Years ago I wrote about institutions https://mikevargamusings.com/2016/05/01/institutions/
In the context of finding value in these institutions, of seeing them as a tool by which we can do great good or terrible evil. At the time I wrote that blog, I was urging that we have an obligation to look at institutions in the context of what they are accomplishing, their role in history, their purpose and use information available to us to have reasoned debate and to make the tools of institutions work for us.
As of late, I’ve been thinking about the distrust of institutions some of it valid some of it crazy, of the rise of alternative ways of thinking, and even a retrenching to the values we have and should hold dear. Some might call the retrenching to values as conservatism. Others would endorse a tear it down approach, in the name of Progressive Reform. Both are fraught with problems as a generic approach. I think there is something in between. As I started to write about this, I realized this would be a multi-part series. Over the next week or more, I will express my thoughts on the following:
- What corrupts our institutions over time, and what are the implications?
- The rise of “conspiratorial” thinking and how we should address this?
- The rise of “woke” thinking and “elitism” and how we should address this?
- The advantage of rule of law and free press, and journalism.
- The next generation, educated, unchained, and ethical… Our hope!
What corrupts our institutions over time, and what are the implications?
The source of our discontent is the corruption of purpose by our institutions. By institution, I mean every organization that provides value to people. This includes government, healthcare, education, religious institutions, and any business with more than a few employees. Regardless of their intended purpose, they may become corrupted in this purpose, and by this, I mean they no longer successfully deliver the services we expect and/or are fair to their constituents, and employees. In essence the bureaucracy is failing in its established purpose.
I believe there are three ways that organizations lose their way. One, which is the most important to consider is the relentless need to be in, and stay in power; two, the constraint of rules that manage behavior but create a moribund bureaucracy in the name of controlling risk; and three, shortcuts to judgement in order to drive efficiency.
At some point all institutions deal with threats from the inside, or from the outside. Consider, democracy and capitalism; much has been written about the threats from other forms of government, fascism, and communism. Our democracy was recently threatened during the 6 January insurrection, this was an autocratic existential threat to democracy. One would think it vitally important to address, yet for the sake of retaining power one party is willing to ignore the threat and embrace a great lie. This is a not so subtle example of power corrupting purpose.
In business there are many threats of new competition, or a new technology, or new regulations (consider the threat of gun controls to the gun industry)… in medicine, new medical technology, or possibly illegal activity by members of the organization, as in the Catholic Church pedophile scandal.
Almost all institutions will seek to protect themselves from external threats. More importantly every leader will be tempted to use all means at their disposal to retain power. They justifying their hold on power for the good of the institutions. The greater the threats, the greater the risk of an organization being driven by the personality of the leader. She or he will find it necessary to protect their power.
Leaders will see threats to their power as something to put-down immediately. Attacking the whistleblower, or the “perceived” enemy or competition. It is a natural progression of highly driven and competitive individuals to demonize the threat and to rally the troops against the evilness of the threat. In order to keep power and to control the organization, especially over those that may start questioning if the king is wearing clothes, the leader battles within and without the organization. Eventually they see themselves as infallible. They’ll fight to retain power, for the good of the institution, when it is really for their own benefit (power) that they come to this wretched state. Good institutions root this out and force a change before it becomes a cancer that eats at the original purpose of the institution. Core values can be recovered by those that remember the purpose, that believe in the purpose and are willing to fight the good fight.
Over time, many organizations deal with problems within the organization by creating more rules, more oversight, and as a result more bureaucracy. Rather than deal with inadequate performance directly, they build more barriers to keep people aligned with the operation of the business. Every time there is a failure another rule, or oversight or other constraint is added. Over time this becomes all burdening.
One can see oversight as valuable in avoiding the corruption of purpose that can destroy an institution. However, it would be better to educate, train, develop people and give them tools to be successful within the charter of the institution and its mission and minimize oversight and approvals. Moribund bureaucracy is one that can no longer perform its mission, can no longer be true to its purpose, because it is too busy with infighting, too busy with checking each other, and slowing the process. The US Senate and Congress at the time of this writing is more interested in checking the other party and the Executive branch than they are in serving the American people. The filibuster had it purpose but is overused today to just say no. Healthcare is more about avoiding liability and avoiding extensive payouts through checks and double checks than ensuring the health of patients… I know, I just went through the process of trying to buy insurance on the market. And I’ve seen this in business, when business cannot get out of its own way to serve customers. They sometimes spend more energy serving their internal checks and balances than the customer, and then they are failing their shareholders and employees as well.
This might seem like a strange one, but I’ve noticed that for the sake of efficiency, institutions have started using “labeling” as a shortcut. Labeling can be something as simple as separating high risk and low risk patients, customers, suppliers, etc. It can be labeling a patient with a diagnosis that cannot be undone. If for example you get a diagnosis of cancer, and it turns out to be a less stage, or not cancer at all, insurance could be a problem in the future. If your child is labeled as a slow learner, what prospects do you have to change this and over what time and what is lost, if you later learn she or he has a hearing or vision deficit?
