There is a deep similarity between the way we have used fossil fuels and debt to drive our political and financial economies. And the results of this use are also very similar:
There are unavoidable limits to both. These limits are not just an amount (quantity in fuels and bubble size in debt), but that both become increasingly difficult to extract as their use increases.
The habit of their use also makes it increasingly difficult to change their use. This is a kind of addiction.
Their use is always to allow short-term success and a parallel ignoring of long-term consequences.
When the consequences become too great to ignore, very significant costs are required to alleviate these consequences.
In turn, the costs of dealing with the consequences of short-term, non-strategic use further undermines the original advantage of their use.
This cycle of short-term planning in use of resources and the lack of attention to consequences is fractal. That is, the mistake occurs systemically at every level. It is a characteristic of our complex adaptive system, and it has as much to do with the momentum of our ongoing lost control over our future as anything else that we currently believe to be wrong in our society.
We can’t use the way we created and maintain the degradation of our society to change that degradation in anything other than small ways, ways that over time will wash out in the same way that ripples from the splash of a small stone wash out in a river.
We need a strategy, not more short-term operational planning.
All public communications are inaccurate: Doesn’t matter from who or why. No communication can be trusted on its face. In many cases, our choices are either to simply believe something from those we perceive to be in our community or spend time we don’t have researching the truth.
All political systems are corrupt: Not all individuals, just systems. Corrupt systems use corrupt practice to sustain corruption until collapse. Corruption is never eliminated by criminal proceedings, does not reduce until collapse, and impacts all the transactions of the system even when most of the system isn’t engaged in the corruption.
The legal system is too complex to be generally effective: The only way the legal system will simplify is a collapse. It is nearly impossible to eliminate laws without making the legal system even more complex. In the mainstream of legal practice, lawyers know more and more about less and less as every dimension of law increases in complexity and the corpus of the law “requires” more and more of all of us.
I don’t know how to demonstrate this, but my impression is that in any instance of legal use, more and more of the extant law is simply ignored.
A great example is the way plea bargaining has taken over the criminal justice system and its necessity has extended and made the corruption of the justice system more complex and more difficult to reduce.
All saviors aren’t: Goes without saying? Desperate people always make the same strategic mistakes. As life becomes more out of control, as our society=complex-system becomes more brittle, there are no longer obvious solutions to chronic problems, and we retreat to those beliefs that let us feel better or express our fear well.
Our society has some large-scale demographic, financial, environmental, and social forces that can’t be eliminated or even dramatically reduced. These forces will have a profound impact on our ability to pursue our disability community’s rights and freedom agenda.
These include (only as examples. There are many others.):
Debt-Fueled Growth: We have been using debt to fuel growth nationally since the Great Depression. But when debt is an order of magnitude bigger than wealth, how do we pay it off? Mostly through economic crashes, whether small or large.
The Aging of America’s Taxpayers: We are all getting older, which means our incomes will drop and we will pay fewer tax revenues overall. And we seem hell-bent on stopping any new young people from expanding our economy and making up for that loss.
The Missing $20 trillion: The 1% have been squirreling away wealth for decades. The recent Federal Tax law is only the latest example of supporting that loss of wealth. And, there is no politically practical way to get that wealth back.
Incidentally, American sovereign (government) debt has also reached $20 trillion and is now equal to the USA Gross Domestic Product ($20 trillion). I guess we could call this the triple $20 trillion threat;
Relentlessly Increasing Complexity: Every second of every day our society is getting more complex. Every effort we make to fix the broken parts results in greater complexity. Every local improvement we make in the system makes some other part of the system more complex.
The increasing complexity makes our society more brittle, and less able to respond to the unpredictable disturbances of our common future. And, the only way we have traditionally simplified the system is through some kind of collapse, big or small.
Symptoms of Decline: What are some of the more obvious ways in which our society is failing to support our freedom and choice? Some things are going better, and some are getting worse. There are large-scale forces that are degrading our society and economy and they aren’t the current failure of thought that passes for our politics.
