In yesterday’s New York Times, David Brooks wrote perceptively about the burgeoning populist revolt against the “educated classes”. Brooks was promptly slapped around by various blogosphere essayists such as Will Collier, who noted that Brooks’s column reads like a weaselly apologia for the dismal failures of the “educated classes” in the last couple of decades.
Our “educated classes” cannot bring themselves to come to grips with the fact that fundamentalist Islam has proclaimed war on us. They have run the economy onto recessionary rocks with overly-clever financial speculation and ham-handed political interventions, and run up a government deficit of a magnitude that has never historically resulted in consequences less disastrous than hyperinflation. And I’m not taking conventional political sides when I say these things; Republicans have been scarcely less guilty than Democrats.
In the first month of a new decade, unemployment among young Americans has cracked 52% and we’re being officially urged to believe that an Islamic suicide bomber trained by Al-Qaeda in Yemen was an “isolated extremist”.
One shakes one’s head in disbelief. Is there anything our “educated classes” can’t fuck up, any reality they won’t deny? Will Collier fails, however to ask the next question: why did they fail?
The obvious and most tempting hypothesis for a libertarian student of history like myself is that the Gramscian damage caught up with them. And I think there’s something to that argument, especially when the President of the U.S. more beloved of those “educated classes” than any other in my lifetime routinely behaves exactly as though he’d been successfully conditioned to believe the hoariest old anti-American tropes in the Soviet propaganda arsenal. And is praised for this by his adoring fans!
I think there’s much more to it than that, though. When I look at the pattern of failures, I am reminded of something I learned from software engineering: planning fails when the complexity of the problem exceeds the capacity of the planners to reason about it. And the complexity of real-world planning problems almost never rises linearly; it tends to go up at least quadratically in the number of independent variables or problem elements.
I think the complexifying financial and political environment of the last few decades has simply outstripped the capacity of our “educated classes”, our cognitive elite, to cope with it. The “wizards” in our financial system couldn’t reason effectively about derivatives risk and oversimplified their way into meltdown; regulators failed to foresee the consequences of requiring a quota of mortgage loans to insolvent minority customers; and politico-military strategists weaned on the relative simplicity of confronting nation-state adversaries thrashed pitifully when required to game against fuzzy coalitions of state and non-state actors.
Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein argued tellingly in their 1994 book The Bell Curve that 20th-century American society had become a remarkably effective machine for spotting the cognitively gifted of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds and tracking them into careers that would maximize their output. They pointed out, though, that the “educated class” produced by this machine was in danger of becoming self-separated from the mass of the population. I agree with both arguments, and I think David Brooks and Will Collier are pointing us at the results.
In retrospect, I think race- and class-blind meritocracy bought us about 60 years (1945-2008) of tolerably good management by Western elites. The meritocracy developed as an adaptation to the escalating complexity of 20th-century life, but there was bound to be a point at which that adaptation would run out of steam. And I think we’ve reached it. The “educated classes” are adrift, lurching from blunder to blunder in a world that has out-complexified their ability to impose a unifying narrative on it, or even a small collection of rival but commensurable narratives. They’re in the exact position of old Soviet central planners, systemically locked into grinding out products nobody wants to buy.
My readers might well ask, at this point, “Great. Does this mean we’re screwed?” If a meritocracy drawn from the brightest, best-educated people in history can’t cope with our future, what do we do next?
The answer is, I think implied by three words: Adapt, decentralize, and harden. Levels of environmental complexity that defeat planning are readily handled by complex adaptive systems. A CAS doesn’t try to plan against the future; instead, the agents in it try lots of adaptive strategies and the successful ones propagate. This is true whether the CAS we’re speaking of is a human immune system, a free market, or an ecology.
Since we can no longer count on being able to plan, we must adapt. When planning doesn’t work, centralization of authority is at best useless and usually harmful. And we must harden: that is, we need to build robustness and the capacity to self-heal and self-defend at every level of the system. I think the rising popular sense of this accounts for the prepper phenomenon. Unlike old-school survivalists, the preppers aren’t gearing up for apocalypse; they’re hedging against the sort of relatively transient failures in the power grid, food distribution, and even civil order that we can expect during the lag time between planning failures and CAS responses.
CAS hardening of the financial system is, comparatively speaking, much easier. Almost trivial, actually. About all it requires is that we re-stigmatize the carrying of debt at more than a very small proportion of assets. By anybody. With that pressure, there would tend to be enough reserve at all levels of the financial system that it would avoid cascade failures in response to unpredictable shocks.
Cycling back to terrorism, the elite planner’s response to threats like underwear bombs is to build elaborate but increasingly brittle security systems in which airline passengers are involved only as victims. The CAS response would be to arm the passengers, concentrate on fielding bomb-sniffers so cheap that hundreds of thousands of civilians can carry one, and pay bounties on dead terrorists.
Yes, this circles back to my previous post about the militia obligation. I’m now arguing for this obligation to be seen as, actually, larger than arming for defense (although that’s a core, inescapable part of it). I’m arguing that we need to rediscover CAS behavior in politics and economics — not because financiers or bureaucrats are dangerous or evil, but because even with the best will in the world they can’t cope. The time when they could out-think and out-plan the challenges of the day operating as an elite has passed.
The people who will resist the end of the engineered society, the managed economy and the paternalist state are, of course, the “educated classes” themselves. Having become accustomed to functioning as the aristocracy of our time, they will believe in anything except their own obsolescence as rulers. It remains to be seen how much longer events will permit their delusions to continue.