Posts Tagged ‘The Peter Principle’

“The Peter Principle” in American Politics (2016)

February 16, 2016

“The Peter Principle” in American Politics (2016)



In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.

—–Dr. Lawrence J. Peter



The Peter Principle first appeared in 1969 and was widely known through the 1970s. In case there are any sad souls out there who do not know the wisdom of this book and its sequels, let me sum up: For every job in the world, there is someone, somewhere, who cannot do it. Given enough time and enough promotions, that person will get that job. At that point, he (or she) will not get promoted again in the normal course of things. At the same time, he or she will most likely not be fired, since that would mean that the last promotion was a mistake and would be an admission of incompetence by the person or persons responsible. Thus, the incompetent person is stuck at his or her level of incompetence, muddling along, frustrating coworkers and underlings and superiors alike. Over time, the hierarchy will become overwhelmed by incompetent employees and leaders alike, and collapse, unless it finds some way to rid itself of this deadwood.

Dr. Peter himself applied this principle to politics. We can say that “candidate” is the entry level position for the political hierarchy. The classic model is someone who runs for local office, say local school board or county commission. If the candidate is competent at meeting and ingratiating himself or herself with people, raising money and speaking publicly, the candidate will get promoted to office-holder. However, the skills required to be a successful candidate are not the same as those required to be a successful leader. The candidate may prove to be a political failure, unable to work with the system to accomplish his or her goals or even to maintain the smooth functioning of the group. If, however, the local politician proves capable, he or she may catch the eye of someone in the state party looking for a candidate for some higher office. The successful county commissioner or city councilmember is invited to run for state office. If he or she succeeds as a candidate for state office, then the new state legislator has the chance to impress peers and party leaders and might be recruited to run for national office. But if at any point the candidate turns out to be a dud in office, he or she will (the story goes) not be asked to run for anything else. However, given the power of the incumbency and the tendency of voters to kvetch about their leaders while only meaning the ones they themselves didn’t vote for, the mediocre state legislator or Congressman will continue to stay at his or her level of incompetence indefinitely, winning reelection almost automatically unless the whole political structure is struck by some catastrophe (and often even then).

There are, of course, many exceptions to this standard story line. Most come down to the simple fact that the necessary qualifications for the job of “candidate” are not the same as the skills needed for the job of “office-holder.” For example, Ted Cruz. Ted Cruz was successful as a student, specializing in courses and activities that relate to winning arguments. He did not focus so much on learning what was true as he did on convincing others to go along with him. He was never interested in forming consensus or compromising or determining whether in fact he might be mistaken about something, and did not study those skills. He was, to all accounts, a consummate ideological activist and lawyer. With an impressive résumé and success in Texas state politics, he was able to attain promotion to the job of candidate for U.S. Senate. He was and is a very competent campaigner, able to persuade voters and donors, and thus attained promotion to the job of actual Senate office-holder. As a U.S. senator, however, he has proven to be stunningly incompetent. The word “politics” has it roots in the Greek word “polis,” meaning city-state or community; to be a politician is to be a participant in the activities and leadership of your society.   A good politician is someone who works with others to find the best course for the society and to implement those policies. The necessary skills are, above all, the ability to work with others, to form coalitions of allies who will support one’s career and one’s policies, and to work out deals when necessary with others to persuade them to work with you. Ted Cruz is, as his opponent Donald Trump has said, hated. He is not hated by liberals only, or Democrats only. His own Republican party members hate him. People as a class hate him. The world seems divided between those who hate Ted Cruz and those who haven’t met him yet. This would generally be considered to be abject failure for a politician. However, it is not necessarily a failing for a candidate. Candidates only have to promote themselves and sell themselves; they don’t have to actually do anything. A good candidate can be successful the same way that headache medicine that you “apply directly to your forehead” was successful, even though there was no evidence that it actually worked; good marketing can make up for a lack of effectiveness. Now, he is proving that he is a competent candidate for President. Many of those who have worked with him believe he is incompetent, and would be a danger to his political party, his ideological movement and even to the nation, were he elected; but the hiring committee that is the Iowa Republican caucus has determined that he has the qualities required for the job of candidate.

