Articles

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Government is Magic

Our technocracy is detached from competence. It's not the technocracy of engineers, but of "thinkers" who read Malcolm Gladwell and Thomas Friedman and watch TED talks and savor the flavor of competence, without ever imbibing its substance.

These are the people who love Freakonomics, who enjoy all sorts of mental puzzles, who like to see an idea turned on its head, but who couldn't fix a toaster.

The ObamaCare website is the natural spawn of that technocracy who love the idea of using modernity to make things faster and easier, but have no idea what anything costs or how it works.

It's hard to have a functioning technocracy without engineers. A technocracy made in Silicon Valley with its complete disregard for anything outside its own ego zone would be bad enough. But this is a Bloombergian technocracy of billionaires and activists, of people who think that "progress" makes things work, rather than things working leading to progress.

Healthcare.gov showed us that behind all the smoother and shinier designs was the same old clunky government where everything gets done because the right companies hire the right lobbyists and everything costs ten times what it should.

If the government can't build a health care website, how is it going to actually run health care for an entire country is the obvious question that so many are asking. And the obvious answer is that it will run it the way it ran the website. It will throw wads of money and people at the problem and then look for programs it doesn't like to squeeze for extra cash.

The Navy had to be cut to the bone and the Benghazi mission had to make do without security so that a Canadian company which began employing a classmate of Michelle Obama's could score over half a billion to build a broken website. Obama mocked Mitt Romney's criticism of his Navy cuts by telling him that we don't fight with bayonets and horses anymore. Bayonets and horses are outdated. In our glorious modernity, we spend fortunes to build websites that don't work instead.

Modernity has to be built. It has to be constructed brick by bit by rivet by cable by people who know what they are doing. Modernity without competence is as worthless as the ObamaCare website which looked pretty enough to give the illusion of technocratic modernity, but didn't actually work.

Competence is the real modernity and it has very little to do with the empty trappings of design that surround it. In some ways the America of a few generations ago was a far more modern place because it was a more competent place. For all our nice toys, we look like primitive savages compared to men who could build skyscrapers and fleets within a year... and build them well.

Those aren't things we can do anymore. Not because the knowledge and skills don't exist, but because the culture no longer allows it. We can't do them for the same reason that Third World countries can't do what we do. It's not that the knowledge is inaccessible, but that the culture gets in the way.

It's our very hollow modernity that gets in the way of our truly being modern. We can no longer build big things because the ability to implement vision on a large scale no longer exists. We can still do impressive things as individuals, but that's also true of Kenya or Thailand. And in China, they can carry out grandiose projects, but those projects have no vision or competence.

We used to be able to combine the two by competently implementing grandiose visions, but our "modern" culture is the roadblock that prevents us from working together to make the great things that we can still envision individually.

Our modernity is style rather than substance. It's Obama grinning. It's the right font. It's the right joke. It's that sense that X knows what he's doing because he presents it the right way. There's nothing particularly modern about that. In most cultures, the illusion of competence trumps the real thing. It's why so many countries are so badly broken because they go by appearances, rather than by results.

The idea that we should go by results, rather than by processes, by outcomes rather than by appearances, was revolutionary. For most of human history, we were trapped in a cargo cult mode. We did the "right things" not because they led to the right results, but because we had decided that they were the right things. There were many competent people, but they were hamstrung by rigid institutions that made it impossible to go from Point A to Point B in the shortest possible time.

And we're right back there today. The entire process of ObamaCare was the opposite of going from Point A to Point B. It was the least competent and efficient solution every step of the way. There was no reason to think that its website would be any better. The process that led to it being dumped on the American people was completely devoid of any notion of testing or outcomes. It was the right thing to do because... it was the right thing to do. It was cargo cult logic all the same. So was its website.

Healthcare.gov, like ObamaCare, was going to work because it was "good". Its goodness was by some measure other than result. It was morally good. It was progressive. And so the deity of liberal causes, perhaps Karl Marx or Progressia, the Goddess of Soup and Economic Dysfunction, would see to it that it would work. Karma would kick in and everything would work out because it had to.

This brand of magical thinking was once commonplace. It still is. And it's why things so rarely work out in some of the more messed up parts of the world. But the sort of attitude that would once have made anthropologists shake their heads is now commonplace here. Savages in suits, barbarians with iPads are certain that things will work because they have appeased the gods of modernity with their fonts, they have made a website that looks like a functioning website. And like the cargo culters who built fake control towers expecting planes to land, they thought that their website would work.

