There Is Something Wrong With Our Giant Institutions

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

People sometimes have the sense of living inside a story. There is the obvious one of their own personal lives, embedded within the wider tale of the surrounding community. So it goes with each bigger scene nesting within the larger context enfolding it. While there is little individuals can do to affect its outcome directly, many can’t help but ask themselves the question about the largest drama they can conceive: ‘What is the story of my time?’ Will my tribe, civilization, and religion perish, or is it yet to flourish to an unknown height?

Strange to say, people living through history had little sense of its shape. For example, Romans, like frogs being slowly boiled, failed to notice their empire was collapsing. “The fall of an empire—the end of a polity, a socioeconomic order, a dominant culture, or the intertwined whole—looks more like a cascading series of minor, individually unimportant failures than a dramatic ending that appears out of the blue … it was a slow process lasting many lifetimes—hardly the stuff of dramatic narratives.” They got used to decline.

If that sounds unbelievable, many readers will attest that not even professional Kremlinologists realized the Soviet Union was collapsing until it finally did. “In 1983, Princeton University professor Stephen Cohen described the Soviet system as remarkably stable … Former DCI Stansfield Turner in 1991 wrote in the US Journal Foreign Affairs, ‘We should not gloss over the enormity of this failure to forecast the magnitude of the Soviet crisis… Yet I never heard a suggestion from the CIA, or the intelligence arms of the departments of Defense or State, that numerous Soviets recognized a growing, systemic economic problem.'”

Despite the ringside view afforded Kremlinologists, academics, and media on one of the greatest events of the 20th century, they never saw where it was going. So it is entirely possible that we are living through an historical collapse without being conscious of it. But that prospect raises the hypothetical question: Given something is falling, what could it be? Geopolitical strategists routinely like to frame this in terms of rise and fall, for example, the ascent of China and the decline of America. Graham Allison, running with this scenario, described a situation where one power is rising at the expense of the other, leading to a struggle for control of the world order.

The defining question about global order for this generation is whether China and the United States can escape Thucydides’s Trap. The Greek historian’s metaphor reminds us of the attendant dangers when a rising power rivals a ruling power—as Athens challenged Sparta in ancient Greece, or as Germany did Britain a century ago. Most such contests have ended badly, often for both nations, a team of mine at the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs has concluded after analyzing the historical record. In 12 of 16 cases over the past 500 years, the result was war.

But there is another possibility, articulated by SCMP columnist Alex Lo. “Suppose both China and the US are in decline … There is plenty of data out there that would paint a pretty grim picture of both countries.” Then what have we got? In this scenario, it is the great power system itself that is breaking down, the ‘world order’ arrangement that is collapsing.

Instead of a ‘Thucydide’s Trap’ driven by the competition of rival hegemons, we can imagine a ‘Complexity Trap’ where states try to control the human ecosystem, the Internet, and an interlinked planetary economy with decreasing effect because these phenomena have simply become too complicated for bureaucracies to effectively manage.

The Covid-19 pandemic clearly illustrates the limits of public health instruments’ ability to ‘shut down the virus.’ The great superstates thought they could lick it and couldn’t. As Chuck Todd observed on “Meet the Press”: “President Biden ran on taming the pandemic, and he prematurely declared independence from the virus back in July.” It’s still not over, even in welfare state Europe. Even Beijing overrated its power, finding that not even the severest social control could bring nature to heel. “China could face more than 630,000 COVID-19 infections a day if it dropped its zero-tolerance policies by lifting travel curbs, according to a study by Peking University mathematicians.” As a consequence, Beijing bricked itself inside its own jail.

Nor were the Powers any more successful at predicting the economy. The surprise energy shortages, inflation, and supply-chain disruptions shocked world leaders who expected something else. All of a sudden governments aren’t so powerful anymore. It is almost amusing and certainly pathetic to read the directives of European agencies purporting to control artificial intelligence as if they could regulate a force they cannot even in principle predict.

Perhaps the 20th century was the last time things were simple enough to expect governments to be fundamentally in charge. Today it may be impossible for states agencies to control the future, only try to keep up with it, because human activity is so hooked up to the larger universe by technology on which we are always partly along for the ride. Governments may not be able to end this pandemic on an official timetable or keep the earth’s temperature set to within 1.5 degrees like it was some air conditioner — but they haven’t accepted that yet.

Possibly part of the reason for public pessimism is the subconscious awareness that bureaucracies have expanded to their level of incompetence. From the long-delayed Artemis moon project to its inexplicable inability to build stuff, there is something wrong with our giant institutions. The NYT writes in bafflement: “The nation’s most ambitious engineering projects are mired in postponements and skyrocketing costs. Delivering $1.2 trillion in new infrastructure will be tough.”

As Honolulu sprawled into new suburbs west of Pearl Harbor over the last two decades, city planners proposed an ambitious rail transit line that would sweep riders 20 miles into downtown. The $4 billion estimate in 2006 was hardly cheap, amounting to $200 million per mile.

The cost escalation since then has been an engineering marvel all its own. Concerns over Native Hawaiian burial grounds stalled early construction, then problems with welding and cracks in the tracks appeared. Earlier this year, engineers realized that in some sections, the wheels were a half-inch narrower than the rails. Order new wheels? Tear up the tracks?

Adding more money will not fix the problem; it may even make it worse because things have just gone over their heads. The expansion of private activity into outer space will create a still bigger challenge for the 20th-century state. Latencies in communication imposed by the limited speed of light mean that real-time control from the center will become impossible in principle. Even the Mars copter is largely autonomous.

Taken together, these developments suggest that the collapse we may be feeling — if one is in fact occurring — is not the fall of a hegemon but the crumbling of hegemony itself. It is probably driven by the drastic increase of complexity in the 21st century, represented by an ever-lengthening flood of bits which, if not understood, is psychologically indistinguishable from entropy. The world, like a team of wild horses, may have gotten away from the UN, Xi, Vladimir, and Joe because it’s gotten too dang complicated to control. Going back to historical metaphors, humanity may be reliving, not the fall of Rome but the fall of Babel.

Books: The Last Duel by Eric Jager. In 1386, a few days after Christmas, a massive crowd gathered at a Paris monastery to watch two men fight a duel to the death. A trial by combat to prove which man’s cause was right in God’s sight. The dramatic story of the knight, the squire, and the lady unfolds during the tumultuous fourteenth century. A time of war, plague, and anarchy, as well as of honor, chivalry, and courtly love. The notorious quarrel appears in many histories of France, but no writer has recounted it in full until now.