The Aging of Complex Adaptive Systems: All complex systems (including us as individuals) age in more or less the same way. What are the signs of that aging? Once you give up the idea that our society is a machine that can be fixed by replacing parts, it is much easier to see how similar aging is in all complex systems.
What Is a Strategy?: If just fixing current problems in the short run won’t help us in the long run, we will need a community strategy to defend ourselves and build something more sustainable. What might such a strategy look like? Whatever that strategy might be, it has to live with the realities that t\our future is unpredictable and there isn’t enough to go around.
What Do We Do Next?: Where do we start in addressing the long-term abandonment of our community by the larger society?
The larger society within which our disability community lives is stagnating and past its peak, no matter how long economic growth continues.
Our community is more like the “canary in the coal mine” than most, and each small increase in complexity, degradation of supports, and corruption of social relationships generally affects us faster and more deeply than most other large social communities.
We can’t afford to wait and see if things will get much better than they are now.
This isn’t because some things won’t get better. They will. But we don’t know what they will be or how they will affect our personal and community independence. We also know that as some things get better, others will get worse.
We need to act on our community’s behalf, and on our own behalf, right now.
But how do we actually do that?
This current set of blog posts is an overview of a much deeper and longer work on the issue of how our disability community can act to preserve itself and expand our independence and freedom of choice. I will be posting this overview as a series of posts on this blog for some months to cover the basic ideas before I move on to those deeper ones.
Most change initiatives that focus on complex systems are organized to outcompete for the resources that the system currently uses to maintain and grow itself. For example, political parties in the United States fight in cycles both short and long to control the tax and decision resources of government.
Although competition for resources seems the most natural way in the world to change a complex system like government, competition has built-in problems:
No way of framing the use of taxes and decision-making (i.e., a political ideology) is perfect. Each model (and there are a lot of them) will produce different outcomes in the short term (with winners and losers), and if the frame is around long enough will deplete the government of resources and capabilities in specific and different patterns. Losers will organize themselves and expend more energy, money, and time to gain control of what they lost. Thus, a cycle of political control.What this means is that US politics is like professional football (or professional wrestling for that matter). There is a superficial appearance of total victory, but only until the next game or season or election cycle. The actual outcome of the competition is stable, if shifting, change in control, that mimics more or less well the current perceived needs of the social system. The point of the system is rough stability, not any particular pattern of resources and decision-making. The death of the cycle would embed the particular flaws of the winner in concrete.Elites invest in the stability of the long-run, not the particulars of the short run. They care only about the rough stability. As a whole, elites could care less about marginal or devalued communities and the hard realities they might face, other than the use they might be put to in supporting or undermining the larger stability.
The core assumption that supports the willingness of people to compete for a long time in such a complex system that is “big-picture” stable is the idea that the resources and decision-making power are easy to convert to the winner’s goals. Like the cash in your pocket or purse, taxes and decision-making seem to be simple resources that can be used for any purpose. But they aren’t.Taxes and decision-making are deeply embedded in the system that uses them, and they can’t be drawn out the way cash can be pulled out of your pocket or purse. Instead, like any complex system, all of the particulars of funding and decision-making are tied to each other in ways that aren’t clear and which take a long time to discover. As you make the changes that drove your victorious political effort, you find that the changes cause changes cause changes, etc. and that the very people that supported your victory get hurt, as well as the ones you were deliberately trying to turn into losers. This networked complexity supports the longer sort of stable cycle.
What I’ve just described is another way to look at the aging of complex systems. The cycle is maintained by the aging of the current winner’s reformulation of the funding and decision-making pattern. The winners’ plan becomes gradually encrusted with the control they have gained, just as a ship becomes encrusted with barnacles in its purposeful journeys.
Well, if competition does not produce a deep change in complex systems, what does?
Disruption does. It changes the processes that reproduce the system and drive the particular cycle of that system. Disruption focuses on altering the process of maintaining the system, not the superficial appearance of, in our metaphor, governmental policy and resource allocation. And disruption often does this from outside that cycling complex system.
Because mechanical models of system change have been our go-to for decades, we have developed wrong notions about how complex adaptive systems change and how we might guide that change. Our efforts to tap change through simple assumptions are doomed, but we keep doing them.