Competence is built on the unhappy understanding that things won't work because you want them to, they won't work if you go through the motions, they will only work if you understand how a thing works and then make it work by building it, by testing it and by expecting failure every step of the way and wrestling with the problem until you get it right.

That's modernity. It isn't glamorous. You can see it in black and white photos of men working on old planes. You can see it in the eyes of the astronauts who first went to the moon. You can read it in the workings of the men who built the longest suspension bridges, laid undersea cables and watched their world change. They were moderns and their time is done. They have left behind savages with cell phones who make decent tinkerers, but whose ability to collaborate falls apart in large groups.

The difference between savages and civilized men isn't that savages are dumb and civilized people are smart. Savages can individually be quite clever within their parameters and civilized folk can be quite stupid. It's the ability to extend that intelligence in groups that makes for a civilization.

Savages cannot work together. They can fantasize, but they can't build anything bigger than a small group can manage. Savages are warriors, but not soldiers, they are tinkerers, not engineers, they are inventors, not scientists, they cannot work together on a large scale and thereby push past their own limitations as a culture and grow. They may have individual geniuses, but they cannot pass on what they learn.

We have not yet been reduced to savagery, but our incompetence increases in large groups to such a staggering extent that it often seems not to be worth the trouble. Individual geniuses can occasionally carry large groups on their shoulders, micromanaging them, terrorizing them and motivating them, the way that tribal chieftains do, but without that singular personality the whole thing collapses.

The United States government is the ultimate giant unworkable mess. It is a living cargo cult where everyone marches around following routines that are supposed to yield great prosperity, but never do. The processes themselves are broken and make no sense, but the cargo culturers of the government cannot and will not hear that. They know that the government will magically make everything work.

Because government is progress. Government is modernity. Government is magic.

The cargo culters on the islands, who once witnessed the might and power of the American military during WW2 make American flags and uniforms, they build airstrips and wooden control towers, and wait for the planes to land and make them rich. They don't understand why these things should work, but they do them anyway because that is how they remember it happening.

Our own cargo culters invoke FDR and JFK, they talk about the New Deal and the Great Society, they make grand promises and roll out big programs, and then they wait for it all to work. They don't understand themselves how or why it would work. But government is magic and the appearance of a thing is just as good as a real deal.

Build a website and it will work. Pass a law and they will come. Get a degree and you're competent.

There is no need to know how to do a thing. You don't need engineers or competent men. All you need to do is remember the great dreams of the past, listen to a few inspirational JFK speeches and then carve a computer out of wood and wait for free health care to arrive.

In cargo cult America, the food is free, the cell phones are free and the money can be printed forever because government is magic.

74 comments:

Horace Staccato said...

Cargo Cult America pretty much sums it up. Obama's highly embarrassing "Man of Destiny" poses are a disturbing symptom of that. It looks like he practices those in a mirror in his room while the Culture Club plays in the background.

Anyone who is in touch with reality understands at first glance that Obama is a highly-effeminate, resentful, overgrown adolescent with many, many axes to grind; and a pampered child's arrogance.

In the past 50 years we have embraced third-world values and denigrated those of the most successful civilization in history. Everything has become inverted. Cowardice has been redefined as courage; courage has been redefined as a violent crime (if you are White); failure and sullen petulance have been redefined as transcendent spiritual virtues. Ugh.

As for ObamaCare, it has never been about health care. It is a cynical Leftist money and power grab that was designed to destroy the private health care system utterly and create as many wards of the state as possible. ObamaCare will be a highly corrupt affirmative-action patronage system.

Say hello to your new doctor; DeShawn Lexus Jefferson.

Anonymous said...

Magical thinking is in vogue everywhere you look. In my field (associated with mortgage lending), many gov. licensed people produce a faux product that looks like the real thing and is accepted as the real thing but often is not. Oh well. Can we have too many mortgage crises? Gives the ersatz legislators something to do.

Andy Texan

Brett_McS said...

"These are the people who love Freakonomics, who enjoy all sorts of mental puzzles, who like to see an idea turned on its head, but who couldn't fix a toaster".

I recently heard a definition that seeks to distinguish 'nerd' from 'geek': A geek collects things; a nerd collects ideas. So these sound like nerds.

mindRider said...

Sentence 1....is detached it is from....
.....has detached itself from......?

Anonymous said...

First: sadly, I agree. Thank you for spelling it out for us.

You write with much passion and insight and, I think, much haste. Your plea on behalf of competence is undercut slightly by this article's need for copy-editing, from the very first sentence. It's is not the first time I've had this thought; but given the topic, I felt compelled to speak up. Please slow down a little, or get a proofreader.

--
Chas C-Q

Robin said...

