Analyzing Apparently Irrational Behavior in Western Elites

Yves here. This new piece from reader and sometime blogger albrt has a go at the question that has been bedeviling more and more commentators: why are the putative people in charge in the US and the EU making such a hash of things? It dovetails with our post today on how a large number of Western policy makers and pundits seem unable to escape the intoxicatoin of heavy doses of Ukraine war propaganda. Importantly, albrt adds some relatively new theories to explain these pathologies

By albrt, a solo lawyer from flyover country who has previously posted at Calculated Risk and Corrente

Several Naked Capitalism commenters noted the similarities between recent blog posts by Aurelien & John Michael Greer (formerly known as “the Archdruid”). Both were linked under Imperial Collapse Watch at Naked Capitalism on August 2. Both bloggers commented on the sad state of western elites, who seem unable to manage much of anything.

Aurelien faulted the Professional Managerial Caste (PMC) for their “vast carelessness,” similar to Tom and Daisy Buchanan from the Great Gatsby. Tom and Daisy

…were so confident of their own superiority that they didn’t care much about ordinary people. That’s today’s PMC: the main danger they pose to people like you and me is the fatal collective, ingrown confidence that they and their ideas can never be wrong, and that in the end nothing is ever really serious. If they break something, it doesn’t matter.

Greer had a slightly different take, observing that western elites “are stuck in habits of thought that make it impossible for them to do anything useful in a crisis.” He called the problem “stormtrooper syndrome” because children of the western elite are brought up thinking that bad people, like the Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars, can’t possibly shoot straight. Since bad people always lose and good people always win, the way to win is to define yourself as a good person rather than making rational decisions or ensuring that you have the material necessities for success. In other words, being woke (or anti-woke, if that is your ideological thing, I think it applies both ways) matters more than being competent, to the point where competence is not even on the radar.

I agree with Aurelian and Greer that western leadership is failing spectacularly on all the important issues of our day, from Covid to Ukraine to providing concrete material benefits for the populace. This post builds on several theories, some more persuasive than others, as to why western leaders appear so oblivious to facts, logic, and competence, despite being relatively smart and well-educated.

I’ll start with a theory I consider unpersuasive – the classic right-wing nationalist trope that a group of degenerates is engaged in a conspiracy to keep the plucky local ubermen down. This post (linked at NC August 4) is a lightly sanitized example, mentioning some of the same points as Aurelian and Greer about how western institutions are failing. The post suggests that a diverse conspiracy of incompetent people dedicated to a certain kind of ideological purity has succeeded in purging everyone who possesses superior general competence, intelligence, and independent judgment from the leadership of all western institutions. The conspirators “usually use ‘white men’ as a proxy” for the intelligent and capable group.

I will call this particular variation of the classic trope the “conspiracy-of-incompetents” theory. Like all similar theories, the conspiracy-of-incompetents theory begs the question of how degenerate and inferior people can be so successful at conspiracies, especially against ubermen. I guess they unleashed the awesome power of critical theory and wokeness, or something. The post doesn’t say.

Since I am not persuaded by the conspiracy-of-incompetents theory, why talk about it at all? Because history tells us that when incumbent leaders do stupid things (repeatedly, over and over, ad infinitum, etcetera), more people will turn to demagogues and strong-men who offer simplistic explanations, often blaming a stereotyped out-group. As Greer said in his recent post, “Quite a few people have become convinced that our government and corporate elites can’t possibly be as stupid as they seem. No, it’s got to be a sinister conspiracy!” Simplistic conspiracy theories thrive when nobody is offering anything better.

Unfortunately, neither of the two major political parties in the United States is currently offering the populace anything better – not sensible explanations, and certainly not concrete material benefits. I don’t see much sign of anything better being offered in other western countries either. This brings us back to the question at hand: why are the people in charge right now doing so many obviously stupid things?

In 1911, Robert Michels published a book called Political Parties. His thesis was called the Iron Law of Oligarchies – any organization, even if it is trying to be democratic, will end up being controlled by a few people.

A hundred years later, blogger Jon Schwartz articulated the Iron Law of Institutions, proposing that

…the people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution “fail” while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to “succeed” if that requires them to lose power within the institution.

This insight goes beyond just saying that people are acting like crabs-in-a-bucket. The Iron Law of Institutions recognizes that if people are exercising skills to advance within an institutional framework, their advancement goals are different from institutional goals, and people who prioritize advancement over institutional goals will often rise to the top.

But the Iron Law of Institutions doesn’t really answer today’s question. Unlike a bucket of crabs, our institutions occasionally push out an action or a policy of some kind. Why do the actions or policies produced by our leadership classes always seem to be stupid? Pushing out a smart action or policy once in a while would clearly be better for both the institution and the individuals within it, especially its current leaders who will eventually get blamed for all the stupidity.

Blogger Zvi Mowshowitz took the analysis a step further in 2020, riffing on the work of Robert Jackall. The context is that Mowshowitz was correct about several important facts early in the pandemic, at a time when the WHO, the CDC, and Dr. Fauci were obviously incorrect (or outright lying shamelessly). Mowshowitz wrote a blog post to explain why he could never be in charge of a high-profile government agency like the CDC or the FDA. As Mowshowitz himself said, this was a “[l]ong piece written because the speed premium was too high to write a short one,” but I think it is worth quoting sizable chunks:

The government is like any other moral maze. If you want to succeed, you modify yourself to be someone who instinctively plays the political game of success, seeks power and forms an implicit coalition with others who seek power. You implicitly reward power seekers and those with power, and punish those without power and who do not seek power, without thinking about it. If you didn’t, the others in the game would notice you thinking about it, or worse notice you failing to act on it, and punish you accordingly.

You instinctively know that you must continuously demonstrate your commitment to power seeking, and to rewarding your allies and being with the program, or else you won’t be a reliable person who can be trusted to do what is required. You must avoid motive ambiguity, and make it clear that you are not going to sacrifice considerations of power to improve physical world outcomes or otherwise do the ‘right thing,’ or to assert the true answer to a question simply because it is true.

Mowshowitz then applied this model to the CDC (emphasis original):

In Scott’s model,1 Rochelle Walensky (the Director of the CDC) is a utility maximizer, has the utility function of F(p+r) where p=power and r=being right, and chooses to produce along the production possibilities frontier, making tradeoffs where she can be less right to gain power, so she can in other places sacrifice some power to say more things that are right.

Standard disclaimer: All I know about Rochelle Walensky is that she’s the new head of the CDC. I know nothing about her personally or history.

In my model, that’s not how someone in her position thinks at all. She has no coherent utility function. She doesn’t have one because, to the extent she ever did have one, it was trained out of her long ago, by people who were rewarding lack of utility functions and punishing those who had coherent utility functions with terms for useful things. The systems and people around her kept rewarding instinctive actions and systems, and punishing intentional actions and goals.

Thus, she does what seems like the thing to do at the time rather than thinking about things in terms of trade-offs. Sometimes that does a reasonable job mimicking trade-offs and making reasonable decisions, sometimes it doesn’t. Often it seems to mean ‘implement whatever Biden’s latest executive order says and call it CDC guidance.’

Mowshowitz’s model sounds to me like a pretty accurate description of how people in the Biden administration operate (at least those who have staying power).2 Unlike the conspiracy-of-incompetents theory and the Iron Law of Institutions, this seems to be a plausible mechanism for transforming purportedly smart people at least part way into idiots.

The key point, in my mind, is that members of the in-group must at all costs signal their loyalty to power-seeking, and it is more important for them to signal adherence to their West Wing instincts than to do something useful or say something true. As Aurelien said, “[t]hese people recognise each other by their declaratory vocabulary and performative acts.”

Doing something useful or saying something true can actually harm your career if it makes the other power-seekers suspect you of disloyalty to power-seeking.

But this doesn’t entirely explain current levels of elite stupidity – Mowshowitz’s post lists ways that power seekers can excuse useful actions and true statements when necessary.

Success and failure do matter, and you probably still have a preference for better outcomes over worse ones all things being equal. But to act outside the usual course of events in order to do the right thing, you’ll need a good excuse, so you can claim you’re doing it for other reasons. “My boss ordered me to do that” is the gold standard, as is “the people demand it.” Doing it because of a (de facto) bribe from special interests isn’t the best public look, but suffices to satisfy your fellow bureaucrats and power seekers.

It seems as though we are not even seeing a token level of better outcomes these days. Mowshowitz’s model of instinctively prioritizing intra-elite signals adds something to the Iron Law of Institutions, and probably suffices to explain the garden-variety cynical views I have held for most of my life. I don’t think it fully explains the Bizarro World level of wrongness we are seeing from western elites today.

Signaling theory is not new. In an earlier life I was an anthropology student, and one of the more insightful books I read was Roy Rappaport’s Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. It’s a long and complicated book, so long and complicated that Rappaport died before it was finished. But a core point is that rituals have a unique power to signal acceptance of a conventional social order. Ritual performance is public acceptance of the conventional order, and this is important because the very existence of a conventional order is contingent on acceptance.

The occurrence or non-occurrence of a ritual transmits a binary signal and reduces ambiguity about acceptance of the conventional order (Rappaport 1999 at 89-138).
Rappaport emphasized that public rituals signify acceptance, not necessarily internal belief. He suggested that this was an advantage because acceptance is easier to achieve and demonstrate than subjective belief – to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, requiring people to signal acceptance of six impossible things before breakfast is less costly to society than requiring people to actually believe six impossible things before breakfast.

Mowshowitz says something different – power-seekers watch each other closely for quick, instinctive responses to ensure that power-seeking values have been internalized. Apparently, our elite in-groups require more than just a few pro-forma rituals to demonstrate loyalty to the cause.

One of the things I took away from Rappaport’s book, although Rappaport didn’t say it, is that basing signals on ridiculous beliefs might produce stronger social cohesion than basing signals on sensible or obvious beliefs. Accepting a conventional social order that is based on ridiculous beliefs probably requires a greater level of commitment.

Mowshowitz recognizes that costliness of signals helps avoid motive ambiguity, but I think I am suggesting a step beyond that – the value of a social cohesion signal may not only be based on cost in terms of money and effort, it may be inversely correlated to truth value. Adherence to truth-seeking scientific methods, for example, would not work very well as a signal of commitment to in-group social conventions, even if it is costly. You are going to follow the truth and the method, even if it means going against the social order.

