Belated but enthusiastic greetings in the New Year!
In a recent edition of his illuminating Saturday Commentary and Review newsletter…
Every weekend (almost) I share five articles/essays/reports with you. I select these over the course of the week because they are either insightful, informative, interesting, important, or a combination of the above.
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Americans will often point to a decline in national infrastructure when disagreeing with my assessment that the USA is nowhere near a state of collapse for the time being. Yes, decay in infrastructure is plainly evident to anyone with two working eyes, but the USA’s enormous head start against China makes this decay tolerable……for now.
When cornered by others as to how long this state of affairs can last, I usually say “twenty years or so”. The USA can spend 20 years experimenting with all sorts of counterintuitive schemes, while still retaining its global dominance. The breaking point will come when the bottom line is so negatively affected that US financial dominance over the globe (via control of global bodies like the IMF/World Bank, or especially the end of the greenback as the global currency reserve) is close to ending.
The experimentation that I am referring to is ideological in nature and stems from the drive against “anti-discrimination” that was codified in the US Civil Rights Act of 1964. Christopher Caldwell has referred to it as “the USA’s Second Constitution”, in order to underline just how revolutionary an impact the changes stemming from this act have had on the USA ever since. This ideological adoption continues to pick up momentum, as it has captured institution after institution. What we refer to as “wokeness” today has its legally applicable roots in these laws. One element of this has been the adoption and institutionalization of “DEI” (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) programs in US academia, governance, and the corporate world.
DEI is a direct attack on meritocracy, as DEI mandates that diversity must always take precedence over it in decision-making regarding hiring. This is leading to alarms being rung throughout the professional world in the USA, arguing that an erosion of the meritocratic system is leading to a “crisis of competency” at home, and quickly eroding the USA’s ability to project power abroad, as its rivals play catch up by adhering to meritocratic principles and standards. In this excellent article, Harold Robertson warns Americans that “complex systems won’t survive the competency crisis” that DEI has unleashed.
The core issue is that changing political mores have established the systematic promotion of the unqualified and sidelining of the competent. This has continually weakened our society’s ability to manage modern systems. At its inception, it represented a break from the trend of the 1920s to the 1960s, when the direct meritocratic evaluation of competence became the norm across vast swaths of American society.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, the idea that individuals should be systematically evaluated and selected based on their ability rather than wealth, class, or political connections, led to significant changes in selection techniques at all levels of American society. The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) revolutionized college admissions by allowing elite universities to find and recruit talented students from beyond the boarding schools of New England. Following the adoption of the SAT, aptitude tests such as Wonderlic (1936), Graduate Record Examination (1936), Army General Classification Test (1941), and Law School Admission Test (1948) swept the United States. Spurred on by the demands of two world wars, this system of institutional management electrified the Tennessee Valley, created the first atom bomb, invented the transistor, and put a man on the moon.
By the 1960s, the systematic selection for competence came into direct conflict with the political imperatives of the civil rights movement. During the period from 1961 to 1972, a series of Supreme Court rulings, executive orders, and laws—most critically, the Civil Rights Act of 1964—put meritocracy and the new political imperative of protected-group diversity on a collision course. Administrative law judges have accepted statistically observable disparities in outcomes between groups as prima facie evidence of illegal discrimination. The result has been clear: any time meritocracy and diversity come into direct conflict, diversity must take priority.
The resulting norms have steadily eroded institutional competency, causing America’s complex systems to fail with increasing regularity. In the language of a systems theorist, by decreasing the competency of the actors within the system, formerly stable systems have begun to experience normal accidents at a rate that is faster than the system can adapt. The prognosis is harsh but clear: either selection for competence will return or America will experience devolution to more primitive forms of civilization and loss of geopolitical power.
This argument makes quite a lot of sense, especially when you factor in how interlocked these systems are with one another, and how a collapse in competency in one will have cascading effects for the whole.
From meritocracy to diversity:
The first domino to fall as civil rights-era policies took effect was the quantitative evaluation of competency by employers using straightforward cognitive batteries. While some tests are still legally used in hiring today, several high-profile enforcement actions against employers caused a wholesale change in the tools customarily usable by employers to screen for ability.
After the early 1970s, employers responded by shifting from directly testing for ability to using the next best thing: a degree from a highly-selective university. By pushing the selection challenge to the college admissions offices, selective employers did two things: they reduced their risk of lawsuits and they turned the U.S. college application process into a high-stakes war of all against all. Admission to Harvard would be a golden ticket to join the professional managerial class, while mere admission to a state school could mean a struggle to remain in the middle class.
This outsourcing did not stave off the ideological change for long. Within the system of political imperatives now dominant in all major U.S. organizations, diversity must be prioritized even if there is a price in competency. The definition of diversity varies by industry and geography. In elite universities, diversity means black, indigenous, or Hispanic. In California, Indian women are diverse but Indian men are not. When selecting corporate board members, diversity means “anyone who is not a straight white man.” The legally protected and politically enforced nature of this imperative renders an open dialogue nearly impossible.
However diversity itself is defined, most policy on the matter is based on a simple premise: since all groups are identical in talent, any unbiased process must produce the same group proportions as the general population, and therefore, processes that produce disproportionate outcomes must be biased. Prestigious journals like Harvard Business Review are the first to summarize and parrot these views, which then flow down to reporting by mass media organizations like Bloomberg Businessweek. Soon, it joins McKinsey’s “best practices” list and becomes instantiated in corporate policies.
You want the best doctor to treat you and your loved ones, but the system that is in place might instead offer you up a doctor who is nowhere near as good as you would be able to get in a meritocratic system (defenders of DEI will argue that a capitalist system will deny those without financial resources this ability anyway).
CEOs push diversity policies primarily to please board members and increase their status. Human Resources (HR) professionals push diversity policies primarily to avoid anti-discrimination lawsuits. Business development teams push diversity to win additional business from diversity-sensitive clients (e.g. government agencies). Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), such as the Black Googler Network, push diversity to help their in-group in hiring and promotion decisions.
These programs are incentivized for several reasons, as we see above. Once the bottom line is impacted, they will be on the chopping block….provided that the laws can be changed to ensure that they aren’t targeted for prosecution, and provided that the culture hasn’t shifted too much by this point in time.