All human systems, whether created by design or created by happenstance, start to evolve as soon as they are born. This is true of systems like a company or tools like process regulation systems. Like Frankenstein’s monster, they take on a life of their own and break loose from the creator. This usually happens quickly. As soon as something like an organization gets going, it starts changing. The people in it find defects to remedy, new things to add and so on. Evolution starts instantly.
That evolution has an impact on the people in the system or in the case tools, the users of those systems. The ability to look down the road, to see several moves ahead, seems to decline in human organizations as they evolve. Initially, the people running them are always looking ahead. That was the point of the organization. Over time, they either lose their ability to look ahead or they are replaced by people who are only interested in the short term, because that is where the rewards lie.
An example of this college athletics. Initially, student sports were just a natural result of young people and free time. Before long college teams were challenging one another to sports matches. Males like to compete, and groups of males like to compete for their tribe, so college teams playing one another was natural. The natural rivalries that existed between states added to the fun. College athletics in America is an example of a system springing up by happenstance over time.
Like all systems, college athletics began to evolve. The University of Oklahoma, for example, invested in their football program for state pride as a way to raise spirits during the Great Depression. Other colleges learned that being good at a popular sport got them attention. Notre Dame would be just another cow-college if not for the use of ringers to make their football program famous. What started as amateur fun turned into a marketing vehicle for colleges and universities.
Of course, the colleges and universities never imagined that college sports would be a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry one day. Television did not exist, at least to anything like today, so there was no way to see this outcome. By the middle of the last century, college athletics evolved into a popular American tradition that was mostly about school and state pride. The players got free tuition for playing the sport and the school got to promote their brand on the field.
Once it was a mature system though, the ability of the people running it to see down the road started to decline. The NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma is a good example. This was a case that began in 1979 over television rights. The schools wanted to strike deals for putting games in TV, while the NCAA wanted to retain the right to control those deals. The schools won the case and the flood gates of television money opened soon after, reaching the billions today.
Half a century ago, the people running college football had no idea what was going to happen once they started taking TV money. On the one hand, they could not see the proliferation of mass media culture that was coming. On the other hand, they were focused on the here and now. They did not think about how a new revenue stream would change how the system functioned. They did not think about how it would change their thinking. They just needed the cash.
This type of example is common in America. Last year the people in charge began to run around smashing things because of Covid and their own sore feelings. None of them gave a second thought to the consequences. When faced with millions out of work, they did not think about the long term impact of their remedy. They just started throwing invented money at people. We are now on a wild ride of unpredictable scarcity and inflation with no ability to look more than one move ahead.
Getting back to the college athletics example, short-term thinking within an organization takes on a life of its own. In the case of college athletics, these highly educated college presidents have a couple of generations of examples to draw from, but they are as trapped in the moment as their predecessors. They tinker with the rules to address one issue, only to create a chain reaction they never considered. This story about the advent of the transfer portal is a good example.
One reason that people in a system lose the ability and willingness to think a few moves ahead is the incentives evolve along with the system. The people in the system who show some skill at patching up immediate problems benefit. Those pointing out the potential costs down the road gets ignored. When it comes to tools like regulatory systems or software, change means immediate cost. Since human organizations tend to be intertwined with tool systems, both forces work in concert.
Take the college athletics problem. If a group of college presidents wanted to address the excesses of college athletics, they would face enormous institutional pushback over the immediate costs. Changing the regulations and subsystems that are in place to maintain things as they are would cost a lot of money. The reformers would also be in competition with demands to address immediate problems. The reformers get drowned out by the natural functioning of the system.
Reforming a system is like trying to reform evolution itself. The thousands of cumulative decisions that went into the present state cannot be turned on or off without addressing the other decisions. In time, all human systems evolve past the point where reform is possible without an existential threat. If the choice is death or reform, then the minimum reform can happen to avoid death. Even facing death, reform faces long odds, if death can be rationalized into a distant possibility.
The French Revolution is a good example here. The threat of death was both personal and abstract, but the aristocracy could not bear the thought of reform. It was not as if they did not know their system was teetering on collapse. Their best ministers had explained this reality in detail. It was simply the case where the inertia was too strong for the reformers. No one could look ahead and immanentize the eschaton, so the immediate always took precedent over the future.
This is something to keep in mind in the current crisis. Reform, if it is possible at all, will come only in the shadow of the gallows. If the political class begins to fear for their life, then maybe they begin to act to push that inevitability off into the future. Of course, 80-year old men tend not to be long-term planners. Still, if genuine fear grips the ruling classes, then maybe we see reform. That is not the way to bet. Like all systems, this one most likely is carried on by internal forces until it collapses.
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