Ritually adhering to a ridiculous version of science might work better as this type of signal, and indeed that is what we observed throughout the pandemic: many American leaders, particularly PMC Democrats, told us to “believe the science” while saying things that were plainly false, and while promoting policies that were homicidal.

Anthropologically, ritual adherence to belief systems that strained credulity might have been helpful for strengthening internal cohesion in relatively unified tribes of people. I don’t think it can be considered a positive development when a fractured society like ours reaches a stage where the elites are forming subgroups, and the subgroups demand such an extreme level of internal loyalty that they need to distinguish their cliques by how divorced from reality they are.

This intra-elite-signaling dynamic is admittedly speculative and theoretical. To the extent it exists, it isn’t the only factor making leadership in western countries dysfunctional. What I like about the intra-elite signaling theory is that it helps make sense out of a frustrating conundrum – why relatively smart people in positions of power seem to keep doing stupider and stupider things.
I hope this post will help reduce your frustration at official manifestations of obvious ridiculousness. I hope it will also help you recognize potential leaders who value something other than intra-elite signaling, if any ever come along.


1 Scott Alexander, proprietor of the blogs Astral Codex Ten and later Slate Star Codex.

2 Sadly, in the particular case of Walensky, it turned out she wasn’t really very good at this sort of thing so she was defenestrated after her credibility had been duly sacrificed.

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  1. paulsnows


    1. NoFreeWill


      “Pushing out a smart action or policy once in a while would clearly be better for both the institution and the individuals within it, especially its current leaders who will eventually get blamed for all the stupidity.”

      Yeah this part of the article I will go ahead and disagree with, and as in some ways it’s very important to the argument, I’m not sure the author really understands neoliberalism, although the article does otherwise have lots of good points.

      They’ve been making these same bad decisions since Reagan (and earlier) and noone has ever been punished, for the most part, in fact, they are usually handsomely rewarded for destroying american livelihoods and ruining the environment for future children, etc.

      All of the good things that happen you get to take credit for, regardless of whether they even relate to any policies you promoted, and all of the bad things are blamed on your evil opponents, the russkies, the markets, or the poor.

      The War on Drugs is a good example. You criminalize poverty (since drug use is mostly a crime of desperation like most others), destabilize South America (and use its instability as an excuse to interfere to further your own interests), and recreate the conditions for the problem for around 70 years, and the only feedback you get is a bunch of money from for-profit prison corporations. So why would you stop?

      The real question is why you would assume elites have ever been competent at anything other than maintaining their own power, elite “feasance” being much less common than malfeasance. And they are only “putatively smart” in their own eyes and those of their propagandists. George Bush went to Yale, but does anyone believe he earned his way there or really learned anything other than how to get along with all the other good ol boys?

      America “won” world war 2 because 19 millions russians died and we had massive geographic advantage, not because our elites were particularly competent. I do agree somewhat that to establish our empire we had to be a bit more competent and things are certainly getting worse, but a lot of that ‘competence’ was the accident of history/geography and the massive labor/stolen labor of the proletariat/natives/slaves enabling it’s expansion.

      1. JBird4049

        >>>America “won” world war 2 because 19 millions russians died and we had massive geographic advantage, not because our elites were particularly competent. I do agree somewhat that to establish our empire we had to be a bit more competent and things are certainly getting worse, but a lot of that ‘competence’ was the accident of history/geography and the massive labor/stolen labor of the proletariat/natives/slaves enabling it’s expansion.

        Not quite. Read up on the decade of planning and organizing before the United States entered the war. Then read about the massive amount of production and the creation of an army that went from being a few tens of thousands or smaller than the Dutch army to millions along with an air force and a vastly expanded navy in five years. The country also supplied much of the military equipment including mosts of the trucks for the British and the Soviets. Then add that the country was fighting the Japanese at the same time. What the United States did merely looks easy.

      2. kevbot9000

        Drug use tends to be very similar across different socioeconomic levels. Choice of drugs changes and likelihood of arrest, but percentage of users is similar. (80s wall street cocaine use memes were based on something)

    2. Angie Neer

      Hi there. Pro tip: all caps may seem to make your message stronger, but it does the opposite.

    3. Zach

      Apologies for tacking on to your post, since I’m not actually responding to it – when I click the “subscribe to post comments” link all I get is a bunch of code.

      It is refreshing to finally see some commentators begin to voice the possibility that, hey, maybe there is no grand conspiracy – maybe the smart people ain’t that smart after all, and maybe we’ve (we, collective west, golden billion, whatever the hip thing to say is) have just about depleted the intellectual, scientific, and economic trust fund left to us by our forebears, who had a better idea of what it meant to be hungry and powerless, and resolved never to feel hungry, or powerless, again. The only part of that inheritance that the modern “we” seem to have internalized is antipathy to discomfort.

      With respect to the contents of albrt’s article, what came to mind was a murmuration of starlings. Just as hundreds of thousands of starlings can get together, and without knowing too much of what’s going on outside their immediate periphery, can manage to swoop and sail without colliding midair, so too are our modern corporate and bureaucratic overlords recklessly, chaotically, and vigorously acting in their own blinkered, amoral self-interest. When you get enough chaotic data points all humming and churning together, the set begins to appear as though there is a pattern. Once it looks like a pattern is developing, people begin to attribute intent.

      There is no intent, beyond simple human greed, taken to grotesquely twisted extremes. Ultimately, it’s just a bunch of monkeys fighting over the steering wheel of a bus that (even at the best of times) is on a twisting mountain road with no guardrail.

  2. Feral Finster

    For the sociopath, everything is a zero-sum no-holds-barred winner-takes-all game. For Team D, the real enemy is Team R. National considerations are at most secondary.

    Once you understand that we are ruled by high functioning sociopaths (in the sense that they can fake empathy when called up to do so), then All Will Be Revealed.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      For Team D, the real enemy is Team R.

      First, its the reverse, and secondly, Team Blue’s true enemy is their voters and potential voters.

      1. The Rev Kev

        Wasn’t there a saying that Republicans fear their voters whereas Democrats hate theirs? I have come across mention in articles how some corporations hate their customers and denigrate them but are at the same time on much more friendly terms with their supposed competitors. The fiasco over Bud Lite is emblematic of this as the exec that was in charge of bringing in Mulvaney said in a video that she wanted to get away from their frat boy customers. Mission accomplished.

    2. digi_owl

      Nah, it is not team D vs tema R. It is them vs everyone that could replace them in office.

      The team vs team fighting is peanuts compared to the viciousness of the in-group fight over rank. And i am starting to suspect the ladies are even nastier than the men there.

  3. neutrino

    The western leadership is very successful in the only goal that really matters: self-perpetuation.

    The above summarizes a thesis developed in a piece on NATO published about one month ago. Its author is one Mr. Timofey Bordachev, director of the Valdai Club Programme. To my surprise, this provocative paper didn’t elicit any response, positive or negative.

    It is still available on Russia Today:

    1. Michaelmas

      The western leadership is very successful in the only goal that really matters: self-perpetuation.

      Till they aren’t.

  4. juno mas

    Interesting discussion of the elements involved with, what I’ve considered, “Group Think”.

    I’ve spent time as a local and state official (small population) and much of what is said here rings true.

  5. hk

    I wonder if this type of “loyalty signalling” behavior is far more widespread than not, just taking place in less obvious places.

    One of the life changing books I read is the “Nemesis Affair” by David Raup. It’s a popular book in science by a well-known paleontologist and the theory that he advances is, quite frankly, bonkers, but his observations about how scientists react to new ideas are spot on. One particular item that I remember quite vividly concerns the discovery of shocked quartz in association with the K-T boundary. Basically, when the idea came up originally back in early 80s, quite a few respected geologists claimed (blatantly falsely, it turned out) that the patterns associated with shocked quartz is formed deep in earth, i.e. their presence is in fact an example against an asteroid impact. Since Raup had not seriously touched geology since he was a student decades ago, he had to take them at their word and only discovered that they were basically lying through their teeth until some time later.

    There is a big cost to being a contrarian, even if you are right in all societies, even when the members are mostly tenured and there’s no one who can overtly punish you for going against the grain. Now, if “the truth” is murkier, if only because good intelligence (especially before things got too critical) was hard to come by and if the guardians of the official truth are really powerful and can affect your future prospects substantively, there’s all the more reason to be loyal to that version of the Truth ™–especially if the “real truth” seems to be something you can defeat and bury. People who know the “real truth” might, in turn, become a sort of cheerleaders for the Russians so that they would be vindicated by an unmistakable Russian victory, but the Russians are not fighting for their benefit, or, indeed, for the “truth,” but for their own motives that may not align with either. So the “truth” can continue to be suppressed…until it suits the Russians (or the comet/asteroid, I guess) to twist the knife.

    1. FUBAR111111

      The above explanation by Gaius Baltar makes more sense than the obscure theories presented in the article.

      While there are many grains of truth presented, the failure to answer the basic question of “Why is this happening on a such a widespread basis?”

      The answer is ofcourse because those at the very top want it this way. If they wanted things to be different, it would be different. The orders come down from above, and everyone follows them. What Globalist Bankers want, Globalist Bankers get, and your opinion means zero to them. The WEF and Soros, Gates etc are just the mesenger boys for the real power centers, They Who Cannot Be Named.

      ANd why would they do this? Because they want global population reduced to 500 million serfs they can control, and any means necessary to accomplish that goal will be used – war, famine, disease etc, the usual Four Horsemen.

      Or you can choose to believe it is all happening by accident and natural decay and from group-think, if you want to.

  6. brooke

    Could it be as simple as the following?

    Our living memory of governance in the mid 20th century is not representative of how state power normally works and we’re feeling a sort of return or retrenchment. We’re feeling it in a hypermediated environment where callousness/pragmatism appears as foolishness

    1. Anon

      It could be argued our living memory was a farce to begin with, so it’s not so much a return, as it is a wake-up call.

      A manifestation of this is liberals’ pathological rejection of Trump, despite him being representative of their (actual) values; he just didn’t fit their narrative, but iirc, business went on mostly as usual.

