Revenge of the Idiocrats

United States Congressman, Louis Gohmert, claims the Soviets helped Kennedy become President. Rep. Mo Brooks thinks rising sea levels are caused by rocks falling in the ocean. US Senator, James Inhofe, used a snowball to demonstrate that climate change is a hoax. Rep. Matt Gaetz claims the Special Council investigation of Trump is a coup d’etat. Lamar Smith has used his position as head of the House Science Committee to harass climate researchers. Rep. Harry Shiver opposes arming teachers with guns not because it’s a stupid idea, but because most teachers are women.

If it seems like Idiocracy is a Republican phenomenon, spend the day with Democratic Congressman Sheila Jackson Lee, or ask Rep. Carolyn Maloney about vaccines. Or better yet, survey the crop of barely-vetted rookies Democrats will place in the House next spring. If you want to a hear a Democrat sound as dumb as a climate denier, ask them some questions about GMO’s or Monsanto. Republicans hold a lead in the march toward Idiocracy thanks to pioneers like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, but Democrats won’t be left behind. The problem is systemic.

A changing environment can convert a once-successful adaptation into an evolutionary liability. Liberal democracies rose to ascendance on a signature trait – breadth of participation. Incorporating the insights and opinions of the governed into public decisions granted flexibility and legitimacy impossible in an autocracy. While monarchies and dictatorships stagnated under their own ossified decision structures, liberal democracies grew rich and powerful. They became so rich and so powerful, that they have transformed the environment in which they live.

Liberal democracies base policy decisions on the power of common sense. In a democracy, my opinion, formed by a careful study of supermarket tabloids and YouTube lectures carries the same weight as your physics PhD.  In an agrarian or early industrial society this wasn’t a problem. What was lost through reliance on median opinion was gained in additional legitimacy and stability. As little as half a century ago there was relatively little data, relatively few people producing it, and few critical decisions turning on expert insights. However, in a society producing as much new data every year as humans created in their entire previous evolutionary cycle, common sense is a poor basis for policy.

Democracies have a problem with expertise. When the demand for expert decision-making reaches critical levels, democracies may face a kind of death-spiral. Pressed between dangerous problems demanding complex, unpopular policy choices and public resistance born of ignorance or paranoia, bureaucrats and “sane” political figures begin leveraging anti-democratic methods to enact crucial policy reforms. Voters grow frustrated, then hostile, as “unresponsive” leaders find ways to skirt public opinion to save the country or the world.

Infuriated by the failure of “elites” to respond to public opinion, voters eventually find candidates sufficiently dumb or cynical to indulge their delusions without concern for outcomes. As consequences pile up, faith in government declines in an accelerating negative feedback loop. Voters throw their anger behind even more irresponsible candidates while elites start betting on alternative methods to address public needs.

Does this scenario sound familiar?

Under the best of circumstances democracies struggle to be smarter than their median voter. Channeling public opinion through representatives is supposed to help, but it’s a weak firewall. Shifting power away from legislative authorities onto bureaucracies and the courts provided some relief for a while, but voter revolts are shutting off this pressure valve. As we enter an era in which the ability to process scientific reality is minimal standard for survival, democracy may still be smarter and more nimble than autocratic governments, but that’s not enough of an advantage to guarantee continued supremacy. A newer form of social organization is outperforming democratic governments and eating into their power.

Corporations make decisions by hiring experts. Where government decisionmakers are bound by “rule of law,” a corporation is freer than governments to innovate, favoring informed opinion over public opinion. Even large, relatively sclerotic corporations tend to be more nimble than our government, giving them the ability to address problems and projects governments have neglected.

Corporations are run by human beings (though with increasing input from computer-aided reasoning), and so are subject to the same limitations of expertise and reason that any human institutions face. Their insulation from the voting public helps, but this should not be overestimated. In many ways, corporations face the voters every day, all day, as buyers and sellers express their values in transactions.

Like governments, businesses rely on human reasoning to make decisions and like governments they are strongly influenced by public will. What keeps corporations from ossifying into the same stagnant decision structures as our government is competition and failure.

Even with advice from the smartest experts, a plan can be flawed. A political leader can cruise through a series of disastrous public policy judgments with appeals to herd loyalty and a healthy dose of fake news. By contrast, corporate leaders get to watch their mistakes fail in an open marketplace. A CEO might convince all the magazine editors in the world that the Edsel is a winner, but it’s tough to cheat the market. When the revenue dries up, the party’s over.

Companies may be smarter and more nimble than governments, but much of that flexibility evolved because companies regularly fail. Their collapse can cause pain, but that pain seldom extends far beyond their employees and shareholders. Unproductive business models are snuffed out while superior adaptations spread. A constant churning cycle of creation and destruction breeds flexibility and responsiveness. Put another way, corporations operate on a faster evolutionary cycle than governments.

If the Veterans Administration or the Department of Housing and Urban Development were private entities, they would have disappeared long ago, their functions assumed by new, better organized, more effective institutions. Our present government is in dire need of the cleansing force of undeniable failure, but the consequences would be too dire to imagine. Instead, we seem to be gradually and painfully evolving out of the liberal democracy which prevailed since World War II into something new.

