Of course, the label of generalized American incompetence seems to cast too wide a net. After all, most of us have the competence to not starve when provided with cans of baked beans and a can opener. But it seems that each and every one of us is forced to plead incompetence when presented with the task of judging the value of various figments of financial imagination which comprise fully half of the increasingly fictional US economy, for the depths of incompetence on which this crumbling edifice floats are truly unfathomable. It started with incompetent public officials who blithered on about “ownership society,” which is a boneheaded idea. This, in turn, empowered individuals who were incompetent to make financial decisions to borrow vasts sums of money, with the loans backed by an implicit government guarantee. It proceeded to incompetent appraisers, who inflated the value of the collateral based on circular reasoning (value = price = value), and to incompetent bankers, who improperly documented, resold and bundled the loans into unfathomably faulty Collateralized Debt Obligations. It proceeded to incompetent government officials who treated these faulty documents as valuable and backed up their value with public money which they are yet to collect in taxes. It proceeded to incompetent judges who rush through foreclosures and throw people out of their homes based on faulty or nonexistent documentation of ownership.
Some people express umbrage at all this, harrumphing about this and that technical defect in the paperwork, throwing around big words like “personal responsibility” and “fraud.” Some of them claim that a concerted effort by brilliant legal and financial minds must be made, to flush all of this illegality out of the system, to determine what all of this soiled paper is really worth, to punish the guilty and to restore dignity to the innocent who were harmed along the way. In this they have so far been quite incompetent: they have vociferously yet impotently complained about a matter over which not a single one of them is competent to exercise any degree of control. An attempt to unscramble all of the faulty financial paperwork is bound to lead to a ridiculous death by a thousand paper cuts. About half of the US economy consists of financial froth that is floating above an unfathomable abyss of incompetence, and once that froth blows away, what will remain of the US economy will turn out to look like a deflated, shriveled little thing, at a standstill because it will be unable to borrow internationally to finance fuel imports, full of defunct financial institutions right up to and including the Federal Reserve, with a worthless currency that nobody is willing to accept as payment, and full of people furiously shaking their tiny fists, hurling their impotent rage at an indifferent sky.
How does a “can do” nation degenerate to such depths of incompetence? A key insight is offered by the Dunning-Krueger effect, defined and experimentally tested by Justin Kruger and David Dunning at Cornell University. Kruger and Dunning proposed that, “for a given skill, incompetent people will:
- tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
- fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
- fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
- recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill,
if they can be trained to substantially improve.”
But now comes an embarrassing fact: Krueger and Dunning carried out their initial research on American subjects, and their results squared well with their hypothesis, but when their experiments were repeated with Europeans and East Asians, a different picture emerged. With Europeans, the effect seemed barely measurable, while with East Asians the exact opposite picture emerges: Dr. Steven Heine of the University of British Columbia has found that East Asians tend to underestimate their abilities, focusing on self-improvement and group cohesion. I have come across examples of such a systematic error before. I recall listening to a certain researcher of human behavior at Yale, who was discussing the results he got by doing experiments on his students, which he blithely extrapolated to all of humanity. But I suspected that an error had crept into his experiments, due to his unstated and unquestioned assumption that his little sample of Yalies was representative of the inhabitants of Planet Earth rather than Planet Yale (which is what I walked away thinking).
And so it turns out that this blind faith in everyone and sundry's competence is quite specifically an American trait. I invite cultural anthropologists to concentrate their efforts on finding out how this cultural trait could have ever evolved, seeing as it is quite obviously maladaptive. I would venture to guess that it will come down to a false incentive for fostering “inclusive fitness” rather than fitness per se: one's ability to work and play well with others being emphasized and rewarded over and above one's ability to work and play well, others be damned if they can't keep up. A certain vital part of humanity has been bred out of us. How many of you Americans have sat through endless meetings, listening dutifully (or pretending to while doodling on a pad or daydreaming) whereas what you really wanted to do is to stand up, extend the accusatory finger and say: “This is bullshit. You, Sir, are an idiot. How dare you waste our time with this nonsense? Shut up and get out.” Were you to do this, you would have found your American colleagues cringing pathetically and trying desperately to smooth things over while avoiding your eyes like whipped puppies, while your foreign colleagues would be doing their best to stifle their guffaws while looking at you with newfound respect.
