Belmont Club

What Could Go Wrong?

When some fragile item may be damaged by a fall the best place to put it is on the ground. There it can fall no more.  Since the “spontaneous evolution of an isolated system” tends to disorder and things fall apart, the most stable place to be is where things must come to a stop. Because “once the system eventually reaches equilibrium and stops evolving, its entropy becomes constant.” That’s to say things can’t get any worse. Something on the ground or at the center of a gravitational mass has nowhere left to go and stays there.

The enormous effort required to keep complex systems full of useful energy is at the heart of Victor Davis Hanson‘s observation that Japan is an example what happens when a complex system experiences a disruption.

Japan is a place where thing must happen just in time. Miss a connection and the consequences ripple on. It is like a watch; exquisite but dependent on a windup or battery charge to keep going. Let it run down and it stops. Dr. Hanson argues this is precisely the kind of society which planners — the smart controllers of all stripes — want to construct: complex, ordered, surveilled and refined. For Japan, complex systems were required for survival. For America, complex systems were required, not by need but the imperative to power; ambitious men who hankered after ant-heaps because they were born bureaucrats.

Japan’s high density, central planning, mass transit, demographic uniformity, and a culture of mutual dependence allow millions to live humanely and successfully in quite crowded conditions (in areas of Tokyo at 6,000 persons and more per square kilometer). And compared to other Asian and African cities (Mumbai or Lagos) even Tokyo is relatively not so dense, though far more successful. Yet such urban societies are extremely vulnerable to the effects of earthquakes, tsunamis, “man-caused disasters” and other assorted catastrophes, analogous in nature perhaps to tightly knit bee colonies that have lost their queens.

I don’t know quite why many of our environmentalists and urban planners wish to emulate such patterns of settlement (OK, I do know), since for us in America it would be a matter of choice, rather than, as in a highly congested Japan, one of necessity. Putting us in apartments and high rises, reliant on buses and trains, and dependent on huge centralized power, water, and sewage grids are recipes not for ecological utopia, but for a level of dependence and vulnerability that could only lead to disaster. Again, I understand that in terms of efficiency of resource utilization, such densities make sense and I grant that culture sparks where people are, but in times of calamity these regimens prove enormously fragile and a fool’s bargain.

But catastrophe has a way of killing ants in ant-heaps more easily than when they are spread out over the ground. Then all the supposed disadvantages of unsophisticated America vis a vis “planned systems” become reversed for two reasons.  The first is that subsidiarity — the ability to addresses some needs at an individual or local level — is more survivable than centralized systems. Dispersed housing,  individual transportation, armed citizens and a tradition of community stop becoming “urban sprawl”, “wasteful driving”, “gun-toting” and “bigotry” and become objects of envy to helpless people cowering in their high rise, foodless apartments. Subsidiary forms of social organization are sustainable at greater levels of national disconnection. They can work, if need be, by themselves.  It is an argument which Leo Linbeck III has been making about governance and health-care, but that is another story.

The second reason is that subsidiary systems are more adaptable.  Complex societies are often locked into their adaptation. They can function only when enabled by a larger system. An Ipod is just a paperweight without a network and a power source. In a crisis world you would trade a Bugatti Veyron for a pickup truck. The Veyron is a specialized babe-magnet. The pickup truck does lots of other things.  But even pickup trucks have become more complex over the years.  In the old Willys Jeep a lot of things could be fixed with a screwdriver, Vise-grip, a few socket wrenches and a file. Today very little can be fixed without the help of “they”.  “They” is a term coined by Victor Davis Hanson to represent that faceless, anonymous source of help without which we are powerless to go on.

This fragility of complexity has especially bothered me the last 80 days, well before the tragedy in Japan. Some random experiences: I am teaching one morning a week at Pepperdine for the spring 15-week semester, each week alternating between flying and driving. One week in January, the power at terminal one in LAX just went out — no explanation, no rhyme or reason, no notice when or if it would return. Thousands of travelers were rendered helpless — no running water, bathrooms, overhead lights. All flights delayed or cancelled, as mobs packed flight counters or simply walked out of the darkened halls to the curb. Then abruptly later it went back on — again, no explanation. The attendants at the counter simply shrugged and said “they” must have fixed it. To paraphrase those in the Wild Bunch, who are “they”?

“They” is who we are going to call if we break a leg or an intruder is at the door. “They” are who we ask to help us when we are lost. “They” are the ones who are going to enforce the “nuclear free zone” in Berkeley and the no-fly-zone in Libya. “They” are the guys who provide the physical basics, the hard power who the kings of “soft power” are destined to command. There was a time, not so long ago when “they” for the most part meant “us”; because we knew how to supply at least some of these things for ourselves. Knew how to punch out those who bullied us without having to carry the scars of trauma into the Oval Office. But no longer.

The complexity of modern pickup trucks is emblematic of our complex, interelated world. We need each other far more than is safe. Already Chinese factories are slowing down because of disruptions of deliveries from Japan. What do you do in a just-in-time production system when the shipment from Yokohama doesn’t turn up?  Only hope “they” will fix it.  And what do you do when the oil disruptions threaten in the Gulf, the bond markets look scary and unemployment looks like it will never ever go down. You hope “they” will fix it.

At the highest political level of our complex world “they” means people like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. These were the final “fixers” of the system when something went wrong. Of late they seemed to be capable of very little. Why? Because their power to fix depended on the systems they were supposed to control. Their “smarts” were judged by their ability to manipulate  the system through which they rose.  Once the system itself began fraying at the edges their true quality became evident. They were not very smart and not very adaptable.

There are signs that our complex world is running out the enough “useful energy” to keep its welfare, entitlement and physical systems together. Perhaps as important, the ability of people like Obama and Clinton to understand what is happening may be decreasing correspondingly.  This happen ironically because they think they are smart.  Their blinkered minds will tend to draw the wrong boundaries around the emerging system in order for it to be comprehensible to their mental models. In the process they thereby increase entropy. When they “smooth” the system to conform to their ideological biases it creates a loss of knowledge which eventually adds to the problem.

People who know all the answers are the worst offenders of all. Their ideological solutions and “investments” make things worse. One way to minimize the effects of imperfect understanding is to shorten the feedback loop.  By frequently updating our understanding of a changing system the amount of “error” introduced is smallest when they are drawn at the most subsidiary level. The greatest and most catastrophic errors are created when an monolithic regime clings for too long to an old paradigm.  When forced to change, it draws the new paradigm around a bigger volume of enclosed space thus maximizing the error.  Here again the simpler system has its advantages. As observed earlier, highly complex systems are less adaptable, less subsidiary. Ideologically driven complex systems, like Europe and the proposed Hope and Change are least adaptable of all.

In history the cumulative process of failing to adapt is called a Revolution. Writers have usually ascribed such upheavals to the personal failings of wicked kings. But at least part of it may be due to the system trying to reach a new equilibrium while the ancien regime stands in its way while they wait in vain for “they” to come and fix things. But things are never fixed; and something else always comes instead, something only dimly glimpsed in the present and fully visible only when it finally arrives. As Forrest Gump once put it, “My momma always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.'”

Try telling that to those who know what we should  get and what we should think.

In retrospect the desire for one world, a master energy plan and single health care system will be recognized not as imperatives of the human system, but the requirement of bureaucratic ambition. It may also be seen as one of the key blunders of the current political system. It emerged at a time when elites believed history had ended and all that remained was to freeze the 20th century welfare systems in place and etch their faces on Mount Rushmore.  But reality proved too hard for them to handle. They would do well to recognize their limits.

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