By raw statistical accident our next President, like our last one, might be a serious figure with the training and will to tackle complex problems like climate change or failing infrastructure. Regardless, the basic structure of our system will remain in place to undermine and eventually neuter her efforts. Getting lucky in one election cycle won’t save liberal democracy from itself. If we ever wean ourselves from fossil fuels and see atmospheric carbon levels drop, we’ll owe that development to inventions developed and promoted by organizations faster and smarter than government as we know it. A democracy’s tendency to devolve into Idiocracy is an accelerant that kicks in under strain, pushing a weakened system toward self-immolation.

With government under pressure from Idiocrats and straining against its own inherent limitations, private companies are taking on more and more of the functions we once thought belonged entirely in the public realm. Businesses run the migrant detention centers along the border. Businesses now run many prisons and schools. Private companies are beginning to replace social workers in Texas. Along the margins of liberal democracy where governments haven’t evolved quickly enough businesses are taking up the slack.

Whatever is next after liberal democracy, it seems likely to grant enormous new influence to corporations. How far can businesses be stretched to serve unprofitable public needs? In what’s next after democracy, who gets left behind?

***

This post is part of a series exploring what’s next after liberal democracy and what we should do to prepare. Much of this material was covered in The Politics of Crazy, though from the perspective of a more optimistic era. The work fits better as a whole, but reading through a 6000+ word piece on a computer seems impractical. When these are complete I’ll gather them into a series of links on a single page.

31 Comments

  1. As much as I agree with Chris on the inevitability of the extinction of democracy, I still lament it. Interestingly, there seem to be those that still fight for government to do what is theoretically the purview of the corporate world.

    While I doubt this Los Angeles movement will be successful, my takeaway from this article is that North Dakota, of all places, has run a publicly owned bank for 99 years. I would LOVE to see Los Angeles stick it to the big banks and say “nope, any potential profits will stay with the people that generated the seed cash in the first place.”

    https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/public-bank-los-angeles_us_5b6bef33e4b0ae32af954495

  2. I’m really liking this series, and I’m intrigued by your analogy that liberal democracy may not have outlived its usefulness so much as so radically, successfully changed its environment that it’s no longer the best adaptation to it.

    It’s sort of like the Great Oxidation Event in biology: before photosynthesis evolved, there was basically no oxygen in the atmosphere. Then cyanobacteria evolved photosynthesis and were so successful in converting CO2 to O2 that the “waste product” of O2 exploded in the atmosphere, giving rise to all the rest of life that now dominates this planet. (Yes, it’s an interesting parallel to how we’re now burning too much CO2: one can imagine social activist cyanobacteria back in the day protesting about overpopulation and environmental destruction that was making CO2 levels plummet and giving rise to alarming levels of that dangerous atmospheric pollutant, oxygen 🙂

    But I really have to push back on your idea that corporations / private entities will replace them.

    First of all, corporations are not always better than public institutions. Your example of the VA is actually a great example: health policy experts on both sides of the aisle will tell you that the VA is a sterling example of health care *done right*. They consistently provide superior health outcomes at a much lower cost, taking care of a very sick, very poor population far better than most private health systems. They were the first ones to implement a system-wide electronic medical record (writing it themselves because no private one was available) that allows interoperability and communication between VA centers across the country at a level that modern private EMRs don’t even begin to touch. On every health quality statistic out there, the VA overperforms and beats private entities. I’m not even kidding or exaggerating here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/harlankrumholz/2014/05/23/3-things-to-know-before-you-rush-to-judgment-about-va-health-system/

    https://www.federaltimes.com/management/leadership/2016/07/18/rand-study-finds-va-care-equal-or-better-than-private-sector/

    And why is the VA so good now whereas it was admittedly quite lousy before? Because under Bill Clinton, the VA in the 90s decided to change itself and went all-in on farsighted changes like implementing an EMR, decentralization, and pushing for outpatient services, decades before the private sector caught on.

    So why does the VA have such a lousy reputation? Because it doesn’t spend money on fancy lobbies with waterfalls. The food in its cafeteria will not pass for restaurant-grade any time soon. It also spends most of its money on unsexy stuff like making sure their patients’ cholesterol and blood pressure is under control, rather than putting an MRI in every hospital (note, MRIs are still available, they’re just regionalized to specific centers to maximize their utilization and lower overall cost). Also, because of the Republicans’ War on Effective Government, they’ve been starved of resources *despite* being the lowest cost provider of it, which (along with new wars that have created thousands of new veterans) has led to massive waiting times for its services.

    Can the VA be improved? Absolutely. But in many ways, it’s less of a bureaucratic mess than the private insurance / healthcare world is, which is why when Republicans fought to privatize the VA, the biggest opponents were frequently the vets themselves, many of whom have experienced both worlds and far prefer the VA.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean every service should be provided by the govt. But a rational, nonpartisan, technocratic approach to deciding which services are best provided by which entity would, IMHO, show that many services should still be publicly provided.

    Secondly, corporations don’t die when they’re outcompeted. This is the big problem social democrats like me have with modern capitalism. I’m all for capitalism red in tooth and claw, except we don’t have it. Goldman Sachs was one of the firms responsible for the first Great Depression, and now the last Great Recession. Each has required massive government bailouts to clean up their messes. In between, it’s been implicated in Euro and Latin American debt crises, each also requiring govt rescues, not to mention routine corporate malfeasance and abetment of financial fraud on a scale that even the most corrupt politician from your Texas legislature never dared. They are still alive and well, and none of their executives are currently wearing orange jumpsuits. If capitalism actually was about competition, they’d have died off in the 1940s.