Because complex systems change unpredictably when disturbed (that’s how they are different from complicated mechanical systems like a 787 airplane, which simply breaks if it is disturbed too much), changing them is more like a game with a large set of possible moves from our target. While we might be able to make a good guess about what the target will do, we are almost never exactly right, and we can never know if this particular attempt at change will be the one where we are right.
This post is about the habits that we have substituted for the creation of a real change strategy:
Myth of Mechanical Change: We can use the same plan to make any specific change we want in a complex target system, in the same way that we can change a dirty oil filter in an engine.
Myth of the Simple Target: Our target is not as smart, committed, complex, nuanced, or capable as we are.
Myth of Resistence: The only way we can counter our target is by resisting their initiatives.
All techniques of change (step by step procedures) become less and less useful over time when they are used against complex systems. This is a direct result of the target becoming familiar with the technique (habituation) and developing mitigation approaches to minimize the impact of the plan (better control in the streets, more efficent arrest processing, better armor, a better social media plan, etc.).
When public protest first hit the national television airways in the 1960’s, it had an enormous impact on the thinking of audiences throughout the United States. Today, a public protest has to have a twist of some kind to be truly noticed. For example, the recent Women’s March had a spectacular turnout, and occurred in a hugely wide range of locations. The March was indeed noticed. The airport protests as DHS turned back Muslim passengers has also been noticed. But think about how effective the airport protests would be if the passengers had never been allowed on the flight to the US in the first place.
Follow-up me-too marches will have less and less impact, and if the best we can do is public protest, we are in for a long and unpleasant 4 years.
Our Target is Dumber Than We Are
We often use arrogance and contempt to substitute for strategic focus. I suppose we do this because it is scary to take on a complex system that has real power. If we see genuine risk in our efforts, it is consoling to think that our target just isn’t in the same league as we are. A simple way to assess the effect of this myth is the amount of grief and surprise you have when the target wins.
One of the hardest (and hopefully earliest) lessons a soldier new to combat must learn is that assuming the other side to be less capable, and thus not really deserving of careful consideration, is a quick way into a body bag.
American social, political, and military history is full of examples of this. You would think we would have gotten it by now. B. H. Liddell Hart reviewed roughly 3,000 years of military failure, in which arrogance and contempt for the enemy was a primary source of poor combat decisions. There is a famous aphorism that says those who start wars lose them more often than they would if chance were the determinant of victory, and arrogance and contempt are the primary reasons why nations start wars that they are doomed to lose.
Resistance is Futile
Well, not futile. Resistance is necessary, but not sufficient. Meet the new boss, Same as the old boss. Resistance basically says that we want the target to stop doing this specific thing, or some list of things, and if the target stops, we will go back to our daily routine.
If all we do is resist, we may improve our prospects for a time. But complex systems adapt without altering their underlying dimensions of control. There can be real improvements by changing bosses (especially if you are part of a devalued, marginalized community). But don’t relax too much, because the cycle of life will come back around in a decade or two or three and kick you or your children in the ass once again.
If you really want to change a complex system, you will need more than operational planning, contempt for your target, and reactive resistance. You will need to challenge the control dimensions of the target through disruption.
Corruption (as a system characteristic, not a moral failing) is inevitable in the life history of complex systems. I am using corruption as a pointer to the use of resources for purposes other than the apparent or first use by the system.
The increased diversity in the use of system generated and stored resources can start anytime in the life cycle of a complex system, but will begin during the conservation phase because of the trade-offs that arise from putting aside resources for some purpose other than the core mission.
It’s easier to think about the phases if we pull them out of the cycle and examine each in turn:
Reorganization: Imagine an open field, soon after a large fire has burnt over it and seems to have rendered it empty of life. Although it might seem that you could create any system in this emptiness, that isn’t true. The system that begins to form will be one populated by the fast and the furious species. These “pioneers” (start-ups, leaders, initiators, etc.) will be able to quickly grab the remaining scattered resources and use them for rapid growth and turnover.
