Devolution and the Decline in Operational Capacity and Elite/Managerial Competence

Many pundits and commentators have been taking notice of how a worrisome number of people in positions of power in advanced economies seem unable to manage their way out of a paper bag. This is taking place despite the fact that the US, EU, and UK prize having credentials, as in at least a college education, in many cases advanced degrees, and in some posts, relevant experience (expertise in a particular field). One would think that the attainment of these status markers would require a minimum level of being able to set goals, identify what it would take to reach them, and then work in systematic way towards the objective.

Let’s give some examples:

The Greece bailout negotiations of 2015. Many advocated having Greece leave the Eurozone. They were unwilling to hear that it would take a wartime level of mobilization to achieve that result without wrecking the already-crippled Greek economy. One major obstacle they reflexively rejected were the processes needed to launch a new currency. Designing it, printing it, refitting ATMs to dispense two currencies (Euros and the new drachma) or merely just the new drachma would take a year at a bare minimum. IT experts estimated that coding for a new currency would take a bare minimum of three years, not only among Greek banks but many other payment system participants.

Another was that most of Greek’s debt at that point was English law debt and so could not be redenominated as Greek currency debt by legislation in Greece. So the expected outcome of the new drachma falling in value, which would help Greece in trade, would make the debt load worse.

Yet another was that any whiff that Greece was about to launch a new currency, and presumably force-convert Euros in Greek banks to that currency, would lead to a massive exodus of funds to banks outside Greece, cratering the banking system.

The point was not simply that this idea would be extremely difficult to implement and fraught with potential downsides larger than the assumed upside. It was that supposed experts waved away the idea that this change would be hard. Surely the person saying that was a banking industry/Troika stooge, hostile to Greek interests. In other words, it was even more revealing that they were not willing to deal with the identified problems, but engaged in ad hominem attacks.

Brexit. This could be an extremely long story, but to keep it short, the Government weirdly decided to treat a non-binding, not well-articulated referendum as binding. People in the UK did know what being in the EU meant, but were not told what being outside the EU would mean (except for the red-bus lies about savings that supposedly could go to the NHS but never materialized). The failure to understand what Brexit would mean in practice allowed a group of radicals (which we called Ultras) to drive the train because Tereasa May’s snap election backfire left her with a razor-thin majority, making their votes essential to do anything.

Even over multiple extensions of Brexit deal-completion deadline, it was striking to see how few among the pols and prognosticators understood that the result of Brexit would be a hard border with the EU, and that would impose new requirements on importers and exporters, from VAT withholding to declaration forms of various sorts to even new complexities in contracting for truckers. Yet there were regular rumors that businesspeople were acutely aware of these looming demands, but were afraid to speak out because it was believed the Government would exact punishment on them in any way it could.

Again, to abbreviate and risk over-simplifying, one of the big negotiating obstacles was the so-called Irish border, as in the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Having any sort of customs process there would be unworkable due to the number of crossing points and how much casual to-ing and fro-ing across the border there was in daily life (including by cows!). But the UK was dead set against the solution of having Northern Ireland subject to EU trade rules and having only a “sea border” (BTW not all that easy either but way less bad than a hard land border). The EU rejected a porous border and Northern Ireland on UK rules, since Northern Ireland could then become a back door for all sorts of non-compliant goods to enter the EU.

It was not much covered in the press, but the UK eventually capitulated.

The Western prosecution of the war in Ukraine. We and others have written the equivalent of books on this topic. Some short examples: at the start of the conflict, the Western plan to subdue Russia rested on the belief that the sanctions would lead to regime change, and on top of that, to the extent there was much fighting, the Russian military would quickly fail or even run away (recall that was a strong belief in the planning for the super duper counter-offensive). The Russians engaged in a deliberately light-weight invasion so as to show they were serious about getting the Donbass festering wound cleaned up, but did not intend to conquer Ukraine. Their objective was to get Ukraine to the negotiating table in short order. They did look successful until the US and UK scuppered the talks.

So what happened? The West doubled down on Plan A, to no success. Attempts to do better at that, like ramp up military production, have come to very little.

Russia dithered until the embarrassing and (for Russia-friendly parts of Ukraine) highly problematic retreats from Kherson and Kharkiv. Then Russia moved forward with Plan B: its partial mobilization and greatly increasing weapons output (my impression was that that had started but kicked into higher gear as of fall 2022).

Mind you, this Russian change was not hidden. Yet the West refused to take it seriously, allowing Russia ample time to retrain the called-up reservists and then seek large-scale enlistments. Russia’s increases in output and improvements in weapons systems have not been a secret. Instead, the response has been self-deluding propaganda: that the Russias were suffering huge losses, were about to run out of missiles any day now, were having to get their munitions from North Korea, Iran, and China.

Now the press is admitting that the prospects for Ukraine are poor and the West has no Plan B.

Let’s return to the sorry state of what passes for leadership and management in the West. The conventional explanations, of late-state capitalism/neoliberalism run wild and elite malfeasance, do not seem sufficient to explain the pervasiveness and acceptance of rank incompetence. I think we need to consider other factors to get a full picture.

One that seems likely to me is devolution, used in the sense where I first encountered the term, in Fine Arts 13 in college. This was a serious history of arts course, with tough exams.

It used “devolution” to describe how technology made possible increased output at the cost of increased crudeness. The example was carved statues. In the classical Greek era, all statues were made using chisels. In the later Roman period, artists started to use drills. It was not hard to see the difference in the quality of the work; if nothing else, curls and other renderings of hair were subtly cruder with the drills.

Not only did this change result in a reduction of skill levels, but it also may have changed aesthetics, as in produced an acceptance fo the coarser statues and a loss of appreciation for more finely detailed pieces.

To our current situation. I recall reading management guru Peter Drucker, the dean of the later industrial era in the US, worrying around 1980 about how the symbol economy was becoming detached from the real economy and he did not see how that could be reversed. He was talking not just about financialization, although that was a big part. He seemed to have an inchoate fear that the rise and increasing influence of symbol manipulators would operate to the detriment of running physical operations well.

1980 was just before desktop computing became prevalent. I was one of the last generation on Wall Street to prepare financial analyses and forecasts on green accountants’ ledger paper, ordering SEC and company records from the library, extracting numbers manually and entering them by hand, then crunching numbers with a calculator. That laborious process weirdly had an upside. All the juniors at Wall Street shops understood the ins and outs of financial statements. Computing by hand also meant you would recognize patterns as you were putting the presentations together (as well as see oddities that showed you’d made an error!).

The class after mine instead made significant use of company data printed out from Compuserve. That was known to have errors. Yet the normally mistake-phobic Goldman corporate finance department didn’t have a concern about using bad data with clients (who might even recognize some of the Compuserve mistakes), in that the view seemed to be sort-of-official corrupted information was OK. It was also clear these younger bankers wound up less technically knowledgeable.

Now consider just this first order effect. The deskilling of the work would allow more senior people to devalue the labor of the lower ranks, as in see them as not deserving of as much pay. That did not happen in investment banking; the bosses demanded more output instead. But in many fields, from computing to law, entry-level jobs were being substantively hollowed out, with fewer and fewer opportunities to learn tradecraft. This has happened as many professional firms have increased the sizes of their pyramids, as in lengthening average time to partner and/or lowering the ratio of new hires to eventual partners. While this cannot be attributed solely or even mainly to the presumed and probable actual de-skilling of lower ranks, it probably contributed.

We can see this propensity even more in hourly work, with increased surveillance and explicit productivity demands on seen-as-low-level laborers. The bosses treat them as tools, with little belief that their observations matter or that they have developed skills (beyond mastering company routines) that have much value.

A second effect has been the tendency to mistake menus with meals, which has many manifestations, such as believing that PowerPoint presentations correspond to reality. Again I saw this on Wall Street with the way spreadsheet programs made it vastly easier to run financial forecasts. Before, forecasts were generated only when necessary, such as merger modeling. The reason was they were very costly. One error would make everything to the right incorrect. I had one urged exercise where the partners had two of us (the later infamous John Thain and me) run the same computations in parallel to make sure they were done accurately and speedily.

Due to the resources and time required, anyone who prepared these forecasts thought long and hard about the underlying scenarios they were meant to represent. But when it became trivial to jigger assumptions and produce yet another model run, I saw not just the M&A bankers but even the clients treat the model as if it were the deal, as opposed to a representation of a deal. Making the numbers work, which had always been a concern, started to become paramount. I’m far from the only one who noticed this shift. Technology expert Michael Shrage, whose book Serious Play focused on how the choice of modeling approaches affected development in various industries, starting with cars. His long section on financial modeling took note of the fact that the output was taking on a life of its own, which he also recognized as not desirable.

This phenomenon, of computing and digital power reducing the cost of production and thus leading to less engagement in planning, is widespread. Look at how, when pictures were taken on film, most users would take some care before making a shot. Now one can make many images and hope for the best. Even though CAD/CAM has no doubt largely been a boon, I wonder if it too has had an effect on skills and how management views the indispenability of designers.

I’ll stop here because even though I have been noodling this notion about this idea for a while, to do it justice would take considerably more thought and research. I’ve started above with only some of the simple but telling examples from early in this shift. But as we move forward in time, behaviors society-wide have changed even more as technology has allowed for the hollowing out of service and depersonalization, from low-friction online shopping to online dating. Wonder why young people are getting less sex despite online dating allegedly being more successful than the old “get out and mingle” strategies? Might it be at least partly to the supposed increased efficiency coming at the expense of flirting skills?

The more general point, which I have yet to tie neatly into the decline of operational competence, is that the deployment of technologies has resulted in many many tasks becoming much easier. This has contributed to naive managerialism, that if a subordinate or interlocutor tells someone that a situation is difficult, it must be because they aren’t clever, or worse, are trying to con you by making mountains out of molehills. Many have the propensity to fire or otherwise sideline parties who are trying to give them a picture of unpleasant realities and instead turn to enablers. In the bad old days, there were more natural checks on this sort of behavior, since managers and executives tended to have long job tenures at one or two companies, so bad judgement would catch up with some of them. But with job-hopping, misleading accounting (like hiding losses then having every five year purges, presented as special writeoffs), highly-developed PR and stock buybacks to cover up for poor performance, accountability is virtually non-existent in the corporate arena, where measurable results are supposed to matter.

Magical technological outcomes, starting with the fact that people all over the world can plug devices into wall sockets to power them, mask all the invention and infrastructure development over many many years that made these foundational systems possible. And we’ve built even more, large and small. Too many, particularly those in high positions, seem to regard their existence as facts of nature and have become dangerously detached from what it takes to make significant changes, be it greatly increase the level and effectiveness of military production to devise integrated, effective approaches to limiting the impact of climate change and implementing them.

I hope readers will pipe up if they have seen similar cases in their fields, of certain types of technology advances having the effect of eroding executive ability to contend with new and difficult problems.

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129 comments

  1. Louis Fyne

    death by 1,000 cuts….among which:

    there isn’t any turnover in the DC political class (cuz the money and power are too intoxicating);

    social media has made it infinitely easier to hire people both just like you in paper credentials, but also mentality (eg, try being hired in a brand name DC think tank with excellent paper credentials but a social media feed that’s interpreted as pro/anti-XYZ);

    then add (imo) paper credentials have been watered down over the decades…I wish I had a time machine conduct an experimental intellectual face-off between 100 random elite college grads from 2010 versus the same from 1955.

    given years and years of negative real interest rates policy, success in “the system” isn’t determined less by merit and more by proximity to the monetary printing press.