  7. Henry Moon Pie

    Mowshowitz rings true for anyone who has spent time in elite educational institutions or close to power. You demonstrate that you’re “on the team” by demonstrating you’re motivated by the same things as the team leaders. Ironically, that includes showing that you’re just as driven by a personal craving for power or money as your bosses.

    There is an extremely important factor that is not addressed. Our society is completely dominated by a new religion of neoliberalism. It’s not just an approach to economic policy or even an ideology. Neoliberal or neoclassical economics in the U. S. determines what’s important, who’s important and even what constitutes reality. The problem is that neoclassical economics is a fantasy that bears little relation to reality but does serve the interest of the billionaires without fail. I’ve been pointing to William Nordhaus’s absurd forecast that a rise in Earth’s average temperature to 6 degrees C would only cause a drop of 8.5% in GDP. Why it wouldn’t even be as bad as the GFC! Another economic genius said that a drop of one-third in agricultural production would drop GDP by only a few per cent. There’s a modern economics version of “Let them eat cake.”

    These people are also the ones who believe in infinite growth on a finite planet. In my estimation, they are one of three things: idiots (Steve Keen’s theory); paid liars (my current theory); or aliens trying to geoengineer the planet to weaken humans in preparation for their alien invasion (theory I’m considering).

    It wouldn’t matter if economists were as heeded as public health officials, but their word is treated as Delphic by politicians and the press. In societies where philosophers and religious leaders held sway, there have been many examples of the blind leading the blind, but were any of these worse than the insanity of pursuing economic growth as our top goal when we’ve already overshot the planet’s carrying capacity?

    “Change the paradigm” is the most powerful way to change systems, Donna Meadows wrote. Our elites are stuck deep in a paradigm that bears at least as little relation to reality as the first Genesis myth.

    Waist Deep” (was the “big fool” Larry Summers?)

    1. .Tom

      I also feel that the domination of these MSM types arrived with the neoliberal takeover. And I think there’s a parallel in David Graeber’s Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. Corporate oligarchs surround themselves with yes men (is there a less sexist term for that?) and their gradual takeover of the political and public administrative space therefore fills those senior posts with yes men too.

      1. digi_owl

        Basically things have gone awry ever since WW1 ended, and the industrialized world found itself with a glut of capacity. Since then it has been all about keeping the conspicuous consumption going, from marketing to fast fashion, making up jobs and credit cards.

    2. Sue inSoCal

      “In my estimation, they are one of three things: idiots (Steve Keen’s theory); paid liars (my current theory); or aliens trying to geoengineer the planet to weaken humans in preparation for their alien invasion (theory I’m considering).”

      Henry Moon Pie, you have made a most excellent comment. I don’t think these elites are stupid. Far from it. What I did not see in the piece was corruption, your “paid liars” theory. We continue to build build build and there is no tomorrow. (I’m pondering your third theory. Aliens..Hmm..)

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        Arrival.” Charlie Sheen is the real human in this scene.

        They like it hot. ;)

        And I don’t know if Keen really believes they’re idiots. Maybe he just likes to watch them squirm when he gives them the choice of recanting or admitting they’re idiots.

    3. digi_owl

      Or how about they are well paid idiots that keep getting paid because their idiocy benefits their paymasters?

  8. flora

    Thanks for this post.
    One thing I’ve noticed is that what seems like elite ineptitude seems always to work for the benefit of the elite class. Natural disaster in desirable location? What could national and international real estate investors do with the land (if only the middling classes would sell cheap and move out)? At this point, after so many “always works the same way” responses, it can’t be ignorance on the part of the elite. It’s only a question of who they want to rescue, imo. (This is a very harsh comment, but disaster capitalism does seem to be the their playbook. They make enough political donations to influence policy responses (or lack of responses). my 2 cents.)

    1. Steve H.

      Important conversation. I haven’t been able to find who coined the term ‘Darwinian Ratchet’.

      A missing piece is the emotional part of belief. I could say too much, but an example is the Democratic official who was convinced the Russians were stalking her because her cab driver was Slavic. Split-brain research shines a light on the construction of bullsh*t stories.

      1. flora

        Important point. Thanks. It’s possible the govt officials are so imbued with the public/private partnership doctrine they think there’s nothing for govt to do, except hire at great expense private contractors to deal with disasters. I don’t know. See FEMA public/private contracts following Hurricane Maria in 2017. Also this:

        From 2021.

        Puerto Rico’s progress still stalled four years after Maria
        “If a hurricane today, category one, hits the island…the power grid will not survive,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., at a press conference remembering the roughly 3,000 people who died following the devastation.

        1. flora

          See also, from 2007, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

          Ex-FEMA chief profiteering on Katrina?
          An NBC News investigation into the performance and billing practices of a firm run by former FEMA Director James Lee Witt raises questions about profiteering, cronyism and possible falsification of records in Louisiana’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

        2. digi_owl

          Because the paid pundits and professors all say that public spending is wasteful and bad, while private is effective and good.

          That has been the mantra since 70s stagflation basically.

          Thus the go to is either public-private partnerships (aka pork barrel graft), or New Public Management (pretend free market public services).

      2. The Rev Kev

        There was another example of this fear of the other after Trump won back in 2016 and was mentioned in Links back then. This guy in his place in New York had a workman in for a repair job when suddenly he became afraid for his safety when the thought occurred to him that the workman was also a Trump voter. He actually became afraid and wrote about it in a publication. I guess that is what happens when your immunity bubble gets popped.

        1. BeliTsari

          I’d work in red states, among FAR younger folks; refugees mostly, back from vaporizing former neighbors. I’d returned to NYC from McKeesport, PA in 2018 & went to Zabar’s from MTA’s #1 Local. It was a cold, rainy late Oct so I wore a Jarhead buddy’s MARPAT Gore-Tex shell in digital woodland camo & schlepping ~70lbs of poached venison kielbasa & fishing tackle in a Dyneema pack. I wondered why my Dominican cashier friend was laughing at me?

    2. brooke

      Totally. I think the strongest argument against actual ineptitude is that it would have to be the most extraordinary luck that this supposed gross ineptitude happens to only benefit the elite, keeping them in power for generations. Sort of like drunken master fighting

  9. Ventzu

    Perhaps they just are stupid, with a good dose of egotism in the blend.

    I’ve been chatting to my PE clients recently. The utter lack of awareness of the global situation, and the inability to recall and process obviously contradictory (temporally at least) political / media messaging to a coherent conclusion, supports the veracity of my first sentence.

    They are “smart” only in doing what they are trained to do, and not anything outside of that.

  10. Mark Gisleson

    All the behaviors described seem consistent with narcissistic personality disorder which was a huge topic of discussion for a while but which now seems to be a given. No matter how you interpret the actions of our leaders it’s clear they do not intend to fix anything and are assuming there will be seats for them and their families on the last flights out to New Zealand when it all collapses.

    If the colonels don’t hurry up and do something, some #$@! corporal will.

    1. albrt

      An early draft of this post contained a footnote about Erik Erikson’s historical theory of society-wide identity crises, but (believe it or not) I pruned this post mercilessly to try to keep it a reasonable length and reasonably focused.

      I think there are plenty of negative dynamics contributing to our dysfunction. If there is a big picture explanation of why all these negative dynamics are getting worse at the same time, it is probably just that there are no good answers to satisfy our unrealistic cultural expectations. The current trajectory can’t be sustained.

    2. Sergey P

      I actually think narcissism is a vastly superior explanation for all this.

      Intra-elite signaling would hardly be a new phenomenon, so how did the world manage before? Logic says to understand changes we should look for what has changed.

      Neoliberalism has. But however much I dislike it, I don’t feel it has such a powerful innate connection to incompetence.

      Narcissism has been thrown around a lot, but often without rigorous understanding of it. I would very much recommend a book by Alexander Lowen, Narcissism: Denial of the True Self. He posits that narcissism is at its core an inability to fill an image with life. Life = truth, imho. And competence would be of a similar nature.

      But from my experience in one of my fields, cinema, I see that narcissistic auteurs and producers tend to attack non-narcissistic. A feeling of genuine life in another person’s work is painful for them, because it reminds them of that energy of life and truthfulness, which they lack.

      They don’t have it because it was once attacked and destroyed, by malevolent external forces. And now they themselves have become such a force, attacking and trying to destroy all signs of another person’s authentic being.

      So it becomes a cycle, which over decades tends to wash out all true competence, leaving in its wake only an illusion of competence. But devoid of deep authenticity and life, this illusion has a natural tendency to undermine itself. A facade will not hold forever.

      Is it starting to really, seriously crack right now before our eyes? Will it later crumble?

  11. Manderson

    The post suggests that a diverse conspiracy of incompetent people dedicated to a certain kind of ideological purity has succeeded in purging everyone who possesses superior general competence, intelligence, and independent judgment from the leadership of all western institutions. The conspirators “usually use ‘white men’ as a proxy” for the intelligent and capable group. I will call this particular variation of the classic trope the “conspiracy-of-incompetents” theory. Like all similar theories, the conspiracy-of-incompetents theory begs the question of how degenerate and inferior people can be so successful at conspiracies, especially against ubermen. I guess they unleashed the awesome power of critical theory and wokeness, or something. The post doesn’t say.

    This summary gives short shrift to the actual argument in that substack referred to. Incompetence needs no conspiracy because incompetence in any position of authority sees competence as a threat. Only pure self-interest is needed to want to avoid hiring (possibly unloyal) competence if you are incompetent. Likewise, incompetence wants to advance as well (for self-interest) and no doubt uses many of the other tactics listed in this article to do so. But at each stage where it successfully gains power, incompetence continues to see objectiveness and competence as threats. This isn’t about race…but it is about signalling loyalty above all else. Competent and objective people can’t do that.

    Worthwhile to read this old gem:

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      Part of me feels we are just pretending the W. Administration didn’t happen. Even from the outset, their whole schtick was W is stupid but has his dad’s smart friends running things, who turned out to be idiots too.

      One forgotten aspect of Shrub’s time was how lazy they were and their efforts to promote and recruit politically minded people through shenanigans with DHS.

      An early criticism of Obama was he simply didn’t try to undo Bush personal decisions and instead just decided to work on his influencer career. By the time, we get to Trump, we had 16 years of Shrub and someone who thinks Shrub is just a-ok. Now, Biden can’t even manage to get rid of DeJoy. How any “self respecting” Democrat can stomach that is just baffling. They really are just goldfish.

