tar sands), telephone companies, electrical power producers and media (newspapers, TV, radio). They had very diverse economic interests and political views. The workers also spoke two languages, english and french, and this too had to be respected.
    The staff would draft a policy proposal that tried to reflect a consensus view. It was then debated at great length by representatives from the various sectors and redrafted several times. The process required numerous compromises all round and four to five months to complete. The resulting policy was then ratified at the convention.
    The process was critical. Since all sectors were included and everyone’s views respectfully discussed, the resulting compromise policy never raised acrimony, no-one said their views were ignored, although at times some amendments were made on the floor of the convention.

  26. rusell1200

    Survivor bias as a factor?

    It certainly seems that you have lots of folks being stupid in times past. But those sufficiently stupid usually drop of the map eventually.

    Those who succeed, aren’t always brilliant, but they at least had something going for them, and there is the tendency to view successful people/cities/countries/whatever as being competent – even if it is a largely a factor of place and time.

    I will concede, at least as a function of our current media/communications environment, we are not in a good place. But I am not sure that we are in a uniquely bad place.

  27. Sub-Boreal

    Thanks for this excellent inventory of widespread institutional pathologies. It certainly rings true with me, based on ~ 40 years in government and academia.

    The examples given so far document the symptoms of decline, so it’s hard to see how to break out of the downward spiral. At my current workplace, a small university from which I’m about to retire after 21 years, I’ve seen how difficult it is to get people with healthy personalities to step up for mid-tier administrative positions like Dean. Once the predominance of narcissists, sociopaths, and just plain incompetents at the upper levels becomes entrenched, who in their right mind wants to get into roles which require you to spend most of your working day dealing with them?

    A phenomenon which doesn’t seem to have been mentioned, which reinforces these pathologies, is the tendency for frequent job-hopping as the ambitious ascend the ladder. When a large proportion of your managerial class never stays in one position long enough to learn from – or even recognize – their mistakes, how is that going to work out?

    1. flora

      I sympathize. I think a large part of academic admin job-hopping is about getting a new job before a disastrous performance in current job catches up with the job-hopper. Uni admins are happy to give good paper references, glowing references to offload the job-hopper onto another unwitting Uni. Although at some point word gets out about said job-hopper and they’re stuck where they are currently employed.

      1. Sub-Boreal


        I don’t know if this is the case in other countries, but in Canada there is a small number of specialist executive search firms whose niche is recruiting senior academic administrators and thereby facilitating the job-hopping process. These outfits seem to have an outsized influence on who makes it into the hiring pool.

        At the end of the day, we end up with a syndrome rather like the way the Church moves around the bad priests from parish to parish, just managing to stay one step ahead of the cops …

        1. Kouros

          There was a very funny incident in Canada maybe a decade ago, when a group of 4 or so of academics have offered to take on the role of U of Calgary President (at that time the highest level paied at 800,000 CAD per year), and their tongue in cheek application, for the same money…

    2. Amfortas the hippie

      “…so it’s hard to see how to break out of the downward spiral….”

      no breaking out of it, i’m afraid.
      rather, through it.
      slingshot maneuver around an intense gravity well is more likely…leaving our trajectory…if not backwards(my bet, due to resource constraints. we’ve shot our wad)..then at some odd and unpredictable tangent.

      the tiny group(relative) in charge of things will never just goaway.
      neither will their legions of Masters of the Universe…nor even their ordinary flying monkeys, all the way down to our levels…who “know not what they do”…
      its all sewn up tight…but the fester and bile will one day erupt…like it or not…and we’ll hafta go through all that, too.
      our great grandchildren might find a way to thrive reasonably…and within bounds…at some point…in a likely irradiated and poisoned world.

  28. flora

    Since the US govt seems determined to bail out every big Wall St bank or Wall St company no matter how imbecilic the management, why should management care about competence? (More important to donate to the right pols than competently run your mega company.) / ;)

  29. Thuto

    The rise of credentialism has resulted in the dearth of true experts and apex practitioners in various crafts/domains, it’s the bottom quartile performers who display the right mix of callousness (towards customers/the environment/citizens) and sociopathy who are fast-tracked to senior level positions, the incompetent “shall truly inherit the earth” in this era where managerial failings are swept under a rug weaved from curated corporate virtue signalling. One particularly pernicious effect of this decline in executive leadership is the simple inability to choose the right tools for the job, sledgehammers where scalpels are required, economic sanctions where diplomacy could avert conflict, obfuscation when transparency is called for etc, today’s so-called leaders fail hopelessly to exercise the required judgement when confronted with business and political challenges.