    Citigroup has failed several times just in the past few decades and they are still alive. Too Big To Fail is alive and well in almost every segment of the economy, not just banking. Despite the massive technological revolutions in telecoms since the days of Ma Bell, it’s the same exact corporations that dominate it: Verizon (aka NY Bell) and “ATT” (aka southwest Bell) are both baby bells that swallowed the other baby bells and reconstituted; T-Mobile was started by Germany’s telecoms giant, and Sprint was the original long-distance phone provider in the 70s, back when they were started by the Southern Pacific Railroad who laid long-distance telephone wires along their railroad tracks (hence the name, SPRint). New competitors, despite being more nimble, with better technology, and more responsive to customer needs, were killed off, leaving us, the inventors of the internet, with a telecoms infrastructure worse than most 1st world countries.

    Yes, in non-critical parts of the economy, companies are allowed to fail. Restaurants, grocery stores, mom-and-pop shops, etc. Even larger areas like retail see churn. But the critical parts, the parts that underpin 90% of what we require to go about our days, is essentially quasi-public in the worst way possible: socializing the losses while privatizing the gains. The only big part where failure is still an option is in the bleeding-edge part of tech, and that’s only because things are so new, no one yet knows how to lobby the govt to protect their fiefdoms and codify their rent-seeking privileges into law.

    Thirdly, I don’t even think they evolve faster than govt institutions. Like I mentioned, the VA was decades ahead of private systems in thinking about and implementing advances like EMRs. Whose thinking about alternative energy evolved faster? Exxon’s or the federal govt’s? Do you think Exxon will be allowed to go bankrupt if / when the energy industry turns faster than it’s capable of adapting?

    Exxon is actually a great example in another way as well: believe it or not, Rex Tillerson was not a bad choice for Trump’s Sec’y of State. If you’re ideologically bent on “draining the swamp”, there is very little foreign policy experience in the private world, outside of govt and academia. The oil majors are one of the few, since they have to negotiate with foreign govts, and co-develop oil fields with nationalized oil companies. Exxon is commonly thought of as having one of the deepest, most established, “best” foreign policy shops of all the oil majors. So Tillerson was actually not a bad choice (once you’ve eliminated all the good ones, that is :-).

    So how did Tillerson do, steeped in critical, complex foreign policy for decades, unencumbered by sclerotic institutions like Congress or elite Universities, laser-focused on appeasing customers and shareholders, honed in a crucible where his decisions would immediately reflect on his company’s P&L statements? Laughably bad. Despite all these so-called evolutionary advantages of coming from the private sector, he couldn’t hold a candle to even the mediocre minds produced by those sclerotic, hidebound institutions of govt and academia, nevermind the best. And keep in mind, he was *well respected* within the private world for his foreign policy acumen (Putin doesn’t hand out medals to Americans every day, y’know).

    Thus, I push back on the idea that corporations evolve faster than govt institutions, or that they’re subject to more evolutionary “pressure” than govts, or that such pressure necessarily leads to more effective services.

    The only reason why large parts of the public sector are now being privatized is because Republicans have gone all in on privatization for ideological reasons, results be damned. Charter schools have now been out there long enough for studies to show that they are no better than public schools (often worse when selection effects are accounted for) and frequently cost more. But they’re still being pushed because Republicans never cared about quality, they only wanted to break the teachers union, while subsidizing creating Christian madrassas (not even the Catholic schools of yore, which still focused on good education).

    Pointing to charter schools, private jails, etc. as examples of corporations “winning” without examining why they were created to begin with, and how they’re doing now (do you really think Texas is replacing social workers with corporations for reasons of efficiency?), is ignoring a massive part of the picture, which leads me to #4:

    It really is the Republicans, not liberal democracy, that’s the problem. Sometimes, it really is bad apples and not the system that’s at fault. Republicans have waged a war on effective government since at least the 90s, when Clinton co-opted most of their actual policy positions, leaving R’s with nowhere to channel their energies. That it’s bearing fruit now doesn’t mean the system is the problem. I even blame Democrats’ descent down the same politics of crazy path on the Republicans. We tried to reason with the Rs for the last few decades and it’s only gotten worse. Now it’s time to just simply defeat them, then worry about rebuilding institutions later. There are crackpots in my party that I’d love to get rid of, replaced by better democrats, or even good republicans, but the standards for meriting a court martial go way down during wartime. As long as you’re willing to fire a rifle in the correct general direction, nothing else really matters during the heat of battle. That’s where I find myself today.

    California is a great example of how we underestimate the extent that it’s really the Republicans. For decades, California was viewed as a basket case, unable to deal with its mounting problems, and facing disaster. As bad as Illinois is currently, California in 2008 was worse. They had to issue vouchers for payments because they had literally run out of cash. Most people laid blame on structural issues with its government, namely its system of propositions. Plenty of articles and deep analyses were written saying if California just got rid of its propositions system, it could be governable again. Turns out they were wrong. California just had to get rid of Republicans. Almost as soon as California because a democratic super-majority state, it became governable again. It now has a budget surplus, arguably the most dynamic and strategically important industries, and is leading in long-term initiatives like the environment and infrastructure (yes, I support the high-speed train; even if it costs a $100bil, it’s well worth it in order to open up the central valleys to development and relieve pressure on the coast). Of course they have long-term problems, but much less than most states, and they’re actually trying to deal with them (e.g. in this session, they tried to make zoning partially a state function to address the toxic NIMBY’ism that’s choking growth; I bet it will pass next session).

