Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Limits of Incompetence

by Dmitry Orlov (November 14 2010)

Update: Mike Ruppert sent in this wonderful illustration of a contemporary real estate boondoggle (by way of Huffingtonpost):

Our social instincts compel us to think well of our fellow man. In spite of much evidence to the contrary, we think him competent to cast votes, to decide how to spend and borrow money, and how to bring up his own children. We persist in this conviction even as the manifest lack of competence at every level of American society causes it to careen toward ruin. We recoil at the thought of government bureaucrats separating the competent from the incompetent, making those who are incompetent, along with their children, wards of the state, remedying their incompetence through strict discipline when possible, and consigning the rest to a lifetime of manual labor in service of society. Many of us quite justifiably think that the government bureaucrats are themselves incompetent, or worse. Those who no longer trust the competence of either the government or our fellow man instead put their faith in corporations or in churches or even in bloggers and internet newsgroups (pathetic, I know). They may preserve their sanity by doing so, but it does nothing to change the big picture. Presumably, it is better to be a competent observer of collapse than an incompetent one.

Of course, the label of generalized American incompetence seems to cast too wide a net. After all, most of us have the competence to not starve when provided with cans of baked beans and a can opener. But it seems that each and every one of us is forced to plead incompetence when presented with the task of judging the value of various figments of financial imagination which comprise fully half of the increasingly fictional US economy, for the depths of incompetence on which this crumbling edifice floats are truly unfathomable. It started with incompetent public officials who blithered on about "ownership society", which is a boneheaded idea. This, in turn, empowered individuals who were incompetent to make financial decisions to borrow vasts sums of money, with the loans backed by an implicit government guarantee. It proceeded to incompetent appraisers, who inflated the value of the collateral based on circular reasoning (value = price = value), and to incompetent bankers, who improperly documented, resold and bundled the loans into unfathomably faulty Collateralized Debt Obligations. It proceeded to incompetent government officials who treated these faulty documents as valuable and backed up their value with public money which they are yet to collect in taxes. It proceeded to incompetent judges who rush through foreclosures and throw people out of their homes based on faulty or nonexistent documentation of ownership.

Some people express umbrage at all this, harrumphing about this and that technical defect in the paperwork, throwing around big words like "personal responsibility" and "fraud". Some of them claim that a concerted effort by brilliant legal and financial minds must be made, to flush all of this illegality out of the system, to determine what all of this soiled paper is really worth, to punish the guilty and to restore dignity to the innocent who were harmed along the way. In this they have so far been quite incompetent: they have vociferously yet impotently complained about a matter over which not a single one of them is competent to exercise any degree of control. An attempt to unscramble all of the faulty financial paperwork is bound to lead to a ridiculous death by a thousand paper cuts. About half of the US economy consists of financial froth that is floating above an unfathomable abyss of incompetence, and once that froth blows away, what will remain of the US economy will turn out to look like a deflated, shriveled little thing, at a standstill because it will be unable to borrow internationally to finance fuel imports, full of defunct financial institutions right up to and including the Federal Reserve, with a worthless currency that nobody is willing to accept as payment, and full of people furiously shaking their tiny fists, hurling their impotent rage at an indifferent sky.

How does a "can do" nation degenerate to such depths of incompetence? A key insight is offered by the Dunning-Krueger effect, defined and experimentally tested by Justin Kruger and David Dunning at Cornell University. Kruger and Dunning proposed that, "for a given skill, incompetent people will:

1. tend to overestimate their own level of skill;

2. fail to recognize genuine skill in others;

3. fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;

4. recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they can be trained to substantially improve".

Krueger and Dunning, and other experimenters, have shown this effect to be quite pronounced. Competent people initially assumed that others were competent as well, and were able to correct their misperception once they were allowed to examine the work of others. Incompetent people, on the other hand, were only able to recognize competence in others after being taught to recognize their own incompetence. Thus, a weaker version of point 4 above suffices: incompetent people do not need to become competent, but to able to judge the superior competence of others they do have to gain some insight into their own incompetence.

But now comes an embarrassing fact: Krueger and Dunning carried out their initial research on American subjects, and their results squared well with their hypothesis, but when their experiments were repeated with Europeans and East Asians, a different picture emerged. With Europeans, the effect seemed barely measurable, while with East Asians the exact opposite picture emerges: Dr Steven Heine of the University of British Columbia has found that East Asians tend to underestimate their abilities, focusing on self-improvement and group cohesion. I have come across examples of such a systematic error before. I recall listening to a certain researcher of human behavior at Yale, who was discussing the results he got by doing experiments on his students, which he blithely extrapolated to all of humanity. But I suspected that an error had crept into his experiments, due to his unstated and unquestioned assumption that his little sample of Yalies was representative of the inhabitants of Planet Earth rather than Planet Yale (which is what I walked away thinking).