Donald Trump may or may not be an incompetent political leader; he has no track record so we don’t know. He has shown himself to be a highly competent promoter, whether he is selling real estate or himself. His approach to politics has been to emphasize those requirements of the job of candidate that best match his skill set as a promoter and salesman, and as a candidate he has run circles around many who had competence as “political office-holder” but less as “candidate.” Lindsey Graham and Martin O’Malley were successful political leaders who have been fired from the job of candidate. Either would probably have been successful in working with other politicians to accomplish his goals. The hiring process could be structured to try to seek out those qualities necessary in a good leader, but for now the process looks largely at other skills, skills at self-promotion rather than teamwork and self-confidence more than knowledge. Politics is a lot like dating. The skills necessary to be good at picking someone up in a bar are not necessarily the same that are required for a good marriage; but it is hard to get “promoted to spouse” if you can’t get the entry-level job of “first date.” Voters tend to be like people who marry based on looks and fun, instead of looking for the harder-to-spot qualities needed for a stable relationship like consistency, honesty, open-mindedness and (gasp!) willingness to compromise.

Many of the points I am raising here have been made also by political insiders, such as G. W. Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer.[1] Latimer points out that Jeb’s campaign strategy was based on the premise that we should choose a president who can actually do the job, not a stage actor whose tricks and performances are the most delightful. And he is getting whacked by Trump, who makes statements that are flat-out lies (like claiming that his book is the best-selling business book of all time), who struts and bellows and boasts about himself, and whose policy pronouncements, when he makes one at all, are either so vague as to be meaningless or patently impossible. Latimer accepts the fact that the job description of “candidate” is different than the job description of “office holder” and sees Jeb’s failure as one of not knowing that the president is, in fact, an actor. “In the modern era the president is also celebrity-in-chief,” he writes, “expected to comment on the deaths of popular actors or to watch the latest “Star Wars” film or to appear on Jimmy Kimmel alongside beloved comedians.”

Following the hints of The Peter Principle, I say we should not just see this as a fact; we should see it as a major cock-up of democracy. We, the people, are like a manager who hires computer programmers based entirely on who knows all the words to “Gin and Juice.” If the job of a voter is to vote for the best person for the job, we are ourselves incompetent. If we are led by fools, it is because collectively we ourselves are morons. The job description for “candidate” is completely FUBAR. When we promote the best candidate (meaning the best panderer, the best distracter, the best entertainer, the bullshit artist extraordinaire) we should not be surprised when we get a Congress that can’t do its job, governors who poison their constituents to save a little money, or pro-family state legislators who get busted committing adultery with each other in public. Expecting these sorts of politicians to lead a modern society is like expecting Ice Cube to solve a murder. We promote these poor souls to their levels of incompetence wholesale, and then re-elect them 91% of the time.[2] Is it because, as Dr. Peter said, that we will not fire the incompetent employee because that would be an admission of our own incompetence? Is it because we voters are so stupid that we can’t even recognize incompetence anymore, in ourselves or in others? Or is it because when the politician runs for reelection, we once again evaluate him or her by the same standards we used before, and choose the best huckster?