Great post Daniel but beware in the Orwellian Newspeak world we live in, the OECD, a primary player in the international Government is Magic brigade, uses the term Competence to be the goal of all 21st Century education globally. Even has a framework-DeSeCo. Definition and Selection of Competences and DeSeCo is all about evaluating whether people have the values and mindsets suitable for little c Marxist Humanism.

It's what that PISA assessment is really measuring.

Government is parasitical and right now it has reached the point at all levels where it is strangling the host. Its beneficiaries are unaware the economy actually is not a fixed pie where the slices can be altered in size with no impact on the diameter.

meema said...

Spot on assessment, Daniel. You are a truth archeologist as well as a wordsmth extraordinaire. You know, I’ve concluded that psychopaths are in charge. And the reason one cannot change the mindset of a psychopath is because he/she truly believes in the created reality and therefore fully expects success. Unfortunately psychopaths are highly skilled in Blameshift 3.0 as well, and can quickly fall back to this OS if things don’t work as planned.

In the Matrix, that which is not real is the accepted norm and so it must be protected at all costs.

Ex-Dissident said...

Horace you'll be lucky to get DeShawn Lexus. You are more likely to be greeted by Mohamed Al Jihad Bin Laden murmuring alahu-akbar as he reaches for the scalpel.

Kitty said...

Like a hot knife through rancid butter every word of this cuts through the shibboleths and slogans which surround Obama. Thank you, Sultan.

AG said...

Cargo Cult. This is perhaps the most astute discription of the Obama acolytes I have ever heard. It nails it. Here is a brief description for those not familiar with this termonology;

"A cargo cult is a kind of Melanesian millenarian movement encompassing a diverse range of practices and occurring in the wake of contact with the commercial networks of colonizing societies. The name derives from the apparent belief that various ritualistic acts will lead to a bestowing of material wealth ("cargo")."

"Cargo cults often develop during a combination of crises. Under conditions of social stress, such a movement may form under the leadership of a charismatic figure. This leader may have a 'vision' (or 'myth-dream') of the future, often linked to an ancestral efficacy thought to be recoverable by a return to traditional morality. This leader may characterize the present state (often imposed by colonial capitalist regimes) as a dismantling of the old social order, meaning that social hierarchy and ego boundaries have been broken down"

Bruce Majors said...

I suspect the Freakonomics authors would agree with you. So that twits who buy their book don't understand the libertarian telos of their critique may not be their fault.

JoeMama said...

"The idea that we should go by results, rather than by processes, by outcomes rather than by appearances, was revolutionary."

More accurately, "...results, rather than by ideology,.."

Lysenkoism is when ideology trumps results.

The shortcoming of being entirely "results" focused to the exclusion of process is that the practitioner will take shortcuts. And he will be able to justify those shortcuts and risk by the short term results. "See, that bridge did not need all those bags of cement and steel rebar...diverting 30% of them to my supervisors dacha (or black market) was absolutely the right thing to do."

Then, even if there is a bad result within the supervisor's lifetime (an earthquake, for instance) he says, "My bad." and he may get executed or thrown into the klink. However, the true costs can never be recovered even if all the true cost could even be identified.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Results cover the long term as well as the short term. Some short cuts can be taken, some shouldn't.

The Empire State Building was built in a year from plans reused from another building. Was that foolhardy? Probably. But it worked.

We do use too many safety precautions. And it's important to state the difference between cutting corners in ways that make the project unfeasible in the long run and bold ways that make it dangerous, but achievable.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the ability to work in large groups is a sign of progress but it is also a double edged sword. The voice of reason and truth gets swallowed up pretty easily in mass projects. Even if there is a real engineer at the top if he just wants to pump and dump a product you still have the same problem. Then the savvy political scientist sees that you really don't need to know what you are doing since the actual tech is being thrown out anyway. Then the decline hastens but it was there from the beginning.

Small groups can not create a Divine deity on Earth like an Asian Emperor or a Pharaoh. It takes a huge nation state where enough liars can get in place so that an absolute fiction can be followed like it is real. I'm afraid America might become a victim of its own success. We built big, but we forgot to be small. Now we have manufactured Deities.

mrs adela bradley said...

Capitalism and Christianity, are the roots of our greatness from which we've cut ourselves off.

We all used to be capitalists and entrepreneurs of one size or another: whether financiers with the business acumen and connections to realize large-scale projects; or working and middle class folks with the drive and determination to make the most of opportunities, and having the thrift and know-how to manage their household resources. Sound money was behind it all, whereas now we have an entire "economy," that's as good as centrally-planned, based on ZIRP financing.