    The preponderance of powerful bureaucracies that run everything and where nobody is individually accountable for anything add to the problem, and the press, who traditionally held the feet of the leadership class to the fire when performance standards slipped, now coddle up to those they’re meant to hold accountable, and worse, actually provide aircover for all sorts of incompetence and malfeasance to fester. The currency of street cred and cultural cool in the upper echelons of corporate and political life is stacked credentials, not actual competence or mastery of anything, so the logical end point of this is the decline in executive leadership standards we are seeing today.

  30. John

    The Loss of Executive Function is one of the best articles I’ve read about executive leadership in many years.

    To your list of executive skills in the footnote, I would add “acumen,” knowing how your organization works (makes money) and anticipating what can knock you apart; vision, i.e., the ability to conceive innovations in the face of environmental changes and/or other opportunities; and social adeptness, knowing how and when to engage others throughout the executive task cycle. Finally, the willingness to take accountability and responsibility for delivering results.

    I spent most of my career in management consulting and specializing in leadership development. I left consulting, appalled by what passed for executive skills in private and public sectors. Much of the blame is ours.

    Today, when I comment that someone in a leadership position lacks executive functional skills, people have no idea what I’m talking about or the importance.

  31. John

    Yves, there is much to unpick here. And its worth continuing. Do you have a game plan for expanding this?

  32. funemployed

    One thing that is absent from the strictly psychological definition of executive function is the ability to actually define a problem. I think many of our elites are quite good at things like time management, analysis of information, and problem solving in the narrowest sense. I just think their definitions of important problems are mostly at the level of a toddler tantruming at mom in walmart because their favorite cereal is out of stock.

    1. funemployed

      not only define, but assess the relative importance of competing problems according to any standards that aren’t utterly self-serving.

  33. Geoffrey Dewan

    Even though Orson’s Parthian Shot, “The cuckoo clock” was a clever finish to the scene, the Swiss 20th Century concurrently provided Albert Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis from his apartment in Berne including Special Relativity, Albert Hoffman in Zurich synthesizing LSD and Carl Jung being, well, Carl Jung…

    1. vao

      It is all the more damning since the cuckoo clock is not a Swiss development, but a Swabian one (i.e. Southern Germany).

      1. Daniil Adamov

        And apparently the first one dates back to 1629 – in the middle of the Thirty Years War!

  34. David in Friday Harbor

    History is replete with the collapse of cultures that declined into decadent anciens régimes, but I think that a major contributor to the Anglo-Saxon downfall visible to the graybeards here is the ubiquitous effect of the passive consumption of television, the internet, and gaming on brain development in late adolescence and early adulthood.

    It’s not only the Hollywood/Silicon Valley-produced content and its glorification of narcissism, conformity, and consumption. Fifteen years ago I attended a national conference on adolescent development. I learned that neuroscientists have found that brain development in late adolescence (15-21 in girls; 17-23 in boys) is stimulated by experiences — thus the risk-taking and boundary-testing typical of that age. The passive consumption of electronic media stunts the analytic and empathic development of certain areas of the brain. The neurons simply don’t knit.

    The groupthink of, for example, GE under Jack Welch or of the Anglo-Saxon political classes (shambolic hard-Brexit or trillion-dollar Pentagon budgets) appears to reflect an inflexible inability to engage in abstract thought.

    1. Louis Fyne

      i agree with this nitpick….

      the video game/electronics generation took off with those born after 1970.

      The current institutional rot is all on the pre-video game, even pre-cable TV, baby boomers and 1940’s-era gerontocracy (Biden-Pelosi, etc).

      1. David in Friday Harbor

        I think that the television zone-out goes all the way back to the post-WW2 Baby Boom generation. They tend to be followers.

