We’re going to talk about the Great Slackening and Human Resources (HR’s) role in damaging team effectiveness, and thus hamstringing business productivity and growth. But first we need to see the even bigger picture: the Great Slackening comes after a long period of powerful growth and change which started in Europe but swept most of the world, transforming stagnant, poverty-and-disease-ridden societies into a thriving, world-spanning technical civilization — the Great Enrichment. We refer to the culture that laid the foundation for this miracle as Western Civilization — though it’s not especially Western now as many elements have been adopted in the East.
As wealth has grown, those protected from life’s harsher lessons by being born to great wealth and privilege have turned to sabotaging the very freedom and free markets that created that wealth — but that is nothing new in the world, where it has long been folk wisdom (“clogs to clogs in three generations”) that the first generation of family wealth is generated by driven and productive founders, the next by not-so-driven conventional maintainers, and by the third generation, wealth is dissipated and pampered decadents run the family business into the ground if they are still in charge. Something similar happens to entire cultures unless leadership transfers to newer and hungrier elements as older generations grow wealthy and forget hunger, and the Great Slackening can be viewed as the consequence of the clinging to power of a wealthy elite who unconsciously act to keep down threats to their status from the new fortunes that might arise if free enterprise is allowed to grow unchecked.
Human status is relative, and those unwilling to work hard to keep their already-high status tend to rely on keeping down threats from nouveau riche others, which requires nothing more than political contributions and unthinking support of the status quo administrative state, which will happily regulate away threats of competition. This is certainly bad for hard-working, newly-middle-class strivers, but it’s also bad for society as a whole, stifling those who might have created the new technologies and businesses of a brighter future.
Economist Deirdre McCloskey has written some great books summarizing the culture that produced the Great Enrichment. Her latest, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World, recaps the cultural features that allowed billions of people to escape poverty in the last few centuries. Her paper “The Great Enrichment: A Humanistic and Social Scientific Account,” summarizes:
From 1800 to the present the average person on the planet has been enriched in real terms by a factor of ten, or some 900 percent. In the ever-rising share of places from Belgium to Botswana, and now in China and India, that have agreed to the Bourgeois Deal — “Let me earn profits from creative destruction in the first act, and by the third act I will make all of you rich” — the factor is thirty in conventional terms and, if allowing for improved quality of goods and services, such as in improved glass and autos, or improved medicine and higher education, a factor of one hundred. That is, the reward from allowing ordinary people to have a go, the rise at first in northwestern Europe and then worldwide of economic liberty and social dignity, eroding ancient hierarchy and evading modern regulation, has been anything from 2,900 to 9,900 percent. Previous “efflorescences,” as the historical sociologist Jack Goldstone calls them, such as the glory of Greece or the boom of Song China, and indeed the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century in Britain, resulted perhaps in doublings of real income per person—100 percent, as against fully 2,900 percent since 1800.
What needs to be explained in a modern social science history, that is, is not the Industrial Revolution(s) but the Great Enrichment, one or two orders of magnitude larger than any previous change in human history. If we are going to be seriously quantitative and scientific and social we need to stop obsessing about, say, whether Europe experienced a doubling or a tripling of real income before 1800, or this or that expansion of trade in iron or coal, and take seriously the lesson of comparative history that Europe was not unique until 1700 or so. We need to explain the largest social and economic change since the invention of agriculture, which is not the Industrial Revolution, not to mention lesser efflorescences, but the Great Enrichment.
In explaining it, I have argued, it will not do to focus on capital accumulation or hierarchical exploitation, on trade expansion or class struggle. This is for two sorts of reasons, one historical and the other economic…. Historically speaking, neither accumulation nor exploitation nor trade or struggle is unique to the early modern world. Medieval peasants in Europe saved more, in view of their miserable yield-seed ratios, than did any eighteenth-century bourgeois. Slave societies such as those of the classical Mediterranean could in peaceful times see a doubling of real income per person, but no explosion of ingenuity such as overcame northwestern Europe after 1800. The largest trade until very late was across the Indian Ocean, not the Atlantic, with no signs of a Great Enrichment among its participants. Unionism and worker-friendly regulation came after the Great Enrichment, not before. Thus world history.
