Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Peter Principle

The Peter Principle is a concept popularized by Laurence J. Peter (1919-1990) in his humorous 1968 book of that name. According to the principle, employees within an organizational hierarchy tend to rise to their level of incompetence. This occurs because the skills in which one has demonstrated proficiency are often different from those that are required to perform competently in higher-level jobs. Although this is a fairly loose idea without much research behind it, it was and still is recognized and discussed in business schools. One context in which it can come up is that of high growth corporations in which the entrepreneurial founders have the wrong skill sets needed to manage large organizations, and they are often replaced by professional managers who have better administrative skills.

This idea is similar to the ideas in many of my posts if you broadly expand it beyond corporations. Similar phenomena can be seen in politics, the professions, academia and journalism, and among intellectuals, artists and writers. What I've noticed time and again is that an aura surrounds those who rise in their fields that isn't necessarily commensurate with their actual knowledge or ability. Some of that aura is created by others who unconsciously confer a mystique to recognized leaders, and some exists in delusional or lazy thinking among the leaders themselves when they come to believe that they must know something that other people don't or possess some special talent because they've been successful so far. One of the most spectacular recent examples of this was the premature awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama after he had been president for less than nine months. The expectations were so high for Obama during his presidential campaign in 2008 and early in his first term that people projected capacities and ideas onto him that we now know with certainty that he did not possess. His thinking on foreign policy seems to have turned out to be roughly the same as that of George W. Bush, and what differentiates him seems to be little more than a tendency to proceed with greater caution. Certainly his track record in foreign policy looks shaky now, with more instability in the Middle East and the continuation of American aggression by means of drones and other covert methods of dubious legal standing. If he wasn't the successor to the aggressive and reckless Bush, Obama would now stand out more clearly as a confused military aggressor. The events are a bit too current to permit full historical judgment, but I suspect that Obama will be seen as a conventional president who brought no new ideas with him, did not demonstrate any particular talent as a leader, and probably thought more highly of himself than has proven to be warranted. It is almost inconceivable that the Nobel Committee would have awarded him the Peace Prize if they had seen into the future of his presidency. In my opinion, the American public and the Nobel Committee were lulled into complacency by misreading Obama's actual competencies. He was a significant contrast to both George W. Bush and John McCain, who exhibited macho decisiveness and poor judgment, and he successfully sold himself as a thoughtful and articulate leader who would skillfully push through carefully thought out policies. As a practical matter he proved to be poor at taking action or winning people over. In retrospect he looks like a charismatic lawyer and academic who got in way, way over his head, and in the meantime he has served the interests of his wealthy backers, who come from the same cadre that supported Bill Clinton and now Hillary.

I have been shocked and disappointed by the questionable competence demonstrated by those doing well in many fields. Not long before the Great Recession, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan was considered God incarnate by many economists, even as his polices helped precipitate the recession. Many within the New York intellectual establishment supported the Iraq War. They have also been complicit in the manipulation of U.S. foreign policy to serve Zionist interests that have probably cost U.S. taxpayers trillions of dollars while cementing America's reputation in the Middle East as self-serving imperialists. On the literary front, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers, comes to mind. The book is filled with sophomoric flourishes and failed attempts at profundity, yet it succeeded at launching Eggers' career as a respected American literary writer. It seems as if Eggers came to be considered a great writer by audaciously stating that he was a great writer, without even qualifying the statement. Eggers may have other talents, but his literary success based on that book is not a good sign. As you know, I consider the American literary scene a disaster and a desolate terrain–an artistic desert in which you travel at your peril. Regarding academia, there seems to be evidence that many faculty have embraced if not encouraged the current atmosphere of political correctness which, in my opinion, fosters an unrealistic view of the world and creates college graduates who are poorly adapted to the workforce and adult life. Adolescents who are about to be tossed to the wolves should hardly be taught that no one has a right to hurt their feelings.

The underlying explanation for this phenomenon probably has to do with the fact that we're wired to live in groups and are often unable to think beyond the conceptual boundaries of whatever group we happen to belong to. Groups in a fundamental sense are our bulwark against external threats, and group cohesion played a critical role in survival during everyone's ancestral past. Once group leaders become unassailable, there is a strong disincentive to challenge them even when they are known to be wrong. In a corporate context you might be fired, and in any career you might face a significant setback or ostracism by defying orthodoxy. So if Bill Gates, Paul Krugman, Alice Munro, Charles Simic, Bob Dylan or Barack Obama doesn't seem to know what he or she is talking about, there may not be much anyone can do to remedy it. Fortunately, at least in the case of scientists, there is science to back them up, and in the long run that won't be ignored, though ideology has been known to suppress scientific findings on many occasions. The kinds of hegemonic behavior by leaders that I'm discussing here may not subside until machines become capable of thinking and doing just about anything better than we can. At that point future historians may become dumbfounded that our species had been able to survive at all.

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