        This might even explain the persistence of the political gerontocracy and why there doesn’t seem to be much of a “bench” of genuine leaders following behind them. Shrub rode daddy’s coat-tails. Obama remains a generational anomaly who was a superb manipulator of his followers — he also likely avoided being brainwashed by television growing-up in Jakarta and then attending Punahou School as a day student.

    2. Carolinian

      Some of us remember who Eric Sevareid was and he wrote a book about how he and another college age friend once took a canoe trip from Minnesota up into the wilds of northern Canada. It’s hard to imagine many current youth undertaking such a dangerous adventure but back in the Jack London era it was how many lived. I think you are right about experience and the lack thereof. Intelligence and education without experience are like a computer without data although the education does at least provide some vicarious experience–the AI version?

      1. KLG

        Not So Wild a Dream. I have read it several times. A marvelous story of a canoe trip “down” the Red River of the North to Hudson Bay. Those of us of a certain age had Eric Sevareid to make sense of the world three times a week on The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, when the TV news was part of the glue that held the culture together. No, not perfect, except compared to today.

  35. HH

    Organizations have life cycles, just like people. The deterioration mechanisms Yves describes are the equivalent of cell senescence in human beings. Things slowly work less well until the organism dies. You see this clearly in companies like GM, GE, and IBM. They reach a peak of success and then start coasting downhill. Meanwhile, they are displaced by well-run outfits like Nvidia and Tesla. Fortunately the aggregate growth of human productivity exceeds the negative effects of localized dysfunction. One good consequence of widespread dysfunction is the tremendous amount of mis-allocated resources, human and material. When corrective action is finally initiated, the means required are available.

      1. John k

        Well enough to start with nearly nothing and get to where they are now, plus forcing all others to copy them as fast as possible. Course, not clear whether they will survive as competition arrives.

      2. Bugs

        … and Nvidia is selling very expensive GPUs to do crypto. Seems to fit the general thesis here.

  36. Robert Hahl

    I think what has changed is, a dollar is a lot easier to come by, and that has produced a generation of people who either can’t do anything significant but earn money – or can’t mange to earn enough no matter what they might do, who then become mired in debt and confusion.

    I recently had dinner with several squillionairs, all related, and the price of concert tickets came up. I said that Dave Chappelle had been getting $400 before Covid-19, but I didn’t like to pay that much and did not go. They had actually paid $5,000 each for Bruce Springsteen tickets, because “high demand.” I said no, there must be a lot of money sitting around without more important uses, and proceeded to tell them my Paul Krugman story of asking him a question from the audience, around 2009, pointing out that the Kennedy family fortune was estimated at $400 million in the early 1980’s, while $400 million today was just ten good years running IBM; the question being, Where’s it all coming from? Where is all this money coming from???

    Krugman hemmed and hawed at first, but did eventually say: “Well, it’s not funny money!” Meaning that it is not literally counterfeit. As for my squillionair friends, it was like I had farted loudly in the restaurant. But in fairness it also could have been that I said Springsteen always sounds to me like he is singing off key. Yes I was being obnoxious. I was truly shocked that they could think that $5,000 concert tickets is normal.

    1. Bugs

      Doesn’t our old friend Marx provide an answer to “where is all this money coming from???” It couldn’t be more simple. Anyone who works knows that they’re underpaid.

      1. Robert Hahl

        That is a matter of distribution, not the absolute number of dollars in existence.

  37. Kouros

    What is missing in Yves and Aurelien’s discussions is the word ethics and morals. There is no mention and there is in practice no control and no shaming by some ethics body and ethics censor on the actions of executives. And private medical ethics boards would rubberstamp anything.

    I was in the room with my deputy and his ethics advisor when they moved me laterally on trump charges of not “respecting” a corrupt and stupid and lying adm. And the ethics lady didn’t say squat…

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Professional associations like doctors and lawyers engage in self policing which in effect is no policing save minimal credentialing standards. In most other contexts, what you need is some sort of internal audit or inspector general that has teeth. They seldom do.

      But we did mention ethics, albeit not by name, in discussing the role of communities in sanctioning bad behavior among the elites. Negative press and the risk of not begin invited to the right parties matters more in a small pond.

