Incompetence is the norm

People have been justly anguished by the recent gross mishandling of the Ebola patients in Texas and Spain and the risible lapse in security at the White House. The conventional wisdom is that these demonstrations of incompetence are a recent phenomenon signifying a breakdown in governmental competence. However, I think that incompetence has always been the norm; any semblance of competence in the past is due mostly to luck and the fact that people do not exploit incompetent governance because of a general tendency towards docile cooperativity (as well as incompetence of bad actors). In many ways, it is quite amazing at how reliably citizens of the US and other OECD members respect traffic laws, pay their bills and service their debts on time. This is a huge boon to an economy since excessive resources do not need to be spent on enforcing rules. This does not hold in some if not many developing nations where corruption is a major problem (c.f. this op-ed in the Times today). In fact, it is still an evolutionary puzzle as to why agents cooperate for the benefit of the group even though it is an advantage for an individual to defect. Cooperativity is also not likely to be all genetic since immigrants tend to follow the social norm of their adopted country, although there could be a self-selection effect here. However, the social pressure to cooperate could evaporate quickly if there is the perception of the lack of enforcement as evidenced by looting following natural disasters or the abundance of insider trading in the finance industry. Perhaps, as suggested by the work of Karl Sigmund and other evolutionary theorists, cooperativity is a transient phenomenon and will eventually be replaced by the evolutionarily more stable state of noncooperativity. In that sense, perceived incompetence could be rising but not because we are less able but because we are less cooperative.


8 thoughts on “Incompetence is the norm

  1. Interested in what you think about the changing in wealth distribution. Not versed enough about the subject — in your opinion, is wealth distribution between classes a cyclical thing, or was the U.S. middle class robustness an anomaly resulting from the coinciding of improbably factors (strong Executive branch and WWII) that cropped up between the Guilded Age and now?


  2. @Wally According to Thomas Piketty it’s basically always been uneven and the mid 20th century was an anomaly. Sounds right to me. I don’t see too much equality in Dickens or Austen or ancient Egypt.

    erratum 10/13/2014 Correct spelling of Piketty


  3. I don’t think Karl Sigmund ‘and other evolutionary theorists’ (which ones?) says ‘cooperativity is transient’ (though my impression from the models its not exactly an ESS but in a nonequilibrium world there’s really no such thing as an ESS in reality—i think a fairly recent paper by freeman dyson —old school—may have discussed this). SE Boyd and Richerson—culture and the evolutionary process.

    (you can also look at stuff by John Pepper of NIH, or say, the very extremely shallow stuff by S Pinker on group selection in a discussion on edge magazine online.

    What does appear to be the case is more like ‘creative destruction’ cooperativity and noncooperativity are so far both semi-transient—the lions lay down with the lambs, and then decide to eat them. (and then since they have eaten them all, the lambs come back as rulers of e-den (the current online variant of eden just as e-mail replaced mail). ) .


  4. @ishi Well my perhaps flawed recollection was that in order to beat defectors you need to have migrations and eventually you’ll run out of new places to go in a finite world.


  5. i think anatol rapaport of canada dealt with this. (way old school, like n. rashevsky-

    –i actually worked for a period at UCSF for rashevsky’s last grad student at Uchicago, martinez—-applying information theory to try to cluster RNA 2ndary structures to solve the tertiary structure folding problem;

    but i was taking the ‘fact free science’ approach (i was very tired of facts) so i godel-numbered them and then tried to find patterns (Stanislaw Ulam had similar ideas, as did people into statistical number theory; some people down at Emory U did find some sort of fractal type patterns in partition theory) (maybe Ono or something ) . i also didnt want to get a degree in computer science and i wasnt into the whole publish or perish thing so that ended.

    Rapaport showed a ‘tit for tat’ strategy (and maybe one can mention t shelling of u md—-racial segregation model, and vietnam war proponent) and axelrod (i think u michigan) and hamilton (probably the famous one on both kin and group selection—the 1975 paper on this people like Trivers or G C williams never saw) could beat competetion but it needs a ‘fluctuation’ as a start in a finite world. D S Wilson has a sort of similar theory from the 70’s. Boyd (UCLA)and Richerson(UCDavis—now on the Templeton gravy train—‘spiritual capitalism’), like K Sigmund, show one can help this along if you have some sort of ‘sanctions’, or punishment, rule of law, constitution, etc. Though he said, unlike Garrett Harding (tragedy of the commons) and more like Elinor Ostrom (first woman ‘noble’ in econ) that its probably (in theory) better to use some sort of informal agreements (rather than employ a huge military or police force).

    i am agnostic on the issue.

    i did hear one possibly good news (if its true) that the nurse from texas who had ebola may not have it anymore. (of course that doesnt the entire problem since there is another case from doctor’s without borders in nyc, and of course many more in africa) . so modern science may have some value.


  6. not according to my understanding—e.g boyd and richerson 1992 ‘punishment allows the evolution of cooperation (or anything else) in sizable groups’ . my view also is these models (although actually not really accurate representations of reality, social interactions, etc.) can be tweaked to get just about any result (eg you can easily get turing like patterns like j cowan’s hallucination patterns or j d murray’s ‘the leapards spots’) ; and in fact they are likely akin to universal turing machines as n-> infinity. (thats why its ‘anything else’). (one can in my view easily interpret cooperation as for example simply as satisficing (h simon)—you don’t really know what you are doing because of imperfect information: defection is the dual of cooperation).
    one is really talking about NESS rather than ess also (nonequilibrium steady state)

    the views on this i think are mostly ideological (a la james fowler on genes and political participation—-except in my view is its not in the genes); like richard dawkins, s west, pinker vs e o and d s wilson on group selection.

    as is said in the Bi(b)le. ‘there is no God but God, and dirac is her profit.’ (as an aside, i saw j cowan speak at u fla. tallahasee which is where dirac ended up, at a conference on quantum biology, and i didnt pay; they also have in that area ‘magic mushrooms’ if you can find them and not get arrested or shot for tresspassing).

    about the only good thing i can think about on this is that at least in the ‘west’ (or USA) people compete using their opinions on how to use occam’s razor, as opposed to the other style used now by ISIS in iraq. (isis is also a goddess). (the accepted version of isis is international state of in/security)..

    heard the other dallas nurse is now ebola free, tho not everyone else is free. but as i said (maybe it was plagiarized) , ‘i have a dream, free at last, no money down’.


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