The Age of the Yoyo

"Stupidity is always astonishing, no matter how many times you may deal with it."
 - Jean Cocteau
From June 30 media reports, we have this:

The Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center of New York City lost the records for 130,000 people that had been shipped on CD. You read that right: somebody working in the records department of a major health center in the world's most cosmopolitan city shipped out CDs rather than e-mail the file, neglected to make copies of discs, or save the files to a DB. Latest word is that the discs are still missing.

The same day, it was revealed that BP overlooked the fact that recovery work on its blown well was occurring in "Hurricane Alley," one of the worst areas for tropical storms in the world, and failed to make any provisions for the bad weather that would be coming within a matter of weeks, if not days.

Back on the medical front, up to 1,800 VA patients at the John Cochran VA Medical Center in St. Louis may have been exposed to HIV and hepatitis because somebody decided to stop sterilizing dental equipment, instead washing it by hand.

Only a day later, the chief of the recently busted Russian spy ring, Christopher Metsos, who had been arrested in Cyprus, was set free on bail, whereupon this well-trained member of the KGB's successor organization skipped across the border into Turkish territory, never to be seen again. ("Monitoring him," said minister of justice Louca Loucas, "would consist of infringement of human rights and would be illegal.")

On July 3, it was announced that the A-Whale, the world's largest oil skimmer, had at last arrived for testing in the Gulf of Mexico after weeks of delays over paperwork, just in time for the calm waters the ship was designed for to be disrupted by the season's first storm.

And on July 6, to round out the first week of the month, the Department of Justice, at the behest of Eric Holder, embarked on the stupidest lawsuit of the decade, suing the state of Arizona for attempting to protect itself from illegal immigrants.

That's just one week in the new millennium. We could go on -- we could go on endlessly (e.g., acting as an undertone to all these antics was the discovery that the new iPod 4 was designed with the antenna wrapped outside the casing, perfectly situated where caller's hands could easily cover it) -- but that's more than enough evidence to demonstrate that we've entered a kind of Age of the Yoyo. The incompetents rule. Mistake is piled on mistake. Errors multiply as if they were living organisms. We face a long, bleak prospect filled with ineptitude, idiocy, and failure, with no relief in sight, and I haven't even mentioned Obama yet. While there may be a light at the end of this tunnel, somebody forgot to put in the bulb.

Granted, things will go wrong no matter the epoch. No epoch has ever been totally free of error. But there does seem to be a cycle (perhaps more than one, operating at different times and amplitudes) in which ineptitude and its results vary according to as-yet-unknown parameters. At the high point of the cycle, things work, competence is respected, few mistakes are made, and those are quickly dealt with. At the low point, the foolish are in command, disasters accrue, and we get community organizers elected president.

WWII through the 1950s appears to have been one of the high points. The war was marked by innovative strategies, unparalleled efforts at organization, and incredible achievements of production (95,000 aircraft produced by a country that in 1938 was debating whether it could "afford" 100 B-17s). Few today know that the war was expected to last until at least 1948. That's what the war plan stated. Beating that schedule by three years came as a result of intelligence, skill, and efficiency honed to a fine point.  

In many ways, the 1950s were the war years taken to an even higher level. Consider only heavy construction: The interstate highway system, the Pine Tree, DEW, and BMEWS radar networks. A series of air bases ringing country, along with a 1,400-plane bomber force to equip them. And this is not to mention the ICBM missile force and the atomic submarine fleet, all built within that single ten-year period. Enough was left over to fuel one of the great consumer booms in history. If proposed today, virtually any of these programs would be dismissed as beyond our means or capabilities. 

The slump began in the '60s and bottomed out in the '70s, with such self-inflicted comedies as the cancellation of the Apollo program, Three Mile Island, and Love Canal, along with a number of other events not often enough connected to incompetence -- Watergate, the most clownish burglary of all time; the abandonment of Vietnam; and Roe v. Wade, which can well stand as one of the most ineptly reasoned Supreme Court decisions of the century. (One example of Harry Blackmun's legal acumen can be found in the fact that the same day the Roe decision was announced, it was immediately followed by Doe v. Bolton, in which Blackmun himself not only undercut one of the major findings of Roe -- that the abortion right had limitations -- but blew so wide a hole in it that the radfems were able to jam an entirely new definition of human existence through it.)