      1. Kouros

        Yes indeed. Canada’s Ethics Commissioner barely managed a slap in the air at all of Trudeau’s ethical trespassing.

        My dream would be a walk of shame with the perpetrators, as portrayed in The Game of Thrones series…

  38. John k

    I’ve .long thought some of leader incompetence is caused by the markets insistence on this q profits. Research helps the corp thrive, or maybe just survive, but reduces this q and year’s bottom line. So it doesn’t get done and the corp goes into slow decline as did GE. Competence is not critical for this q, more important to today’s ceo is loyalty.
    Similarly political leaders want good polls now for next election, long-term costs be damned, only PR and loyalty are important, not competence. so what’s important to Biden now is to avoid a Ukraine defeat until after the election.

  39. flora

    an aside: beginning in the early 1980s (I think) there was a change in the way CEOs were paid by the big corporations. The change was in gifting stock options to CEOs, and the value of those options depending on the stock price performance. There are many ways to raise a companies stock price: stock buybacks, laying off the most expensive or experienced workers, laying off large swathes of workers young and old, (remaining workers told to work smarter not harder, do more with less), outsourcing work to cheaper subcontractors, etc. Stock prices can be raised significantly even as a company is being hollowed out by management. I think when CEO pay started to include stock options too many CEOs started working for themselves and the value of their stock options instead of working for company soundness, innovation, quality, organic growth, and reputation. / my 2 cents.

    1. flora

      Shorter: executive function at large corporations and in govt is now focused on purely personal monetary rewards, imo. In that race the CEOs and govt appointees and pols are very skilled at working for their stock portfolios to rise in value or waiting for that swinging door to open. / ;)

    2. Michael Fiorillo

      Yes, and it incentivized and embedded what is functionally, to use Bill Black’s term, control fraud.

  40. Glen

    Thank you for posting this.

    I have given this much thought (realize that this analysis is WAY outside of my wheel house professionally) after witnessing first hand some crazy decisions made where I work. (Let’s put some numbers to this so that people can understand the SCALE of these decisions – corporate losses from some of these decisions have been in the tens of billions and hundreds of people have died.) I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that upper management’s actions are driven almost completely by their own personal bonus situation, that corporate cost accounting has gotten so creative that if I used it at home I would wind up in jail, and that being a psychopath will advance your career. The corporation did get run by multiple Jack Welch acolytes, and they did indeed make their mark.

    But if I zoom out to try to get a bigger picture, I see systemic trends that in many ways are even worse. Compare how America handled the 1980’s Savings And Loan crisis and the 2008 global financial crisis:

    Savings and loan crisis
    2007–2008 financial crisis

    To me, some key indicators of systemic failure are that in the latter crisis nobody went to jail, and hardly anybody was forced from a C-suite position. This would seem to indicate that in the 80’s government performed a regulatory function, and in 2008, government provided a shield and even bailed out obviously failing banks and corporations even while allowing bonuses to be rewarded. I can only conclude that government no longer works for it’s citizens, but rather for a very small subset of extremely wealthy individuals (such as Wall St bank CEOs.) In fact, as others have noted above, our free market is now failing, it is dominated by massive monopolistic mega corporations which routinely under perform, fail, and are bailed out. These can squash all completion and buy out all innovation using our own “elected by the people” representatives as paid puppets. Real innovation and advancement will now happen in China or somewhere else where it is viewed as a national imperative and valued.

    In many ways, I have started comparing the current American situation to the USSR before it’s collapse. What you say – they were communist pinkos and we are not! No, they were an oligarchy controlled by a corrupt ruling class. If the system fails, then it become moot as to whether it was originally communism or capitalism, it is just a corrupt oligarchy.

    The country knows how to correct this as others have noted. Raise taxes back up to 1950’s levels on wealthy people and corporations. Put back regulations like Glass-Steagall to make banking boring and productive again. I’m not sure the country will be able to do this – the last good opportunity was Obama, but he sold his country out (and got wealthy which is exactly what I described happening at my company.)

  41. Michael Fiorillo

    “The media has a nasty tendency to over-hype and then attack.”