Now, if you have ever worked for a Chinese, a Russian, or especially an Israeli company, chances are you have been witness to a few variants of the scene described above, all accompanied by easy laughter and cheers, and a general sigh of relief: idiot expelled, sanity restored. But here in America we are now a bunch of pathetic cringing ninnies branded with a peace sign and mooing dolefully. Some Mr. Gnang-Gnang or other from Planet 10 can get up in front of us and tell us that printing half a trillion dollars will create jobs, and not a single person jumps up an screams “WHAT? WHAT?” No, we don't do that here, plus it's almost lunch, so let's just chew our cud until somebody comes and feeds us. Here's a prime example: just a week ago Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble called US policy “ratlos,” which translates into the local vernacular as “clueless.” Immediately some apologists popped up, saying that “clueless” is too harsh a translation. Well, here is “ratlos” done unto English via Russian, thanks to Google Translate: “ignorant, embarrassed, helpless, indecisive.” Does that work for everyone?
To recap, we have three categories of incompetent people, whose definitions at this point in our exposition should seem uncontroversial. First, we have the proud, the few—the competent. They are becoming rather thin on the ground in the US, because Americans have largely forgotten how to make new ones, and the ones that exist are getting a bit long in the tooth. Their main problem is that they have been conditioned to think the best of others; in essence, to suffer fools gladly. They can be turned around simply by setting the right incentives.
Second, we have the incompetents who know the limits of their competence. These are potentially useful: they just have to be matched up with tasks at which they can become competent. They are less likely to have inflated expectations for what they can expect to achieve through their labors, and although their lavish habits may not be in line with what their increasingly impoverished country can provide, they can be brought around.
Third, we have the vast army of the deeply incompetent, some of whom look upon themselves as paragons of home-spun self-reliance, have a “who the hell do you think you are to tell me anything” attitude toward their betters, and with their clueless bungling pose a grave danger to themselves and to everyone else. They are a problem, but many of them can be rehabilitated. You see, being pointed and laughed at when you do something stupid is something of a human universal, and most people are wired to accept that message, remember it as a formative experience, and struggle to avoid it in the future.
But there is also a fourth category of incompetent people: those who are so deeply incompetent that nobody can assess their competence, or lack thereof, because they cleverly shy away from all forms of productive activity, thus making their competence, or lack thereof, impossible to assess. Wouldn't it be nice if they displayed some telltale physiological trait, such as tufts of hair on the earlobes or the nose? Or if some genius were to devise a hand-held sensor that, when pointed at them, would blink a red light and sound an alarm? Alas, nothing of the sort exists. What's more, pointing at them and laughing serves no purpose, for they inhabit a rarefied bureaucratic realm where human cultural universals do not apply, and where anyone who calls them incompetent can be treated as a security risk, to be handled by those who are competent at just one thing: dispensing violence.
The final refuge of the deeply incompetent is in economics and finance. It is easy to see why this is so. Think of any very useful object you happen to own, and think of its value. Do you know how to use it well? Do other people? (The fewer the better, of course.) Is it ruggedly built, to last a long time, or is it flimsy? If it breaks, do you know how to repair it? Can you live without it, or are you hopelessly dependent on it? Is it a popular item, and therefore a thief magnet, or is it sufficiently unusual to be passed over by the casual thief despite of its usefulness to you? Does anyone know that you have it? (The fewer know, the safer it will be.) Do you know one or two people who like it as much as you do, in case you have to sell it? And so on. Now usher in a bunch of financial incompetents. What can they tell about the value of your very useful object? Just its price. How can they tell? By asking other incompetents how much they would pay for it. To this bunch, value equals price equals value equals price, at various times and in different places, until the whole thing crashes and burns because nobody actually knows the value of anything to them.
