Failing Upwards

Posted: May 27, 2011 in Corporatism, Culture, Economics, Idle Nonsense, Politics

A catalytic process is where an external agent of some sort, usually chemical, is employed to cause a reaction. An autocatalytic process is where an internal agent participates in the process. Most of us are familiar with autocatalytic processes, though we may not recognize them as such. In one example, it takes money to make money; in another, fame feeds off of itself, even when it becomes notoriety or infamy. These processes aren’t blind. Our system of economics is rigged to reward wealth with greater wealth, and fame unfolds in predictable if irrational ways once someone has a first brush with it. For instance, actors, athletes, and other entertainers receive so much excessive, gushing praise that they’re guaranteed to keep our attention riveted pretty much just for showing up and putting on clothes (or taking them off). Call it the incumbency effect. If they are recipients of one or another of a truly excessive number of awards given out annually, whether deserved or not, their fame quotient skyrockets.

If success breeds success, it would seem logical that the inverse would also be true, that failure breeds failure. Perhaps failure is autocatalytic much of the time, but what interests me here is how some people manage to fail upwards, going from disaster to disaster suffering only PR setbacks, which can always be overcome considering how memory is short and information is spinnable. High-profile examples range from CEOs who preside over corporate bankruptcies to U.S. presidents who lead scandalous lives before, during, and after their administrations. These examples differ from the Peter Principle, which states that employees tend to be promoted until they reach a position where they become incompetent. Or perhaps the example of the CEO is a perfect embodiment of the Peter Principle.

Business and government both offer ample opportunity for folks to fail upwards, and the best measurement is how they traipse from position to position with alarming regularity. Chicago’s new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, may be a prime example. He nearly started out as a ballet dancer with the Joffrey Ballet but chose instead to go to college and then became a political staffer. He was an adviser to the Clinton administration, had a brief career in finance, was elected to Congress, and then became Obama’s chief of staff before resigning to run for mayor of Chicago, which election he won. So while his many, many appointments and positions would look to many as being well qualified, I don’t find that especially convincing when his chief personal characteristic is being a screamer, which earned him the nickname Rahmbo. Using intimidation and throwing tantrums to advance one’s agenda may be effective, but it raises other issues.

Singling out Rahm Emanuel may be unfair, but his rather meteoric rise reminds me quite a bit of his former boss at the White House — both incubated in notorious Chicago-style politics — and neither has accomplishments to match the hype other than a couple successful beauty pageants, nay, popularity contests elections. Yet both have demonstrated considerable failures of personal integrity. Whether either will succeed in getting worthwhile things done in their respective elected positions is still an open question, but my intuitions are that they will be empty figureheads presiding over a corporate-governmental (and military) complex that runs roughshod over everyone indiscriminately. Sure, somebody has to occupy high office — that’s built into the system, like the eventual winner of a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. But the series of throws a player concocts matters far less than the random result of a remorseless algorithm that catapults someone into the winner’s chair.


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