Economically speaking, capital accumulation runs out of steam (literally) in a few decades. As John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1936, the savings rate in the absence of innovation will deprive “capital of its scarcity-value within one or two generations.” Taking by exploitation from slaves or workers results merely in more such fruitless capital accumulation, if it does, and is anyway is unable to explain a great enrichment for even the exploited in the magnitude observed, absent an unexplained and massive innovation. The gains from trade are good to have, but Harberger triangles show that they are small when put on the scale of a 9,900 percent enrichment. Government regulation works by reducing the gains from trade-tested betterment, and unions work mainly by shifting income from one part of the working class to another, as from sick people and apartment renters to doctors and plumber. Thus modern economics.
What then? A novel liberty and dignity for ordinary people, among them the innovating bourgeoisie, gave masses of such people, such as the chandler’s apprentice Benjamin Franklin, or the boy telegrapher Thomas Edison, an opportunity to innovate. It was not capital or institutions, which were secondary and dependent. It was the idea of human equality. Egalitarian economic and social ideas, not in the first instance steam engines and universities, made the modern world. One history of Western politics,” writes the political philosopher Mika LaVaque-Manty, citing Charles Taylor and Peter Berger (he could have cited most European writers on the matter from Locke and Voltaire and Wollstonecraft through Tocqueville and Arendt and Rawls), “has it that under modernity, equal dignity has replaced positional honor as the ground on which individuals’ political status rests.”
Out of common-law Northern European traditions, then, came the rule of law and equal treatment of all, at first just landholding men, but then every citizen of all stations, sexes, and races. Hard-won freedoms and respect for the individual gave each person enough security in their person and property to motivate them to work harder, since they could retain the fruits of their labors and hope to advance themselves and their heirs with less fear of theft by the powerful. This is related to the decline of the “Culture of Honor” (which relied on aggression and violence to maintain individual property and status) and its replacement by the “Culture of Dignity,” which replaced violence and theft with the rule of law and property rights. No longer could a higher-status warrior simply kill and confiscate the property of a lesser-status person who had blocked his path or insulted his status; disputes were resolved peacefully by compromise, or taken to court to be judged by law.
Now there have been many earlier civilizations which had the rule of law and at least some theoretical rights for citizens — those who weren’t slaves, at least. But until the 17th century, no Great Enrichment occurred because kings, nobles, clergy, or warriors could rewrite contracts and restrain trade as needed to keep others from rising to threaten their power. As McCloskey says:
Liberty and dignity for all commoners, to be sure, was a double-sided political and social ideal, and did not work without flaw. History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors. The liberty of the bourgeoisie to venture was matched by the liberty of the workers, when they got the vote, to adopt growth-killing regulations, with a socialist clerisy cheering them on. And the dignity of workers was overmatched by an arrogance among successful entrepreneurs and wealthy rentiers, with a fascist clerisy cheering them on. Such are the usual tensions of liberal democracy. And such are the often mischievous dogmas of the clerisy.
But for the first time, thank God—and thank the Levellers and then Locke in the seventeenth century, and Voltaire and Smith and Franklin and Paine and Wollstonecraft among other of the advanced thinkers in the eighteenth century—the ordinary people, the commoners, both workers and bosses, began to be released from the ancient notion of hierarchy, the naturalization of the noble gentleman’s rule over hoi polloi. Aristotle had said that most people were born to be slaves. “From the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” Bishop (and Saint) Isidore of Seville said in the early seventh century that “to those unsuitable for liberty, [God] has mercifully accorded servitude.” So it had been from the first times of settled agriculture and the ownership of land. Inherited wealth was long thought blameless compared with earned wealth, about which suspicion hung. Consider South Asia with its ancient castes, the hardest workers at the bottom. And further east consider the Confucian tradition (if not in every detail the ideas of Kung the Teacher himself), which stressed the Five Relationships of ruler to subject, father to son, husband to wife, elder brother to younger, and—the only one of the five without hierarchy—friend to friend. The analogy of the king as father of the nation, and therefore “naturally” superior, ruled political thought in the West (and the East and North and South) right through Hobbes. King Charles I of England, of whom Hobbes approved, was articulating nothing but a universal and ancient notion when he declared in his speech from the scaffold in 1649 that “a King and a Subject are plain different things.”