    Reply
    1. IMOR

      1955? Famblog], 1975 or -80 blows 2010 away every time, and you coukd take the earlier team from top state schools and watch the 2010 Ivy Leaguers melt like the Wicked Witch of the West.

      Reply
    2. NotTimothyGeithner

      Chinese localcrats control a great proportion of their budgets that US localcrats. I believe managed competition is good. The local autarch knows the autarch the next town over might show him up, costing autarch status, so they need to work harder.

      Then you take it out further into other areas when we had more medium sized companies. People had options to leave. “Quiet quitting” is all the rage, but companies had greater incentive people to keep employees.

      I actually think the 2010 vs 1955 comparison would produce similar results. The issue isn’t the randomized trial as much as the elites are random. Even a company like Boeing knows they can be bums because the Federales will bail them out.

      Reply
      1. ADB

        There is another point about Chinese “localcrats” that a number of people who study the political and economic structure of China, from the local, grass-roots level to the center have pointed out.
        The claim is the thesis of scale-related mechanism for selection, effectiveness and competence, in addition to “loyalty” in both the political and the economic sphere. -The fact that China, with its mix of economies-of-scale, large geographic-market oriented public sector organizations, and nimble, smaller, largely service-specific private enterprises has been so successful testifies to the validity of the scale-specific approach – Market signals and private initiative at “grass roots” level, and coordination, planning, competence-based selection, national and social purpose at the national level.
        Success “metrics” in business and administration are followed but looks like the assymetric information problem of “signalling” and credentials that Yves refers to, through fancy degrees from elite institutions, whereby its the “stamp” rather than any concrete due diligence that determines prospects, success, promotion etc is taking hold there as well.

        Reply
  2. t

    Too many, particularly those in high positions, seem to regard their existence as facts of nature and have become dangerously detached from what it takes to make significant changes, be it greatly increase the level and effectiveness of military production to devise integrated, effective approaches to limiting the impact of climate change and implementing them.

    I think the thing is, those in high positions take their own very existence as a fact of nature (
    Sun King) and image that very super brains that made them godlike cannot be wrong.

    Reply
  3. Neutrino

    If it is on green-bar paper, it must be true.

    That was one mantra from the early dot-matrix printer days, said half in jest by analysts. Their target audience was older and did not have the PC experience that the new whiz-kids had. Old spreadsheets really were big sheets, not manipulable images or symbols.

    …people all over the world can plug devices into wall sockets to pawer them…

    There is some delightful, or terrifying, imagery in the above quote. People devolving to animals, pawing their ways through what used to be real thought and engagement activities.

    I’d recommend Yves’ article for intro classes, orientations and performance reviews, among others.

    Reply
      1. Jams O'Donnell

        Spell checkers are weird. I have a list of made-up words (don’t ask) and some are ‘recognised’ and some not!

        Reply
        1. Dave Hansell

          On which note, Jams, I recall using a word processing package in the late 80’s/ early 90′ s called WordPerfect 7.

          It’s spell checker had an unusual aversion to the word criteria. If you wrote it as “criteria” the spell checker would offer “criterea” as the correct option. However, if you typed “criterea” it would correct you with “criteria” and you would end up in a loop in which each was offered in turn as the ‘correct’ spelling.

          Reply
  4. chuck roast

    Thanks for the bit about “devolution” in art class. Who knew Art History could be so rigorous? I was immediately put in mind of great marine painter John Stobart who died recently. Reputedly a lousy sailor, he was prized beyond all others by marine art collectors. When asked about his opinion on “abstract” art, he said, “That’s a lot of baloney, that stuff.” Here is a small picture of his that was recently auctioned off down the Cape. Star of the show.

    Reply
    1. CA

      https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/01/arts/john-stobart-dead.html

      May 1, 2023

      John Stobart, Celebrated Maritime Painter
      Dismissing modern art as “baloney,” he made millions as a master of historical harbor paintings.
      By Alex Williams

      John Stobart, a British-born artist whose evocative, meticulously researched oil paintings of 19th-century harbors and tall ships earned him a reputation as one of the world’s foremost maritime painters, as well as millions of dollars, died on March 2 in Wellesley, Mass. He was 93.

      His death was confirmed by his wife, Anne Fletcher.

      A product of Britain’s Royal Academy of Art, Mr. Stobart moved to the United States in 1970, when conceptual art, Op Art and Minimalism were riding high in the wake of Abstract Expressionism. Affable, unassuming and unfailingly candid, Mr. Stobart would have none of it.

      “I’ve never bought it, and the general public has never bought it either,” he said of abstract art in an interview with The Boston Globe in 1986. “That’s a lot of baloney, that stuff.”

      Instead, he conjured the past as a master of richly detailed historical works brimming with schooners, brigs and sloops, their sails flapping under moody clouds, with shore lights twinkling in the distance.

      Working out of studios in the Boston area, on Martha’s Vineyard and in several other locations, Mr. Stobart, who lived in Medfield, Mass., employed the same taste for exhaustive historical detail as Patrick O’Brian, the prolific Anglo-Irish novelist known for his bracing tales of naval heroics.

      He left no detail to chance, traveling to the locations he painted, consulting old daguerreotypes of harbors and ships and going out to sea on various watercraft to learn the most arcane points about their engineering and behavior on the water…

      Reply
      1. CA

        “I’ve never bought it, and the general public has never bought it either,” [John Stobart] said of abstract art in an interview with The Boston Globe in 1986. “That’s a lot of baloney, that stuff.”

        While Stobart was a wonderful painter, this crude dismissal of abstract art is unfortunate and shows a lack of understanding by the painter.

        Reply
        1. JBird4049

          I have never thought that all modern art is nonsense, but there probably are very good reasons for the CIA to subsidize certain painters and writers as well as workshops. To me, the ability of the arts to communicate has greatly decreased and has become fascile, maybe superficial is better, much as the ability to manage has collapsed as well. The former has no soul, and at its best is merely propaganda, while the latter shows a similar emptiness.

          I could go on a similar rant about modern architecture, which has issues of ugliness, the ability to dehumanize, and lacking in functionality. It seems to have really started in the late 1970s as even Brutalism, which I despise, and Internationalism, which is midcentury modernism without the soul, had soul, even beauty sometimes, somehow, and functionality.

          And now we see a similar process in apps and electronics.

          They are all very different areas, but they all have been going a process of decay with the focus on immediate profits regardless of the consequences being at least a cause. I also have a gut feeling that this oversimplifies the causes. It is a start, a large thread to pull.

          Reply
        2. bonks

          Some abstract art (and modern art in general) can be visually pleasing, that is true, but overall it is baloney. In my little circle of modern art industry, it is full of art critics (most of whom are gay men) propping up young artists who have too little life experience to understand what they’re making. These ‘art critics’ wrap their works in pseudo-philosophical mumbo jumbo to sell them to international galleries (many run by gay men) and private clients, many of whom are also gay men. They do not buy out of artistic merit, but for investment purposes like a crypto pump-and-dump scheme, as well as money laundering.

          Reply
          1. MFB

            I think the gay bit, while true, is a red herring. Once upon a time gay people were excluded from a lot of profit-making activities except art and what is hilariously now called “creative industry”. Point is they’re still there, and they’re still making profits, but now they’re making profits out of marketing scheiss and calling it shinola.

            South African art used, for the most part, to be political (either racist-nationalist or anti-racist-nationalist. Some of it was pretty good, some of it was pretty crap. But once politics ceased to be a driving force the majority of people stopped looking at it and it was taken over by people who had no idea what they were doing so imitated whatever the Americans were doing that seemed easy. So now all South African art is investment art, usually of no aesthetic or moral value whatsoever but extraordinarily expensive.

            Reply
  5. Pelham

    Re Greece: Perhaps the lesson to be drawn is that any nation in the euro should quietly, behind the scenes draw up plans and contingencies for launching (or relaunching) their own currencies so they have most of the pieces in place in the event their EU brethren decide to put the screws to them. Same applies to Scotland and the pound sterling.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Can’t be done. They need payment system player all over the world, like international banks and Visa and Mastercard, to code for the new currency. So secrecy is impossible.

      Reply
      1. Dave Moore

        If you want to get out of the Euro, you don’t jump to your own currency. You jump to the dollar. Having the dollar as your currency has problems, but there’s less constraint on your financial system than with the Euro. You then introduce your own currency pegged to the dollar, and finally, when everything has stabilized, you let it float.

        Reply
        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Absolutely no one was discussing that as an idea for Greece in 2015.

          And the Greek banks would still have had to recode customer accounts to be in dollars and re-kit ATMs.

          And where do they get the dollars to stock them, pray tell? The ECB through its ELA program was lending Greek banks Euros on a huge scale to prop them up. Trying to convert to a currency they could not issue would crash the banks.

          And what happens to all the debt, denominated in Euros? That was the motivation for the change, not for the hell of it. There were in-depth studies at the time that showed that Greece’t trade mix would not benefit from depreciating the currency. The higher cost of necessary imports, particularly petrochemicals, food, and pharmaceuticals, would hurt and their export sectors would not benefit much.

          And you still admit they have the problem of converting to their own currency, which as I discussed, as soon as word gets out, will crash the banking system.

          Reply
  6. Bsn

    Yves, you’re starting to sound like an old codger. :-)
    However, this old codgerette agrees. There are so many subjects that confirm your observation. I was a teacher for 30 years and I had many college level student teachers to mentor. Their capacity and competence has eroded over time. A common initial exercise beyond the classroom was to have them write home to parents regarding something such as an upcoming field trip or how their child was performing, either well or poorly. The student teacher’s ability to write a cogent letter, program or email home decreased year upon year. The insertion of overly casual verbiage was one aspect that really got to me. “Hey, Mrs. Smith, Your daughter’s doin’ pretty cool lately …..”. There has become less ability to understand the target audience – in this case an elder. General literacy and the awareness of where others are coming from has diminished markedly. Well, I could go on, but let’s see what others think.

    Reply
    1. Jams O'Donnell

      Yeah. Another slant on all this is here

      But I blame Neo-Liberalism and the mad boosterism of ‘individual freedom’, combined with the systematic dismantling of the social input of the ‘state’, led by the US but enthusiastically endorsed by the bought and paid for European ‘elites’.

      Reply
  7. Lost in Africa

    “Even though CAD/CAM has no doubt largely been a boon, I wonder if it too has had an effect on skills and how management views the indispenability of designers.”

    It has indeed Yves. When I was in the Project Management side of the business, my brother in law, a PR Eng and qualified draughtsman, frequently complained that the current generation of CAD operators could not even construct a drawing properly. As for design draughtsman, we started hiring new engineering graduates and training them to draw. Worked a treat.

    I do know of a draughting school that was started in Johannesburg, where the trainees were put on the board for a year before being allowed near a computer. All classes were fully booked and I sincerely hope the school is still operating.

    Reply
    1. ambrit

      My Dad was an “apprentice” draghtsman back in the glorious 1950s. Living in London, after exiting school at 16, the average age for that back then, he signed on with a Dutch engineering company to learn the field. He regaled me with tales of being sent to various factories and job sites, and not for a day or two, but for weeks at a time, to learn the ‘nuts and bolts’ of building and engineering tasks. He particularly remembered a week spent in a pencil factory. Since pencils were the basic tool of drawing back then, learning the proper care and use of that tool was important. Till the day he died, he finish sharpened his pencils with fine grit sandpaper. The same went for steel, concrete, sand, gravel, wood, and much else besides. If it went into a building, he learned about the sources of the materials and the properties of those materials.
      The upshot of all this was that, years later when he was applying for a position that was overseen by the Agency for International Development, his apprenticeship papers were accepted as equivalent to an advanced degree in the field.
      Another effect of this pathway to competence in the field was that Dad never underestimated the basic workers on a job site. Several times he received crucial information concerning problems on jobs from “ground level” workers when the ‘credentialled’ ‘specialists’ were all at sea.
      As others above have noted, one major drawback to Credentialism is that those “with the proper papers” do not take the time to recognize their own shortcomings, with predictable dire results.
      Unfortunately, one major outcome of this trend is that innocents are killed as a result. As Mz. Smith mentions above, the conflicts in Gaza and the Ukraine are prime examples of that.