      1. jsn

        Goldfish who, along with their friends ran off with all the gold, and everything else including most of what was nailed down. Goldfish who’ve set up a system directly converting human suffering and death into manageable profit streams, that’s what the “Control” in CDC is all about.

        Idiots, stupid, goldfish, etc. doesn’t start to describe the perps of the single largest looting spree in human history.

        Smart, savage, psychotic, narcissistic, evil start to cover the type at hand.

    2. Darthbobber

      We’ll, this assumes that incompetents realize that they are incompetent, which I think underrated the human capacity for self-delusion.

    3. Northman

      To hire someone that sees that you are an incompetent, and can show and prove it to everyone obviously may have risks.

      And, as to having someone even more incompetent as your only replacement might work as an insurance.
      Case in point; Biden couldn’t be removed unless one were willing to accept Harris as US president.

      But it also have an emotional side. Who would employ someone that will view you as an idiot?

    4. albrt

      Intriguing article.

      But I don’t buy that incompetents can readily beat competent people just by gaining a foothold and then refusing to hire anybody competent. That dynamic should lead to an institution going down in flames pretty quickly.

      And if the competent people are so competent they should be able to outcompete the incompetent people, instead of sitting in their parents’ basements dog-whistling on race, wokeness, or whatever is the basis of the conspiracy they are so hung up on.

      1. Daniil Adamov

        I have similar reservations to some extent, however… it’s worth remembering that people can be competent at one thing and incompetent at another. In particular, I get the sense that many people at the top are great at inter-elite politicking and not so good at dealing with realities that are external to the elite, especially in senile political systems. Like the top bureaucrats in many Chinese dynasties on their way out; or the late Soviet Union (Gorbachev seems like a prime example to me); or the “Collective West” of today.

        To put it another way, different skills are needed to dominate the political scene and to implement effective policies. Sometimes those skills are combined (Franklin Delano Roosevelt and David Lloyd George are some examples, IMHO). But often not, and in some systems politicking is rewarded much more strongly than in others. Some level of institutional complacency and resulting impunity after real-world failure may be the key.

        (And, of course, many people are just no good at either politics or policy.)

  12. Sinyangwe

    I think that another factor is that normal people do not like our current crop of politicians and how our politics currently works. There’s a kind of apathy to towards it and seeing going into politics as a solution.

  13. Wæsfjord

    Jacques Baud in his book Operation Z baldly states that Western leaders are stupid. I thought, wtf, how can you just throw that out there, based, as the kids say. But thinking about it, Occam’s razor and all, it might just be so simple.

    1. Kilgore Trout

      While tempting as it is to resist “the stupid option” as reductionist, when one starts to consider the collection of leaders we are graced with in the West–Biden, Macron, and Schulz and Trudeau come to mind immediately–stupidity seems at least a significant part of the answer

  14. Ignacio

    Signalling loyalty explains very well some of the most idiotic public statements because when you do it in public it is the strongest signal you can provide. Come to mind recent statements attributed to Duda in the WP about “cheap war”, Borrell’s on gardens and jungles and whatever 360° Baerbock says.

    But one thing is to signal loyalty through such statements and a very different thing is to pile political mistakes one above the previous. There is something more ideological about the general ineptitudes (more probably the absence of ideology itself substituted with neoliberal recipes). This makes the PMC unsuited for any complex political challenge that cannot be treated with market medicine: pandemics, climate change… A different kind of ineptitude shows up in Ukraine which is even more damning because there are historic lessons that might serve as guides while there wasn’t really a vast literature on how to treat pandemics and nearly nothing on climate change.

  15. Chet G

    I believe there are two factors to consider. First, overpopulation, particularly among the would-be elite. Second, a significant managerial rule is, Never promote anyone more capable than oneself. Combine the two and eventually there’s the situation in which we have the present idiots who are governing us. Making it worse, those idiots are stupid on so many levels, but they know how to preserve their position.

  16. M Quinlan

    Daniella Mestyanek Young, is a survivor of the Children of God cult and the US army. She has an interesting take. She believes all human collectives have cultist tendencies.
    Cults weed out the noncommitted by having ever more extreme beliefs and/or requirements. She’s writing a book exploring this, which I’m looking forward to reading. Listening to her interviews about her biography unCULTured were fascinating, but I didn’t want to read the more distressing details, too soft.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      It is not that easy to organize individuals into a common enterprise, the larger, the more difficult. What will serve as the glue that helps to subordinate individual to collective benefit, even temporarily? The problem is that it’s very useful, sometimes necessary, for individuals to work together. This has been the apparently overwhelming challenge of Covid. It is also the challenge with Overshoot. When my personal contribution to carbon emissions is so small relative to the global whole, even if I’m a jet-setting spoiled brat, why should I sacrifice what I like doing when it will take so many others willing to sacrifice to make an appreciable difference?

      It was once thought that ideology could do it, at least with solidarity born of working on a shop floor together. While that worked at certain times and certain places, it’s general application seems limited these days. Nationalism still holds on in some corners, but after generations of lies promulgated by nation-states, a lot of people just don’t get off on big flags as used to. The old religions don’t have nearly as much sway as a generation ago in the U. S., and the new religions inspire fervor in the academy, but they don’t seem able to generate much in the way of solidarity (the opposite) or an orientation toward mutual aid.

      Is money the last thing available to induce a crowd of individuals to work together? That would be bad news indeed because the bad guys have all the money.

  17. Benny Profane

    We’ve also entered a period of corruption meets globalism meets great international finance powers. Political power and military rank is now a way station to life changing legacy wealth. Patreus feels no shame to be interviewed on Bloomberg in his office at KKR, with the company logo present in the background, as he spews boldfaced lies to the public about war. Much bigger pot of gold after the soul sucking career of sucking up than forty to fifty years ago, with a few decades to enjoy it if one “retires” early, although they never really retire from that life.

  18. flora

    Thank you again for this post. It seems people in govt 40-50 years ago, while still ambitious for personal power and promotion, were somewhat restrained by the pre-neoliberal understanding of the function of govt. Then came neoliberalism. There is no society, their are only individuals, etc. Govts should be subordinate to business and the market. Or “Market.” The Market is the greatest information processor in all of human history. The Market will guide correct decision making. How much has that affected the Market support for govt candidates of a particular outlook? There is more than ambition and place-seeking at work here, imo. All this is done in a particular neoliberal environment, which did not hold sway before 1975-1980.

    From Milton Friedman:
    “What does it mean to say that government might have a responsibility? Government can’t have a responsibility any more than the business can. The only entities which can have responsibilities are people.”

    From Philip Miroski

  19. Neutrino

    Augustine wrote City of God, including the theme of Libido Dominandi. Think of that as will to power, lust to dominate or variations thereon.
    That theme permeates western elite behavior, and even their thinking.
    Human nature has a strong biological component that can not be erased by good-thinkers, but must be acknowledged to begin to understand how and why those elites developed the way that they did.

    NB, I’m Neutrino with a capital N, distinct from the other reader neutrino.

  20. Redolant

    Great post/comment Yves. I recall similar concerns from the distinguished American sociologist C. Wright Mill’s 1956 book, ‘The Power Elite’. Mills was influenced by Weber, (class, status and power dynamic), and Mannheim’s: problems of leadership/consensus in modern societies. C. Wright foresaw this country’s elites surrendering their social responsibilities, and elaborated on their failure to affirm moral leadership.

    1. Starry Gordon

      Has anyone mentioned reversion to the norm? Whatever produced their talented forebears, whether genetic or cultural, for the progeny sooner or later will be dissipated by Mother Entropy.

  21. Lex

    I haven’t read Greene’s piece but this is an excellent companion to Aurelian’s.

    I’ll go with an “all of the above” answer. And that’s the problem. There isn’t anyone who can help us cope with a societal level crisis of identity because the only people with any power have spent their whole careers doing so much ritual signaling and striving for personal power that they’re incapable of doing anything else. They do in fact believe their own lies and if they attempted to question them, we’d need to bring Erik Erikson back from the dead to write another book on identity crises.

    We are led by not serious people who’ve now created a historical moment which is far, far too big for them. They don’t know what to do, but they can’t admit that to anyone including themselves partly because they believe their own lies and partly because they believe that their time at Harvard or Yale proves them to be the smartest person in any room. They’re simply not equipped to do anything different than they’ve always done.

    1. Divadab

      Yes. Plus they’re far too old with calcified brains. No longer creative and only running on their programming.

  22. Jeff W

    The intra-elite signaling theory makes a lot of sense but it still doesn’t explain why now. (The same dynamic would have held true in the past.)

    My own theory is that the environment that shaped these élites allowed them to escape the adverse consequences of their actions (which seems to have always been true—“the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”) and, perhaps, more importantly, during the post–World War II economic expansion, many of the adverse consequences of earlier times—war, disease, famine—had been attenuated. Postwar abundance and prosperity, “progress,” meant that the élites growing up at the time—that would be, by and large, the gerontocracy of today in the US and the generation they influenced—didn’t have to pay much attention to their actions and reality because nothing much bad was going to happen, things were on an upward trajectory endlessly—in their minds, anyway—and, to some extent, borne out by reality—until things crashed in the 1970s. In a sense, the baby boomers were infantilized. (Not everyone, of course, but a large proportion, in a way that earlier generations hadn’t been. And that’s not to blame the boomers, of which I am one—it just describes the effect of the environment in which they—or we—grew up.)

    Then, post-1970s, the fact that the élites are themselves insulated from the adverse consequences of their actions (which, again, they had not learned to be serious about) controlled. They could engage in “symbol manipulation,” which gave the appearance of engaging with reality and was, in its own way, a form of intra-élite signaling because, ultimately, they themslves wouldn’t suffer the adverse consequences if those symbols didn’t actually reflect reality. It didn’t really matter if, say, public health policy was a shambles if, say, the President or the billionaires at Davos could take special precautions—and, besides, again, technology would save us! (Think “polio vaccine,” again, in the formative years of these élites.) There’s more to it, of course—the rise of a dominant ideology, neoliberalism, which promised prosperity but again benefited the élites, for example, again dovetailing with a divorce from reality—these things are always multidimensional.

