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Imagine you have a large, powerful nation. Let's say about 320 million well-educated citizens, occupying the largest part of a rich, fertile continent. It's the richest country on the planet.

For my story, I need it to be utterly dysfunctional. Why would it consistently fail at most of its infrastructure projects? I'm thinking both civilian and military, wasting vast amounts of resources on albatross projects, money pits and other such, to the point where other smaller nations with many fewer resources would be able to accomplish things (such as hypersonic trains, next gen fighters or manned spaceflight) that it cannot?

A good answer would provide an near unsolvable situation (by that I mean it cannot be solved by one legal change, cabinet reshuffle or such) and real world examples, if they exist.

Edit: Note that the country must have been doing something right (in the past) otherwise it would not have become the richest on the planet and must still be doing something right (otherwise they would have since ceased to be the richest on the planet)...

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    $\begingroup$ Because Ghandi finished it a turn earlier? $\endgroup$ – Azor Ahai May 25 '16 at 16:33
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    $\begingroup$ A Google search on for why government technology/IT projects fail would probably be rather instructive. A lot of the reasons are the same across countries/government, and almost all are deep-rooted, systemic issues that are in no danger of changing any time soon/ever. (And it's not like the reasons don't apply to infrastructure projects... ever seen a government construction project, like road work? They also seem to be perpetually over budget, past deadline, and just a god-awful mess.) $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b May 25 '16 at 18:11
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    $\begingroup$ This question is so thinly-veiled I don't know how anyone is taking it seriously. This stack exchange isn't "chat about whatever topic you want as long as you dress it up in some perfunctory world building context." $\endgroup$ – Brian Gordon May 25 '16 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ 320million is the population of the USA, just for context of anyone who missed that. $\endgroup$ – Lyndon White May 26 '16 at 8:47
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianGordon actually, good SF has always been a way to speak alegorically about real-world issues and events. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz May 27 '16 at 5:37

22 Answers 22

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Germany isn't the richest and strongest country in the world, but many would consider it rich and strong, and it has 80 Million citizens, not 320 Million, but still ... And yet, we're completely unable to build a new airport in our capital. In our army, only 42 of 109 Eurofighters are in working condition, 4 of 22 Sea Lynx helicopters, 3 of 21 Sea Kings (source).

So you don't have to look too far to find actual, real-world examples for your question.

Several factors contribute to this kind of inefficiency:

  • Corruption, Old Boy's networks. It was known for years that the German army's rifle had serious problems, but the responsible officers favoured their industry connections over a working weapon they thought wouldn't ever be actually used anyway.
  • Bureaucracy. You implement rules to stop corruption and nepotism. You tighten those rules more and more as people find ways around them. You make project managers get several offers from different suppliers and force them to choose the cheapest one. This works well when you order next year's supply of toilet paper, but tends to favour incompetent contractors when you need to solve newish, difficult, non-standard projects.
  • Lack of responsibility. Fixed rules for when a public servant gets promoted that don't take personal performance in account. There's no incentive - negative or positive - to get a project done in time and in budget, so those who run it just don't care.
  • Secondary objectives which, individually, make sense, but combined, prevent any progress. Some ecologist group tells you you can't remove any trees in spring because that would endanger the nests of a rare bird. Minority group activists try to make sure their group gets the necessary attention. The local business owner's association wants you to contract them instead of outside multinational companies. Combined, these bring your project to a stop, but you can't ignore any of them because you don't need the negative media attention.
  • Saturation of your society. You're powerful, you're wealthy, your population starts resisting change. After decades of planning, building a Transrapid train in Germany was cancelled, because who needs it anyway and trains are good enough. The technology was sold to China eventually. Munich tried to host the 2022 Olympiad, citizens revolted, demanded an election, and eventually stopped the bid. (source).
  • Overestimating your abilities. You notice several other countries have taken to building boxiflacs recently, so you decide you need a boxiflac as well. But as you're the biggest, richest, and strongest country in the world, it can't be just any boxiflac, it needs to be the biggest, nicest, grandest, and newest boxiflac in the world. So you start a big project. But of course, your scientists aren't really experienced in building boxiflacs, and you're way too important to listen to anyone else. So you make all the little mistakes the others made - just your mistakes are way bigger, more expensive, and delay your project more. After a while, you decide that boxiflacs aren't really worth while, and out of fashion anyway, so you quietly stop the project.

Corruption can happen in poor countries as well, but the other ones are problems that tend to increase when your country becomes rich and powerful.

When you're poor, but trying to raise up, you're happy when someone finishes a project successfully and don't ask too many questions about how he did it.

When you don't have much tax income, and your citizens sense each and every $ they give to the government, you control your spendings much better than when you know you can always get a new loan, or raise your taxes by another percent.

A poor country is happy to be able to run a project at all, and won't try encumbering it with any secondary objective that adds cost or delays the project.

And the citizens of a poorer country will be way more supportive of a project which might better their life, or at least give them a reason for pride, than those who have everything, and for whom this is just another in a line of many similar projects.