      Reply
    2. Screwball

      Adding to;

      “Even though CAD/CAM has no doubt largely been a boon, I wonder if it too has had an effect on skills and how management views the indispenability of designers.”

      I am fortunate enough to have lived and worked through the “drafting” era of engineering/civil/architecture drawings from pencils, paper, mechanical arms, and the calculator era into CAD/CAM. Now I teach CAD in a state college as a retiree.

      My how things changed over the last 40 years. There has always been a problem between how this stuff is taught, going clear back to when we were still using paper, and today.

      In the late 70s I took my first college “mechanical drawing” class which was a requirement for an engineering degree. My first drafting teacher was a professional draftsman during the day (this was a night class) who know his stuff. Myself and another guy were a bit older than the rest of the class and had experience with drawings. He took us aside and taught us shortcuts that made our lives easier, quicker, and better. He explained how these little shortcuts would help us because in the real world it worked like this; here, draw this, when is it going to be done? As I found out once working in the industry – that’s exactly how it works.

      My second class was taught by a high school/college teacher who never worked one single day in the “here, draw this, when is it going to be done” world. He was a tyrant who obsessed with minute details that really added little to the final product – a functioning drawing that explained to someone else how to make a part. My first drawing was returned as a wadded up piece of paper thrown on my desk. Why?

      It was an isometric cross section of a bolt. This requires drawing ellipses (because the circles are not normal to the screen) which I did with a compass (not sure some of my students even know what that is today). I thought this was good because it would show where the centers for the major/minor diameters would be. Nope, he expected us to draw the ellipses with a plastic template as to not punch little holes through the paper. This was time consuming, not learning the proper way geometry works, and IMO, stupid. That was just one example. I quit the class. I ended up teaching myself.

      As time progressed and CAD took over, I noticed the same type of problems. Teachers who never experienced the real world vs. teachers who were lifetime students. Same with the people who did the hiring.

      In this trade, and I call it a trade, good CAD people are really hard to find. Mostly for two reasons 1) they are not taught correctly (by people that have no idea how the real world works, and 2) the people who do the hiring are inept or the procedure to do so is wrong. I would never hire a CAD guy today without giving them a CAD test. This would be the last step in the hiring process after picking some resumes, a phone interview, then a live interview which would include the CAD test if it advanced that far.

      Today, too many times (I know this from interviews because I moved around a bit) the person is hired by HR people who have no clue how to hire a good CAD guy, and the company either allows their arrogance to do this, or they just don’t have a clue to begin with. I used to sit in on interviews but rarely was I listened to when the hiring decision was made. I recommend this guy, he had the correct answers, give him the CAD test. Nope, we like this guy, his GPA is higher.

      So they hire Mr. GPA who can’t pour piss out of a CAD boot if the directions were on the bottom so I get to train and babysit him for the next who knows how many months because he can’t draw a line. I’m getting flashbacks from cubical hell that I do not miss. All while I have my own project that is late because I’m too busy babysitting Mr. GPA and I have to work 12 hours a day and weekends because “here, draw this, when is it going to be done.”

      Thanks HR!!!

      Too many of our companies are ran by inept ass kissing yes people who only care about climbing the corporate latter. Hiring competent people is secondary to quality, cost, and good workers who in this case, know how to design parts. I could write a book. Nothing much changed in the 40 plus years I did this, and I don’t expect things to change anytime soon either.

      Reply
      1. Glen

        Like s above, I also learned drafting back on the 70’s from a real drafter. Very much learn how to get a full, properly organized D sheet completed per day, working with a designer, making a complete drawing package. Later while taking drafting at the University, it was much more – here are the concepts of drafting which just barely skimmed what I had to learn as a drafter. But after that, I had about five – ten years where I was the design engineer, working with the drafter, and the machinists (Toolmakers, very, very good machinists) that would be making the equipment. This is where I learned Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing (GD&T), and how GD&T plays into how the parts will be made by the machinists while ensuring the thing will work as designed.

        Here’s one small example of how newer engineers don’t seem to have any of this experience. They come right out of college, and learn how to use CAD/CAM, and start design things without actually understanding that these things have to be built. We were staring at the drawings for a wing spar (big long one), and the mounting holes for everything which will be on the spar were all tight toleranced the whole length of the spar. So we were being tasked with making a spar that had hundreds (maybe thousands) of holes that had to be within thousands of an inch over the whole length of a 100 foot spar that was going to flex inches when in use, and grow/shrink as temperature varied. I asked him how he was going to hold tolerances to which he replied, I don’t know. I told him I’d go find the kid engineer and have a chat with him and the lead engineer. The older, more experienced engineers would never have released drawings like that.

        Reply
        1. Screwball

          Well said, and great points. GD&T is an industry in and of itself. Needed, but abused. It all boils down to interpretation, and very costly. The more control frames you put on a drawing (hieroglyphics I call them) the more expensive the parts become. While corporate pounds cost saving into our head while attending our “corporate obedience” training classes I was forced to take. Funny that. Ever heard of the “KISS” rule (keep it simple stupid). Obviously not.

          But it serves the purpose allowing people who have no idea how the part is going to be made (along with assembly – who’s the genius who decided putting an automotive fuel pump in the gas tank?) create things that make no sense?

          Like you say, the new hires make these really cool parts but if anybody can actually make them, they cost a gazillion dollars. Nobody knows any better so they allow it go go through. Perhaps millions and millions of parts. Then when you have a problem…

          I did 25 years for 2 multinational automotive related companies and an appliance maker – hoo boy!!!! Talking to the guys on the floor was long lost there, but even time I spent (before and after getting too old (59) and getting laid off) in small places; the relationship between the office (including engineering) was awful. They hated each other. I don’t understand why, but probably because I’m too old.

          The people who run our machines, the people who make our parts, the people who get all these nice things into our lives are part of the process. They can be, and should be, our best friends. They know what’s up. Too many in marketing, design, and manufacturing these days don’t. And don’t get me started on the bean counters – penny smart and dollar stupid – and that’s all I got to say about that.

          When I started the old guys would take you under their wing and teach you how things worked. They loved it, we appreciated it, took advantage of it, and learned. That is lost today.

          It took me over 20 years to watch Office Space the movie even though I heard about it for years. I don’t know what took me so long. Not the Onion – reality. We have all these nice things that our technology helped bring us, but to be honest, and having lived in the belly of the beast, I honestly don’t know how they manage to make anything.

          We had a saying; the only way this can get more (family blog) up is if we get bigger.

          Reply
          1. Glen

            Boy, can I relate to your comments! I think we have lived somewhat parallel lives. We (engineering group) are responsible for the equipment used in the factory so in that situation where we were staring at the spar drawings it was because the other engineer was responsible for spec’ing/designing/procuring/programming the machinery (in this case, very custom CNC machine) to drill the spars. Our jobs meant we were working closely with the factory floor folks all the time.

            What we constantly saw was that upper management treated these super skilled workers as replaceable widgets, and as much as we tried to automate everything, having those super skilled workers was vital to getting things done right. Pretty much all gone now. Upper management made is a priority to wreck the work force (I think management hated unions and went out of their way to destroy them not realizing what it would do). All supposedly to save money, but by that point, labor costs at the factory were less than five percent of the total cost of the product so it never made sense to us. It just made our jobs harder and harder as all those skilled workers left.

            Reply
            1. ambrit

              As a semi-skilled worker in construction, I echo your sentiments from the other ‘direction.’ Being told flat out on opening day of a mid-sized construction project by the General Foreman that; “We don’t want to hear nothing about no damn unions on this job. Got that?” was a really forceful way of establishing dysfunction as the ruling methodology for the job site.
              Later, that same General Foreman had a big overhead mushroom shaped water storage tower on another job collapse during testing. Stupidity has consequences in the real world.

              Reply
  8. Patrick Morrison

    I think this is related; I have a friend who worked on a US Navy ship. He was concerned about a change from paper charts to electronic charts because he felt that the crew’s effort to understand and update the paper charts kept the ship safer than relying on electronic data that could be mistaken.

    Reply
    1. Louis Fyne

      I agree.

      If I had infinite cash, I’d want to test my hypothesis that even something as mundane as forcing an electronic GPS map to “always point north” compared to the GPS display showing the same bearing as your movements dramatically changes brain functions.

      Reply
      1. doug

        Having worked on boats for a while, the following held true: If you learned navigation on paper charts, you have N up, if you learned on GPS Multifunction Display, then course up.
        And course up drives some folks nuts and decreases map skills greatly.

        Reply
        1. Etrigan

          Course-up is the bane of my existence. I already have sensory problems with right and left orientation and course up apps turn navigating a familiar location into a 3 Body Problem.

          Reply
    2. ambrit

      The best example of this would be the US Navy reintroducing physical sextant drills for bridge personnel. This happened after a series of avoidable collisions at sea. Sometimes, the old ways really are the best. Now, I wonder just how dysfunctional AI naval navigation will turn out to be. The Navy, having serious problems crewing up their full fleet, will try this out, I guarantee. In many fields, AI is “replacing” physical people. Why should the Navy be remiss in following the trend?
      Is there a Seanet to mirror the “fictional” Skynet?

      Reply
      1. Sam Adams

        GPS and electronic maps and positioning software will be as useful as a buggy whip when the first nuclear device is detonated in space and the EM pulse takes out the satellites. All the Loran towers are now gone.

        Reply
        1. ambrit

          Ah. If that EMP does go off in near Earth space, buggy whips will be more useful than GPS and positioning software because horses will become the primary source of transport traction again.

          Reply
        2. Paradan

          The EM pulse is generated by the atmosphere, not the bomb. Bomb goes off in the upper atmosphere, below satellite orbits, prompt radiation from the bomb smacks the atmosphere causing a giant swirly cascade of fun that fries out electronics down below.

          The initial gamma and neutron flux from a bomb will fry out satellite, but your gonna need one bomb per satellite, as the range of the effect in relation to the dispersion of satellites is too small. Nukes in space are basically just gamma flash bulbs, there’s no boom.

          Reply
      2. scott s.

        There is something to be said for paper charts. In my day you had two different sets of people: quartermasters who did visual navigation and radarmen/operations specialists who did radar navigation. Each had their own set of charts to maintain. I had a mid-grade sailor whose job was to keep a wooden box with heavy paper stock chart cards annotated with the changes from NTM for each chart. When we were getting ready to enter a port he would pull the card and the chart and enter the corrections onto the chart. And there’s something to be said for being able to use dividers and parallel rulers on a physical chart.

        As far as sextant navigation, that’s not going to solve collisions, you need the mark 1 mod 0 eyeball for that. There was an uproar when they stopped teaching celestial at Boat School (USNA). Eventually they brought it back.

        I was working on a project when they first started using CAD in ship design. Prior technique was to layout piping on transparent sheets. Sheets for different systems would be stacked on a light table to check for interferences. Because of the effort, piping/cableways less than 1-1/2 in diameter were considered “field run” — the crafts would figure out where to place it.

        CAD speced things out to 1/16 in tolerance. Like the crafts working under hot sun or freezing cold would be able to work to that.