We all used to be Christians, whether actually or not, we knew enough to respect that as the historical basis of our common culture, our moral code, our aesthetics, our manners, our civic organizations, our public institutions, as well as being the source of our integrity, good will, and self-determination as individuals.

Lars said...

Unfortunately some of the competents have gone to the dark side, stealing easy money from the nonprofits. Read the "news" about billions missing from the unaccountable charities in the Wash Po.

Anonymous said...

Horace Staccato, while I agree, for the most part, with your assessment, I disagree with your assertion that Obamacare's purpose was to bring down the private health care system.

I feel that the motivation was much more mundane and mercenary: To create a new entitlement for the purpose of ensuring a Democratic majority in Congress for the foreseeable future.

The model here was Medicare, which cemented Democrat majorities in Congress for thirty years. Whenever a Democrat faced a stiff challenge, out came the "Mediscare" strategy (i.e. "If that Republican gets elected, he'll cut your Medicare!"). I've seen that happen so many times and was amazed that people fell for it every time.

What we have is a party that is willing to burn this country to the ground if they can rule over the ashes.

Anonymous said...

Very good again. I think of the men who designed and built the Great Western Railway from London to Bristol in the 1830s. Brunel, Gooch and many more . It worked then and it still inspires engineers today. Just how did they do it with such confidence?
Probably there were no real liberals then
The same type of men as Brunel built the USA. It also worked .
Sometimes I think the liberal cannot forgive the men who built the civilisation that nurtures him .I have no idea why but it explains the malevolence towards the past and the descent into unreality today.
Dave S

Anonymous said...

Progressia, the Goddess of Soup and Economic Dysfunction' that's a really good one, LOL

USA11SF said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Appreciate your clarity and the new perspective you provide on what's going on in the world.

--Just Joan

mrs adela bradley said...

One of the Obama administration's successes, it seems to me, has been its ability to thwart accountability by playing on just how ambiguous a figure Obama is. While black people champion his skin colour, his affirmative action rise, his idolizing Jay-Z and Oprah, his marriage to Michelle, white people alternatively have had anything but a racist response to him, because of the good looks and, what Lawrence Auster called his “refined qualities … not normally seen in blacks” that are the legacy of his white maternal grandfather. Legitimate questions about every aspect of his background, from his drug use to his family to his connections to the Muslim Brotherhood to his matriculation at Columbia, were there for the asking, but those who did were smeared as racist and xenophobic and marginal by savvy handlers to a willfully distracted electorate. Discerning just how nefarious is Obamacare's intent like everything else is difficult because of Obama himself. Along with being arrogant and pampered, he’s obviously too distracted and incompetent to have devised a means to sabotage the private health care system himself. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t sociopaths around there in the woodpile. He hung up the phone the night of September 11, 2012 and went to bed, because somebody told him to. That we seize on what a resentful, overgrown adolescent he is may be distracting us for realizing incompetence is not the worst failing of his administration.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

thank you Joan

Anonymous said...

the one thing I would most like to see before 2016 is Obama being booed off of the stage somewhere - anywhere.

Anonymous said...

Interesting take on it.

Here is an observation, based upon martial arts : in the old days the classical American matrial arts were bare nuckle boxing and catch wrestling. Both practized full contact with clear results.

In the post WW2 era we imported many Asian martial arts that were practiced non-contact or with a cooperative opponent (Thai kickboxing and Judo are notable full contact exceptions). These martial arts used many impressive moves, and became very popular.

In the early 1990s, the Gracies brought BJJ (full contact grappling based on Judo) to the US in the UFC. What resulted was that full contact martial arts like BJJ, wrestling, boxing and Thai kickboxing dominated.

Full contact competition keeps martial arts rooted in reality.

lemon lime moon said...

I suppose magic will repair obamacare very soon as well.

overcaffeinated said...

Check out this article on occult hipsters: http://mag.newsweek.com/2013/10/25/witches-brooklyn-williamsburg.html

<< Millennials across the country told Newsweek that astrology and tarot are their favorite supernatural tools for combating existential angst. “Astrology has very firm structure,” explains elite astrologer Susan Miller, whose utilitarian horoscopes—she’s more likely to advise on student loans than auras and prefers to call her work “mathematical” instead of magical—attract 6 million unique visitors every month, 73 percent of whom went to college or graduate school. >>

Larry J said...

Thank you for writing one of the best articles I've read this year. Very insightful and it explains why people like Obama can keep advocating socialist policies despite their long history of failure.

Elby the Beserk said...

Stumbled here by chance. A very fine article, and re "Please slow down a little, or get a proofreader." - I disagree. I like the style, I was dragged at increasing speed and anger by the rush of words, and flow of thoughts.