Growth: While pioneers burn out quickly, they are also preparing the field for longer term residents by mobilizing resources into a form that can more easily be used by others, and, with their individual death, returning their own personal resources to the common evolution of the field. The replacements for the pioneers can last longer, can use the residue of the pioneers, and can create novel relationships that expand their reach not only into the area outside the field but more deeply within the field.
Conservation: At some point, a complex system has enough resources to prevent simple disintegration because of random events. Also, the system is producing resources that last longer, and that don’t disappear after use (say, financial skills).It is at this point that corruption becomes a critical part of the complex system’s dynamic. A simple example is the creation of cash reserves in a small advocacy nonprofit. These reserves serve the obvious purpose of buffering the organization against the unpredictability of outside events, i.e., short-term funding problems, unanticipated opportunities, loss of grants, and so on. But, the reality is that these reserves could just as easily be used for the core mission of the organization. Of course, once the reserves are gone, the organization is once again subject to the political and financial weather.
This decision point or the tradeoff of short-term mission use and long-term stability produces an easily exploited ground for the expansion of system and personal corruption. A general model for both is the use by staff, managers, and stockholders (or stakeholders) of the organization’s resources for the gratification of their individual desires. This is so common that most of us tend to think of it as a normal expected part of a corporate or organizational function. It is the reality that this small corruption won’t destroy the system. Think of it as opportunity corruption.
System corruption tends to expand over time, and while it may stall when someone important is punished for it, the underlying causes of it continue to drive it forward.
In addition, the resources required for repair and maintenance of the complex system increases over time. Think about your own experience as you have aged. This too is driven and the dynamic can’t be eliminated, though, of course, it can be reduced through careful planning and actions that, nonetheless, suck up resources that might be used for other purposes.
Release: As long as the complex system is growing, it can tolerate a large amount of system corruption. But no complex system grows forever. Because the corrupt dynamics in the system are relatively separated from the larger dynamic of the whole, they are able to ignore the contraction in growth drivers better than the core dynamics. The effect of this (protecting the corruption instead of the system as a whole), is to make the corruption more stable than the core, and an increasing part of the dynamic of the whole. Much like cancer.When the combination of lost growth drivers and expanding corruption reaches a certain point, the complex system disintegrates in whole or in part, and its resources are released into the larger environment for use by unknown pioneers. And the cycle begins again.
Note that this dynamic is inevitable in the long run. You can modify its impact, but you can’t stop it. You can, of course, still think about changing this dynamic by embracing the possibility of beginning again when the cycle has “prepared” that possibility.
But we all deceive ourselves about how easy or possible it is to change an existing complex system that is late in its conservation phase. Say, our current society.
We usually think of corruption as an individual moral failing, even if several people are involved. Their corrupt behavior was to line their pockets or something similar, and criminal prosecution, if successful, is the proper social balancing for their actions. Which is to say, once the guilty are in prison, the corruption is gone. Except for the social and economic cost of prison.
But in complex systems, corruption has many other effects, and these effects aren’t easy to tie to the moral failings of particular individuals. The other side of the corruption coin, as it were.
Remember, complex systems (say, a forest ecosystem) differ from complicated systems (say, a 787 plane) because the parts of a complex system change when they interact with each other. This makes the behavior of complex systems harder to predict, especially beyond the short run. Simply put, complex systems are adaptive and their future behavior depends on what they run into as much as what they are.
The reason why complex system corruption isn’t easily remedied is because, once corrupt processes are part of the system, they are also part of the way the system continues to reproduce itself. There is no functional equivalent to prosecution and prison for this kind of corruption, even if we get the head of a some cartel, or even if we destroy a particular black market organization.
Example: 30 years ago,black market economies (drugs, weapons, human trafficking, etc.) were relatively distinct from the rest of the economy. Now, the funds created through illegal enterprises are a part of global economic flows, and the capital that results from the black market behavior is embedded in the investment process in a way that makes its origins very hard to distinguish from other economic sources of capital. Bluntly, 4-8 cents of every dollar of your mortgage came from illegal transactions, and there is no way to know which 4-8 cents in your mortgage came from, say, human trafficking. Also, the return on the investment of, say, heroin money, in your mortgage is part of the black market organization’s financial plan, maybe for a sicario retirement plan or organizational expansion of the enterprise, or the rising cost of bad help. Now, even cartels have problems with housing or tech bubbles.
