Structurally Induced Pessimism

No one ends up where they expected. All the graduate fellowships meant a career as a scholar, or at least a tenure-track position teaching English at some small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere – but that wasn’t to be, at least not in the early seventies. It would be teaching English at a northeastern prep school – not the same thing – but one might end up an aged and beloved Mister Chips kind of guy. No. Sending young people off to do great things, or to do things in general, in the outside big-wide world, was just depressing. That was to not have a life of one’s own (note the rebellious split-infinitive there) and California seemed like a good idea. Southern California is where people go to reinvent themselves. Everyone knows that, but working at Hughes Aircraft, in the Space and Communications Group, was pretty odd. No one wanted to talk about Swift and Pope. They built satellites, military and commercial, and stuff that landed on the moon or flew past Mars and one or two that dove into the atmosphere of Venus – and other things no one talked about. Those seventeen years there were amazing. That wasn’t supposed to happen.

That’s okay – none of that was supposed to happen. Hughes Aircraft didn’t make aircraft any longer, not since that Spruce Goose thing in in the mid-forties, which flew once, barely. In fact, Hughes Aircraft had started out as Hughes Tool – their tri-cone drill bit had revolutionized oil drilling and made Howard Hughes a ridiculously rich man – who liked airplanes, and Hollywood starlets and making movies, until he didn’t. He was an obsessive with a short attention span, and even in the eighties, long after he had gone mad and then died, he was legend down there in El Segundo.

It was a cautionary legend. There was a reason TRW down the street was thriving. By 1953, two of Hughes top engineers, Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge, knew that the folks in Washington had just about had it with the management problems at Hughes, and Howard Hughes never had the time to talk them about that. He was busy. He had no time for whining. It would all work out anyway, one way or another, but Ramo and Wooldridge didn’t believe that for a minute. In September of that year they jointly resigned and within a week formed the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation which became TRW – the guys who did things right. Howard Hughes was enthusiastic and inspired. Good for him. They were systematic and thorough. They started to get all the billion-dollar contracts for classified gizmos no one was supposed to know about.

A lot of that had to do with Simon Ramo – sometimes called the father of systems engineering. That wasn’t so – the idea had been around for a decade – but Ramo came close to perfecting it, and the idea was simple. The properties of the system used to produce any result determine its success or failure, not any one person’s inspired efforts, or any one person’s screw-ups. The proper processes and procedures, and the structure of the effort – the massive project plan that accounts for all variables – are the most important things, or the only important things. Forget any Great Man Theory here – a Great System is all that matters.

Howard Hughes in turn didn’t believe that for a minute, given his ego, but all modern businesses now think this way. What happens, good or bad, is a structural matter. Don’t blame the person. Blame the system. And fix the system. For example, if the economy collapses, as it did in 2008, fix the systemic issues that led to that collapse – how the credit and investment markets are structured, and change the incentives involved in transactions. There’s no point in sending any bankers to jail. Do that if you want, if it makes you happy, but that fixes nothing. Others would have done the same reckless things, and will do the same reckless things, unless the system itself is restructured.

That’s not very satisfying – we all need our villains and want justice, if not sweet revenge – but Simon Ramo was onto something. Systems engineering is the only way to eliminate the unexpected, and if you want to understand what’s really going on, don’t look for good guys and bad guys. Do the proper systems analysis, and this idea has moved far beyond the aerospace industry out here. If there’s a problem, it’s structural. It always is.

That can also apply to the current craziness:

A married couple who shot dead two Las Vegas police officers in a weekend pizza parlor ambush harbored anti-government and white supremacist ideology and threw a swastika on the body of one of the officers they gunned down, police said on Monday.

The couple is believed to have acted alone on Sunday when they killed the lunching policemen before heading to a nearby Walmart, where they killed a bystander who tried to stop them. Later, surrounded by police, 22-year-old Amanda Miller shot and killed her 31-year-old husband, Jerad, then took her own life.

They may have acted alone, but this could be systemic:

Police said the Millers, who were married in 2012 in Indiana, had expressed support in social media for renegade Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and the husband claimed to have been present at the standoff between federal agents and militia members at Bundy’s ranch in April, police said.

They had been there. There’s a video of Jerad Miller telling an interviewer that he’d rather not shoot and kill federal officers, but if they were going to come and try to remove Bundy’s cattle from federal land, where Bundy had grazed them for twenty years without paying for grazing rights like everyone else, and the fed had guns, well, bad things would happen. Jerad Miller also wrote on Facebook that he had been “kicked out” of the Bundy ranch because of his criminal history and background, but the militias there said Miller wanted to send out snipers to take out federal agents in the night, and all the militias wanted to do was point guns at them and stare, and stop ad frisk civilians and ask them whose side they were on. Bundy was a patriot, and the government was evil, but Miller was taking this too far. It seems Miller would show them.