Well, why is that so bad? Ask the people of Kansas. In 2012, their new governor Sam Brownback announced what he called a “real-life experiment.” As a candidate, he promised he could cut taxes and balance the state budget all at once, because tax cuts always pay for themselves, particularly if they are taxes on business and the very wealthy. Two years later, Kansas was $300 million dollars in the hole, had economic growth half that of its neighbors, had slashed social services and increased its poverty rate, and had its credit rating slashed so that now the money it borrows to pay for those tax cuts cost its taxpayers even more. By any measure at all, the Kansas experiment has failed. And Brownback was reelected to continue the experiment. Tea-party economics in Kansas is a jug of milk that the voters took out of the fridge, smelled, said “That’s awful!” then put back, and took out the next day to see if it was any fresher now. After all, a candidate who can promise you that he’ll cut everyone’s taxes, pay all the bills and increase funding for education and highways and other government services—that’s still a good show.   People still pay to see “Star Wars” even though it is scientifically impossible, and people will still buy economic snake oil that promises gold will rain from the skies if we just cut taxes some more. We vote for the best show. We promote the best entertainer to the job of “leader.” And when things fall apart, we display our own incompetence by acting surprised.

[1] Matt Latimer, “Where Jeb Bush Went Horribly Wrong;” Los Angeles Times February 4, 2016 (

[2] Chris Cilliza, “People Hate Congress. But Most Incumbents Get Reelected. What Gives?” The Washington Post, May 9, 2013 (

Super PACs: the slush fund of mediocrity

April 11, 2012

Let others complain that the age is wicked; my complaint is that it is paltry; for it lacks passion.

S.  Kierkegaard, Either/Or, v. 1 (Swenson translation)

I have heard John McCain denouncing the Citizens United ruling, and his prediction that eventually it will lead to some massive scandal that will shatter the people’s faith in our democracy and lead to calls for even tighter control of campaign financing—–if it doesn’t simply lead to out-and-out plutocracy.  Since others are already complaining and warning about the inevitable corrupting influence of unlimited money flooding our electoral process, there is nothing I need to add.  My complaint will be that it has already corrupted the process, not by breeding crooks but by breeding mediocrity.

My initial insight on this came from playing an independently-produced computer game, “King of Dragon Pass” by A-Sharp (  In this game, the player controls a Bronze Age barbarian clan.  In many such societies, tribal kings are chosen by all the member clans rather than simply inheriting the throne; the goal of the game is to get one of your clan leaders chosen as tribal king (or queen) and then to successfully manage the tribe.  One game, the previous king died (or resigned, I can’t remember), and I had no fit leader among all my clan thanes.  I did, however, have one barely adequate candidate, and a LOT of wealth.  So rather than choose an opposing (but superior) tribal leader, I bought the election.  It worked; with enough gifts to the other clans, I got the votes for my clan’s candidate to be chosen.  However, while wealth was enough to win the election, it was not enough to keep the position.  Within four weeks of game time, the tribe revolted and demanded her resignation.  Even my chosen candidate was asking to be allowed to resign from a job she herself felt she had failed.

I learned from this that wealth can buy an election, but cannot turn a poor leader into a good one.  Drawing on my vast wealth of gamer experience, and some education and observation, I suggest this tells us the truly insidious way Super PACs are going to destroy our democracy.  I’m not saying that Rick Santorum would be a better President than Mitt Romney.  But all the evidence is that Santorum is a better Republican candidate.  He appeals to Republican voters through what he says and does.  Romney, on the other hand, is outspending his opponents by as much as 55 to 1.  Let’s put that in perspective.  If 55 people told you that I was a Swedish porn actress, by the time one person came along to tell you I wasn’t, you’d be pretty well convinced otherwise, right?  And if that one person convinced you that I was just possibly an American male, there’d be a line of fifty or so people coming along to remind you why you  had thought I was blond and female.  I’d wager that in three days, you’d swear you’d actually seen me in “The Bare Ring Sea” on Cinemax. [1] Anyone who invests enough money can persuade a crowd of otherwise uninformed people (that is, Americans) of pretty much anything, simply by repeating the point over and over again.  Thanks to the magic of the Citizens United ruling, Mitt Romney has enough money behind him that he could convince anyone but Santorum’s immediate family that he is a Kennedy-style Big Government Liberal.