    California even provides a great example of the fact that politicians can change. The leader of this turnabout is none other than Jerry Brown, who went from hippy-dippy Gov. Moonbeam to somber, technocratic Gov. Brown today, mainly because he realized the public was no longer interested in his 70s era shtick.

    Anyway, I’m intrigued by your premise, but I need to see liberal democracy working with Democrats in power before I make up my mind. If it’s still phenomenally ineffectual, then maybe I might agree that it’s the system. Until then, it’s the Republicans. Even then, I’m not so sure corporations will be the answer.

      1. The Ford brothers are the future of Canada. As for New Zealand, I can’t say. Don’t know enough. Remember, though, there are still countries tucked away out there somewhere ruled by a monarch. There’s no reason to think that a few liberal democracies might continue to exist around the margins.

      2. Well, maybe one Ford brother. The other is dead. Ontario had enough of Wynne, and McGuinty before her. The
        Liberals were an unmitigated disaster for the province. Examples are just too numerous to cite.

        And next is Justie. Canada’s recent dalliance with Liberalism is at an end. Good news it will be the shortest reign of a party in recent memory. The people can’t afford it anymore, and the writing is on the wall. Vancouver and Montreal can’t stem this tide. There’s not an analyst I can think of that believes the
        Liberals, (or the NDP), will win the next election.

        Oh, and Duncan, glad to see Jacinda is back at work. Must be nice…

    1. First, I’ve noticed something in a lot of the comments that I want to address. What’s Next after democracy is not necessarily “better.” It’s just more adaptive. What’s coming may be worse in a lot of ways, but it will be a better fit for our emerging environment. A lot of things we liked about the age of liberal democracy may be unsustainable under a new set of circumstances.

      Second, throwing the VA out there as an example without more description was sloppy. I should probably edit it out. The VA is a great example of a govt function likely to disappear, but not because of the usual politically-inspired complaints. It exists to meet a very unique set of needs for a specialized population in a manner that would never be profitable. It is the hallmark example of a function that belongs to government, and as such it is dogged to the extreme by all of the pains and frustrations we associate with government.

      Tillerson…sweet Jesus. How could someone so clumsy and dim be the CEO of Exxon? And remember, he didn’t just inherit the job, or stumble into it by being someone’s protege. He fought his way up the ladder. Tillerson is a blister on my brain. I cannot figure out how he exists.

      As for the forces of creative destruction in corporate vs. public life, I don’t think there’s anything here to debate. Corporations are born and die every day. Whole industries come into existence then disappear, like video rental stores, in the span of a few years. Meanwhile government agencies, once created, are very difficult to eliminate. They almost never die. And governments themselves do not experience death and replacement except in remarkable and dangerous circumstances.

      In the US alone there are about 2 million conventional C corporations. There are three or four that are as old as the US government. One of them, by the way, is Bakers Chocolate. Interesting fact.

      As for Republicans being the problem, they aren’t pushing the privatization of the Autobahn. Republicans aren’t behind the privatization of water services in Spain or of practically the whole public sector in Britain. To say that the problem is Republicans is another way of saying that a system as a whole has a health problem.

      California is bucking some negative trends, but leading some others. It has become a wonderful place to live if you’re rich, and a spectacular center for high-end commerce. But it is a very dangerous place to try to survive on a middle income. In short, they’ve righted their fiscal ship for the moment, but they haven’t fixed any of the fundamental problems, some of the very simple, that stand in the way of basic health. California is actually a great example of how liberal democracy is falling apart because they lack the usual scapegoats – crazy Republicans.

      1. Tillerson is a “normal” senior executive
        He knows how to climb the ladder
        And that ALL he knows!

        That is what you get in industry – the guys who concentrate on being promoted get promoted – those that waste their time learning how to do the job get overtaken

      2. EJ

        Speaking as a former academic, I have some sympathy for Tillerson. The traits that are needed to thrive within a specialised, closed environment may not be an advantage outside of that environment, and may even be a disadvantage.

      3. Chris-
        Thanks for taking the time to reply. I agree with you that what comes next doesn’t have to be “better”. Evolution has no sense of better or worse. The only question is whether an adaptation allows you to better compete for resources compared to others. So I guess I should phrase my objection as that I disagree that corporations are a better adaptation to today’s world, regardless of any moral / philosophical questions of whether they’re the “best” for citizens.

        When I say that corporations don’t die, I should have been more specific: in the *critical* parts of an economy, the ones where there is a real debate about whether it should be delegated to the public or private realms, corporations don’t die, and aren’t subject to the type of evolutionary pressures / advantages that you cite. Even in the USSR (and for that matter, monarchies in the Middle Ages, Roman Empires, and Greek city states), lots of noncritical stuff was left to the private world, a sort of proto-capitalism. That’s where churn / evolution takes place. If Medieval England had video rental stores, they would probably have been privately run even then, and left to die when ye olde Netflix came out. This is not something new or unique to our times.

        But even now, the critical parts are never left to the forces of creative destruction. Take for example, the financial / banking system. Traditionally these were fully public entities, if not outright owned by the sovereign. In the US they are nominally privatized. I say nominally because only their gains are privatized. Their losses are still socialized. There is no churn in our banking system. Even the number of small, community banks allowed to go bankrupt in a year is quite small. This despite massive changes in the underlying technology / competitive forces within the finance world. Under what model of evolution can Goldman Sachs be considered to be properly adapted, when its mistakes and lack of understanding of the products it was selling (not to mention outright fraud) led to it being caught with tens of billions of losses *and still survived*? Wall St. is used to calling for the heads of CEOs whose companies fail to meet quarterly profit expectations by a few pennies. Yet their own CEOs completely bankrupted their companies, necessitated massive govt bailouts, and nearly brought down the entire world’s economy, and yet they’re still in charge, earning their bonuses, their heads still firmly attached to their necks. Is this the evolution you speak of that exists in the corporate world? Without govt, these so-called highly adaptable entities would have been extinct after the Great Depression.