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    $\begingroup$ Excellent example. One should mention that it's not just Berlin Airport. Basically every big German infrastructure project in recent years has had similar problems, especially Stuttgart Main Station and Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie. $\endgroup$ – user6330 May 25 '16 at 17:39
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not surprised you can't build airport in your country, it just draws the Avengers to fight there so what's the point. $\endgroup$ – Zikato May 26 '16 at 5:06
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    $\begingroup$ You are supposing that the Transrapid and the Winter Olympic Games are undoubtedly good for Germany/the municipalities affected. $\endgroup$ – Martín-Blas Pérez Pinilla May 26 '16 at 6:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Martín-BlasPérezPinilla: These projects, like all, have advantages (faster transportation, prestige gain, various others) and disadvantages (egologic interference, traffic congestions, various others) to those affected. The point I'm trying to make is not weighting them against each other; I'm pointing out that a society that has good infrastructure and considers itself prestigious will value the extra gain less, and the possible loss more, than a society that strives for wealth and recognition. $\endgroup$ – Guntram Blohm supports Monica May 26 '16 at 7:15
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    $\begingroup$ @JDługosz boxiflacs are just a made up thingy to make the example work! Something new that doesn't exist yet, so everyone wants it :). $\endgroup$ – Layna May 27 '16 at 7:48
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The answer is so obvious it hurts: culture.

America succeeded in becoming one of the most powerful nations to have ever existed (if not the most powerful) not only because they had a large amount of resources available, but because of their elusive American Spirit. Essentially, the American people were survivors, entrepreneurs, and idealists. This shaped their entire nation, and more importantly their culture.

However, some nations benefit from an abundance of resources, yet simply squander them due to their own inability to come together as a people - many Eastern Block nations such as our own motherland are prime examples. Each citizen pursues their own selfish profit at any cost, rather than also considering the interests of their fellow citizens. (i'm not saying they should all be a bunch of martyrs, but having some empathy for your fellow citizens goes a long way)

Eastern block nations illustrate this quite well: cultures so broken by the decades of surveillance, terror, and general distrust of government, and even their own families, that many people simply have lost their respect for all national institutions. All nations that have been touched by the plague which is communism display many of the same symptoms: rampant corruption, leaders that look out purely for themselves, stand accused of blatant abuse of power, etc. yet never end up paying for their crimes, failing economies, etc.

Anyone who comes into power immediately proceeds to manipulate the system for their own gain, often quite blatantly breaking the law and screwing their constituents over, because they know that everyone's doing it, and thus will not allow a fellow thief to pay for his crimes - after all, where would that leave them?

Once a nation is that deep in the rut of corruption it will take nothing short of a revolution to snap out of it - and that's the sad part, because the population is already so indoctrinated, fearful, or hopeless at that point that they will never revolt (they simply leave the country in droves - another phenomenon observed in Eastern block nations).

This cultural change can come about over a generation of two (sort of like the USA is slowly turning from a beacon of freedom and democracy into a police state), through the careful manipulation of greedy, and powerful individuals, or suddenly, such as what the Eastern Block nations suffered at the hands of the Soviets.

As for why this would lead to failing at big projects, I'll tell you a joke a Russian buddy once told me which should illustrate the overall effect:

A foreign businessman goes to Russia on behalf of a large company, looking to build a factory. He contacts several construction companies to get quotes.

The Germans tell him that they can build the plant with top of the line materials and engineering for 2 million euros.

The Turks tell him they can build the plant cheap, for only 1 million euros - but quality will obviously suffer.

Then along comes a Russian contractor. He tells the businessman that he has the best solution! Pay him 3 million. He will hire the Turks to build the plant for 1 mil, and he and the rep each get 1 mil for themselves!

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    $\begingroup$ @SerbanTanasa - at one point their culture was different. Look at the USA - many would argue that it's slowly turning into a police state. Were they always like that? No, they weren't. Neither was our own country always a cesspool of corruption. In the early 1900's we were a beacon of culture in our part of Europe. What happened? Poor management by the royalty, a lost war, and then six decades of communism. The same might happen with your nation - a new party comes to power and corrupts the entire system. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM May 25 '16 at 14:12
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    $\begingroup$ Would you please state a country in your second paragraph? I (and presumably others in an international audience) am unsure whether the reference to "our own motherland" meant the US or a change to some unspecified nation. $\endgroup$ – Joel Harmon May 25 '16 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Joel Harmon - Serban and I are both Romanian. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM May 25 '16 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM You should really clarify your nationality in the answer, or remove the reference altogether. It's very confusing to read if that isn't knowledge you're privy to. $\endgroup$ – jpmc26 May 25 '16 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ "broken by the decades of surveillance, terror, and general distrust of government, ... people simply have lost their respect for all national institutions" Are you talking about Eastern bloc countries? Because it sounds like you're talking about the US. $\endgroup$ – corsiKa May 26 '16 at 15:29
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  • Projects are too big.

Since they have resources to spare, they do not aim for reasonable targets using tested techniques; they want to develop everything from the ground up to find the "perfect" solution. While other countries will be happy building a new road or improving the design of an existing aircraft, such a nation is pushing for rationalize its entire transportation infrastructure at once, and to include technologies that are still being tested.