    I’m not so sure these élites are signaling inversely to reality—although that theory is appealing in maximizing both the stupidity and the perversity of these élites—because I’m not so sure they’re actually attending to what reality is (at least for most people). I think at most they’re signaling an indifference to reality while maximizing, as always, any benefit to them.

    1. Feral Finster

      “I’m not so sure these élites are signaling inversely to reality—although that theory is appealing in maximizing both the stupidity and the perversity of these élites—because I’m not so sure they’re actually attending to what reality is (at least for most people). I think at most they’re signaling an indifference to reality while maximizing, as always, any benefit to them.”

      There are no consequences for being wrong. There are consequences for departing from the Elite Consensus.

      The War On Iraq provides a prime example. The architects of that war are hailed to this day as Serious Thinkers and Foreign Policy Heavyweights, even though they were shown to be shameless in their disregard of truth. There weren’t even competent Machiavellians – none of their rosy predictions came to pass. Still, none of them suffered in the least, not personally or professionally.

      By contrast, the naysayers were cast into Outer Darkness, even as the war proved more disastrous than anyone had warned.

    2. Paul P

      Been reading Penguin’s History of the World. In answer to your question, “why now?” history seems to reply “all the time, everywhere.”

  23. Gulag

    A key in-group signaling factor (not mentioned) is that our present elites deeply distrust and fear perhaps up to 60% of the people over whom they rule. They are certainly not interested in providing such “retrogrades” with any material benefits.

    Instead, they are actively in revolt against them (key indicators of this revolt are such elite signaling words like deplorable, racist, homophobic, and white supremacist)–with the continual use of all of these words serving to enhance their own power-seeking and prestige, among those who matter.

    These elites have now successfully created their own highly centralized technocratic bureaucratic regime more and more unconstrained by any actual connection to the general public and that is the way they like it.

    Don’t underestimate the contempt of smart people for their inferiors.

    1. JBird4049

      >>>Don’t underestimate the contempt of smart people for their inferiors.

      I am more concerned about the contempt reality has for us all.

  24. John9

    I have only recently encountered Peter Turchin and his ideas on cyclical collapse in human societies. He talks about elite overproduction, leading to extreme competition among elites for too few power positions that then leads to extreme rule breaking, eventually ending in collapse. Looks to me like that is what’s happening with our elites right now. We are in the lying, fraud and criminal behavior phase and it seems obvious there will be an unhappy ending. The proposed cage match between Elon X and Zuck is a garish manifestation of that elite competition.
    Haven’t read enough of Turchin to know, but from his interviews, it looks like he thinks we are screwed .

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      And both political parties promising to jail their opponents. And “woke” cancelling has been explained here as a particular flavor of elites competing for fewer places.

      Turchin’s wealth pump element has an ironic twist. The current elites love the wealth pump that cycles the wealth produced by workers up the ladder to them. The problem is that the wealth pump is adding to the number of elites and increasing elite overproduction and competition. It’s a little like Marx’s quip about capitalist rope sellers.

    2. El Viejito

      I began speed reading about a third of the way through these comments looking to see in anyone was going to mention Turchin. He is among the more intellectually rigorous people looking at the stated problem (stupidity among the elites). But there are others – Michael Hudson, David Draper, even all the way back to Marx, who come up with more materialistic reasons for our plight. Not wanting to seem churlish, I’ll just use the short form and say “it’s the economy.” Can we do anything about it? Probably not in the short term, but we can try. And why not… no matter what, in the long term we’re all dead.

  25. Robert Stanley

    At the risk of oversimplification, I’ve always enjoyed and referred back to an essay on stupidity where I was first introduced to Carlo Cipolla’s ‘The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity’ which says in long form what George Carlin was heard to say, “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.” But the essay itself cheekily offers survival strategies on how stupid can even overcome evolutionary forces. I hope it proves entertaining and thought provoking.

  26. Irrational

    Thanks to albrt and to Yves for featuring.
    This is the perfect description of my employer and explains to me why I, with my ability to think outside the box (hate the expression, but it is descriptive) have not made it to management level in my extraordinarily dysfunctional quasi-governmental organization, but a bunch of incompetent yes-sayers have.
    Looking for alternatives to avoid banging my head against the wall every day.

    1. Bluebird

      I’m with you, Irrational. I’m no youngster, but still truly do want my work to make a difference. I’m a polite non-yes-person and while I’m not brilliant, am no less intelligent than my coworkers, and a diligent, somewhat strategic, team player. Got nothing to show for it. I work in state government and compare notes with friends in other agencies. We see incompetence everywhere, and possible corruption. No one seems to notice or care. Trying not to bang my head against the wall, but I’m not sure it’s better anywhere else. Those in power, the higher-level managers, have not competence, but supreme, unearned confidence.

  27. Susan the other

    Western leaders are making a “hash” of things because the truth is terrifying. And more than a little embarrassing for the indispensable leaders of the indispensable nation. We are happy to serve up all sorts of hash just to avoid answering -as in straight answers – the simple question re Ukraine: Why are you doing this? To answer that truthfully would blow our indispensable image out of the water. So instead we are spending trillions killing millions of Ukrainians in order to prove we have a worthy cause. It would seem to indicate that Ukraine is perhaps the indispensable nation – even though it does not even meet the definition of a “nation.” If we really want to get to the bottom of this sewage, all of it: Ukraine, Taiwan, Africa, neoliberal finance, the oil crisis, the growth crisis, the climate crisis and the health crisis (to simply scratch the surface), we are going to have to face facts, directly address reality, and, god forbid, actually tell the truth in order to find intelligent solutions.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      I think that’s where it has to begin, Susan the other. The only time I can think of when that was happening was in the aftermath of Vietnam: Ellsberg; the Church Committee; the House Subcommittee on Assassinations. There were movies to go with it: Apocalypse Now; Platoon; Full Metal Jacket; MASH. Truth telling after years of lies.

      It did some good–the elites would say damage–because it took a lot of propaganda to overturn that anti-war, anti-military Zeitgeist that arose from that truth-telling. Reagan’s baby-steps, BS “invasions.” Iraq I was one big propaganda piece. But still, after all that, in the lead-up to Iraq, there was lots of anti-war activity. But since? The propaganda and big flags have been non-stop with the brief, much appreciated interruption we can thank Mr. Kaepernick for.

      I’d encourage everybody to go watch or at least read Carter’s misnamed “malaise speech.” The guy was trying to tell a little truth, not about oil or even politics, but about the dissolution of American society and its causes. The press hated it immediately, and thus the name. And that was just a few years after the press played the big hero.

      “The world is a business, Mr. Beale.” At least that’s how it’s run. But in reality, the Earth is a complex, living thing whether or not it possesses consciousness. We’re poking it pretty hard, right about now. That’s the truth.

  28. Glen

    Here’s one pretty good take on this (but very NSFW, sorry about that!):

    “But there’s a reason. There’s a reason. There’s a reason for this, there’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason that it will never, ever, ever be fixed. It’s never gonna get any better. Don’t look for it. Be happy with what you got. Because the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now, the real owners, the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget the politicians. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought and paid for the senate, the congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear. They got you by the balls. They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying, lobbying, to get what they want. Well, we know what they want. They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I’ll tell you what they don’t want: They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. Thats against their interests. Thats right. They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around a kitchen table to figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago. They don’t want that. You know what they want? They want obedient workers. Obedient workers. People who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork, and just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it, and now they’re coming for your Social Security money. They want your retirement money. They want it back so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street, and you know something? They’ll get it. They’ll get it all from you, sooner or later, ’cause they own this fucking place. It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it. You and I are not in the big club. And by the way, it’s the same big club they use to beat you over the head with all day long when they tell you what to believe. All day long beating you over the head in their media telling you what to believe, what to think and what to buy. The table is tilted folks. The game is rigged, and nobody seems to notice, nobody seems to care. Good honest hard-working people — white collar, blue collar, it doesn’t matter what color shirt you have on — good honest hard-working people continue — these are people of modest means — continue to elect these rich cocksuckers who don’t give a fuck about them. They don’t give a fuck about you. They don’t give a fuck about you. They don’t care about you at all — at all — at all. And nobody seems to notice, nobody seems to care. That’s what the owners count on; the fact that Americans will probably remain willfully ignorant of the big red, white and blue dick that’s being jammed up their assholes everyday. Because the owners of this country know the truth: it’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

    George Carlin

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      That is one superb manifesto. Hard to believe that came from the once “hippy, dippy weatherman.” Carlin, Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor. Mind awakeners all.

      “it’s the same big club they use to beat you over the head”

      Let’s not get into clubs and staffs and all that again. ;)

  29. seabos84

    What about disdain, contempt, and scorn for the actual nitty gritty tiny detail work of making things work? Roman Patriarchs, British Aristocrats, Southern State Plantation Owners – some of them looked down their noble noses at the plebe work of making things work. I’ve been a 3 career serf in Boston and Seattle for 42/45 years, and I see the same contempt in our exalted Liberal Cla$$e$.
    Everybody is gonna give the 1963 MLK speech, or write The Containment Policy against the USSR, master that compelling jargon for the next irrelevant graduate degree, …
    & who the hell is gonna make anything work?
    IF you’ve grown up in this leafy neighborhood cla$$, disparaging the lower order thinking that keeps the roads & water & electricity working so that the fuel & milk & radicchio & band aids can be deliverd, you’re practially mentally trained to NOT value making stuff work, BUT, mummy & daddy are making sure you get the boxes checked to get that policy job.
    Make things work ??? ha ha ha.

  30. Lupita

    Maybe Western elites have started to sense that the rules based international order is crumbling around them and are panicking, which does not help at all with rational thought.

    Those of the elite with a modicum of intelligence and courage have already fled like rats from a sinking ship, leaving behind the stupidest and most cowardly amongst them.

    At this rate, the last one in power will be someone like poor Romulus Augustulus.

  31. Tim

    Kind of a good article, but I learned nothing. People are “yes men” because it allows advancement. And Geico can save you 15% or more on car insurance.

    My term for leaders is “low information decision makers.” It’s somewhat by necessity, but, when everyone below them that is tasked with implementing the decision goes along with the low information decision maker’s decision without playing devils advocate based on what they know, then…

    Per F. Scott Fitzgerald, being able to hold two opposing thoughts in mind and retaining function (to make decisions) is the sign of 1st order intelligence. Therefore, these institution are not first rate intelligent despite being composed of individuals capable of first rate intelligence

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Sorry, “yes men” are a constant yet our elites functioned much better before. Your handwave explains nothing and reflects a failure to engage this topic seriously.