Why is this bad?  Let’s assume that the attack ads bought by Romney’s Super PAC allies are not false, although certainly they are slanted.  That is, the ads are not lying; they are merely pointing out the imperfections that any person has, relentlessly and unceasingly, until anyone paying even the slightest attention to them is convinced that every alternative candidate is hopelessly inept, corrupt, and unelectable.  At the same time, there is still enough cash left over to buy ads to refute or just drown out any criticism of Romney.  They don’t seem to say anything that makes him a better candidate; all the evidence is that Romney inspires grudging acceptance among Republican voters.  Even those who endorse him say things like, “Well, there are candidates we wish had run, but they didn’t, so I say let’s accept this guy.”  If Romney is the tallest lily in the field, it’s because he’s hired an army of mowers to chop down every other stalk to the bare stubble.

Even if the campaign were more “positive,” however, I’m not sure it would matter much.  After all, has ANYTHING ever been improved by the infusion of unlimited advertising dollars?  What is the most popular restaurant in the world?  McDonalds.  Is it the best?  Does it have the best food?  Is it the healthiest, the tastiest, the most filling?  Not really.  It’s not bad.  It’s acceptable.  But you could eat better at home, by any standard.  You could find any number of smaller, privately-owned cafes or grills that would arguably be better values.  But it is expertly, and extensively advertised.  It has an image.  If you’re hungry and you’re rushed, there is almost an “aura of inevitability” about McD’s.

We see similar effects in music.  There are good artists, who start on their own and win a following, and there are mediocre artists who star on the Mickey Mouse Club or otherwise attract industrial-level money early on, who are created by handlers, promoters and hype.  They have great careers until they have a sound malfunction on SNL or something similar, and then people suddenly realize that they were sold a pretty but empty box.  Sometimes, it seems, there is an artist who has genuine talent despite also having heavy promotion—-I’m thinking of Frank Sinatra, for example, who was said to have about the heaviest promotion possible.  But of course, Sinatra came along before Auto-Tune; he had to have some talent to start with.

Industrial-level spending can even create demands where none existed, for products no one needs.  Why are Americans obese? By definition, because they eat when they are not really hungry.  Why would they do that?  Because they watch television, and you can’t go ten minutes without seeing happy, pretty people with better lives than yours enjoying some hot, tasty and ready-to-eat consumable item with apparently unbridled joy.  Seeing others eat, or drink, is itself a natural appetite stimulant; add to that the subconscious associations the ads build up between the products and all sorts of intangibles (relaxation, popularity, social acceptance, sex appeal to name a few) and it’s no wonder that before the program is over you find yourself eating something.

My point is, with enough advertising, it is possible to sell anything, for a while.  (You can fool all of the people some of the time.)  You can create fears of things that are not in fact a threat, as when political action groups warn of the takeover of Sharia law in a nation with a Muslim population of less than 1% (expected to double in the next twenty years—watch out!).[2]  You can create confidence in solutions that do not exist, like the belief that if we drill more oil wells we’ll be immune to fuel cost fluctuations (even though we currently export more gasoline than we use).[3]  And then, you can create a candidate who offers to solve the non-existent problems and to bring the non-existent solutions—in short, you can create a non-existent candidate.  He (or she) walks, talks, even eats the local foods—but crack open his (or her) head and there’s no real thinking, crack open the heart and there’s no real passion or values.

Political candidates have always been products, more or less, like any other.  And like any other product, they can be spoiled in the same ways.  The main difference is that in the U.S. there are slander and false-advertising laws for every product except politicians.  If Budweiser told us that Heineken beer was part of a foreign plot (just look at the name—sounds European to me!), that it would destroy your body and eventually the nation, the lawsuit that would follow would leave Anheuser-Busch bankrupt.  But if that same company gives money to a Super PAC to say that some politician is a foreign agent, a traitor, a criminal etc. this is perfectly legal, protected political free speech.  Even if the company’s motives are simply that it fears that the targeted candidate likes Heineken more than Bud and it sees that as a marketing threat, it can give money to spin stories that no one at the Super PAC or the company actually believes, just as a business strategy.  Companies have more protection against false advertising than actual political candidates.  Corporations aren’t people—people are still subject to laws.  Gods are above the laws, gods make the laws.

