Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Peter Principle

The cable box to my left is flashing and my direct internet access isn't working, so I'm using some unknown neighbor's wireless connection instead. Not incidentally, to my right sits The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull (1969). (Before my cable connection blipped out, I'd checked my online banking transactions, only to see a five-day processing delay. Meanwhile, my cable TV conection is still working . . . if I take the time to unplug my laptop and re-connect to the other cable line, it'll probably work again -- but why should I have to do that for a "premium service"?)

"Incompetence knows no barriers of time and space (p. 10) . . . Education, often touted as a cure for all ills, is apparently no cure for incompetence. Incompetence runs riot in the halls of education. One high-school graduate in three cannot read at normal fifth grade level. It is now commonplace for colleges to be giving reading lessons to freshman. In some colleges, twenty percent of freshman cannot read well enough to understand their textbooks!" (p. 13)

"I receive mail from a large university. Fifteen months ago I changed my address. I sent the usual notice to the university: my mail kept going to the old address. After two more change-of-address notices and a phone call, I made a personal visit. I pointed with my finger to the wrong address in their records, dictated the new address and watched a secretary take it down. The mail still went to the old address. . ." (p. 14)

The Peter Principle looks specifically at bureaucratic organizations and posits that in a typical hierarchy, people deemed competent at one level are promoted to a level of incompetence. One way to avoid becoming a rube is to avoid overpromotion within such a system.

The Bush Administration provides hundreds of examples of overpromotion -- Michael DeWayne Brown was in no way qualified to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but this became abundantly clear only in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and even then, the man who chose him, praised him (just as even now, some of the people who elected Bush still praise him!)

In addition to incompetence, things can go wrong for many reasons. Things always go wrong in wartime. German war philosopher Carl von Clausewitz named this reality friction. To all things collectively human that go wrong, we might add entropy, illness, accident, bad luck, ill fate, kismet, karma, stupidity, ignorance, greed, malice, bad faith, and deliberate sabotage. It's amazing things function at all, and that's probably due as much to personal resilience, flexibility, desperation, creativity, and improvisation as it is to good luck, kind fate, intimate cooperation, and, despite the vagaries of human nature, faith and hope.

Natalie Wood didn't fall off a tall building. No, though she feared drowning all her life, instead she fell off a yacht and drowned.

Today's Rune: Warrior. (p.s. Sorry for any spelling errors. Spellcheck isn't working!)


Johnny Yen said...

I alluded to the Peter Principle in a post recently. I remember reading the book when I was a teenager in the seventies and realizing that it explained a lot.

I was talking to someone a few years ago about how everybody I know has two and three jobs. Part of it is out of financial necessity to be sure, but part of it seems to be the limited number of competent people needing to double up on jobs so that things get done.

Bad joke from the eighties: "What's the only wood that doesn't float? Natalie Wood.

I was watching Miracle On 34th St. with my kids around Christmas and realized that the little girl was Natalie Wood!

luma said...

The Peter Principle is a very interesting new theory, what he justifies as much people imcompetent person assuming direction positions. Breaking the chain, he is difficult for the good ones! Beijus

Charles Gramlich said...

Things will go wrong only up to a point, that point where it would beccome funny if they continued to go wrong and therefore you wouldn't be suffering. At least this is my experience.

Lana Gramlich said...

I've heard about the Peter Principle...probably from you, actually. *L* Incompetence surely abounds. I recently had a patron at our library basically asking me to take her online medical billing & coding test. I refused, of course. She'd previously requested help with her online homework, as well--she barely understood English & she's American, not an immigrant! She'll certainly get her certification, although she's dumb as a bag of hammers. And we wonder what's wrong with the system???

Erik Donald France said...

Thanks, y'all, for the comments -- much appreciated!

Comedy of Errors . . .

Johnny Yen said...

"The Peter Principle" was published in the seventies! Not so new, actually. But our society seems to still need to learn about it.