      And I am not keen about gratuitous insults of post authors.

  32. John k

    Interesting topic. My fuzzy thinking is
    First, you must have the right allegiances, so dems must be woker than thou, blame 2016 on Russia with great vigor, and totally share tds. This gets you started.
    Then, you must be loyal to your boss, unless the boss is betraying core principles, such as meeting reps in the middle (granted manchin/dinema get away with this, partly because the senate is so closely divided but also because dems don’t necessarily want to accomplish thing, they want to fail in the endless fight for what you want.
    Next, you must be seen to advance the real goals under first.
    Corruption is not just ok it is a stated requirement; pols must pledge to spend 4 hours/day declaring fealty to donors to get support and avoid outright oppo from the party.
    Nowhere is competence a requirement. I don’t see why at least some are competent by chance, but somehow leadership positions do seem to exclude it. Perhaps all of the above strips it away. My real thought is that corruption is the main driver.
    Why fight stupid wars? Donors make great profits, no matter the country is going down the toilet, slowly at first. Why not provide real material benefits? Donors wouldn’t want that even if it wouldn’t cost them a cent; the want what we see, crappy schools so their kids don’t face comp; a population of low power serfs because they want cheap labor plus makes them relatively higher and the pop easier to control; crappy infra except in their gated enclaves, etc.
    Reps are somewhat different because trump seems to think wars are dangerous. Smart or a good instinct in this case? Imo he’s dumb or poorly informed on who to hire in politics. I do remember how well he did vs his 18 opponents in 2016, and assume he will get the nom. But opposing wars gets him poor support from rep leaders, and may explain part of tds. Certainly he’s massively corrupt, but who isn’t in dc?
    So my final conclusion is nearly all in power are, as they were trained to be, massively corrupt; doing whatever donors tell you to do requires you smother any remaining competence.
    What we need is the rarity that fdr was, a competent traitor to his class and who somehow was smart enough to sufficiently conceal his true instincts. Granted, he probably wouldn’t have had the power he had to change if we weren’t in a depression and subsequently a world war. Just going off the gold standard was opposed by some in his cabinet, I think treasury sec, even tho Britain had itself gone off it the year before and I think their economy was already recovering.

  33. David in Friday Harbor

    I read with interest the Aurelien, Greer, and Baltar (ignoring his whiff of Incel dog-whistling) take-downs of the other day. Based on my decades as a government lawyer in Silicon Valley, Mowshowitz adds a great deal to the discussion. We are experiencing the same Scott Expedition/Titanic/Somme dumbing-down that was experienced as the British Empire entered collapse during the second decade of the 20th century.

    However, the evident irrationality of the Western Elites isn’t simply down to their well-documented cravenness and stupidity. There are also changes in the material conditions of life on earth that must be considered, led by the unprecedented world-historical event of 8 Billion human beings simultaneously living, breathing, consuming and excreting on our planet. Globalization and the end of scarcity of industrial labor clashes with the diminishing of natural resources and arable land. Another material factor that we must layer-on is that the decline of New Deal and Second World War taxation has elevated not-so-bright scions of inherited wealth and privilege such as Gavin Newsom, Donald Trump, Shrub (the little Bush), or Antony Blinken to positions of power far beyond their abilities.

    I also think that something is happening to peoples’ brains. Consuming television and the internet does not lend itself to the developmental milestones necessary for rational decision-making. From that we can also subtract the nicotine, amphetamine, and alcohol consumption that were common in the mid-20th century and which fueled human creativity.

    An interesting discussion, but our Western Elites are incapable of self-reflection or shame. They will continue with their virtue-signaling and power-seeking while the broad masses of humanity lose all quality of life — and eventually life itself.

    1. Jams O'Donnell

      And then there are all the pretty nasty chemicals we have been pumping into the environment since the discovery of DDT, micro-plastics, nuclear radiation from various sources etc. While the last of is possibly the most frightening, it is also possibly the least significant. But who knows what subtle effects the chemicals are having?

      Of course, that doesn’t explain the stupidity of the elites, as these things would affect us all equally.

  34. steelhead23

    basing signals on ridiculous beliefs might produce stronger social cohesion than basing signals on sensible or obvious beliefs. Accepting a conventional social order that is based on ridiculous beliefs probably requires a greater level of commitment.

    Agreed. Likely associated with release of adrenalin and serotonin associated with fervent belief, particularly in a lie. Insane might be a better descriptor than stupid.

  35. GlassHammer

    I am going to offer two simpler explanations as to why Western Elites are making poor choices when it comes to the War in Ukraine.

    A.) They believe War is good for getting elected.

    B.) They only have to manage the news cycle not the war itself.

    1. JBird4049

      They deny reality, often to where they do not believe in its existence, which still has the ultimate agency over our lives no matter what is said by anyone. I am starting to believe that it is a kind of mass mental illness in the various elites in all areas of our society.

  36. Es sCetera

    We should be considering diminished executive function, I’m not sure why this isn’t on the table. Never attribute to malice, etc.

    In the corporate world I have noticed there’s a prevalence of those who speak before thinking, for whom being quick and speaking decisively and with authority is more important than good or logical decision making based on discovery, facts or information.

    I’ve had bosses who were so wildly out of the loop they contradicted and disputed real world events unfolding even as they happened and even as everyone else was experiencing them. Any time there’s a big event, in fact, it always seems like whoever my boss happens to be, they’ll dispute it. When 9/11 happened, for example, my boss of the time literally contradicted the shared reality of the entire office who were watching it unfold on TVs in the cafeterias. Or during the east coast blackout of 2003 which created a system outage which my boss at the time blamed on me, personally – the whole east coast power loss was my fault, even. Or even recently, at the start of the pandemic my then boss contradicted the whole team’s shared experience of empty shelves in the grocery stores, restaurants closing, called everyone a liar, alarmist.

  37. ChrisPacific

    The comments about the performative value of rituals for social cohesion made me think of Reformation-era England. Officially it was all about theology and belief – Catholic versus Protestant – and was couched in those terms. Unofficially it was about demonstrating whose side you were on.

    Theologically this made no sense. The differences between Catholicism and Protestantism were not that major, the two agreed on far more details than they disagreed on, and most of the points of disagreement were not verifiable anyway. The two could quite happily have coexisted, and do just that in many societies today. What happened was that it became politicised. Advocating Catholic or Protestant doctrine was code for declaring allegiance to the Pope or the King respectively. Your sincere beliefs had nothing to do with the matter, and in fact could very easily get you killed if you weren’t careful.

    Eventually it becomes a non-negotiable condition of belonging. You couldn’t be a loyal subject of the King and also a Catholic. Matt Taibbi was cast out from the fold after refusing to go along with the Russian interference theory, and the fact that he was ultimately proven right did not forgive his sin but compounded it. In a less ‘civilized’ time he would doubtless have found himself burned at the stake somewhere.

  38. Hepativore

    Another thing to consider, is that many of these elites in politics and finance are part of a tight-knit network of defacto aristocrats and almost form a sort of unofficial “peerage” of various lords and nobles without having inherited titles.

    Most of them went to Ivy League schools, and were recommended to or given positions in government or corporations by various family members, friends, or acquaintances, and they generally look out for each other as a matter of professional courtesy/class loyalty. All of the above have shaped the mindsets and worldviews of our elites and so has encouraged a sort of psychological/philosophical uniformity in terms of the opinions that they hold. Plus, it would be a grave taboo if anybody in that social circle broke ranks and bit the hands that groomed them for their social and financial positions, so it rarely happens.

    Our aristocrats also do not care about what the populace thinks or does, so they ignore us as they think they are invincible thanks to the fact that they also control the MIC and would not hesitate to set it on the citizenry in the event of an insurrection.

    Decades of enforcing class loyalty and aristocratic group think has caused our elites to become insular and oblivious to the daily lives or hardships of the people that they rule over, as they are personally unaffected by any of it outside of their aristocratic bubble. Anybody who is an “outsider” who is sent to try and reform this deeply entrenched and corrupt ruling elite is either pushed out for their dared insolence or cracks under pressure and joins the ruling elite.

    The former has happened with people trying to push the Democratic Party leftward, and you can see the latter that happened with AOC and the Squad.

  39. The Rev Kev

    Maybe a factor to consider is what happens when you have some people that grow up in an elite cohort that have never had somebody say ‘no’ to them before have that happen to them. Biden was so powerful that he campaigned for a Republican against a Democrat – for which he got $200,000 – but nobody stopped him. And he was never called out over Tara Reide nor all his other corruption. But now the Russians and the Chinese and other nations like Iran and even Niger are telling him ‘no’ and he can’t handle it, especially in his old age. It’s like over spoilt children grown into adulthood who finally smack into real world boundaries. Another example is Ursula vo der Leyen who has failed badly in each step of her corrupt career but who nonetheless keeps on getting promoted to the next level. Probably she will become the next UN Secretary General. All those elite protections keep her safe and secure, no matter how much damage she is doing. And look at the level of protection that Biden is getting from the elite and the media. They will literally risk the entire country and its Constitution to keep him safe, consequences be damned.

      1. cosmicretin

        Good. That should well and truly fix it, if the German military and the EU are anything to go by.

  40. Korual

    In the minds of the Performative Managerial Class, the Special Military Operation is not taking place. They are in a simulacrum of a WW3 LARP. All the consumers of the MSM are invited. Hopefully the simulacrum of a reenactment of the Third Reich in the minds of the ultra nationalists will collapse before the WW3 simulacrum goes nuclear.

