(P1): Why the Obvious Problems are the Hardest to Change

A political cartoon from a paper in Massachusetts in 1812 showing a Gerrymandered district just like the ones we have today.

We usually approach change by focusing on the most apparent problem in our environmental horizon (what is called a pain point in customer service). Note that the slide image is a gerrymandering cartoon from 1812, and, in my mind, gives pause to the idea that we can deal with current gerrymandering through normal problem-solving (voting, passing laws, constitutional amendments, getting the right people into office, and so on).

The most obvious problems for us are usually the ones best supported by the operation of the current CAS. There are more diverse forces supporting our obvious problems, and mechanically organized problem solving will miss most of the supporting forces in its quest for changing the obvious. So our problem solving will fail, often in the short run, but eventually in any case.  This can be true even when there are powerful forces supporting change.

Often, our most obvious problems in a complex adaptive system are the core of its strength as a system and support its resilience to meaningful change efforts.

At the same time, the CAS is constantly generating new and sometimes old trends that have been gone for a while. These variations of process are small scale, and we almost never pay any attention to them. No one ever says, “Let’s stop ignoring the flea in the room”.

But the potential for long term change in a CAS lies precisely in these small variations, or in systems theory, “weak signals”. The weak signals are the indicators (not guarantors) of where to look for levers of change.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(P4): Problems with Assessing Future Risk and Uncertainty

A swampy marsh with a fog making it hard to see any distance.

  • There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. -Donald Rumsfeld
  • THE PSYCHOLOGY OF PERCEIVING UNCERTAINTY

Human beings are notoriously poor at estimating risk in the real world. We are bad at it even when we are not affected by bias.  But, we are all affected by bias:

  • Confusing Uncertainty and Risk: We often assume that the risk of uncertain events can be calculated or intuited. That isn’t true in most of the real world. And, to the extent that we use risk calculation to make decisions when dealing with uncertainty, we will make bad decisions. Think Fukushima.
  • Eliminating versus Mitigating Risk: Especially in nonprofit and public organizations, there is a belief that by eliminating the possibility of risk through an HR policy or some threshold limit, that we have actually protected ourselves or the organization. For-profit organizations tend to look for ways to mitigate rather than eliminate risk since they have a better appreciation of how difficult a challenge any uncertainty actually is.
  • Bias in Driven Behavior: Assessing risk and uncertainty when the person or organization is using driven behavior (sex, drugs, and rock and roll for people, hyper-focus in organizations (or cults) as a way to deny uncertainty, fear of liability or some other unseen threat) is guaranteed to give you a false sense of actual uncertainty.
  • Prospect Theory: This is the name for the bias that increases commitment to an already losing strategy. Endless examples……
  • Behaving as though the nonlinear world is actually linear. Examples are the belief in single causes, that effort is proportional to an outcome, that starting points that are close to one another should have closely linked outcomes. There are many more.

Knowing that risk and uncertainty are not the same and that we tend to bias our estimates of them is not enough to prevent the problems mentioned above. We have to actually build our ability to overcome the bias and reflect on our inability to estimate uncertainty in our strategy and our planning.

(P3): Functional Psychopathy

A political cartoon with a large rich guy eating children.

One of the trends that results from growing corruption of an aging system’s purpose is what I call Functional Psychopathy. This is an unavoidable consequence of relentlessly increasing complexity, though it doesn’t affect everyone in the same way.

Forget the clinical syndrome of psychopathy. This process isn’t about someone’s personality.  Instead, examine a basic measure of psychopathic behavior. Such behavior is anytime we treat a person, an animal, a plant, or a thing solely as a vehicle for the gratification of our needs, with no thought to the impact of our actions on the person, animal, plant, or thing.

Think of stepping on ants while walking in the woods on a nice summer day.  Or eating anything. Or laying off 1,000 people. Or using drones that kill civilians while targeting a terrorist. Or protecting yourself with a civilian shield while operating as a terrorist. Or auctioning human beings as slaves. Or purposefully addicting people for personal income.  Or cutting personal supports to people with significant disabilities to make the money available for a market purpose. Or any one of 10,000 other acts we do in order to get through the daily circumstances of our lives.

Functional Psychopathy increases relentlessly as complex systems age.

(P3): The Corruption of System Purpose

A slide about Systematic Corruption (or endemic corruption). Factors listed are, Conflicting Incentives, Discretionary Powers, Monopolistic Powers, Lack of Transparency, Low Pay, and Culture of Impunity.

There are many more signs of system aging than the reasonably obvious ones I’ve discussed so far. The next few posts will identify some, especially those which trigger “solutions” that don’t actually “solve” the targeted problem. The first is that systems can be corrupt, not just people.

