Take a tour of North Korea or the former Soviet Union and you will encounter massive structures and tremendous projects, epic in scope which are nevertheless complete failures. North Korea has been building a 105 story hotel since 1987. Even if it ever gets finished, there aren't any people to stay in it. China and the USSR specialized in massive and massively disastrous dam construction projects. The Banqiao Dam failure alone killed almost 200,000 people. That's more than every natural disaster in American history combined.
What went wrong? There was one easy clue. Altogether Soviet farmers used less than 5 percent of the land for private farming, they produced a third of the agricultural produce. Meanwhile the massive system of collectivization at the heart of Communism couldn't even feed its own people. But all the while agricultural officials went on reporting record harvests each year.
The system was completely broken but only the people at the bottom had any inkling why. And there was no way for them to communicate that up the chain of command. Even if they had been able to, their only reward would have been a jail sentence. Those at the top could not concede that the system was broken, let alone why. Instead they put the country deeper into debt to pay for the consequences of their disastrous economic program.
This is not just history. It's the present. It's us.
Think about a country with a 15 trillion dollar debt whose leaders and media insist that everything is going swimmingly. A government which goes into debt for grandiose projects every year-- and none of them ever amount to anything. A new year and a new trillion dollar budget, packed full of projects that are dead ends. Grand ideas that make the politicians feel good about themselves, but can never work. We beat the Soviet Union-- but these days we look a lot like it. A repressive bureaucracy, an out of touch political class, mounting debt, failing industries and an angry populace caught between government benefits and enforced poverty.
North Korea has been building a 105 story hotel since 1987-- and we still haven't even managed to construct a much smaller replacement for the World Trade Center. But during the Great Depression, New York city and state governments built the Empire State Building in a single year from blueprints that were done in two weeks. Why can't do we do in 2011 what we did in 1931? How is it that 80 years later, with space age technology, computer modeling and instantaneous data access-- we're less competent than our ancestors were?
What changed is our society. We have gone from a pragmatic goal-oriented society to a political society governed by ideology. The emphasis has shifted from the results, to how you get them. 90 percent of the effort is directed at the methodology and 10 percent at actually getting it done. Everything is politicized and nothing is accomplished. A project used to begin with a vision and end with a structure. Today it begins with diversity and ends with a bailout.
We're losing our competence, the same way that the Russians lost theirs. The same way that people living under every ideological tyranny does.
A pragmatic society sets goals and relies on methodologies that are based on the real world. An ideological society however develops its goals and methodologies in relation to its ideology. Imagine two people who are expected to fix a car. Both are given a manual. The pragmatist's manual has the schematics of an internal combustion engine. The ideologue's manual is a thousand pages and explores the political implications of the internal combustion engine. After a few hours the pragmatist drives away and the ideologue decides that the car should stay broken until someone designs an ideal engine with no negative political implications. Scale this up, and it's how we do everything today.
A Chinese engineer during the 60's and 70's was expected to use Mao's Little Red Book to develop his methodology. A Soviet scientist was supposed to do his research based on general principles laid out by political appointees. There was no reality testing. When ideology finally collided with reality, it was either hushed up or blamed on foreign spies. The United States stayed ahead because its society was less shielded from reality testing. Grandiose failures could still happen, but they were the fault of individuals or groups-- not of the central ideology. When the Soviet Union finally became big enough to fail-- it collapsed. The United States kept on going. But now we're caught in the collapse of a liberal ideology that has overtaken the country.
Ideology creates a reality gap as its proponents try to use it as a guideline for getting things done. Some ideologies have bigger reality gaps than others. The more utopian an ideology is-- the more the gap yawns. As the gap increases, the proponents go down the rabbit hole and lose touch with reality. They don't go insane, what they do is begin treating the real world like a puzzle they can solve if they can just get all the pieces to fit. That mindset makes them extremely manipulative and ruthless in pursuit of their goals, but absolutely incapable of understanding why those goals fail.
When given power, they address every setback by trying to expand their sphere of control. If a welfare program is bankrupted by high food prices, then they impose price controls, if the supply of food dries up, they nationalize the agricultural sector, if the harvests fail then they collectivize farmers. Each failure is blamed on outside factors which they strive to control. Once they control all the major internal factors, then they settle down into a vast bureaucracy in which officials report only good news up the ladder. That way there may be no food, but the reports going to the top say that food is plentiful. Eventually hunger or food riots set in and the state collapses.
Policy detached from reality is guaranteed failure. Ideological policies are certain to fail in the long run, and ideological tyrannies insulate themselves from knowledge of those failures. Measuring all success or failure only in light of compliance with the tenets of the ideology makes corrections very hard to apply. How do you fix a problem with broken tools? You can't. Politicization creates a broken methodology. Ideological methods used to fix problems create more problems-- because the real problem is the ideology.
We don't lack abilities or resources. The damage is cultural. A society overseen by an elite that believes "Everything is Political", that the ideological compliance of a product or a deed is of primary concern, is hobbled by that way of thinking. An ideological society bleeds wasted energy. Its rulers are more concerned that everyone only do things their way, than that anything actually get done. Multiple overlays of regulations and procedures breed apathy, corruption and defeatism. People and businesses either go rogue or stop trying to anything at all and just hold their hand out and get on the dole.
These conditions create a large number of human sheep and a growing number of human wolves. The society implodes, along with whatever law and order it provided, and the wolves take over. From Utopia to the Jungle in one easy step. Peel away the propaganda and a surprising number of our enemies look exactly like this. And we're going down the same road. Clinton and Obama are low marks in American history. What follows after them may be worse.
We are at a dangerous intersection now, committed to a course we cannot sustain in any way, shape or form-- but one we also cannot break from politically. The elites have warped everything from economics to foreign policy into unreal forms to sustain the illusion of momentum. We are crashing, but they pretend that we are soaring to the skies. The ability to communicate their peril to the general public and devise workable solutions will determine whether we will remain strapped in our seats during the crash or whether we will learn to fly again. Everything from the economy to the Islamic threat hinges on being able to communicate the peril to the public so that the ideological blinders fall away and we become a pragmatic society again, capable of making the decisions we need to survive.