  • There is no space left for error.

The self-confidence of the designers leak into the management of the project. If you need one million tons of concrete each year and each concrete factory produces one hundred thousand tons of concrete each year, only ten factories are built. If any single of those fails due to whatever failure (e.g. eartquake), the project fails. For the next iteration, the answer will not be to allow for some margin, but to build "earthquake-proof" factories.

  • The projects take too long to finish.

A possible consequence of the first reason, the time needed to perfectly plan/get resources/build the project is so long that it changes the situation enough to make the project worthless. You spend twenty years building the perfect network of energy stations to power your country, but when you have finished the energy needs have increased or shrink or nuclear fussion makes all your stations uneconomical.

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  • $\begingroup$ So, essentially, hubris and hamartia. Interesting $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa May 25 '16 at 14:42
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I'm going to go with partyism.

Make your nation a 2 party political system, say the Greens and the Purples.

Either party can inject requirements and amendments into anything the other tries to get through.

In the past the 2 parties could have been on decent terms. Whenever they're on speaking terms and willing to cooperate they can get things done and negotiate mutually satisfactory terms.

However you could paint a scenario where in recent years the 2 parties have gradually become more and more hostile to each other, less willing to cooperate to the point where they care more about hurting the other side than about getting anything done.

Whenever the Purples propose a program the Greens do their damnedest to poison it. If the Greens try to get a project started the Purples work hard to sabotage it.

When the Purples try to get a bill through to fund a rocket to the moon the Greens inject an amendment to the bill requiring that the structure be at least 50% lead sourced from the countries own lead mines. ("to support local industry")

So the rocket can never get off the ground.

When the Greens try to get a bill through to fund local libraries for reading programs for poor disadvantaged youth the Purples inject an amendment to the bill requiring that all books must be obscure foreign language books. ("to foster international trade and encourage multilingualism")

The libraries sit empty and the children who can barely read are unlikely to want to start with Albanian or Basque

When the Purples try to set up a national postal service the Greens inject an amendment to the bill requiring that the postal service charge massively high minimum prices.

The postal service sits unused because most people can't afford it.

Each time the party who's sabotaged things points to the failure and makes political hay about the others failure to achieve their goals.

This fosters even more hatred and makes future cooperation even harder.

Eventually the country can't do anything because at every level both parties sabotage everything the other tries to do. Every budget one puts forward the other blocks, every goal that either has the other thwarts.

Any programs or systems which do survive are loaded down with pointless bureaucracy which is literally there only to try to destroy it. Everything the country does ends up less efficient and more expensive than it needs to be. Anything that works only barely works.

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    $\begingroup$ I feel the obvious solution to the great Green vs. Purple debate is to put Ivanova in charge. $\endgroup$ – Joel Harmon May 26 '16 at 2:26
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    $\begingroup$ Another risk: Projects outlast their patrons. E.g. a Green is the chief executive, and forces Project X through - a huge, noble project. Great stuff until the Purples come to power, and sabotage or outright cancel it. Unlike a project that dies a quiet death in parliament, this one has already consumed vast resources, and maybe caused shifts in the economy. Now it's suddenly gone, its costs are written off with lots of red ink, and the jobs and contracts it produced go "poof". But the Purples launch Project Y to make up for it - and then the Greens take power and it's payback time $\endgroup$ – Flambino May 26 '16 at 16:56
  • $\begingroup$ Some of the examples are too extreme, but I think partyism or lobbyism is well rooted in real-world examples. Consider the Mirabel airport in Quebec, Canada. For years a "white elephant". Consider also that for all its glory, the U.S. Space Shuttle failed to deliver on its primary mandate: cheap, reliable, routine, schedule-able access to space. Both were examples of large projects which were seriously harmed by political motives. $\endgroup$ – Anthony X May 29 '16 at 16:53
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An approach I would take is anti-intellectualism.

At some point in the not too distant past the people got sick of egg head politicians listening to egg head intellectuals in deciding the direction of their country. A party came along giving real power to the people. Each year anyone in the population can put forward any idea they want their country to pursue. These are voted on using the newest and greatest technology at that point. The top 3 ideas each year are implemented with their suggester as the project manager and instant millionaire. An anti-intellectual populace would be enticed by the entertainment value without having much concern about the follow through. In an anti-intellectual society those scorning the new institutions through careful analysis would be painted as intellectuals by the powers that be and not to be trusted.

I see this as meeting the requirements you have laid out.

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    $\begingroup$ Hurrah for democracy! Make the problem even worse by pressuring people to vote despite not really knowing much about the subject -- e.g. by convincing them that voting is their civic duty! $\endgroup$ – user2781 May 25 '16 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ For extra bonus points, give the anti-intellectuals nice sounding names, like "conservative" and "progressive". $\endgroup$ – Michael Hampton May 26 '16 at 10:15
  • $\begingroup$ I've heard the phrase Race to the Bottom before. $\endgroup$ – corsiKa May 26 '16 at 17:11
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A resource-based economy

A country whose economy is mostly based on exploiting a scarce resource can be rich and powerful, yet stunted in development. Petroleum comes to mind, but it could be gold, diamonds, tantalum, spice, or any coveted commodity.