I'm a Brit. 62. Our post-war times we all looked West. The Empire was done and the new world power was the USA. Eisenhower & Kennedy seemed like other beings, and the new world of have what you want and eternal progress was lit by a beam from the USA - and by all the American TV shows (Mr. Ed).

We were soaked in American culture. I was aware of rock 'n roll and Elvis just as he appeared. TV shows, films, flooded in from the Brave New World.

The decline of the USA is frightening to watch from over here. It is of course, the decline of the West (Oswald Spengler if you want to chase a theme) in reality, but the USA is going first I fear. And it won't be a pretty sight. Good luck to you all, and God bless.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding column, something about the slide from the 1950-ish technocracy to the Obamanation's mediocracy, it's President Kardashian's world and tell me again just why the comptent should try to keep it running with this clown in the saddle?

Anonymous said...

I see too many using a "get what I can for myself -- to hell with the rest" mentality. Especially in government, too many just ride the wave of the moment, since everyone else is doing it, and let's not bother about the future impact. Get while the getting is good. Magical thinking comes in when few recognize there is an end to the "getting." It's a shell game. Or musical chairs?

Anonymous said...

Of course, exactly correct. The United States planned and built the Panama Canal between 1904 and 1914, something which would be inconceivable today, even if we wished to do it. We can barely build a highway overpass in that time now. We went to the moon in 1969 after only a relative few years of rocket building. It took us longer to build a mediocre sky scraper on the site of the 9/11 bombings. And it is not just engineering. It took us longer to try Major Hassan than to fight and win World War Two. We do not do these things, or things like them any longer, because we are no longer capable of doing them. The West has reached its peak and is in decline. Those who hate the West, who are within the West, have achieved their aim.

TM Lutas said...

You are now on my to read list. This article inspired me to write my own take on this subject here:
http://flit-tm.blogspot.com/2013/11/nivens-law-as-applied-to-government.html

Bill Benzon said...

You might enjoy this post about my father, who was an engineer. It explains how he came up with a technique for cleaning coal (removing the sulfur from coal intended for iron-making) reduced capital costs for the plant and saved a bucket on maintenance costs.

Anonymous said...

We can still get stuff done, it just takes a lot longer because of restrictions we placed on ourselves. The Panama Canal is a perfect example. Yes it got built from 1904 - 1914, and it was an incredible feat of engineering and determination. It also killed around 20,000 men to get it done. Most engineering projects now have no deaths and few injuries. The metrics by which success is measured have moved. Going back to the Panama Canal, there is a new, larger, and better parallel canal under construction, and I am willing to bet the number of men killed to construct it will be under 100. Everyone loves to point at the construction of munitions during WWII as something that could not be emulated, but a modern equivalent is the MRAP and UAV programs. For all of the "Can Do" of men in the past, the sum of humanity from that time would be unable to build a smart phone. Great feats of engineering are still happening, the metrics by which they are measured have just changed and they are done in areas the government has yet to full insert itself. I agree Obama and the left is a cargo cult (and I would argue, a death cult), but there is still a lot of decline left in the US.

Tate

tbrookside said...

"The ObamaCare website is the natural spawn of that technocracy who love the idea of using modernity to make things faster and easier, but have no idea what anything costs or how it works."

The ACA customer application had to interface with 55 databases to render a coverage decision.

A sensible person observing that requirement would say, "OK, so we'll build a very simple application form to gather the customer information, and then we'll handle all databases interactions in batches overnight, and return a coverage determination to the customer the next day." You could build such a website for pennies in about a week.

But because the Light Bringer had seen a PowerPoint presentation promising a real-time response, we spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to deliver real-time results for a brand new process that had never been tested in the field. Tried, and failed.

This was hubris. Plain and simple.

Derek Gwinn said...

In defense of nerds and geeks everywhere, I've got to challenge Brett_McS's assertion:

"I recently heard a definition that seeks to distinguish 'nerd' from 'geek': A geek collects things; a nerd collects ideas. So these sound like nerds."

Yes, geeks collect things. But it's more accurate to say that nerds collect knowledge.

Those who collect ideas are wonks - they have lots of tidbits but no coherent understanding. As the "policy wonks" who know a little about a lot of things and think that makes them experts on interpreting legislation or informing elected officials.

For example, David Brooks and Eugene Robinson are on NPR ever Friday talking politics. They're wonks. To call them nerds is insulting to millions of knowledge lovers everywhere.

