More on the Collapse of Operational Capabilities in the West: How Did We Get Here

Today’s topic is far too sprawling to address well in a single post; one can imagine future historians, assuming there’s enough societal surplus to support serious academic inquiry then, will likely debate this and other issues related to the decline of US/Western hegemony. But it seems that there’s been enough additional decline from the already deteriorating baseline of operational (or alternatively, managerial) capabilities in most advanced economies to spur more and more commentators to write about it. Aurelien has been describing this problem in passing but roused himself to write his stylish Reality Would Like a Word. John Michael Greer had a go at the question of why elites today seemed incapable of doing anything useful in a crisis (aside from grifting, which is personally useful) in Storm Trooper Syndrome.

This same week, Andrei Martyanov, who has an extensive, extremely well-documented description and analysis of the decline of the US military across several highly regarded books, warned that the pathology was getting worse. From his When I Talk About…:

… inability to plan operationally and strategically on the part of Washington in general and Pentagon in particular, I do not mean it as a figure of speech. I really mean it in terms of actual planning. Six years ago I called the lack of this ability “the myopia”.

The definition must be changed. With myopia one at least can see near oneself. This IS NOT the case with Washington–it cannot see what is immediately in a front of its eyes and the issue is not myopia but what some people, yours truly included, begin to increasingly assertively state–there is NO strategic planning in Washington at all. It is not just the inability to strategically plan, it is a complete absence of such in principle.

It is a systemic problem and it cannot be addressed without rebuilding the system from the ground up and the good first step would be throwing out all those Ph.Ds in “strategy” who infest US “academe” and think-tankdom while having no fucking clue about what they preach. Studying military and political history in and of itself does not represent “strategic studies” due to inherently complex nature of modern warfare and a required accuracy in description of the object of study, such as a country, in our particular case–Russia. The US in general, and combined West in particular, DO NOT have the tool kit to handle all that, we can say it now with confidence. So, the issue is multifaceted and pseudo-academe and “experts” who dominate decision-making chain in the US are incapable of correcting the course. It is too late now anyway.

And that is my point, the US is so deep in lies, about itself, about the world, about history, about military et al, that I don’t see how can one reasonably debate those people, those masters of discourse who pretend that learning several stratagems and abstract “strategic” constructs makes them masters of “strategy”…. So, I can sit here and produce one example after another for days, but that’s not the point. The point is–US “strategic planning” is non-existent category and anyone who pushes the idea that it exists today should be disqualified as a scholar, since doctrine and strategy-mongering is not strategic planning, especially when done by people who are lost in the complexities of the modern world.

The existence of people here and there who do understand this fallacy does not change the issue that the problem is systemic and cannot be addressed from within–the critical mass of thinkers with integrity and intellectual tool kit are simply not there. And even the US military is losing remaining ability extremely fast–not surprising considering a catastrophe in military education.

In other words, various commentators with very different backgrounds are seeing the same disease in different realms: all of us in top level governance, but also in our particular fields: Aurelien in the civil service and caliber of UK/EU decision-making; Martyanov in the military; yours truly in banking/finance and more general corporate management.

The first time I came across this syndrome, I didn’t even recognize what I was seeing. It was in the 2015 Greece bailout negotiations, where we documented at some length that if Greece were to exit the Eurozone, a popular idea in some circles back then it would take war-level mobilization. And even then, it would be inconceivable to get the needed coding for payment systems in and outside Greece to handle a new currency in anything less than three years, and more likely five plus. Mind you, this was not just a matter of the depth and skill of coders working with Greek banks; it would take investment and cooperation by a very large number of parties all over the world, many of whom would not share Greece’s sense of urgency.

We got a stunning amount of pushback, much of it angry. A bit came from people who worked in software at much smaller, non-banking companies and had no appreciation of how the huge transaction volumes banks run every day meant that a difference in degree from their environment was also a difference in kind.

No, most of it was a reflexive, knee-jerk “It can’t possibly be hard. You must be a pro-Troika stooge to be saying the plucky Greeks are stuck in the Eurozone roach hotel.”

At first I thought this was due to something Mark Ames had pointed out long ago, that the left had given up on thinking about finance, and anyone who spoke with knowledge of that realm was automatically suspect. But a banking expert, Clive, described around that time that managerialism was rampant in the UK, and it took the form of dismissing anyone who pointed out that some cocakmamie new scheme would be hard and/or costly would be told they were not clever enough. The result was often hiring snake-oil consultants who coddled management’s ego and inevitably made things worse.

Then there was Brexit. The short version was it was rife with delusional thinking on the UK side, to the degree that EU pols and commentators drily called it cakeism, as in wanting to have your cake and eat it too. And it didn’t end when the deal was done. Even with the EU giving the UK lots of accommodations, the government did an utterly shambolic job of even recognizing, let alone managing, all the new tasks required by hard borders with the EU.

Aurelien, Greer, and Martyanov place a lot of emphasis on lousy acculturation, as in children and then adults in important positions being protected from the consequences of bad actions like plagiarism, as well as in general being poorly educated compared to say 50 years ago.

While these issues are certainly entrenching this bad situation, IMHO the roots go way bock. Some linked causes (this list obviously is not exhaustive but these factors are important).

The undermining of public education as part of the attack on unions. The various teachers’ unions were among the most powerful and cohesive. The conservative press demonized them regularly. One can concede that the unions should have been required to do more internal policing of lousy or lazy teachers if they were to keep their vaunted tenure. The result has been a decline in the status and relative pay of teachers, which has in turn made the profession less attractive to clever people (trust me, I’ve seen a fair bit in the way of studies saying that teacher pay and standing are strongly correlated with test performance and other measure of learning in many countries)

The weird shift in parenting to give undue importance to esteem, which also undermined education. My impression is that it was in the 1980s that elite and even middle class parents started treating their kids’ precious egos as important. This also came along with the increase of helicopter parenting, children not being allowed much in the way of free play time, and even children no longer being allowed to walk home despite American suburbs being generally very safe (and sexual assault coming mainly from family members and others with existing relationships to the child).

One of the terrible consequences was the loss of teacher control over the classroom. Parents increasingly felt and acted as if they could second-guess teachers, and most schools and school boards backed the parents (I cannot find the article but even a mid 1990s piece in Forbes on the topic of why schools cost so much and weren’t performing attributed it significantly to adminsiphere bloat, as in a higher proportion of budgets going to non-teaching. That also served to reduce the standing of teachers within many systems). The idea that parents could complain about a pupil being put in detention or sent home for misconduct, or would attempt to renegotiate grades was simply unheard of in my day. Parents would nearly always side with the school and might impose additional disciplinary measures of their own, like a cut in allowance until grades improved.

The rise of the symbol economy. In the very early 1980s, management guru Peter Drucker lamented the rise of symbol economy, which using modern nomenclature would include finacialization, advertising, and the increasing importance of management consultants. Even though Drucker had celebrated the rise of managers, his sighting of a proto-professional managerial class made him leery.

I graduated from business school in 1981, at the tail end of the US manufacturing era. Over 40% of my classmates were engineers, as in electrical or mechanical or chemical engineers, or guys who made sure things worked. Hardly any software engineers. Hardly any bankers or investment bankers. Perhaps another 15% to 20% who’d worked for manufacturing companies in other capacities, like sales or accounting.

The obvious needs to be said: in those environments, screw-up like not having enough raw materials on hand or botching scheduling, or accidents, could have a catastrophic impact on operations. So employees were attuned to the need to mind all sorts of nitty gritty details because they really did matter.

I went to Wall Street before the PC era. We did financial analysis on green ledger paper, finding data in copies of annual reports and entering it manually.

While it is correct to say that the adoption of the personal computer greatly reduced the amount of junior person donkey work, making the task cheaper also cheapened the task. Scriveners like me understood how financial statements worked and often had to dig into footnotes. The ones who came behind and grew up doing downloads from Compustat into pre-formatted spreadsheets had a much weaker grasp of corporate finance.

Much more important, making spreadsheeting vastly easier had perverse effects. When financial analysis was costly and time-consuming, bankers, investment bankers, and CFO thought hard about what analyses they would do because they could not run too many scenarios. That meant thinking hard in advance what mattered.

Making spreadsheeting cheap increasingly divorced the exercise from reality, most of all for consultants and deal-pushing M&A professionals. The spreadsheets increasingly became the deal, as in the focus of attention, as opposed to the businesses they represented. And anyone who has done financial forecasting and valuations knows you can make them tell pretty much any story you want to via the assumptions. They can look oh so reasonable but they only have to be all just a bit optimistic to produce wildly inflated results…which won’t be sanity-checked into a sounder version if a top dog really wants to do the deal.

And don’t get me started on PowerPoint. The fact that hired guns are allowed to use something that allows for only vague and incomplete presentations to be a widely-accepted end product is a testament to management incompetence. If you look at a slideshow months after the fact, you have only a sketchy record of what was said. And on top of that, the few words/few bullet points per page approach is awfully reminiscent of children’s books, except without the cute illustrations.

Due to the need to keep this post to a reasonable length, I’ll add one more issue:

The rise of smartphones and social media. The problem with both these advances is due to profit motives, both the devices themselves and major social media platforms have been designed to be seductive and foster dependence. It’s not hard to start on a litany of downsides, such less well socialized kids and now young adults, which means poorer negotiation skills, often aversion to dating, and encouragement of investing in online activities rather that the (generally) healthier pastime of seeing people in the flesh. I can’t prove it but it seems intuitive that less engagement in the messy world of real relationships reinforces potentially unhelpful fantasies (an obvious case is porn. Playboy bunnies were bad enough in creating unrealistic expectations of what women looked like. Confirming my priors, one study found that the average man watches 70 minutes of porn a week, and watching more porn is correlated with performance issues (not surprising given how unrealistic a lot of porn is).

On that titillating note, we’ll stop for now. But I hope readers will flag additional important factors in this sorry decline.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Palm & Needle

    On the point of education —

    Hermann and Chomsky describe their propaganda model in “Manufacturing Consent”: the shift to an advertisement funding model creates a systemic pressure for news media to hire and promote only those people who write and publish what the advertisers want to see/read/hear.

    I have worked in different universities in three different countries, and throughout my adult life I have had extensive contact with academics from different fields and different countries. A similar process to the propaganda model exists in Western academia: private funding through donations creates a systemic pressure for academic institutions to hire and promote only those people who research and publish what the funding institutions want to see. A great example of this is how the Ford Foundation, among others, pushed hard to get the neoliberalism of Friedman et al to dominate the field of economics.

    Maybe you can also add this one to the pile of causes.

    1. Phichibe

      Don’t forget the Sverige Reichsbank, ie the Swedish Central Bank, which created the ‘Nobel Memorial Prize in Honor of Alfred Nobel’ or whatever nonsense they called the Economics prize. With a few exceptions like Kenneth Arrow, Gunnar Myrdal (who didn’t work in economics but whatever), and Wassily Leontieff, the first 25 years of these went to Chicago School economists, even if they weren’t a Chicago. It took a revolt by the Karolinska Institute and the Nobel family before Amartya Sen and some other laureates were able to steer it away from the hard right. Even now I think it does way more damage than good. Abolish it.


      1. ex-PFC Chuck

        Don’t forget The Mount Perelin Society, founded shortly after World War II by Frederick Hayek, Ludvig von Mises and Henry Simmons, the last Milton Friedman’s predecessor and mentor as head cheese of Chicago’s Economics Department. One of its core missions is connecting fat wallets with “right-thinking” individual economists and Economics departments.
        See Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, by Nancy MacLean

        1. Dick Swenson


          Read Globalists by Quinn Slobodian to learn in terrifying detail the behaviour of Hayek and Mises during the 30s to 60s. Frustrated Austrians.