Control of the precious commodity gives the country undue political influence. They might not have a formidable military, but they can buy a lot of arms, and nobody would dare to make an enemy of the world's foremost supplier. (See Saudi Arabia and Russia.) Or, they can use the money to buy influence. (See Venezuela.)

Citizens can afford to be well educated, but not necessarily in engineering, management, law, or any practical skill that would lead to success in big projects. They can afford to study "loftier" subjects such as art, philosophy, or religion. To run the oil fields, they can just rely on foreign labour and expertise. (Discriminatory law can ensure that citizens continue to reap the benefits of the imported labour.)

Plentiful money tends to create or mask all kinds of systemic ills:

  • Corruption. Someone gets to decide how the wealth from the resource is distributed, so bribing officials tends to pay off.
  • Unbalanced economy. Dutch disease makes it hard for any other sector of the economy to develop.
  • Impractical spending. There is so much wealth that they don't know what to do with it, so they spend it on status symbols — exotic pets, giant statues, World Cup events, etc.

What happens, then, is that a leisure class develops, with neither the skills nor the work ethic needed to complete large infrastructure projects. Foreign skill can make up for the deficiency, but if the government is corrupt and incompetent, the large projects just end up being giant money pits.

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Mindset combined with stupid law

Imagine being very very rich. How would you see manual labor? As something demeaning. Not worth of you. Below par.

But also imagine new state law being introduced by the state, that if you want to build something for a state, you have to have at least 70% (and maybe higher amount) of domestic workers.

So on other hand you have almost no one wanting to take the construction job, because its "poor man job" but on other hand you have need for people being here.

So, people end up in construction will be two factors:

a) Too dumb to actually take any other job

b) Too shy to tell anyone that they are doing their job and basically hating their job

On other hand, the general expectation of people will be, that no good can come from "poor man jobs" so failures will be expected.

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    $\begingroup$ Plus you will have so many builders that are effectively doing nearly nothing but appear listed as a domestic worker in the payroll. $\endgroup$ – Ángel May 26 '16 at 22:30
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It relied on a technology/resource that got outdated.

For example, it held the majority of important natural resources (oil, gas, unobtainium, whatever), and become the richest by selling those resources to other countries. It is rich and has a good mining and military, but doesn't invest too much in other industries.
After a while, the core resource becomes less vital (for example, new energy source is invented), and the country's income rapidly drops. It still tries to prove its glory, but its industry and infrastructure are just inefficient. They used to work ok when the country was getting a lot of goods abroad in exchange for resources, but without that support, everything falls apart.

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  • $\begingroup$ In other words, they run out of resources. Good thinking! +1 $\endgroup$ – Aarthew III May 25 '16 at 16:09
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They are very good at brute force solutions. The projects have changed.

Imagine a country that is very good at getting thousands of workers to the production line. Arrive on time, do a simple job according to a simple specification, and you get paid. Their culture expects that people work that way. Their labor and pension laws assume that people work that way from apprenticeship at age 16 to pension at age 66. Only a select few get into management or the sciences. Schools have a tradition of finding the top one percent for a university career, and to send the rest to a life of drudgery.

When industrialization came around, they out-produced and out-performed the other counties. Blast furnaces, hydroelectric dams, coal mines, all could be built that way. Perhaps they won a few world wars. Their work ethic enabled them to send divisions to die in the trenches, and to replace them over and over again. A few decades later they produced more tanks and airplanes than their rivals.

Then computers and robotics came around and they made the crucial mistake. They kept their social model. They consider it inappropriate to send a quarter or a third of their pupils to university. This dilutes the excellency on which graduates could pride themselves. So now a few excellent engineers, software architects, and physicists moan about the impossiblity of getting ordinary workers to think out of the box or to avoid the obvious mistake.

There is political pressure to underestimate project costs.

Building a new jet airliner, a major highway, or high speed trains will take years and be expensive. No way around it. Imagine a country where the political and management culture balks at billion dollar projects. Why, when the lawmakers and CEOs were young one could build an aircraft for a million dollars or less. Yes, sure, there was some inflation, but not that much. Obviously the engineers are padding their estimates because they're incompetent.

So the people who oversee the contracts really want to see the billion dollar job done for 500 million, at most. And some reckless contractor will do a best case estimate, cut the safety margins, and offer to do the job for 500 million.

When the contractor has spent most of the time and money, inspectors will find that the project won't work. The new highway is undersized before it even opens. New bridges crumble under the strain of ever heavier trucks. The airliner cannot take off with a full load of fuel and passengers, it is one or the other.

Imagine a legal system which encourages such behaviour. Perhaps the lowest bidder must get the contract. Shell companies in the equivalent of Panama make it easy to pocket the profit and to leave the risks for society at large. Even if there is litigation, it will take decades and end in a negotiated settlement.

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    $\begingroup$ Not sure if you describe USA or Russia. $\endgroup$ – Euphoric May 26 '16 at 5:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Euphoric What's the difference, anymore? $\endgroup$ – Michael Hampton May 26 '16 at 10:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Euphoric, neither one. Both the US and Russia recognize the importance of IT skills. $\endgroup$ – o.m. May 26 '16 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ @o.m. Yet, they are last of developed countries who do not have state-funded college. $\endgroup$ – Euphoric May 26 '16 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Euphoric, but a large percentage of the population does to go university, and they are attracting highly skilled immigrants. I don't think the US has the "uneducated workforce crisis" that I suggested. Many other problems, but not that one. $\endgroup$ – o.m. May 27 '16 at 4:41
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Design by committee

Imagine a true, total democracy - each individual has merit, all opinions are equal.

Any large infrastructure projects are put to the public vote - there has to be majority consensus to start a project.

Any interested party is then eligible to be part of the design committee, which can lead to tens of thousands of people who have to be consulted at every single step of the process, anyone who has any ideas or concerns on how to do element X of the project, is entitled to share their thoughts with the others.

If it is at any time felt that the scope or requirements of the project have deviated too far from the original suggestion, then the public vote has to happen again to approve the change request.

Large scale infrastructure projects could be possible - but the timescale for completion would be measured in decades or even centuries to ensure the project is completely fair for all elements of society - as opposed to the neighboring country, who will leave development to the professionals, and complete tasks in months!

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Simple: it doesn't, but the media and politics class are incentivized to make many people believe that it does.

Consider the US as an example. America has accomplished a number of major projects:

  • Become the world's largest economy and control the reserve currency for the world? Check.
  • Provide a limited safety net for all of its citizens? Check.
    • Spread free trade around the world? Check.
    • Connect the landscape of a massive country using a massive network of roads and highways? Check.
    • Manned space flight to the moon? Check.
    • Build the world's largest military? Check.
    • Build a communications network that connects the entire world? Check.
    • Invent computers that fit on your desk and then in your hand and make them widely affordable? Check.

And now some failures:

  • Bring democracy to the Middle East? Probably not possible within the timeframe we established for success.
    • High speed rail? Possible, but not a collective desire of more than a small fraction of the country.
    • That overpass in your town that cost twice as much as planned? A function of over-optimistic budgeting found everywhere.

The US has accomplished a number of large projects, and the easily identifiable ones is hasn't accomplished, such as high speed rail, are a result of a lack of consensus in the political class that governs. You hear about project "failures" frequently because one the major political parties has adopted an ideology that argues that government projects all fail, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary. Thus they have motive to spin any cost overrun or minor problem as a failure of government projects as a whole.

The US is big and diverse and there are a limited number of projects people can agree to work on. Space flight was one. Democracy in the Middle East was, for a time, another. Smaller countries have more homogeneous populations and have an easier time agreeing on which projects to build. Other large countries that are seemingly more effective at large scale projects are generally run by despots who can ignore democratic preferences in pursuit of vanity projects or projects that primarily benefit the elite.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Patrick. Your argument is decent (I have a few disagreements) but the question that Serban asked is how would this come about rather than being a discussion on the successes and failures of a particular country. If you could rework your answer to address the question that would be good. If you have questions check out the help center and feel free to visit us in Worldbuilding Chat $\endgroup$ – James May 26 '16 at 14:27
  • $\begingroup$ Fair enough. I'll modify to make response relevant to a hypothetical world building exercise. $\endgroup$ – Patrick May 26 '16 at 14:43
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Software patents.

The big country in question has implemented software patents, and much of its economy is based around intangible so-called "intellectual property" laws and licensing fees. Abolishing the software patents for big country is impossible as most of its economy would collapse.

Doing big projects in this technological society requires computers of all sorts (embedded and otherwise), and they all run software, and are thus susceptible to paying all patent holders, and/or litigation attempts for (possibly) violating software patents.

And as big projects mean a lot of money to be had in license fees, there is much to be gained for any patent holder by asking for licensing fees and/or suing, so almost all of them would be wanting their piece of cake.

But, as even the small software projects like simple webshops infringe on dozens of software patents, effects on big projects would be devastating, as there would be simply too many patent holders to account for, much less negotiate license fees with thousands of them. And then there are patent trolls too which would destroy any hope of project completion viability.

Smaller countries however would do just fine, as they have never implemented software patents (or have abolished them before they become dependent on economy provided by them).

This idea is based in reality, see smartphone patent wars for example of patent problems when there is enough to be gained by litigation, or other software patents examples.

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I think one can easily make parallels between the collapse of the USSR and the way the USA seems to be going, and more broadly other nations, contemporary and historical. The main issue is a lack of belief in the national vision, or simply a lack of fear of the regime.

This can be down to various things; falling living standards are a major influence, most notable example being the great depression; which led to the communists and fascists in Germany replacing liberals and conservatives as the political mainstream and the Weimar Republic no longer being believed in. Or a harder to pin down malaise. The Soviet Union gradually became more and more corrupt and cynical. Even if the Soviets didn't know about the outside world, they knew the system was becoming rotten as their mission objective became less and less likely (world socialist revolution), and even more so if they knew of the outside world's progress and their own stagnation. Why would you bother if you knew your efforts were really for nothing? It's the same mentality, sadly, which afflicts those stuck in poverty. Why save any money if you can never afford a mortgage? Which then makes things worse.

The USA is suffering from something weirder, since anti-government sentiment runs very strongly in many places which actually benefit a great deal from public services so endemic they have become invisible, and yet though living standards in the USA have stagnated for most people it's nowhere near the poverty and starvation in the Weimar Republic. People believe government can't do anything, and so government begins to believe it can't, or perversely, to actually make sure it can't.

But disillusionment won't on its own be an issue if the state is vicious enough to make everyone terrified of not doing their best. The Soviets didn't fight tooth and nail in Stalingrad because they loved their nation, but because they knew if they retreated they'd be shot. The Nazis also fought with vicious bitterness because they thought themselves in a war of annihilation; if it's victory or death you don't much care for risking death to achieve victory.

So we can compare the USSR to North Korea, and ask; why is North Korea still around and the USSR long gone? One idea is that North Korea never underwent deStalinisation, and the USSR did. Stalin did well, not because he was very clever, but because he was a tyrant who tolerated absolutely no dissent. The second world war could have been won in half the time and with half the Russian losses if he hadn't have gutted the army and nation of its best men and women prior to being invaded. If the USSR didn't have the disproportionate natural resources, space, and manpower, compared to Germany, it would absolutely have lost the war. After Stalin the USSR became less and less authoritarian and more and more corrupt, to the point where the leader of the nation proposed reforms which were put down with tanks years prior (Gorbachev described the difference between his Glasnost reforms, and the reforms proposed by Czechoslovakia which were put down with Warsaw Pact tanks, as "19 years"). And when those reforms were enacted it all fell apart. The point is: North Korea plods along, and things fall apart and break not because of corruption (arguable I know given the Kim dynasty), but because they've simply run out of materials. They will try their best to impress the dear leader... but if they physically can't do it, they will die trying and still fail.

Another reason for disillusionment can be the very lack of the nationalism itself required to keep a nation together, or indeed another unifying factor like state religion or monarchy. Historically most peoples in any kingdom didn't regard themselves as being from the same tribe as the King; but they didn't need to if they believed in/were shit scared of their leader. In many contemporary less developed nations the people generally don't identify with or believe in the nation. They have tribal or religious loyalties which divide them from one another, and in this case they would rather enrich their group at the expense of a state. National unity is a very important thing, and yet barely spoken of these days. We don't just see this in places like Africa, but also in how the Middle East has been disintegrating lately. There simply isn't a belief in national institutions, and they perhaps can't even do their job.

Regarding the requested answer: I would caution that a major power doesn't necessarily have to be doing things "right" to achieve its power. That could be part of why it collapses: its success was a fluke and that was unsustainable. But an unsolvable problem would be that the nation can't meet its objectives, or indeed has lost its confidence to the point of national suicide.

It could also be said that when a group lacks a threat, it becomes corrupt because it doesn't need to do well to exist. Look at South African Apartheid. The regime was wicked, but for white Boers they held together as a community and did the best they could, because they knew that if white rule ended they could all be killed in a black communist revolution (ironically backed by the same forces I describe as having lost their own enthusiasm for world revolution). I doubt it's coincidence that it has been suspected but never proved that Apartheid South Africa and Israel conducted a nuclear test in the pacific together... but since the fall of Apartheid, South Africa's corruption has become so bad that its spy agencies were embroiled in a corruption scandal a few years ago for selling state secrets to everyone.

The USSR is a good example to speak of with regards to their inability to complete their mission objectives. Soon after the second world war ended it became obvious that they couldn't conquer western Europe. Soviet military officers regarded the end of war as their zenith, and since then they had declined in every measurable way compared to their NATO rivals. By the 1960s Soviet officers worried they couldn't beat the West German Bundeswehr in a fight, nevermind all of NATO. And as the Vietnam War began America's fear of "domino theory" turned out to be short sighted. By then the Soviets and Chinese, who had prior been a united front willing to cooperate to bring about a communist revolution worldwide, fell out. And with that split neither could achieve its end game. They could only consolidate to Stalin's "socialism in one country", or the bloodthirsty cultural revolution in China designed to purge the collective mind of all alternatives.

In summary: lack of national unity (due to multiple ethic groups, religious groups, and ideological groups), impossible national objectives (or failing national institutions), lack of existential threat (internal or external), lack of authoritarianism, economic decline or stagnation. Put them all together and your situation will definitely be unsolvable!

P.S. Sorry for it being long and rambling, the question draws on many historical contexts.

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For your story: Because the largest has no peer competitor. While no government has a profit motive to keep things lean (well, relatively lean), all of the others exist within a spectrum of large to small, and they feel competitive pressures. Also, the smaller countries can focus, specialize, whereas the single largest will try to be the best at everything -- in some ways, it has to. A smaller country who makes the best X may not be able to scale solutions to the largest, and the largest is unwilling to accept not being the best.
So hopefully, that presents a structural rationale, along the lines of your question. The abilities, skills, and drive that allowed that nation to rise to prominence are not the same required to operate at the top. It seems that they must either seek open hegemony or accept decline.

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The problem with success is complacency.