If you are labeled as a risk because of identity theft, you may not be able to get a loan through no fault of your own. And in the worst case, if you are labeled as living in a high-risk zone (such as a minority community) you may find yourself paying more for a home loan or having your house appraised lower than is justified. Labeling for the sake of efficiency is a way to undermine the purpose of an institution and can destroy value and destroy people.
Each of these means of corrupting the purpose of an institution, has the effect of damaging people’s faith in institutions. Furthermore these failures (especially leadership – personality cult) can result in institutions becoming a tool of destruction and damage if they are not checked. Understanding what has happened to an institution whether it be Leadership failure, Bureaucracy, or Labeling, is necessary to understand our reaction to institutions and how to make them once again serve our purpose. To be the tool they were intended to be.
This was originally going to be two parts of the 6-part series, but I felt in necessary to combine the two thoughts in this writing. The more I think of it, they have a lot to do with each other, each feeding the other, however this blog is longer than usual.
In the previous blog, I talked about how institutions fail, how threats may begat power and control issues, how bureaucracy can become bloated with the primary goal of protecting and continuing the institution, and how efficiency short cuts lead to labeling and the corruption of the mission of institutions. Failures lead to distrust of institutions. Government is the largest institution in our country, and distrust of government is at an all-time high. As it has failed often in its mission (sometimes spectacularly), it retracts into a protectionist mentality, causing further failures. And so, distrust grows. Furthermore, as the world gets more complicated, and sources of information become more abundant, we have become less adapt at understanding complexity and at reasoned thinking about the information available. Also, why go to multiple sources if we can be spoon fed by one news outlet that keeps giving us what we crave… opinion reigning over facts and news.
Crack pots and Conspiracies have always been a part of our system since the beginning of our country. But now anyone with an idea can go viral with the thought if it is just wild enough. P.T. Barnum was credited with the saying, “there’s a sucker born every minute” but that’s just a conspiracy theory… ?
Once truth is marginalized, as it has over the last few decades to protect the institutions of a political party, of government, of a news outlet, or of educational, or religious institution, then it leaves the door open to expansive, and more wild conspiracies, as many seek an alternate explanation about why their institutions are failing them, or more probably why they are failing. They then become part of the failure. Change is a constant, but change can be confusing. In our busy world, do we seek to resolve conflicting ideas, or is it easier to align ourselves with the easy path of agreeing to the crowd we are around? Conspiracies feed on themselves and each other. Ignorance of facts, lack of reason, and a little bit of salacious appeal to our fears, and they can explode. Consider the big lie, that Trump won the election and it was being stolen by Biden and the Democrats. There are no supporting facts and all judicial cases of fraud, some 60 or more, have been dismissed, yet the appeal of the lie has found some 30 million people. It rings true to them because they believe the Democrats are somehow capable of stealing an election across multiple states by getting tens of thousands of dead, or illegal voters, to vote. Or change the votes in a system that is operating in traditionally Republican States. The salacious part is that these, in the mind of the conspirators, are somehow brilliant operators, able to mislead thousands and to trick the Republican officials in several states. So, they then must believe that their own party participants are incompetent and easily duped when it comes to the Presidential election, but are brilliant participants in wining at the local and congressional level… a level of reasoning that is not quite understood.
I’m not suggesting any kind of limit of intelligence on the part of 30 million people. I’m suggesting that believing in “The Lie” is easier than accepting that the country is changing, that the demographics, the desire for equity of opportunity is more important than maintaining the image of a way of life were races didn’t mix, where one way of worshiping was prevalent, where the family was always mom and dad, not mom and mom, or dad and dad. And most importantly that the government was not to be trusted and we need our guns to defend against a government gone wrong. Distrust of government as an institution, followed by distrust of “Liberal-Elitist” news organizations, and then the demographic changes (read immigration and birth rates) make this all possible. They just needed a leader to help galvanize this thinking, and it came in the form of a con-man. Seriously, there is a sucker born every minute.
Now that is not to say that the other side got it all right. It is equally intellectually lazy and conspiratorial to dismiss 30 Million people, more over 70 Million voters as delusional. This is where liberal elitism would call the delusion of millions as a “social psychosis”… (an excellent article in Psychology Today, by Douglas LaBier, A Growing “Social Psychosis” Clashes With Serving The Common Good : https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-new-resilience/201010/growing-social-psychosis-clashes-serving-the-common-good#:~:text=I%20use%20the%20term%20%22social,can%20be%20hard%20to%20recognize.)
A quote from the article:
“I use the term “social psychosis” because a psychosis is a mental state in which a person shows a diminished or loss of a sense of reality. It typically includes delusions and diminished capacity to function effectively in daily life. When delusions are shared on a mass scale, they can be hard to recognize. In fact, individuals who share the mass delusion may not be psychotic, themselves; what they embrace, is.”
However, elitism can be an enormous part of the problem. Dismissing the conspiracies without understanding the underlying issues that lead to the distrust of institutions and even further, the distrust of science and data, will result in an exacerbation of the division. A disconnect from reasoned thought and conversation on both sides through dismissive language (Labeling) is exactly what those that benefit from the con would continue to seek. Consider those in power, who continued lie about the 2020 election and the 1/6 Insurrection, they do so because it is a source of power, and money. Division ensures their own relevance.
