Nancy & the Epicycles

The healthcare bill is now up to almost 2000 pages.

Which reminds me of the epicycles.

Prior to the acceptance of the Copernican system (early 1600s) it was generally believed that the sun and other heavenly bodies revolved around the earth. Fitting this earth-centric theory (the Ptolemaic system) to astronomical obligations required a bit of intellectual fast footwork. Not only did the heavenly bodies revolve in circles around the earth, they also revolved in smaller circles called epicycles:

In the Ptolemaic system, each planet is moved by two or more spheres: one sphere is its deferent. The deferent was a circle centered around a point halfway between the equant and the earth. Another sphere is the epicycle which is embedded in the deferent. The planet is embedded in the epicycle sphere. The deferent rotates around the Earth while the epicycle rotates within the deferent, causing the planet to move closer to and farther from Earth at different points in its orbit, and even to slow down, stop, and move backward.

After the invention of the telescope, it became impossible to square the Ptolemaic system with actual observations, and the whole thing was eventually thrown out. Having the right conceptual model led to radical simplification.

In the philosophy of science, the phrase “adding epicycles” is sometimes used to refer to the defense of a bad theory by adding unnecessary complexity. (This article argues that epicycles were actually not added over time, as often believed, but that the original Ptolemaic model was used right up to the end. Which doesn’t change the fundamental point: lack of the right conceptual model leads to more complexity.)

So, why is the healthcare bill (which includes things like this provision for vending-machine labeling) almost 2000 pages long? I think there are four basic reasons.)

1)Inability to think in general principles. While the writers of the Constitution had the ability to think in terms of general principles, this ability seems rare among today’s members of Congress. Were Pelosi, Reid & Co transported back in time and asked to draft a Constitution, it would probably include excruciating detail about the relationship between masters and apprentices in the brewing industry, and specifications for carriage-wheel diameter and number of spokes.

2)Lack of humility. Failure to grasp the complexity of society and its economic relationships; unwillingness to admit the limitations of top-down control.

3)Political horse-trading among Congressmen.

4)Desire to maximize the power of the political class and the re-election chances–and the post-career incomes–of individual Congressmen. If you micromanage the vending machine industry, or threaten to, then the campaign contributions from that industry’s PACs are going to be much larger.

The clear trend is toward longer & longer bills, incomprehensible even by those who are voting on them–but binding on all Americans.

10 thoughts on “Nancy & the Epicycles”

  1. In keeping with the theme of this excellent post, I would collapse #2, #3 and #4 into one…. they’re politicians. All the rest–lack of humility, horse-trading, and power- and rent-seeking— just follows from the basic principle.

  2. Nice article.

    #3 is probably the reason.

    #4 is almost right–it should be “…maximize the power of Congress“. Using unspecific language in a bill cedes power to the Executive branch, something Democrats know good and well will eventually fall back into the hands of the Republicans.

    I don’t think Congress is alone in this desire. The only coherent thing Dahlia Lithwick at Slate has ever written was on the lines of, “to understand the Supreme Court’s rulings [over the last 10 years] simply look at which result would give the Court more authority”.

    Your larger concern, about the size and complexity of the bills, may be unwarranted. Short and simple bills are even more dangerous. Think about how Title IX turned into “nice little mens’ wrestling program you’ve got there. Pity we’ll have to axe it”. Or how the Community Development and Regulatory Improvement Act turned into “nice little bank you’ve got there. How ’bout you make some loans to people of approved skin color before we shut you down?”.

    No, let’s keep the bills complicated and specific. And spike them.

  3. My only quibble is with the assumption that the Congressmen actually wrote the bill. These bills are written by staff, most of whom are 24 years old and aspire to run for the Congressman’s seat some day. John Conyers was only being honest when he said there was no way he could read these bills. A few years ago, a friend’s telephone number was enacted into law when it was scribbled on the margin of a bill and the staff member forgot to erase it before the bill was signed. Few of those Congress members understand what they vote for or against.

  4. Why not allow bodies of responsible, TAX PAYING citizens, picked at random to examine and ratify all bills? What we have now is a busted flush which will not be unbusted as long the political class hold the necessary cards.

  5. MaxedOutMama has not been feeling well, and says:

    “So I decided that since I was in pain anyway, I’d do some research on that 1,990 page health care bill. I didn’t get too far even with the summary before I cracked up laughing and did myself further damage. I think I tore something loose in my rib cartilage.”

    Read her comments.

  6. Just a quibble: The Copernican system wasn’t the one that replaced the Ptolemaic system. Copernicus was not the first to suggest that the sun was the center of the universe and he made the mistake of having the planets move in perfect circles. The reason that Copernicus’ book caused such a theological issue was that his system had inferior predictive power to the Ptolemaic system (the Ptolemaic system could more accurately predict the position of the planets than Copernicus’ could). People wondered why someone would advance an inferior system unless they had some kind of theological or philosophical axe to grind. Only when Kepler put the planets orbiting around the sun in elliptical orbits did the heliocentric model prove superior to the Ptolemaic.

    It something of a shame that Ptolemy’s name is associated with primitive superstition. He was in fact one of history’s greatest scientist. He did everything right and with scientific rigor. He created a highly predictive model based on the best empirical evidence of his day. Tellingly, the Chinese either learned of his model or recreated it on their own. There was no way measurements based on observations with the naked eye could prove the heliocentric model was correct. Anyone who purposed a heliocentric model of the solar system prior to the invention of the telescope did so purely for philosophical or theological reasons. The evidence based scientific model was geocentric for 1500 years.