    At your feet, or at your throat. Always a strong tendency, it seems to have become part of the job description for media types.

  42. Alan Roxdale

    I’ve often thought that the PMC is an attempt to recreate an industrial/post-industrial equivalent of the old landed gentry. An aristocracy in nominal ownership/control of the means of production, chosen by family and networking connections. I think there’s a deep seated class element to this.

    1. Lambert Strether

      > the PMC is an attempt to recreate an industrial/post-industrial equivalent of the old landed gentry.

      They wish they were, but unfortunately credentials cannot be passed from one generation to the next, like titles of nobility or entailed property. So the PMC have to make up for that deficiency by sending little Madison to the right day care, then to the right violin teacher, and so onward and upward. Risky! A credential, for reasons I cannot now formulate, is not as functional a form of symbolic capital as a coat of arms.

      Now, I have a vague recollection — from Gramsci?? — that in Italy, perhaps only in the South, a doctor’s son could, in his turn, become the village doctor, a situation our PMC would no doubt prefer. Family values! But you can’t get there from here (except possibly in the case of celebrities or political dynasties, who each have the symbolic capital of a famous name).

  43. marku52

    Once society has been taught (thanks Thatcher, Reagan, Gecko) that the Sole Value of a Man is How Much Money he has, things go down hill

    What is the easiest way to make lots of money? Cheat.

    OK but wait, there are regulators, and prosecutors……

    Wait, they want to make a lot of money too. Easiest way to do it? Cheat.

    Once you have internalized this system, competence is irrelevant, and orthogonal to the actual goal, which is Make a Lot of Money.

    Also seen as IBGYBG.

  44. C.O.

    I have been working at the same organization in Canada now for nearly twenty years and my time there is drawing sadly to a close. The decline just over the past eight has been utterly shocking, even as it actualizes the MBA-think so many have been trained in over that twenty year or so period. The organization is now insanely overloaded with middle managers and new executive levels. Such a huge proportion of staff are striving for the new management positions, more of which are being created for those who have found an upper management patron and demonstrated they are “yes-people” through and through, that technical areas are starved of people and work resources to near collapse. A batch of new executives were brought in to “reform” the organization because it was supposedly not performing adequately, and they have been systematically destroying every part of the processes to get things done still left – after all, ISO 9000 was so yesterday, right? Never mind there were processes before ISO 9000 that did do what they were supposed to: help us smoothly and successfully integrate the diverse tasks necessary to complete our work. But without a defined and tested process, the managers “have” to constantly intervene and put their own stamp on things so that the work gets done.

    Our work includes producing hundreds of professional-grade, comprehensible published documents each year spanning multiple technical fields from engineering to finance, so this was a carefully calibrated system before the “reforms” started. Oh, and I should add, staff were actually on board with making changes, this was something we had already had to do to integrate new technology and demands of our work, just like in any other organization.

    On top of the new management kudzu, the “diversity, equity, inclusion” initiative has done an extraordinary amount to further poison the work atmosphere because people are using it to posture and compete for those new management positions – I thought at first that maybe the “DEI” stuff has been hijacked for this purpose, but it’s use for competing for management plums was modelled by the very people who brought it in.

    The end result besides a terrible workplace is that there are more “managers” than have anything real to do except scrap like angry squirrels in a bag, and there is no leadership as such because very few more experienced people are left who understand how anything works. The people who have “leadership” positions claim action after action can’t be taken for fear of offending someone or it not being certain to work. If the managers are good at managing time, it must be a perverse sort of good, in which they mismanage time and scheduling in order to drive out staff due to burn out and exhaustion. It is all so sad on so many levels. I used to be proud to hand out my business card. Of course, now only managers are allowed to have them!

  45. Rob

    I think that the proliferation of business management programs deserves a sizable portion of the blame for the decline in the quality of managers. The very notion that a certain set of managerial skills are all that one needs to be able to lead or manage a wide range of organizations is ludicrous. Be it a large factory or a mid-size clothing store, the problems of both businesses are considered to be essentially equivalent in the minds of MBAs. Having worked with more than a few such individuals,, I curse the MBA schools that sent them out into the world.

