Why do we have such weak and poorly performing institutions and leaders in the West, even by the standards of recent history? Big developments are almost never mono-causal, so forgive me for not having a theory of everything on this critically important topic. Today we’ll focus on the hollowing out of operational capabilities, aka crapification on an institutional level, as one major contributor.
The norm for humanity is to lurch from crisis to crisis; the nearly 100 years of absence of large-scale wars in Europe from 1815 to 1914 was a historical anomaly, as has been the period from 1945 until Covid, where despite many regional conflicts (with the US too often precipitating the war), rich economies have enjoyed the luxury of stability.
Now we have the old sword of Damocles of nuclear conflict now joined by the existential threat of climate change…yet despite the apparent sophistication of our systems, such as greater speed and ease of execution of all manner of knowledge work, from record keeping to document preparation to communication to our magic Internet making some types of information acquisition trivially easy, many of us experience symptoms of breakdown in our daily lives and as we and others have chronicled, on a macro level now, painfully visible in such fiascoes as haphazard and halfhearted responses to climate change to the US rapidly accelerating the loss of its hegemonic position through badly conceived strategies towards Russia and Ukraine.
Aurelian described a different, significant pathology in recent post: institutional inertia. Organizations find it very difficult to change even when circumstances demand just that. Worse, doubling down on comfortable, established behaviors is often counterproductive. Aurelian used NATO as an example: it simply could not stop existing when the USSR fell because it was too useful for other purposes, like face time with US officials. But it remained adapted both to defense against an invasion (witness German tanks that presupposed operating on nice German roads and having access to dense German maintenance facilities) and regional conflicts against insurgents, as in weak opponents.
But the current rot goes well be