Computers vs. the Peter Principle

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The Peter
Principle vies with Parkinson’s Law as one of the two most fundamental
laws of bureaucracy. Parkinson’s Law was first articulated in
public in 1955:

expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

C. Northcote
Parkinson was a professional historian with the famous dry wit
that was once common to the British upper class. He turned an
article in The Economist into a book, Parkinson’s
, in 1957. He later offered a corollary: "Expenditure
rises to meet income."

The Peter
Principle was first made public in Jan. 1967, in an article in
Esquire. This principle announces:

a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence."

Peter was a specialist in the area of hierarchical incompetence.
He was a professor of education.

Here is his
thesis. People get promoted in a hierarchy for as long as they
display competence on the job. At some point, however, everyone
hits his ceiling of competence. But neither he nor his employer
recognizes that this is his top. So, he is given one additional
promotion. At that point, he has risen to his level of incompetence.
He will cease receiving any further promotions.

It is a plausible
theory, but it has a conceptual flaw. I wrote to Prof. Peter on
January 24, 1967, in an attempt to help him make his theory more
rigorous. I began my letter with praise — an old Dale Carnegie

your perspective is a basic part of the minds of the American
ethos, however vague the conception is in the minds of the citizenry.
They have sensed the truth of your hypothesis, and their basic
agreement with you is expressed in that strange American phenomenon
which I like to call infracaninophilia: affection for
the underdog. Most Americans cheer for the underdog, knowing
full well that the man on top is basically incompetent and inferior.
"We’re number two," a major car rental firm announces,
thus demonstrating to the public that the opposition’s product
is inferior. . . .

your theory needs a certain modification. You are assuming,
for one thing, the impossibility of hierarchical regression.
This is undoubtedly the case in today’s world — tenure
being what it is in so many walks of life. However, an administrator
invariably has the option of upgrading a particular incompetent
within the hierarchy. This is especially true in the civil service
jobs. In this case, the superior recommends the incompetent
to a higher office within the system, but one which has little
direct contact with the first. You shove the incompetents upstairs
and out of your hair. Conversely, you fail to recommend the
best men for promotion; this keeps them within your own branch
of the bureaucracy. In other words, given the Peter Hypothesis,
the level of incompetence is in inverse proportion to the bureaucrat’s
official record, plus or minus 3.7%. Thus, the worst possible
men get to the top fastest.

Dr. Peter
wrote back on February 7, asking for clarification.

Is infracaninophilia
(love of the underdog) the same as hypercaninophobia (fear of
the top dog)? Your concept of hierarchical regression indicates
that you have a firm grasp of the fundamentals of hierarcheology.
I trust that the book will deal more completely with this under
lateral promotions, being kicked upstairs, and pseudo promotions
(our language in the book is not always that crude).

If I replied,
I did not save a carbon copy of my letter. Unquestionably, Dr.
Peter did understand my observations. On page 68 of The
Peter Principle
(William Morrow, 1969), he refers to hypercaninophobia
(top dog fear) and the Hypercaninophobia Complex (fear that the
underdog may become top dog). He also includes a section, "Hierarchical
Regression" (pp. 152—55), and another, "Hierarchical
Regression Stopped!" (pp. 164—65).

I wish I
could take full credit for "infracaninophilia," but
the term was first coined by my friend Hans Kraepelin. However,
my concept of "hierarchical regression" is original.

enough, after Dr. Peter’s book was published, Dr. Parkinson wrote
a scathing and not-funny review of it — as I recall, in the
Sunday magazine of The Los Angeles Times. I suspect that
he saw Dr. Peter as infringing on his turf.

In the
section on hierarchical regression, Dr. Peter wrote:

One [school]
administrator told me: "I wish I could pass all the dull
pupils and fail the bright ones: that would raise standards
and grades would improve. This hoarding of dull students lowers
the standard by reducing the average achievement in my school."

Peter recognized,
as did the administrator, that this extreme policy would not be
tolerated by the public.

So, to
avoid the accumulation of incompetents, administrators have
evolved the plan of promoting everyone, the incompetent as well
as the competent. They find psychological justification for
this policy by saying that it spares students the painful experience
of failure.

The problem
is this: every day, you and I must deal with the results of this
comprehensive policy. So must every employer. Students who stay
in high school for four years probably graduate. But they cannot
all read.