          As for the non-existent “Nobel Prize in econ” it is all advertising gimmickry using a brand name irresponsibly. Same for AI.

          We are an advertising culture now.

      2. paul

        I was always amazed that when ‘leftist economist’ paul krugman,who was forever introduced on westminster tv as a nobel laureate, that he,as an earnest academic, did not not actively distinguish the gold wrapped, chocolate nobel he was gifted, from the one, rather more serious, founded by mr dynamite….

        …but then he’s all, ‘shucks what do i know, I’m only a nobel price winner’ when his rather pedestrian (totally)neo keynesianist opinion is questioned.

        The ‘not like you,loser’ is less than tacit with this one.

          1. eaglemount

            Dulce et Decorum Est
            BY WILFRED OWEN
            Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
            Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
            Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
            And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
            Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
            But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
            Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
            Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

            Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
            Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
            But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
            And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
            Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
            As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

            In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
            He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

            If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
            Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
            And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
            His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
            If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
            Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
            Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
            Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
            My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
            To children ardent for some desperate glory,
            The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
            Pro patria mori.

        1. TimD

          Wasn’t Krugman’s Nobel for research in how globalization and free trade could make the world more wonderful?

          1. Darthbobber

            Yes. He was instrumental in reintroducing Ricardian comparative doctrine into the economics mainstream.

    2. NoFreeWill

      I would add that a general shift to digital systems which make complex numerical manipulation easier and the rise of scientism in fields like economics etc. has resulted in an academic environment in which things like number of citations etc. are the measure of value, and not whether your research accurately reflects the real world phenomena you study. The scandal in psychology in which most papers were basically proven to be fake/junk science (while still having those nice >0.1 p values or whatever) is one example, the alzheimers research in which the main theory is completely wrong and has nothing to show after 20 years but still gets all the money (collusion behavior), the Stanford resignation recently another. All this manipulation is also easy to fake and the work of reproduction of results doesn’t get you tenure/acclaim so much of the verification is gone as well.

      This numbers-based/metrics-based thinking extends to everything from police arrest quotas to all the other bogus job performance systems, most of which are similarly easy to game or even if not, produce bad behavior that increases the metric but doesn’t solve the problem/do the thing you want done.

      Measuring “impact” is the equivalent in the non-profit space, an exercise in manipulating the stats to consider to make yourself look good, while excluding the stats that show your impact is zilch.

      Lies, damned lies, and statistics I guess proliferating all these things is greatly facilitated by the internet.

    3. William Verick

      This is certainly true of the Think Tank/School of International Affairs node of the Military Industrial Complex. The MIB is the patron and the think tanks and their feeder schools are the clients. This is a relationship of dependency. People in the think tanks want to be in government. They want to work for the State Department, the Pentagon or one of the intelligence agencies (or they want to be an aide to an important legislator like Anthony Blinken was to Biden for almost his entire career). The Think Tanks thus publish the articles with the ideological outlook that reigns in both U.S. political parties. The schools of international affairs (you can look them up simply be reading through the ads in Foreign Affairs) want to place their graduate students into the think tanks (or directly into lower levels of the bureaucracy). Which means they all harmonize around the same ideological tropes of neo-liberalism and American exceptionalism. As Bob Dylan would say: “They all play on the penny whistle;you can hear them blow; if you lean your head out far enough from Desolation Row.”

    4. Robert Gray

      Palm & Needle

      > On the point of education —

      > …the shift to an advertisement funding model creates a systemic pressure …

      This brings to mind something that is seen more and more (and more!) nowadays, viz., endowed chairs ‘naming rights’. The I-Me-Mine Flowerbox in the Edward & Eloise Egoiste Garden in the Joe Banana Conservatory in the Multi-Moolah Arboretum — where will it end? What’s next? The Warren E. Buffett University of Nebraska?

  2. Reply

    Rights, rights, rights.
    That was the parental screed in schools.
    Little Shnookums misbehave? Nah, musta been some other kid, or the teacher, or fill-in-blameshifting-blank.
    Escalate to attorneys in elementary school parent-teacher conferences. It gets worse in secondary. Ask your local district how much they spend on accommodations, defense and similar.
    So much of that is fear-driven reactivity and groupthink among echo-chamber parents. Do this or that, or be left behind. Shudder. Parents can rationalize quite a lot in that environment, and they do.

    And people wonder why there has been such a decline in trust of the education business, starting with why it is a business at all. Then they go to work and see how much non-productive time-sucking crapification there is at work, with too much CYA and not enough accountability.

    I’m in the Yves cohort that got to witness and participate in what seems now an idyllic era. My grandchildren will be growing up learning life skills, competence, awareness and what used to be called normal living. They’ll likely have their own businesses, gardens and sense of control

    1. Cat Burglar

      You’re right, but schooling in the past was no paradise.

      In 1960s and 70s California we had an excellent school system designed to route students into university, college, and junior college tiers for finishing. The parental ethos of the time — they had all grown up during depression and war — was solidly in favor of conformity to requirements in return for security. Schools taught a standard curriculum and rapidly sorted for seemingly innate talent, but did not consider education as culturing individual potential and building capability, whether that was in math or sports. Students were measured against standards; we rapidly learned to game them, since that was all that counted.

      That was how the previous system led to the present dispensation. My California public high school produced the Boeing CEO that took as his mission turning it from a company of engineers into a financial asset. The metric changed from producing airplanes into producing value for shareholders, and he knew what to do. The metric has changed for parents, too. The hazard we are facing is not only new, but is also continuous with the past.

      1. JBird4049

        But at least California had a nearly free, good, higher education tiered towards sorting the students into several different tracks for different degrees. Today, it is expensive, the sorting inefficient, and the quality of the education has declined.

        I admit the standards were, uhm pathetic, but they were not the nightmare of today’s standards or lack of. The first tests were straight forward, almost stupidly easy, and they were only a guarantee of very basic competence.

        As for Boeing’s CEO Dave Calhoun, the man got a degree in accounting. He is the type of management that has destroyed most of American business, education, and medicine. He is also a symptom of making money, even if it means stealing it, instead of running a business, school, hospital, even a church and getting well off as a by product.

        Really, part of American education’s problem is that actually teaching is not the goal, but the infliction of the latest fad, ideology, or harebrained idea of the moment often for profit. A friend constantly got angry of the latest three year Five-Year-Plan that gave consultants plenty of money, but the teachers and students nothing. None of this touches the school-to-prison pipeline in the poorer schools staffed with police officers; since the United States has a significant prisoner-slave workforce, I would posit that those schools purpose is to provide the bodies needed for the prison industrial complex.

        Extending this further, much of the West is still operationally capable, but in keeping up appearances while looting as much money as possible. Again, in the past the goal was to make money as a by product of being good at what ever your job or position was; today, the goal is to just pillage while appearing to do a good job by leaving enough of a façade in front of what was pillaged to hide it.

        1. Cat Burglar

          It was pretty good, the system Clark Kerr set up. But setting up schools on the model of industrial production meant that students were mainly just sorted, and education was not a priority (and so, teaching was not the goal). It is interesting that one of the issues of the Free Speech Movement, which started during Kerr’s tenure as head of UC Berkeley, addresses the very issue of depersonalized schooling. Still, it worked better than what we have now, I agree.

          My high school graduated not Calhoun, the administrator of present-day Boeing, but Phil Condit, the architect of Boeing’s decline.

        2. podcastkid

          I was scanning along, and landed on your comment, JBird4049. So many comments, it’s even hard to find it again. I’ll reply at today’s bottom-of-page.

        3. podcastkid

          Really, part of American education’s problem is that actually teaching is not the goal, but the infliction of the latest fad, ideology, or harebrained idea of the moment often for profit.

          The funny thing about this is that each of these fads comes with strict rules. I don’t think it’s admitted enough. In the US people expect Murphy’s Law to apply to everything, but the reason is a new silly rule has been made up that too often ruins a prior workable approach. The other camp is a smaller group of Dems who try to work with it. The very people who were supposed to know the most are ignorant re any tradition of dissenting scholars…in any field. Social media fosters dreams of being divergent, but offline it’s the opposite (a legalistic society). We’re still too mechanical (in the way Ellul described). We focus laser like on the new fads’ rules, just as we focus downward (beaten) laser like on the phones.

      2. William Verick

        My father was a teacher in an affluent Wisconsin public school system. He quit at 50 in 1979 (before the teachers unions were busted). He quit because of a new management paradigm that was implemented in the public schools. Administrators started demanding that teachers quantify what they’d done. Something didn’t exist unless metrics could be applied to evaluate and justify. I suspect this same paradigm was also being enshrined in business.

        To my father, this seemed like a bullshit waste of time. A good chunk of his week was spent preparing data for the administrators instead of actually teaching. Helping bureaucrats cover their asses and justify their existence, for him, made teaching not worth the candle.

        1. earthling

          And this situation has led countless men who were real teachers, who stood for something, and were role models for how to be an American citizen, to leave the school systems. Who remains? The meek, the martyrs, the compliant, the go-along-get-alongs. Each school captained by the most ambitious degree-piler-uppers.

          As far as the main article, lots of interesting concepts. I would have to add the rise of the semi-literate frat boy, who goes to a ‘good’ college and picks the easiest major, and slides through, completely untrained in problem solving and unready for challenges. Fully trained in social climbing and obtaining posts in government and business.

        2. Michael Fiorillo

          The corporate school reform campaigns initiated in the early aughts (and much loved by liberals at the time, if not still) were “data driven” by “disruptive innovators” (remember that one? good times…) who were financed by the likes of Bill Gates, Eli Broad and other familar names from the corporate bestiary.

          Needless to say, the metrics were based on managerial premises, and were always formulated by people who at best had maybe once had a cup of coffee in the classroom. It won’t surprise NC readers that those premises leaned heavily toward making the classroom teacher the sole focus of responsibility (while removing their authority), while outside the classroom the unions were under attack, public schools were being closed and replaced by charters. Gates Foundation-promulgated standards effectively destroyed what was left of the teaching of literature and writing, save the formulaic writing that got you past the “College Ready” gatekeeping exams which, as a big moneymaker, were thus a mandate for all. Of course, teachers and schools lived and died by those exams.

          It’s a post-literate era we live in (The Electronic Dark Ages, as foreseen by Lewis Mumford), as demonstrated by people’s lack of what was once condidered general knowledge, combined with an inability to reason.

  3. chuck roast

    Great pieces today. More NC classics. Reminds me of the three “A’s” I got in high school…alienation, angst and anxiety.

      1. TimH

        Just one good song from an underated album. Recommended to those who don’t care too much for the later PS stuff but liked S&G.

  4. The Rev Kev

    I really don’t know how to get out of our present situation because of the systems that are in place to continue the present situation as it is. As an example with the military, you could fire every officer above the rank of Colonel and do a clean sweep to get a better class of general officers. But all that would happen is that as the system is still in place, it would choose the next generation of generals on the same criteria that the late departed generals were selected for.

    1. chris

      We have to start young I think. The best idea I have to help is to give our kids opportunities to fail, and then give them support as they climb their way back up from failure. Too many are sheltered from failure. Too many are coddled and their problems are hidden. Too many understand that even the appearance of failure can be catastrophic. We need to give kids the opportunity to fail. Like riding a bike off a ramp thats too high. Like putting something together and watching it fall apart. Like trying to accomplish a school project and being told it wasn’t good enough. And then we need to reward them for fixing things and learning from that experience.

      There used to be options for kids to learn this. Not just in school, but in the Scouts, sports like football, boxing, working on cars, first jobs, etc. We need to give our kids these chances again.

      1. hk

        I think there is a complementary side to this: people should be given opportunities at redemption. People are not wrong to fear failure if the record of “failure” remains a scarlet letter with oversized consequences for their lives.

