Tuesday, June 13, 2023

More on the collapse of competence in the USA


Last week, we asked:  "What happens when the competent opt out?"  The topic aroused a fair amount of interest, to judge by the comments from readers.

As if in reply, Palladium published an article a few days ago titled "Complex Systems Won’t Survive the Competence Crisis".  Here are a few excerpts.

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.

. . .

By the 1960s, the systematic selection for competence came into direct conflict with the political imperatives of the civil rights movement. During the period from 1961 to 1972, a series of Supreme Court rulings, executive orders, and laws—most critically, the Civil Rights Act of 1964—put meritocracy and the new political imperative of protected-group diversity on a collision course. Administrative law judges have accepted statistically observable disparities in outcomes between groups as prima facie evidence of illegal discrimination. The result has been clear: any time meritocracy and diversity come into direct conflict, diversity must take priority. 

The resulting norms have steadily eroded institutional competency, causing America’s complex systems to fail with increasing regularity. In the language of a systems theorist, by decreasing the competency of the actors within the system, formerly stable systems have begun to experience normal accidents at a rate that is faster than the system can adapt. The prognosis is harsh but clear: either selection for competence will return or America will experience devolution to more primitive forms of civilization and loss of geopolitical power.

. . .

Promoting diversity over competency does not simply affect new hires and promotion decisions. It also affects the people already working inside of America’s systems. Morale and competency inside U.S. organizations are declining. Those who understand that the new system makes it hard or impossible for them to advance are demoralized, affecting their performance. Even individuals poised to benefit from diversity preferences notice that better people are being passed over and the average quality of their team is declining. High performers want to be on a high-performing team. When the priorities of their organizations shift away from performance, high performers respond negatively.

. . .

As older men with tacit knowledge either retire or are pushed out, the burden of maintaining America’s complex systems will fall on the young. Lower-performing young men angry at the toxic mix of affirmative action (hurting their chances of admission to a “good school”) and credentialism (limiting the “good jobs” to graduates of “good schools”) are turning their backs on college and white-collar work altogether. 

This is the continuation of a trend that began over a decade ago. High-performing young men will either collaborate, coast, or downshift by leaving high-status employment altogether. Collaborators will embrace “allyship” to attempt to bolster their chances of getting promoted. Coasters realize that they need to work just slightly harder than the worst individual on their team. Their shirking is likely to go unnoticed and they are unlikely to feel enough emotional connection to the organization to raise alarm when critical mistakes are being made. The combination of new employees hired for diversity, not competence, and the declining engagement of the highly competent sets the stage for failures of increasing frequency and magnitude.

. . .

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.

There's more at the link, and it's all worth reading.

It's worth noting that this is also going to affect many other countries.  In another article last week, I raised the question of First World countries recruiting (relatively) highly qualified Third World personnel such as nurses, technicians, etc.  As fewer local recruits can be found to do these jobs, so efforts to recruit foreigners to do them will increase - but that will have the knock-on effect that the nations from which they come will also face increasing shortages of qualified, competent personnel.  In a sense, by importing a (partial) solution, we're simultaneously exporting the problem.

China is finding a similar problem in its drive to control raw materials and strategic imports around the world.  When it starts a mine or a factory, it typically imports Chinese management and labor, rather than hire locals who simply aren't competent to do the work involved.  That not only deprives the host country of education and training for its own people, but drains competence out of China into its economic "colonies", where it's no longer available to mainland employers.  If one has a sufficiently broad-based and competent pool of workers and managers, that's not a problem:  but not many countries can boast that anymore.  We certainly can't.

There are wheels within wheels on this problem, and it's not going to go away - it's going to get worse.  I'm reminded of a saying in the information technology industry back in the 1970's, when I first got involved in it:

Idiot proof systems
are no match
for system proof idiots

True dat.



Old NFO said...

What most don't understand is that the economy really is a 'system of systems' that depend on each other to work. Infrastructure is the critical linchpin, without that (e.g. power), those fancy AI systems/computers don't work, and there aren't any 'old farts' left that know how to work around them. Hospitals, grocery stores, food production, etc. ALL depend on that infrastructure to function. Take any piece away, and poof... It all goes away.

James said...

Medical training for doctors has fallen under the spell of woke. All competence standards are being removed and medicine will become even more dangerous for the customers.

MNW said...

In otherwords: you cannot out-smart stupid, and Ann Raynd might be hailed as a prophet in tye future.

This is a video on power issues in South Africa

Anonymous said...

"they are unlikely to feel enough emotional connection to the organization to raise alarm when critical mistakes are being made."

It doesn't matter if they raise the alarm. At best, they'll get ignored when they do.

After while, you start to wonder why you bother trying to help the organization correct those mistakes.

- FeatherBlade

Will said...

I've seen how some of it starts. Back in the 90's in Silicon Valley, I got an education one day by listening to a housemate's father instruct his mulatto son on techniques to force the kid's teachers and college to improve his grades. He ended up getting hired at a NASA equipment supplier. He was a violent, untrustworthy clown. His white father was a typical left wing idiot from Berkley.

MN Steel said...

You just stop making suggestions. The only way to survive paycheck-to-paycheck in large organizations is to consider yourself a mercenary.