What empowers these people is our love of money. The last vestige of sanity an American seems to be able to cling on to is in his ability to count his money. While he still has some money, he adds up his “net worth,” and the higher the number, the better he feels about himself. Once all he has left is debt, he adds up the money he doesn't have, and the more “credit” he has, the better he feels about himself, because of all the things he can still “afford.” And once he finally defaults on his loans and no longer has any credit, it is as if, in his own minds, he ceases to exist. “I lost everything,” he is apt to say, as if his earthly existence amounted to a number written on a piece of paper. A population that is in thrall to arbitrary numbers written on bits of paper is what makes it possible for the financial incompetents to remain undetected, practicing their sort of low-grade magic. It is as if everyone is blindly in love with them and thus unable to see their faults. But this spell can and will be broken, because the rest of the world is now quite ill-disposed to tolerating any more of this financial nonsense. A day will arrive when America's sages and high priests of finance, together with their wealthy clients, will suddenly turn out to be, for all to see, what they have been all along: clueless incompetents unsuitable for any task that is worth doing.
It's much like that old saying. Ignorance can be fixed with education. Stupid goes clear to the bone.
It's almost a relief to see the financial system fall apart. The system makes little logical sense, yet kept on existing year after to year. Seeing it collapse is vindication that I wasn't imagining what I saw.
d.o. asks: "And so it turns out that this blind faith in everyone and sundry's competence is quite specifically an American trait. I invite cultural anthropologists to concentrate their efforts on finding out how this cultural trait could have ever evolved, seeing as it is quite obviously maladaptive."
Jose Ortega y Gasset, a philosopher of genius (thus generally misunderstood and suffering with mostly bad press in the nearly 6 decades since his death) went far in answering your question. I recommend to the intellectually curious (are their any such around?) a look at The Revolt of the Masses (and please, read further than the title). It happens to be free on line at http://www.aibi.ph/politics/DOCS/Ortega%20y%20Gasset%20-%20The%20Revolt%20Of%20The%20Masses.pdf"
"Some people express umbrage at all this, harrumphing about this and that technical defect in the paperwork". Right on. See Debt Commission Report.
"full of people furiously shaking their tiny fists, hurling their impotent rage at an indifferent sky."
Actually, they will blame scapegoats -- Jews, Muslims, Freemasons, China -- whoever the most pleasing conspiracy theory fingers. Lynch mobs (historically) come next.
I plead incompetence as to assessing the inherent value of this priceless piece of reasoning.
My congratulations, Dmitry.
Ronald - a western European
Dmitry; love reading your blog but there appears to be an issue with line breaks and google reader.
You should probably only syndicate the first paragraph of each post to RSS, and make the user click through to read the rest of the post.
When all the available jobs exist within the froth, then no-one has any idea who they'll be when they grow up. To go deep is to drown.
If the Deeply Incompetent can't even recognize incompetence per se (version 4.20) then they won't recognize "tasks worth doing". For instance, feeding oneself is regarded as "stoop labor", etc. and an economy based on white people doing THAT is just hopelessly out-dated.
In our county we just elected a Profoundly Incompetent Tool to be one of 3 County Commissioners for the next 3 years. The candidate who lost proposed re-vitalizing the local economy through small-scale farming incentives.
The new PIT-boss thought this was "a wonderful, nostalgic look, but I don't think that takes us into this world economy. I definitely believe we have to grow our economy, while protecting the environment, of course. We lost the timber industry..."
Yes, that was misplaced after cutting down all the trees, DOH!
I'm sure glad my education never kept me from learnin' how to DO stuff...
I always assume that the competency of people like Gnang Gnang is actually in screwing things up for everyone else, it's their job, like the job of a plague ridden corpse thrown over the city walls by a besieging army.
You mean he really doesn't know what he's doing?
He certainly wears a kind of dreamy, dopey expression.
Another excellent observation on the human condition. I look forward to your next post!
A very intriguing article Dmitry and most humbling to one who considers himself incompetent (especially about economics) and knows it.
Around me I detect many more folks in your category-three than those I would place in the first category.
A previous poster mentioned that ignorance can be remedied with education, but stupidity goes clear to the bone. I suspect the outcome of all this will be a rather traumatic separation process between some of these categories.
I am tending rapidly toward a back to the earth, simplicity, basic skills frame of reference and attitude.
Thank you for sharing your valuable perspectives here (and I do have your book on collapse).