  46. Gil Schaeffer

    I attribute the disintegration of executive function in the US to the Democratic Party’s withdrawal from an activist role in shaping US policy as a result of defeat in Vietnam and acceptance of Nixon’s abandonment of the gold standard. The NewDeal/WWII/Cold War alliance of US international corporations and the working class (see Thomas Ferguson) in the construction of a US empire ended with the Vietnam War. No longer in need of working class sons for a mass draft army, the Democratic Party abandoned the working class altogether, going so far as to undermine the reform candidacy of McGovern in 1972. Like the dog that didn’t bark, the Democratic Party has stood by since then, watching silently and participating in what is commonly called the neo-liberal looting of society’s wealth. But neoliberalism is not possible without the facilitation of the state and the two-party political system. Degeneration of executive capacity is a consequence of neo-liberal looting regimes.

  47. southern appalachian

    I witnessed loss of executive function in businesses over the decades. I’m too rural for some time now to know systemic reasons. At my scale it’s not some societal thing, it’s that guy over there.

    But all the same like most of you I read Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man many years back and kept hold to some of his ideas and as a consequence none of the increasing incompetence is surprising to me. There was another fellow, – Eric Hoffer, that’s who it was- I think they laid out our trajectory pretty well.

    Huntington West Virginia was Little Moscow back a time, the newspaper presses were busted up by troops sent in by the governor. Mother Jones stopped in for a spell. There’s a dearth of ideas in our times in comparison. None, practically.

  48. NoFreeWill

    Lots of comments here so don’t have time to read in case someone already mentioned but @Yves per comprehensive climate plan there is a book called Drawdown that does just that, and also many very good ideas from degrowth advocates, which get ignored because people don’t actually know what degrowth is…

  49. Starry Gordon

    Some time ago I was speculating on the obvious decline of the elites, in America at least, and a friend of mine remarked “It’s reversion to the mean.” I don’t know if this is standard terminology; what she meant was that the elites could not fully reproduce themselves socially or biologically. In her theory an elite forms because of natural selection under a certain set of conditions — in the case of human societies, selection through the political and economic and other forms of competition. But this elite does not form a gene pool (metaphorical or actual) and like most animals it tries to advantage its young, its descendants, through class and individual power, so the next generation is less stringently selected and as a result is less competent. The process continues so that in a few generations the supposed elite is no longer elite; it’s about as competent as if randomly selected. Subsequently the community may scrounge along but its glory days are past, unless some revolution or convulsion comes along which eliminates the old defective elite and causes the emergence of a new one. There are many popular proverbs which reflect the pattern, such as “Boots going up the stairs, slippers coming down”, or “Shirtsleeve to shirtsleeves in three generations.” Note that the theory refers only to the fate of elites, not the population in general; elites are particularly susceptible because they are selected and mis-selected on narrow criteria.

  50. djrichard

    “It is always better to ask for forgiveness than permission”. That’s our elites to a T, including Trump obviously.

    Every marketing campaign by our elites is the next opportunity to put this in practice.

    Of course, if there’s a truly negative personal downside for various stakeholders, that’s when the old “nothing personal, it’s just business” gets trotted out.

  51. Savita

    Yves you’ve excelled yourself with this piece
    I appreciate the systems-level approach, less common here on NC

    I hope everyone with the time to watch things, has viewed the exceptional French small screen series ‘The Bureau. ‘ (Set in the French external intelligence department DGSC)
    So realistic, low key, extraordinary attention to detail.

    In the final series, there is a scene in Moscow. A Director of the FSB (Russian Intelligence) relates to a young hot head staff member getting too big for his boots. ‘Nothing has changed since the Soviet days. Don’t be ambitious. Don’t be mediocre. Only those that can be just good enough, and no more, will be considered for promotion’

  52. TomW

    What is described as ‘executive function’ in the article is what used to be be thought of as vanilla, post WW-2 era management skills. Peter Drucker type stuff.

    Maybe 30 years ago, it became an axion that Leadership was the secret sauce and management was the ‘housework’ of business operations. For example:

    “Why is a leader better than a manager?
    Management may be responsible for implementing tactics and organizing the actions that move a business toward its goals, but it’s leadership that sets those goals. Leaders determine a company’s overarching vision, goals, and direction, while managers handle the nuts and bolts of charting the course to get there.”