        To finance I would add agriculture, military weapons production, health, and education as industries where corporations do not adapt quicker than public entities, because private entities are not allowed to die. It’s more likely that the next President will be a Democrat than it is that the Treasury Secretary will *not* be from Goldman Sachs (a string lasting 30 years since Rubin under Clinton, broken only by Obama’s Geithner). And yet your argument is that GS is more subject to evolutionary pressure and therefore better adapted? That’s where I disagree.

        Regarding Republicans, I should have been more general. It’s more the neoliberal, conservative consensus that was created in the 70s, regarding the primacy of markets, capitalism, and corporate control over large parts of the economy, and which has been largely adopted by both parties in the US and many parties around the world. Yes, strictly speaking, Margaret Thatcher was not a Republican. But she was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who privatized numerous British industries.

        Part of the reason Republicans have gone so crazy is because they won, and no longer have a raison-d’etre. Reagan is a secular saint, even to nominal Democrats like Obama. The conservative policy prescriptions of guys like William Buckley, Milton Friedman, etc. (or if you will, the Washington consensus followed by the Bretton Woods institutions) has largely become the default throughout the world. Which is why every crisis in any country, regardless of whatever unique circumstances it entails, is met with the same neoliberal response. Isn’t it curious that communist uprisings in latin america, banking crises in Europe, and debt overloads in Asia, all seem to bring about the same proposed solutions: austerity for the common people, supply-side tax policy, firesale privatization of public goods and services, free trade, and deregulation? Sounds like hammer, meet nail.

        My point in bringing this up, is that what I should have said is it’s the neoliberal’s fault 🙂 Which is why the Democratic party is undergoing a civil war between its neoliberal Clinton wing and its socialist Bernie wing. And why I would still insist that privatization of the Autobahn or water services in Spain is still a case of bad apples (the primary bad apple being neoliberalism) rather than a wholesale indictment of liberal democracy.

        Re: California, I think we’re actually in agreement here. It has a lot of problems on the horizon, from which money from the tech industry has granted a temporary reprieve. I do believe they’re doing a lot better at addressing some issues than the previous era of divided govt, but they do have a long way to go to be considered effective. When the tech industry busts again (as it has with every cycle), we’ll see whether California has truly changed. This may be my test case of watching to see if a Democratic-controlled govt can still adapt to change. If they don’t, that might be enough to convince me you’re right…

        I’d also like to point out one thing: I believe this idea that corporations are better adapted to rapid change has been tried. I’ve brought up the East India Company several times, and I stand by that example: wholesale corporate control of essential government services, unencumbered by the demands of liberal democracy or indeed representation of any kind, was an unmitigated disaster (and I’m not speaking of the appalling human and moral toll), utterly destroying one of the strongest economies of the world, requiring a government bailout / takeover, and eventually proving to be too broken even for the mighty British Empire to save. In the 60+ years of rapid technological and social change, India’s chaotic, flawed democracy has proven more adaptable than the EIC even in the metric by which the EIC was measured — economic production — to say nothing of the moral and political gains.

        This example was repeated all over the colonial world. I’d argue most colonies in Asia and Africa (and older ones in South America), even those not formally organized as a corporation, represented this form of corporate control: they were unencumbered by the representational demands of a poorly educated, illiterate citizenry; profit / loss was the main criterion for decision-making; power was centralized in a few people who rose through the ranks based on their abilities (to rape and pillage, sure, but still 🙂 ); and they were able to make decisions quickly with minimal regulation / oversight to adapt as necessary to rapid technological and social changes.

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but that sounds a lot like the type of corporate world you’re saying is more adaptable (I studiously avoid saying the word “better” since you’re right: you never imply that this is always better for the citizens). And yet the results are clear: even by the simple standards of adaptability, such corporate systems only lasted about 50-100 years before they utterly devastated their assets, requiring either public bailouts by their parent govt’s, or divestment and spinoff. Today, there are still a few colonies lying around, but by and large, that model of resource extraction and economic development was found to be unworkable, and public systems like democracy and even autocratic dictatorships have proven more adaptable and durable.

        I really think this is the fundamental question dividing this country, and indeed most countries today. Everyone recognizes the problems of our current democracy. The question is what should replace it? Should there more more public or private takeover of services? I’m glad you’re exploring this question, but even if you narrowly limit the question to which system will survive / adapt better, I’m not sure the private world has the advantage.

