Cultural sclerosis — things take 10x longer or don’t get done at all


Harry Reid claims there isn’t “a single shred of evidence” regulations cause big economic harm…”In the first six months of the 2011 fiscal year, 15 major regulations were issued, with annual costs exceeding $5.8 billion and one-time implementation costs approaching $6.5 billion…Overall, the Obama administration imposed 75 new major regulations from January 2009 to mid-FY 2011, with annual costs of $38 billion”…the Federal Register shows over 4,200 new regulations soon to hit an already battered economy — not including impending Environmental Protection Agency clean air rules, new derivative rules, the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rule, fuel economy mandates, ObamaCare and Dodd-Frank financial restrictions. Yet Reid claims regs are harmless

Construction of the world’s tallest building, the Empire State Building took 14 months in 1930. The Pentagon, the world’s largest office building, took 16 months in 1941. 26 months from the beginning of construction, the World Trade Center became the tallest building in the world in 1970. It is 148 months since September 11, 2001 and its replacement is only now nearing completion. We need 10x the time to do things that were done a century ago.

Regulation certainly isn’t the whole story, but it’s a part of the story of America’s cultural decline. Look what happens when you incentivize performance and cut red tape — a project done in half the allotted time. So it can be done, but rarely these days. Daniel Greenfield comments that in today’s culture competence is denigrated and DC and its lawyers substitute the magic of government:

Competence is the real modernity and it has very little to do with the empty trappings of design that surround it. In some ways the America of a few generations ago was a far more modern place because it was a more competent place. For all our nice toys, we look like primitive savages compared to men who could build skyscrapers and fleets within a year… and build them well.

Those aren’t things we can do anymore. Not because the knowledge and skills don’t exist, but because the culture no longer allows it. We can’t do them for the same reason that Third World countries can’t do what we do. It’s not that the knowledge is inaccessible, but that the culture gets in the way.

It’s our very hollow modernity that gets in the way of our truly being modern. We can no longer build big things because the ability to implement vision on a large scale no longer exists. We can still do impressive things as individuals, but that’s also true of Kenya or Thailand. And in China, they can carry out grandiose projects, but those projects have no vision or competence.

We used to be able to combine the two by competently implementing grandiose visions, but our “modern” culture is the roadblock that prevents us from working together to make the great things that we can still envision individually.

Our modernity is style rather than substance. It’s Obama grinning. It’s the right font. It’s the right joke. It’s that sense that X knows what he’s doing because he presents it the right way. There’s nothing particularly modern about that. In most cultures, the illusion of competence trumps the real thing. It’s why so many countries are so badly broken because they go by appearances, rather than by results.

The idea that we should go by results, rather than by processes, by outcomes rather than by appearances, was revolutionary. For most of human history, we were trapped in a cargo cult mode. We did the “right things” not because they led to the right results, but because we had decided that they were the right things. There were many competent people, but they were hamstrung by rigid institutions that made it impossible to go from Point A to Point B in the shortest possible time.

And it’s not just the lawyers who are destructive kibitzers. The pundits and journalists, who also by and large couldn’t repair a toaster, are also believers in magic. Here they sit with the president, as Wretchard describes:

the great columnists of Washington. At these klatches, with the buzz of traffic and bustle of the grimy world held to a hum in the distance, the world lies spread before them malleable, fresh and new. And the great men can feel, even if lesser mortals cannot, that all that is is required to transform that dull universe into something extraordinary is the right phrase, the correct sales pitch, the perfect sound bite. Then the stars will vibrate to the idea and the multitudes will Get It. And so the search continues among the wordsmiths for the Spell, who believe in it with the conviction of zealots. Only try this. Try that. Try again. For they know the dictum: always be closing. Even if there is nothing to sell. The Founders, in rejecting the spell of aristocracy, were in their way rejecting magic. They seemed to say ‘trust in no king, no great leader’ — and that the highest and best thing we could aspire to was to simply be ourselves and make things work. In place of sorcery they trusted in the sanctity of the ordinary, in the immanence of truth; that a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”, while not on Obama’s imagined level would neveretheless never perish from the earth. But magic would; for even if Greenfield fears the sorcerers will return, their day is done. Their time is done because the wooden computer will not boot. Because the sums are in rebellion. Because reality, which is the real source of all true magic, was never consulted, let alone invoked.

In many ways, America was a better country back when there were shotgun weddings and almost everyone knew a farmer or a soldier. Now almost no one knows such earthy characters. However, a harsh future is coming to the US at some point, due to (1) QE infinity and (2) too much debt plus unfunded liabilities. Probably a bad day to have been one who preached that government was magic. We’ll see.

One Response to “Cultural sclerosis — things take 10x longer or don’t get done at all”

  1. gs Says:

    Feh. Competence is for worker bees. Someone who spends too much time worrying about competence is a technician, not a Big Thinker. Do not promote beyond middle management.

    That’s not the worst of it. The people who, per Greenfield, imbibe TED talks and Malcolm Gladwell are hardboiled pragmatists compared to the values/culture/race/gender/class “theorists”.

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