Our Crisis of Competence

If this is what passes for competence while we cheerlead “the Roaring 20s”, then our delusion has reached “what looks like a permanently high plateau.”

That America is mired in a crisis of competence appears to be yet another issue that can’t be addressed directly as it might upset the narrative control that all is well and everything is getting better in every way, every day.

And so we sugarcoat the incompetence, the endless delays, the sclerosis and the decline in quality and functionality as if these are all signs of rude, vibrant health rather than signs of systemic decline and decay.

Relatively straightforward infrastructure projects now face years or even a decade of delays / zero real-world progress. I can name several projects in my county where the environmental impact studies and various governmental reports have consumed six years, during which the harbor remains closed, the roads are unpaved gravel, the park is closed and the bridge is awaiting repairs.

When the public rightly complains of years of inaction and foot-dragging, local officials throw up their hands in frustration as all the necessary approvals and funding must wind their way through the impenetrable thickets of state and federal agencies, a leisurely process over which they have no control.

As for the private sector, I’ve often detailed the immense, systemic decline in the quality of everything from the ingredients in packaged food to “stainless steel”, as well as the equally immense burden of unpaid “shadow work” demanded of us all just to manage the complexity thickets generated by “progress.”

Stainless Steal
(February 26, 2023)

The “Crapification” of the U.S. Economy Is Now Complete
(February 9, 2022)

Digital Service Dumpster Fires and Shadow Work
(February 14, 2024)

Is Anyone Else’s Life as Stupidly Complicated by Digital “Shadow Work” as Mine Is?
(May 22, 2024)

If AI Is So Great, Why Is Managing the Digital Realm Eating Us Alive?
(March 1, 2024)

No wonder Cory Doctorow’s descriptive ens**ttification is the “word of the year.” More accurately, it’s the word of the decade or the entire era.

Can we dredge up the wherewithal to be honest for a change, and admit that “can do” has decayed to “can’t do”, as everyone expresses their powerlessness to move anything along with any awareness that time and money are limited? We’ve reached a state of sclerosis in which near-zero actual progress is deemed not just acceptable but “the best we can do” for a variety of reasons.

One reason is the supremacy of process over results. The system incentivizes and rewards following process, no matter how senseless, inefficient or wasteful that process has become. Those who have mastered narrative control (i.e. “look how wonderfully we’re following procedures”) and avoidance of accountability for actual results are advanced, and those who chafe at the rank insensibility of over-regulation and processes that prioritize stakeholders’ input to the point that nothing gets done are sent to bureaucratic Siberia or quit in disgust.

In this way, the system self-reinforces its most crippling weaknesses. One example is addressed in this article:
Departing House Members Ask: ‘Why Am I Here?’ A wave of retirees from both parties, including committee chairs and rising stars, say that serving in Congress is no longer worth the frustration.

A great many things are longer worth the frustration, and an even greater number of things are no longer worth the price being demanded. Once upon a time, before globalization (a.k.a. arbitraging lower labor costs and lower quality to increase profits) and financialization (a.k.a. the rich get richer by doing nothing) rose to domination, every product cycle delivered improved durability and utility. Now every product cycle delivers reduced durability and less utility, though this is obscured by a flood of “features” that degrade our experience.

Competence has been reduced to 1) increasing profits this quarter; 2) narrative control / social media visibility and 3) following process. If this is what passes for competence while we cheerlead “the Roaring 20s”, then our delusion has reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.

new podcast: Financial Nihilism, Inflation & The Collapsing American Dream with Gordon Long (42 min).

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