  41. Jeremy Grimm

    “This intra-elite-signaling dynamic is admittedly speculative and theoretical. To the extent it exists, it isn’t the only factor making leadership in western countries dysfunctional.”
    I can agree with that conclusion. The intra-elite-signaling dynamic explains some of the ways and reasons that bizarre policies are not questioned. There are harsh penalties for those who openly question the orders they receive from their chain of command — no matter how dangerous those orders are to the organization or its subordinates. The “Charge of the Light Brigade” is glorified. Captain Queeg’s crew is court-martialed. Corporate Cartels and Government Bureaucracies practice measures for maintaining their command hierarchy little different in kind from those practiced by military organizations. Without intra-elite-signaling to enforce commands there are quite adequate punishments to enforce commands and remove those who question or fail to execute those commands. There are also considerable means for punishing subordinates for failures that should rightly be attributed to the flawed commands that lead to failure. The commander can remain aloof from much of the damage and failure. Subordinates failed in their duties. But after certain failures, certain defeats even the commander could risk demotion or the sack. I doubt Queeg would be given command of a ship after the mutiny. He would be promoted to a window office somewhere Stateside at an inclement inland post.

    But I remain unsure about the origins of some of the bizarre policies commanded by the Elites. I cannot credit mere stupidity and incompetence as sufficient to explain policies like forcing an unwinnable war with a major supplier of resources and products your Empire is crucially dependent upon. And then while the first war is ongoing, working to start a second war with another major supplier of resources and products your Empire is crucially dependent upon. The war propaganda followed after the decisions. It may help enforce commands but it did not originate the decisions. I am also niggled by wondering whether some bizarre, stupid, or incompetent policies are indeed so bizarre, stupid, or incompetent as they appear on their surface. I wonder whether the intentions and motives stated by the leaders expressing Elite decisions reflect the intentions and motives behind the decisions of our Elites. The Elite views on the Common Good tend to view their Common Good as the only Common Good that matters. And the Elites’ Common Good can easily demand and tolerate inflicting considerable loss, suffering, and misery upon the Populace. Some of those seemingly bizarre, stupid, or incompetent policies may greatly profit some factions of the Elites.

    “…western leadership is failing spectacularly on all the important issues of our day, from Covid to Ukraine to providing concrete material benefits for the populace. … western leaders appear so oblivious to facts, logic, and competence, despite being relatively smart and well-educated.”
    Perhaps western leadership was deliberately selected because of its willingness to conduct the important issues of the day following the dictates of the Elites who selected them. Present day Elites seem little concerned with “providing concrete material benefits for the populace”. Why would the leaders the Elites choose or the policies they have decided upon be concerned with “providing concrete material benefits for the populace”? The CDC has become an instrument of policy, not a protector of the people or a source of disease control with the intention of minimizing human costs. The CDC leadership was chosen for its ability to lie convincingly either through skill and motivated by the enticements of riches or as a consequence of feckless confusion about what is true.

    1. Hepativore

      One thing I do not understand is why American elites are so eager to get involved in conflicts with nuclear-armed nations like Russia and China, when as selfish as as they are, you would think that basic self-preservation instincts would make them want to avoid mutual nuclear annihilation.

      In the case of China, why would our corporate lords want to attack their own offshore industrial base that they all depend on? Even our very military vehicles and equipment are dependent on Chinese hardware. As it would take decades for the US to rebuild its own domestic manufacturing infrastructure, it would seem that any hostility towards China would just cause them to cut off our shipment of finished goods and our source of rare Earth metals.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        You are asking what accounts for the irrational choices our Elites have been making. That is not answered in my pastiche of a theory nor is it explained — I believe — in the theories of this post. Where do the irrational choices originate?

        I hesitate to assume malice or stupidity or incompetence as explanation for the irrationality of the choices of our leaders — although our leaders suffer no lack of malice, stupidity, or incompetence. I regard the leaders as puppets pulled many ways by contending factions of Elite with each faction pursuing their goals without regard for consistency with the goals and actions of the other Elite factions they contend with. The Empire is plagued by too many factions with shifting relative power over policy and no one faction holding power enough to constrain the others from their goals.

        Why are American elites so eager to get involved in conflicts with nuclear-armed nations?
        I believe only some factions of the Imperial Elites are ready to trifle with nuclear risks. The Neocon factions do not hold the risks in the same regard as other Elite factions. They are anxious to hold power above other concerns and they care for the profits feeding the MIC. The Neocon factions are more willing to take the risks of war because of the many avenues war opens for consolidating their power. DoD budgets soar upon the wings of war. Win or lose the MIC hopes to win from the increased spending on weapons. I believe our Corporate Elites are not anxious to attack their own offshore industrial base, but they are weaker in the present than the Neocon factions. They are also conflicted. They do not want to damage their industrial base, but they are sore tempted by the opportunities to raise prices and profits as the goods they control become scarce. War also empowers the Empire to exert ever greater control over the Populace, and rid the Populace of purveyors of dissent. I believe our Elite factions are gambling that they can control their wars and win or lose resume economic relations with both chosen enemies after the hostilities are over. There will be plenty of profits for all although there will also be some broken crockery. Only the Populace will lose. I am also still playing with the idea that Government Organizations and Corporate Cartels act as if they were autonomous entities, but driven by inhuman motivations.

        The Elite Esprit de Corps that you described in your comment at 7:07 pm greatly facilitates Elite ability to consolidate in forming Elite factions and inures them to harms they may cause the Populace. But the Imperial Elite aristocracy congeals into jealous factions whose interests conflict and no one faction is supreme. The amorphous shape of insanity can seem like a conflict of many demons wrestling for control over a person. Similar conflict between Elite factions may explain the insanity of the Empire’s actions. What is changed is the number of factions and a rise of their conflicts. Also the time span for measuring gains has collapsed for many factions, adding a level of insanity of its own and leading to further conflict between factions that measure gains over different time scales.

      2. Jams O'Donnell

        You would need a real psychologist to explain that properly, but my explanation would be that these people are in the main both stupid (or at least ignorant) and selfish. In the case you describe, the stupidity wins out – patriotism is a quality that is more easily swallowed by the ignorant and/or stupid, and the stupid application of patriotism gives the reality we have. The ‘Country’ as opposed to the ‘people’ is raised to the status of a fetish. After all the elites are human too (just), and are just as, or even more, prone to irrational behaviour. They probably also can’t believe that Russia and China can really be superior to them in any way. It’s another denial of reality as described in the article and many comments above.

        (If any patriots are reading this, I’m not saying that patriotism can’t be a good thing up to a point, if intelligently applied).

        1. JBird4049

          >>>(If any patriots are reading this, I’m not saying that patriotism can’t be a good thing up to a point, if intelligently applied).

          Hey, no worries. I am one of those very strongly patriotic, but like much else, being patriotic or even nationalistic is more about virtue signaling that a belief. The putatively patriotic often demand unreasonable, unstinting support of whatever criminality that the government, not the nation, is doing. Jingoism of the most depraved is acceptable, not criticism of any kind, while being an American nationalist is conflated, often very deliberately, with White Nationalism of the Ku Klux Klan variety by others.

          It is another example of the dumbing down, often deliberately so, of beliefs for political gain.

          1. Hepativore

            I think that people should have a practical view of “patriotism”. You may not have had a choice in what country you were born in, but whatever country you live in, you should at least try to make it a nice place to live and take pride in your surroundings…sort of like the outgrowth of civic-mindedness.

            If you and your cohorts live in a slum, then there should be some motivation to try and clean up any surrounding trash/garbage, repair or demolish and clear away condemned buildings and try and improve things in any way that you can even if but for purely selfish reasons so you do not have to have the place you live in be a slum anymore.

  42. Kouros

    In Roman armies, especially before the reforms instituted by Marius, promotion not always was based on merit. And in periods without too much fighting, or without serious enemies, the competence up diminished. Shake ups happened only during crises.

    Same with the British Army, which has a stellar repute in this aspect. Having its ass handed to it until reforms are made. Not the Navy though.

    So yes, idiots end up being promoted because of the class structure.

    A former colleague, who used to work in the Home Office – Statistics, told me quite a few stories when he had to rub sholders with tofs destined for ever promotions, and their capabilities. Mind you, my former colleague had a PhD in extra planetary climatology…

    1. Jams O'Donnell

      Which reminds me of another book worth reading in this context. ‘The Psychology of Military Incompetence’ by Norman F Dixon. Full of wonderful, hilarious and tragic examples of how militarism affects people, and how people affect the military. The truly awful story of the British Army’s advance to Kut in WW1 will never leave me. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in how stupidity advances itself.

  43. Retired Carpenter

    Excellent comments all. But I keep wondering how “Epstein” (who killed himself in a wonderfully discreet manner, and whose ‘suicide’ was certified by all kinds of ‘honorables’) fits into the analysis.
    ’tis a puzzlement.
    Retired Carpenter

  44. Skip Intr0

    I believe CJ Hopkins made the point that good propaganda lines would work better if they were somehow demonstrably false, as espousing them would provide a better proof of loyalty.

  45. Andrew

    Did anyone else mention that the “incompetents” are in almost total control of the media and the flow of information? All that matters is access to media.

    Once they (or their stooges) have the microphone they can spout any lies they choose and actual results don’t matter. Success for them boils down to how good they are at arm wrestling for the microphone.

    They only get challenged on the efficacy of their lies. They are not accountable for any real life results.

  46. Smelly Unemployed Person

    When I look at the elites I don’t see them as incompetent but highly competent at looking after themslves and their class and damn what us deplorables think. We no longer live in democracies, we live in plutocracies or even better kleptocracies.

    Democracy is Dead.

  47. MFB

    I would say lack of accountability is central to the entire problem. However, why is it that the Chinese communist party, where accountability doesn’t seem to be built into the system (at least for the very top people) functions better than parties in NATO countries?

    1. Daniil Adamov

      Perhaps the essential component is appreciation of the consequences of failure. The Chinese might be less complacent, since their elite is of newer make and has an example of party-state collapse right next door. Elites might not need to fear any social mechanism of accountability when they appreciate the fact that reality can hold them to account.

  48. Gregory Etchason

    Strauss and Howe relate 4th Turnings are characterized by irrational and incompetent leadership.
    Bad ideas and bad decisions bring on the final generational chapter. We also select workers more on compliance than on critical thinking skills. The so-called experts are so compromised by ideological grift that incapacity overwhelms decision making.

  49. JW

    ‘Since bad people always lose and good people always win, the way to win is to define yourself as a good person rather than making rational decisions or ensuring that you have the material necessities for success.’

    This explains why many people look at the Ukraine conflict as a MORAL issue rather than a POLITICAL one. Ukraine is presented as ‘THE VICTIM’. It becomes CLUNK-CLICK politics. A clear oppressor and a clear victim. Goodies and baddies shape the narrative ….and the ‘goodies’ must win because the good always do….

