Is America’s collapse inevitable?
Usually, I write to bring news to your attention or to analyze a specific issue. It’s relatively rare for me to write a post telling you to read someone else’s post. However, Harold Robertson’s post about the “competence crisis” is so important that I want to encourage as many people as possible to read it. (Hat tip: William Duncan.)
The full title of Robertson’s article, which is published at Palladium (Governance Futurism), is “Complex Systems Won’t Survive the Competence Crisis.” The first few paragraphs spell out the scope of this problem:
At a casual glance, the recent cascades of American disasters might seem unrelated. In a span of fewer than six months in 2017, three U.S. Naval warships experienced three separate collisions resulting in 17 deaths. A year later, powerlines owned by PG&E started a wildfire that killed 85 people. The pipeline carrying almost half of the East Coast’s gasoline shut down due to a ransomware attack. Almost half a million intermodal containers sat on cargo ships unable to dock at Los Angeles ports. A train carrying thousands of tons of hazardous and flammable chemicals derailed near East Palestine, Ohio. Air Traffic Control cleared a FedEx plane to land on a runway occupied by a Southwest plane preparing to take off. Eye drops contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria killed four and blinded fourteen.
While disasters like these are often front-page news, the broader connection between the disasters barely elicits any mention. America must be understood as a system of interwoven systems; the healthcare system sends a bill to a patient using the postal system, and that patient uses the mobile phone system to pay the bill with a credit card issued by the banking system. All these systems must be assumed to work for anyone to make even simple decisions. But the failure of one system has cascading consequences for all of the adjacent systems. As a consequence of escalating rates of failure, America’s complex systems are slowly collapsing.
The core issue is that changing political mores have established the systematic promotion of the unqualified and sidelining of the competent. This has continually weakened our society’s ability to manage modern systems. At its inception, it represented a break from the trend of the 1920s to the 1960s, when the direct meritocratic evaluation of competence became the norm across vast swaths of American society.
As you can see, the thesis becomes blindingly obvious merely by being stated. However, Robertson gives it heft and dimension by discussing how America began to shift from a meritocracy to a diversity system in the 1960s, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. He then explains how it became embedded in American employment culture.
Of course, moving away from a system that discriminated against people based on race is a good thing. The problem is that, thanks to how “diversity” has been interpreted, we’ve embraced a whole new style of discrimination. Now, the most important characteristic a person can bring to a job is skin color, sex, and sexual orientation or “identity.” This metric, when applied across American culture, especially within the government, but with increased aggression in education and the workplace, practically ensures that the people responsible for America’s public and private systems won’t be the “best”; they’ll just be the most “diverse.”
Image by Pixlr AI.
The fallout from all of this, as Robertson bluntly states, is that “competency is declining from the core outwards.” Again, he has a raft of data to support that contention, showing that this core affects every American. If a department store starts hiring incompetent salespeople, the employees and shareholders suffer. When the military and all government contractors are abandoning meritocracy, the fallout is cataclysmic. It turns out that it’s a surprisingly short step to South Africa’s collapse.
Ultimately, Robertson isn’t optimistic about where America is heading. He notes that we inherited a system that competent people created, and it led us to have “the highest standard of living in human history.” We’re now throwing it all away, and what we’ve lost may not be recoverable:
The path of least resistance will be the devolution of complex systems and the reduction in the quality of life that entails. For the typical resident in a second-tier city in Mexico, Brazil, or South Africa, power outages are not uncommon, tap water is probably not safe to drink, and hospital-associated infections are common and often fatal. Absent a step change in the quality of American governance and a renewed culture of excellence, they prefigure the country’s future.
That’s all very depressing, but there’s a virtue in facing up to the problem. If we ignore this crisis, we ensure its cataclysmic outcome. If we recognize and address it, maybe it’s still possible to pull the airplane of state out of its deep dive toward the earth.