        In a sense, there is a bit of chicken and egg problem between this and credentialism. In a (somewhat caricatured, but perhaps not overly so) credentialist world, what matters is the Harvard degree (both figurative and, well, all too often literal). People in power are incapable of recognizing actual ability and accomplishments and confuse credentials for the real thing. Credentials, however, are not easily granted to those who seek it except for the privileged few: for most people, even those from fairly provileged bacground, access to the credentials can be denied for all manner of “failures” on the aspirants’ record.

        So we need a less credentialist world, where real accomplishments can be recognized and are duly rewarded accordingly for people to be less fearful of failures–especially if failures are prerequisites for them (which usually is the case.).

        1. chris

          I agree. The funny thing about being a credentialed expert is, it doesn’t mean you can’t be wrong. A license or a slew of well reviewed papers doesn’t mean you’re always right. You can have a PhD and still fail miserably. We need to not make that the end of things. Our children need to see it too.

          This probably means we need to change a lot of other things as well. For example, I’ve found that women are much more adverse to failing in their careers or in projects than men. That goes double for married women who are mothers. From mentoring and managing quite a few over the years, what I learned was, there was always a self-inflicted or socially-inflicted threat that if they screwed up they should just quit and be stay at home parents. For single mothers, it appeared to be even more torturous. There they were failing at the thing they weren’t allowed to fail at because it supported their family, but, if they were failing at it, why did they let it take them away from their family? Those experiences taught me I was fortunate to be a man and not even think about things like that when I was working.

          So in this world where we fix things and people aren’t obsessed with credentials and aren’t afraid to fail, we need to give people equal opportunity to fail and recover from failure. Otherwise we’ll just recreate the same kind of strait jacket over society we have now.

    1. Joe Well

      The bottom 99% need to stop thinking of themselves as living in a country or a society, and instead realize that they are in a life or death struggle with most of the remaining 1%.

  5. Glen

    Good post.

    I’ll throw in some observations:

    During the GFC it was noted by many here that while many banks and related industries were being bailed out, the people running the concerns being bailed out were not being fired. So today I’m still forced to look at many of the exact same “Masters of the Universe” that ran their banks into the ground in 2008 pontificating on CNBC, and they’re still running massive banks. Compare this to the Saving and Loan Crisis where many bankers went to jail. I’m sure that the more crooked and incompetent S&L bankers decided a career change would be a smart move.

    The same phenomenon seems to occur with America’s “leadership” class. Joe Biden had to drop out of his first Presidential run in 1988 because the MSM actually did it’s job (from Wikipedia):

    By August his campaign’s messaging had become confused due to staff rivalries,[140] and in September, he was accused of plagiarizing a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock.[141] Biden’s speech had similar lines about being the first person in his family to attend university. Biden had credited Kinnock with the formulation on previous occasions,[142][143] but did not on two occasions in late August.[144]: 230–232 [143] Kinnock himself was more forgiving; the two men met in 1988, forming an enduring friendship.[145]

    Earlier that year he had also used passages from a 1967 speech by Robert F. Kennedy (for which his aides took blame) and a short phrase from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address; two years earlier he had used a 1976 passage by Hubert Humphrey.[146] Biden responded that politicians often borrow from one another without giving credit, and that one of his rivals for the nomination, Jesse Jackson, had called him to point out that he (Jackson) had used the same material by Humphrey that Biden had used.[15][22]

    A few days later, an incident in law school in which Biden drew text from a Fordham Law Review article with inadequate citations was publicized.[22] He was required to repeat the course and passed with high marks.[147] At Biden’s request the Delaware Supreme Court’s Board of Professional Responsibility reviewed the incident and concluded that he had violated no rules.[148]

    Biden has made several false or exaggerated claims about his early life: that he had earned three degrees in college, that he attended law school on a full scholarship, that he had graduated in the top half of his class,[149][150] and that he had marched in the civil rights movement.[151] The limited amount of other news about the presidential race amplified these disclosures[152] and on September 23, 1987, Biden withdrew his candidacy, saying it had been overrun by “the exaggerated shadow” of his past mistakes.

    So how did a guy like that get multiple shots at running for President after that first campaign? But he’s not the exception, he’s actually now the norm. We see many examples of American leadership where people that have been flat out wrong about almost everything for decades are still in blathering away on the MSM. There has been much discussion about America’s broken “meritocracy”, but what is implied in a meritocracy, and has completely failed in America is that those leaders who have been massively wrong never seem to have to step aside and let others assume leadership roles. So we not only have companies that are Too Big To Fail, but we seem to have leaders that are what? Too Powerful To Fail?

    I’m sure I’m not the only one that has stared at a MSM talking head show interviewing one of America’s “leaders” and thinking “when is that person just going to retire rich and go away!” But no matter what the mechanism (and I’d be interested in discussion of what that could be), America’s “leaders” since about 2008 never seem to fail, instead we hear an endless litany of how the American people have failed our leaders.

    1. Phichibe

      To amplify your point on the Masters of the Universe post-GFC: the nadir for me was the GFC Investigative Panel that Pelosi put under the stewardship of Art Agnos, the former chair of the California Democratic Party and a man who owned dozens of car dealerships around southern California. The few hours that Lloyd Blankfein ‘testified’ was so utterly dispiriting: he was defiant, unapologetic, dishonest, and he got away with it partly because the Panel members were idiots but more because they were literally tools of the PMC that had gotten us into the crisis to begin with. Blankfein left Washington that day two feet taller than he arrived, but he was still a midget. Sigh.

      BTW, Blankfein said in 2020 that if the Democrats nominated Bernie he’d back Trump.

    2. XXYY

      So how did a guy like that get multiple shots at running for President after that first campaign?

      Just a minor correction. Biden did not “get a shot” at running for presidency, he was forcefully drafted by the media and Democratic elites. Recall that he was included in candidate polls long before he announced he was entering the race, and during the Iowa primary, virtually no one in the state wanted him to be elected.

      As with Hillary, his corpse was lassoed and dragged across the finish line by interested parties in the media and elsewhere despite what the populace thought or wanted.

  6. JonnyJames

    “…The result has been a decline in the status and relative pay of teachers, which has in turn made the profession less attractive to clever people…”

    I can personally attest to this (not that I am a clever person): After teaching and lecturing at a uni in Europe, where I was paid fairly with full benefits (pension, vacation pay, full medical etc.) I got used to being treated a certain way. While not utopia, faculty were able to override admin decisions and had real decision making power in the department.

    I returned to my native California where I interviewed for a position at a so-called public university: I was told I would be an “adjunct”, no benefits, no possibility of tenure. I would only be paid part-time even though I would be expected to mark hundreds of papers and exams that amounted to a full-time job.

    I politely, yet firmly, told the dept. chair that these conditions were simply unacceptable and one would have to be independently wealthy in order to afford to work under such conditions. He agreed with me but said that was the budget reality that he had to work with. I then left academia.

    In addition to treating teaching and research personnel like garbage, the UC “regents” approved massive tuition increases. Faculty and students led peaceful protests at UC Berkeley and other campuses in 2009. The police, clad in black riot gear, brutally beat up many and caused injuries that required ER visits. A couple of years later, at UC Davis, student protesters were sprayed in the face point-blank with pepper gas.

    1. jo6pac

      You can thank the dead husband of di-fi mr. dick blum for the downfall of the once great UC system

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      I think you do have to be clever to communicate complex or new things to kids. But I agree it probably falls outside the way most define “clever”.

  7. Kurtismayfield

    Everything has been weakened and laid helpless by the inverted totalitarian state. In a world where you want Corporate interests to be primary, being a functional institutions is making yourself enemy number one. The infantilizarion of our government and population has allowed it way more control over our lives. And we keep feeding this machine data that it uses to manipulate and control us.

    This will continue until a catastrophic breakdown occurs, and people will have to do what they have to do ensure their survival.

    1. thump

      This has been a major theme of my personal theories, but I would also add the post-cold war “End of History” triumphalism. We won now and forever, so making sure things were done right or strategically (except for further enriching the rich, as you say) was passé.

  8. Bosko

    These are good points, and I bet that I’m personally in agreement with you concerning the fundamentals, but to be fair, there is a lot of disagreement even among Leftists concerning causes. The idea of the “PMC,” for example, already introduces a class formation that has an ambiguous relationship with capital writ large–Lenin uses the term “opportunists” to describe workers who (within their own nation-states) materially benefit from capital (the “labor aristocracy”), and considers these workers a feature of the “imperialist” stage of capitalism, and there is disagreement over whether such people are mystified (ultimately acting against their own class interests) or de-mystified (self-interested extensions of the bourgeoisie–Mr. Strether’s view, I take it). I’m just remarking that a lot of the developments Yves addresses here do not, in my view, have an unambiguous connection to the larger “unmystical regular workings of capitalism.”

    1. brooke

      Sorry, I think I deleted my comment that you’re responding to. I deleted it because Yves had added more to the post, including some mention of profit motives, which at least nodded to the source of the problem.

      The rest of the comments here (and comments on NC in general) seem to so much focus on how people’s behaviors have just seemed to spontaneously change for the worse. A very ‘can you believe people these days’, which I find very unfortunate.

      It sort of reminds me of the stuff I hear about homeless people from rightwingers: Somehow people just en masse have stopped taking responsibility for their lives. Instead of seeing these as repercussions of capitalism and economic and political forces.

      Even the vitriol against trans people here seems to be a part of this. If anything, I think the consistent line here should be to see them as victims of the malign powerful forces in the world. We don’t make fun of the homeless, nor should we tsktsk the masses of parents who have all of a sudden started ‘doing it wrong’, and the trans people whose minds have been attacked and enabled by the media/pharma/etc

      1. Fiery Hunt

        That world view seems to completely ignore agency.

        We all live in this system and crime and homelessness and body dysmorphia are not just “repercussions of capitalism and economic and political forces”.

        We can absolutely dissect this neoliberal version of capitalism but REAL PEOPLE are the one’s abusing and wrecking our once better functioning society.

        1. brooke

          True, agency definitely plays a role. But this site is called NakedCapitalism, not NakedBehavior. And the reason this site has particular value is tying the trends we see on the ground to the larger forces of our economic and political system.

          Otherwise, it would just be a group of people bemoaning the behavior of people around them, like on Nextdoor. I feel the comment section here too often resembles that.

          1. Fiery Hunt

            Just because it’s called Naked Capitalism doesn’t mean it limited to economics. (Public health, politics, general corruption are all major themes here.)

            Economics is a rich field for theory discussions but what makes NC special is it goes way beyond navel gazing theory and dogma and deals with real world circumstances/power players and their failings/and the zeitgeist of current events.

            A discussion of the historic causes of homelessness is pointless without knowing who makes current decisions and why.

            Shorter answer: If you think “the system” is the problem, you’ll miss the fact that both major American parties (consisting of The Elite, PMC, whatever you want to call them…) are in lockstep together to preserve that system.

            Those parties are lead by individuals who band together to protect their own interests.

            It’s not the system. It’s the people, their caste and their money that’s the problem.

          2. Yves Smith Post author

            Institutionalism is a sub-field of economic:

            Institutional economics focuses on understanding the role of the evolutionary process and the role of institutions in shaping economic behavior. Its original focus lay in Thorstein Veblen’s instinct-oriented dichotomy between technology on the one side and the “ceremonial” sphere of society on the other. Its name and core elements trace back to a 1919 American Economic Review article by Walton H. Hamilton.[1][2] Institutional economics emphasizes a broader study of institutions and views markets as a result of the complex interaction of these various institutions (e.g. individuals, firms, states, social norms). The earlier tradition continues today as a leading heterodox approach to economics.


