Deconstructing success

I have been trying to understand how certain nation-states are “more successful” than others. You can compare and contrast the West and South East Asian nations (as one cohort) with other “developing economies” of the world (the other cohort). This blog post (long-form) is a mix of generic and factual statements (and I am trying to understand it in the context of healthcare). The jury is still out for the “terminal decline” of the West, and represents an overstatement. However, it would still be instructive to understand its context and basic frameworks of “nation-states”, ideas that drive them, conceptual framework of an “institution” and enduring concept of “meritocracy”. I’d cite the example of America as the “successful” nation, since this embodies the amalgamation of the basic frameworks acting in cohort. I’d steer clear of the local politics involved, because it is not contributory to present discussion.

First defining the idea of nationhood and a preamble:

Why India Is A Nation – SANKRANT.ORG

Note that the concept of nationhood is based on the idea shared by a set of people that they constitute a nation. This idea or feeling may be based on common ties of a people based on their culture, common descent, language, religion or other such attributes. The state constitutes a group of people inhabiting a specific territory and living according to a common legal and political authority. Mediaeval Europe, for instance, was divided politically into many small principalities, the boundaries and sovereignties of which changed frequently[2]. Many of the countries as we know them today got established in the 19th and 20th century, and the boundaries of these changed throughout the 20th century – in the two World Wars, border disputes and the turmoil in Eastern Europe.

This is in direct contrast to the “civilisational states” like India. From the same link:

A nation that was uniquely bound together in myriads of ways, yet not cast into a mono-conceptual homogeneity of language, worship, belief or practice by the diktat of a centralized church, intolerant of diversity.

And this unity as nation has been with us far before the idea of America existed. Far before the Franks had moved into northern France and the Visigoths into Spain, before the Christian Church was established and Islam was born. They have been there before Great Britain existed, before the Saxons had moved into Britannia. They have been there while empires have fallen, from when Rome was a tiny village to when it ruled an empire that rose and collapsed.

The reason I link the idea of “nationhood” is intricately linked to the idea of governance. I have always been fascinated by the establishment of American constitution (and my constant interaction with my mentor and benefactor), who’s shed much light on this.

Here’s something interesting about the American constitution. While there are many interpretations, I find this quite valid:

The Unique Idea of the American Constitution

America’s founders embraced a previously unheard-of political philosophy which held that people are “…endowed BY THEIR CREATOR with certain unalienable rights..” This was the statement of guiding principle for the new nation, and, as such, had to be translated into a concrete charter for government. The Constitution of The United States of America became that charter. Other forms of government, past and present, rely on the state as the grantor of human rights. America’s founders, however, believed that a government made up of imperfect people exercising power over other people should possess limited powers. Through their Constitution, they wished to “secure the blessings of liberty” for themselves and for posterity by limiting the powers of government.

(emphasis mine)

We have established the basic grounds for nationhood (versus civilisational states) and then comes the second part – the idea of institutions:

This is an interesting illustration of the American Institution:

America Needs Nationalism – The American Conservative

To understand nationhood, we need to define “nation.” Ernest Renan provides a definition in his classic lecture on the subject: “a soul, a spiritual principle… the desire to live together, and desire to continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received…. a great solidarity constituted by the feeling of sacrifices made and those that one is still disposed to make.” This may require “forgetting… even historical error.” A product of long, shared history, involving both bottom-up organic evolution and top-down state-led socialization, nationhood creates a strong sense of togetherness and common destiny and identity—an “imagined community”, in the words of Benedict Anderson. This sentiment of nationhood is upheld in, as Renan said, “a daily plebiscite, just as an individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life.” It requires continuous reinforcement, especially in large populations, in order to maintain its force. This is especially true as the baton of leadership is passed on from generation to generation.

(emphasis mine)

From this thought, the idea of “enduring institution” flows. Socio-cultural factors are those aspects of social environment that are the direct result of intersection between the cultural underpinnings of a society (collective system of values, beliefs and thoughts) and its social processes and organisation mechanisms (such as social interaction and relationships and institutional dynamics). This is an interesting abstract about the “Rules Theory” of an institution:

Institutions and their strength | Economics & Philosophy | Cambridge Core

Strong institutions are important for a safe, prosperous and just society. In such a society corruption is low, investment is high, and people enjoy equal opportunities. Because of this, it is important to explain what makes an institution strong rather than weak. An account of institutional strength requires a theory of institutions. The most influential ones are equilibrium theories and rule theories (Rutherford Reference Rutherford1994; Greif and Kingston Reference Greif and Kingston2011). According to equilibrium theories, institutions are stable behavioural regularities that solve coordination or cooperation problems.Footnote 2 A virtue of these formal theories is that they model the motivation of the participants of institutions in a precise manner. In contrast, rule theories regard institutions as rules that structure human interaction

(emphasis mine)

My submission is that a strong idea of nation-state begets an institutional framework which allows for “equal opportunities”

Institutions are norm-governed practices. This view preserves the explanatory power of equilibrium theories. And it captures the normative dimension of institutions in a way similar to rule theories. Crucially, a social norm can govern a social practice even if the latter does not correspond to the former, as long as the participants experience its pull or push.

