February 20, 2010

The Blue Beast...

Jim Geraghty, History Is Calling, but the Phone Keeps Ringing at 3 a.m.:

...It's not sustainable. Of course, as I said earlier this month, "unsustainable is the new normal." We're having a reckoning, but President Obama isn't all that interested in it; he wants to believe that a full, thriving economic recovery, along with rejuvenated tax revenues, is just around the corner.

I'm willing to bet that Walter Russell Mead's grocery list is full of fascinating historical allusions, but he's hit some similar notes in a few lengthy posts about what he calls "the blue beast" — a social model that defined our country for much of the last century, based upon large, stable entities — unionized oligarchies, big corporations, an ever-growing civil service, lifetime employment, etc. But that era has come to an end, and much of our political debate in the past decades is about trying to artificially extend the lifespan of the blue system by taking from the non-blue parts, or moving on to some other way of doing things:
Democratic policy is increasingly limited to one goal: feeding the blue beast. The great public-service providing institutions of our society — schools, universities, the health system, and above all government at municipal, state and federal levels — are built blue and think blue. The Democratic wing of the Democratic Party thinks its job is to make them bigger and keep them blue. Bringing the long green to Big Blue: that's what it's all about...

(There's more. I recommend reading it.)

"Based upon large, stable entities." That was the model of the Industrial Age. The reason was to have an organization that could transmit information reliably. Industrial Age organizations all worked vertically. Information was gathered at the bottom, and passed to the next layer to be organized and consolidated into reports, which were then passed up to the next layer. The retail level reported to the district, which reported to the region, which reported to headquarters, which reported to the top brass. Then instructions went back in the other direction.

In the old days the people on the sales floor might discover something important. Perhaps "Housewives are bored with pastels this Spring; they are asking for bright solid colors." But it could take a month for the news to pass up the levels. And then months for instructions to be pondered and then passed down to buyers and designers and the advertising agency. And months more before that resulted in finished goods and ads.

Today the top brass may be scanning blogs and forums, and noticing the new trends quickly. Designers can send CAD files to factories, which may be able to shift production immediately. And the factory can be anywhere. The designer might be in San Francisco, the ad agency in London, the factory in Indonesia. UPS might contract for warehousing and fulfillment. And if the company is a lively one, every part of it will be able to simply vibrate with the moods of the market, and change instantaneously if needed.

But that's only where competition forces people to move quickly. Few of us act that way naturally. In the public and quasi-public sectors of our world the Industrial Age model still prevails. And as the pubic sector has become cut-off from the spirit of the age, it has become cancerous. [link]

If you are aware of these changes you start to see them everywhere. For instance in the way David Brooks or Peggy Noonan whine about the loss of respect for elites and grand old institutions. But the "blue-blood establishment" of old was just another of those "large, stable entities." It was like GM, but the product was not cars, it was the "top brass." Its product, in the form of Ivy League grads, could be slotted into leadership positions in government, or industry, or the academy, or the press, or the "mainline" churches. Even unions! Those were all among the "large, stable entities" of the Industrial Age, and their leadership style was much the same.

One of the biggest problems of our age is to somehow transform all the public and quasi-public institutions into Information Age organizations.

Posted by John Weidner at February 20, 2010 7:28 AM
Weblog by John Weidner