What if there were a secret store of wealth that America could use to pay down its debts and restore prosperity? What if we could free hundreds of billions of dollars to reinvigorate our society and restore confidence to industry and financial markets? Such a reserve does in fact exist. It is our accumulated store of institutionalized stupidity.
Readers of “Dilbert” who have worked in large organizations must constantly explain to children and other innocents that the pervasive stupidity depicted in Scott Adams’ comic strip is only slightly exaggerated. It exists in every corner of our “efficient” quasi-capitalistic marketplace. In prosperous times, institutionalized stupidity is annoying, but in times of extreme economic difficulty, this huge reservoir of dysfunctional behavior is inevitably tapped as desperate necessity becomes, temporarily, powerful enough to overcome the general human tendency toward stupid institutional behavior.
Whence institutional stupidity? The best answer I can come up with is that our species is designed by evolution to adopt destructive simplifications of behavior. The eagerness of individuals to substitute obedience to simple rules for independent development of specific solutions is the foundation of institutional decay. Fixed rules substitute for context-based decisions and dogmas crowd out considered judgments until schools produce dropouts, prisons incubate criminals, food plants ship toxic peanut butter, and Vista bogs down your computer. As every institution ages, the accumulation of irrationality in its growing mass of rules, dogmas, and habits raises the level of dysfunction and stupidity, until some final crisis sweeps away the accumulated mountain of folly.
A year ago, I began using the FIOS high-speed Internet service provided by Verizon, a huge telecommunications corporation. Ever since I began using FIOS, Verizon marketing personnel have contacted me, on average about twice a month, asking me to sign up for the FIOS service. Each time they call me, I carefully explain to them that I am already a FIOS customer, and they reply that they will not solicit me again. Then, a few weeks later, the phone rings again with another FIOS solicitation. Verizon has probably spent more money on re-marketing FIOS to me than they did on the initial installation of the service. This is not an isolated anecdote. Such stupidity accounts for hundreds of billions of dollars of waste. Let’s look at the big examples.