Incompetence is a "selected for" trait. I got to see the inner workings of an university, I discovered that only incompetent teachers were hired, anyone too good who came for an interview was rejected because the other teachers were jealous and didn't want the competition. I assume this dynamic is in play in all organizations.
Whoa. Dmitry, this was very interesting and I agree with much of it, but I wonder if competence isn't misjudged or misapplied here, conceptually speaking.
If someone is put in office to be an arbiter of true human value, to protect what is true -- and then turns around and acts in a way that merely promotes his own desires for power and material goods acquisition, is he really "incompetent"?
Seems to me he's being competent at achieving a selfish end. Very competent...
...while thwarting the ostensible end of chasing what is true and holistically good.
That's not competence or incompetence under review. What's under review is motive, not competence.
I submit that those who play in the realms of economics and finance are very competent at projecting a massive subterfuge which enriches themselves to the detriment of a much larger segment of the populace.
I call that selfishness and greed, human destructiveness, and general misanthropy.
Competence is about failure to achieve one's intended goal.
Not pursuing a wholly different goal.
You severely underestimate the role of fraud (unenlightened self-interest, crook solidarity, accessory in hopes of inclusion etc phenomena) in most of these cases of incompetence; we're talking motivated incompetence here!
Especially in the priesthood referred to as "economists" (which should mean, should it not, believers in Economism?)-- which can be, and occasionally is, practiced as a genuine theoretical and observational science, but generally isn't because doing so is ruinous to professional employment most places.
Especially in the financial rackets, where this "trade you a dead horse for dead cow" sort of practice has likewise become a job requirement.
The paperwork sorting that worries you could be largely eliminated by a simple, across the board debt writeoff-- which could be done de facto by the simple expedient of reinstating traditional bankruptcy law, refusing to bail out failed banks, letting property prices fall to affordability.
Fraud prosecutions of those who most benefited from an industry of fraud would be a good idea, just for the recovery of the stolen goods. Those who simply went along but didn't receive significant payoffs should be simply required to state, on any and all future job applications, that they worked for a financial institution during the Orgy Period.
A whole lot of medical incompetence may well disappear with the Medical Insurance Scam.
This should do a lot to reduce intentional political incompetence, by significantly reducing the scale of rewards available, hence potentially reducing architectural incompetence (though I'm not optimistic about that!)
As for engineering, product misdesign of the sort you've written about... that will also persist, as long as there are managers capable of thinking: "If we sell them a simple electric shaver, we'll go out of business. If we put a battery in the shaver, we'll sell a new one whenever it stops recharging" which isn't what I call "competence", but passes in corrupt times...
Is it safe to say that the wide-spread acceptance of circumcising babies in the US is a form of incompetence? What about the wide-spread acceptance of fluoridated water? What about the accepted use of various toxins, carcinogens, petrochemicals, etc. It seems Americans live in a sort of bubble of ignorance and accepts things without questioning them. If they do question these things, many still accept them because, "there's no unequivocal scientific evidence that proves without a shadow of a doubt that it's harmful; therefore, it's totally safe and good."
Kollapsnik, are you saying that there is a parallel between the Congress of People's Deputies and the US Congress?.... Now that I think about it, I think you might be right.
Upon reading your piece Barack Obama came to mind. Here is a highly intelligent, not unattractive individual who rises seemingly out of nowhere to become President. The fact that he was a community organizer was reason for me to hold him in high esteem. Of course I was pleased when he was elected but there was the nagging feeling that he was placed in office to be there when the shit hits the fan. I was apprehensive for him.
Those of us that voted for Obama wanted him to do battle against these insurmountable forces but I suppose that is a just fairy tale.
What appears to be a pattern is Obama going into a room with the toughest guys in the world and coming out, much like a community organizer playing the role of mediator between these forces of power and the interests of the people he represents. It is as if he has been button-holed by them and we all on the short end. I do not think that he is a bad man, but he is a weak executive. I do not think he is corrupt but I am beginning to think he is incompetent for the position.
Maybe it's a good thing, maybe it will hasten the inevitable.
This last election I didn't vote for the first time in my life.
Even the pacifist, Chris Hedges talks of revolution, but it will have to get a lot worse before that happens.
I suspect it will.
