Tag Archives: Complexity

The Gasoline Can as a Model of America’s Decline, by Freed Radical

America was once a simpler and better place. From Freed Radical at theburningplatform.com:

As a person of white privilege (but who says I’m white?), I engage in certain white-oriented activities around the house (which house I own outright as an act of explicit racism). One of those activities is mowing the grass. You may be thinking, “lawn,” but my lawn contains too many weeds to be considered a proper lawn. In that one area I fall down as a white privileged suburbanite. But I do identify as a lawn owner, and that’s what counts.

Anyway, I use a CO2 belching lawn mower that runs on polluting and global warming racist gasoline. I fill my lawn mower with gasoline from what you and I call a gas can. Now I’ve been using gas cans since I was a kid, and my father (possession of which is another indicator of racist white privilege) paid me hard cash to mow the grass, or Coup de grâce, as he humorously put it. We had a gas can like this one:

(image credit: ebay.com via duckduckgo.com)

It also had a little screw on cap for the end of the goose neck tube. There was a paper washer in the cap to prevent gas from spilling or evaporating. If I remember correctly (cue Jeopardy thinking music), our house never burned down and we were never asphyxiated from gasoline fumes, though it is entirely possible some low level exposure turned me into the white privileged racist that I am. Lacking the possibility of a proper randomized double blind study, like they do in all vaccine testing, we may never know.

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The Raptures of Hyper-Complexity, by James Howard Kunstler

Hyper-complexity is this case means Rube Goldbergesque. From James Howard Kunstler at kunstler.com:

Looks like The New York Times will have to recalibrate its president-o-meter. For five months they’ve been styling Joe Biden as the reincarnation of FDR, but he’s looking more and more like the second coming of Millard Fillmore — who came to leadership of the dominant Whig Party at exactly the moment it flew up the wazoo of history and vanished, ushering in a civil war.

FDR, you remember, was faced with a momentous systems failure, a crisis we came to call the Great Depression. I’m not sure we actually learned the lesson of that, despite thousands of books and PhD dissertations on the subject. The lesson: financial systems tend to expand and complexify at a more rapid rate than the larger economic systems of which they are a component. Their abstract operations seek to hide risk in hyper-complexity until hazard comes a’callin’ and then you discover that the actual money is not there.

The difference then (1929 – 1941) was that the greater US economy was fully outfitted for industrial production when its finance sector blew up. There was something solid underneath all that financial abstraction. We were all set up to manufacture products of value, many of them based on inventions developed here: cars, movies, airplanes, radios, you-name-it, new and exciting things that people wanted to buy. Our factories were all pretty much up-to-date and state-of-the-art then, too. Our oil supply, including the industry that pumped it out of the ground and moved it from points A to B, was the envy of the world. We had raw materials up the ying-yang. The whole kit was humming magnificently when Wall Street blew up, and next thing you know unemployment goes to twenty-five percent and nobody has any money and the luckless are building cardboard shanties in Central Park.

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Systemic Failure, by The Zman

The money sentences: “What most likely lies ahead is spasms of disorder, followed by increasingly ham-fisted efforts to impose order. Those efforts to set things right will set off new spasms of disorder elsewhere in the system.” From The Zman at thezman.com:

Complexity in human systems often results in properties that have no obvious relationship to the people in the system. The example used when trying to explain complexity is the ant colony. A single ant is not a terribly complicated thing, but the ant colony is highly complex. Further, the actions of a single ant appear to be random, but all of those ants together look like a highly coordinated effort. You cannot learn much about an ant colony by studying a single ant.

Complexity in human systems often results in a disconnect between the user inputs and expected outputs. People who work with large software systems run into this when making changes to the system. If the system has been around for a while, it often has been modified many times by many hands. New changes often result in strange and unexpected downstream consequences. Every new change means the next change will be more costly in testing and error correction.

Ants and software can be interesting, but they are not the best example to use when thinking about the human system known as society. We don’t have the ability to completely stand outside of society, like we do with an ant colony, and objectively observe the emergent properties as a whole. We live in society. Unlike a software system, we don’t have a design spec or documentation. We have to infer the design from the actions we observe, which creates its own complexity.

We have some examples of this over the last year. The great election fraud was not the result of a master plan from grand strategists operating in a secret lair. Like the ant colony, it was the result of thousands of individual actions by people motivated by years of conditioning from the ruling class. For the bulk of the managerial class, down to the entry level clerks, opposing Trump became a religion. Stopping him through any means necessary became part of their collective mindset.