        Reply
        1. Screwball

          The ship story is interesting. It sounds like they were using 2D CAD (2 dimensions – x and y). I can see the problem happening because of that. You need z – depth.

          Not a CAD problem, a design problem. Don’t know who to blame for that.

          For the record, and not directed at you in any way shape or form, CAD is not like AI. CAD is junk in – junk out. Who’s driving?

          On second thought, maybe it is like AI? It does as instructed.

          Reply
          1. ambrit

            I remember one particularly “fun” job where the roof mounted piping in the hallways, suspended from pre-installed support brackets, cast in the concrete during the pours, such as water, some drains, plus oxygen, nitrogen, and plain air, were staggered into two layers, roughly two to three inches apart. The “fun” part was that the piping that required insulation was placed above the other piping. The insulators had one h— of a job doing those hallways.
            Another problem was trying to silver solder sections of gas piping from below, while standing on ladders. The plans were all over the place so that you could pre-fabricate only a few small sections of piping. Being medical gas lines, the pipes had to be kept purged of regular air, then have a small flow of nitrogen flowing through it during the soldering process so as to eliminate sooting up inside the pipes. The medical quality control boffins were quite strict. Screw this task up and someone could get hurt later on.
            As for piping being specced out to 1/16″ tolerances; the pipe bundles running through the pressure hulls of the American atomic submarines were so designed. I heard that from a man who worked on one at the Connecticut yards.
            I am continually amazed that anything new works at all.

            Reply
  9. Lee

    Tangentially related:

    “There are college kids coming out with business degrees and wanting to go into plant management,” she says. “But the people we’re going to hire [in many cases] are the ones that have worked 20 years and already know everything about the business.”

    Credentialism vs. experience in the hands-on trades and manufacturing, from the Wall Street Journal of all places. Free version at archive.ph. I’m in a blue collar mood today.

    Reply
    1. John Wright

      I was laid off from my tech job in 2003 and took some classes at the local JC before tech opened up again.

      These were classes such as auto electrical systems, machine shop, and automotive air pollution systems.

      One of the instructors mentioned to me that the JC administration viewed the school as divided into two parts: “college prep” and “vocational ed”.

      He mentioned that the administration did not seem to value the “vocational ed” part as much as the “college prep”.

      He closed the conversation with “but we get the jobs”.

      The knowledge is still handy as I am currently helping a friend with his EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) problem on his 1998 Mercedes.

      Reply
  10. Ignacio

    I wish I had Yves’ skills to summarize complex things. May be if and when I grow up! This one is quite good!

    These days I am precisely involved in the making of automated processes to generate offers for roof-top PV in collective residential buildings, including tentative offers made before the viability study and proper analysis of each building. This means that any new technician other than me, if not offered an intensive (if short) training period before, will not have any clue about how to do this by her or himself except introducing a few raw data in a calculator. Each building, each client, they all have their peculiarities, upsides and downsides, that make it viable or not, a good investment or a disaster in the making. They won’t know whether there is a pricing mistake, a misjudgment in energy production/consumption or a fully mistaken design. Someone forgot to check if there is a taller building or a giant sequoia immediately south to the objective building. The tool is not very complex but yet it relays much of its functioning on assumptions that not always hold, and statistical data not valid for “outsider buildings” and would need in many cases a unique treatment. In the end, instead of tailored well-thought designs, you might try to tailor the building to the necessities of the calculator or the monthly objectives. Pretty much as said in the article.

    Yet this automation is badly needed in order to process the ever growing mountain of clients asking. However, the company must find time to educate ad re-educate the technicians on the matter so they know better what they are doing. Robots entering data will get into trouble quite often. Some day these will be replaced by AI to the rejoice of the top managers.

    In summary: an excellent post.

    Reply
    1. ambrit

      As a side note. There are presently more Giant Sequoias in the UK than in California. They were introduced into the Isles back in the 1850s by some old fashioned amateur naturalists. Today, many of these trees are reaching the hundred and fifty years of age range.
      See, cut to 3:00 for history of importation into England: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkdzahyCZdE&ab_channel=LeaveCurious
      Looking a bit further, I find that there are some ‘young’ Redwoods growing in Spain at a site called the Cabezon de la Sal.
      See: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/bosque-de-secuoyas-redwood-forest#:~:text=The%20Cantabrian%20Redwood%20Forest%20in%20Cabez%C3%B3n%20de%20la,of%20118%20feet%20%2836%20meters%29%E2%80%93and%20they%E2%80%99re%20still%20young.

      Reply
      1. Ignacio

        Cabezón de la Sal is located in Cantabria, in the middle of the Spanish Atlantic ocean coast line looking North (Atlantic Ocean, Biscay Gulf, we call it Mar Cantábrico). IMO, the redwood forests are more beautiful than the more commonly planted Eucalyptus you find in this region. I haven’t visited this forest.

        There are specimens of Giant Sequoias in some parks in Spain too. For instance the Royal Gardens & Palace at La Granja de San Ildefonso not far from Madrid. An environment quite similar to their native areas in Sierra Nevada, California. Worth a visit the place. I was thinking on these trees when writing the comment.

        Reply
        1. vao

          IMO, the redwood forests are more beautiful than the more commonly planted Eucalyptus you find in this region.

          I detest those huge eucalyptus monocultures that infest the Iberian peninsula.

          An environment quite similar to their native areas in Sierra Nevada, California.

          Did those giant sequoias actually become naturalized, that is,
          do they reproduce naturally in their new Spanish environment?

          Reply
          1. witters

            “I detest those huge eucalyptus monocultures that infest the Iberian peninsula.”

            Pity us in Australia.

            Reply
  11. fringe element

    Another old codger weighing in here. Did not experience this as a teacher, but just as someone doing fairly routine work in corporate data management. My work was blessedly simple so my contact with managers was minimal.

    Generally it just seemed to me that at my last two jobs, at which I spent about a decade each, management could not tell the difference between people who could, or could not, read and count at an elemental level.

    Not work related, but somewhere in the mid 90s, I helped a friend put together his case for a disability claim. My job was to get letters from people in the neighborhood reporting on changes they had noticed in his behavior that demonstrated his declining capacities. When I collected those letters, it surprised me to see that not even one of them met basic English composition and spelling standards.

    I try to remember when I am talking to people these days that they are functional illiterates, educational attainments notwithstanding.

    Reply
    1. TimH

      I have seen so many presentations with TAM/SAM analyses for new markets or products where the final numbers, derived from absolute guesses for percentages such as growth, end up as 5 significant figure values. Which are perceiced as credible because of the sig figs.

      Reply
  12. oliverks

    I find it truly striking that Western politics currently lacks a clear, inspiring vision. Politicians seem to rely on well-worn ideological tropes and empty campaign slogans, rather than presenting innovative solutions to the challenges we face.

    Consider, for example, the substantial financial commitments made to support Ukraine and provide energy subsidies in Europe. These resources, if strategically invested in renewable energy infrastructure from Scotland to Spain, and even extending into North Africa, could have paved the way for a more secure and sustainable energy future.

    Alternatively, we could channel our efforts towards addressing pressing health concerns, such as combating long COVID and other complex diseases like CFS/ME. By fostering a renewed sense of purpose, we could unlock potential breakthroughs and advancements in medical research.

    There is no shortage of pressing issues that governments can address, and even if they do not achieve their goals, the pursuit of such aims would generate valuable knowledge and progress. One such accessible goal is increasing housing supply, a challenge that requires political courage and determination to overcome. Unfortunately, this vital characteristic appears to be lacking in today’s political landscape, or perhaps the ruling elite fails to recognize the benefits for themselves.

    Regrettably, I must ask, where are the visionary leaders who inspire hope and ambition? To be frank, some of the more criticized leaders, such as Putin and Xi, present a more comprehensive and far-reaching vision than their Western counterparts. This is a stark reminder of the need for revitalized and imaginative political leadership in the West, one that commits to facing the challenges of our time with vigor, creativity, and a renewed sense of purpose.

    Reply
    1. XXYY

      Very insightful post. Not only is it true that public sector leaders seem to have lost both the ability and the desire to inspire other people in the society in order to get something done, but private sector executives and leaders seem to have developed the same affliction. It’s quite rare today to work or report to someone who has an energizing and visionary take on what they are doing and why, let alone the skill to convey that to others.

      Some possible reasons:

      (o) It’s all about the money. Every endeavor is now openly and solely about generating profit to be channeled upward to further enrich rich people.

      (o) I’m just passing through. Everyone from the janitorial staff to C-suite executives sees their current position as a temporary one, at best a stepping stone to something else, or at worst a giant jackpot of some kind after which they can retire to an island somewhere.

      (o) Dumbing down. The days where one spent most of one’s career becoming better at something, little by little, day by day, and being respected and appreciated as a result, seem to have passed. Many once-difficult trades are now either gone, or outsourced, or automated, a boon for employers who no longer have to pay for on the job training or suffer with employees who can’t be easily replaced.

      Hard to either be or act like a visionary when your work seems disposable and temporary.

      Reply
      1. Etrigan

        I am still enough of a dumb optimist that I truly believe De Toqueville’s analysis of the American character still holds up. Buried under all of the spot on reasons you give for public sector malaise I think Americans have an interest in making, unpacking, improving, and understanding what’s under the hood of anything and everything. I just think all the skills attached to cultivating it have been removed from education and professional life, and aren’t generally passed on generationally at this point. So the clock is ticking on it.

        Reply
        1. vao

          I just think all the skills attached to cultivating it have been removed from education and professional life, and aren’t generally passed on generationally at this point.

          In the past, the generational transmission of knowledge and know-how occurred within the (extended) family.

          Two questions to the readership:

          1) How many have transmitted their own knowledge and know-how to a son / daughter, niece / nephew, grandson / granddaughter, etc?

          2) How many would recommend that their son / daughter, etc, follow in their professional footsteps?

          I know that in my case (1) is no, and (2) is only with strong caveats and reservations.

          Reply
          1. JCC

            I had to smile at #2. My father was an MD, surgeon, and pushed me hard during early school years to follow in his footsteps. I did not.

            When I reached my mid 30’s, mid 80’s time frame, we were sitting at the kitchen table having a beer and he said to me, “The smartest thing you ever did was to ignore me and avoid the medical profession.”

            He then went on to explain all the changes between the 50’s and 80’s, insurance requirements, legal requirements, etc which had tremendously added to the time and costs involved in day-to-day operations with only a few advantages to patient care. No longer with us, he would be shocked to see what has happened since then.

            As for #1, I have to give him credit. He taught his family the essentials of self maintenance and when professional medical help is needed and when it should be avoided, not to mention the old adage, Always Get A Second (and third) Opinion :)

            Reply
    2. Kouros

      The political class is just performing as instructed. The most important thing is to implement the Washington consensus and maintain the present structures that under the ridiculous disguise of “democracy” coddles one flavour of ownership elites or other…

      Reply
  13. Tom

    Thank you for this post. I think you are on to something and it would be great to develop it over time.

    The managerial class often do strategy and see implementation as a detail. My partner is an ex-consultant who lives offshore. He waves away problems by saying “we can hire someone to do that”, as if labour markets are deep, hiring is easy and labour is a replaceable unit. Most recently he is pushing to change our factory to a production line, which while certainly more efficient, would cause difficulty in retaining skilled staff as the job becoms repetitive and boring. My partner’s position is that we can just hire new floor workers.

    When you sit in an ivory tower, you see problems like currency changeovers (greece) or new trade deals (brexit) as “implementation details” without realising they are multi-year projects with a good chance of failure.