Both sides of the divide, are living and operating on the basis of delusions on where this country is going as well as what is holding it back.
A source of the problem I believe is the distrust of Institutions on both sides, and a distrust of each other. Recovery lies in the strength of our rule of law in this country, and our youth. The next generation who are willing to break down and change our institutions, and reconsider the biases that separate us from ourselves.
I was thinking the other day that the difference we enjoy as a country, vis-à-vis so many failed states, is the rule of law which is largely uncorrupted, and a free press, which we hold in high enough regard, to not thwart its capability to hold institutions accountable. Yes, news outlets have become increasing opinion dominant, and can be a part of the conspiratorial problems we see, but there are many outlets still providing news, and presenting alternative opinions. We, as a people, have the opportunity to research and understand issues, and our institutions from many viewpoints. As individuals we should be advocates for multiple outlets of information. Encourage others to seek additional points of view, for then, maybe we can keep conspiracies in check, and have better insight to the functions of our institutions.
Our justice system works for us. Certainly, there are biases built-in to the system, but fairness is checked through our free press. These two institutions make us better than we could be otherwise. For as we’ve established institutions can and will be corrupted.
The challenge of the 2020 election in court cases that presented no real evidence of fraud were repeatedly thrown out in every case, sometimes by judges that had been appointed by the Trump administration. The justice system, when it came to upholding the rule of law, was a bedrock institution in our country. This stability protects our rights. Ensuring that laws that have been passed by our legally elected representatives are upheld, as well as, ensuring that our constitutional rights are respected.
A free press keeps us aware of excesses or failures of institutions; and the judicial system, holds the institutions and its leaders to account. Clearly the judicial system, and the press are institutions, but they are institutions with sufficient fragmentation and diversity to keep from being corrupted from the top down for power, they operate on traditions that keep them from being overcome by bureaucracy. Although subject to the efficiency errors of labeling, they are sufficiently dedicated to their mission of justice, and informing (journalistic integrity) that they have survived intact despite attempts to corrupt them.
A new generation is emerging. I see it everywhere, and I think it is amazing, and it gives me hope that we have protected our systems and institutions well enough that they may just be repaired and made better by this next generation.
In the November election, the young people I know were more involved, and more insistent that their voice be heard than I’ve seen since the 1970’s. In the last several decades, as young people get to the point of career decisions, family decisions and the new stresses on finances, they would find little time for politics, little time for considering the impact institutions have on their lives.
However, I’ve noticed a new awakening. Expanded understanding. This next generation is much more highly educated thanks to an explosion in college education. Partly due to student loans, and a more technically demanding society and job market. But none-the-less the number of people with some college versus no-college has dramatically increased. College is not just about education, but also diversity. Exposure to more people and more ideas than prior generations. In the past, people grew up and lived within a 20-mile radius of home. This was pretty much a norm, and except for either forced migrations or military service, most people had limited exposure to other social environments. It is no longer.
If you want further anecdotal evidence, consider the emergence of new thinking and acceptance of alternative family structures. Yes, the institution of the family. Today on television shows, and on all sort of advertising, notice the variation in family structure. Capitalism show’s us what people are interested in and what is acceptable, more so than any other indicator. Interracial families, homosexuality, and diverse living arrangements are prevalent and becoming more prevalent. This is not the Leave It to Beaver generation.
This generation is re-examining the core constructs of our institutions. It is challenging to many of us, to consider the way they have unchained their thinking. They are resetting the norms. The institution of church has not kept up with them, and yet they have great faith in each other, in humanity, and they are spiritual. They are ethical and they have reverence for the Earth and all people. They’ve chosen to turn upside down our traditional notions of how things are done. They are more interested in ensuring each other’s space, and happiness, than restricting each other into norms of prior generations. They are breaking our social fabrics and repairing in ways that are far more colorful and textual. This generation is not weighted by the institutions that dominated their parents and grandparents’ lives, and they are far less judgemental.
Prior generations were asked to ignore the decay and corruption for sake of the power of institutions. I like this new generation, I like this generation’s learned skepticism and their way of gaining wisdom. Our world is in good hands. They will come back to religion, all people do, but in their own way, and they will make it better than what we’ve known.
Furthermore, I suspect this generation will insist that their government institutions, their healthcare, and their educational institutions will do the same. It will take time, but it will happen. They will remake these institutions just as they are remaking our social world. As long as we give them space, by maintaining our justice system and our free press, they will find a way. They will redefine our world to make it what they want to leave for the generations that follow. The white supremacist movement, the authoritarian biases of extreme right-wing nationalists will fight this, and will do so on the basis of cultural and social issues. This makes them very dangerous. For this reason, we must support our free press and rules of law. We must give space for this next generation to survive the last gasps of intolerance and racism.
We must hold institutions accountable to their mission and purpose, and correct corruption where we find it. This next generation will then have the space to make the world a better place.
I have great hope in the future.