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Fishtailing into the Future, by Jim Kunstler

Has society gotten so complex that it’s unmanageable…and disaster looms? From James Howard Kunstler at kunstler.com:

The opening chapters of Michael Lewis’s new book, The Fifth Risk, detail the carelessness of the Trump transition team in the months leading up to his swearing-in as president. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie led the team, with its binders full of possible agency chiefs, before he was summarily canned by Steve Bannon, who would be dumped soon himself by the ascending Golden Golem of Greatness. There was, in fact, a set of rigorous protocols for managing the transition of power based on decades of cumulative practice — and anxiety over the frightening nuclear demons at the core of US power — and they were disdained, to the horror of the permanent bureaucracy waiting in place for leadership.

In those months after the election, Mr. Trump was apparently dazed and confused by his unexpected victory, and completely unprepared to actually run the country. His super-sized “stable genius” brain surveyed the scene and his field-of-view saw nothing but swamp from sea to shining sea, populated by lizards, snakes, raptors, and poisonous insects, with higher-order mammalian predators in the C-suites. When he finally caught on to the game being played, Mr. Trump rounded up his own menagerie of crispy critters and sent them forth to run operations like the Department of Energy — in that case, former Texas governor Rick Perry, who knew next-to-nothing about the department’s responsibilities, and had sworn to abolish it in the primary elections (when he remembered it existed).

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Ignorance Versus Stupidity, by Walter E. Williams

If you’re smart, you’ll realize you’re ignorant, and that doesn’t make you stupid. From Walter E. Williams at theburningplatform.com:

One of the most challenging and important jobs for an economics professor is to teach students how little we know and can possibly know. My longtime friend and colleague Dr. Thomas Sowell says, “It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.” Nobel laureate Friedrich August von Hayek admonished, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” The fact that we have gross ignorance about how the world operates is ignored by the know-it-all elites who seek to control our lives. Let’s look at a few examples of the world’s complexity.

According to some estimates, there are roughly 100 million traffic signals in the U.S. How many of us would like the U.S. Congress, in the name of public health and safety, to be in charge of their actual operation? Congress or a committee it authorizes would determine the length of time traffic lights stay red, yellow and green and what hours of the day and at what intersections lights flash red or yellow. One can only imagine the mess Congress would create in the 40,000 cities, towns and other incorporated places in the U.S. But managing traffic lights and getting good results is a far less complex task than managing the nation’s health care system and getting good results, which Congress tries to do.

Here’s another task I’d ask whether you would like Congress to control. The average well-stocked supermarket carries 60,000 to 65,000 different items. Walmart carries about 120,000 different items. Let’s suppose Congress puts you in total control of getting just one item to a supermarket, say apples. Let’s not make it easy by having the help of apple wholesalers. Thus, you would have to figure out all of the inputs necessary to get apples to your local supermarket.

To continue reading: Ignorance Versus Stupidity

Confession Of An Economist: Writing To Impress Rather Than Inform, by David Hakes

Earlier today SLL took some well-deserved shots at the economics profession (“Herd Extinct“). Here’s some more shots, from an economist. However, it should be noted that the crime to which Mr. Hakes pleads guilty—writing to impress rather than inform—is not one exclusively committed by economists. In fact, the blogosphere is filled with bloggers who wrap whatever kernels of analysis, wisdom, and insight they’ve derived in such ponderous, portentous prose that their writing is either skimmed or skipped (SLL is a skipper). From David Hakes, at Econ Journal Watch, via zerohedge.com: 

Think back to your first years in graduate school. The most mathematically complex papers required a great deal of time and effort to read. The papers were written as if to a private club, and we felt proud when we successfully entered the club. Although I copied the style of these overly complex and often poorly written papers in my first few research attempts, I grew out of it quite quickly. I didn’t do so on my own. I was lucky to be surrounded by mature confident researchers at my first academic appointment. They taught me that if you are confident in your research you will write to include, not exclude. You will write to inform, not impress. It is with apologies to my research and writing mentors that I report the following events.

The preference falsification in which I engaged was to intentionally take a simple clear research paper and make it so complex and obscure that it successfully impressed referees. That is, I wrote a paper to impress rather than inform—a violation of my most closely held beliefs regarding the proper intent of research. I often suspected that many papers I read were intentionally complex and obscure, and now I am part of the conspiracy.

A colleague presented a fairly complex paper on how firms might use warranties to extract rent from certain users of their products. No one in the audience seemed to follow the argument. Because I found the argument to be perfectly clear, I repeatedly defended the author and I was able to bring the audience to an understanding of the paper. The author was so pleased that I was able to understand his work and explain it to others that he asked me if I was willing to coauthor the paper with him. I said I would be delighted.