        P.S. I actually had high hopes for Tillerson (relative to other Trump nominees; not compared to what an actual, sane sec’y of state would be :-). Mainly because, as I mentioned, Exxon is one of the few private sources of foreign policy expertise. Compared to choosing some nutcase / grifter off the street, which is how Trump chose most of his other nominees, Tillerson was actually a remarkably reasoned choice. Given how spectacularly bad he was, I question whether Exxon itself is secretly in trouble…

      4. This is good stuff. We’re skipping ahead a little, but this is helpful.

        ***in the *critical* parts of an economy, the ones where there is a real debate about whether it should be delegated to the public or private realms, corporations don’t die, and aren’t subject to the type of evolutionary pressures / advantages that you cite.***

        Those corporations don’t die because they’re no longer in the private sector. Goldman is the government. Eisenhower warned us of this trend back when it only included military contractors. We could say that our banks have been nationalized, but that would be misleading because it is essentially backward. Our banks have been brought into the government, where they are more powerful than official policymakers. Banks decide policy, and they were doing it under a Democratic government with a Democratic Congress. And they’ll do it again. Elect 535 Ocasio-Cortez’s, and bank lobbyists will spin them all out into knots for years debating trans-gender rights, Confederate statues, the proper use of the term Latinx, and measures to encourage urban farming. The banks will come through it just fine, because they are better adapted to this environment than our current governing institutions are.

        Now we’ve evolved this strange system in which corporations, which have grown more powerful than our political system, own our bureaucracy more or less outright. Policy rivalries within the bureaucracy play out based on the competing interests of different companies the government nominally regulates.

        It pains me to say this, but one of the reasons we’ve started electing entertainers is that our elections are theater. Behind the facade of “issues” discussed in our election cycle, what we’re actually deciding is just whether Exxon will continue to invest in new oil drilling, or whether it will start monetizing its billions of dollars in annual research on renewable energy. We’re voting to determine whether the next administration will be more favorable to Disney’s merger plans or to Comcast’s. Who will win the next election, Tesla or Ford? Monsanto or Con-Agra?

        Candidates run for office by making their pitches to their real constituents, the representatives of wealthy donors and corporate boards. Hardly anyone ever makes onto a general election ballot without winning the donor primaries. Meanwhile they tell us (and themselves) bullshit stories about abortion and immigrants and whatever grabs the flyspeck attention of a nation of people who get their news from People Magazine. And to be fair, the system we’ve constructed could hardly have any other outcome. Corporations have real, meaningful interests in the outcomes of government decisions that we, as citizens, could never hope to keep track of. Corporations have grown powerful because they’ve evolved a superior information processing system, superior both to us as individuals and to the limited capabilities of a rules-bound government.

        As for Republicans, I think it’s a dangerous mistake to treat them as an exogenous force, rather than as a fundamental element in our public life. There are still Republicans in California. As sick and dangerous a force as that institution has become, it isn’t some invading virus dropped on us by a comet. The GOP isn’t even a uniquely American issue. Options for public improvement made impossible by the influence of the Republican Party are, let’s remember, measures that are being blocked by a very large minority of our fellow citizens. The sickness of the GOP is the sickness of our form of government in general.

        I stand by my claim that liberal democracy invented the private sector. You can still see a comparison by looking at the vast, entirely dependent “private sector” in places like Russia and China, where the absence of real legal protections means nothing is every really private. Every corporation in those places is an extension of government power, subject in every way to the daily whim of the sovereign. There was no private property in Europe, in the way we think of the term, in pre-constitutional Europe, outside the small domains of a few urban republics like Florence and Venice. Elsewhere, everything anyone owned was essentially lent through a feudal chain of dependencies. England started issuing real patents after their revolution. France did the same after theirs. Only after the primacy of the sovereign was replaced by the primacy of laws could there be any notion of a private sector.

        It’s interesting you mention the East India Company because we have reproduced that model on a grand scale, still-expanding scale. And the blind hostility of half our population to corporations feeds that expansion. The British government lacked the agility to accomplish what these semi-private institutions did around the world. But by operating as monopolies they snuffed out all of the forces that could have held them accountable and limited their decay (by killing off those institutions). Corporations work pretty well as long their ability to crush competition is policed. You may or may not need government to serve that purpose, but it has to come from somewhere or those institutions calcify just like governments, but with a cancerous rapacity that governments seldom display.

        I’m skipping away ahead here, but I think that the two most important issues of our time are preserving competition in markets and slashing the link between employment and the social safety net. Fix those two things, and public institutions can enter the era of corprocracy with the leverage they need to protect individual rights and preserve a decent quality of life. Europe has even more work to here than we do, as they built their entire post-WW2 public life in full, open partnership with their largest surviving big industries. If we can recognize the difference between hostility to corporations and encouraging competition, we can liberate ourselves to focus on the real priority. Every step we take to “control” companies with greater and deeper bureaucratic oversight brings companies deeper and deeper into our government. Sometimes it’s a mistake to place the keeper in the lion’s cage.

        And a safety net based on employment, funded by payroll taxes, is what 22nd century citizens will see (and in the worst case, experience) as a descendent of slavery.

        As an aside, I’m discovering that I enjoy focusing on this little corner of the Internet a lot more than writing for Forbes. That had its upside, as it brought me into wider conversations with a lot of interesting people on other forums like Twitter and Facebook, but it also left me tightly constrained. And this may be the best comments section anywhere on the Internet.

      5. This may be the best discussion corner of the internet….You can take credit for that, Chris.

        I agree with your two critical points, i.e., that competition in business must be preserved, and, the safety net must be severed from employment. One element I believe you don’t emphacize is the moral responsibility we share as a people and a country. I assume that’s because you believe this is what will be lost.

      6. What’s a country? We don’t ask that question because the definition is so deeply embedded in our assumptions, but nations, countries, peoples – these concepts are losing their force. We’re creating new identities for ourselves constructed on digital platforms (like this one) that have no connection to place or heritage. Those ties are rapidly becoming more meaningful to us than older foundations of identity like a nation. Yea, I think the very idea of a country as anything other than a governmental entity is quickly dissolving.