    At government level there will always be conflict between a technocracy which can solve complex problems through expertise, and democracy with its short political tenures and simple messaging to the voter hoi polloi. In Europe we see the problems with both technocracy (e.g. EU overzealous ivory tower regulation) and democratic solutions (e.g. zero long term thinking in UK politics).

    Finally, it is an observation that people are no good at predicting the future. Educated people are worse because they believe their education gives them insight! The result is that geopolitical decisions like Ukraine go wrong, and large project planning is impossible to get right. In IT it is now widely accepted that waterfall projects don’t work and while this thinking has been adopted elsewhere in engineering (e.g. NASA via SpaceX), governments continue to create a wasteland of unfinished projects with huge overruns in time and money.

    Reply
    1. Glen

      I’m just an old beat down engineer that has worked in the military and very large manufacturing for over forty five years. I have first hand experience that loosing your skilled workers is to be completely avoid in our current situation (COVID, etc). You CANNOT get them back. I’m talking to my old military buddies and finding out the same thing. They can no longer get things done because the workers cannot do it.

      To be honest I hope I am wrong, but at this point I expect things to get worse until our elites recognize that just giving money to some giant mega corps to expand ala the CHIPS Act will do NOTHING to support creating skilled and motivated workers. These workers need a roof over their heads (affordable housing), food on the table (affordable living costs), affordable healthcare (covid, long covid), and even before that – a good education so they walk through the doors with skills. In America, we’ve had forty years of making all of that go away with still no turnaround in sight. Joe just says this is America! We can do anything! And problem solved. What a fool.

      Reply
      1. JCC

        Having both served and worked as a civilian in multiple military environments, public and private, all I can say is, “+1000 and Amen!”

        Reply
  14. Rock Taster

    I experienced a very similar de-skilling in my career as a mining geologist over the last 20 years. When I came up our work was primarily conducted through paper records, hand drawn maps, hand drawn drill logs, and written reports. This time consuming process forced familiarity with our data, such that we could identify outliers, and form thought-out interpretations. In a short time I watched digitization turn most of the work into a garbage-in garbage-out process which traded skill and intuition for “efficiency”. I suspect the results of this will come to roost over the next decade as the industry struggles to replace reserves, or many active mines become unprofitable.

    Reply
  15. Sam Adams

    As usual your observations and ability to put those observations into a coherent narrative continue to amaze and educate me. Thank you.

    Reply
  16. longhaul7

    I’m going to assume that a great many readers and writers here are of an age that have lived through initial changes – that always seem to occur – and the accelerating pace of change that both technology and financialization have wrought. Although we can be accused of shouting “get off my lawn”, there is truth to Yves observations and experience. Unfortunately, we may be the only cohort that wants to read the book. I’ve pondered the subject a lot.

    Mine was the first class (IIT architecture) to use computers in school and my first office work (in Chicago, 1983) exposed me to functioning Autocad as the office was beta testing a new release.

    There is no question that buildings (commercial and residential) have been influenced by the tools used to create them.

    Hand drawing required constant consideration of effort and final outcome – simply because erasing and/or starting over was a pain in the butt. You sketched more, thought thru the issues and then made a commitment to your work product.

    The technology that allows for an almost infinite number of variations (drawing with technological assistance) creates a world with an almost nauseating number of options – that then often need to be printed for comparisons sake.

    It’s an incredibly complex issue as some projects (see Frank Gehry) wouldn’t exist without CAD (computer aided design) but then many of us might add “who cares”.

    There’s money in change – and as Lambert might say, “volatility”.

    Reply
  17. John k

    I recall my excessive hopium regarding Greek and Brit fiascos, not understanding the substantial problems in each.
    Regarding today’s general incompetence among western leadership, imo a lot of the blame falls on short term profits, particularly profits accruing to the individual. So this q bottom line is all important, which means research that pays off next year in a better product or reduced costs, but reduces the bottom line this year, becomes a poor investment by definition. Since this philosophy is now so widespread it affects more than business but politics as well.
    So Biden stiffs the rr workers (whether he doesn’t like union workers or whether he expects corp donations) without worrying he might want union votes a couple years later. Foreign wars can be understood simply based on the vast near term profits, no matter what the long term costs might be. And perhaps stirring up trouble in foreign lands is done partly because the dog can, it makes the doer feel powerful, and is justified to ‘keep us on top’.
    Even msm is on board. Rags hire ex cia but readers are turning away from msm that all parrot the official line. The Ukraine and ME wars will imo likely accelerate the exodus as readers realize the published info is fake news, some turning to alt media and others tuning out. Ethnic groups that formerly voted heavily for dems are losing interest or even flipping to the other side. This seems likely to increase the clout of those that have more enthusiastic followers such as trump or even jfk jr.
    It’s hard to be optimistic re the west’s future, looks more likely the next few centuries will be Asian.

    Reply
  18. Nina

    “Many have the propensity to fire or otherwise sideline parties who are trying to give them a picture of unpleasant realities and instead turn to enablers.”

    The increasing complexity of context is often overlooked within corporate environments. I’ve observed a recurring trend among top leadership, wherein they promote a singular visionary and virtuous narrative during town halls and training sessions, emphasizing storytelling to reinforce it. The expectation is for all employees to conform to this narrative without deviation, even if it contradicts real-life experiences. This poses a critical issue as it hampers companies’ ability to effectively address real-world challenges, as they remain entrenched in a fantasy. Corporate employees often operate at a distance from those directly interfacing with clients, resulting in processes built on idealized models rather than practical realities. Buzzwords like “simplification” and “agile” are used liberally, yet there’s little follow-through to ensure these ideals are realized. Despite discussions around diversity and inclusion, there’s little encouragement for independent thinking or seeking alternative perspectives. This creates a vicious cycle perpetuated by self-deception and the exclusion of dissenting voices challenging the accepted narrative.

    Reply
  19. Aurelien

    I’d just offer a gloss on your comment that “the deployment of technologies has resulted in many many tasks becoming much easier.” I’d express it as “the deployment of technologies has resulted in certain ends, as defined by management, being achieved quicker and with less effort.” The difference of course–which I think is the subject of your essay–is quality. It’s not just quicker, either, there’s something intimidating about the use of technology, some popular-culture science-fiction confusion between crunching numbers electronically and the production of actual knowledge (hence the “AI” scam.) The use of technology feeds into the persistent human dream and delusion that someone else will take over the work for us, and do it better and without effort. I have the impression that people at the top of organisations no more understand the proper use and the strengths and weaknesses of technology than they did thirty years ago.

    It applies in the most basic of ways. When I was young, documents had to be carefully hand-written for typists or clearly dictated. This required thought. Now, you can get anything down, relying on spelling and grammar checkers to pick up your more egregious errors, reusing whole paragraphs if necessary. But dealing these days with official documents in several languages, I notice a massive falling-off in clarity and even basic spelling and grammar, as though the idea is to crack through as quickly as possible, and put out anything that meets the minimum standard that Word will accept. The fact that you can alter documents up to the last second before they are published means that new errors get introduced, and you can often see, by following awkward wording, how the author changed their mind at the last moment but forgot to go back and smooth out the text. I’m an obsessive proof-reader but, curiously I find it harder to be sure that the text is correct now than I did forty years ago.

    Reply
    1. Degringolade

      This kind of thing happened in the sciences as well. I spent time in the early 80’s being a mass-spectrometer kind of guy. Difficult stuff at the time. You really did have to know your chemistry and understand the numbers coming out of the machine.

      I remember when Hewlett-Packard first started adding computerized analysis. The number of samples being analyzed went way up, but the mistakes in the first couple of generations of equipment were horrendous. All the management saw was that we could increase the number of samples analyzed. When a chemist pointed out the mistakes, management usually informed the chemist that the machine knew what was going on and the chemist didn’t.

      After a while, folks started leaving (about the same time that autosamplers came on board) and went to other fields. At that time, the machine took over and the operator simply took the data as correct, reported, and took home his paycheck.

      Reply
  20. Altandmain

    Although I think that there has been a decline in Western elite competence, I am skeptical that technology the dominant factor is to blame.

    The reason why is because we do not see this level of incompetence in other cultures, such as China or Russia itself. They have access to computers and modern technology as well. Note how all of the examples are in the Western world. If technology was to blame, we would expect these mistakes to be universal, not confined to the Western business and political world.

    One can only contrast the stark contrast to China’s high speed rail versus the construction California and the rate of progress that has been made in China. Technology is not the culprit or else the failure should have been universal – if anything, China has become the technology leader that is currently researching more advanced high speed rail technology such as Maglevs.

    Nor is this the only time that technology has deskilled some jobs. The Industrial Revolution saw a huge level of skill loss, as machines replaced many skilled trades, on any even larger scale than today’s computer dominated revolution. None of this has necessarily produced the kind of elite incompetence that we see today. We do see other cases of elite incompetence, such as the late Roman Empire throughout history, but I would contend that isn’t a function of technology, but rather elite greed.

    Going back to my earlier point about this mostly being confined to the West, take for example Putin.

    http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/72994

    In this, he is noting the real wage growth is 8%. The difference is that he sees it as his job to increase the real wages and living standards of ordinary people in Russia. There does not appear to be any evidence that Putin and the Russian Establishment have seen a decline in competence due to technology. Certainly not when we compare these individuals to the Soviet leadership later days of the USSR. Today’s Russia has access to the same computers we have in the West, and technology that the leadership of the late USSR didn’t have.

    Instead I would argue it is how the elite have used technology and their views on workers. Technology has merely given the elite more tools like surveillance or free trade to oppress the poor.

    Likewise, how elites are selected is the failing more so than technology. The elites of the late Roman Empire may have had much worse technology, but they ran their already declining empire into the ground. Like the West today, we see the most corrupt and ruthless elites being selected, not necessarily the ones that would run society the best.

    The same is true today. It reflects poorly that Biden is the leader of the US. Yet that is the reflection of the morally bankrupt US elite, who wanted someone they could control and that would make them richer, rather than technology itself. They chose this, and to exploit the world for their greed.

    I would contend that elite selection and how they see society (either to maximize the collective good versus a something to rent seek off of) play the dominant role over technology.

    Reply
    1. Piotr Berman

      “Technology” increasingly is used as “digital technology” like spreadsheets and PowerPoint, while China is OK in digital terms, it is actual engineering that led to domination in solar panel and many other areas.

      Reply
    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Please re-read the post. I never said it was the dominant factor. I said there had to be something in addition to the various ringing of the changes on “late stage capitalism/neoliberalism” to explain the stunning decline in operational competence, and posited it might be the corrosive use/overuse of technology.

      Reply
      1. JCC

        I agree with you here, particularly since the focus here in the US has been overuse of “computer technology”in Management for the processes of managing people and finance (not to mention surveillance).

        In my previous job there was a tremendous amount of managing by computer, as an example, ripping through multiple “help desk” software deployments that were never fully implemented because none of them were fully deployed or managed before being scrapped and a new one deployed. And that is only one example of many of costly management failure.

        I just finished a course from The Great Courses called “Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures: Science and Innovation from Antiquity to Modernity” and it covered the advancements in engineering and material science that showed that a lot of modern structural engineering would have taken decades longer with multiples of more failures to accomplish without computers.

        A classic example of structural engineering that modern computer tech made possible (along with skilled, experienced, engineers) is the Sidney Opera House… So, it’s not all bad

        Reply
        1. juno mas

          Umm, the Sydney Opera House design was completed in 1961. Well before the advent of CAD. While pre-cast engineered elements of the structure were innovative, it was constructed using known building techniques. Though it took longer than expected and more money to complete than budgeted. It was completed in 1973.