The more money that is available to a candidate, the better able an inferior candidate is to appear superior, and to make a superior opponent appear inferior.  The more anonymous corporate money present in a campaign, the more the giving and the “uncoordinated” advertising will be dictated by the business agenda of corporations, rather than the actual capabilities of the candidates.  And if a successful CEO, bored with business, decides he wants to be President, he only has to tap his fellow CEOs and their corporations for financial help, and he can quickly amass a fortune (if Romney sneezed on the campaign trail today, the Marriots could send him $100,000 worth of tissues tomorrow out of petty cash).

In that respect, Romney isn’t nearly the worst possibility; he is at least a politician, with some job experience as a political leader.  There are plenty of other billionaires who know how to run a company (or at least how to get rich while the company goes bankrupt), but who couldn’t manage even a small city.  This is virtually inevitable, according to Dr. Laurence J. Peter.  You may have heard of The Peter Principle:  In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his (or her) level of incompetence.  For every job in the world, there is someone, somewhere, who cannot do it.  Given enough time and enough promotions, that square peg will find the destined round hole, there to cripple the organization through his or her well-meant but misdirected efforts.[4]  Sometimes, however, a person really does make it to the top and succeed.  Rarely, however, does that end the story.  Anyone with the ambition and self-confidence to work his or her way to the top of a major organization is unlikely to want to kick back and coast for the next forty years.  Are there no more challenges?  Must I, like Alexander, weep because there are no more worlds to conquer?  No!  I’ve run a business; why couldn’t I run a nation?  At least my company turns a profit!

Peter calls this “compulsive incompetence.”[5]  Ambitious, competitive people want challenge, and believe they are up to any possible challenge.  Most of us don’t know our limits until life teaches them to us; and by then it’s too late, we’ve reached our levels of incompetence.  U.S. Grant could run an army, but found running the nation much harder; he was a successful candidate but a mediocre President.  I’ll leave it to you to think of the people who should have avoided that last challenge, who got elected or got book deals or star acting roles or whatever based on success in unrelated jobs, only to finally find their levels of incompetence.

The Citizens United ruling has simply made it that much easier for someone with deep pockets and rich friends to achieve his or her level of incompetence, and to achieve it much faster and more spectacularly than ever before.  The richest 0.01% of Americans gives 25% of all the campaign contributions.[6]  That means that with a few really rich friends, a compulsively incompetent candidate could raise enough money to overwhelm his or her political rivals one by one.

Without effective political finance reform, we are virtually guaranteed an endless stream of mediocrity in the highest offices of our land.  Those desperate to find the job at which they can fail, their ultimate challenge, their level of incompetence—-those will be our leaders.  Even when we voters sense their mediocrity, the sheer weight of mud they can buy to bury their opponents will crush all opposition.  Weak but well-financed candidates will become weak leaders, which will inevitably lead to a weak nation.  Our only hope is that, somehow, we the 99.99% can pool our resources to outspend the 0.01% who have virtually unlimited cash and can spend it as they wish, in order to elect a President or two who will appoint judges to the Supreme Court who will vote to overturn Citizens United and put us on a path to political sanity.

[1] Oh, and Cinemax:  That title is now copywritten so if you decide to use it, call me.

[2] Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Number of U.S. Muslims to Double,” USA Today, 1/27/11

[3] Michael Winter, USA Today, “U.S. Exported More Gasoline than Imported Last Year,” 2/29/2012

[4] Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull, The Peter Principle:  Why Things Always Go Wrong (Bantam Books Inc. NY, 1970) pp. 7-8

[5] Peter, pp. 86-88

[6] Cory Doctorow, “Who Are the Political .01%?” Boingboing 12/14/2011 (