            So I think you have a misapprehension here. That is the speciality of Eileen Appelbaum, for instance, who has done phenomenal work on private equity. That is where a great deal of the work of NC falls too.

            Similarly class warfare is at the heart of Marxism, and that (and other caste systems) have a large behavioral element, such as rationalizing immiserating the poor.

          3. Societal Illusions

            our systems have outcomes. agency on an unfair playing field exists, for sure, as there is a reason casinos can’t use loaded dice.

    2. Anon

      Indeed, when Marx’s prophecy is realized, Yves will have to look about the name of the blog.

    1. Mo's Bike Shop

      I was coming back here to see if that had been mentioned. Also the Duran ended on that note about the peace summit in Saudi.

      Screw the politics, this is incompetence.

  9. Michael Hudson

    Ahh, this brings back memories:
    “I went to Wall Street before the PC era. We did financial analysis on green ledger paper, finding data in copies of annual reports and entering it manually.”
    That’s what I did for a decade with balance-of-payments data. Many erasures as revisions were made — and I began to track them to find the pattern of change.
    But most important, as you point out, were the footnotes. In my case, I would see a statistic “jump” out of the trend. I’d phone the Commerce Dept. (they liked to be helpful back then) and would almost always be told, “Yes, we wondered where to put that statistic. Here’s what happened …” And I’d get an interesting story.
    This micro-detail is indeed covered up in computerized programs. Today’s Federal Reserve debt/income ratios are absolutely nonsensical. (No change for DECADES!) And the statisticians don’t talk to the public any more.

    1. GramSci

      “And the statisticians don’t talk to the public any more.”

      Economists are the sales staff.

    2. veto

      There is a moving but long poem by a Swedish poet, Birger Sjöberg, called Av raka linjen (1926), lit. “of the straight line”, meaning (being) of an upright, incorruptible character. It’s about a guy, a Hedersman, a man of honour, a successful pillar of society and moral authority in his small town, who gets caught in the morass of his times, speculating with money that is not his, doing fancy bookkeeping to try to cover it up until he can win back his losses. He is not a bad guy, but the devil caught him.

      Much of the imagery in the poem is based on the fact that everything in accounting and contracts and economy was done on paper and often handwriting in those days. Some translations here from this old poem that I love:

      “And life! Depends on an erasing knife…
      My self esteem I now erase
      It turns to dust, I blow it away
      When the deed is done.”

      Risp … risp …
      A little knife runs on the paper
      A rosy morning, frosty window
      The starving bird picks on the sill

      Risp … risp …
      Morgenstunde mit Blut im Munde
      The workday is his horror
      White is the flower on his cheek.
      Fright frizzles in his beard.

      Eventually, by speculating in war stocks, the Man of honour is able to win back what he lost:

      Alas, that states must don their hats of steel
      and death rain down on battlefields
      to give the papers of the bourse a sharp
      but ephemeral hausse.

      Brave call! Throw of the dice…
      He knew these dice were cubes
      upon which skulls were carved in black
      at his desperate try…

      He won, he won!
      The undermined may be refilled,
      the lying numbers may be changed
      to shining clean,

      like in the verger’s nimble handling
      the numbering of psalms tranforms the tone
      from infernal groans to paradise,
      peaceful and clear.

      He won, he won!
      What kind of goodness sprinkled cool
      upon his heated head, and blessed the hand of crime?
      The erasing knife became a knife of honour,
      that right prepares and shreds the lies,
      cuts off the head of ugly numbers,
      with throat and locks.

  10. David in Friday Harbor

    I read both Aurelien’s and Greer’s pieces linked yesterday and they put me in a deep funk. Thank you for sharing that they had the same effect on you. Misery loves company!

    I also attended professional school in the early ‘80’s; after resisting for a couple of years I graduated law school in ‘84. I already saw the “rot” infesting my classmates, who refused to hit the case books and lifted their conclusions whole from other people’s treatises and hornbooks. Their corner-cutting resulted in a high bar-exam failure rate for my graduating class.

    At the time I blamed television. It’s only gotten worse…

    1. kristiina

      For me the posts by Aurelien and Greer are not gloomy at all. Being able to describe the contours of the monster that is eating us alive is a great victory. And seeing Yves return to her contemplative, pattern-recognizing aspect is happy news, too.

      This malaise is clearly in view also in my humble bureaucratic environment in Finland. My take on the causes goes further back than schools. Developing brains learn causality gradually first by moving limbs in exploratory ways. Later interacting with environment. A farm with animals, nature and lots to do gives opportunity to experiment and learn. An entirely man-made environment lacks the variety and exploratory potential. Being aware that we humans can make all kinds of maps, and that they are always partial descriptions of the terrain – this insight can only grow with hands-on experience with the terrain, and especially with experiences where the map misleads and the terrain whacks you from a surprising angle.

      Being a hothouse flower that requires a special environment to survive is a risky business. As long as the hothouse is running, you can be amazing, but the “garden”, our precious system, ìs not running the way it used to. Luckily, all longstanding civilizations have instruction manuals on how to live a life worth living, even, or especially, in adverse circumstances.

  11. Henry Moon Pie

    Thanks for rounding out this survey of elite incompetence from various perspectives. Of all those covered, finance may be the most important, and it is certainly the most mysterious to me personally. Your chronicle of the decline that began in the 80s is a big help in understanding what happened.

    I want to add an anecdote related to this:

    Parents increasingly felt and acted as if they could second-guess teachers, and most schools and school boards backed the parents

    My mother was a schoolteacher for 35 years. For half of that, she taught in a small, rural, underfunded school district where she and my dad lived, and where my dad’s family had lived for several generations. Few students went to college, and those that did attended smaller sectarian schools close to home or the state teacher’s college. In my memory, which begins in the early 60s, she often had problems with second-guessing parents who were quick to go to administrators who often sided with them. Things were very political and often revolved around which church you went to.

    That frustration was one reason that she sought a position elsewhere, and she ended up in a girl’s prep school in the city where she taught from the late 60s to the mid-80s. It was the sort of place where all the grads went to college and the top scholastic performers ended up at places like Radcliffe and Wellesley. Any parental interference was rare at the private school despite that fact that most of the parents were better educated than my mother who only received her bachelor’s in middle age after teaching for decades on a provisional certificate.

    The situation is reminiscent of Brooks’s point (am I really quoting Brooks?) about moral standards taught to children. While it may have been the elites who pushed to loosen things up, they did not go all sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll with their kids. At the boys’ school I attended not far away (the two are now merged) there were a few exceptions like the classmate whose dad bought him a Porsche because he managed to avoid failing a course for one six-week grading period, but most of my classmates were under pressure to behave and perform academically. This is in the late 60s, early 70s.

    I don’t know if it was primarily due to the different era or different city, but our oldest son, who attended a college prep school (with the Pritzker name all over it) in Chicago in the mid-90s, had a very different experience from mine and my mother’s. Parental pressure was applied frequently and ruthlessly in everything from academics to sports. A kid found with drugs in his locker was kicked off the tennis team for all of two weeks until his father put the heat on so that he could play the match against rival U. of C. Lab School.

    So parental pressure can show up in a variety of places with widely divergent results, but I’d agree that it’s certainly been on the rise.

  12. Mo

    I love this. You tell it like it is.

    A couple things to add

    1. Woke curriculum will make things even worse. Deemphasizing calculus in high school. Pushing back algebra. Allowing “data science” instead. One can imagine what kind of BS data science course they will come up with to reduce racial disparities

    2. This one you guys won’t like. Online education has been devastating for our youth. It just does not work. Several teachers in the family see this first hand. Students need to have their butts in a seat in person

    1. Cat Burglar

      If my recently retired Seattle public school teacher friend is correct, Woke curriculum is about appearing to respond to ethnic disparities, but really about extending administrator control over teachers (and getting cool trips to conferences!), during a time when funding for more teacher positions is not politically possible. If, at a time when credentials are a necessity, there is no money to really educate students, then standards must be degraded, because graduating students shows the administrators are producing something.

      1. semper loquitur

        Jives with what my teacher friends here in NYC tell me. Really problematic students are pushed through to make the “numbers”. The Woke (rap provides ready excuses such as one used to allow the graduation of a failing student prone to showing off pictures of himself having sex to teachers and students. The excuse? He cannot be failed for “cultural reasons”.

        The teachers are viewed as engines to produce numbers. The children’s education is a distant secondary concern. Not all schools are bad, but the ones that are are really egregious.

      2. seabos84

        Cat Burglar – hey! are you talking about ME?!
        In my 16 years of teaching high school in Seattle Public Schools, few or none of the Latest Unfunded Greatest Initiatives [LUGI, in Powerpoint] were figured out how to implement cuz then no one had to figure out how to pay for anything. However – after the 3 hour or 3 day training, classroom teachers were responsible and accountable!
        What some of the cutting edge Seattle ‘woke’ crowd brought to the game was a new level of vilifying and ostracizing people who asked questions about how to do things or … what was paid for?
        For the appx. 18,000 Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) kids, little changed that matters to kids without re$ource$.
        Oddly??, the ridiculous policies of ‘equity’ most benefited the truly and wannabe affluent kids of the district. We couldn’t give a ZERO for missing work, we had to give 50%. Deadlines were vorbotten, so, there couldn’t be late work penalty. Homework can’t affect grades, so, kids don’t do it. The tests they then fail from not practicing? Retakes until mastery! This nonsense works for the various affluent kids who are going to grow up with Mummy/Daddy GoogleFaceAppleAzon parents subsidizing some or all of another fancy degree, a reliable car, health insurance, housing down payments … wiping noses and wiping whatevers.

  13. Susan the other

    This is such a wide open forum it’s impossible to be coherent. I believe something there is that doesn’t like to be categorized. Sorry Robert Frost. That particular something likes to experiment. Like the force of evolution, we speciate or specialize and then we go extinct or speciate again. Everybody’s favorite word, first word, is “No.” No? But us humans have gone the limit when it comes to efficiency and incorporation and we seem to have created a big impervious mess of things. I’m inclined to say that cooperation is our salvation, but with very diverse and localized foundations. Then I wonder if maybe we are just too lazy and uninspired to keep it going. And etc.

  14. Stephen

    One aspect that a lot of the developments you refer to have in common is that they enable and encourage ideas to be reduced to very simple sound bites or narratives. Without deep thought or nuance. PowerPoint is a classic vehicle for this, as are smartphones. This facilitates increased conformity and less deep thought.

    The invention of the conference call is a related development. If you go into pretty much any corporation these days then the majority of employees from supervisory levels upwards seem to spend their whole days in conference calls. Most of these are thirty minutes so that everyone can spin around onto the next call with limited time for reflection or deep thought. This predated Covid in my experience. Producing PowerPoint then might not sound like work but consultants are needed for doing it because everyone else is busy on calls. In fact, the consultants also get sucked into the calls too but they have juniors who will still work in the evening after the calls have finished. In many corporations when you get beyond the shop floor then it is really tricky to see who actually does real work or makes decisions, or thinks.

    The challenge is pinpointing whether this affects the west most, given that technology is diffused globally. I do think that the west has collectively embraced the dumbing down of thinking and the embracing of pure narratives or sound bites more aggressively than elsewhere thought. Especially in the English speaking world and less so in continental Europe. I think this is linked most directly to the dumbing down of education and its increasing role as a way to create conformity.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Thanks for this, Agreed completely. ,

      It reminds me of a related issue:: the weakening of memory due to the ease of looking things up. How many people can quote Scripture or Shakespeare or poetry or say a few sentences of important speeches? I can’t prove it but I am confident fewer people can do that since the smartphone era.

      1. GramSci

        Ah, but legion are the number who can quote pop songs.

        The capacity of human memory is astounding.

