The Limits of Radicalism and Expertise

Rick cites a remark by Senator Christopher Dodd about the financial regulation bill: “No one will know until this is actually in place how it works.” My observation is that Dodd’s remark was actually true, and would have been true to a substantial extent even if the bill had been properly read, debated, and analyzed. A more perceptive man than Dodd might have seen this as a reason to avoid making such overwhelming changes all in one fell swoop.

Several years ago, I posted about the failure of the FAA/IBM project for a new air traffic control system. The new system was known as the Advanced Automation System and was intended to be “as radical a departure from well-worn mores and customs as the overflow of the czars,” in the words of a participant. Another participant described the radical ambitiousness of the project as follows:

“You’re living in a modest house and you notice the refrigerator deteriorating. The ice sometimes melts, and the door isn’t flush, and the repairman comes out, it seems, once a month. Then you notice it’s bulky and doesn’t save energy, and you’ve seen those new ones at Sears. The first thing you do is look into some land a couple of states over, combined with several other houses of similar personality. Then you get I M Pei and some of the other great architects and hold a design run-off…”

“Progressives” of the Obama stamp are not interested in fixing the refrigerator door or even replacing the whole refrigerator: they want to do the massive new-construction project. (Note the quote in Rick’s post from Michelle Obama, who said that her husband is going to fix “the hole in our souls.”) The problem is that massive and radical change projects don’t have a very good track record. When changing many factors at once–particularly when human behavior is involved–it is very, very difficult to predict how all the interactions will play out, and this is a good argument for incrementalism.

Of course, sometimes it is necessary to embark on fairly radical change in order to accomplish what needs to be done. As an example, I was going to use Henry Ford’s introduction of the Model “T”, which was able to transform automobile ownership by combining a new product design AND a new kind of manufacturing process…but I remembered that even in this case, the new production methodologies were introduced gradually, the assembly line being first tried out on the building of magnetos (IIRC) rather than replacing the entire existing process all at once. If we look at one of the most transformational innovations of our present era, the microprocessor, the original developers of this did not have galactic plans for it: the device was created as a practical solution to reduce costs for a simple business calculator that was being designed under contract…indeed, microprocessors spent many years as humble control devices for washing machines, etc, before becoming major players in main-line computing. The creation of the United States was a fairly radical step, involving as it did a revolution (really more of a civil war) and the design of a new governmental structure based on some fairly explicit philosophical theories…but even here, the radicalism was limited by the very limited role assigned to government and the use of preexisting legal forms and traditions. (The contrast with the French revolution is obvious.)

Radical innovation is easy, and doesn’t require much thought. Successful radical innovation is much harder, and requires deep thought, serious and experienced people who understand the difficulty of what they are undertaking, willingness to change course when necessary, and a heck of a lot of luck. It cannot be accomplished by an assembly of clownish people who are driven entirely by short-term political considerations and who are unwilling to even read or seriously analyze the vast and complex bills on which they are voting.

Related and very interesting: WSJ on bricolage

17 thoughts on “The Limits of Radicalism and Expertise”

  1. Aargh, I’ve got a million things on my plate today and all of these wonderful posts!

    I was thinking about the concept of an expert – and how do you define an expert, exactly? – because some of the progressive military and Afghanistan-oriented blogs I read are discussing the Afghanistan Study Group (ASG) in a negative fashion. Much of the criticism is based on a lack of “real” Afghanistan experts or experts in military operations.

    Well, that is all a bit “inside baseball” but what really got me going was the idea that without certain types of experts involved, you can’t have a good product. (I know precisely squat about ASG. I am interested in the general concept more than the specific example.)

    On first glance, it sounds like a good idea, but is it really such a good criticism?

    – Madhu

  2. Because it’s not nice to thread-jack or post-jack….

    ….but I remembered that even in this case, the new production methodologies were introduced gradually….