We tend to think that corruption is an ethical or criminal matter resulting from a moral failure. As a society, moral and law enforcement solutions are the only ones we actively support to such problems. This is a mistake in our thinking because there is a larger impact of such moral corruption on the complex system in which the corruption occurs. Additionally, the aging of complex systems creates a type of corruption of purpose even if, somehow, we are able to stop all criminal and moral corruption.

On its own, typical moral corruption gradually taints every transaction of a complex system, even when the people involved in the transactions are not participants in the moral corruption.  This is obvious in financial corruption but also occurs when values and ethics are corrupted.

Also, complex system corruption occurs as a result of the aging process arising as system resources increase and are stored for later use. These resources (regardless of type) begin to be used increasingly for maintenance, repair, personal gratification, and personal power, undermining the purpose of the system.  This process also creates an affordance that permits more extensive corruption, creating a vicious feedback loop.

(P2): Relentlessly Increasing Complexity Undermines Everything

Various interacting fields around a mythical planet in brown to white colors.
Too Complex To Grasp

As I will describe in more detail later, one of the ways that complex systems age is by becoming more complex. This increase in complexity is unavoidable and is in the nature of system aging. It can be slowed and rationalized, but the direction can’t be changed except locally. Even when local simplification is optimized, other parts of the system become less than optimal.

One of the results of increasing complexity is increasing uncertainty. Uncertainty is not the same thing as risk. A risk is a measure of the likelihood that something will happen. A roulette wheel allows the calculation of risk, and risk is something associated with systems that are machine-like.

You can’t calculate the probability of an uncertainty, even though people keep trying to do just that (think about the Fukushima nuclear accident). There are automatic and unavoidable unintended consequences to using risk calculation as a proxy for real uncertainty. We are largely oblivious to this reality.

Adding to this, because imperfect cycling is built into every complex system, even when things seem to be going smoothly, they are always a little off and get more off as time goes on.

Argument from DREDF’s Amicus in the New York Assisted Suicide Litigation

https://diigo.com/0dhvd1

ARGUMENT

I. Assisted Suicide Discriminates Against People with Disabilities

A. Assisted Suicide is Part of the Long and Tragic History of Discrimination Against People with Disabilities
B. Assisted Suicide Denies People with Disabilities, Including Those With and Without Terminal Conditions, the Benefit of the State’s Suicide Prevention Protections
C. Assisted Suicide Denies People with Disabilities the Benefit of State Suicide Prevention and the Enforcement of Homicide Laws, in Violation of the ADA

II. Assisted Suicide Poses Serious, Unavoidable Threats to People with Disabilities that New York has a Significant State Interest in Preventing

A. The State Has a Critical Interest in Ensuring that Assisted Suicide Decisions Are Not Coerced or Made by Others
B. It is Dangerous and Discriminatory to Assume that the Suicide of a Disabled Person, Whether Terminal or Nonterminal, is “Rational”
C. The Uncertainty of a “Terminal Prognosis” Means that Disabled People Who Are Not Terminal Will Receive the Lethal Prescription of Assisted Suicide
D. Appellants’ Position that Disability Intrinsically Deprives Life of Dignity and Value Is Dangerous and Discriminatory

III.The Creation of a Constitutional Right to Assisted Suicide For a Class of New Yorkers Based on Their Health and Disability Status is a Lethal Form of Discrimination

A. People with Disabilities, Whether Terminal or Nonterminal, Are The Precise Class of People Who Will Be Affected If a Right to Assisted Suicide Is Found
B. There Exist No Safeguards Adequate to Protect People with Disabilities from Assisted Suicide
1. Limiting Assisted Suicide to Terminally Ill Persons Will Fail to Protect Nonterminal People with Disabilities
2. Limiting Assisted Suicide To “Voluntary” Requests will Fail to Protect People with Disabilities from Abuse
C. Assisted Suicide Prevents People With Disabilities, Whether Terminal or Nonterminal, From Receiving Equal Protection of Laws Pertaining to Suicide Prevention and Homicide

(P2): The Forces That Undermine: Political

A concrete wall with a drawing of a rat holding an umbrella dressed in a tie and holding a briefcase with money falling out of it. On the wall is written, 'Let Them Eat Crack'
Time to Go

It is no longer possible to disentangle political, social, and financial elites. But the goals of elites haven’t changed in 7,000 years.

Elites politically manage non-elite communities through two related and now integrated processes:

  • Management of Expectations: The explicit face of elite management
  • Management of Constraints: The implicit face of elite management

We can modify our reaction to management by elites and we can create small systems that are not worth the while of elites to manage, but we are a very long way from being able to do anything systemically about elite management.

