Complexity - Part I
It took me a while to figure out what was going on in Chapter 6. Here are two questions you need to answer before we proceed:
Are you a genetic biologist?
Is your congressional representative a genetic biologist?
If I had more than three readers, there is a small probability that someone reading this might answer “Yes” to question #1. More urgently, the joint probability that someone might answer “Yes” to both questions is, we must agree, essentially zero.
Next, we assume that people who went to law school to avoid math and later became politicians are totally clueless on the subject we are about to discuss.
Paige is very good at metaphors. I am not bad at them myself. What follows is a metaphor to help illuminate the subject of Chapter Six, an important aspect of the social engineer’s agenda and our debate about its validity.
Suppose you own a ten-story building. Each floor is ten feet tall, so the overall building height is 100 feet. You decide to emulate Galileo and drop a baseball from the roof to observe and measure its travel. Here is a simple diagram to illustrate the conditions we begin with.
Because you thoughtfully anchored your building to an object with a large mass (the earth) we are assured that the arrow represents the path of the ball you drop. Because of gravity, we rule out the ball ever floating away in the air above or radically to the left or right. We also, for the moment, make a simplifying assumption common to this first-semester physics lesson, that there is zero air resistance. This allows us to agree that whatever we drop, baseball or feather or your brother-in-law, they all take the exact same time to reach the bottom, 2.49 seconds. Finally, we assume that (1) the increasing speed of the decent, (2) the final time for the entire travel and (3) the velocity at any particular point in time, are all determined by known formulae (they are). So, our new condition under these assumptions looks like this.
The numbers just above the floor of each story are the fractions of a second it takes the ball to travel those particular ten feet (they get smaller as you get closer to the bottom, indicating that you are moving faster while falling, as anyone who has ever jumped off a ten story building knows) and the number at the bottom end of the arrow is the sum of all the incremental numbers, the total travel time of 2.49 seconds.
Nature in action. Simple.
Not so much once the social engineers go to work. Politicians really like to pass laws about real estate. This is because not only is real estate fixed in place and the buildings cannot flee regulation, but the potentates get to rule over the people who live upon the land and in the buildings, something I don’t have to explain to a Ukrainian.
Social engineers do not like tall buildings. Dream up your own reason. Tall buildings, they imagine, cause traffic problems or visual blight or COVID-19. The reason is not important, all they really care about is control. So, they lobby politicians to enact zoning laws to make tall buildings illegal. This is met by resistance from the building industry, so the final law is a compromise that generally makes a mess of everything. In our hypothetical world, by law you must build a building with less floors than the one nearest you.
Assume the land to the west of your building supports either a major university or a swamp (there is a difference?) so no building is possible in that direction. In our simple linear world, all building takes place immediately to the east of your building. Over time nine more buildings are built that are, each, one story less than the last one, all according to law. Collectively, the neighborhood looks like this:
Now, let’s station a social engineer on each of the nine roofs lower than ours, each with measuring gauges downloaded on their cellphones that tell the operator how long it took the ball to fall from its last perch to the new one to the right. If the cellphone gauges are accurate and our heroes are not texting their mother (big “If”), one might expect that the sum of the ten measurements taken as the action unfolds to the east would be not less than 2.49, the sum of the action taken by Nature to the west.
The question you and your congressional representative need answer is: What is the probability that travel of the ball to the east will approximate the travel to the west? It is about the same as the probability that you and your congressional representative are both genetic biologists.
What really happens is that the ball rolls smoothly off a couple of roofs if we are lucky. Social engineer on roof #3 is a dedicated environmentalist and is studying the path of the birds at the time. He does not see the ball’s third dive, so he estimates the time and records his estimate. The next social engineer thinks that baseball is male dominated and sexist and replaces the baseball with a tennis ball. The next one thinks that diversity, equity and inclusion is more important and substitutes a randomly selected, brightly colored, billiard ball. The next one thinks he is not getting paid enough and does not care so just lets the ball roll by without noticing. The next one accidentally drops the ball off the north edge of the roof where it falls the remaining several floors to the ground. That social engineer then must take the fire escape down to the ground to retrieve the ball and then go back up to his roof, forgetting which roof he was on, returning to the wrong roof where he drops the ball…
By now you should get my drift. The sum of all these drops is somewhere between 8 seconds and an hour (extra credit for why the time for the 100-foot fall down the west side is not within this interval).
The reason why everyone reading this concludes the same, that the two measurements are very different, comes in three parts. First, the comparison between Nature (on the left) and nine different humans (on the right) involves complexity. Second, each transition from roof-to-roof incurs a transaction cost. Lastly, each party to the individual transaction on each roof has a different mindset, agenda or incentive to perform precisely or not. Some are very diligent; some simply do not care; and some are against the project and determined to sabotage it. These results (together with the extra credit matter you should have solved by now) explain why government operates the way it does. It also makes an important comparison to how Nature is efficient (and free!) and produces the most direct and rapid outcome when compared with a cabal of expensive and inefficient social engineers and their compounding errors.
Last week we left Chapter Five where, on page 105 we found
"We use the language of cause and effect to talk about our power to change people’s chances."
Assuming for the moment that delegating that power to others has a positive effect, what is omitted is the cost of exercising that power. Our little story about the ball this week models the situation Paige describes in Chapter Six, the full details of which await your visit to these musings next Saturday.