Belmont Club

A Shortage of Competence

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

A report describing ship handling incompetence on two US destroyers which led to the deaths of 17 sailors raised the possibility that American can-do, once the envy of the world, may suddenly be in short supply even in places where it was once taken for granted.  Everything suddenly seems to be going wrong, from a terror attack in Manhattan made possible by admitting an ISIS supporter under the Diversity Visa Program to the seeming ability of Russian hackers to turn the giant American social media industry against itself.

As Noah Rothman notes, the one common denominator in the public post-mortems of disasters seems the assumption everyone is stupid; everyone needs to be protected from the sly world. Not just dumb but “so staggeringly stupid that even the most mind-numbingly asinine foreign propaganda can convince a critical mass of voters to drive a stake through the heart of American democracy”.  Yet this apparent hyperbole is merely self-description. Person after person mounts the podium to present himself as victim or fool; from Hollywood celebrities who ‘never suspected’ the sex abuse all around them to seasoned politicians who can’t even remember how they came to hire the shadowy agencies which did opposition research on their political opponents.

Chairman of the House Oversight Committee Trey Gowdy trolled for laughs by observing that nobody can no longer remember anything.  “I am also interested in sharing some memory tricks with folks at the DNC because no one can remember who paid $10 million to a law firm to do oppo research,” he said. “Ten million dollars and no one can remember who authorized it, who approved it.”

Maybe that’s because nobody at the DNC even knew who they were working for, according to Donna Brazile who told Politico that after taking over the Democratic National Committee not only did she discover its vaunted war chest empty and stuffed with a pile of Obama IOUs but that the entire party was working for Hillary Clinton without even being aware of it.

Analyze that.

The institutions may appear to be breaking down in unison because they are all running up against the same thing: an increasingly complex world which has become far less controllable than before.  Social media is a frequently cited example of how radically things have changed. Information that once could be suppressed with a single phone call can now “go viral” in minutes experts warned as early as 2011.  “One bad review, or one mistake … can break a reputation.” If there are a whole crowd of skeletons clamoring to get out of a closet the flood of scandal can break an entire industry.

No man is an island, not even those on Madagascar. Advances in air travel technology have transformed its picturesque local customs into serious threats. “Relatives dancing with the corpses of their loved ones” in Madagascar are threatening to spread the plague over the planet, forcing health officials to screen passengers departing the island.

The local can morph into the global without warning.  “European leaders have treated the Catalan independence bid as an internal Spanish matter, but its deposed leader’s decision to flee to Brussels may change that.”  One observer marveled at how quickly the stakes escalated. “If territories around Europe take it upon themselves to declare independence unilaterally, the whole state system in Europe is at risk.”

With little remaining certain any more, ‘how to lead in chaos’ is probably the biggest the challenge facing institutions today. Management literature suggests that clear thinking, a willingness to accept responsibility and a bias for action may offer the best hope for survival when facing the unknown.  Yet those are the precisely the qualities missing from today’s Western institutions like the DNC which can’t even remember how it spent $10 million.  That is because competence has been bred out of the system.

In the heady years after the fall of the Berlin Wall it became tempting to select the fixers over the problem solvers to head organizations since in those golden days they could get away with the amorally expedient if they could rig the optics.  Truth didn’t matter; spin did. The man with the nice hair, the pretty face and the smooth teleprompter delivery became valued over the competent.  But over time it became progressively harder to sustain artifice until finally it became impossible.  Now things gave come, like a freighter on a collision course with a destroyer,  full circle.

In today’s climate of risk the optimal decision rule is ironically to “do the right thing” because “the wrong thing” quickly gets punished by reality. The fixer is only effective when the system operates according to predictable man-made rules. When those rules misfire, in an era when payoffs won’t silence victims, desist notices get trashed, analytical models don’t predict elections, probes veer off course, and diversity visas suck in ISIS sympathizers then relying on optics becomes simply too dangerous. Consequences are back and the old hacks are unable to cope.

Though it is common to describe the past two years as a “revolt from the right” they have also been times of a very real uprising on the left.  From ideologues who have seen their principles betrayed to apparatchiks who feel robbed of their deserts, the revolutionaries are revolting. The image of Donna Brazile finding the DNC coffers empty of everything but pawn tickets captures the shock operatives must feel upon realizing the big payday they counted on isn’t going to happen.  The activists can’t be happy either.  Not only isn’t the long overdue socialist paradise never going to come, but they must feel like fools for believing the political, entertainment and media celebrities who promised it now they stand revealed as scoundrels.

The “deplorables” have long sensed something was awry, the difference is the elite institutions are now feeling it too.

Yet with the notable exception of the Navy, which realized it had to up its game to survive against both the perils of the sea and the action of the enemy, much of the response to the growing spate of disasters has been to reach reflexively for the fix.  The nostrums are depressingly old whether firing the special prosecutor to stop the indictments, pushing Silicon Valley into censoring everyone or feeling sorry that poor Hillary was hacked by mean old Putin.  The urge to make it go away, to be the victim in chief rather than commander in chief still reigns supreme.

If that could stop the rot it would make sense; but it won’t.  The Narrative is dime a dozen.  Sense is the one thing in short supply.

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Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan, by Sean Parnell and John Bruning.  This book is Lieutenant Parnell’s personal account of the legendary U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division’s heroic stand in the mountains of Afghanistan. Acclaimed for its vivid, poignant, and honest recreation of sixteen brutal months of nearly continuous battle in the deadly Hindu Kesh, it is an action-packed, highly emotional true story of enormous sacrifice and bravery.

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The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
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