Plus, nerds tend to actually DO something with their knowledge of a subject matter. Look at the old pictures of Gates, Woz or Jobs - NERDS! But look at what they've actually accomplished.

Anonymous said...

We need a Patton for President and get on the track to reality.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post. It captures perfectly the ethic of Obamaland, where, for instance, a Ben Rhodes, failed novelist, is the president's national security advisor.

Mark Plus said...

A lot of this criticism would also apply to transhumanists, who believe that we'll become "immortal" by living long enough to make it to arbitrary dates in this century like the currently popular candidate year 2045. (I leave it as an exercise to the reader to show the logical problem with that idea. Hint: Rear-view mirror.) I've documented how the predecessors to today's transhumanists, back in the 1970's and 1980's, predicted that the breakthrough in radical life extension would have happened already, and guess what? Most of those people have died by now.

One of these early transhumanists, Bob Ettinger, who went into cryopreservation a few years ago, at least avoided setting dates, and he even said something sensible about building the sort of future you want: "If wishing doesn't work, try working."

Anonymous said...

To tie this in with my own hobby-horse -- I think this ties in with misandry. The irtues of understanding mechanics and physics and implementing changes, including the awkward 'failures' that happen midway -- these are all avoided. The necessary disciplines of R & D are neglected and disparaged. Working with your hands is chuckled at. Great dreams are whittled down by wizened souls, and bound by precautionary principles. Construction, mining, drilling are all considered 'evil.' Whatever men excelled at is now quaint, outmoded, so 'last year.' And now our culture is defined by triteness and small dreams.

jeyi said...

Wow... Two linked references on Instapundit to the Knish's seminal contributions in just the last week. Already nearly an order of magnitude increase in the number of comments here.

jeyi said...

Wow... Two linked references on Instapundit to the Knish's seminal contributions in just the last week. Already nearly an order of magnitude increase in the number of comments here.

Koblog said...

"Our modernity is style rather than substance. It's Obama grinning. It's the right font."

Tangentially, this "change for change's sake modernity/progress" has infected computer operating systems. Both Apple's OS 7 and Windows 8 are changes forced upon both companies by the "modernize it for no reason!" crowd. Changing the font does nothing to improve its performance and actually makes it harder to read. Stylistic decisions to put thin light gray fonts over white backgrounds actually hinders performance, but wows the critics. I've applauded and enthusiastically used every OS improvement in both Mac and PC since 1985. OS 7 and Win8 work, but are a step backward. They are less intuitive, less transparent, need more owners manual and YouTube tutorials.


I now know what "post modern" means: superfluous style changes and regression, not actual progress.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

it's about image, not functionality. Especially for Windows 8, which needs to pretend it's keeping up

Anonymous said...

I haven't been able to shake the Planet of the Apes w/ the alpha-omega bomb for a very long time - and often site it. I think Daniel Greenfield see things the same. What an insightful article DG!

Mark Plus said...

@ Anonymous:

>I think this ties in with misandry. The irtues of understanding mechanics and physics and implementing changes, including the awkward 'failures' that happen midway -- these are all avoided. The necessary disciplines of R & D are neglected and disparaged. Working with your hands is chuckled at. Great dreams are whittled down by wizened souls, and bound by precautionary principles. Construction, mining, drilling are all considered 'evil.' Whatever men excelled at is now quaint, outmoded, so 'last year.' And now our culture is defined by triteness and small dreams.

The venture capitalist Peter Thiel argues that most areas of engineering face so many restrictions these days because of politicized rent seeking and risk aversions that progress in them has become effectively illegal. By contrast, we've had the freedom to innovate with computing and software all we want, which explains why we have digital gadgets right out the last century's science fiction, but we live in or near crumbling cities. People tend to bad-mouth Ayn Rand a lot these days, but her novels celebrate the intelligence and virtues of the men (and of one female character) who can build real stuff out of matter and make it work to serve human needs. Rand would have agreed with Knish's observation that progress doesn't make things work; making things work causes progress.

Anonymous said...

"Modernity has to be built. It has to be constructed brick by bit by rivet by cable by people who know what they are doing." And who can generally describe what they're doing with differential equations.

I'd like to hear our "betters" try to define a list of terms like voltage, inertia, and price elasticity. It would make amusing video.

Alan said...

Wonderful article. Thank you.

Joseph said...

"These are the people who love Freakonomics, who enjoy all sorts of mental puzzles, who like to see an idea turned on its head," Wait a moment... Aren't the same people opposed to standardized tests? The combination of claims of brains and opposition to any objective method of testing those claims is not the mark of arrogant intellectuals but the mark of bluffers.

Anonymous said...

