Digital tech is laying bare American exceptionalism in a new way.
Burst the Complacency Bubble—Before It’s Too Late
Management is killing us. The virus demands we break free.
One of the challenges covid has exposed in America is complacency.
Samo Burja writes, “the American system of the 2020s through the city, county, state, and up to the federal level has been staffed with people who know how to speak and make themselves appear blameless, but not how to act.” I think he is being too kind; such people have not just taken over our government, but also our businesses. Hospitals, for example, are threatening to fire, and in some cases have fired, doctors who complain about the lack of PPE.
Everyone is so concerned about covering the downside risk that no one thinks about the upside. The result is an incoherent, disjointed response that has led to the most cases in the world and an optimistic death count at low hundreds of thousands. Lack of skin in the game has deadened the ability of people to think for themselves.
Our education in red tape starts early. In high school I started an entrepreneurial club. We sold soda and pizza, pocketing the profits. We were open about what we were doing, telling everyone who asked us. Eventually the administration found out. I was berated by the Vice Principal; we had run afoul of numerous codes. Luckily, the we were seniors and the year was almost over, so we were let go without any punishment.
The one group to come out of this looking good has been the tech sector.
Technologists, including Balaji Srinivasan and Marc Andreessen were some of the first to blow the whistle. Tech companies were the first to work remotely. And now the tech sector is the quickest to spin up testing, remote work, and other solutions to the crisis.
Compared to other sectors in America, technologists still think for themselves. Entrepreneurs are celebrated. You are expected to ‘figure it out’. There aren’t authority figures you can turn to for help, and if you fail, your startup goes under or you’re fired. There is an environmental immediacy that can’t be escaped. Thinking for yourself is not only celebrated, it is necessary.
The rest of us have surrendered to complacency. We assume the system functions outside of our narrow expertise. The result is that, given any sufficient shock, like covid, the system collapses. If a problem is always someone else’s, eventually it’s no one’s. The result is what we see today.
Revolution is necessary. The administrative class in this country needs to be replaced. During a brief period when the Charter Cities Institute was considering a domestic program, I would joke that we would advocate for light intergenerational warfare. Now we need the heavy artillery.
Eric Weinstein, whose podcast, The Portal, should rise in status after covid, finds that the average age of a university president increased from 52 in 1992, to 65 last year. Now “almost a quarter of presidents, 23.9 percent, had held presidential or chief executive officer positions in their job before their current presidency. That’s up from 19.5 percent in 2011.” William Rainey Harper was 35 when he founded the University of Chicago. He’d be lucky to be an Assistant Professor today. CEOs are also following this trend. Paul Millard finds, ‘the average age of incoming CEOs for S&P 500 companies has increased about 14 years over the last 14 years.’
The problem, of course, is not just boomers, though they are disproportionately responsible. Our institutional infrastructure is not designed for builders. Independent thought is not rewarded. Rather than nurture the tallest poppy, we strive to cut them down.
Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of time. Once the caseload decreases and the lockdown ends, we need massive test and trace. Free and aggressive testing combined with mandatory quarantines for those who test positive. Hot zones will continue to flare until a vaccine is developed. We need the will to shut them down quickly and effectively.
Such massive testing requires training people to test. Women were trained to run munitions factories in the middle of World War II. We can train people to administer and process a viral test.
Over the longer term we need a civic and social renewal. Americans must rebuild their belief in America.
Tocqueville marveled at Americans’ ability to organize ourselves. While pockets of that ability still exist, those pockets are insufficient. Personal responsibility, excellence, and drive need to be the hallmarks of America as a whole again.
America also deserves better elites. Our elites today follow a familiar path: Ivy league to management consulting to secondary degree to a senior management position in some bureaucracy or corporation. They live their lives ensconced in a protective bureaucratic bubble.
We can no longer choose management.
We must choose growth.
That means selecting elites who know how to build something. Men and women who have struck out on their own, who have put their reputation and capital on the line, who have tasted defeat, gritted their teeth, and pushed through.
The next few decades are going to be rougher waters than the previous few. It’s time for our institutions to reflect that.