    In reality we have two imperialisms here. Ukraine IS a victim of imperialism (much qualified – ‘it’ is no innocent). At the same time the USA is using Ukraine to attack, weaken and ‘contain’ Russia AND IS THE PERPETRATOR OF A FAR GREATER IMPERALISM, in order to maintain its position as the lead hegemon in the world. It has therefore lost leave of its senses and forced its two biggest opponents into an alliance and is likely to lose as a result. Relying on moralism rather than hard reality is almost always fatal. The Road to hell IS paved with good intentions.
    A study of President Putins statements on Ukraine over the last two decades provided ample opportunity for dipomacy and compromise. He did not want war. But US hawks led by Biden helped build the Ukraine crisis as a battering ram against Russia. We will all pay for it – but not as much as Ukraine or as much as its President, who has been inordinantly foolish, will.

  50. S Haust

    There was a precedent. The Bourbon aristocracy from the 1780s to 1793
    became stupider and more detached as time passed. But we know what
    happened to them.
    We need an update. Let’s just call our lot a Cold Duck aristocracy and
    mete out the same consequence. It’s richly deserved.

  51. Bluebird

    Thank you for posting this. It helps explain how seemingly intelligent people can claim to believe that men can become women if they say they are, and should be able to invade women’s bathrooms, locker rooms, prisons, and sports. I lump theses people with climate-change deniers and anti-vaxers. Two sides of the same coin.

    Women with boundaries, who object, are vilified. Members of my own family have done this to me, merely for saying that men are free to appear and act as they wish, and they’re not women. I feel like I’m living in the twilight zone. This piece helps me better understand what people gain by making these claims. They’re signaling their adherence to the Democratic Party and their antipathy to Republicans, Trump, everyone they despise.

    The planet and humanity face urgent issues, yet so many have latched onto this one. It feels like swatting at flies while the wildfire rages toward us, but as a woman, this issue really fries me, so to speak.

  52. chris

    One element that may be missing in this discussion is that two things can be true at the same time when it comes to our elites. They can be idiots and completely ignorant of the things in life that matter to many people. They can also be absolute geniuses when it comes to one thing, and if that one thing makes you enough money, you can pay for people to help you with everything else. I feel like this is an evolution from the earlier robber barons and industry magnates like Ford or Carnegie. You had to know a lot about everything to run those businesses. But now? With tech the way it is? I think you can get by on frighteningly little awareness or knowledge beyond how to use software to cheat. It feels like all of our defenses have been ground down too. There is no shame anymore. Certainly not if the accusation comes from someone of a lower class. Seems like a lot of that is what is creating a situation where the fools are wealthy and the lower classes who are more worldly have no choices.

  53. JustTheFacts

    This post and Gaius’ are not, to my eyes, contradictory.

    When Gaius speaks of the “competent” reaching the top, he means the people who are able to do physics, math, war planning, compose music, plumbing, etc. Doing this well requires incredible self-honesty, seeing what worked, what didn’t, and testing one’s competence against reality.

    The “competent” in this post are those who reach the top by signalling their loyalty and their willingness to demonstrate their belief in the cause so much as to go against reality. When a Supreme Court Judge says she does not know how to define what a woman is, it’s not because she doesn’t, but because saying she doesn’t is required for her to fit in and go up the ranks. This requires one to lie believably, and understand the social dynamics and contortions required to climb up the social ladder.

    It is very hard for the same person to be both radically honest, and a perfect liar since to lie convincingly most people need to believe the lie. The pain of cognitive dissonance prevents most of us from flipping easily between the two modes of being. And to excel, one needs to devote a lot of time to something (either socially climbing or testing reality). Thus the two types of people are very distinct. Those who are competent at social maneuvering really can push out those who are competent at reality. That’s why old boys networks exist. That’s why the Covid dissenters who predicted Covid’s evolution and source correctly mostly work independently. That’s how the Cultural Revolution in China unfolded. And it’s why freedom is being shrunk in the West: those who conform voluntarily don’t see why it is valuable, those who care about reality know that it is essential to receiving feedback from it that improves their competence.

    Every so often reality hits back. Wars, civilizational collapse, human caused famines or plagues, and economic collapse are all forms of reality hitting back. If the event is damaging enough, it leads to a change of leadership. The competent at reality take over, and rebuild. Over time, the socially competent infest the institutions they built, until another war occurs. One can see a microcosm of this in startups. The first people are really competent at their tasks. Then “adult supervision” is introduced. The competent leave. The company slowly dies. The same happens in open source software projects.

    Russia is early in this cycle. The crash of the USSR was not that long ago, and the looting of its industry under Yeltsin was the last hoorah of the socially competent. Putin got rid of most of them and returned power to the reality-competent. The fact Russia has increased its armament production 12 fold in 1 year, increasing military production to 2/3 of the GDP is astounding. They have reality-competent people to do this. And they care about education, providing free university to anyone in the entire country who gets top marks at highschool. Compare that to the US, where race or parents’ income seem more relevant than merit to university admission. If/When the truly competent European, Chinese and Indian immigrants leave the US for less troubled shores, the US will be in deep trouble. I don’t think that is well understood.

    1. Daniil Adamov

      While I somewhat agree with this line of thinking (and have myself benefitted from free university according to the scheme in the last paragraph), I’d like to add some qualifiers. I think the two forms of competence are not entirely incompatible. Some people are both socially and practically competent. Also, socially competent people, if also smart (not always the case) and not convinced of own invincibility (more likely in more complacent systems), are likelier to keep around practically competent “specialists”. I’d say both groups always coexist in a society. The question is that of how the practically competent are treated.

      Personally I have little doubt that Russia today is ran primarily by the socially competent. Rising to the top in the turbulent 90s, whether as an oligarch or a bureaucrat, required skills at intrigue more than anything else, although some practical competence was useful as well. The winners of the 90s are still in charge today – if that was the last hurrah, it still hasn’t ended, although it is true that the most egregious intriguers have been removed or curbed. Advancement requires finding allies in the existing system. Thus, the elite still very much selects for social competence today, whether it wants to or not. With the right friends, you can afford to screw up… although there are limits to this tolerance. The difference is that our current rulers are much less complacent than those in the West today or in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. They are much more aware of the possibility of collapse (in fact, I suspect they overestimate it and overcorrect accordingly, for instance by suppressing the largely toothless opposition). Thus, they pay relatively more attention to practical competence and other considerations extraneous to pure political intrigue – especially since the SMO began.

      1. JustTheFacts

        Thank you, Daniil! That’s interesting, particularly the correction about Russia!

        Both groups exist in society, so they do coexist. To me the question is whether they can exist in a single person, particularly in experts at either form of competence. Personally, I would find it impossible to maintain my practical skills while lying about what I can do simply because a socially competent person demands it. I’ve experienced this — marketing people trying to force me to claim impossible things about my research, in order to “sell it”. People have more or less good social graces, but at the end of the day, in my experience, even the best researchers I know just go silent and tune out when the demands of the practically incompetent become too ridiculous. I have yet to meet someone who can spout ideologically pure nonsense convincingly and still do good research, but that might be my limited life experience. The only counter-example that comes to my mind is O’Brien of 1984, but I presume there might be examples from World War 2 Germany or from the Soviet Union. I kind of wonder whether this ability would correlate with psychopathy and its aspect of insincere charm.

        The other question is who has more power at any particular point in time. It seems to me that when life and death hangs in the balance, the practically competent matter more. It seems what you say about the SMO confirms that, but Putin did not clear the decks of the socially competent but practically incompetent as much as I had thought. He does seem to be someone who avoids going for the jugular.

        1. Daniil Adamov

          No question that it’s a rare combination. Soviet and Russian universities always had and still have a strong distinction between people who are good at intrigue (ideological manipulation, external connections, office politics, etc.) and people who are good at actual research. Some do tap into the other kind of competence as well, but the majority clearly fall on one side or the other. I think science may be an extreme example, though, since practical competence there is especially reliant on truth and comparatively separate from social competence.

          Effective administration and military affairs require some social competence to begin with, so people would have to combine both in those fields. Kutuzov, of 1812 fame, is one example of someone who combined actual military competence with political skills. In WW2 Germany, Rommel comes to mind. Both were decent enough at “playing along” with the social games while still retaining competence in their practical fields. In the Soviet Union, Brezhnev is chiefly known as an intriguer but appears to have had a fairly realistic understanding of the country’s situation. It’s just that he found it hard to do much about it, since he was only first among equals and badly outnumbered. Even so, he managed to block some of his colleagues’ more foolish initiatives and helped the rural population in several ways. More such examples on lower levels could be found for the Soviet Union – basically anyone who really got anything major done needed both practical competence and at least some ability to deal with the party. Chinese history seems to produce such people too, from time to time.

  54. Daniil Adamov

    This discussion reminds me of Ray Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance, in which he discusses the slow decline of the Ming dynasty and its Confucian bureaucratic apparatus. A recurring point there is that the officials instinctively turned “technical problems” into “moral issues”. In other words, the complex real world problems of corruption, taxation, logistics, or foreign relations were converted into idealised scenarios that had ready-made answers within Confucian ideology, whether those answers really worked or not. Confucian scholar-officials were very good at doing those conversions and finding the correct answers, as well as at advancing the specific framing and answers that suited their individual or factional interests. They were good at intrigue. Sometimes real problems grew too major and competent outsiders, like generals or engineers (themselves scholar-officials but of a somewhat different bent and lower standing), had to be brought in to solve them. Once they solved immediate issues, they were discarded at the earliest opportunity. Long-term solutions could not be considered due to the difficulty of forming a political consensus in conditions of perpetual moralistic intrigue. (In fairness, the treasury also had limited resources… because taxation in many provinces has not been updated since the dynasty’s foundation, and trying to reform it would have stirred up peasants and local officials alike, with the latter reaching out to their friends in the capital who could then furnish arguments about how morally wrong it was.)

    That, at any rate, is the picture Ray Huang paints, and it seems to accord with other things I read about imperial China. It’s worth noting that this system lasted for decades even in this decayed state – right until someone strong enough, namely the Manchurians, stepped up to knock it over. Then it collapsed spectacularly, of course.

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