On the bright side those of us who can do things and make them work pretty much have a blank check.

Visigoth said...

Well observed and well said.

Anonymous said...

Cargo cults get a bad rap, yet their true story has other parallels.

http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4199

Excellent post. Glad Instapundit led me here.

Anonymous said...

This might be one of the smartest articles I've ever read. I pasted this paragraph "Competence is built on the unhappy understanding that things won't work because you want them to, they won't work if you go through the motions, they will only work if you understand how a thing works and then make it work by building it, by testing it and by expecting failure every step of the way and wrestling with the problem until you get it right." onto my Facebook under favourite quotes.

It so aptly describes the gap between the wishful thinking of poser and talkers and the understanding of tactical execution and bias for action of engineers and doers.

abprosper said...

I've been struggling for a way to elucidate the general decline in competency I've seen all around me and its replacement with some sort of "right thinking" ideology for some time. Many thanks for the rational and poetic explanation.

A trivial caveat though, some of the changes we've undergone in regards to worker safety and the unwillingness of modern workers to take risks certainly will have negative effects on getting stuff done . Still I can't find fault with people demanding higher levels of workplace safety

That unwillingness to be killed or maimed for someone else's grand project is not a sign of decay in as much as a perfectly sound, rational and all American "Me and Mine" first attitude.

Seerak said...

I'm amazed that there has not yet been a mention of E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops", as this essay reminds me intensely of the people in it.

There is so much astute observation here.... and one potential danger.

I have long been aware of that sense of competence, of "can-do" that I see in first-half 20th century culture. That was an era where the default assumption upon the realization of a potential new idea was that one was free to explore it, and to rally others to the goal by persuasion - and to ignore opposition. One did not need the approval of all others, or worse - the need to win their votes (usually by winning the backing of powerful friends) before making a move.

Therein lies the danger: of making the facile conclusion that the reason why we still see individual competence but have lost it on the large scale, is because our culture is "hyper-individualistic" or some similar Left-conservative nonsense. Do not fall for the siren call of New Deal-era big projects as an example of "competent large-scale projects". The irony is that doing so would in itself be an example of magical thinking, of seeking ends with no concern for means.

The key lies in understanding that "collectivism vs. individualism" is not about "working alone" versus "working together". If that were the case, all societies - even Ayn Randian laissez-faire capitalism - would ipso facto be "collectivist", because people work together in them. Apart from rendering the term meaningless, it is plain that "working together" is society itself. Collectivism is not "society", it is a type of society, defined by the moral terms upon which men work together.

Do individuals freely choose their associates, voluntarily? Or are we drafted into collective endeavors whether we like it or not? Individualism versus collectivism is the alternative to *this* question.

Now think about which of those will result in competent, large scale enterprises - and which necessarily breaks them. Under which environment are the competent most likely to engage the engine of competence - their minds? Under which will they keep their heads down, their mouths (and minds) shut, and do the minimum rather than risk the disapproval of their peers? Under which environment will the well-run enterprises outdistance the poorly run ones - and under which one will bad ideas persist because they are the popular catechism, socially immune from challenge by "enemies of the people"? Under which of these alternatives are the tallest oaks free to reach the greatest heights, and the others free to rally around it - and under which are the trees all kept equal by hatchet, axe and saw?

It is the climate of moral individualism, where individuals freely self-select and self-organize, that makes competent large-scale enterprise (i.e. "teams") possible. It is the notion of tribal command and "collective right-of-action" overriding individual choice that breaks that process, that replaces the open competition of different ideas with the arbitrary decision of the tribal chief's "What We say goes".

The Progressive era in America was the beginning of the transition *away* from the culture of individualism; it was the New Deal that radically accelerated the process. Today's loss of competence is the downstream effect. Like someone who inherits a fortune only to piss it away, the New Deal era benefitted from the "can-do" cultural capital left to it by the prior era even as it eroded its ultimate source, and the bill is now coming due.

We have been moving away from individualism back towards tribalism at all levels. It should be unsurprising to discover the concomitant epistemological phenomena, of a steady increase in magical thinking at the expense of principled thought and reason. The trick is to spot and resist that trend everywhere, including in the politics and philosophy we use to evaluate this trend.

Koblog said...

"That unwillingness to be killed or maimed for someone else's grand project is not a sign of decay in as much as a perfectly sound, rational and all American "Me and Mine" first attitude."

Precisely why I turned against Obama's Syria foolishness. He's already killed more Americans than Bush in Afghanistan (Obama's "good" war, fought "correctly") on his way to ignominious defeat as we crawl out with our tails between our legs.