Some things
of enormous cultural importance take place under our noses, unseen.
Practices change the way we live and work, yet we pay no attention.

When was
the last time you paid close attention to the keys on a cash register
at a fast food restaurant? The keys are no longer exclusively
numerical. They are mostly graphic. On the keys, there are tiny
images of the items in the menu. The clerk taps keys, one by one,
as you place your order.

The cash
register computes the bill. Then you hand the clerk some money.
The clerk now enters the total of the money that you handed over.
For this entry, there are numeric keys. The machine subtracts
your bill from the total money paid. The clerk hands you some
paper money change, and coins roll down the chute.

clerks can no longer compute change.

No one teaches
them what my boss taught me at age 14. When someone handed me
$5 to pay for a 93-cent single by Elvis, I counted back "94,
95" (pennies), "$1" (a nickel), and then doled
out "$2, $3, $4, $5." Easy. It could be learned in one

No longer.


Chinese is
an ideographic language. It uses representations of pictures for
words and ideas instead of a phonics-based alphabet. This made
sense politically for a huge nation that was divided into many
provinces, whose spoken dialects were so different as to be unintelligible
to outsiders. The written language, being ideographic, was consistent
throughout the nation. The emperor’s bureaucrats could communicate
with each other by sending letters. The emperor ran the postal
service, had spies monitoring letters, and could find anyone in
the country by means of the postal network and regional censuses.
Students had to learn the written language in order to enter the

In contrast,
the ancient Near East and classical civilization used alphabetical
scripts. If you learned the language and the sounds of the letters
of the regional alphabet, you could communicate through writing.

The look-say
method of reading, introduced in the 1920s by Columbia Teachers
College, was the educators’ way of breaking the power of the alphabet.
This method trained children to recognize whole words. This was
a step toward Chinese/Asian education, where memorization of thousands
of symbols is vital for literacy because of the absence of an
alphabet. The educators’ trinity of Dick, Jane, and Spot were
supposed to redeem youthful Americans from the tyranny of phonics.
The trinity’s task was to turn readers into memorizers, thinkers
into repeaters. Ultimately, it was designed to turn entrepreneurs
into bureaucrats. It would re-make pupils into the image of a
tenured professor of education.

The result
was a steady decline of literacy that continues to our day.

I was an
early victim of that experiment. In first grade and second grade,
I was subjected to Dick, Jane, and Spot. But in third grade, I
had an elderly teacher of the old school who taught us phonics.
That was when I learned to read well.

I can recall
only one incident in kindergarten. The teacher came by and showed
us two papers to color, one of Dick and one of Jane. She asked:
"Which one would you like to color?" My answer, even
today, I regard as one of the foundational turning points in my
academic career: "Neither."

She told
me I had to do one or the other. Not suffering from gender disorientation,
I chose Dick. I picked up a red crayon and scribbled as fast as
I could across Dick’s image. Color inside the lines? Not me. I
handed the completed assignment back to her before she had finished
handing out more than a couple of papers to the next kids at my
table. I like to think that I handed it back immediately, but
I’m not sure I did.

I decided
that day that coloring inside the lines was at most a useful academic
ploy, never a matter of principle. The educational system never
came close to getting me again.

John Taylor
Gatto, the maverick who won "Teacher of the Year" in
New York City three times and once for the whole state, has described
this methodological transition in his crucial book — free
and on-line — The
Underground History of American Education
. In 1991, Gatto
quit the public schools in disgust, admitted publicly that he
had wasted his tax-salaried career, and has worked ever since
to bring back education through home schooling. Here
is his version of the story of look-say methodology.

1930, the Dick and Jane Pre-Primer taught 68 sign words in 39
pages of story text, with an illustration per page, a total
of 565 words — and a Teacher’s Guidebook of 87 pages. In
1951, the same book was expanded to 172 pages with 184 illustrations,
a total of 2,603 words — and a Guidebook of 182 pages to
teach a sight vocabulary of only 58 words!" Without admitting
any disorder, the publisher was protecting itself from this
system, and the general public, without quite knowing why, was
beginning to look at its schools with unease.

By 1951,
entire public school systems were bailing out on phonics and
jumping on the sight-reading bandwagon. Out of the growing number
of reading derelicts poised to begin tearing the schools apart
which tormented them, a giant remedial reading industry was
spawned, a new industry completely in the hands of the very
universities who had with one hand written the new basal readers,
and with the other taught a generation of new teachers about
the wonders of the whole-word method.