        1. Big River Bandido

          Song lyrics are married to musical tones, meaning they are stored in a different part of memory.

      2. PlutoniumKun

        I can’t recall the writer, but I recently read a thought provoking piece arguing that we are in many respects returning to a culture more similar to ancient oral cultures than a written culture.

        In oral cultures, what matters is the immediacy of the story, the narrative. People have nothing to mark it against. If a tribal leader stands up and announces that his father and grandfather and forefathers believed that People X were the greatest enemies of People Y, then people had nothing (apart from memories) to invalidate this. Of course, traditional narratives could last a very long time (the revulsion against eating some types of food, for example), but immediate decisions were usually driven by the power of the most effective story.

        When culture became written, then the stories and narratives became ‘fixed’ – the King James Bible, Encyclopaedia Britannia, the ‘Great Books’. This created a culture which necessarily revolved around what were perceived to be solid pillars that went beyond simply ‘what people had always known or done’. To shift culture, you had to shift or alter those fixed written narratives, which of course is exactly what Post Modernism tried to do.

        But in the modern world, the overwhelming flow of constant news and information has allowed for rampant gaslighting and forgetfulness. We see this in cinema, where anything more than 5 years old seems simply not to exist (such as recently, one actress announcing without being contradicted that there were never action movies led by female protagonists until The Hunger Games). What matters now is not the ‘facts’, but the narrative itself. Once upon a time a government had to actually implement a False Flag action to justify something. Now they just have to tell us something happened, whether it was a reality or not, is irrelevant. We are back to an oral culture.

        1. Bsn

          Good call and great discussion in general. However, if we are moving back to an oral culture, it is or will become a weak one devoid of depth. Most people are only aware of the latest sports hero, politician, or movie star – and their specifics. Not much deep aural culture being discussed. A tragic story with many negative consequences regarding oral culture comes out of colonial Africa. Not so much N. Africa due to Hieroglyphics and other written histories, out of Chad for example and the libraries of Timbuktu. As the western colonizers began trying to do business in central and southern Africa, they became suspicious of those groups of people talking to the elder “over there” across the field. What were they saying, plotting? They’re forming resistance to our control. So the whites went over and killed the “leader”. Well, they were killing the aural scribe, the wise men and women who kept and passed on the knowledge. Fools. And the colonialists wondered why they kept dying by the droves when they (the whites and blacks both) didn’t know that the tsetse fly was in that area and not to go there. Lots of death and many lost years because of the killing off of the people with the aural wisdom. Quite parallel to todays dumbification via cell phones, underpaid teachers, lack of debate (censorship) and lack of accountability among the PMC. Much less the marginalization and outright jailing of journalists and dissenting opinion. Sheit up, move up.

        2. Kurtismayfield

          My theory is that we are two generations removed from having the majority of the first world illiterate, because the need to communicate via the written word is disappearing.

        3. southern appalachian

          Nicholas Carr wrote an article published in The Atlantic ( I think) that he turned into a book called “The Shallows” that described some of the ways viewing screens rather than reading books was changing brains. Certain you all have come across it in one form or another.

        4. Durans

          In some ways this seems to be true, everything now is focused on the official narrative of what ever group one belongs to, facts be damned. I think in large part it isn’t just forgetfulness but trying to construct a narrative that suits your purpose.

          In the instance of the actresses statement, this is as much likely the case as if she didn’t know any better. You can see in so many statements from Actor(ess), Writers, Directors, or Producers. They are trying to sell their latest work as some sort of revolutionary progressive work, as if they are the first people ever to do something. This of course is a problem if its already been done before.

      3. JBird4049

        >>>I can’t prove it but I am confident fewer people can do that since the smartphone era.

        I agree. My own memory has gotten worse and I am now trying to remember more even if it is my files. Still, nothing like the academics who often had to memorize an important book because it was kept in the library full time. Often chained to a wall. Then printing came along. Use it or lose it. We still have the same intrinsic abilities of our ancestors, but we don’t use them.

        1. hk

          There is an interesting contrast (or not) between Yudkowsky’s post and the bit attributed to Confucius about “true names.”. Yudkowsky basically says names, or words, or equations, or whatever is only a set of placeholders for “the truth” which exists independently of these things. Maybe the “true name” is the light, or sound or whatever the “substance” is and not the names (or equations) we assign to them? If so, then, perhaps we shouldn’t even call them “names.” What we’d need, then, is to get people to look at the linkage between the map and the territory (as Yudkowsky puts it) and think of the ways the former (the “names” as we’d normally call them) succeed and fail at capturing the latter, or, if you will, get people to practice “science” rather than “scientism.”

  15. Revenant

    Another aspect of this hollowing out of competence is the 21st century preference for process over judgment. Process is scalable and reliable. Process can be automated. Process is a form of scientism and a neoliberal managerial wet dream. Judgment is difficult. It is not scalable, not necessarily explicable, requires time to hone and authority to apply, at best, does not respect process or precedent and will break new ground to settle a matter nicely. Empowering people to use their judgment means devolving power and the PMC hates that.

    In some ways, it seems to me like the history of religion. The Catholic church refused to allow freedom of conscience and insisted it was the only Authority and stamped out dissent and enquiry with the Inquisition. And yet, at the same time, the popes devolved into increasingly less serious people. Wonderful patrons of art but lawless, immoral and incapable in the long run of defending the temporal powers and possessions of the Church. The PMC clerisy is going the sane way.

  16. Permanent Sceptic

    Whenever I read about the collapse of operational capability in the West, I’m reminded of some of Correlli Barnett’s excellent books, such as The Verdict of Peace. They dissect the failures of post-war British elites in reversing Britain’s industrial decline, focussing on changing cultural attitudes, ethics, and educational standards in hastening that decline.

    In their obituary of Barnett last year, the Guardian noted that he had described “Britain’s strategy after 1945 as “all fur coat and no knickers””. I wonder if it might be time to repurpose that description for the US, or the West more generally.

  17. Societal Illusions

    There’s a curious part of me that knows how much intelligence exists out there – so when I see and hear of the grandiose level of dysfunction I am left wondering if it is indeed a feature, not a bug.

    Either that or we have fallen so far as a species in our abilitiy to build things and maintain things and manage things as to make me then wonder who’s plan that outcome belongs to.

  18. PlutoniumKun

    Its an important issue, although of course we need to keep things in perspective. Any reading of various crisis points in history will bring out all sorts of examples of near comical stupidity among ‘people in charge’ at the beginning. At the start of WWII, there were numerous examples of such stupidity exposed among all the major players at multiple levels of public and private decision making, from American torpedoes with faulty detonators which had never actually been tested to Soviet war dogs who had been accidentally trained to only attack Soviet tanks.

    The British-Korean economist Ha Joon-Chang has written about in the past is the way labour market incentives can have all sorts of unintended effects. He points out that in markets with strong protections for technical sectors and government, the best and brightest often go for good State jobs or working in technical environments like engineering. When there are weak protections, the valued jobs become traditional professions like medicine or law (of course, we see a near obsession with getting your kids into those sectors in developing countries). If we are to be blunt about it, the top 5 percentile of most societies are the most important for pushing forward productivity and good decision making. If those people are all becoming corporate lawyers or are developing gaming apps instead of… well, something useful, then we have a problem.

    Just as an anecdote, I talked a while back to a retired family member who was in the Irish Civil Service. He talked about a huge quality counter-swing in terms of recruits depending on the state of th economy. When Ireland was dirt poor in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, for a smart, ambitious person who lacked the money or personal connections to get into the ‘traditional’ safe professions or businesses, then a civil service (or other government career including teaching, police and army) career was very attractive, and this was reflected in the often very high intellectual quality of senior managers in that period and for a few decades after. But when the economy boomed and opened up, there was a very distinct drop in the quality of recruits (even if many more had third level degrees), and as this ‘low grade’ cohort worked its way through it had a knock on effect right through the system. But the real impact might only be seen perhaps 30 years after the cause. I think we are certainly seeing this effect in the UK and maybe much of Europe.

    1. Barnes

      I might add one factor that never got mentioned in all of the comments, nor the original blog post:
      humility – more correctly, a general lack thereof intertwined with exceptionalism.
      I, for one, am rather sceptical of the cause and effect relationship PlutoniumKun implies through the “5 percentile” claim.

      @PlutoniumKun: it’s nothing personal

      1. JBird4049

        I think that there are a small number of people who push society, but for these people to be successful, there needs to be a class of skilled and dedicated people supporting their work. Often it is just a matter of degree, not of kind, between that five percent and everyone else.

        This is why I think that having an educational system that can teach anyone anything during their entire life; the teaching should be about learning skills, importantly learning how to learn, more importantly how to think, and most importantly being a well rounded person. None of this Neoliberal credentialism.

        Most people are curious and want to be responsible, contributing members of a society; our own society spends much effort to deny or kill this in most people and then blame them for their “failures” and label them deplorables.

      2. albrt

        I have no problem with the “top 5%” concept, just so long as we have found a way to measure the top 5% at getting things done. The top 5% of exam scores is not at all the same thing.

    2. Carolinian

      Any reading of various crisis points in history will bring out all sorts of examples of near comical stupidity among ‘people in charge’ at the beginning


      Right. Great post by Yves but don’t think we need to generalize too much. Foolishness wasn’t born yesterday. And while smartphones may be a dubious invention, the phones themselves are marvels of human ingenuity and technology. There are always going to be some who excel and they don’t have to be compelled to learn or invent although “work habits” may need to be socially programmed.

      Perhaps it is indeed the standards of the average students that have declined and a social deterioration can be blamed on that. Or maybe we used to be competent but often at the wrong things.

  19. Craig Dempsey

    Gresham’s law states that “bad money drives out good.” This inspired Thiers’ law that “good money will drive out bad money.” In short, too much good money invites bad money to sneak into the system. Too much bad money undermines the system, and allows good money a chance to shine. I suspect that kind of pendulum swing will be seen in the struggle between science and scientism recently discussed here, and the good versus bad management discussed in this post. Now whether any of us will live long enough to see good management again, maybe not. Will nuclear war or global warming stop the whole show first? Maybe.

    I suspect part of the popularity of sports is that “bad money” gets hammered on the playing field. Not that “bad money” does not try to sneak in, with varying degrees of success. Back when America was an industrial powerhouse, the market tended to do the same thing to poorly run companies. Today the market is rigged, and quality corporations tend to get bought out by larger rivals, or gutted by private equity take-overs. The bad money of the FIRE sector rules right now. I suspect, and hope, that somehow competence will eventually find a way to triumph over incompetence.

  20. Darryl

    Except for the “woke curriculum” in the comments, most said in the blog post is true. There’s no need to turn pretzel like explanations, everyone understands that the “golden age” of the “meritocratic geniuses” symmetrically coincides with the decline of the US & West writ large – such is the plundering. Initially, from the 1970s, all planning needed was for the next quarter. Now, algorithms are ahead of the horde – real time. Trump’s Treasury Secretary made a fortune foreclosing on windows and orphans, and manage to squeeze $2B from Saudi Arabia. What did he sell? And Biden never met a banker he didn’t like. Pity Ukraine as it seems headed for the talons of the bankster fraudsters. Pity the US as it slides into the abyss of complete decline.

  21. GlassHammer

    When I ask the older generation what it took to gain a leadership position back when they were in their prime they frequently say “You would never be put in charge unless you had put in many years on the job, no one would trust that you were capable otherwise. Yeah, it was a seniority system but that didn’t mean it didn’t work.”

    I think when we decided to replace “seniority” with “credentials/certifications” we jettisoned both “experience” and “on the job training” as qualifications for leadership.

