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: