Seminar for Paid Subscribers

On Institutional Irrationality

This will be conducted in eight weekly sessions on Zoom, with me and 6 other participants. You can watch all eight sessions for a one-time fee of $40. The fee gets you

  • a ticket to sit in the audience. The audience will see and hear the discussion but they will be muted.

  • a chance to enter a contest to participate. Contestants will answer two short essay questions (out of four choices). The winners will become the 6 participants who join me “on stage” during the Zoom calls. They will not be muted and instead will be encouraged to speak.

  • a way to express support for this effort

The seminar will meet on Monday evenings, from 8-9 PM New York time, starting November 1 and finishing December 20.

The topic is Institutional Irrationality. I think that many of our current problems cannot be solved by institutions that have gone off the rails.


  1. Why this matters. What seems broken in the realms of government, politics, journalism, social media, and academia. How does actual performance of the institutions in these realms differ from past performance? from reasonable potential performance? Prestige hierarchies vs. Dominance hierarchies

  2. Trends. What external factors are putting pressure on institutions? demographics; changes in family patterns and social norms; computers/Internet/social media; economy (intangibles, new commanding heights, concentration, wealth); globalization; Are any of these changes accidental? reversible?

  3. Definitions. what is an institution? what is rational? what is institutional rationality? Formal institutions vs. informal agreements. The significance of the Dunbar number.

  4. Institutional failure. What can we learn from: the collapse of the Soviet empire; the 2008 financial crisis, especially Freddie Mac; Xerox PARC; the Vietnam war

  5. Problems that institutions must solve: principal-agent problems; coordination problems; information flows; playing the game of stand pat, change by copying another idea, or innovate; taking good risks and avoiding bad risks; cohesion and dissent; selecting for the right characteristics

  6. Tools of rationality in organizations: org charts; meetings; bureaucratic habits, inertia, and veto mechanisms; compensation systems; planning process; software development methods. What problems do these tools help address? What problems do they create/exacerbate?

  7. Why are key institutions breaking down now? Were they optimized for different environment? Are they victims of their own success? Have they been sabotaged?

  8. Ideas for new institutions: prediction markets; crytpo-topia; democratic reforms; reinventing government; new forms of public dialogue; alternative education institutions; Fantasy Intellectual Teams.

Subscribers can expect to receive posts with suggested readings. Books that have influenced me include David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, Joseph Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success, David Brin’s The Transparent Society, Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public, Yuval Levin’s A Time to Build, Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset, and Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge. If you do a search for my name next to the author’s name (for example “Arnold Kling Halberstam”) you can find something I wrote about their work.

I hope you enjoy the seminar!