In this way, ordinary economic behavior becomes an important way that black markets persist and even prosper, through mechanisms that require no specific person to be morally culpable.
This isn’t all that corruption does in complex systems. Because all the parts of a complex system are tied together and depend to some extent on each other for their survival, efforts to eliminate system corruption create dependence on the continued existence of the black market. So, in addition to bribes and threats to people who affect the ability of the cartel to do its business, the entire counter-effort to the black markets comes, over time, to need the black market in order to secure jobs, grants, taxes, and other sources of personal resources. This dependence is in the vicinity of $100 billion dollars a year in the US and includes far more than drug enforcement jobs. It also includes prisons, rehabilitation programs, etc.
Also, the continuing integration of insurgent terror and black markets expands the financial and moral impact of the original corrupt transactions “down on the corner”.
In this way, the larger ecosystem of black markets, wars of various names on the black markets, and the gradual and increasing use of the resulting money in other kinds of enterprises becomes self-reproducing, and in fact, grows to become a greater part of everyday life for all of us.
Although I think of the above dynamics as interesting in themselves, they have some implications for our future and how we approach survival advocacy for our disability community that aren’t obvious from the discussion above. To get at those implications, we first have to have a deeper understanding of how complex systems age, and why corrupt dynamics like (but not limited to) the big picture ones above are inevitable in old complex systems like me, for example).
Next Post: The Adaptive Cycle and The Aging of Complex Systems
“All War is Deception” is a sentiment reaching back to the early days of Taoism and “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu. At the time, as was the case in all human cultures at some point or another, war was evolving from ritual combat to a collective action that was entirely deceitful. Even the actions that seemed to be real were shaded, tweaked, exaggerated, and so on, to fool the enemy (and eventually, to fool your own troops). The reason why deceit replaced ritual conflict resolution was because those who stuck to the honorable approach to war lost and died.
This change was not that all war was ritual and suddenly turned into deceit. Soldiers have always tried to fool their enemy about where they were so they could avoid being targeted, even when the soldiers were all marching in formations. The change I’m describing above is that all of war gradually became deceit, through the expansion of the use of lies. Most importantly, war strategy came to assume deceit as a basic (strategic) organizing framework. Such a choice is a complete rejection of honorable conflict resolution in war, and I suspect, comes as no surprise to most modern people.
At roughly the same time that war was rejecting ritual resolution, there was again a Taoist sentiment supported by Sun Tzu that while war had to be deceit, governance had to be honorable, or the balance of the world would break.
When government becomes strategically deceitful, politics becomes war-not metaphorical war, but war. Just as it is unrealistic to expect war to stop being deceitful, it is no longer realistic to expect government as a whole to be honorable. While this is hardly a new idea, the entirely public exposure of the political culture of deceit in the 2016 election by almost every stakeholder in the fight and even some in other countries has demonstrated just how far our governance has drifted toward the “dark side”. Deceit in government has become not just a way of attaining short term goals or preventing “targeting”, as it were, but the underlying framework for all political strategy at all levels of society. Those who insist on maintaining more than a veneer of honor will be and are being culled from the body politic, not with death or gulags, but using the tools of social and political irrelevance.
And what is our collective response to this devolution in political culture? We seem unwilling to give up the idea that honorable people from somewhere will be able to eliminate these deceits and corruption. Much like those soldiers who thought that if they maintained commitment to honorable war, the move to deceit can be remedied.
Those of us who have worked in the disability community over the decades are well aware that policy decisions can cause death in our community. And not just abstract death, but the death of our friends, members of our family, people we love. Individuals who die because a policy change is deemed necessary to support a larger deceitful political strategy are just as dead and just as grieved as if they were shot dead by a soldier. Our brothers and sisters become collateral damage in a war where we have no importance, no political, and therefore, no social worth.