The lives of men and women who rise to the top of their fields are replete with…failure. The best hitters in baseball trudge back to the dugout six out of ten times. Basketball’s high scorers miss half their shots. Several rockets blew up before the US put a man on the moon. Only a small percentage of Edison’s experiments yielded useful inventions. Despite years of deep theorizing, Einstein never came up with a unified field theory. Doesn’t all this suggest that failure may be essential for success, and the odium with which it’s tainted undeserved?
Evolution, science, and markets are instructive. Nature throws blobs of genetic variation at the wall and sees what sticks. For every mutation that increases a specie’s chances for survival via natural selection, there are thousands that either have no effect or are detrimental.
In the same vein, science is basically a series of better errors. Somebody comes up with a theory that seems to describe reality more accurately and has more predictive power than the generally accepted theory. Everybody takes their theoretical and empirical potshots, and if the theory is still standing it becomes the standard…until somebody finds a hole in it and the progression plays out again. Logically, there can be no enshrined truths in science (other than that there are no enshrined truths), only hypotheses and theories open to question and subject to disproof, but never conclusively confirmed for time and all eternity.
American Motors, Brown Shoe, Studebaker, Collins Radio, Detroit Steel, Zenith Electronics and National Sugar Refining were all in the Fortune 500 in 1955. None of them exist today. Of that Fortune 500, only 61 were still around 60 years later. That’s economist Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction,” the ceaseless roiling of the competitive landscape in a healthy (i.e., capitalistic) economy that destroys some businesses and elevates others, but places none on a permanent plateau. Successful people in business know in their bones this catechism: try, fail, admit, analyze, get up, try again.
Confusion is failure’s kissing cousin and also receives a bad rap. It should get better press, if for no other reason than that it promotes thought. When we’re confused, we try to figure things out. Why does the apple fall towards the earth instead of the sky? Never underestimate the power of a question. Extracting sense from confusion has led to humanity’s most important breakthroughs.
Governments’ failures have deleterious differences with private sector failure. Fail enough in business or research and your funding dries up. Those who fund government have no say in whether programs are continued or terminated. Failure in government is an open and shut case for more funding, which is why decades-long failures like the wars on poverty, drugs, and terrorism receive larger appropriations every budget cycle. A Washington-declared war on anything elicits tears of joy from even the most hardened political cynics. Such “wars” are opened-ended, having no operative definition of success or failure (either of which should logically end the war). Once the enabling legislation and appropriations are passed, manna flows forever. The occasional “austerity pinch” only slows its growth rate, but never leads to an actual reduction in funding.
Failure builds constituencies like nursing sows attract piglets. The interactions between the government and its sucklings are odious and there’s no shortage of commentators decrying them. What’s sometimes overlooked in the commentary on this barter of payola and power are its psychological elements, particularly the role of egos. Those who go into politics want power, but many want prestige, recognition, and their asses smooched even more. Those desires are hallmarks of psychological frailty, a brittle vulnerability. Although government constantly fails, any acknowledgment of such inflicts unacceptable psychic pain on these tender egos. The annals of American politics and government contain very few admissions of error. John F. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs mea culpa is a rare exception. Politicians and bureaucrats have made the unapologetic apology an art form.
I’m sorry if my actions created the perception that I acted in a manner that does not comport with the high standards I set for myself and which you justifiably expect me to maintain. Mistakes were perhaps made, and my team is investigating the matter to determine what, if anything, went wrong. To address those perceptions, I will act on its recommendations in furtherance of those high standards I have always set for myself and which you expect from me. It’s time for us to move on, and for me to get back to work maintaining high standards. Thank you.
The kind of straightforward admission, acknowledgment, apology, and correction that many of us make at least once a week is rarer in Washington than a balanced budget, locking in failure. With supposedly the best military on the planet and trillions of dollars spent, the US hasn’t cleanly won a war since 1945. Anybody responsible? Nope. The architects of the Federal Reserve’s disastrous policy of promoting speculative booms and increasingly destructive busts get six-figure fees for speeches nobody listens to, and the current ineptocrat will enjoy comparable rewards when she steps down. The future generations expected to bear the burden of the government’s mound of debt and its pension and medical promises are either debt serfs or debt slaves. A convention of politicians, bureaucrats, and voters who admit any guilt for their servitude could be held in a broom closet.
The most overrated condition of human existence is order. It’s a word that governments and those who run them cherish. Confusion, experimentation, failure, and ultimately, progress, are messy things, threatening established orders, vested and corrupt interests, and fragile egos.
There is no bigger oxymoron than “government science.” Science is a search for truth, and governments suppress truth. Is the globe warming? If so, is that warming caused by human activity? Both are scientific questions requiring years of data and analysis, for which there will never be 100 percent conclusive answers. The righteous certainty on both sides of these unsettled questions is the antithesis of science. When one side is backed by most of the world’s governments and an agenda that promotes only approved research and researchers—and a substantial expansion of global governance and control—honest experimentation and failure admission is inconceivable and the emergence of truth impossible.
Government, the most failure-prone institution, is the least likely to either admit or correct its failures, which only compounds them. “Complexity” is the smokescreen of the mandarins. Simple but correct conclusions—it’s not working—are derided as simplistic. Only a small elite, many of whom have little actual experience in the real world they purport to control, supposedly have the required insight, understanding, and brilliance. Meanwhile, unacknowledged failure has compounded and we’ve slid into the abyss of gargantuan, global, systemic failure.
It’s just that simple.
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