A common inability to rationally assess competence seems to permeate both academic and corporate culture. An example of the latter: I know of a now-defunct Silicon Valley company where the abilities of engineers to perform their tasks was assessed fairly reasonably, but the CEO was chosen for his social class and elite education, for his robust Charles Crocker-like physical appearance and ability to bluff people into thinking that he knew what he was doing: whereas his actual activities consisted mainly in plundering the resources of the company, building and inflating a worse-than-useless PR department staffed by idiots, and ultimately driving the firm to its doom. When the company folded he came out well ahead financially, while the engineers were simply out of a job. It's just one example, but I expect there are many others.
It is getting to the point where incompetence is necessary trait for survival. As part of my job search I have been forced to take "evaluation questionnaires", which are competency tests graded in reverse. Judging by the questions and the implied correct responses, passing these tests requires an absence of critical faculties or the ability to suppress them (dishonesty). After all, critical thinkers are not generally good at selling cheap junk to people that can't afford it, and they have a tendency to stir up trouble when they discover irregularities.
As the USA becomes more corporatist, the two pillars of incompetence are merging into one unstoppable force, a riptide of idiocy and ignorance. Swimming parallel to the shores of sanity keeps my head above water for now, until I can find my sailboat.
Gee... wish I'd said all that! Great post.
When one party has control of two branches of the government... in this case, Executive and Legislative, they usually do a tremendous amount of damage. Laugh at the TEA Party all you want... it is shining a powerful light on the scurrying rats. I tend to vote for a new set of thieves every two years... probably, as a result of my own incompetence.
Personally, I would hypothesize that this cultural phenomenon traces back to the logic of social classes and empires. When those things get as far along and as far past their pinnacle as the U.S. domestic overclass/foreign imperium now is, popular competency becomes an increasing danger to the status quo. Hence, sponsorship and incentives for it get progressively withdrawn.
One wonders how the late Roman Empire would've tested on this...
One also wonders what in the world will be happening to all the "economics" majors that continue to pour out of elite US universities.
Well said, Dmitry. Seems like the Peter Principle playing out to it's logical ends.
Chris Hedges' 11-15 post on TruthDig talks of "The Origins of America's Intellectual Vacuum". Some intruiging ideas here, and perhaps directly relevant to America's ready acceptance of incompetence.
Thank you for your thought/analysis/commentary. BTW --- when will we see a new book? Current affairss surely are fertile ground.
Good article. Thank you.
I have a friend who a number of years ago identified this problem in, of all things, the "Antique Roadshow." He disdained the show, because it attributed value to everything based not on usefulness or sentiment, but to some arbitrary expert's opinion. Families would sell off their history and soul to gain short profit. He saw it as the degradation of our culture. I agree.
How 'bout this then?
No one gets things wrong a hundred percent of the time. The facilitators of this economic collapse don't suffer any deficiency regarding the dynamics of the economic system.
In this age of information,its mechanisms are apparent enough for the inquisitive mind to interpret (even if they require a nudge from a helpful blogger or two).
My question... Is it a sound assumption that all this is merely the consequence of poor judgment rather than thoughtful deliberation?
"A population that is in thrall to arbitrary numbers written on bits of paper is what makes it possible for the financial incompetents to remain undetected, practicing their sort of low-grade magic."
DING. Well said.
It's almost like people in denial protecting a molester within the family. I honestly believe this 'low-grade' magic is awfully close to gambling addiction. In the last 10 years...it's become an epidemic.
Great reading but let's not forget that fraud has played a huge part in the decline of the U.S. economy. I'd say that it was carried out quite well by people that knew just what they were doing. I'd say that greed and fraud have played a bigger part than incompetence although incompetence is a big part. The dollar itself is a huge fraud. It is the biggest hoax to ever be pulled on mankind.
If there was one predator out there that was coming for you, a dangerous predator, the most dangerous predator on the planet as a matter of fact what would this predator be to you? What fits that definition the best? Would it be a Siberian tiger, or a lion? Or, would it be a brown bear or a wolf pack? If you'd answer anything other than people, you are underestimating people. Humans are very obviously the most dangerous predators of all.
One of the best books I have read about human behaviour is "The Peter Principle". That's the one that posits "in a hierarchy, every worker gets promoted until he or she reaches their level of incompetence. Then the promotions stop." The book was intended as humour, but it's all too true.