And so it turns out that this blind faith in everyone and sundry's competence is quite specifically an American trait. I invite cultural anthropologists to concentrate their efforts on finding out how this cultural trait could have ever evolved, seeing as it is quite obviously maladaptive. I would venture to guess that it will come down to a false incentive for fostering "inclusive fitness" rather than fitness per se: one's ability to work and play well with others being emphasized and rewarded over and above one's ability to work and play well, others be damned if they can't keep up. A certain vital part of humanity has been bred out of us. How many of you Americans have sat through endless meetings, listening dutifully (or pretending to while doodling on a pad or daydreaming) whereas what you really wanted to do is to stand up, extend the accusatory finger and say: "This is bullshit. You, Sir, are an idiot. How dare you waste our time with this nonsense? Shut up and get out." Were you to do this, you would have found your American colleagues cringing pathetically and trying desperately to smooth things over while avoiding your eyes like whipped puppies, while your foreign colleagues would be doing their best to stifle their guffaws while looking at you with newfound respect.

Now, if you have ever worked for a Chinese, a Russian, or especially an Israeli company, chances are you have been witness to a few variants of the scene described above, all accompanied by easy laughter and cheers, and a general sigh of relief: idiot expelled, sanity restored. But here in America we are now a bunch of pathetic cringing ninnies branded with a peace sign and mooing dolefully. Some Mr Gnang-Gnang or other from Planet Ten can get up in front of us and tell us that printing half a trillion dollars will create jobs, and not a single person jumps up an screams "WHAT? WHAT?" No, we don't do that here, plus it's almost lunch, so let's just chew our cud until somebody comes and feeds us. Here's a prime example: just a week ago Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble called US policy "ratlos", which translates into the local vernacular as "clueless". Immediately some apologists popped up, saying that "clueless" is too harsh a translation. Well, here is "ratlos" done unto English via Russian, thanks to Google Translate: "ignorant, embarrassed, helpless, indecisive". Does that work for everyone?

To recap, we have three categories of incompetent people, whose definitions at this point in our exposition should seem uncontroversial. First, we have the proud, the few - the competent. They are becoming rather thin on the ground in the US, because Americans have largely forgotten how to make new ones, and the ones that exist are getting a bit long in the tooth. Their main problem is that they have been conditioned to think the best of others; in essence, to suffer fools gladly. They can be turned around simply by setting the right incentives.

Second, we have the incompetents who know the limits of their competence. These are potentially useful: they just have to be matched up with tasks at which they can become competent. They are less likely to have inflated expectations for what they can expect to achieve through their labors, and although their lavish habits may not be in line with what their increasingly impoverished country can provide, they can be brought around.

Third, we have the vast army of the deeply incompetent, some of whom look upon themselves as paragons of home-spun self-reliance, have a "who the hell do you think you are to tell me anything" attitude toward their betters, and with their clueless bungling pose a grave danger to themselves and to everyone else. They are a problem, but many of them can be rehabilitated. You see, being pointed and laughed at when you do something stupid is something of a human universal, and most people are wired to accept that message, remember it as a formative experience, and struggle to avoid it in the future.

But there is also a fourth category of incompetent people: those who are so deeply incompetent that nobody can assess their competence, or lack thereof, because they cleverly shy away from all forms of productive activity, thus making their competence, or lack thereof, impossible to assess. Wouldn't it be nice if they displayed some telltale physiological trait, such as tufts of hair on the earlobes or the nose? Or if some genius were to devise a hand-held sensor that, when pointed at them, would blink a red light and sound an alarm? Alas, nothing of the sort exists. What's more, pointing at them and laughing serves no purpose, for they inhabit a rarefied bureaucratic realm where human cultural universals do not apply, and where anyone who calls them incompetent can be treated as a security risk, to be handled by those who are competent at just one thing: dispensing violence.

The final refuge of the deeply incompetent is in economics and finance. It is easy to see why this is so. Think of any very useful object you happen to own, and think of its value. Do you know how to use it well? Do other people? (The fewer the better, of course.) Is it ruggedly built, to last a long time, or is it flimsy? If it breaks, do you know how to repair it? Can you live without it, or are you hopelessly dependent on it? Is it a popular item, and therefore a thief magnet, or is it sufficiently unusual to be passed over by the casual thief despite of its usefulness to you? Does anyone know that you have it? (The fewer know, the safer it will be.) Do you know one or two people who like it as much as you do, in case you have to sell it? And so on. Now usher in a bunch of financial incompetents. What can they tell about the value of your very useful object? Just its price. How can they tell? By asking other incompetents how much they would pay for it. To this bunch, value equals price equals value equals price, at various times and in different places, until the whole thing crashes and burns because nobody actually knows the value of anything to them.

What empowers these people is our love of money. The last vestige of sanity an American seems to be able to cling on to is in his ability to count his money. While he still has some money, he adds up his "net worth", and the higher the number, the better he feels about himself. Once all he has left is debt, he adds up the money he doesn't have, and the more "credit" he has, the better he feels about himself, because of all the things he can still "afford". And once he finally defaults on his loans and no longer has any credit, it is as if, in his own mind, he ceases to exist. "I lost everything", he is apt to say, as if his earthly existence amounted to a number written on a piece of paper. A population that is in thrall to arbitrary numbers written on bits of paper is what makes it possible for the financial incompetents to remain undetected, practicing their sort of low-grade magic. It is as if everyone is blindly in love with them and thus unable to see their faults. But this spell can and will be broken, because the rest of the world is now quite ill-disposed to tolerating any more of this financial nonsense. A day will arrive when America's sages and high priests of finance, together with their wealthy clients, will suddenly turn out to be, for all to see, what they have been all along: clueless incompetents unsuitable for any task that is worth doing.

Bill Totten


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