Things pick up again in the '80s and '90s -- the era of the PC, the internet revolution, new media, the Reagan doctrine effectively tricking the USSR into burying itself, the Iranian mullahs embarrassed and negated, peace and democracy brought to Central America, and Saddam Hussein's army swept off the board in four days' time.

And today? Today we've hit another bad patch. NASA gutted once more. Three months to control a blown oil well. Universal whimpering in the face of Iran, a nation so crippled as to make the collapsing USSR look robust, and a national health plan that not the maddest Roman emperor or the most compulsive 19th-century socialist would have considered for a moment.

A good two decades, then a drop into mediocrity, then a slow climb back up. Why does it go like this? Regular AT readers will be stunned to learn that I have a theory.

Any such cycle must be based on some form of human action. What I propose is a career curve. Not anything as simple as people entering a given field and then advancing their way to the top, but not unrelated, either.

Competent people enter a field and in their first years, when relatively powerless and friendless, are either delayed in their rise or shunted aside. By whom in particular? By the flakes. One thing the incompetent are good at is defending their own interests. They do this by undermining the competition -- in this case, people who know what they're doing.

So when a crisis appears, some -- not all, but a significant portion -- of the leadership are yoyos. Instead of sticking to the plan, or alternatively seeking the most effective method available, the flakes waste time, energy, and effort -- exactly what we have seen with the Gulf blowout. It takes a considerable amount of time for the competent to come to the rescue -- the yoyos must first be entirely discredited before upper management relinquishes its illusions and turns elsewhere.

From that point on, we have a good, lengthy period in which the competent are able to exercise their skills to the fullest. We get a kind of golden age -- a brief golden age. Because the flakes are graduating from business schools, and engineering schools, and medical schools, and military academies, and going into their disciplines, forming cliques and alliances, and working their way up. (Not journalism schools, you ask? No -- flakes are all they ever produce.)

Given a couple of decades, the cohort of the competent are ready to either retire or move on to higher positions outside their fields as consultants to government, professors, and so on. Life being the way it is, they are not replaced by younger versions of themselves, but by the rising contingent of people with red noses and two-foot-long shoes. And the cycle begins again.

From this we get such paragons as Rexford G. Tugwell, Harry Hopkins, and Hugh Johnson, all appearing at the same point in time during the early '30s; Robert McNamara, John T. McNaughton, and the Bundy brothers materializing in the early '60s; and Timothy Geithner,  Eric Holder, Lawrence Summers, and a cast of thousands capering madly now, even as you read this. It's not bad luck, and it's not coincidence. It's the cohort of yoyos making its mark. 

So having identified the problem, how do we take steps to address it?

That's no simple question. Conservatism is distinguished by its recognition that some problems cannot be solved, only endured. This may be one of those problems.

A meritocratic system? None has ever worked. We all have come across the not-too-bright nephew sitting in the corner office, the boss's girlfriend who spends most of her time plotting against her smart, attractive competition rather than doing anything useful. Meritocracy is one of those things that works perfectly in theory, never in the real world.

We can't recommend that the competent adapt the tactics of the flakes. It's the very fact that they don't form cliques and conspiracies that makes them so capable. They have better things to do. Many are constitutionally unable to behave in that fashion -- congenital mavericks who avoid all contact with the mediocre as a matter of course.

Appeals to the reason, decency, and sense of responsibility of the inept make for a doubtful technique. I have found that most of the qualities tend to be conditional among such people.

Execution or prison? Tempting, but it didn't work for the Soviets or Chinese.

The saving grace is that it is a cycle, and a short one, as such things go. So the able will get their chance eventually. They simply need to be ready for it. It's also very likely that many such cycles are operating in various industries, fields, and disciplines, each at different times and speeds and points in their evolution, rather than simultaneously. So while academia of all types is in a deep slump, computer sciences are still on a roll. The truly frustrated can jump from one field into another. Not an easy trick, but within the realm of possibility

And we need to keep in mind that it's not a pure clown show. There are still a few lion tamers around. We can look to David Petraeus, Chesley Sullenberger, Sarah Palin, Scott Brown, and even, for that matter, Simon Cowell (it's a true sign of low appreciation for competence that Cowell's fair and blunt critiques were portrayed as cruel and sarcastic). So it's still possible to thrive even in an unfriendly environment. And after all, beating obstacles is what competent people are good at.

Now, as to the question of how to deal with flakes on a personal level -- that's a tough one. I'll have to think about that for a while.

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker and will edit the forthcoming Military Thinker. 
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