          CAD is now widely used to create ‘artists renderings’ of proposed projects to inspire design acceptance long before any actual engineering is completed. Here’s an example that attempts to mimic the great Opera House, in some ways:
          https://www.mlb.com/athletics/news/a-s-unveil-renderings-for-ballpark-in-las-vegas

          Reply
          1. JCC

            I’ll accept that criticism, possibly a bad example, although computers, not CAD, were a key tool in the design which was my point.

            Here is another example, The Gateshead Millennium Bridge – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gateshead_Millennium_Bridge – which might fit the bill as far as computers in general as well as CAD are concerned.

            I’m not promoting CAD, I also started with actual Drafting Classes using pencils and compasses, but computers have helped a lot when it comes to 3D Modeling.

            Reply
            1. juno mas

              I didn’t think you were promoting CAD. Just wanted to note that the Opera House design drawings were hand drafted.

              I, too, started my architecture training with hand drafted work in the 70’s (CalPoly,SLO). But ventured into computer graphics (before AutoCad) to see if I couldn’t find more time for reading, sketching, and discovery.

              I used 3D design software in my later practice as way to stay relevant. Competing with the “elegant eyewash” shown in the Las Vegas stadium link requires fighting glitz with glitz; not refined construction drawings that decision makers never see.

              Reply
  21. Ram

    Pleasing wall street has become only goal of all companies leading to short term thinking. This trend is accelating with rise in job insecurity in companies. Why should anyone stick their neck out and go for tough but correct solution to a problem. Pretty soon chat gpt answers will be the only right answer in town

    Reply
  22. Piotr Berman

    One puzzle for me is that stock buybacks, sort of an arithmetic operation, was deemed to increase “shareholder value” and led to impressive “returns to shareholders”. One could think that the value of a company would depend on its financial stability — survival in leaner years — and spending on technology (as engineering, not programming), expanding markets etc. Either it was a disastrous defect of tax rules — a major contributor to deindustrialization — or of projections made on Wall Street that were driving the share prices. Perhaps both.

    This article explains that Wall Street projections could indeed be faulty. And tax rules are driven by lobbying, 99.9% does not even know what they are about (I do not).

    Reply
    1. John Wright

      A stock buyback is evidence of a failure of imagination of a corporation’s leadership..

      Corporate earnings could go into employee education, capital improvements, increased research/development, acquiring of important technology (patents, licensing, software), increasing the buffer inventory of critical material, geographical diversity, encouraging multiple sources of supply (which may cost more than sole sourcing), more redundancy in manufacturing plants, increased marketing/training of customers, or buying an stock equity interest in an outside company

      No doubt, there are many other opportunities..

      A stock buyback should announce to the world the corporation’s leaders scoured the world looking to suitable uses for the business’s excess earnings and determined the BEST use of the money is to purchase their own stock.

      it is amazing that many other companies come to the same conclusion.

      Seems like direct evidence of a tremendous lack of foresight by, usually, very, very well paid executives..

      Reply
      1. eg

        The “foresight” of said very, very well paid executives amounts to IBGYBG — “I’ll be gone you’ll be gone.”

        Hence the looting.

        Reply
    2. Glen

      Herb Kelleher, the founder and CEO of Southwest Airlines, was once asked by Forbes to prioritize customers, shareholders, and employees:

      Your employees come first. And if you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back, and that makes your shareholders happy. Start with employees and the rest follows from that.

      I think later on he expanded on that and said shareholders can buy and sell in minutes so how can you really manage for that?

      Share buy backs today are almost always linked to management bonuses based on share price. Why bother actually making the product good, and the price competitive if you can just buy back shares to get that huge bonus? Actually running a company is difficult, just borrow money, put the company in debt, buy back shares, and get a huge bonus.

      Reply
  23. Alan Roxdale

    I think the competency implosion is entirely orthogonal to computers or technology, including the internet.

    The cause to me is obvious: The 2008 recession.

    You went from a middle class who had fuck-you-money and take-this-job-and-shove-it attitude to a precariat generation whose entire career could be flattened on a whim, first by bosses and then later by twitter cliques. Such a uncertain environment does not breed confident, independent, capable professionals; instead it promotes meek, risk-adverse group-thinking yes-men. Modern governments resemble old european palace courts than a professional workplace, with little emperors at the center, plotting, proclaiming and being fawned on rather than managing their briefs.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I beg to differ. As someone who entered the workforce on a full time basis in 1981, the skill decline started MUCH earlier. And it’s been pronounced at the top of the food chain, which only took a very brief hit in the crisis and rebounded to a much greated share of total income and wealth.

      Reply
      1. flora

        re: ” And it’s been pronounced at the top of the food chain, which only took a very brief hit in the crisis and rebounded to a much greated share of total income and wealth.”

        So it’s working fine for them.

        Reply
  24. Ganjadawg

    I work as a residential carpenter. The decline in skilled labor in the building trades over the past century is astonishing. If you assume that a competent carpenter of 1924 would have understood most of what might appear in a contemporary builders “handbook” (as you might assume a competent carpenter of 2024 would understand anything in a trade publication like the Journal of Light Construction), you see whole universes of lost knowledge. A fine trim carpenter 100ya would have to have rudimentary understanding of conic sections (for wreathing handrails); a framing carpenter would need to know trigonometry very well, or a sophisticated drawing system for deriving angles on roof members. Now carpentry is much less specialized; workers are expected to do a bit of everything, and not to be really excellent in any paricular field; and the work that gets done is rarely ever custom, almost always some sort of assembly hacked to fit a given situation- shoddy- and young people in the trades cannot expect their elders to have any knowledge of good methods for approaching problems as they arise, because the old timers rarely ever learned themselves. Sophisticated achievements can be lost in less than a generation

    Reply
    1. flora

      Thanks for this comment.
      an aside: you might enjoy this article. From LeMonde, 2022:

      Carpentry, the ‘most in-demand profession in France’, attracts new recruits

      Carpentry is attracting more and more adults in search of practical, useful and sustainable work. This is good news at a time when there is a shortage for this particular profession.

      https://www.lemonde.fr/en/campus/article/2022/05/02/carpentry-the-most-in-demand-profession-in-france-attracts-new-recruits_5982247_11.html

      Maybe the MBA mindset hasn’t taken over everything in France.

      Reply
    2. playon

      As a long-time guitarist sometimes I need the services of repair people (AKA luthiers). This is especially true with acoustic guitars which require a higher degree of woodworking skill. A common thing I hear from these guys (who are mostly in their 60s and 70s) is how few younger people are interested in the profession, despite the fact that guitar ownership is at an all-time high. I would think that it would be satisfying work and the pay can be very good, so it’s a mystery to me why people aren’t interested in the job.

      Reply
      1. juno mas

        My guess is that many of those guitarists are hobbyists and not seeking to play or repair a Stephan Connor hand-made instrument.

        Reply
  25. Boomheist

    This is a VERY broad summary, but….Apparently the first modern humans, homo sapiens sapiens, arising round 100,000 years ago (this is much argued btw), call them Cro Magnon people, had brain cases larger than today, as did Neanderthals. Some time around 5,000 years ago, plus or minus, writing was developed, a means to store information outside the brain. Earlier every bit if information passed from elder to younger had to be held in a living brain, usually through myths and stories, and so of course each surviving person had to hold enormous information. Writing and reading became widespread in the last 1,000 years (more or less) and while this enabled the storage of much more data it also enabled each brain to require less capacity, as someone could turn to a book if they didn’t know something. Now around 1980 along comes the computer, the PC, allowing anyone to ask any question and find an answer, and then shortly after that a flood of programs enabling CAD design, etc etc – making trial runs inexpensive, ill-thought-out solutions seem reasonable, etc.

    But then, call it around 2000, along comes Google and then the cloud, a way to store all information in a remote system and enabling anyone with a phone to ask any question and get an answer. I argue that what we are doing, beginning maybe with writing but surely with the cloud, is setting up a system whereby we have exported information essential to our survival, such that any idiot can access what he or she needs at the moment. Gone forever is the need for memory, patience, endless drills to burn in the information, multiplication tables, which plants are which, who is descended from whom, etc….and of course, if you believe in evolution (something btw less and less accepted along with most other obvious truths) then you can only conclude that the reason modern human;s brains are smaller than those of the first among us 50,000 years ago is because we have developed a system no longer requiring big brains. We are, truly, becoming stupider, and this surely must be an element in the decline of the managerial class.

    Reply
    1. zach

      Interesting theory.

      I don’t think it’s accurate to say that modern humans are stupider than Cro Magnon because we’ve figured out how to decouple information storage from the artificial limit set by the volume of our brain case.

      Give Cro Magnon a smartphone, tablet, or PC, and he/she would probably attempt to make fire with it.

      Give modern human the means to make fire, and he/she would probably die trying to make smartphone with it. Maybe his/her offspring would continue the project?

      Although perhaps you’re right, and the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts…

      Reply
  26. David

    Thought #1: part of the motivation for service quality improvement in the 80s was a reaction to increasing automation of call centers, which programmed decisionmaking authority away from front line service reps. I was involved in a very small way in trying to stem that tide.

    Thought #2. The narrowing of the Overton windows, which can make anyone look inattentive, is the kind of thing we might expect if the economic “tide” is ebbing. Our country’s options and resources are over-committed and any step in any new direction risks a loss for someone important. So, no visions and no visionaries are allowed, and we may be getting a generation of leadership by the compliant and faint-hearted.

    Reply
  27. flora

    Thanks for this post. I’ve started thinking of PE and neoliberal economics and Reagan-nomics as, in essence
    Slumlord
    economics.

    The govt may not be the owner of the country but it is the manager, in the broadest sense. Wall St. and PE are the ‘owners’. They’ve combined, since Reagan, to give us Slumlord economics. It pays very well if you’re on the ‘lord’ side of the transactions. / ;)

    Reply
  28. KLG

    Another old codger here…what a great essay on what ails us!

    The only way to produce a good scientist is through an effective apprenticeship that requires said apprentice to begin at the beginning, of the history on the subject and the technique. This usually begins as an undergraduate doing the basics. This means getting your hands dirty literally and figuratively. My first task in the lab was washing the dishes so they would be clean enough for analytical work that would be impossible unless the glassware was pristine. A good lesson. That also taught me to stay as close to the actual data as possible. Automation works only when it is necessary and only when the user understands exactly what happens between input and output. Which is not to say that technology, from genome analysis to digital image processing, has not increased the speed of research (the latter has allowed a few too many “scientists” to play fast and loose with their data, but I digress). It has. But speed is a scalar product. Velocity is a vector product – speed and direction – and modern biomedical science could do with lower velocity in the proper direction. Similarly, the current need for “efficiency” above all fails to consider that efficiency and effectiveness are not the same thing.

    All this is essential to developing the executive function to be an independent scientist. Either the scientist tries to do everything alone because s/he cannot understand what really needs to be done or s/he lets the technicians and students do it all while failing to keep track of every experiment, from rationale to conclusion. Either pathway leads to a dead end or the abyss. There are no shortcuts, but we now have faculty candidates who have no clue how half the experiments in their documented past were done, including where the p-value came from or what it means, if anything. The lab technician did it all. Pro tip: When the first acknowledgment after the “job talk” is the technician who actually did the work, pass on that applicant. And speaking for the lab personnel of the world, their craftsmanship has been devalued, along with their pay and the respect they should be given as a matter of course. I have heard several independent scientist and administrators say that lab techs are replaceable, a dime a dozen so to speak, with the clear implication that he (always a “he” in this regard) is the indispensable one. Not.