Once you establish this basic ground rule, it becomes relatively easy to understand the notion of “success”. From the initiation and growth of an institutional complex to the ability to create a long-term blueprint and defining leadership, negotiating challenges are critical “success” factors. These are not limited to education, macroeconomic stability, social security and cultural aspects. If you provide an “institutional mechanism”, the success further depends on the quality of immigration. Here’s a paper to discuss this:

Immigration to the United States: Recent Trends and Future Prospects – PMC

Foreign students have become increasingly central to American higher education, particularly in graduate education in engineering and the sciences. After graduating with advanced degrees from American universities, many foreign students return to their home countries, but a significant share is attracted to employment opportunities in American universities, laboratories, and industries. Many of the foreign students who have become permanent residents or US citizens go on to make important contributions to the development of American science and engineering.

This of course led to a backlash and creation of the “privileged classes”. From the same link as above:

As most Northeastern and Midwestern cities became dominated by immigrants (both first and second generations) in the late 19th century, many elite old-stock American families and communities created barriers to protect their ‘aristocratic’ status and privileges against newcomers (Higham 1988). Residential areas became ‘restricted,’ college fraternities and sororities limited their membership, and many social clubs and societies only allowed those with the right pedigrees and connections to be admitted (Baltzell 1964). Barriers to employment for minorities, especially Jews, were part of the culture of corporate law firms and elite professions (Auerbach 1975: Chap. 2). In the early 20th century, many elite private universities were notorious for their quotas for Jewish students and their refusal to hire Jews and other minorities (Baltzell 1964: 336; Karabel 2006). In some cases, these quotas persisted until the 1960s.

(emphasis mine)

Note, the rise of the “gatekeeping”. However, this opened up other opportunities without discrimination giving us another point: meritocracy.

The growing number of talented Jewish students, mostly second generation immigrants, certainly raised the standards at universities that did not discriminate. As universities began to compete for faculty and graduate students during the post-World War II era, the quota restrictions eventually disappeared (Karabel 2006). Elite colleges and universities still retain legacies of non-merit based admission systems, including programmes to privilege children of alumni. There is also evidence that Asian American students have not been admitted in numbers proportional to their test scores (Espenshade and Chung 2005), but these current practices are only a shadow of those of earlier times. The point is not that universities are completely meritocratic, but that they have become more meritocratic with increasing competition and acceptance of talented ‘outsiders.’

Meritocracy has been dubbed as a “myth” by the “liberal thinkers” and the earliest evidence I could find was this Springer article here:

American education, meritocratic ideology, and the legitimation of inequality: the community college and the problem of American exceptionalism | SpringerLink

Several characteristic features of the American educational system are identified: the avoidance of early selection, the lack of sharp segmentation between different types of institutions, relative freedom of movement both among and within institutions, openness to new fields of study, high levels of enrollment, and the provision of opportunities for educational mobility well into adulthood. The two-year public community college, it argues, is an essential expression of these patterns which, through its very accessibility, reinforces the American ideology that it is never too late for individual talent to reveal itself – and to be rewarded.

(emphasis mine)

So, we have two intersecting threads: Meritocracy and the success of immigrants to bring in diversity of ideas that strengthen the success of an institution under the ambit of a nation-state defined by the constitution. One overlooked factor in this discussion is the political-military complex (supported by the bureaucracy) that determines the internal and external policies, and a continued quest to keep its dominance (of “economy”, “finance” and “idea-pipeline”) to grant an enabling environment for this to thrive. While there are several flaws in the current execution presently, it is critical to understand the basic frameworks as a template for application elsewhere. (Further reading: Downloadable PDF)

Now comes the “idea of success” and the trigger to deconstruct the idea of success, which was a fascinating post published here.

