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GP 12 July 2006: The Torquay Phenomenon: Bureaucracy Unbounded

The Madwoman of Chaillot.  Somewhere in the South, a somewhat battered looking veteran of corporate wars whispered to us, “Well, we’re in the last thousand yards of a 26-mile race.”  A sage fellow in our midst whispered, “Little does he know.  This race has no beginning and it will certainly have no end.”  He has taken up battle with a Woman of Madness, whether divine madness or just bloomin’ craziness we will never know. 

She is a transplanted Madwoman of Chaillot

Written in Paris during the time of the German occupation, The Madwoman of Chaillot places high emphasis on witty dialogue, nonsensical situations, and an over-the-top style.  In fact, with its playful tone and bold reality twists, it may remind many of the Marx Brothers or Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  Set in Paris between the two world wars, it is the story of an eccentric proprietress of a bustling cafe named Countess Aurelia, who, with the help of her ragamuffin friends, fends off the arrogant intrusions of a pack of greedy businessmen.  Believing they taste a touch of petroleum in the café’s drinking water, the businessmen attempt to swindle the countess of her livelihood for access to what they believe is a proverbial ocean of oil below. 

Giraudoux knew something about Americans and was well aware that it’s not only German oppressors or greedy French bourgeoisie who pick on people they deem helpless. There are plenty of small-timers to go around everywhere. 

In this Southern edition of the French play, the woman in question has put up an eccentric house, which she hopes is Norman and windswept, and has speckled her landscape with random shrubs and trees, as if the wind were blowin’ in from the sea.  Her tormentors, who style themselves Keepers of the Covenants for the development’s wee proprietors association, are refugees from big corporations and big government, rather mediocre middle managers with Chemlawn personalities who have been set free to visit their craziness on the neighborhood.  They want white paint and manicured lawns.  Her daft personality magically brings screwballs out of the woodwork, so it’s no wonder this lady and her opponents are locked in psychotic combat.  They’re all nuts.  Naturally, as in all loony soap operas, nobody has won, and the community has lost. 

The Torquay Connection.  This nonsense is just 6 degrees removed from Fawlty Towers, set in the town of Torquay on the Devon Coast of England.  Fawlty Towers is a wonderful, side-splitting, made-for-TV series which, for our money, is the best thing ever to come out of Monty Python and John Cleese.  Only 12 episodes were hatched, but they are regarded as British TV classics, and you can buy them easily from your old movie catalog.  We are particularly fond of Manuel, the waiter from Barcelona, who finds English and just about everything else in Torquay incomprehensible.  When the Monty Python comedy group went to Torquay, it put up at Gleneagles, run by a controlling, unpleasant proprietor who served as the model for Basil Fawlty.  In Fawlty Towers, everybody is a nut—sometimes unpleasant but always crazy.  Anything and everything can go wrong, and it does. 

Middling people, not unlike the middle managers above, these Fawlty people encapsulate the bureaucratic consciousness.  Bureaucrats do what they do, not because it’s leading anywhere, but because it’s what they know how to do and it’s what they have always done.  They’re people who are comfortable in a rut, headed nowhere, because there’s not a prayer that they will get out of their ditch. 

We would prefer to believe that the Madwoman of Chaillot or Fawlty Towers are all made up, exaggerations that have nothing to do with real life.  But life not only imitates art: it goes it one better.  The Norman Lady and the two Covenant Keepers are all too real.  And just recently, in fact, we learned from one of our correspondents of another outbreak of Fawlty Towers in Torquay: 

IS BASIL FAWLTY still running a hotel in Torquay?  A cricket umpire who was ordered to leave his £25-a-night bed-and-breakfast hotel because he asked for fresh fruit fears that this may be the case. 

Torquay has been struggling to overcome the lasting impression of bumptious inefficiency since John Cleese set the much-loved 1970s television comedy series Fawlty Towers, about a manic hotelier, in the resort.  Only last month local business leaders urged the town to shake off its “Fawlty” image to attract more visitors. 

One Steve Kuhlmann was sent packing by Roger Rixson, the owner of the Gainsboro.  The supremacy of pointless actions and aimless intellects was once again affirmed. 

The Servant. In 1963 Joseph Losey crafted a brilliant film written by Harold Pinter and starring the very powerful Dirk Bogarde.  It’s probably a metaphor for Great Britain, and, more broadly, for developed societies around the world.  Here the boys at the top—the upper class and presumably the echelon that supplies society’s leadership—go soft and corrupt, allowing the servants to take over.  But the servants are mainly equipped with cunning and malevolence, not a recipe for a healthy nation.  There’s no hint that a servant can take aim at a greater good. 