    As for understanding the natural and scientific history of their work, virtually no one reads anymore. Period. As for writing, ha! If everyone had had Mrs. Ann Parker or one of her kindred spirits in 11th-grade English, my job would be a helluva lot easier. Thus, the modern biomedical scientist usually speeds off toward nowhere in particular, all the while keeping the grant gravy train on tracks that also lead to nowhere in particular, despite a “theory” to the contrary.

    Reply
    1. flora

      Thanks for this comment. It seems like current managers of every skilled trade, every craftsmanship job, every professional job is trying to eliminate the all-important apprenticeship part of education into the different trades and professions. Unis are cutting back on student hires in departments, for example, to save money. There is nothing that can replace the apprenticeship time, the time of learning and appreciating the difference between book theory, (or app theory), and practice.

      Reply
  29. Joe Well

    I just keep thinking back to my college education around the turn of the millennium. Among the students, there was pretty much constant eye-rolling at the obviously self-interested positions taken by leading professors and university administrators, starting with all the reputations being made on unpaid or badly unpaid labor by grad students. Meanwhile, the careers office was constantly channeling students toward careers in finance and consulting, even though the word was that these fields were actually destructive not just to society as a whole but to the immediate clients.

    It was such an enormous disappointment and you just had to make your peace with it.

    We were indoctrinated into the culture of expecting your leaders to be actively working toward the undermining of any kind of greater good.

    Reply
  30. Brian In Seattle

    My observations from working in corporations of varying sizes in the last 20 years and a two year stint in government is that higher ups tend to be selecting for “people skills” rather than technical skills on who gets promoted into leadership roles.

    This is causing those leaders to have no connection or ability to do the job of the people underneath them which leads to incorrect decision making since they have no understanding of the the underlying technical processes. Is there anyone in Boeing’s leadership down to the director level who has even worked on the manufacturing floor and put together pieces of an airplane?

    The amount of scrum masters or product owners who have no coding experience is quite large, or the amount of IT managers who were never actually good at IT themselves (i.e solving technical problems).

    How many hospital directors or administrators could step in for a nurse, a surgeon, or even a janitor if needed?

    The ones who get promoted say the right things in the correct phrasing , know the right people, or got picked out of university to go into a fast track management training program which than ends up having a 24-26 year old in a management or director position leading people who have been in those departments for 10-20 years. Meanwhile the one’s who have the technical knowledge or who master the processes and in’s and out’s of the systems being used end up being passed over and end up being thought of as disposable or outsourced in an instant.

    Reply
    1. Skip Intro

      This rule of the unskilled administrators is a common phenomenon, and coupled with the expansion of administrative efforts they themselves engender, it forms a growing drag on productivity and a disruption and re-intermediation of relationships. Similar to a parasitical infestation. Look at the entities involved in a medical procedure, for example. Insurers, hospitals, and medical record systems all intervene in the professional judgement and patient relationship of the doctors.

      Reply
  31. Adam

    The core argument extends even beyond jobs. I learned to drive on a stick-shift even though they were very outdated at the time and I strongly believe that all new drivers should learn on one because because it requires paying much more attention which leads to better knowledge and instincts. I know that if I learned on an automatic, I would be a much worse driver and thankfully driving a stick-shift for several years through LA traffic really stuck with me. Increased accessibility is generally a positive, but if it just replaces critical learning processes then everything will just end up being dumbed down to worse results.

    Reply
    1. flora

      Yep. I agree. My mom made all of us learn on a stick-shift, even thought the “other” family car was an automatic transmission.

      2 things:

      Stick-shifts (manual transmissions) are the best deterrent to car theft in the US, and

      Stick-shifts make understanding bicycle shifting, where and when and why, almost intuitive. / ;)

      Reply
      1. flora

        adding: my folks bought an older Chevy, stick-shift, manual transmission car when we kids were learning to drive so that we would learn to drive a stick-shift and learn about clutches and gears and gearing. Analog world. A “real car” as they called it. They thought that was important. They were right. They kept that old Chevy until all of us had learned to drive it well.

        Reply
        1. flora

          and adding going on too long: God bless mom who taught us all how to use a clutch, and who endured who knows how many of our failed efforts at getting the right clutch release, resulting in the car jerk-jerk-jerking and a stalled-out engine on the car as we learned to shift from park, to first gear, to letting the foot off the clutch while engaging the the gas pedal, before we got it right. I’m amazed she didn’t end up with whiplash. But she was a sturdy woman who wanted us to learn. / ;)

          Reply
  32. Rob Urie

    Does class cause credentials or do credentials cause class?

    The American argument is that credentials cause class, that gaining credentials is the surest route to the ruling class.

    Yesterday I was visiting rich kids (whom I love) whose early lives have been spent going to the right private schools, playing the right sports, and interning at the right companies.

    While this may guide their futures, there is no reason to believe that it prepares them to be any better at governing than their working class peers.

    Their lack of experience in the world that most of us inhabit may make them less qualified to govern than their working class peers.

    And despite ‘access to’ the credential-generating process, low economic mobility in the US suggests that class causes credentials.

    The credentialed working class might lift its economic fortunes, but only rarely makes the decisions that govern us.

    Otherwise, American liberals answer to one master but two constituencies. Crafting polices intended to benefit donors while claiming they have a public purpose may work as intended when they benefit donors, and often not at all for constituents.

    Is this evidence of incompetence or ulterior motives?

    Reply
  33. Extroverted Introvert

    I’m 100% on board with the devolution concept. I’ve seen the corporate groupthink, being able to regurgitate the new management concept of the day is more important than any other competence. Then the box checking, in 20 years I had 20 different bosses. A few were competent or had a real interest in the job, but they were all playing the get ahead game. Then there is the ever greater reliance on “data” to drive the decision making, even though that data is often, if not irrelevant at least corrupted.

    I’ve not watched the movie “Idiocracy” in a number of years, but wow, Mike Judge pretty clearly saw where all this is going. A devolution documentary from 2006.

    Reply
  34. TomDority

    It is my experience that the most insightful work, or corrections of problems in the built environment, come from those building, constructing or designing from experience or full openness to a continual learning process and, the best design work from those who started in the building and constructing or designing of new stuff. I think it’s a part moving forward.
    I have seen people graduated in degree only, in effect it was the degree they strove for because it was expected that the degree, for the degrees sake, would rain success and wealth upon them. To my dismay, no further knowledge was sought, and many times much forgotten in the field to which the degree was gotten. This type of real world degreed individual is hired into a tangible output company and tragic results are loosed. —– I am ecstatic when I meet individuals who are truly dedicated to progress and beneficial, quality and well constructed great end-products…they deserve great accolades wealth and positive posterity.
    In the world of corporate management and finance engineering or other fungible, meta admin type fields (human resources, stock investments, services) It seams that on-the-job training or even programing for real world tasks like design and even labor tasks have been eroded to task confined units siloe(d) from an overall aim or product end state – no on-the job training – human resources not even considering the potential in the human .. One has to ask why these same said corps are finding it hard to get qualified individuals. – Happily, good corporate, financial, meta types do exist .. I have gratefully experienced it . really, it does not get much better than that. It is sad to me, to see the waste of fantastic youth potential; one that will do great things despite the current yoke of debt peonage imposed upon them by the – (degree of political capture, privatization, speculative financialized asset price inflation schemes and tax dodging to name a few -all conspiring to)- raising the cost of doing business, the cost of living and learning to the point that anyone starting out is already hobbled by all this flim-flammery.
    Today, youth and most the rest are practically coerced into participating in what 100 years ago was a known problem… if they don’t ..well the underpasses are populating and the trash bins are emptying.
    Quote from the past
    The great sore spot in our modern commercial life is found on the speculative side. Under present laws, which foster and encourage speculation, business life is largely a gamble, and to “get something for nothing” is too often considered the keynote to “success”. The great fortunes of today are nearly all speculative fortunes; and the ambitious young man just starting out in life thinks far less of producing or rendering service than he does of “putting it over” on the other fellow. This may seem a broad statement to some: but thirty years of business life in the heart of American commercial activity convinces me that it is absolutely true.
    If, however, the speculative incentive in modern commercial life were eliminated, and no man could become rich or successful unless he gave “value received” and rendered service for service, then indeed a profound change would have been brought in our whole commercial system, and it would be a change which no honest man would regret.- John Moody, Wall Street Publisher, and President of Moody’s Investors’ Service. Dated 1924

    Reply
  35. Lefty Godot

    No references to “Jocko Homo” yet? Egads!

    I think there must be a version of the Peter Principle for technology. Many technological improvements bring major productivity increases and social benefits which eventually get whittled away and even reversed as the new technology gets further developed. Sometimes this takes decades to happen (see anthropogenic global climate degradation). Others happened in a less lengthy way (like you could argue that the world-wide web was still mostly a plus to productivity over the first 12-15 years). Sometimes the timeframe is much more compressed (personal computers started causing negative consequences almost as soon as Microsoft Windows became the dominant OS). And now some technologies don’t even have to exist–as long as we can make big promises about them which get Wall Street or Congress excited, it blocks progress on viable alternatives.

    I really disliked Ronald Reagan all the way through his presidency. But Joe Biden makes Reagan look like a combination of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Albert Einstein by comparison. That’s devolution in action! We Are Devo!

    Reply
    1. David in Friday Harbor

      And he wore a hat, and he had a job, and he brought home the bacon, so that no one knew…

      I began my 32-year career as a prosecutor in 1985. We still had a law library full of case reporters, annotated codes, and legal treatises. Briefs were written-out on legal pads long-hand and transcribed by legal secretaries. We were expected to present our cases to judges and juries so that we could learn and understand how they thought, so that we might rigorously analyze evidence and the application of law.

      Yves’ comment on “managerialism” and the tendency of the newer generations who had never cracked a book or written a brief or presented to a jury who became managers through DEI and brown-nosing to instantly see slacking when problems and difficulties were pointed-out truly resonated for me.

      The utter inability to engage in any sort of rigorous analysis displayed by persons raised by television sets …determined what they could see.

      Reply
  36. .Tom

    Francis Xavier Enderby and his alter ego Anthony Burgess both worried about the rising class of authoritarian symbol manipulators. I don’t know in which Enderby book the concern was first expressed. It might have been earlier than 1980.

    Reply
  37. CA

    “The Greece bailout negotiations of 2015. Many advocated having Greece leave the Eurozone…”

    This discussion is excellent.

    Greece was trapped in and by debt from the time of entry in the Euro Area. Greece remains debt trapped.

    https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/weo-database/2023/October/weo-report?c=174,&s=NGDP_RPCH,PPPGDP,PPPPC,NID_NGDP,NGSD_NGDP,PCPIPCH,GGXWDG_NGDP,BCA_NGDPD,&sy=2000&ey=2023&ssm=0&scsm=1&scc=0&ssd=1&ssc=0&sic=0&sort=country&ds=.&br=1

    October 15, 2023

    Greece, 2000-2023

    Real GDP, percent change
    Investment, percent of GDP
    Savings, percent of GDP
    Inflation rate, percent change
    General government gross debt, percent of GDP
    Current account balance, percent of GDP

    Reply
  38. .Tom

    > This phenomenon, of computing and digital power reducing the cost of production and thus leading to less engagement in planning, is widespread.

    Ahem. It starts with an A and ends with an I. The boosters of that tech, including ones that actually understand it, seem thrilled with the idea of not having to understand anything any more.