These forces that undermine have always been there, but they were manageable parts of a larger social system that performed actual good for the larger community, even while it allowed elites to parasitize us:

  • All public communication is inaccurate: Personal communication is still as accurate as it gets, but all communication that is intended for larger communities is framed by hidden agendas, and various lies, hedging, misdirection, and other forms of message fakery, some messages more so and some less so.
  • All political systems are corrupt: It isn’t that all political people are corrupt, but rather that all political systems and decision making are corrupted by elites and hidden organizational agendas. So, even principled decisions are tainted by corruption, even if no one knows this has occurred.
  • The legal system is too complex to be generally effective: Although we have a long history of using the legal/political system to redress the grievance, the effectiveness of redress has steadily degraded for almost a half century. And, there is no effective way to simplify it. Effective simplification in this context means that the mission-critical values of the original system are retained while the corruption is eliminated,
  • All saviors aren’t: You would think that this undermining force is too obvious to need to be stated. But, apparently, people still think that individuals or political parties or political subcommunities, or some other non-local social entity will be the salvation of what is good and right, that something other than hard work, the building of real and deep personal relationships, and creative flexible experimentation will be necessary to begin to take over our future. How can anyone in the current world believe that we will still be taken care of by someone or something else?

 

(P2): Offshore Sheltered Tax Funds as a % of GDP

A graph showing offshore wealth as a percentage of GDP for various countries, ranging from 1% for Korea to 70% for the UAE.
Where Did All The Money Go?

It is both astounding and terrifying that 10% of global GDP is allocated to offshore tax shelters. Apparently, this now amounts to $17-$20 trillion dollars. Almost no one but the 1% uses offshore tax shelters, so this represents what the 1% has extracted from global economies and permanently removed from the possibility for use by the rest of us. There is nothing remotely possible that we can do to restore these funds to nation states or change what they are used to accomplish.  Putin’s recent request of Russian oligarchs to return $1 trillion dollars of this tax-sheltered repository is the most obvious example of the potential impact of this lost wealth.

The recent national legislative tax law is designed to dramatically accelerate this process for however long it is politically feasible. Even if there is a shift in the political composition of the administration and Congress, nothing will be done about these trillions. It is the buffer for the 1% to deal with the unavoidable reality of recession/depression.

(P2): Aging Taxpayers

A graph that shows the steady increase in average age of American Taxpayers. almost half of taxpayers are over 45 now compared to 39% in 1997.
Will You Still Need Me, When I’m 84?

Our society is aging and the income of people beyond a certain age drops, meaning fewer tax payments and fewer resources for the supports our community depends on for a free life of real choice. This problem is compounded because aging eventually brings with it additional functional and intellectual disability and a consequent need for supports.

Even political victories about resources that go into supports are usually translated into bureaucratic and administrative costs that arise from the denial or restriction of supports. So, not only do we need more support, but the natural behavior of our bureaucratic system is to increase administrative costs as a way of “reducing” the costs of supports.

The only way to reduce the impact of aging on tax revenues is to have a large group of young people join our society and work over decades, as happened after the second world war. Because of the current administration’s views on immigration, that isn’t going to happen, and even the previous default immigration policies were only moderately more supportive of immigration.

No American immigration policy in the recent past would materially affect the process of lost tax revenues caused by an aging population.

We have no way to materially affect this trend.

P2): Debt-Fueled Growth

A graph comparing the ratio of debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and annual change in GDP over time. The graph illustrates exploding debt and declining growth in GDP.
What We Have To Pay Back

Growth in the American economy has been debt-fueled since the 1930’s. Debt has become an even more prominent driver of the economy since the “blossoming” of financial speculation in the 90’s.  The fact that the economy is debt-fueled doesn’t mean that the economy doesn’t grow and contract. It just means that over time, debt becomes the most important way the economy grows, leaving innovation and increases in productivity behind.

The crash of 2008 was based on a speculative bubble in housing and we apparently learned nothing from that. Current personal and private corporate debt in the US is above the level just before the 2008 crash. This time it is not just housing debt or primarily housing debt. Instead, it includes much more unsecured debt like credit cards and “investment” through debt by corporations. If a crash occurs there won’t be houses that can be foreclosed, bought, refurbished and resold. Just debt.

That can’t be a good thing since we effectively have no other way to grow. Student debt is also playing a larger and larger role every day in the brittleness of our economic system, and, whether the economy grows or not, student debt defaults will increase over time.

We seem completely incapable of doing anything about this rolling disaster. In April of 2018, world GDP is roughly $75 trillion, and world debt is $250 trillion. I’ll update this as I get new figures of meaningful change.