I immersed myself in the literature for a few of months so that I could more precisely fit our contribution into the existing literature. We managed to reduce the equations in the paper to six. At this stage the paper was perfectly clear and was written at a level so that it could reach a broad audience. When we submitted the paper to risk, uncertainty, and insurance journals, the referees responded that the results were self-evident. After some degree of frustration, my coauthor suggested that the problem with the paper might be that we had made the argument too easy to follow, and thus referees and editors were not sufficiently impressed. He said that he could make the paper more impressive by generalizing the model. While making the same point as the original paper, the new paper would be more mathematically elegant, and it would become absolutely impenetrable to most readers. The resulting paper had fifteen equations, two propositions and proofs, dozens of additional mathematical expressions, and a mathematical appendix containing nineteen equations and even more mathematical expressions. I personally could no longer understand the paper and I could not possibly present the paper alone.

The paper was published in the first journal to which we submitted. It took two years to receive one referee report….

To continue reading: Confession Of An Economist

He Said That? 8/9/15

From Thomas Sowell, economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author:

People who pride themselves on their “complexity” and deride others for being “simplistic” should realize that the truth is often not very complicated. What gets complex is evading the truth. (1999)

Keep It Simple, by Robert Gore

Donald Trump has been a godsend to the punditry. Articles from all angles have analyzed his appeal, from: he’s a demagogue who appeals to the worst impulses of his supporters; to: he gives an honest voice to deep angst about America’s politics, politicians, and government. Most of the analyses say more about the analyzer than the analyzed, and this article will not be another addition to the pile. Rather, the Trump phenomenon exemplifies a dangerous and destructive proclivity to ignore the obvious, to pump in intellectual fog to obscure what should be clear, and to turn the straightforward into an incomprehensible jumble of complexity.

Trump’s slogan is: “Make America Great Again.” That means that America is no longer great, which is simply the truth. The US has gone heavily into debt and faces a demographic and fiscal nightmare as the baby boom generation retires and demands the benefits it has promised itself. Robbing Peter to pay Paul has destroyed Paul’s ability to provide for himself, and eroded Peter’s incentives to produce. Never-ending wars on poverty, drugs, and terrorism have promoted social pathologies, the growth of violent gangs, and blowback chaos and mass migration without putting a dent in poverty, drug use, or terrorism. A string of military forays stretching back to the Korean war have wasted US treasure and lives and have been at best, inconclusive, and at worst, outright defeats. The government has become a massive honeypot for the politically astute and connected. Race relations have reached a fifty-year low during the tenure of the first black president. The list goes on and on, but you get the idea. It has made matters far worse that the elite habitually lies about its incompetence and corruption.

Will Trump make America great again? Not a chance; his policies are more of the same statist snake oil that got us into this mess. However, unlike the mainstream Republican candidates favored by the party’s power brokers—or Hillary Clinton—he has not held public office, so he can claim that he does not share responsibility for making America not great. He has no viable solutions, but at least he isn’t perceived as part of the problem (although he has certainly benefited from munificences bestowed by various governments). This stance outside the existing power structure is the source of much of his, and the other outsiders’, appeal.

Now unfolding is a financial crisis that was foreordained when the world’s governments and central banks addressed the previous crisis—caused by debt expansion far in excess of economic growth, debt monetization, and interest rate suppression—with debt expansion far in excess of economic growth, debt monetization, and interest rate suppression. This crisis will be worse than the last one, because debt is larger and so-called remedies have already been virtually exhausted. It took no clairvoyance to foresee eventual failure, but Washington and Wall street, most of the economic priesthood, and financial market punters professed their faith (Don’t Fight the Fed!) and acted accordingly. How can anyone with a two-digit or better IQ believe that one agency of a government buying another agency of the government’s debt instruments with imaginary money will lead to anything but disaster? The kind of “economics” that embraces such nostrums is not akin to an abstruse branch of physics or mathematics, comprehensible only by those gifted with extraordinary intelligence; it’s a reprise of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

The belief that governments can make things all better by passing laws and forcing people to do things is simple-minded and ignores a simple truth. Governments are coercive, and humans, especially the most brilliant, inventive, original, and productive, flourish in an environment of freedom and incentives, not coercion. Force a stuck mechanism on a gadget and you usually end up breaking the gadget. When governments apply force for other than narrowly circumscribed purposes—the protection of life, liberty, property, and inalienable rights—they invariably make problems worse. Their solutions are incompatible with the nature of the humans they’re trying to force. With enough force, the government can “break” the country and its populace; countless governments have.

And so the candidates this election will propose solutions grounded in forcible interference and intervention to problems created by previous interference and intervention. Simply put, that makes voting a waste of time. A choice among the same evils is not a choice. As economic, political, and social structures of needless and counterproductive complexity collapse in on themselves, remember one simple truism: nobody but you is going to protect and sustain you and yours. If you believe complex and convoluted formulations and rationalizations to the contrary, you’ll deservedly end up as roadkill.


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