Sending our armed forces to die for him and his whims is immoral to the max.

O. Mencken said...

I am put in mind of James P. Hogan's "Voyage from Yesteryear". in which "competence" was the currency of the the society.

http://tinyurl.com/n22nh8p

Anonymous said...

So close! Government is not magic...it is a replacement for the Devine.

Anonymous said...

H.G. Wells Morloch and the Eloi in the "Time Machine"

section9 said...

Thank you for posting this article, Mr. Greenfield. I think it's one of the most timely and insightful articles of 2013.

The difference in the simple ability to get things done between ourselves and the generation that won World War II is both astonishing, and somewhat depressing.

J Van Stry said...

As a QA Engineer & Manager I run into this constantly. It's called 'Agile'.

Anonymous said...

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis, Daniel. Thank you.

Lem said...

Dead on.

Anonymous said...

Since you know everything, how come you're not running things? It's easy to sit on the sidelines and make judgement calls. I bet you're one of those people who watches poker on TV and claims to beat everyone, but you've never actually put your money on the table to play. Armchair quarterback is your new title.
Don't misunderstand me, I am not defending anyone or anything. Just pointing out that it's easy to be the one passing judgement, but it's hard to be the one making the calls at game time.

roger u said...

"Individual geniuses can occasionally carry large groups on their shoulders, micromanaging them, terrorizing them and motivating them, the way that tribal chieftains do, but without that singular personality the whole thing collapses."

Hasn't it always been this way? A powerful personality implementing his vision regardless of nay-sayers? Men driven to win. I don't think this has changed, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said,

"It's that sense that X knows what he's doing because he presents it the right way."

The people with magical "visions"* have become the people we, as a society, look to for leadership. Why this is, I don't know. Somehow, they took over the culture somewhere around WWII, maybe while the old type were fighting, I don't know, and now they control access to power.

* I'm not sure where the quotation marks (or, sarcasm marks) should be: magical "visions", "magical visions" or "magical" visions.

Anonymous said...

And we wonder why this country and the world cannot operate....just read some of this stuff........as long as people remain this close minded and intolerant god save us all.... why would anything work in this environment

Anonymous said...

roger u wrote: 'The people with magical "visions"* have become the people we, as a society, look to for leadership. Why this is, I don't know. Somehow, they took over the culture somewhere around WWII, maybe while the old type were fighting, I don't know, and now they control access to power.'

My opinion, FWIW, is that this attitude developed during the nuclear confrontation that we call the Cold War. Millions of American voters began to see the importance of presidential elections as ensuring that the right man with the right presentational skills for Soviet consumption got elected. "Does he look tough enough?" asked conservatives. "Does he look crazy?" asked liberals. At the same time the ascendancy of television made the importance of presentational skills a matter of professional pride. All politicians must now be JFK, all reporters must look good on TV.

roger u said...

"All politicians must now be JFK"

I hadn't considered that tv and nuclear weapons came online around that time.

This man was elected Vice President in 1825. No way he'd get elected to anything today looking like that!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:John_C_Calhoun_by_Mathew_Brady,_1849.png

Mike St James said...

I've been trying to describe what's going on in this country for a l-o-n-g time, but never managed it to my satisfaction. Thanks for giving our observations hard-hitting and effective expression. THIS article says what I've been trying to say, as I always wanted to say it. Now I can keep my mouth shut and just pass this around instead. This is an awesome work,

DeserveLiberty said...

One next reasonable consideration is this...

When the magic of the magician, the chant of the shaman, the idols carved of the government god, fail to produce, what might the social environment become? When the barbarians with iPads, who truly believe themselves to be god-like, experience an impotence of their pixy dust, what shall they do?

One possible outcome is that they will blame those who "do not believe," insinuating that the failure is the result of insufficient collective and collectivist "faith" among the herd. This blame may go beyond mere abuse through words, and extend to some forms of persecution of the non-believers.

In fact, we can readily see examples of this already occurring. The metaphor helps us to see it. For instance, consider the mounting assault by establishment "Republicans" upon those in their ranks who are constitutionalists. More broadly, consider the government-imposed disassembly of tried and true common virtues and basic natural human social structures.

This might be the beginning of a much deeper descent.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

It's what they're doing now. ObamaCare is failing because the infidel Republicans blasphemously did not believe in it and rooted for it to fail.

Anonymous said...

It is obvious the time has come to elect our congress-people by lottery. Everybody who is interested in becoming a senator or representative will enter their name in the lottery, and winners will be selected by using a random method. Ergo, no more campaigns, no more payoffs (until AFTER the elections), and no more career politicians. Elections to be held every two years.

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