    Management I hard work…Leadership is magical stuff. I worked for an organization where everyone wanted to be a leader…they would create titles for themself as XYZ Leader. Management was very mixed and frequently shockingly bad.

    The more technical the position, the more rationally it was run. Stuff had to get done.

    As far as management…again stuff has to get done. Areas like logistics and supply chain management are very well done. Even if they were proven to have been over optimized and insufficiently robust. That can get dialed down.

    Love it or hate it (or in this article hate it)–in the US, an enormous amount of stuff gets done. So, to suggest that nobody can do anything anymore, is not realistic.

    But the larger point, I think, is that organizational and political leaders need to have certain abilities — as if they had managed something. Either personally or through their direct reports. And if there is a shortage of executive functioning, pick from proven executives that have a strong managerial background.

  53. mohookoo
    In public service, the comparison with China is shocking. The statistics are as staggering as the test is admirable:

    “Confucius recommended filtering out sociopaths, so the PRC sends aspiring leaders to poor villages with instructions to raise local incomes fifty percent and apply for promotion when they succeed. President Xi and most of his peers have done this themselves in villages, townships, cities, counties and provinces, as did their predecessors.”

    True public service.

    Thank you for the reference to the incomparable The Third Man. I have always taken this clip to be the most basic statement of political endeavour.

    Perhaps a nod could also be given to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, the bit where he confronts congressmen on what they might personally risk in their vote for war: “out of the 535 members of Congress… …only one had an enlisted son in Iraq”.

    Like pushing a bomb-release button in a bomber, compared to sticking a bayonet in somebody: easy to do, because it’s all so… distant.

    Or a drone operator releasing a real missile, just like in a video game.

    A last film reference, for all those politicians casually spending other peoples’ lives: “It’s not personal…It’s strictly business.” – Michael Corleone, The Godfather.

    Oh well, that’s all right then…

  54. spud

    one of the problems that the rich can’t figure out about todays economic and political environment is that many small, medium, and large companies are not at the table, they are on the table.

    these companies were giddy at what bill clinton/tony blair types did in the 1990’s. here was their chance to bust unions, get the heavy burden of regulation off of their backs, so that they could do as they please. no matter who they hurt to increase profits.

    they were not paying attention to what unfolded under free trade. take carlos slim in mexico, once nafta was implemented, as in any country that signs a free trade agreement, their economy gets deregulated and privatized, and usually just a few become the recipient of massive wealth and power.

    these creatures could care less how badly things get run, because they are there to pick up the pieces at bargain prices.

    so its in their own best self interests, if a country gets run into the ground. in fact, they encourage just such a outcome world wide.

    so if you are in any free trade agreements, time to get out. even small ones can be detrimental to your country.

  55. Francis Ingledew

    Thanks for this piece, which makes me want to think. That it makes me want to think is already part of the point I try to make in what follows. It makes me want to think because in it I rightly or wrongly have the sense that you are thinking. This means that to me your piece combines a particular use of words with an ethical commitment. Don’t use words unless you mean them, in a nutshell. To mean your words, you have to work. To have a relationship of responsibility to your words requires effort, labor—it comes at a cost.

    You say this yourself: footnotes 2 and 5.

    And putting myself into words means putting something on the line, myself. If I am responsible for my words, they represent me. So I am at stake in them. Once I’ve said them, you will think of them as you will. You will respect them or not, and it’s the blink of an eye from there to respecting me or not: thinking well of me, or not, or thinking you have figured me out, or not. So the ethical question is, what values do I commit to in speaking?

    You mention tribalism and career-preservation. When I speak, is it to assure my peer-group I belong to the tribe? Is it to assure myself of this? Why have I just said what I said? Am I anxious, do I feel at risk? Is it to maintain my job-prospects, do I think advancement lies this way?

