We live in the age of the pop philosopher. James Wilson and George Kelling were a one hit wonder with their “Broken Window” theory back in the 1980’s. Malcolm Gladwell has reigned supreme on the New York Times bestseller lists with such offerings as “Outliers” and “The Tipping Point.” Nassim Taleb has introduced “Black Swan” and “Antifragile” to the contemporary lexicon. The fascinating thing about all these philosophers isn’t so much what they describe as what their popularity tells us about our culture.
What do the above mentioned topics have in common? They’re expressing a framework that can be used to manage risk or exploit previously unacknowledged opportunities. Ironically, the institutional players that typically grab on to these concepts use them to reinforce existing rigid procedures and add layers of complexity and cost on top of the already Byzantine official arrangements.
So broken windows and people hanging out on the street corner cause crime and blight? Let’s load up on extra special code enforcement and ever more invasive policing. Bureaucracies justified bigger budgets and took on additional staff to pursue the Broken Window policy. Fines and penalties generated new municipal revenue streams – not least to fund the associated enforcement and policing regimes. Professional consultants worked the lecture circuits and lawyers litigated both sides and the middle. And someone had to sell all those replacement windows… Did poverty and blight disappear from the American landscape? Did any of this have anything to do with the original substance of Wilson and Kelling’s work? Meh.
Malcolm Gladwell describes why most successful Canadian hockey players were born in January, February, and March and how Bill Gates became a software mogul. Canadian junior hockey leagues select the best players from an early age, give those kids extra training and support, and guide them to the more advanced national levels. A nine year old who was born in January is generally a lot bigger and more capable than a nine year old who was born in December of the same year… Bill Gates wasn’t merely radically smarter than everyone else when it came to computer programming. He had a massive head start in all sorts of ways by virtue of his birth and special access to the best equipment. Yes, Gates was clever and driven. But his talent and ambition probably couldn’t have come to fruition in a less fertile environment. Gladwell’s point is that what often appears random or the result of personal accomplishment is really a hidden institutional bias or external subsidy.
Nassim Taleb loves to explore the moments of phase change. Water can be a solid, a liquid, or a gas depending on temperature. What looks like a permanent condition at thirty one degrees can change very quickly at thirty three. So it is with culture, economics, and politics. Things coast along for a very long time until suddenly they don’t. Institutions, by their very nature, are based on predicability, stasis, and repetition of the established order. But external reality tends to intervene with unpleasant consequences. Taleb promotes a culture of “antifragility” whereby constant adaptation and course corrections allow things to become stronger after each temporary setback.
The truth is that institutions are fundamentally incapable of taking a theory of any kind and using it to self reform in a meaningful way. All the internal incentives, procedures, and negative consequences of rocking the boat are ruthlessly maintained. Instead, institutions become increasingly brittle, unresponsive, and irrelevant until they fail and are replaced by something new. Sometimes the new thing is better (until it too becomes bloated and pointless.) Sometimes the new thing is worse from the get go. A lot depends on the ambient temperature of the day.
What fascinates me is how the new institutions inevitably revert to the old baseline over time. The Russian Czar was overthrown by communists. The liberated peasants then had to manage with rulers like Stalin. When communism collapsed there was a brief reshuffling until Russia stabilized around Putin. Russia consistently reverts to strong man leadership. In the same way the United States has a deeply embedded culture of racism and economic inequality. Every effort that’s made to correct the situation is overwhelmed by work-arounds that result in similar conditions. Do things change over time? Yes. But they also stay the same.
Society experiences pendulum swings from one steady state to another with bumpy transitions along the way. At one time there was a massive exodus from small farm towns to big industrial cities. There was nothing anyone could have done to prevent the depopulation of the countryside in the face of that massive economic and technological shift. Then the cities emptied out in a rush to suburbia. All the urban renewal programs ever dreamed up were impotent in the face of the relentless vacuum that was created in inner cities. If anything they made things worse. Now we’re seeing the pendulum pull away from many of the aging low grade financially insolvent suburban landscapes back to gentrifying urban centers. Adding bicycle lanes to the sides of eight lane arterials and dead strip malls is a complete waste of time. These places are toast. And so it goes.