    2. WX,

      I find that I almost totally agree with you.

      Re: CA, living in WA we are almost constantly affected by CA. As a consequence, I watch CA government somewhat carefully. I too have been struck by the turnaround in CA, and yes it is only because CA finally got rid of the R’s. That actually began when Schwarzenegger was governor following his loss of the 2005 special election to implement various right-wing R initiatives. Following that he moderated and began actually governing for the people and as a consequence he was reelected to a full tem.

      I am seeing a similar phenomenon in WA. In 2017, we finally got a unified Democratic government. The R’s controlled the Senate and the House majorities were minimized, due largely to a moderate gerrymander favoring the R’s during the redistricting in 2011. In one shortened session, several nagging issues were resolved that threatened to drag us down the same path CA followed. In 2017, a capital construction budget for the current biennium was not passed because the R’s blocked it. The issue was resolved in 2018 under D governance. This election, it appears the D majorities will increase significantly.

      One thing you did not mention regarding corporations, is that their sole operating criteria is maximizing profit for the key shareholders – that is not necessarily the holders of the common stock. In each of the corporations you cite, that went through multiple disruptions, the key shareholders actually profited. Goldman-Sachs is a very good example. I have seen that in my industry of architecture-engineering. There has been considerable consolidation and restructuring there. In each case most of the common shareholders have been hurt, but the key corporate figures have laughed all the way to the bank.

      I cannot believe that the answer lies in corporatocracy. Rather I believe that the answer lies in opening up our electoral processes to be more inclusive, representative and increasing liberalism. As I have written earlier, the U.S. is not a liberal democracy; it is more of a democracy of the elite. That is the way the Constitution was designed. Efforts to create a more liberal approach were not possible because of the necessity of getting the South to agree to a federation. The South at that time was an oligopoly. Accordingly, the 3/5 compromise and other compromises, enabled the South to more or less control the federal government until the Civil War. Though, there has been some liberalization the U.S. government is hardly an example of liberal democracy.

      1. tmerritt-
        I agree with you. I’m open to hearing arguments that corporations are better adapted, but I’m just not convinced that it’s true. Corporations are a relatively young entity. Especially ones large enough to wield the type of power that Chris is talking about, have existed only for a few hundred years (I’d take the founding of the Dutch East India Company in 1602 as the starting point). Compared to several thousand years of government (including democracy if you go back to Greece).

        Maybe we’re seeing the beginning of the mammals about to usurp the dinosaurs. But it’s more likely that corporations are like the innumerable other species that tried but failed to end the dinosaurs’ multi-million year reign. That said, if Trump is indeed our version of an asteroid strike, maybe that’s enough to kill off democracy and leave a void for corporations to fill 🙂

  3. A few facts present potential spoilers to viewing this evolution as a happy one, to wit:
    1) governments are nominally accountable to voters, but the rich are not even nominally accountable to the poor, as long as the line is held on property rights
    2) historically, when the line breaks on property rights the sacking of the rich by the poor is enormously destructive and often everyone is left worse off
    3) we end up relying on the rich to be able to understand their own long-term best interests, but I don’t see much evidence that the long-term best interests of the rich have much that coincides with the long-term best interests of the poor. It’s generally true that the rich will try to save the system to the extent that they cannot remove themselves from it, and not an iota more.

  4. Are politicians measurably more stupid today than previous generations? If so, by what measure?

    Partisanship has measurably increased for many of the historical and demographic reasons discussed at length here, and the Republican party has specifically chosen the tactic of disabling effective governance using the built-in inefficiencies of our system,

    but when you mention half a dozen idiocrats amongst our hundreds of representatives, I wonder how out of proportion they are compared to representatives of the past, or whether it’s the same level of stupid in a system less effective at keeping their mouths shut.

    1. ***Are politicians measurably more stupid today than previous generations? If so, by what measure?***

      This is an interesting question, because many of the “dumbest” politicians have sterling academic credentials. Ted Cruz is arguably brilliant, but nuts. Good ole’ Louis Gohmert had an outstanding record at Texas A&M (don’t laugh), then performed well enough at Baylor law to be appointed to the JAG Corps. Lamar Smith has a BA from Yale and a JD from SMU. And of course GW Bush went to Yale and Harvard, though he gets a bright orange asterisk as a legacy. One of the scariest nutjobs in Congress, Dave Brat, was a professor with an academic history in the Ivy League.

      What makes them Idiocrats is not personal stupidity, but endorsed stupidity; a lack of even the remotest interest in whether their ideas are sound. And they do not appear to be cynics playing a part. They’re buying what they’re selling, regardless of the consequences. I’d speculate that the reason so many of our dumbest Congressmen have excellent credentials is simply the dynamics of Congress. Only the elite ever get a shot. So, we are increasingly represented by the craziest, dumbest members of our elite.

      Are they crazier or dumber than in the past? If you examine the question in terms of policies supported and enacted then I think you can answer yes, though finding a way to measure this would be challenging. However, I do recall that my first brush with politics as an intern at the Texas Legislature left me with one overwhelming impression – our elected politicians are not clever people. The guy I worked for was a popular high school quarterback who was dumb as a bag of rocks. He did whatever the lobbyists for the telecom industry told him, then graduated to a fat job at Southwestern Bell.