    Example (you ask for examples—part of your sense of the work it takes to make a case): I think in the USA a fork in the ethical roads we all take one way or the other was revealed by the Trump phenomenon. The commitment of great masses of people was to show themselves or others that they had nothing to do with the values Trump was seen to stand for. That’s a strong ethical motivation. It’s also not inconsistent with self-congratulation. It’s definitely not the same as showing you are committed to accurate description first, and to reviling Trump only so far as this is based on accurate description, or trying to say things as you see them actually to be. As a result, we had Russia-gate. Millions of people and many of our leading institutions chose to signal their moral tribal identity, at the cost of the moral labor of finding the right words for responsible descriptions. They opted to use words that made them feel better about themselves. Getting rid of Trump justified dropping the ball on fitting words to things. Fitting words to things: not particularly appetizing as your fundamental ethical commitment. But in the long haul, is there a more fundamental ethical commitment possible?

    So if I ask what has happened to executive function, I want to answer, we have lost our relationship to words as ethical commitments.

    You ask for examples from our own institutional experiences. I was 32 years an academic, 26 of them tenured, so I did the usual service in my department, my college, my campus, on the academic senate, on committees, through instituional reorganizations at all levels. I came to believe that everything I needed to know about the USA as a political organization and community was on display in my institution. We were mediocre through and through, both in the administration and in the faculty. And we could measure this by the way people used words. Words had instrumental value only: there was one criterion for them, and that was whether through them you achieved your ends (these could be aggrandizement for the administration or aggrandizement for the faculty). Common to just about everyone was the requirement that one’s ends would not cost one anything. Your ends could not involve self-criticism or loss or sacrifice, no dialectical self-reflection. And this putting of your ends first was in the academy!!—which defines itself as an institution seeking and producing knowledge, whoever’s ox is gored. The academic function has also evaporated in these last twenty years. The response to the Ukraine war amounts to a betrayal by our intelligentsia, which does not want to see, hear, or speak, that is, to have an ethical relationship to words.

    Another way to put this, a more banal form of the drive to signal tribal identity or protect your career prospects, is to say, most members of my institution just wanted a quiet life. What the George Floyd protests might mean for our curriculum was more than we had the stomach for. Instead, we opted for a diminished relationship to words, and spoke of diversity, equity and inclusion, without meaning them (I served on one of the committees formed to deal with these issues). To put this in the verbal/ethical terms that I think provide the deepest answer to your question about the decline of the executive functions, we did not go looking for the words that would provide an accurate description, which would have meant a process of discovery and learning, but for the words that got the boat to stop rocking, and in doing so, we were dishonest, meaning we said words we did not mean, we disavowed a relationship between the words we used and who we were. We wanted to use cheap words while being taken to be moral beings.

    Some of the words we used, institutionally: “data-driven” as a verbal eflex for a university wide bi-campus reorganization. “Best practices” as another. Our administration assured us we would carry out a data-driven process to establish best practices for a revitalized institution. What this meant in practice was that when the vice-president leading the process met with the faculty, there was scarcely a minute in an hour when I felt the words she used showed any signs of having been hard-earned, which includes being earned by putting one’s moral being at stake. One of the most contrary things of all was that the entire two or three year process was almost utterly lacking in, precisely, data, especially our own institutional data, specifically about the cost-savings that were supposed to be a principal, even the principal, reason for the organization. This I connect to what I observed over my thirty-odd years: that we never seemed to record our experiences for future use. You ask where are the long-form thoughtful preparatory documents, where are the long-form summary statements of issues like climate change, which might be written in 30 months? I would say, our constant flow of controversies, crises, colliding principles (so often the same ones recurring time and time again) produced no records, no reflections, no documents to which we might turn for information or guidance the next time the issue surfaced. I saw next to no institutional memory—things seemed to evaporate as soon as they had happened. This too I see as an ethical failure in our relationship to words.

    Lurking everywhere for me is, how does one know what one knows? Why are the difficulties of arriving at anything we can call knowledge, which is often only a place-holder for the best we can do for now, not on the table to complicate our relationships to the words we use?

    The difficulties of knowing anything are difficulties in handling words; to want to get at what is happening means finding a way around one’s interests, ego, self-image, etc. So the difficulties of knowing mean ethical challenges. The difficulties of good executive function likewise require knowledge, information, interpretation, debate, and accounting for interests, ego, self-image and so on. Words and values, then.

Comments are closed.