Back in the day–as young people used to say before they moved on to some other expression up with which I have not caught—I was going to be an economic historian. I came across a book by Mancur (Man-Kur or Man-Sur, depending on who your listening to) Olson. It’s a remarkable book, although—like many another remarkable book—long forgotten.
At the core of the book is a puzzle. Germany and Japan lost the Second World War big time, while the United States won big time. So how come the post-war German and Japanese economies were so dynamic, while the American economy slowed down?
Olson’s answer is one that will be obvious to sailors. You leave the boat in salt-water and it will pick up barnacles. It also will be obvious to heart surgeons. You have too many double bacon cheeseburgers with the twisty fries covered in BBQ sauce and your arteries will get clogged with sludge. In either metaphor, the system gets loaded with stuff that slows down its operation.
What, in economic terms, are these barnacles/sludge? They are the various interest groups that grow up around an established way of doing things: unions, government regulators, tax collectors, and business monopolies and cartels. They grow up with—well, slightly behind– any new industry. They figure out how the system works. They figure out how to work the system. They’re opposed to change because they know how to work the existing system. They fight over shares of the existing pie, rather than over how to expand the pie. Eventually, the contending groups reach agreement on how to divvy-up the pie. These agreements Olson labels “distributional coalitions.” They are the “masters of the crossroads.”
The thing is that the Second World War destroyed all these “distributional coalitions”—the barnacles, the sludge, the interest groups, the barriers to new technology and new relationships–in Germany and Japan. War “emergencies” caused the German and Japanese governments to break down established relationships from the pre-war era. Then the American and British occupations banned many regime-associated groups. In contrast, the victor nations institutionalized their own “distributional coalitions.” American and British unions foreswore strikes, while lots of leading businessmen took “dollar-a-year” jobs with the government. Subsequently, many interest groups dug-in to established positions. So, Germany and Japan were able to achieve rapid economic growth, while the United States merely chugged along and Britain soon fell behind the countries against which it had fought from the first day of the Second World War to the last.
In a sense, then, catastrophic defeat in war serves as a kind of social and economic angioplasty. Obviously, Olson was talking only about already advanced industrial economies. I doubt that anyone expects Iraq to be the next “economic miracle.”
Trite observation though it is, the same analysis might be applied to any organization. For example, colleges facing severe competition either ruthlessly adapt or wither.
 Mancur Olson, The Rise and Fall of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities (Yale UP, 1984).
 Nevertheless, will all the non-sailors please spare me the abusive remarks about me wearing pink—“salmon” in the imagination of my brother-in-law—pants, blue Polo shirts, and Topsiders? Please?
 Big Carbon—coal and oil—has a lot more drag with the gummint than does Not-So-Big Renewables.
 See, for example, Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (1995).
 Curiously, this is how mainstream economists saw a business-cycle recession before the Great Depression.