The Titan submersible saga was a gripping, and ultimately tragic, demonstration of the West’s Faustian spirit. The vessel’s makers sought to surpass technological barriers through innovative design and a novel funding model. In the long run, their approach may provide a cheaper way to explore the barely known deep seas. Although the billionaires onboard have been widely derided, their sacrifice follows a long heroic line beginning with Prometheus—without which the modern world wouldn’t exist.
The disaster offered an easy foil to justify grievances about modern society. Of prime concern has been whether the company’s employees were qualified for the task at hand, with many on the right claiming in the wake of the disaster that OceanGate had selected its staff based on identity, rather than merit. Evidence presented included a video of CEO Stockton Rush expressing disdain for hiring “50-year-old white guys” and a photo posted by OceanGate’s Twitter account celebrating their women employees.
It is noteworthy that critics of “wokeness” were so eager to condemn the venture for the disaster, instead of accepting the accident as the sad-but-necessary price of cutting-edge innovation. It would seem that even among the self-proclaimed ultra-masculine right, concern for health and safety overrides ideals like innovation and adventure-seeking. Safety was once widely derided as a philistine bourgeois belief by both the aristocratic right and the Marxist left. Now it is taken for granted, including by the anti-woke right, that every measure should be taken to avoid marginal catastrophes, even when the risks were known and accepted by all of those onboard.
What could have better assured the safety of the vessel and crew? For the right, the answer is the beleaguered white male, whose expertise for untold years has been passed over in favor of minorities and women. The Titan, in this telling, is only the latest casualty of diversity, equity, and inclusion. After decimating the profits of the oil business, DEI has now claimed the lives of innocent billionaires taking a trip down to see the Titanic on an experimental submersible. Having already killed art and academe, wokeness has come for engineering safety.
The claim is thankfully a straightforward one that can be assessed on an empirical basis. Since affirmative action only really got going in the late 1980s—giving time for students admitted to colleges within the legal framework affirmed in the Supreme Court’s 1978 Bakke decision to enter the workforce—one would assume that negative outcomes in an array of industries should have begun to rise around that point, when an influx of supposedly underqualified employees were funneled into the workforce under the new regime.
But it is hard to see signs of such a decline if we dig into the relevant statistics. Since the 1970s, major infrastructure failures in the United States, including shipwrecks, have been extremely rare. In the case of bridge failures, for example, there were seven in the ’80s, three in the ’90s, and 12 in the aughts: a recent increase, though hardly a dramatic one against the backdrop of the more than 600,000 bridges in the United States. In any case, that small rise in accidents is more likely due to the fact that much of America’s infrastructure, built in the prosperous and confident postwar era, has reached its life expectancy and needs investment and upgrading.
Broadly speaking, though, the hundreds of millions of people in the United States continue to have access to clean water and more robust infrastructure than the vast majority of people in the world. Inequalities notwithstanding, the American economy has transformed itself since the restructuring of the ’70s in a manner that places more strain on internal infrastructure, and so far has largely sustained the transformation. Notably, American infrastructure has been able to withstand a drastic rise in road use nationwide, as the transportation and storage components of the economy have become more significant with the decline in manufacturing.
Regardless of the perturbations introduced by DEI, there is an argument to be made that today’s world is more meritocratic than ever before. Even in OceanGate’s case, the Titan accident occurred because Rush ignored safety warnings deliberately—meaning these were still being assessed and delivered, which was hardly the case for the adventurers of an earlier age. The “red tape” that so annoyed Rush, pervasive in both the private and public sectors, was implemented in part to increase meritocratic hiring by eliminating the sort of nepotism and corruption that still hobbles many institutions outside of the developed world today.
A situation in which such practices prevail is more likely to contribute to a decline in the quality of our built environment than having 20 percent of the engineering workforce composed of women. For instance, one of America’s costliest failed infrastructure projects, Boston’s “Big Dig,” began in 1980, when women and minorities were a smaller proportion of the engineering workforce than today. The Big Dig suffered from cost overruns, delays, the use of shoddy materials, and compromised safety standards, and was engulfed in a series of scandals implicating contractors hired on the basis of political connections. Given how common these sorts of arrangements were in earlier eras, it’s absurd to imagine that DEI represents a break with the pure meritocracy that existed before current ideological manias took hold.
But there is a deeper reason it’s misguided to pine for some lost era of untrammeled meritocracy. Modern capitalism functions so well in part because it was able to progressively remove the necessity for deep expertise and exceptional intelligence on the part of workers. The rationalization and bureaucratization of society have standardized processes and generated written protocols for even highly technical tasks, so that a wider array of people can do the job correctly, regardless of whether they are truly “the best.” Engineering rarely depends on a brilliant maverick testing novel methods and pushing limits. Instead, various management techniques ensure that every minute step in a project is prototyped, tested, and retested before being deployed as a final product. The pace of work is also much slower, given modern standards for work-life balance. Thus, the need for exceptional intelligence in any domain has been greatly reduced; a fair grasp of numeracy and literacy is often all that is needed.
This arrangement has produced the safest built environment, by far, that humanity has ever enjoyed. To be sure, innovation becomes more challenging under these conditions. But seeing this apparent stagnation as a drawback requires a set of uncommon metaphysical priorities. Nowadays, apart from a small group of adventurous billionaires, very few are willing to subject themselves to real discomfort to pursue groundbreaking advancements, because material safety and comfort are considered paramount. Maybe this state of affairs isn’t sustainable in the long term. But fantasizing about a meritocracy that rewards those who are most likely to follow the rules and be safe will certainly not turn things around. For that’s what we have today, whether the rule-followers are white men or the beneficiaries of DEI programs.