The US reached what many considered its zenith during the cold war. The british, during conflict with the germans and french. In a sense having someone to compete against is always a good thing. The americans reached space cause the russians did it, and they reached the moon cause they wanted to do it first. WW2 and its aftermath resulted in infrascture we still use today. (The modern day space race on the other hand, seems to be the indians trying to catch up everyone, the chinese trying to do what the russians and americans did in the 80s, the russians launching rockets cheap, and the americans... well, Nasa seems more focused on probes, the mainstream rocket companies are suddenly realising a few upstarts might beat em up and steal their lunch money).

On a smaller scale, you can see this in asia too - with many economies driven by industry and infrascture slowing and settling down somewhat, with things not being as efficent as before. In the 70s, transport outages would probably result in our prime minister taking the bus. Now? We have widespread train outages and while there's a lot of plans to deal with it, there's less of a personal touch.

Hungry countries get stuff done. If you're spending more time dealing with paperwork and politics nothing gets done.

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One possibility (that would subsume many of the others you've already received) is pretty simple: ensure that the punishment for any failure (no matter how trivial) drastically outweighs any possible reward for success (no matter how great). When risk carries massive liabilities and no possibility for reward, the vast majority of people will simply avoid risk.

As to how this would come about: it's really pretty easy--in fact, in most current societies, we have to work pretty hard from slipping into this pit (and almost none really avoids it entirely). Once you start along the path of punishing failure, getting to harsher punishments follows almost automatically--punishment for failure was imposed, and failures (inevitably) continued, so obviously we need harsher punishment(s).

As to subsuming the other answers:

  1. Design by committee: nobody wants the blame for failure, so committees are formed to spread the blame.
  2. Complacency: If everybody knows it's only sensible to keep your head down, nobody'd going to blame others for doing the same.
  3. Mindset: start this in early school, and by the time they grow up, most people will be so risk averse they'll have difficulty even conceiving of a large project, not to mention planning or completing such a thing.
  4. anti-intellectualism: intellectualism is risky. Thinking hard risks being wrong, which is clearly a failure.

I won't bother listing all the rest, but will point out one I think is outright silly. Software patents? Seriously? Somebody's letting idealism blind them to reality. The US accepting software patents starting in the '80s hasn't crippled it to any noticeable degree, nor has Europe suddenly taken over and dominated since prohibiting them. Sorry to be rude, but this just doesn't hold up to even the slightest scrutiny at all.

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I would say that along with culture, hubris would be a plausible reason that would be difficult to fix.

If hubris was part of the culture (due to, perhaps, overzealous nationalism or something similar), that would likely shift to individuals over time. If each individual thinks his or her contribution is the best or most important solution to a part of a project, teamwork would fall away and infighting would likely lead to easy projects being virtually impossible. This happens in modern companies when you run into the "too many cooks in the kitchen" type of situation, or when you being in the "best and the brightest" and egos flare.

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You need look no further than to study the effects of Socialism.

The splendor that is Russia, China, Venezuela, and North Korea are testaments to how potentially great nations are brought low.

In Russia in 1983, you'd have to stand in line to buy soap.

In China, the economy took off only after the Communists started embracing capitalism. It remains 3rd world in most places.

In Venezuela, a standard Socialist dictator (every notice... it's always a dictator?) ran one of the world's leading oil-producing countries into the ground.

As far as NK is concerned, simply compare to South Korea to see the difference between Socialism and Capitalism.

Edit - why do Socialist countries fail?

The primary reason is economic and social meddling based upon dogma, not reality. For example, the Dear Leader says that everyone should be equal, and after demonizing the upper class, takes their possessions through taxation or outright theft. For example, Hugo Chavez nationalized foreign oil refineries after demonizing them for theft.

I could go on, but there are people who have made careers on this topic. They can say it better.

But to the OP, there is no finer way to create a s-hole of a country.

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    $\begingroup$ Yup, evil communism made the world burn, only capitalism can save us. Hurrah! $\endgroup$ – vard May 27 '16 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ Ok we get it, but can you explain why they fail? And it's not like capitalists never failed either or that communists failed everything. $\endgroup$ – Vincent May 27 '16 at 16:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Vincent I think communist countries have failed 100% of the time in the modern era. Can you think of a case where this is not true? $\endgroup$ – Tony Ennis May 27 '16 at 17:43
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    $\begingroup$ Just one example. The Soviet Union was the first to send someone in space and their space program was not a failure: American astronauts still uses the soviet crafts to go into space. They are still functional. That does not fit in my definition of failure. $\endgroup$ – Vincent May 27 '16 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ It is one thing to say that communism has a lot of problems (that I have to agree with you) but it's completely another thing to say that they failed at everything. $\endgroup$ – Vincent May 27 '16 at 19:35
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To put it in an overly simplified way,

the culture shifted from valuing what is constructive to not valuing what is constructive.

The inability to complete any large project would be a good symptom of this culture shift. The country could still be powerful because the effects of the shift haven't hit hard enough yet. So, the country could be somewhere between downturn and free fall.