    However, the collapse of the Ptolemaic system does show how scientific theories die. The theories are really nothing but models based on available measurements. Early in their lives, they closely match the measurements and seem to explain almost everything. Later, as measurements improve, scientist begin bolting on minor improvements to make the theory fit new data. Eventually, most of the theory is composed of all these shims and hacks and it becomes a complex Rube Goldberg like construction. Eventually, someone comes in and replaces the theory with a bright shiny new theory that is actually far less complex and more internally consistent. The replacement of Newtonian physics with Relativity is a famous example of this process.

    We see the same kind of process in organizations, especially governments. The organization starts out as lean and mean focused on a few key tasked. As it ages and grows, however, people in the organization find themselves having to add little tweaks all over the system to handle exceptions that the original design did not anticipate. These tweaks eventually grow to major systems in their own right. The org chart starts to look something from biochemistry. The system develops emergent behaviors from the interactions of all its parts and begins to behave in unpredictable ways.

    In business, the organization either ruthlessly reorganizes itself or it goes out of business and its niche is taken over by someone else. The problem with government is that it is very hard to do that. Government is to big and to important. Having a particular government “go out of business” is a messy affair to say the least. This is doubly true of the evolution of the law. New laws have to be largely consistent with old laws so sweeping changes are difficult and would be dangerous if attempted. Significantly changing the laws that define a particular government often has sweeping unanticipated consequences.

    This is one reason why health care “reform” is such a challenge. We’re not trying to design a system from scratch but rather to bolt numerous hacks and tweaks onto and huge system already covered like barnacles in hacks and tweaks. We’re going to end up with a system so complex and with so many emergent properties (think of the court cases alone) that we will have no idea how it will perform or even what it actually do.

  7. Shannon, no intent to cast aspersions on Ptolemy who, as you point out, developed a model that was useful for hundreds of years. (Indeed, I believe that through the long era of celestial navigation, right up to 1990 or so, celestial motions were explained to navigators using what was basically a Ptolemaic model.) My point is merely that when the underlying structure of a phenomenon is not understood correctly, attempts to model it will result in a baroque level of complexity.

    The Assistant Village Idiot today notes that:

    “We change our thinking not because we find one impossible thing in our old beliefs, but because we find too many. We are quite capable of holding a few impossible things in hand. This is how knowledge advances. The consensus of experts does not change just because someone finds an impossible thing in the old knowledge. Only when the impossible things add up do they gradually relinquish their hold on the old ideas.”

  8. >
    My only quibble is with the assumption that the Congressmen actually wrote the bill. These bills are written by staff, most of whom are 24 years old and aspire to run for the Congressman’s seat some day.

    It’s even worse than that. Last week I heard a lobbyist explaining how you get access to Congressmen now that you can’t just buy it with a weekend at Augusta or by funding a “fact-finding” mission to the French Riviera. The short version is that you save the staffers some work, as follows:

    1. Pick the two or three things you want to make sure you get out of the bill.

    2. Get access to the text of the bill and find every passage that affects those two or three priorities.

    3. Write your own version of those sections, designed to generate the results you desire.

    4. Go to the staffer and say, “Given my expertise in this area, let me explain to you the unintended consequences of the language you have,” and when the staffer says, “Really? Oh !@#$!@#$!!!!” you say, “Here, if you use THIS language then all will be well.”

    5. The staffer, who now doesn’t have to go to the trouble to rewrite the part he “screwed up”, says, “Wow, thanks!” and puts your language in the bill.

    The more willing you are to write the language so the staffers don’t have to, according to the lobbyist, the happier the staffers are to talk to you. Which means that our laws are being largely written by LOBBYISTS and voted into law by Congressmen who don’t read the bills being advised by staffers who didn’t write them.

    But, yeah, Congress is going to get health care right…

  9. RP, you are exactly right. In 1994, when the Republicans took Congress, I was finishing a Dartmouth masters degree in health care quality and outcomes research. I had retired from 25 years of surgical practice and decided to indulge a hobby; how to improve quality in healthcare. I had battled the state-focused people at Dartmouth (Who had written much of the Clinton Plan) with my ideas about health savings accounts and high deductible insurance (They didn’t like the idea) and still managed to get Honors. Anyway, I thought it would be fun to spend a year in Washington with this new conservative Congress as a staff member trying to influence HSA legislation. I went down to DC and got some introductions from Judd Gregg’s staff. I learned that any health legislation would be written by tax lawyers and, no, they weren’t interested in any contribution by physicians. It was a disappointment and I went back to California, still hoping for a second career in health quality improvement. That was a second disappointment; nobody, nobody, was interested in quality.

    I had a short education in how Washington works. It has only gotten worse. I doubt there are 10 members of Congress who understand how health care works.

  10. Here’s an interesting little point, way down in Section 2531 of the healthcare bill: It includes something called “Medical Liability Alternatives,” which provides for incentive payments to states adopt and implement alternatives to medical liability litigation. BUT a state is not eligible for the incentive payments if that state puts a law on the books that limits attorneys’ fees or imposes caps on damages.

Comments are closed.