The ability to freely question old ways, and to improve a trade or production process by innovation then drive out the old ways of doing things — and the old fortunes — by outcompeting them, trading the new products to distant lands, is what started the Great Enrichment off with the bang of the Industrial Revolution. Printing, steam power, mass production, standardized parts, and engineering science made it possible to innovate, spread the new ideas broadly and preserve them in libraries around the world, and invest the profits from innovation into even more innovation. The explosive growth of productivity allowed billions of people to escape hardscrabble rural subsistence farming for urban living and increased the number of people wealthy enough to think about science, art, and design instead of short-term survival.
Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013) was a best-seller promoting a fashionable theory that the rate of return on capital had been greater than economic growth in recent years, which automatically increased concentration of wealth and therefore inequality. Seized on by redistributionists to justify new taxes on wealth and new subsidies for the poor, it seemed to mechanistically explain increasing inequality as the result of automatic processes which could be counteracted by redistribution without harming the engine of growth.
Piketty’s explanations were disputed, and MIT economist Matthew Rognlie demonstrated that most of the excess capital accumulation — the enrichment of the wealthy — that Piketty had discussed came from outsized real estate price increases around the world, due primarily to elite control over land development that artificially increased the scarcity and price of prime real estate, notably housing. A more recent paper from the IMF demolished Piketty’s claim that inequality increased in step with excess capital accumulation. Piketty’s theories were no longer as useful to promote larger government, since government control of real estate development and regulation of other economic sectors like energy and healthcare began to look like the sources of the increasing inequality. The heretical notion that it was control by the elites of the commanding heights of government that was actually raising prices and squeezing out the middle class began to spread….
Is the Great Enrichment over? Certainly it continues to expand into newly-opened territories like China and India, where the old Communist Party and Indian bureaucracies are giving ground to freer enterprise and mass movement of rural folk into the cities is transforming life. But in the developed countries which once led the world in innovation, countervailing forces of regulation and central planning are slowing and stopping growth.
This is now being called the Great Stagnation, or as I’m calling it in its corporate form, the Great Slackening. The rise of the administrative superstate in the US and the EU has given the already-powerful a tool to suppress threats from below, and under the guise of protecting the people, it’s making the people poorer and more dependent while limiting their freedoms.
 Clogs to Clogs in Three Generations https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/clogs_to_clogs_in_three_generations
 Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World, by Deirdre McCloskey, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2016.
 “The Great Enrichment: A Humanistic and Social Scientific Account,” by Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, 2016. http://deirdremccloskey.org/docs/pdf/McCloskey_ASSA2016.pdf
 See “Men of Honor vs Victim Culture,” by Jeb Kinnison. https://substratewars.com/2015/09/09/men-of-honor-vs-victim-culture/
 Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, 2013. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_in_the_Twenty-First_Century
 “Deciphering the fall and rise in the net capital share,” by Matthew Rognlie. March 19, 2015 Brookings Papers on Economic Activities. https://www.brookings.edu/bpea-articles/deciphering-the-fall-and-rise-in-the-net-capital-share/
Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations
[From Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations, available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]
The first review is in: by Elmer T. Jones, author of The Employment Game. Here’s the condensed version; view the entire review here.
Corporate HR Scrambles to Halt Publication of “Death by HR”
Nobody gets a job through HR. The purpose of HR is to protect their parent organization against lawsuits for running afoul of the government’s diversity extortion bureaus. HR kills companies by blanketing industry with onerous gender and race labor compliance rules and forcing companies to hire useless HR staff to process the associated paperwork… a tour de force… carefully explains to CEOs how HR poisons their companies and what steps they may take to marginalize this threat… It is time to turn the tide against this madness, and Death by HR is an important research tool… All CEOs should read this book. If you are a mere worker drone but care about your company, you should forward an anonymous copy to him.