Why success stories are just propaganda — Martin Weigel

The most tedious stories we ever tell are success stories. From the podium at Cannes Lions,  TED talks, conference keynote presentations, the pages of the Harvard Business Review and The McKinsey Quarterly, the pronouncements of rockstar marketers, the breezy empowering wisdom of those who’ve made it to the top of their chosen greasy pole, and pretty much every business book ever written… the narrative – implicit or explicit – is always the same:

I succeeded. I succeeded because I did this. And I am really good at this. You are not doing this. But if you do this you and you are good at it you can succeed too.”

Here’s something to think about:

In reducing their achievements down to a single factor, those who tell their stories of success invariably claim (or believe) to have had a monopoly of control of events and outcomes, and vastly exaggerate their agency. Yet no person, no organisation, no business functions in isolation from the environments and contexts they are located within. Any story of success is a story of a complex interaction of factors. Reducing that complexity to a single variable or a simple aphorism might make for good storytelling, but it is usually an exercise in nonsense.

(emphasis mine)

I won’t go into specific examples listed therein on the link above, but I’d come down to one important instance here – the so-called “visionary” Jobs. He just got lucky by “birth-lottery” and a set of opportune circumstances.

Much for example, is made of the vision, intellect and intuition of Steve Jobs. But Jobs was also enormously lucky.

  1. Lucky for a start that he was born in the US not, say, the Congo.
  2. Lucky that he was born in San Francisco which within 20 years would be emerging as a technology hub.
  3. Lucky that during the 1960s DARPA’s  funding of new computer science departments at US universities had expanded the number of researchers and accelerated technological change in this area.
  4. Lucky that research already carried out in various public–private partnerships at labs including those at DARPA, AT&T Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, Shockley and Fairchild had revolutionized the semiconductor industry through the introduction of silicon.
  5. Lucky that as the sole consumers of the first processing units based on this new circuit design, defence contracts had already helped fund the development of the microprocessor industry.
  6. Lucky that touchscreen technology had already been invented by E. A. Johnson, while working at Royal Radar Establishment a British government agency in the1960s.
  7. Lucky thatmulti-touch scrolling and gestures had already been developed by Wayne Westerman and John Elias (funded by the State) at the University of Delaware in the 1990s.
  8. Lucky that through the 1970s through the 1990s, DARPA had funded the development ofTCP/IP.
  9. Lucky that Tim Berners-Lee had developed the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), uniform resource locators (URL) and uniform Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) in the 1980s.
  10. Lucky that GPS had been developed by the Department of Defence in the 1970s.
  11. Lucky in other words, that all the major technologies that made the iPhone possible already existed, and lucky that public funding had enabled the military to take on the burden of capital-intensive risk in developing them.

The “success” of Apple (and the claims of Jobs’ hagiography) fail to capture the essence of “institutions”. It is true that big tech is canvassing against the same institutions that allowed competition of ideas and avoided monopolies to now being subverted to suit their investors’ goals.

Here’s something more:

Because their success was the result of a complex set of factors only some of which they controlled and only some (at best) of which will apply to you. Because consciously or unconsciously they will edit out the role of luck in their accounts of their success. Because their success was not an inevitability. Because they cannot know what will make you successful. Because they are survivors and thus are only half the story. And because book sales, professional reputation, conferenceticket sales and the need for a good story mean that they will never tell you any of this.

The success of US is a unique model that has not been replicated elsewhere. Yes, there are subjective experiences or fantasies or dogmas explaining the “success stories”, but they are propaganda. An individual needs to make his way; the administrators need to increase the individual and state-capacity to encourage those with specific actionable ideas and implementation/administrative skills. Gatekeeping, in any form, is only virtue-signalling, destroys the institutions in the long-term, and undermines the success of policy/polity and society. Interestingly, while China has stolen (or poached) many engineers and people engaged in high value sectors, they haven’t been able to replicate the apparent success. It’s a topical debate on how much relative success they have had, but their apparent failure is in lack of diversity and failure to attract immigrants. Singapore’s Achilles’ heel is the same. They are definitely investing in the “chip manufacturing” and “high-end industries”, but they work on refinement of processes backed by a bureaucracy that delivers while shunning immigration that would get diversity of ideas. I don’t hear about the DARPA model in China (or Singapore/South Korea) or matching investments in idea pools. The success of Singapore as a nation-state was a clear pact between the charismatic political “founding-father” and the citizens exchanging their “rights” for prosperity. This model has served them well, so far. Their continual success depends on keeping the status quo intact.

Successful nations, enterprises and individuals have numerous trade-offs to achieve an equilibrium to spur development, benefiting the societal constituents, besides being able to defend itself from external and internal challenges defining the resilience. The path forward for any individual is to define and ally with these frameworks.

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