      That session there were a handful of legislators who could express themselves in complete sentences. Most were entirely disinterested in legislation. They were there for the prestige, the chicks, the money (lots of money), and the parties. Most of the ones I worked with were disturbingly broken human beings. Lots of narcissists, as you might expect. LOTS of sexual predators, to the point that it was almost assumed. That small number of competent, interested professionals ran the place. They dolled out lobbyist money and hookers and whatever else to motivate the rabble and steer the operations toward somewhat reasonable outcomes. It kind of worked.

      That was before the religious lunatics took over. Can’t imagine what it’s like now.

      Congress is marginally more elite. It takes a bit more functional capacity to run a race in a larger district, so you tend to get people with more impressive financial connections and the academic backgrounds necessary to produce those connections. Mostly it means you get people born on third base rather than on second, otherwise the personality profile is about the same.

      Perhaps the individuals aren’t dumber, but the agendas certainly are. Congress and my old state legislature are doing things politically that would have made the wife-beating, coked-up, bribe-thirsty Congressmen of the 90’s run straight to confession. And if that model still holds, where a few key figures who actually care about policy run the agenda for everyone else who’re mostly there for the thrill, then maybe you only need a few loonies to run the whole train off the track.

      1. What you describe sounds a lot like what was described in _Charlie Wilson’s War_, which, if you haven’t read, I highly recommend. It’s a biographical account of a… colorful? Texas congressman who had a huge role in us getting involved in Afghanistan under Carter / Reagan. It’s actually a howlingly fun read, because interspersed between crazy descriptions of the intersection of congress, military, lobbyists, donors, and foreign officials that you wouldn’t believe if they weren’t true, were descriptions of Charlie Wilson himself and his penchant for cocaine, playboy models, etc.

        IMHO, Congress is undoubtedly less overtly corrupt than it was before. You won’t see lobbyists hiring hookers for drug-fueled parties on yachts in the Potomac anymore. The all-seeing eye of bloggers, social media, and generations of journalists who dream of becoming the next Woodward or Bernstein has seen to that. The fact that Scott Pruitt got nailed for stuff that wouldn’t have even made the press 40 years ago is good proof of that.

        Curiously though, as you mention, Congress has become less personally corrupt, but more institutionally crazy. Is there a causal relationship? I’m only half-joking: the same type of neglect where the press overlooked politicians’ “personal foibles” like affairs, drug use, etc. is the same type of neglect that’s needed for sausage making to occur. The compromises needed to craft legislation aren’t pretty, and no congressman wants his local constituents to know that he made a deal with the devil (aka Nancy Pelosi or Donald Trump depending on your politics) to get something done.

        C-SPAN was supposed to be a force for good in our democracy: people around the country could now watch Congressional proceedings without being in DC. Instead, I’d argue it’s made things worse: Congresspeople focus on grandstanding for the cameras rather than doing their jobs.

        Maybe there’s a certain balance of “transparency” needed to optimize efficiency while still controlling the reigns. A blogger named The Last Psychiatrist has a great take on this: (from https://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2013/09/how_does_the_shutdown_relate_t.html )
        —————
        Imagine trying to have sex always on camera, and always with a goat, and always with some know-it-all screaming at you, “get hard now! NOW! 8 seconds left! NOW! What’s wrong with you?!” Jesus, can I take a minute and do this privately? “Transparency!”

        If Senator X “makes a concession” the relevant media will proclaim him a loser and a coward, they don’t want representatives, they want cage fighters. There’s no reward for compromise and there’s no safe place to attempt it, either. This is 100% your fault, “I can’t believe how stupid these people are!” It’s great how you can’t find employment but have time to micromanage the U.S. Senate. #outrage

        If you want to know what political career disaster looks like, have an infinitely leggy ex-sorority girl in flesh toned Manolos sitting behind a glass table in perfect lighting announce to 50% of America that you were beat by an old woman from California or an old man from Ohio. “Ha ha, what a cuckold! Back to you, Kent.”
        ————
        Is it better to grant them their hookers and blow if looking the other way also lets them make messy but needed compromises?

  5. If you really think that corporate executives face more scrutiny and have to be more efficient than politicians then I have a FINE bridge to sell you
    Corporate executive face competition – but for promotion and NOT in terms of competence

    I would say that politicians face MORE scrutiny – but that the problem is that very few competent people want to be politicians

    If you look at the “career path” for a politician with no “family influence” it’s quite sad
    You start as a gofer – then eventually you get your party’s nomination for a seat in congress – if you win you have very little power – you just have to toe the line and eventually you may get a position with some power

    That is not an attractive path for somebody who wants to be doing things NOW!

    In the USA you also get rich – at least 99% of congress people do

    In other countries you don’t even become wealthy

    Talking of “wealthy” that is another barrier to entry – a would be politician has to be rich enough to live with no income for the years until he actually wins a seat

    One of the advantages of a UBI would be that the pool of possible politicians would be opened wide as far far more people could take those few years unpaid

  6. EJ

    A paradox:

    Some governments are corrupt and dysfunctional. Competition prevents businesses from becoming likewise.

    Businesses constantly attempt to prevent competition and become monopolies. This is held in check by government anti-monopoly agencies.

    Therefore, the ability of businesses to be more effective than governments, relies upon governments being effective.

      1. Bravo, Stephen. It’s called “checks and balances” and for decades it has worked fairly well. Until, that is, Republicans made the calculated decision to disregard the importance of protecting basic democratic institutions and norms.

        That is where we are in America now.

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