Belmont Club

You Only Die Once

In 1984 Charles Perrow wrote a book called Normal Accidents, which describes the phenomenon that we commonly call “accidents waiting to happen”.

“Normal” accidents, or system accidents, are so-called by Perrow because such accidents are inevitable in extremely complex systems. Given the characteristic of the system involved, multiple failures which interact with each other will occur, despite efforts to avoid them.

In it he argued that some things are just so complex that eventually something will go wrong with them. One example is us.  Something eventually goes wrong with our biologies and we expire. Normal accidents may be  rare (‘It is normal for us to die, but we only do it once.’), but the system’s characteristics make it inherently vulnerable to such accidents, hence their description as “normal.”

For that reason nature often relies on ‘loosely coupled’ systems. Humanity consists of separate individuals, not a single collective like the Borg, so that the death of the one is not necessarily the death of all.

In Perrow’s analysis, the systems most vulnerable to “normal failure” have two salient characteristics. They are “tightly coupled” and “interactively complex”. These are precisely the kinds of centralized structures which bureaucracies love to construct.

A tightly coupled system is like a house of cards. If you move one card all the others must be adjusted to suit. “Strong coupling occurs when a dependent class contains a pointer directly to a concrete class which provides the required behavior. The dependency cannot be substituted, or its ‘signature’ changed, without requiring a change to the dependent class.”

The opposite of “tight coupling” is “loose coupling” which occurs “when the dependent class contains a pointer only to an interface, which can then be implemented by one or many concrete classes.” Loosely coupled components have ways of working things out between themselves, but they are not directly dependent on each other.

One of the changes that Obamacare has made to 1/6th of the American economy is to take a relatively loosely coupled system and tightly couple it.

40 Days of Night

A Normal Accident in Progress

Part of the reason why implementing the system is so hard is that the entire thing must sync. One part of it cannot be in conflict or out of step with the others. That takes some doing and is easy to get wrong.

But Obamacare is itself part of a much larger and even more complicated system of Federal Government entitlements. Thus there are problems outside the Obamacare system that impinge on it from without, like an asteroid crashing down on it from outer space. You never see it coming, but it hits you just the same.

This creates a paradoxical situation of fragility.  Government health care advocates argue that wiring health care systems up into a single system makes healthcare more reliable, stable and economical because it is bigger. But the opposite may actually be true. It exposes the healthcare system to developments in previously loosely coupled parts of the system.  What happens to Foodstamps and/or the Defense budget now directly affects the healthcare system, or at least the subsidized part of it. An unexpected call on a related system will ripple through the entire edifice.

Of course the coupling constraints need not apply if one implicitly believes in Infinite Money. Some economists have argued that to all intents and purposes a modern state, through its ability to print currency, has access to infinite money. Jeff Cox at CNBC, recently referred to the Fed’s intention to keep borrowing as long as it felt like as QEInfinity, or alternatively QEternity.

Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, famously argued that the government could restore prosperity simply by faking an invasion of space aliens and printing money to repel the nonexistent attackers from the Beyond. “If we discovered that space aliens were planning to attack, and we needed a massive build-up to counter the space alien threat, and inflation and budget deficits took secondary place to that, this slump would be over in 18 months”. All we need to do is dare, like Buzz Lightyear, to go to QEInfinty and Beyond.

If so, there is an inexhaustible hydraulic buffer between the clashing parts.  In a universe of infinite money the constraints of tight coupling would not apply. Government wasting a billion dollars on nonoperative websites would have no impact on the Foodstamp program or anything else, because the Obama administration would simply print more money to make up for the resources it wasted.

But if we live in a universe of finite resources then a “tightly coupled” and “interactively complex” system in deficit would be a classic case of an accident waiting to happen. As the design margin shrinks, the play and give formerly present evaporates making the entire edifice vulnerable to cascading failure . It raises the risk of “a failure in a system of interconnected parts in which the failure of a part can trigger the failure of successive parts”.

President Obama himself believed in cascades, famously arguing in his “you didn’t build that” speech that a beneficial shock administered at one end of the system would be felt through the entire fabric.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

But he would be less than happy to learn that the sword cuts both ways. If you didn’t build that, then neither could you preserve it. In a very tightly coupled world the individual degrees of freedom of the components practically vanish. Very little remains in your individual control. And nothing is anyone’s personal blame. Stuff simply happens when you least expect it. But take comfort in this: you may die, but you will only die once.


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