A while back I was invited to a private Celluloid screening of Goodfellas in LA with Producer Irwin Winkler. Afterwards someone asked what was different, making a film in the late 80s from today, and Irwin said that at one point Martin Scorsese was close to abandoning the project because they couldn't get it off the ground, so he called up Warner Brothers and asked what he needed to get the film green lit. The boss at WB said that they needed a star, so Irwin gave him his word that he would find a star, and the boss at WB green lit the film right there and then over the phone. That would never happen today.
In 1955 Lockhead Skunkworks designed and built the U2 Spy plane in 9 months on the order of the CIA. Today the development of a military aircraft takes 20-30 years. 9 years after 9/11 Ground zero still a hole. (I read that they found a antique boat a few weeks ago so that must mean they are still digging down rather then building up.) The empire state building was designed in two weeks and built in less then a year under time table and budget.
You can argue that things have gotten more complex with time, but the Empire state building was the worlds tallest building for more then 40 years and had a plane crash in to it without the people on the floors above even notice it, and the U2 plane remains in operation today, and is still the highest flying jet, and they where built without the aid of computers, mostly by hand. The problem isn't that we cant build things, that we don't have engineers, know-how, materials or even funds, the problem is that we cant take decisions.
One of the great benefits of a capitalism, I'm being told, is that it requires a lot less bureaucracy then a state runned system in order to take decisions. The thought is that it gives people with the best ideas the power to take the decisions rather then distributing the power to hordes of bureaucrats who needs to reach consensus. By letting thousands of people go off in different bold directions, we will produce new things that will benefit all, ideas that emanate from the vision of one rather then the consensus of many.
Yet, no one person is in power any more. The colorful industrialists of the past has given way for the gray, indistinguishable goo that is "the market". The market has no vision, no strategy, no gumption, it just slowly consumes all power. It used to be that people with money had power, now people with money are just flowing in the current of the market. Getting rich from creating a company used to mean power, now getting rich means an IPO and that means your company is now controlled by the market rather then you. The visionary have given way to fund managers looking to squeeze out another quarter point in the next quarter rather then building a empire to stand the test of time, They unleash an army of middle managers each looking for cents to save, but none of them with a vision that reaches beyond their cubicle. The pyramided may be a wonder of the world, but our economists are unable to justify building them so our time is unable to replicate a feat of four thousand years ago.
If we define bureaucracy as the task or organizing the allocation of goods and services, then every management, accounting, sales, logistics, billing, legal, payroll, PR, and marketing department are nothing by bureaucracy. The entire financial sector, every bank, every economist, bean counter or corporate lawyer are essentially bureaucracy. By those standards we have a system consumed by bureaucracy. Bureaucracy isn't necessarily bad, but it becomes bad when the bureaucracy itself becomes more important then the real world it is trying to organize. When presidents and prime ministers, flinch at the smallest market movement, you know our bureaucracy has consumed all power. Don't you dare tax carbon or add a bank levy, no matter what your voters (or common scene, for that matter) says.
My guess is that when the guy from CIA left the room at skunkworks, the first thing the engineers did was to walk up to a black board and started drawing a plane, where the wings should go, the engine, and the cockpit. Today we would have started with a schedule and a budget, a Gantt chart and then moved on to a few concepts explorations, a simulation, and then a few technology demonstrators... It would have taken years before they would let an engineer actually build something. In fact much of our technology innovation in terms of productivity like, simulation, spreadsheets, wikis, visualization and presentation software are there not to do the job but to help us take a decision on what to do.
Three years ago China bought the right to build Japanese bullet trains. At the time they had no high speed rails, now they have more kilometers of high speed rail then the rest of the world combined, and the trains have evolved in to a fully Chinese design. They did put 10.000 engineers on it though. That may sound a lot but given the size of the population, unemployed population for that matter, in most countries its nothing. (Would it surprise you to know that most of the top people in the Communist party are engineers?). While we are hoping that a financially conservative market will sort things out eventuality, they are playing Sim City, plotting out rail roads, police stations and ports. If you are building power stations in Sim City, you don't just build one, you build many. Why wait for the market to ask for them, when you know they will be needed eventually, so why not just keep clicking on more lots? Economically trains are almost always a no brainer, there is no better way to stimulate the economy in a city then running a train through it, so why aren't we all building trains?
The Soviet union dint fall because their flavor of Communism didn't solve any problems, but because it dint try to fix its flaws. They had no unemployment, no one went hungry, everyone had housing and health care. That's a tall feat that few countries can bolster, but that didn't matter because they didn't have freedom of speech, individual rights, democracy, and their system did not promote innovation. The people at the top got so good at navigating the bureaucracy that they fearsly defended it from any reform and without constant evolution the system was doomed. The decision makers became blockers on any decisions. They where all shocked because they had talked themselves in to believing that the system that served them well was infallible. That's a lesson worth learning because when I hear most economist speak about our economy they talk about it as if it was a inevitable force of nature and not a construct made by man.
And by the way, Martin Scorsese called up Robert DeNiro, who said yes over the phone that that is how they got their star.