More reading on other topics:
Death by HR: Good-Enough Cogs vs Best Employees
Death by HR: EEOC Incompetence and the Coming Idiocracy
Jane Jacobs’ Monstrous Hybrids: Guardians vs Commerce
The Great Progressive Stagnation vs. Dynamism
Death by HR: How Affirmative Action is Crippling America
Death by HR: The End of Merit in Civil Service
Corrupt Feedback Loops: Public Employee Unions
Death by HR: History and Practice of Affirmative Action and the EEOC
Civil Service: Woodrow Wilson’s Progressive Dream
Bootleggers and Baptists
Corrupt Feedback Loops: Justice Dept. Extortion
Corrupt Feedback Loops, Goldman Sachs: More Justice Dept. Extortion
Death by HR: The Birth and Evolution of the HR Department
Death by HR: The Simple Model of Project Labor
Levellers and Redistributionists: The Feudal Underpinnings of Socialism
Sons of Liberty vs. National Front
Trump World: Looking Backward
Minimum Wage: The Parable of the Ladder
Culture Wars: Co-Existence Through Limited Government
Social Justice Warriors, Jihadists, and Neo-Nazis: Constructed Identities
Tuitions Inflated, Product Degraded, Student Debts Unsustainable
The Morality of Glamour
On Affirmative Action and Social Policy:
Affirmative Action: Chinese, Indian-Origin Citizens in Malaysia Oppressed
Affirmative Action: Caste Reservation in India
Diversity Hires: Pressure on High Tech
Title IX Totalitarianism is Gender-Neutral
Public Schools in Poor Districts: For Control Not Education
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
The Social Decay of Black Neighborhoods (And Yours!)
Child Welfare Ideas: Every Child Gets a Government Guardian!
“Income Inequality” Propaganda is Just Disguised Materialism
The greatest hits from SubstrateWars.com (Science Fiction topics):
Fear is the Mindkiller
Mirror Neurons and Irene Gallo
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
Sons of Liberty vs. National Front
“Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire
The Death of “Wired”: Hugo Awards Edition
Hugos, Sad Puppies 3, and Direct Knowledge
Selective Outrage and Angry Tribes
Men of Honor vs Victim Culture
SFF, Hugos, Curating the Best
“Why Aren’t There More Women Futurists?”
Science Fiction Fandom and SJW warfare
More reading on the military:
US Military: From No Standing Armies to Permanent Global Power
US Military: The Desegration Experience
The VA Scandals: Death by Bureaucracy
Keynes philosophy is the philosophy of the Progressive “towering genius” enslavement control program. Prog elite control worldview is enslavement by all means other than Tribal control endlavement. These two control world views always fight each other. Liberty’s worldview is superior. Keynes is beloved by our Central Bank towering genius negative interest rate idiocracy idiots. Profs are killing the world by removing Western Liberty, natural law and reason’s sanity. Defund Prog Ed to restore the world’s freedom.
You’ve summarized the problem and the beginning of the solution well….
The information revolution, applied to the oversight of the regulatory state, would seem to offer an escape from the Great Slackening. Mischief thrives where there is no effective oversight and if you look at the tools that the people have to oversee these bodies, both public and private, the tools are notably old and ineffective. Other tools are available, applied to oversight problems with success, but not generally in this one sector.
The proofs are easy to find in the US. Go try to find a list of every performance indicator that government uses to measure its own performance. You can’t. To do that, you’d have to know everything that government does. If you go try to find everything that government does, you can’t. For that, you would have to get a list of every government that exists in the US. This also does not exist. Or at least the lists that exist are either limited to one state or do not conform to reality. As a dual sovereignty entity, governments can be defined thus by either state law, or by definition of the US Census in its twice decennial census of governments.
There is an entire unwritten sector of applications to oversee that 35% of the US economy called government and the removal of government as a tool to enforce the Great Slackening will likely kill the phenomenon. Good riddance.
While more transparency helps, it won’t eliminate the problem of resources taken from the many by taxes and regulation and given to the few. Some have made a profession of rent-seeking, while citizens have only limited time to keep an eye on the proliferating arms of bureaucracies. A start is limiting the delegation of regulations to administrative bureaucrats — what can’t be encoded in simple laws often doesn’t need to be done.
Excellent essay, thank you. Economics can be a bit like an ecosystem. There are so many interacting factors and feedback processes and power competitions and misinformation that it can be hard to tease out what is causing what.
HR is mentioned in the title and the first sentence, but is never defined. In my corporate experience, HR meant Human Remains. Liked the post.
Thanks for pointing that out. It’s an excerpt of a longer piece I’m working on where HR (Human Resources) has already been defined and discussed — they’re the internal enforcers of the politicized labor laws that are diminishing growth and crippling competence. I’ll edit the post to make that clear…