(The other great book is "Parkinson's Law", which explains a number of behavioural traits, the most famous being "work expands to fill the time allocated to it." It's also a humour book, but it's dead-on in its take on humanity, right down to the chapter on the economics of kidnapping Chinamen.)
Take heart, Kollapsnik, because in life-or-death professions, competence still prevails. I'm impressed by the competence of doctors and nurses I see in hospital. The hacks are weeded out because patients die if workers screw up. Incompetent ones drift down to nursing homes and other places where the pressure is not so great, and death is an expected outcome. (Note to the easily offended -- I'm not saying ALL nursing home staff are incompetent, but face it -- you know that many are.)
I interviewed for a job on the spine ward at my hospital last week and the unit manager asked me "Where do you see yourself in five years?" I told him "I see myself doing what I'm doing now -- being a floor nurse. I like what I do, and I don't want to hit my Peter Principle limit." That's the truth -- I'm good at my job, but I'd be a bad manager. However, the look on the manager's face told me it was not the gung-ho answer he expected. I don't think I'll be getting that job.
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity."
An excellent post. ddu
I think what Dmitry means by "incompetent" is not the inability to play money games or find a way to get something for nothing or worse, just outright steal it via complex frauds, but rather the complete lack of any real world skills -- the kind that actually help other people and do not hurt them mindlessly.
For example, how to use natural resources in a way that does not destroy them permenantly just so one or two men can have a great party, or using money (or trade tokens) to create industries that benefit society as a whole instead of, again, just a few nitwits.
The key statement in his essay, which is great, is that our inability to see beyond money -- a complete mental abstraction -- allows all these crooked, real world incompetents to thrive.
This problem hits home because I cannot convince my own wife that the green bits of paper she collects will someday be worthless, and she is from Thailand -- a country that already had a currency collapse.
I am not sure I agree with Dmitry on the Asian issue, as I witnessed a strange obsession with money over there that leads me to believe this problem is a world-wide problem now, at least in all the major cities.
I think only a few isolated groups and individuals truly understand that money and numbers have no real, concrete connection to the natural world.
Unfortunately, by the time most people realize this, they will be dead, or very close to it.
This might be a little off-topic, but I would add to The Peter Principle and Parkinson's Law John Gall's The Systems Bible (formerly Systemantics). In a manner very similar to both Peter and Parkinson, Mr. Gall expounds in a very witty and enlightening way upon the systems in which humans find themselves ensnared. These three books are a sort of Holy Trinity for me, books that I have returned to time and time again throughout my life, in my attempt to understand the endless folly of human beings.
"Once a man learns to see he finds himself alone in this world with nothing but folly." - Don Juan Matus
I saw a intervieuw on RT,how you explain how a collapse working.Nice to hear it from someone,who have live in that time of period.The big problem for us towns people,that we are depented to the state.A state who lies to us.
Greatings from holland.
Wendell Berry has a compelling taxonomy of Ignorance in his contribution to the wonderful collection "The Virtues of Ignorance". Mainstream America nearly fills the "Arrogant Ignorance" bucket.
The problem with Stupid is that it isn't Ugly enough to see it all around us. TV adds 50 IQ points.
A well known financial analyst said this recently
"We do not see QE2 and QE3 as incompetence or bungling. It happens to be the only option available to the powers behind government. The same errors committed during the Great Depression of the 1930s are being repeated and economists, including Mr. Bernanke know they do not work."
Which exposes a bit of a fault line in politics - is it incompetence or deliberate sabotage. If it's deliberate then it would be you making the incompetent call (I am not trying to insult you).
I guess it could be said to be deliberate incompetence, or competent incompetence. It depends upon what you think politicians and bankers are supposed to be competent at, helping you or herding you. Me, I'm not competent to judge. Ah well.
The big danger is America still has MANY nuclear bombs. Any scapegoat should be a little nervous right now. This problems tend to be solved by starting wars of economy that then devolves into wars of bombs.
We should have a “War on Common Sense”. If it has the same effect as the war on terrorism, the war on poverty, and the war on drugs — problem solved!!
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