  22. Mo's Bike Shop

    I’ve always thought the loss of executive secretaries was a changeover point. When I started working in the 80s, any office had a head secretary who knew how it all worked and usually staff who were getting there. They faded away as computers could do the clerical tasks, but their institutional knowledge went with them.

    1. Lost in Africa

      Couldn’t agree more. I started work in an era when if you desired a decision to go in your favour, the best solution was purchasing an expensive box of chocolates and presenting saif gift to your bosse’s secretary…

  23. Donald

    I accept that elites have become more incompetent in the areas where Yves and Michael Hudson have expertise, but in foreign policy I think they’ve been coasting off the glory days of WW2. Korea was almost a disaster because the U.S. tried to retake all of Korea and China came in. The Cuban missile crisis could have ended civilization. It was more dumb luck than skill that it didn’t. Vietnam— nuff said. Then there was Afghanistan and Iraq. We did manage to beat up the mighty nations of Serbia and Iraq in the 90’s, along with Grenada and Panama the decade before, giving us delusions of military grandeur.

    I think what has changed is that we are no longer the unchallengeable hyperpower— after the Soviet Union collapsed US officials and pundits saw us that way and they haven’t adjusted to the new reality. They could acknowledge that we lost in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, but could rationalize that on the basis that we weren’t willing to go all out and kill everyone and if we couldn’t nation build successfully it was the fault of the locals.

    So the Russians invaded and our elites thought that with our help, the Ukranians could beat the Russians the way US forces could beat the Iraqi army in both Gulf War 1 and the initial stage of the Iraq War.

    To me this just looks like a country that has been somewhat delusional for decades. But this is the closest we have come to an actual conventional war ( albeit by proxy) with a peer nation and it isn’t going the way they thought it would.

    I haven’t read Martyanov’s books, but judging from his blog he seems to think America has always overrated itself militarily.

    1. JBird4049

      The United States usually wins the battles, but since it almost never has a good strategy, it loses the war. Just look at Vietnam where the Americans killed an awful lot of people and won the battles, but still lost the war. It is much like the Germans in the Second World War. Even at the end, they were hurting their opponents, but since the leadership never really had a strategy, they lost the war. Just because you are good at killing people does not mean you are good at winning wars.

    2. hk

      United States was NEVER good at diplomacy, or post conflict management generally. Heck, we even managed to lose the Civil War (in a manner of speaking) long after the Confederacy ceased to even exist due to complete military defeat.

  24. scott s.

    WRT military, I place the problem as not so much philosophical rather the evolution of the joint command structure and accompanying Goldwater/Nichols Act which made joint “certification” the touchstone, resulting in staff bloat so officers could get their tickets punched.

  25. JEHR

    I hate to quote this, but if “the love of money is the root of all evil” then we know where to start the revolution: Get rid of money and the monied.

    1. Reply

      Ghadaffi tried a variation and incurred the wrath of Killary. Too much at stake to allow self-determination by those under the yoke. :(

  26. WWZ

    “…people who worked in software at much smaller, non-banking companies and had no appreciation of how the huge transaction volumes banks run every day meant that a difference in degree from their environment was also a difference in kind.”

    Yes. some of us in the software industry understand the significance of ‘scale’: just because you can build a yacht doesn’t mean you have any idea how to build an ocean liner.

  27. Sub-Boreal

    I don’t have any corporate experience, but watching the ladder-climbers in government and academia, it seems typical for the ambitious ones to do pretty frequent job-hopping, i.e. every 18-36 months. One consequence is that they never stick around long enough to learn from their mistakes – or even know that they’ve made mistakes! So I suspect that this contributes to the overall syndrome that we’re discussing here.

  28. lyman alpha blob

    We have 5 or 6 elementary schools in our city and several years ago one was failing under the federal standards du jour, so in order to continue to receive federal funding one of the hoops they had to jump through was getting rid of the principal. But instead of firing her outright, the district swapped her with the one at my kid’s school which was ranked as one of the best in the state at the time. The failing school was in the neighborhood with the lowest income levels, which is often the case for reasons most NC readers are well aware of, so on those grounds I was willing to grant that the failing school was not the principal’s fault and didn’t worry when she was transferred.

    I should have. At one meeting, she gave a gym full of parents the report card for the school as a whole on recent standardized test results. She told us the school had scored 560 or some such in overall mathematics. I asked her on what scale. She couldn’t answer. I rephrased the question and asked if the scores were considered above or below average compared to other schools. She looked at me like a deer in the headlights and said she’d have to get back to me, which she of course never made any effort to do.

    I still don’t think the failing school was entirely her fault, but I’m also quite sure her gross incompetence (there were many other issues, such as requiring kids to make like seals on icy playground patches so as not to fall down) didn’t help. While I do agree that parents are doing way too much helicoptering at schools these days, especially when they are undermining teachers by complaining about grades, etc. But this administrative bloat peopled by the increasingly incompetent has given parents ample reason to complain.

  29. Jeremy Grimm

    Between yesterday’s post on Energy Destinies and this post, I feel more gloomy than usual. I suppose this comment might be a purgative product of this gloom.

    I view the collapse of operational capabilities in the West through a different lens. Clearly there has been a collapse in operational capabilities as measured against the stated intents and original intents that motivated the creation of many enterprises and Government Agencies. I believe Western Corporations and Government Agencies have evolved motives and drives alien to those that lead to their creation and alien to those motives and goals they espouse. The members of Humankind giving flesh and bone to Corporations and Government Agencies fit and embody these new motives and goals, and shape them even as the motives and goals shape their human agents.

    The u.s. military is not concerned with winning battles and wars. That was a concern of the past. Military strategy and tactics focus on growing budget lines and the status and power of each Command within the hierarchy of Commands. The many wars of many recent decades have served the ignoble purpose of bloating u.s. military expenditures, fattening MIC Corporations, and growing the funding lines, Power and prestige of DoD Government Agencies. The u.s. military has demonstrated remarkable capabilities in achieving its intended goals.

    Governments do not serve a Common Good. Governments and their human minions serve the perceived short term good of the ever shifting Elite factions controlling the Government. The often incoherent outcomes of many Government initiatives reflect the incoherence of the Elite factions driving those initiatives. But the outcomes often reflect the broad short term interests of the Elites. Some Elite factions may suffer less profit than others but the Populace profits little if at all. The contending Elites demonstrate consistent capability in acquiring the gains for themselves and passing the costs to the Populace.

    Education — not just public education — though advertising otherwise, little concerns itself with providing Education. Education has become a source of profit and financial gains. The classic concepts of Education and newer ideas of merit and credential remain as enticing rationalizations and motivations for public support of education. Teachers have status as low level credentialed workers, easily replaced and controlled. Parents as consumers can shape the forms of education to match their whims as long as they continue buying degrees for their offspring, or support the local bonds and taxes funding public grammar schools and high schools. Budgets for higher learning grow, supports for public education hold steady, teachers are compliant and inexpensive while profits and sinecures for administrators increase. Does this reflect a collapse of operational capabilities or a shift in goals?

    The financial rewards and gains in power and status that rewarded the financial engineers that de-industrialized of u.s. Industry and subjugated u.s. Labor speak to the remarkable operational capabilities of u.s. upper management. Middle management warfare against employees serves to keep both groups occupied, subservient, and relatively inexpensive thereby freeing up more funding for upper management salaries, benefit packages, stock buybacks to drive executive stock options, and perhaps some funding for dividends sufficient to raise or maintain share prices.

    Smartphone and social media facilitate control over the heart and minds of the Populace and provide a convenient means for monitoring dissent. The dissolution of social cohesion between individuals effectively isolates and demoralizes.

    I do not see a collapse of operational capabilities in the West. I see a collapse of Society and Western Civilization carefully and capably achieved by Western Elites, Corporate Enterprise, and Government Agencies. There is and has been a tectonic shift in the intent and motivation of the forces driving Humankind in the West. We are being driven toward Collapse on a scale and scope beyond all past epochs of Collapse.

  30. Arkady Bogdanov

    I think all of your points are valid Yves. I have been looking at all of this for years, and I could add many more data points- In fact I think many readers of this blog, being exceptionally well informed, observant, and intelligent individuals (far above the norm) could do so as well, but long ago, while observing all of this, I asked myself: What is the root cause?
    It’s capitalism.
    Many people have written about this and predicted this outcome would eventually occur. The incentives inherent in capitalist systems drive this outcome. Now you can push the clock back, such was was done during the New Deal era, but the progress of capitalism is relentless. It corrupts every governing structure and organization operating under its aegis. Capitalism encourages many things in service to accumulation of resources as it’s primary driver- corruption, dishonesty, as well as under investment in infrastructure, education, defense, research, and so on. It encourages short term solutions as they are the least intensive in terms of planning and capital, and short term solutions are also seen as less risky under this paradigm- it is far easier to keep your planning horizons months ahead of you rather than years ahead of you. Imagination and risk are discouraged, and risk is also mitigated via corruption. So nothing bold is ever attempted. All of this leads to a decline and collapse of the system. Outcomes, society wide, become progressively worse on an accelerating scale. Social controls become much, much more necessary, and in fact, this is one of the few areas where the system encourages innovation (along with innovations that increase corruption).
    This truly is end stage capitalism. I can come to no other conclusion. This has been written about and predicted extensively in the past. Marx saw it 150 years ago, and many others predicted it too. Even Adam Smith saw it in the practices/behaviors that he stated should be avoided- his big mistake was in not understanding how powerfully these practices/behaviors were incentivized.
    I think it is a huge mistake to believe that our problems lie in failures of governance. The failures of governance are baked into the system- they were and are completely unavoidable.
    The question we have to ask ourselves, do we want to just dial the clock back to an earlier point via regulation and restructuring things as was done during the New Deal era- which will all be eroded, bringing us back to revisit this problem once again, or do we want to actually correct the problem by replacing the system that drives the entire process?
    Sorry for rambling, but these are thoughts I have been having for a VERY long time.

    1. Societal Illusions

      bravo. thank you for sharing this. and the original root problem seems to be in the definition and practice of real property. there’s a difference between a home (which for all the best reasons we want to own and control) and millions of acres or hectares of productive and exploitable earth which utilize nature and time to have value. This value, through plunder and murder, has come to be “owned” by the few. Stewardship of this land is of a much lower priority, and turning it into monetary “profit” the highest one.

      The problem with utopia has always been “getting there from here.” but until the private monetary system and land “ownership” is addressed, I can’t see enough change happening to make much difference.

  31. PKMKII

    I’m skeptical of “it’s the way they’re teaching these darn kids” arguments for the collapse of leadership. It smells a bit of self-puffery, but also is problematic in that those millennials raised in the innate-ability praise era of education are still largely not the leadership, or are at the lower rungs. Leadership is still mostly older Gen X and up, who were educated back when education was supposedly done “right.” Regardless, there’s been a backlash in recent years in parenting against innate-ability praise in favor of effort-extended praise precisely because the former tends to create kids that suffer from crippling doubt the moment things don’t come naturally.

    However, I do think there’s something in modern education that a symptom of the problem in current leadership, rather than a cause, which is the extreme emphasis on standardized testing/assessments and everything being distilled to metrics. I think this came out of the PMC needing to establish a factor for why they deserve to run things that wasn’t class-based, but it’s created a system where the motivation is to massage whichever metric has been turned into a standard, instead of leadership and problem-solving. And of course, once a statistic has become a metric/standard it becomes useless as a statistic. So leadership is more concerned with those metrics than if anything is going right. Stock buybacks are a great example: doesn’t matter that you had to leverage to buy them or that the increase is clearly an artifice, line on chart went up so they get their treats for gaming the metric.