    Reply
  39. Willow

    I see this all too often nowadays. There aren’t enough people with the bruises from mistakes to make good leaders who can draw in the right people to solve problems. Something I’ve been mulling over for some time is that people are now in education far too long. Most of the ‘smart people’ have been in education continuously until nearly 30. Whether it be masters or PhD. When its 16 to 20 that people are their most creative and driven, and get to develop an intuitive understanding of risk from experience. Instead people cite (text) books as an explanation for something rather than experience itself. I continually see solutions to problems drawn from text books and perversely applied without consideration of longer term reality. I’m finding the people I trust for their insights are 60+ years, started working after leaving school and did night school to get their university qualifications. While I studiously avoid those who have an MBA (worse are those who completed their MBA straight after undergrad).

    More recent economic returns to education are largely due to selection effects. Ostracism of bottom quarter of workers due to increasing credentialism makes it look as if doing more education pays off. Instead most of the additional education post-school is now an economic dead loss. And where it does matter – engineering, hard sciences & mathematics, the West is doing less.

    Reply
  40. Glenda

    Implementation is all and is key to really getting the result needed. I’ve gotten on the Berkeley Mental Health Commission that tells us we are to review our city department and make recommendations. But what I’ve seen is a hugely understaffed (30% vacancies)Dept. For example the Homeless outreach team has been transferred to the City Manager and her staff. To say that it is dysfunctional is mild. Money has been spent on “supportive housing” which amounts to hotel/motels with guards and surveillance cameras with no oversight or accountability by a city council that has seen 2 out of 8 members quit due to the chaos in their ranks.
    Our local new crisis response team with no police is getting complaints and there seems to be chaos there, both in Berkeley and our Alameda Co. crisis teams. There is one community based group that has been contracted for both these humane projects, but they are in chaos and way under-staffed.
    All of this does not bode well for the recently passed Prop 1 that calls for housing and treatment for those with Serious Mental Illness (SMI) and SUD(Substance Use Disorder) that San Francisco is among the first CA counties starting to implement this year. To make Prop 1 work will require contracting with many community based groups that are struggling with staffing etc. We are truly [familyblogged].
    Thanks to Tom 4/1/24 12:47pm
    “When you sit in an ivory tower, you see problems like currency changeovers (greece) or new trade deals (brexit) as “implementation details” without realising they are multi-year projects with a good chance of failure.”
    “In IT it is now widely accepted that waterfall projects don’t work and while this thinking has been adopted elsewhere in engineering (e.g. NASA via SpaceX), governments continue to create a wasteland of unfinished projects with huge overruns in time and money.” High speed rail is a good example in California.
    Many thanks, Yves, for putting the spotlight on this decay of our society.

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  41. HJF

    I strongly agree with the comments talking about the importance of “hands on” experience. So it might seem ironic that I mention my experience in I.T. as a software developer and architect. But there is a reason. I eventually came to the conclusion that a “class system” existed, especially in my last place of work, a large (for NZ) public service organisation. On one side were the uncouth & greasy-handed developers, desktop support people, network & systems support people, and testers. On the other side were sleek managers of various types. Basically, anyone who actually “built” or “maintained” something could be disregarded. Saying “X is not Y, this is a mistake” could be met with hand-waving that “it’s all the same”, or being regarded as difficult if one persisted. I shouldn’t overstate it, the dismissiveness wasn’t pervasive, at least not at a personal level. My point is that anybody that had skill or experience “using their hands”, could be disregarded for that very reason.

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  42. James Blum

    This is at the margins of the useful but the switch from analog synthesisers to digital “keyboards” in rock, pop, r and b and related musics, spreading to the popular musics of the world, enabled enshittification. For one thing a keyboard player with some capital (sequencer, drum machine, etc.) could replace a band. Once you had 16 voice polyphony on a keyboard and a sequencer you could program every unsung note. I think the Yamaha DX-7 was the watershed instrument here. Record producers and companies naturally noticed this. It cut down on studio time since the keyboard player or producer could program everything beforehand and only run tape (or its digital equivalent–an, if you will, analogous process happening about the same time occurred to the recording medium itself) once. Lower studio costs, no studio musicians to pay. This happens in the mid 1980s. Similarly the musician is handed in these digital keyboards a showroom-friendly bank of pre-existing sounds where the previous synth players had had to generate and assemble the sounds themselves from all the knobs and wheels and patch banks on the older instruments. Instant gratification may not always stifle creativity but that’s the way to bet.

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  43. Kouros

    Great postings, and sobering ones.

    I would ad one more wrinkle in this witch’s brew of reasons – I did perform a word search for the particular word on the webpage, and only after I decided to add my two pennies/cents…: an important ingredient that was left to die and then given a sky burial is the basic ethical principles that would come with every profession – with that the pride of doing something good also went out the window.

    I think that slowly we are moving (if that hasn’t happened yet) from an imoral professional/managerial elite to an amoral one, with all that this entails.

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  44. Socal Rhin

    Seems many of us codgers have the experience of living through the transition from manual tasks to an automated solution. I have observed that the people who went through these transitions were the most effective, that is, they were most effective in the automated environment.

    Beyond just knowledge, I think some things like memorization of multiplication tables and poems or speeches, doing long division by hand, and performing double entry accounting on ledger paper, may make changes in your brain just as learning a new language supposedly does. Early use of information technologies may be cognitively handicapping generations of kids.

    That said, when I was a kid, a popular book read by secondary school faculty was “Why Johnny Can’t Read”. And in my freshman year of engineering school, my Physics class endured a long rant from our German educated teacher telling us we were a lazy generation and no decent engineer could be produced by a program that only required 30 hours a week of classroom time!

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  45. matt

    i know im one of the youngest people in this comment section and my take is that on some level, i respect the loss of skill- i almost never do long division by hand and my life is better for it. people keep telling me to learn how to use a slide rule, but i really do not need to.
    but it is, as other commenters have pointed out, about knowing what’s going on behind the scenes. there are too many ‘black boxes’ given to people nowadays. computers i find to be especially bad, i know children who know how to click on things, but don’t know how to transfer files. we are giving people computers without teaching them any technical literacy. and that is fine and well with simple machines where the functions occurring can be surmised through experimentation, but not with complex machines with no incentive to look behind the scenes of.
    i really appreciate the concept of ‘devolution’. if you talk to a lot of teachers nowadays, they speak of kids not learning important skills. and i think as applied to communication, this dearth of skills is going to be Very Bad.

    Reply
    1. FlyoverBoy

      Yes.

      I can’t speak to the teaching value of long division, as I don’t work in a numbers business. But I’m old and I work as a writer. When I was a kid, the nuns teaching me spent long hours drilling us on the diagramming of sentences. I’m pretty sure nobody teaches this anymore, but I still find to this day that it gives me a better understanding of what each word is doing structurally in the sentence, and of what’s right and wrong. People even come to me with their “right or wrong?” questions about grammar, and I’m able to fake expertise about the answer. Except I guess it’s not fake, because I in fact know what the answer is. Which, if anything, proves that even I have subliminally bought into the BS about an “expert class” who knows because their credentials say they do.

      Reply
  46. HH

    The decline of leadership competence is a long-wave cyclic phenomenon. The U.S. is tracking the decay of the U.K. with a 75 year time lag. Our Suez moment is just around the corner. Leaders of a wealthy and lucky nation become arrogant and stupid because there is no evolutionary pressure to punish bad performers. Inheritance badly concentrates power, cronyism protects mediocrity, and markets get rigged (e.g., stock buybacks) to remove discipline, so institutions decay. Technology is not the culprit. Singapore retains efficient and competent leadership, and it is full of advanced technology.

    Fortunately, our AI overlords will understand these social pathologies and will create structures that are resistant to institutional decay. Engineers long ago learned how to make highly reliable machines out of unreliable parts. It is just a matter of time before AI-based institutional design concepts achieve a similar feat and put an end to the cyclic decay afflicting nations and corporations.

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  47. indi.ca

    Socrates said writing degraded memory, saying “Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”

    My wife is studying Sanskrit and it has a huge oral canon, entire encyclopedias worth that people memorized and even had mentally indexed. Now I can’t remember what I said ten minutes ago.

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  48. Algorithm Ghetto

    When the goal is to keep humanity in a Neo-feudal loop, the only refinement allowed is of barbarity. But consciousness does continue to evolve, despite all efforts to thwart its evolution.

    The Fall of the Tavistockians: Defeating the “Mother” of All Brainwashing

    “One of the main techniques for breaking morale through a `strategy of terror’ consists in exactly this tactic—keep the person hazy as to where he stands and just what he may expect. If in addition frequent vacillations between severe disciplinary measures and promises of good treatment together with spreading of contradictory news, make the ‘cognitive structure’ of this situation utterly unclear, then the individual may cease to even know when a particular plan would lead toward or away from his goal. Under these conditions even those who have definite goals and are ready to take risks, will be paralyzed by severe inner conflicts in regard to what to do.”  
 
Kurt Lewin – “Time Perspective and Morale” (1942)

    Freedom of Speech separates us from feudalism.

    “Fake News” Has Been Used for Hundreds of Years to Justify Censorship of Dissent

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  49. Gregory Etchason

    I’ve changed my mind recently regarding the “incompetence’ of military leadership. You can make the case that the Korean, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Ukraine are not failures but more a specific business model of the Military Industrial Complex. Victory isn’t in the equation. Simply chaos, destruction and a constant request of more hardware is the priority. Occupation has now been replaced with the “client State” to sell armaments to. All of this paid for by US tax payers. It’s no coincidence that the $1.2 trillion budget has 75% going to the DoD. Weapons complexity has been demonstrated time and again to be unreliable in war. But the complexity maximizes the payment from the Treasury. Which is what the business of war is all about. Incompetence? I think not. By design is closer to the truth.

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  50. Zephyrum

    The article and especially the comments provide a fascinating overview of the many axes of competence, and the lack thereof. But one thing missing is that American business is obsessed with a small number of externally-visible metrics, most of which are related to money, and all of them short-term.

    When I started my engineering career at HP in 1980 the company had specific corporate objectives, copied below. Other corporations were similar. While profit was recognized as the top priority, it was required to be consistent with the other objectives.

    You optimize what you measure. American business used to have internal metrics that involved training, efficiency, quality, and satisfaction. Social responsibility–citizenship–was not just for PR. Today, external money-based metrics are easy to track and thus take the priority. All other considerations are ignored, and so of course corporations rot from the inside.

    HP Corporate Objectives from 1966:

    1. Profit. To recognize that profit is the best single measure of our contribution to society and the ultimate source of our corporate strength. We should attempt to achieve the maximum possible profit consistent with our other objectives.

    2. Customers. To strive for continual improvement in the quality, usefulness, and value of the products and services we offer our customers.

    3. Field of Interest. To concentrate our efforts, continually seeking new opportunities for growth but limiting our involvement to fields in which we have capability and can make a contribution.

    4. Growth. To emphasize growth as a measure of strength and a requirement for survival.

    5. Employees. To provide employment opportunities for HP people that include the opportunity to share in the company’s success, which they help make possible. To provide for them job security based on performance, and to provide the opportunity for personal satisfaction that comes from a sense of accomplishment in their work.

    6. Organization. To maintain an organizational environment that fosters individual motivation, initiative and creativity, and a wide latitude of freedom in working toward established objectives and goals.

    7. Citizenship. To meet the obligations of good citizenship by making contributions to the community and to the institutions in our society which generate the environment in which we operate.

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  51. none

    I wonder whether income inequality and predatory precarity (see I’m picking up your jargon) has something to do with this.

    Surely though, the architects of the Vietnam War were just as idiotic as those of Ukraine? At the top of any organization there will be egotistical jerks.

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