There's been a good deal of research into why countries and empires grow and then die including when empires implode. The one example of research that I can think of comes from the sociologist, Veblen. I have not studied his work personally, but have had extended discussions with someone who has. I am not a sociologist.

Corruption, excessive bureaucracy, these are examples of not valuing what is constructive. These values exist to a degree in all societies, but it's the degree of acceptance that matters. The more pervasive and accepted, the harder it is for a society to be constructive.

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Big projects are complicated and hard by definition, and more-so when the population effected by them is large and diverse.

Life was simpler and slower in the old days. Less population means less competing concerns, less dependencies, less risk, more resources available to exploit and a lower bar for initial success that allows for iterative improvements to the project.

It's the same reason that startups can often accomplish amazing amounts of work with only a few people, whereas large multinationals struggle with even minor changes. A couple of guys in a dorm room can code the whole of Facebook in a couple of months, but with 12000 employees and a billion users it takes a year to roll out minor adjustments like Reactions. I've worked for a company that grew 10 fold in size over a few years, along with the enterprise software systems I was managing, so have some sympathy.

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Using the U.S.A. is an example, the rise to riches was fueled by the huge natural resources that were available to a relatively small population. Currently, the population has risen to about 4.4% of the world's population within a land that's about 6.1% of the world's land area, still a favorable ratio though it's been much more favorable in the past. The climate in general helped keep stuff accessible, especially for food production that helped keep things mostly peaceful.

But things have necessarily been changing.

In 1950, the population broke 150 million. In 2010, it passed 310 million. One way to look at that is that an entire new U.S.A. had to be built in 60 years while the original one was built in around 175 years. That was a problem because it had to be built essentially within the same natural boundaries. New cities, new roads, new houses, new grocery stores, all had to be built to accommodate the doubled population.

But that was a problem because so much of the new 'growth' construction had to be done on less desirable land. That is, if a stretch of land was easy to build on, by 1950 it was mostly already occupied. Further, as population density increased, any construction within occupied areas became more disruptive. It's difficult to rebuild roads that must be used continually. Either more difficult access or more disruptive methods kept making progress less easy.

At the same time, the basic mix of personality "types" was increasing friction. One common classification separates "pioneers" from "settlers". It's easy for some to live and even thrive in a structured society that tries to balance needs of all members; these are "settlers". Others need more freedom to live in unconventional ways that irritate the "settlers"; these historically have been the "pioneers".

In earlier years, the 'wide open spaces' allowed pioneer types to move easily into unoccupied (ignoring native Americans, of course) areas. Natural resources made living relatively easy while maintaining separation. But there are effectively no more reasonable spaces to be alone in.

Now the two types are beginning to experience problems that were encountered hundreds or thousands of years ago in older societies. There is constant friction between the two components of the society. One component chafes under the expected conformity while the other looks on in disbelief and tries to increase control. There is no grasp on either side of the simple difference of perspective between the two.

Nor is there any escape. A hundred years ago, a pioneer could pack up and walk away. Now they must stay embedded within the settler regions. Because the two must mix, they see each other as troublemakers.

Every major project is more physically difficult and those working on the projects are finding it harder to work together. It's a basic and fundamental condition that couldn't be avoided.

Maybe a fictional version of such a country can hope that Mars and other possibilities come within reach soon. Or perhaps various population collapses could reopen regions that are now closed. Or brain-washing or genetic personalty engineering or...?

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Lets go beyond modern countries

Okay, most of the suggestions on here seem to be basing off of the current US. We get it, the US has some major issues going on. But this is worldbuilding, political commentary can go way beyond what is to the point of dystopian worlds that emphasize how bad something is by showing how it taken to the extreme can be even worse! Think 1984 or Brave New World or Jennifer Government.

The general themes I'm seeing on here are corporations and governments. So lets go even further...

Let's say we have a country inspired by both, combine the two for the worst of all worlds, a country whose government type is unabashed "Oligarchial Beuracratic Corpratocracy"

Corporations not only bribe the government, they own the government. Government leaders are decided by a corporate council much like a board meeting. Your vote is directly determined by what percentage of the GDP you control

The rallying cry of an Oligarchial Beuracratic Corpratocracy could be, "Protecting the country from market disruption." The most harsh laws are ones that deal with market disruption. Disrupting profit margins fo corporations is an imprisonable offense.

  • Running your own personal farm counts as copyright infringement as all crops are copyrighted. In fact, it's a double whammy because it also reduces your requirement to pay as a consumer. Various other laws prevent you from doing other things on your own as well.
  • Everything is made to break. No corporation (or by extension, the government) can make anything made to last. Designing a product to last and selling it is a federal offense under the "market disruption" laws.
  • Education is strictly corporate sponsored. Nobody learns to innovate (innovation is also specifically outlawed under "market disruption" laws.) So no new project can actually succeed because the knowledge just isn't there.
  • No large projects can ever be completed, and this is by design, because actually finishing the project ends the revenue stream. So as much as building and construction may be done, other people have the specific job of deconstructing portions or this cold be "hidden" by people trying to overthrow the hyper-corrupt government being scammed into attacking the projects as a resistance, when in fact, it just keeps the cycle going. The best anything ever gets is maintenance (if that).
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