  32. Hickory

    I’ve read the essays here and at Larry’s and Greer’s sites. I find the diminishing competence very disturbing, but the comments are also disturbing. The American leadership never used to be competent and rational at building a just society. They simply managed their empire better. And now so many people on all these sites that so often complain about imperial cruelties (coups, foreign slavery, death squads, resource extraction, debt servitude for example) are wishing to return to the halcyon days of a well run empire.

    If it wasn’t for nukes and the country’s general ability to poison the environment, US competence decline would be welcome almost everywhere outside us and Europe because almost everywhere else has suffered from US imperialism. I live in the US and notice I feel depressed and insecure about the future knowing how utterly incompetent the managers are, but I am at least relieved that it cancels out some of their evil, insofar as it keeps them from carrying out as much as they could otherwise. See the failed coup in Venezuela and the quick reversal in Bolivia – good for them! And on the essay at Larry Johnson’s site, musk is held up as an example of a smart man, the same guy who said “we’ll coup whoever we want” Isn’t it good news that the US is too stupid to do this stuff anymore?

    And Russia and China merely have more capable managers and leaders of their own cruel societies of extraction. Russia’s inequality by some measures is worse than the US’s. Why praise meritocracy when it just means more effective extraction? Absolutely none of these big countries, nato or otherwise, are doing a damn thing about climate change, mass extinction and deforestation, plastic production, or any other aspect of our collective crisis. They’re just vying for a better seat on a sinking ship. And since they’re meritocratic, they’ll have a better seat than the US and hold it together slightly longer. More power to them.

  33. upstater

    Spreadsheets epitomize the dumbing down of organizations. Any person with a PC can load up all manner of “data” and proceed to “analyze” same. Formulas can be constructed, but data and algorithm validation is difficult or simply ignored. There is no need to understand the who, what, where, when, why and how of information (look no further than our alleged “journalists”).

    The nonsense generated in spreadsheets loads easily into PowerPoint, Word or “databases” with a few clicks. Animations are easy. People who grew up watching Sesame Street are suitability entertained.

    Education in first principles is eschewed. If something is hard to do, it US avoided or outsourced to the likes of McKinsey or Bain. If there is money to be made, step aside or get ready for battle.

  34. Mikel

    “My impression is that it was in the 1980s that elite and even middle class parents started treating their kids’ precious egos as important….”

    That was more on blast in the 90s.
    GenXer here.. and the 80s were competitive and “losers” didn’t get trophies.

  35. Antagonist Muscles

    Thanks for these posts on leadership and institutional rot. Dismal indeed, but thought-provoking. The original post should have linked to the first post in this series, The Loss of Executive Function in the West.

    Only a tiny portion of this post was about porn, but I am surprised that after 60+ comments nobody has offered anecdotes about his porn and dating life (or lack thereof). I strongly identify with Yves’s distaste for dating, yet at the end of this post she correlates phone and social media with aversion to dating. Isn’t this a mild contradiction? She bemoans aversion to dating while she espouses distaste for dating.

    As for me, I hated dating because of how exhausting, time consuming, and superficial it is. When I was working (I’m unemployed now), a typical day at work would sap so much energy from me that the only thing I wanted to do after work was to collapse into bed. It was a minor miracle back then that I could muster the energy to actually go on a date, which never turned out well because of the aforementioned work exhaustion. Over time, the fatigue led me to vegetate at home while watching sports or pornography. My previous addictions to sports and porn caused numerous problems. Don’t make the same mistakes I made.

    I am confident my situation was not unique. I have pretty ordinary heterosexual desires, but dating is an ordeal for me. Can I just have sex for two minutes, and then get back to whatever I was doing or learning? Because that attitude is unfair and impolite to my potential sexual partner, I ended up turning to porn. Further, a woman who would tolerate that attitude likely poses an increased health risk for me.

    I may be unique (or at least rare) with respect to the unrealistic expectations of what women should look like. Even when I was addicted to porn, I knew I disliked 95-99% of all the porn out there. Part of my addiction stemmed from spending inordinate amounts of time trying to find that 1% I liked. One reason why I dislike the vast majority of porn is because there is a particular kind of look for pornographic actresses that I find very unattractive. Second, if everything looks staged or fake, I usually dislike it. By the way, porn is not without merits. It helped me realize in a roundabout way just how unsexual I am. Understanding your own mind is quite valuable.

    1. chris

      It sounds like you have found yourself and know what you need now. I hope that’s the case because the life you describe sounds awful to me. But maybe that’s because it seems so alien to my own experiences?

      I live in a community and near family who, by and large, fell in love and married their high school sweet hearts. I know plenty of 40 and 50 year olds who have been in relationships for 20-30 years. I can’t vouch for their p0rn habits but I can say dating and finding the right person don’t seem to be issues. I wish more people had that experience.

      As for p0rn, I always liked this essay. I think it presents the modern challenge of having that content be so accessible and so potentially damaging to so many people.

  36. Clonal Antibody

    In the same vein of thinking, you might find this from Gaius Baltar interesting
    Why Is The West So Weak (And Russia So Strong)?
    The Role Of Human Capital And Western Education

    Human capital and its properties
    The current ideologically-based power structure of the West outright requires that certain types of people be in positions of influence and certain types of people be sidelined. This applies to all steps of the social ladder; from kindergarten teachers to university teachers and corporate executives, and all the way up to the leaders of society itself. This has been progressing steadily for the last five decades or so, and has resulted in a major structural problem for the West. That problem is the obvious and massive degradation and misallocation of human capital in the West.

    Human capital can be described as the quality of a company’s or nation’s workforce, or more specifically how competent the employee pool is – how well they are trained, how quickly they can be trained, how they are educated in general, and how they make decisions. In order to understand what competence really means, let’s define it further.

    Competence can be described as specific or general. This distinction is extremely important and must be understood by anyone who attempts to manage human capital on a small or large scale.

  37. Ken Murphy

    I would argue that Deferred Maintenance has been a huge factor in the overall decline of our infrastructure. Like R&D, it’s the kind of thing that bean counters can gnaw at to massage results. As a result of several decades worth of not spending money on keeping everything spiffy and functioning well, everything is starting to look ragged around the edges, and the frays in the warp and weft of our society are spreading.

  38. Tony Wikrent

    The utility of Marx is limited because he was interested in the historical processes of class conflict. But Thorstein Veblen focused his analysis on how individuals in the different classes are acculturated to think of themselves, the rest of society, and their relationship to society. Why Marx remains popular after repeated failures of applying his ideas to actual governance is, I believe, part of the problem of credentialism of the PMC.

    Veblen’s is not easy to read (though I would say the Marx is even worse) but Veblen’s analysis is rather straight forward. Most ruling elites in almost all societies disdain doing the actual work required for a society to maintain and reproduce itself. The rise of the symbol economy is merely one more step down the same road.

    What strikes me about the actual history of USA economic development is that the people who create each new technological breakthrough earn enough social capital — as well as lucre — that their type dominates society for a period of time. These are Veblen’s productive class — and Marc never understood the importance and depth of their contributions to the historical process, dismissing them as exploitative capitalists. In the first half of the 19th century, the most respected people in most communities were the mechanics and machinists who created machine tools and the basis of industrial mass production, and performed the daily tasks of harnessing steam power. They gradually lose their influence in society as the various companies created in the first stages of the industrial revolution come under the control of bankers and financiers.

    After the Civil War, a critical mistake is made when Congress rejects Thaddeus Stevens’ program of seizing all plantation lands in the defeated Confederacy, and turning them into homesteads for freed slaves and poor whites. By the 1870s and 1880s, Jim Crow is dominant, preserving the idea that some people are superior and some people are inferior. The trusts are being built, the Gilded Age has begun, and Veblen’s leisure class is in the ascendant. At the same time, the academic discipline of political economy is being torn asunder and reconstituted as separate disciplines of economics and political science. William Graham Sumner was given his perch at Yale, to spread his insidious doctrines of social Darwinism by arguing that it was government interference with the “natural” workings of capitalism (free markets) that was the true cause of poverty, backwardness, and social misery. This is also the beginnings of the new academic discipline of “business management,” ironically begun at Wharton in part to counter Sumner.

    In the early 1900s, the new motor vehicle industry, and the radio and electrical industries (basically started by the US Navy, Army Signal Corps, Weather Bureau, and Lifesaving Service of the Coast Guard), and aviation (sustained during its formative early decades by government airmail contracts) allow a new crop of Veblen’s producers to compete for influence against the social Darwinists — though unfortunately many of them by this time had been miseducated with Sumner’s doctrines, They are largely squelched in the 1920s, when Morgan money creates General Motors and General Electric. This allows a resurgence of Leisure Class types. and the basic incompetence, as well as hostility to the civic republican ideal of rough economic equality, leads directly to the Depression, and the rise of fascism.

    In the laboratories funded by government during World War 2, the basic technologies of the computer and information age are created, and the decision is made to deliberately seed these new technologies into the civilian economy. Note this is the complete opposite of what Marx says happens. Here it is the already existing social institutions of government, joining with already existing social institutions of education, that create new means of production, not the other way around as Marx said. But it does create a new Veblenite producer class, called Silicon Valley, that challenges the rule of Wall Street, as Thomas Wolfe describes in his almost forgotten classic, “The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce: How the Sun Rose on the Silicon Valley,” in Esquire, December 1983.

    1. Anthony K Wikrent

      What Veblen shows is that elite incompetence is not unique to USA or the West generally.

      The institution of a leisure class is found in its best development at the higher stages of the barbarian culture; as, for instance, in feudal Europe or feudal Japan. In such communities the distinction between classes is very rigorously observed; and the feature of most striking economic significance in these class differences is the distinction maintained between the employments proper to the several classes. The upper classes are by custom exempt or excluded from industrial occupations. . . .

      . . . . A distinction is still habitually made between industrial and non-industrial occupations; and this modern distinction is a transmuted form of the barbarian distinction between exploit and drudgery. . . .

      During the predatory culture labour comes to be associated in men’s habits of thought with weakness and subjection to a master. It is therefore a mark of inferiority, and therefore comes to be accounted unworthy of man in his best estate. By virtue of this tradition labour is felt to be debasing, and this tradition has never died out. On the contrary, with the advance of social differentiation it has acquired the axiomatic force due to ancient and unquestioned prescription.

      –The Theory of the Leisure Class, Chapter One – “Introductory.” (The text of the book in full has been made available online by Project Gutenberg at

      And, the collapse of operational capabilities is much more easily framed using Veblen’s analysis of business versus industry, than using Marx’s analysis of class conflict.

      Moreover, Veblen is able to analyze the social effects of industrialization — something Marx was not able to do, because Marx conflated capitalism with industrialization. In The Engineers and the Price System (1919), Veblen wrote

      In more than one respect the industrial system of today is notably different from anything that has gone before. It is eminently a system, self balanced and comprehensive; and it is a system of interlocking mechanical processes, rather than of skilful manipulation. It is mechanical rather than manual. It is an organization of mechanical powers and material resources, rather than of skilled craftsmen and tools; although the skilled workmen and tools, are also an indispensable part of its comprehensive mechanism. It is of an impersonal nature, after the fashion of the material sciences, on which it constantly draws. It runs to “quantity production” of specialized and standardized goods and services. For all these reasons it lends itself to systematic control under the direction of industrial experts, skilled technologists, who may be called ” production engineers,” for want of a better term.

      This industrial system runs on as an inclusive organization of many and diverse interlocking mechanical processes, interdependent and balanced among themselves in such a way that the due working of any part of it is conditioned on the due working of all the rest. Therefore it will work at its best only on condition that these industrial experts, production engineers, will work together on a common understanding; and more particularly on condition that they must not work at cross purposes. These technological specialists whose constant supervision is indispensable to the due working of the industrial system constitute the general staff of industry, whose work it is to control the strategy of production at large and to keep an oversight of the tactics of production in detail.
      — pp 52-53.

