In other words, our economy and society have been optimized for failure.
If we look at the fragility and instability of essential systems, it’s clear that 2022 will be the year of breakdown. Let’s start by reviewing how systems break down, a process I’ve simplified into the graphic below.
1. Regardless of whether it was planned or not, all systems are optimized to process specific inputs to generate specific outputs. Each system is pared down to maximize efficiency as the means to maximize profits. This efficiency in service of maximizing profits requires trade-offs that only become visible when some key part of the system fails.
The system that ships containers around the world offers a useful example. Shipping containers revolutionized shipping and reduced costs by commoditizing containers (all standard sizes), container ships (specifically designed to carry thousands of containers and container ports with specifically designed cranes, docks and truck lanes / queueing.
It’s possible to load a container on some other craft with a jury-rigged crane, but the efficiency of that is essentially a fraction of the optimized system: the jury-rigged crane will only be able to load a handful of containers, the ship will only be able to carry a few containers, and the likelihood of the containers shifting increases.
The infrastructure and labor are both highly specialized. Calling out the National Guard to speed up container offloading is a useless gesture unless the Guard can deliver more cranes and experienced operators.
The greater the optimization, the greater the fragility as the breaking of any one link brings the entire system to a halt. Throwing in equipment and labor that the system isn’t designed to use will fail.
Virtually every essential system has been stripped of redundancy, resilience, reserves and adaptability as the means to fully optimize inputs, processes and outputs. The system works well if every link in the dependency chain is working perfectly. Should one link go down, the entire system goes down.
2. Cost-cutting has stripped systems of back-up staffing and expertise. Full-time workers have been replaced by gig workjers, contract workers, part-time staff on call, etc. Experienced staff cost too much so they’ve been let go as well, so there is no depth in numbers or knowledge.
3. Management is top-heavy with MBAs and bean-counters with little pragmatic experience or knowledge of the systems they’re managing. Management is optimized to advance those who can generate big profits, not those with experiential skills needed to meet crises in real-world dependency chains, production, breakdowns, etc. So when the system comes apart, managers simply don’t have the knowledge or skills to solve real-world problems.
The skills that are most desirable when everything is running smoothly are useless in crisis. Who do you want to go into combat with, the continuously promoted officer who won high marks for filing reports on time or the officer with actual combat experience who got passed over for promotion because he/she didn’t devote the proper attention to paperwork, meetings, virtue-signaling and derriere-kissing?
Unfortunately the vast majority of our systems are managed by people who lack the long experience and hands-on skills needed to meet cascading crises.