    Your point about incrementalism is well-taken. To be contrary, how does your point relate to things like Paul Ryan’s proposed “Road Map?” Could progressives use the same point to argue against changes to the system that are more agreeable to those of us on the right?

    – Madhu

  3. “Could progressives use the same point to argue against changes to the system that are more agreeable to those of us on the right?”…probably so, and it might even be a valid argument, depending on what the change in question might be. For example, I’d want to think very very carefully before completely replacing the income tax with a VAT…not sure what the unexpected consequences would be, but I’d bet there would be some.

  4. My daughter works in a federal law enforcement department I’m not supposed to name. She
    ‘s been there 10 years. Their computer system does not interface with other law enforcement systems. It is virtually useless. Most federal systems do not interface well. The modern government wants the “big all encompassing project.”

    City governments are bored at fixing potholes. I spent years as a planning and traffic commissioner for a city of 100,000 in California. Routine tasks were of lesser interest to city employees. Some of the damnedest ideas have been enacted when simple things were needed. The City Council was always infected with the same virus. It is so difficult to get people even in local office to focus on the details, boring details, of management. They also develop a tendency to lie to citizens. The problem is that the vices of local government, and presumably higher levels, ar so infectious. A group I was associated with, and to which I have referred before, managed to throw out an arrogant ineffective city council majority. The new candidates we worked so hard to elect, at least several of them, turned on us and became best friends with the same influence peddlers and chiselers.

    We were lucky enough to have one woman on the council who was willing to spend days reading the city check register and asking questions. She was constantly harassed by other council members and by the city manager who physically threatened her. She saved the city millions and exposed all sorts of insider dealing. She and her husband finally got sick of it and she did not run for re-election. Since she left, millions have been spent on goofy projects like a series of kiosks, in the center strip of a major arterial street with a “D” rating for congestion,to show local art. The project took three years and they have not yet added up the cost.

    I sold my home and moved away this year. A 25 million dollar reserve has been spent in the past ten years, most of it in the past seven. Governments should buy services and systems and never build them themselves.

  5. Oh, come on, guys. All’s well ever since Gore reinvented government, (after inventing Love Story and the internet and before inventing carbon trade markets to influence Earth’s climate.)

  6. Government: local, regional and federal can only be reined in by financially asphyxiating it. They will never, EVER rein themselves in. Remember a few years back when someone in Congress suggested limiting the budget by reducing everyone’s departmental budget by 1%? Yes, that’s ONE percent. The howling from every bloated corner of government was universal and sustained. It never even made it into a formal bill, if I am not mistaken.

    Let a conservative majority (forget ‘Republican’ majority: we’ve seen how much good that did) push through a bill whittling down the federal budget to stasis for a few years, then a 1% reduction annually for a few years, and then limit it to within 1% of actual revenues. There’s a bill and a budget we could live with.
    Better, however to pass a bill mandating the Second Coming for 10:15 AM on July 8 of 2016: far more likely to see the latter than the former.

  7. Excellent post – I don’t have much to add.

    This ties in interestingly to the area of software development. Like government, it deals with complex systems and often there is a lot of politics involved.

    While incremental improvement is usually the best way to go, if the software you are working on is so fundamentally broken, often re-writing it from scratch is the only sane approach. The clever thing to do in that case is study the existing system as closely as possible and determine what works and what doesn’t, and take great care to base the new system closely on those aspects of it which work well, while replacing the broken bits.

    Trying to build a replacement system totally from scratch without doing so risks the “second system effect” (essentially a form of gross over-engineering), which in many cases means it ends up worse than the system it is supposed to replace.

    It’s a rare breed of person who has the intellect to understand a complex system and build a replacement, combined with the pragmatism required to avoid it turning into a bloated mess. I suspect the same is true of government and bureaucracies.

  8. “I sold my home and moved away this year”

    In my opinion, there is no where left to flee. The small solutions have failed: emigration or electing politicians who promise to fix it (e.g., Reagan promising to abolish the Dept. of Education, Gingrich promising to defund the Left) who then betray their supporters. It’s a one-way ratchet, down.*

    Is the solution to minimize corruption a big solution like a religious conversion (say, mass conversion to Islam) and or political authoritarianism (say, Maoist Socialism, the ideology admired by our political leaders and academics)?

    * In Seattle, the rail authority (I’ve forgotten the name) spent a $30 million bond issue on and bureaucracy and studies; when sued, a judge ruled they had fulfilled their statutory obligations, that is, they established a bureacracy. In LA, Obama’s $20 million stimulus money paid for 55 jobs. That’s staggering levels of corruption.

  9. Nicholas…re-writes in software development. One thing that can reduce risk is to avoid loading down the new project with too many unnecessary features. The people writing the specs for the AAS, for example, were apparently obsessed with getting rid of *paper*..they especially wanted to get rid of the flight strips which were printed out with some basic information for each flight being tracked. The controllers actually *liked* the flight strips…they could easily arrange them in any order that was most helpful to them, and they were also extremely useful when the system failed. Considerable effort was apparently devoted to arguing about and trying to implement the best on-screen equivalent of the strips.

  10. I live in a Hyde Park D-townhouse designed by I.M. Pei and it is a maintenance and functional nightmare.

    Which I think is directly applicable to this post.

  11. ‘I live in a Hyde Park D-townhouse designed by I.M. Pei and it is a maintenance and functional nightmare.’

    I ubdertstand this is also true of many Frank lloyd Wright buildings – neat looking but underbuilt.

  12. In my opinion, there is no where left to flee.

    I moved to a small mountain community which does not have home delivery of mail. Unfortunately, I may have some problems adapting to the altitude. I hope not as I don’t want to go back to “the world.” An interesting side issue is the fact that this county of California has been very hard hit by the real estate crash. The county, in response, has laid off most of their inspectors. The contractors who were working on my house were telling me how much trouble they have getting anything inspected and, therefore, approved. The county, in severe fiscal distress, lays off the inspectors who allow other people in construction to work. Interesting reaction.

  13. “I live in a Hyde Park D-townhouse designed by I.M. Pei and it is a maintenance and functional nightmare.”

    Well, his initials are I-m-p.

  14. I think the key is knowing when incrementalism is enough and when radical change is required.

    Politics, especially in our Constitutional system, is almost wholly limited to incrementalism. Radical change in our system is difficult. Overall, I think that is a good thing. But unfortunately, I think we have reached a point where radical change is needed, but incrementalism is the only tool we have.

    I believe (as do many of you) that our government is vastly too large and far too intrusive. I would like to see it pared back significantly. To achieve that, an incremental approach would require a multi-decade commitment in the face of a relentless opposition. I don’t think that can be sustained, which is why I am highly dubious about Ryan’s “Roadmap”. I simply don’t think the level of political commitment that would require can be maintained over a time-frame of decades and the constant shifting of political winds.

    Some problems, such as Social Security/Medicare and the education system, simply aren’t amenable to an incremental approach. Crisis looms.

    In political terms, whenever the small government folks have political power, I favor pushing as much radical change as they can get away with. The opposition will be ferocious regardless of whether it is incremental or radical. A few big steps will ultimately be easier to achieve than a whole bunch of little steps. But I doubt even hard-core conservatives (let alone the Republicans) have enough political courage to do that.

    Even if they did, I don’t think that will be enough. Historically, radical political changes are almost always a result of crisis, wars and revolutions. I am afraid that is what is on our horizon.

  15. One of the quotes you offer is as good a Freudian slip as we’re likely to see: “as radical a departure from well-worn mores and customs as the overflow of the czars.”

    Clearly a botched reference to 1917 in Russia, but actually a good description of the Obama administration.

  16. Gene..actually took me several seconds to find the typo even after you mentioned it…but a great campaign slogan for this election would be “Replace the overflow of the czars with the overthrow of the czars.”

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