We are currently looking at a world where “the servants” are taking over.  Middling people are being elevated well beyond their level of competence, and they are not equipped with a view of how society goes forward.  In our 2003 Annual Report on Annual Reports called “The Shock of Recognition and the Uncertainty Principle,” we suggest that the current crop of business top executives are without strategy, inventing their tactics as they go, which largely means repeating what they did yesterday: 

Annual reports 2003, if read carefully, indicate we’ve met a rude, new economy that demands strategic responses the like of which we have never imagined before.  Yet, most days, we find the great mass of leaders in most segments of society acting as if the same old rules apply.  Even though many are shifting strategy, they have not yet revamped their day-to-day operating tactics.  They require the “shock of recognition” that will permit them to grasp that their world is suffering from global wrenching, and they must change everything in their small piece of it if they are to render economic value. 

The real thing that differentiates a leader from a bureaucrat is the ability to carve new trails: we are not seeing a lot of that. 

The Rumsfeld-Cheney Administration.  This bureaucratization, where the future is deemed to be a prelude to the past, describes as well the impasse of our national government.  The spirit of Torquay has reached into our highest offices.  Both domestically and overseas, we are caught up in programs that will bankrupt us, a problem Great Britain experienced in prior centuries.  Bureaucrats, such as Rumsfeld and Cheney, much out of their depth, are reckless with national treasure.  With no larger end in sight.  In fact, with no end in sight.  It is their reckless use of scarce resources that is alienating all parts of the American political spectrum.  But they are just doing what they have always done, because that’s all they know.  And, assuredly, they, too, think they are in the last mile of a 26-mile race. 

Bjorn Lomborg from the University of Aarhas in Denmark illuminates this sort of question.  He’s much reviled by scientists around the world, having panned many of their extreme environmental concerns in the Sceptical Environmentalist.  Even his colleagues have written us to call him a fraud, a scoundrel, and worse things.  As we remember, only The Economist has come to his defense.  He’s making sheep-like thinkers angry again: 

So all the more credit to Mr. Lomborg, who several weeks ago got his first big shot at reprogramming world leaders.  His organization, the Copenhagen Consensus Center, held a new version of the exercise in Georgetown.  In attendance were eight U.N. ambassadors, including John Bolton. (China and India signed on, though no Europeans.) They were presented with global projects, the merits of each of which were passionately argued by experts in those fields.  Then they were asked: If you had an extra $50 billion, how would you prioritize your spending?

And perhaps no surprise, their final list looked very similar to that of the wise economists. At the top were better health care, cleaner water, more schools and improved nutrition. At the bottom was … global warming.

Not that Mr. Lomborg doesn’t think global warming is a problem—he does.  But he lays out the facts.  “The proposed way of fixing this—to drastically reduce carbon emissions now and to solve a 100-year problem in a 10-year time frame, is just a bad idea.  You do fairly little good at a fairly high price.  It makes more sense to solve the 100-year problem in a 50-year time frame, and solve the 10-year problems, like HIV-AIDS, in a five-year time frame.  That makes sense, and is the smart way to spend money.” 

You can read the full text of his ideas about priorities in “Get Your Priorities Right,” Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2006, p. A10.  We don’t know that Lomborg has got his priorities right, and we fault the editor-light WSJ for not simply publishing the full list in the article. 

That said, Lomborg and Company separate themselves from Cheney, Rumsfeld, and our nest of high-rolling bureaucrats by trying to debate how we are to use scarce resources to secure our future.  A cumbersome, outmoded war machine is bound to lose against an insidious virus we call terrorism.  We need a lean strategy for government, just as we needed and still need Lean Thinking to save American business. 

The Peter Principle.  Written in 1969, The Peter Principle was a humorous business treatise that led to a British sitcom of the same name.  In it Dr. Lawrence J. Peter claimed that “In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence.”  But no matter how humorous, Peter was in deadly earnest.  Sadly he has been vindicated by time.  Hapless incompetents have seized every throne. 

The Torquay Corollary.  Lawrence Peter, of course, only got it half right.  He realized that incompetence was a growth industry.  But he did not comprehend just how fiendishly clever the incompetent are: they can make pure hell of our life.  That’s what Fawlty Towers had to show us.  The incompetent are a torture.  In real life, this kind of comedy quickly turns to unrelenting agony. 

We have a hunch that the Torquay Corollary was invented centuries before in Imperious Spain.  There Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada held sway, a fanatic who put the screws to the people in the name of religion, but who was no more than a fanatic.  He exerted temporal power that was equal to the king’s and lost for Spain its claim on greatness.  Incompetent fanatics can do that. 

P.S.  Marvelous Italy and beautiful Portugal were the World Cup stars, dimming the luster of France and Germany.  Were they better led?  The Red Swans prevail in a world that’s been turned upside down, and leadership is sorely lacking.  As we said in “Patria Nostra and Genuine Fakes,” the Italians have resources they bring to bear on life that are not immediately evident to statistical observers.

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