      Another major factor in the decline of operational capability is the ascendance of cost / benefit analysis, and the focus on “efficiency.” Being forced to find numerical measures of performance and efficiency has had brutal effects on society, especially education, social welfare, and medical care. This was exacerbated by Robert Bork and the Chicago School’s destruction of anti-trust enforcement.

  39. vic

    Dick Cheney: “We create our own reality.”- No you don’t, it comes and bites you in the a**. Alexander Mercouris: In a recent youtube episode- The British were largely fine with the idea of empire. The American empire wanted to act as if it were a benevolent liberal order, the contradiction leads to all manner of problems. Me: 2007 ? When kids were teens, commenting on our ( fairly mainstream ) child rearing practices: WE, as a society are conducting an uncontrolled experiment in raising children. Chesterton’s Fence came to mind.

  40. SocalJimObjects

    Who needs operational capabilities when you have AI? Don’t like hearing bad news, well Mirror, Mirror on The Wall V31 will certainly know how to create Power Points, Inspiring Stories, and Spreadsheets that will assuage your worst fears!!! It will take just one huge EMP attack to throw the West to the Dark Ages.

  41. Ignacio

    In order to have or develop strategic thinking you previously need to have a vision of what you want and objectives that get you closer to such vision. Sound and achievable objectives. IMO, this is exactly what the PMC lacks and Aurelien describes this very well: your ideology consists on having no ideology (trust on markets is no ideology, IMO) and the end of anything ideológical. In the neoliberal framework there cannot be any collective vision except except your own personal achievements within the system. This is why neoliberalism cannot deal with challenges like climate change that require collective mobilization and vision.

    In this framework lacking real objectives the PMC confuse outcomes (such as being global hegemon) with objectives (such as being a manufacturing powerhouse). The tools (financing for instance) become the ends (financialization of everything). Tactical goals (targets like destroying a pipeline) in search of such hegemony do not account for the real world consequences of such actions and strategic thinking is reduced to “global targets” such as reducing oil consumption by 20% without any thinking on the how, the who, when and where and the real world consequences but hoping this end with a nice spreadsheet showing the decrease and lots of nice flow diagrams in a PowerPoint presentation.

  42. Steve M

    Got to the end and wondered what role if any the crap most of us have to eat and drink and breathe and gets on our skin and so on compared to what was available during the green ledger paper era plays in all this decline. The whole “mens sana in corpore sano” thing. The physical “crap in, crap out” phenomenon.

    But I am reminded that as a grade and high school student in the 1970s, my immigrant parents refused to buy me a calculator because they feared I wouldn’t learn arithmetic “in my head, where it was needed” if I relied on one.

    Then, when they became basically free with a new checking account by 1980, I learned that calculators were so utilitarian, they could write English upside down.


  43. Henry Moon Pie

    A great post generated great comments. Lots of interesting thinking going on here.

    I did not see much discussion of complexity. I listen to plenty of Tainter and Hagens who emphasize the role of rising complexity in making societies less successful to the point of collapse. Complexity arises from the organization required to undertake large projects. This process has been going on since the pyramids and before, and today, it has reached colossal scale with a global economy. Even our food production, that only a century ago came from truly family farmers, has been organized into a vast and vulnerable system that may not employ many people but requires huge amounts of energy.

    Of course, our elites’ solution to Overshoot is to undertake even more huge projects like electrifying transportation and home heating. This is despite their abject failure to handle the very large project of handling a pandemic. A planned dissolution of the nation-state with power flowing to locales would be a better approach. No more smart phones, just provision of clean water, healthy, local food produced in a way healthy for the Earth, resilient shelter for all, health care provided in neighborhoods by professionals who live there, and education for the young provided by the community, these are the kinds of things upon which we should be focused. We should be producing more of what we need in our own households again. Chris Smaje’s vision of a Small Farm Future is much closer to what will work than the grandiose schemes of the Ecomodernists.

    When all this collapses, the humans who rebuild will do well to avoid large projects, mass organization and complexity. Small and simple is not only beautiful; it’s far more resilient than the alternative. And the biggest advantage: it doesn’t create positions of great power because one thing humans don’t do well is handle power.

  44. HH

    One of the distorting effects of human mortality is the desire to align the trajectory of the world at large with the tiny drama of one’s own life. This causes us to be more pessimistic as we age. The simplest answer to the present going to Hell in a sled question is “affluenza,” the debilitating effects of sustained prosperity. At the end of WWII, the U.S. was effectively a lotto winner in global economics. All the competition was in ruins. As the good times rolled it no longer mattered how well leaders executed. Prosperity cushioned everything and gave plenty of margin for error and incompetence (e.g., Vietnam to Ukraine). The long cycle is privation > industry > affluence > decay> privation, etc.

    Just this week breakthroughs were announced in superconductivity and cancer medicine. There will be plenty of good news to come from advanced technology, and nations not yet stricken by affluenza will gain wealth by exploiting the opportunities. For the U.S., things won’t improve until we hit bottom – probably at the end of this decade.

  45. RJM

    There are many important ideas in Yves’ essay and the commentariat. Susan the other’s comments were central to the issue among others. With all the writing the word citizen did not appear once and the Common Good was mentioned once. When you see and hear the term “the American people” you are forewarned that you are about to be conned. As a child and teenager having taken a high school civics class, the word citizen was commonly used. The word implies a series of obligations and responsibilities which made possible certain rights.

    John Ralston Saul has addressed the issues discussed today in writing and on video. One video is titled The Country is Only as Good as Its Intellectuals. Who are “our” intellectuals? He also makes a strong distinction between leaders and managers with the latter being assumed in our current culture to be leaders erroneously.
    When it comes to public intellectuals the names Cornell West and Michael Hudson come to mind, then….
    Saul (Canadian), Margaret Atwood (Canadian) and John Gray (Brit) also come to mind. When it comes to leaders it’s difficult to come up with one worth their salt.

    Our recent military leadership does not elevate to this discussion. Most relevant to our current sabre-rattling with China and by proxy with Russia, comes from a late 13th century Vietnamese general Tran Hung Dao who chased the Mongols out of Vietnam. In his Essential History of Military Arts he stated: “The enemy must fight his battles far from his home base for a long time…..We must further weaken him by drawing him into prolonged campaigns. Once his initial dash is broken, it will be easier to destroy him.”

    In the financial area simply recounting the past four Federal Reserve Chairs says it all. To find an economist worth their salt go to the only woman to win the Nobel-like prize in Economics in 2009 Prof. Elinor Ostrom who actually did physical experimental work to back her writings on the commons.

  46. Steven

    Causes or effects? Lots of interesting theories here in both the post and the comments. My favorite for a unified field theory is financialization. When you have to look no further than stock prices and quarterly profit and loss statements, it doesn’t encourage in-depth thinking. With the ascendance of Hudson’s finance capitalism, we have allowed people who excel in symbol manipulation – and not much else – to destroy economies and ultimately the planet.

    As long we continue to believe money is wealth (in whatever form) and not debt, there are plenty of people, from politicians to digital currency peddlers, who are skilled in creating it and exchanging it for what really is wealth.

    Back to Hudson and Super Imperialism again… When American politicians discovered they could continue to create money with nothing – not even gold – to back it, that was the beginning of the end for the US and other Western economies. Kind of hard to compete with a business model where you can create ‘wealth’ out of nothing (‘thin air’) and exchange it for the real thing.

  47. WillD

    Martyanov’s points have been conclusively proven in the Ukrainian conflict. Not only does the West fail to understand the Russian strategy & battlefield tactics, but it provides inappropriate weaponry and useless advice to the Ukrainian military. In short, it simply doesn’t understand what is going on in the conflict.

    All the official statements coming out of the western governments and militaries demonstrate this lack of understanding. Even allowing for heavy bias and propaganda the statements reveal an almost total lack of acceptance and therefore understanding of the actual verifiable reality.

    All of this is compounded by deeply corrupt, ignorant and inept government leaders, all with extremely limited attention spans and all overflowing with rhetoric steeped in neoliberal and woke ideology, and utterly bereft of reality. They certainly don’t inhabit the reality that I and I suspect the vast majority of the human race, live in – and want to keep intact!

  48. MFB

    Thing to remember is that someone is making vast amounts of money out of promoting the collapse of operational competence.

    In South Africa we’ve tended to sack the people who knew what they were doing and hire people with credentials (such as being someone’s cousin) but who didn’t know what they were doing, then rent consultants who pretended to know what they were doing. Naturally the consultancy firms got into the act, and now you have whole municipalities where nothing gets done on the ground because the consultants are working hard at trying to identify someone to outsource the planning and the information-gathering.

    At my university they sacked all the secretaries (except for the ones for the faculty managers) and ordered all the staff members to do all their own administration (including all the unnecessary stuff attempting to prove that we were actually teaching people, but with nobody capable of checking whether the teaching was worth anything). Then came COVID when nobody could check on anything, and nobody seemed to care. Meanwhile we were getting students who hadn’t learned anything at school because the same problems applied there, but who were astute enough to submit fake downloaded essays which had to be marked as if they were real because the faculties wouldn’t allow us to fail people. All ultimately ideas coming from consultants the government hired to implement ideas from New Zealand, themselves taken from Thatcher’s attack on British universities in the 1980s.

    Meanwhile the lights go off every few hours, the railways have collapsed, the airlines run erratically, the ports are being sold off to foreign companies with no due diligence to check what they’re doing to do with them, and as I write the minibus taxi industry is bringing Cape Town transport to a halt (burning buses and blocking freeways) because they’re upset about being expected to abide by road traffic by-laws. While in Gauteng illegal miners are shooting at passing police officers with automatic rifles and getting away with it.

    This is the future, apparently, and nothing can stop it.

  49. podcastkid

    Re one of your comments above, JBird4049, my mother transferred from Virginia to Long Beach in high school. She said it was much more integrated, and indicated from that she learned a lot. The same HS had at least one young Hollywood starlet dropped off by her chauffeur. Talk about pluralism in one place!

    This you wrote I think is salient…

    Really, part of American education’s problem is that actually teaching is not the goal, but the infliction of the latest fad, ideology, or harebrained idea of the moment often for profit.

    That statement and Yves’ Andrei Martyanov quote in some way seem to be talking about the same thing. Forgive me for citing harebrained concepts I’ve picked up from the net, but it seems like we’ve gone into a life fairly much lived in the imagination (the harebrained idea I read is that imagination is an “astral” domain). Except that, as in my age TV dictated what we imagined, so in this age it’s net gadgets. Nevertheless, in play my generation’s imaginations were less controlled I think than those of this era (the simpler toys Community Playthings used to make for instance; don’t know about now).

    Proportion is a thing I think the younger group has lost track of. And even those just behind me like Blinken.

    Due to some bias I’ve got I’m leaving out the para’s last sentence below…

    ‘We don’t know the mechanism whereby nonlife turns into life, so we have no way of estimating the odds … It may be one in a trillion trillion (it’s easy to imagine that), in which case, Earth life may be unique in the observable universe,’ Davies told in an email.

    Scientific American

    To get out there and find other life has been one of those “fads,” though for sure not in education soley. They never stressed how far away it might end up.

    The limits on what we should expect. One thing I found hard that Jacques Ellul wrote was that ISMW we had to face payback for having been colonizers. Shoot, me?! I didn’t colonize! But I have to take his point…it’s simply a sociological phenomenon. The “karma” of institutions? I think it’s a state of being such institutions must adapt to. It’s useless and vain to keep imagining we’ll keep convincing them they’re the ones with bad karma.

    1. podcastkid

      Correction. I guess the difference re Long Beach Polytechnic High is that it was integrated.

Comments are closed.