A lot of jobs are open for a long time now, and standards are being lowered with each new hire. There are only bodies in place now, as skilled and strong as a house of cards.

Anonymous said...

IIRC Mississippi water treatment plant failed. They had to send in the military to fix it and some grunt turn one valve and got it working again. Nobody working there knew how to run the place.

Steve O said...

During the early days of WW2, airborne troops were the new, shiny thing. A lot of senior regular army officers (i.e. older) tried to get assigned to an airborne unit as a way to enhance their careers (apparently, some also thought that winning the current war was sortof important, too). The problem was that most of these senior, older officers couldn't hack the physical jump training. When they objected to failing out, and asked that the training be 'adjusted' to let them pass, the reply was "Gravity doesn't salute".
We are fortunate to live in a world where fatal consequences for bad decisions are becoming rare. But at some point, our inter-connected society will find out that gravity still doesn't salute!

Anonymous said...

Many of those long open slots are really for jobs that don't exist. HR & C suites execs have a rolling roster of so-called "open positions". Why?
Part as pacifier to existing employees, part to gaslight competitors into thinking the firm is expanding.

A new set of "open slots" goes up every 8-10 weeks.
Saw this at Top 5 financial firms.

Teddy1890! said...

I'm a 68 year old that just retired ( forced out) after 40 years in the wholesale grocery business. I can tell you that America has lowered the bar for acceptable work and services. There is no pride in work today from the current lazy, give me a sticky star generation. It started with the lack of leadership in this country. Congress is a good place to start. Then our public school systems are a joke. Want to know what the U.S. will look like in 20 30 years? Look at Europe. Socialism, like cancer, has changed our social DNA in America.

James said...

LOL. I've been in IT for a while in system Architecture, Professional Service, Management, project Management and Implementations. We have a very specific technology set we work with and consult on Customer Experience/Service. Over the years things have gotten stranger and stranger. Our clients often ignore customers. Do things in opposing ways, etc.
Now, many of the most talented are leaving. All the top "experts" in the field are moving on to other things. I'm semi-retireing and am putting together a custom wood manufacturing and furniture millworks. Many of our group that started this Cloud, Omni channel, customer communication systems are done. Yes, we did AI systems before mainstream and they only fit a narrow use case even with the improvements. We all worked together for years and loved what we did. Those left have a huge learning curve they'll likely never complete. They are younger tech guys with no business or CS management experience. They are simple scripters and coders. This will be a huge downfall in customer service areas across all industries. Combined with no representatives of shortages of them it will be interesting.

Good luck.

Jay Bee said...

On the section of production line I work on, our equipment has been in place since the early 90’s. At the beginning of the year we started automating and reducing operator input because of the work force struggles we and everyone else has been going through. Covid made things drastically worse, but the competency decline was happening long before that.

None of us insist that every employee that we hire be a rockstar, but it’s tough even finding people to just clock in, meet the basic requirements of the job, then go home.

“Idiot proof systems are no match for system proof idiots.”

At work we call them smarter dummies.

wolfwalker said...

"Idiot proof systems are no match for system proof idiots"

It's impossible to create a system that is foolproof. Fool-resistant is the best you can do.

Another disaster waiting to happen is "open source" programming. Programmer A uses modules written by programmer B, which depend on modules written by C, which uses calls to an API written by D, which expects its parameters in a format coined by E... it's reached a point where you cannot debug a major project anymore, because so much of the code is buried many levels deep in modules written years before, and all so complex that no one, not even the original authors, really understands how it all works. One deep-buried bug can break an entire major application, and good luck figuring out which of the 10,000 library modules and 50,000 variables, totaling multiple megabytes of raw code, is the actual problem.

A few years back some guy got disgusted and deleted all his projects from Github. It broke half the sites on the Web, because one of the modules he deleted was deep in the dependency stack for just about every significant web package going. It was only by pure luck that somebody had a copy of the original project and was able to re-upload it.

Peripatetic Engineer said...

It's impossible to make anything idiot proof because idiots are so clever.

Joe Texan said...

In the classic science fiction novel, "The Marching Morons," by Cyril Kornbluth, the world's systems were kept running by an intelligent, educated, behind-the-scenes group of dedicated workers, while the 99% went about their blissfully ignorant lives. Mr. Kornbluth would certainly recognize today's vapid 99% of society. What he didn't count on was a government actively interfering in the ability of the productive few to keep things running smoothly.

HMS Defiant said...

Now when one goes into a fast food chain store one places one's own order into the system and all the employees have to do is round it up and put it in a bag or on a trey. Wave of the future!!!!

The owners went that route because now they don't have to look so hard to find enough people who know enough to actually push buttons on a register that has pictographs of the food items and no need at all to make change for a $20.00.

Anonymous said...

"Idiot proof systems are no match for system proof idiots"

Partly tongue in cheek, I suggested that if you wanted to test a system and make it idiot proof, you had to eliminate the variables and test the system with a British Standard Idiot (BSI - which is the acronym for the British Standards Institute). The search for a BSI continued with no solution found ...

Phil B

Post Alley Crackpot said...

Eventually someone really clever comes along and brings with him a lot of idiot-proof matches.