Mute evidence
that Scott Foresman [the publisher] wasn’t just laughing all
the way to the bank, but was actively trying to protect its
nest egg in Dick and Jane, was its canny multiplication of words
intended to be learned. In 1930, the word look was repeated
8 times; in 1951, 110 times; in the earlier version oh repeats
12 times, in the later 138 times; in the first, see gets 27
repetitions, and in the second, 176.

The legendary
children’s book author, Dr. Seuss, creator of a string of best-sellers
using a controlled "scientific" vocabulary supplied
by the publisher, demonstrated his own awareness of the mindlessness
of all this in an interview he gave in 1981:

I did
it for a textbook house and they sent me a word list. That
was due to the Dewey revolt in the twenties, in which they
threw out phonics reading and went to a word recognition as
if you’re reading a Chinese pictograph instead of blending
sounds or different letters. I think killing phonics was one
of the greatest causes of illiteracy in the country.

they had it all worked out that a healthy child at the age
of four can only learn so many words in a week. So there were
two hundred and twenty-three words to use in this book. I
read the list three times and I almost went out of my head.
I said, "I’ll read it once more and if I can find two
words that rhyme, that’ll be the title of my book." I
found "cat" and "hat" and said, the title
of my book will be The
Cat in the Hat


cash registers make possible fast food restaurants. Bar codes
make possible real-time re-ordering of inventory at Wal-Mart.
Check-out lines move faster, so profits per sale fall. Things
get cheaper.

You can order
a plane ticket on Expedia or any of dozens other travel sites.
Ticket prices keep getting lower, despite rising fuel costs. These
sites spread information regarding the existence of low fares.
But my wife hit a brick wall recently while trying to schedule
a trip to California with frequent flyer miles. She wanted the
cheapest flight. She had to make the reservation 21 days in advance.
She asked the girl on the phone if the 21 days started today or
tomorrow. "Tomorrow," she was told. Wrong. So, she had
to pay an extra $50 the next day.

Here is North’s
law of the telephone tree. Violate it at your own risk.

you reach anyone by way of a computerized phone tree system
— "Press 1, press 2, press 3" — that person
does not earn more than $8 an hour."

With India
coming on-line, the person may not make over $3 an hour.

Your ability
to make a correct decision becomes dependent on someone whose
career is hanging high up in a phone tree.

The Peter
Principle is relentless. That person may already have reached
his/her level of incompetence. So, when you ask a question, you
must assume that this person is not sure of the answer. If it
is a crucial question, assume that the person is wrong. If yours
is a time-sensitive matter, and you are told that you have until
tomorrow to finalize your arrangements, assume that you have until
midnight today, your time.

Like the
British Navy, a computerized system is designed by geniuses to
be run by morons. Computerized systems have driven down the price
of just about everything over the last generation. But, from time
to time, a system cannot automatically solve your problem. A telephone
representative must solve it.

At that point,
you are at the mercy of a probable moron.

In any system,
20% of the people are highly competent — pre-promotion —
10% are fairly competent, 40% are competent, 10% are barely competent,
and 20% are incompetent.

The odds
are against you — 4 to 1 — that the person you have
just reached through the phone tree is highly competent.

Make your
plans accordingly.


The spread
of computer technology is having its civilization-changing effects
because it empowers barely functional people to perform adequately
most of the time. Computerized systems restrict these employees’
ability to demonstrate their true level of incompetence.

morons, derelicts, and the drug addicted are reduced to non-computerized
work, which means low-level jobs or the unemployment line, unless
they become rock stars.

have been described as incredibly fast morons — digital idiot
savants. This, they are. Software makes them appear to be smart.
Software that enables the barely functional to perform tasks far
above their personal level of incompetence is transforming the

This is not
a new phenomenon. It is the history of capital: tools
that enable us to expand our productivity. But computer technology
has vastly expanded the power of tools by reducing the intelligence
required to use them. Monkey tap, monkey do.

A college
drop-out named Gates and a college drop-out named Dell became
multibillionaires by enabling high school graduates who should
have flunked out to perform well enough to meet consumer demand
at an ever-lower price. As the tax-funded educational system declines,
computer software improves.

This fact
does not solve our problem at the far end of a high branch on
some telephone tree.

17, 2004

North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
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