That led to the Las Vegas thing, where after shooting the policemen, the couple placed a replica of a Gadsden flag, the yellow Revolutionary War one with the image of a coiled snake and the words “Don’t Tread on Me” – the flag you see at every Tea Party rally – over one of the bodies. They threw a swastika symbol on the other body and pinned a note to it saying the attack was “the beginning of the revolution” – but it’s unclear that meant they were saying that the dead policeman was a Nazi or that they were Nazis. Who knows? The Millers are dead. They’re not explaining anything now.

Yeah, they were nuts, but this could be a systemic issue. At every Tea Party rally you see hundreds of placards with the Jefferson quote – “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Did you think they were kidding? The Millers didn’t think that that was just a metaphor. Glen Beck might have thought it was, but how were the Millers supposed to know that? Half the commentators on Fox News reference that Jefferson quote all the time. Such things are in the air. They’re systemic now. This was going to happen sooner or later – and sooner or later someone will say that in a democracy, if the people vote the wrong way, then these folks have those Second Amendment Remedies. Liberty matters more than democracy, or something, but this is curious:

The duo then grabbed the officers’ weapons and fled to the Walmart, where Amanda Miller gunned down a bystander, Joseph Wilcox, who had tried to confront Jerad Miller with his own concealed weapon after the couple burst into the store shouting: “This is a revolution.”

The NRA keeps telling us that good guys with guns will stop bad guys with guns, and our safety depend on the good guys, all of us, having guns, and using them first. That doesn’t seem to be so.

Much more will be said about this in the coming weeks. Those on the right will say this isn’t a systemic issue – these two were murderous creeps who nefariously coopted what real patriots have been saying, but for their own evil ends. Those on the left will say this is a systemic issue – these two just took what Glenn Beck and everyone else had been saying to its logical conclusion. Some think like Howard Hughes. Some think like Simon Ramo. By the way, Hughes Aircraft was sold to GM in the late eighties, and then GM broke it up and sold off the parts, at a net loss. Boeing got the Space and Communications Group – not much happening down there these days. It pays to think systemically.

That’s what Ezra Klein is getting at in Seven Reasons America Will Fail at Climate Change – a different matter entirely, but one of those reasons is wholly structural:

The American political system is designed to move slowly. The Founders feared haste, and so they made it, except in the rarest circumstances, impossible. As Sven Steinmo and Jon Watts wrote in their seminal essay “It’s the Institutions, Stupid”, “the game of politics in America is institutionally rigged against those who would use government – for good or evil. James Madison’s system of checks and balances, the very size and diversity of the nation, the Progressive reforms which undermined strong and programmatic political parties and the many generations of congressional reforms have all worked to fragment political power in America.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because most issues can wait, but some cannot wait:

If climate change were an issue like healthcare reform or the budget deficit I wouldn’t be a pessimist. My skepticism that we will act with sufficient force soon doesn’t translate into a belief that the world won’t want to act with force later. But climate change has a “game over” quality to it. Once we’ve filled the atmosphere with 800 or 1,000 parts per millions of carbon dioxide the consequences are out of our control.

Consider that structurally induced pessimism, and in a follow-up he adds this:

States like Kentucky and Montana and West Virginia care much more about pulling fossil fuels out of the ground than other states care about keeping them in the ground. And the American political system, which makes action hard under any circumstances, cares much more about the strong objections of individual states than the weak preferences of the country.

As I wrote in the original piece, “if you were going to weaponize an issue to take advantage of the weak points in the American political system – to highlight all the blind spots, dysfunctions, and irrationalities – you would create climate change. And then you would stand back and watch the world burn.”

The structure of our political system has doomed us, but in response, Brad Plumer insists we keep on trying:

Different models have different estimates for how costly global warming will be. But everyone agrees on the general point – risks and damages keep piling up as the world gets hotter. So if the world can’t prevent 2°C of warming, it’s still a good idea to try and avoid 3°C of warming. If we can’t avoid 3°C of warming, it’s still a good idea to avoid 4°C. And so on. …

Setting hard boundaries – and framing things in terms of success and failure – is a much more intuitive way to think about the issue. (I’ve been guilty of this sort of talk myself.) But it doesn’t really make sense to declare “game over” at any point.

Don’t give up! Ronald Bailey disagrees:

International climate negotiations are somewhat similar to the prisoner’s dilemma. Assuming man-made global warming is costly to all countries, the optimum solution is for all countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. But for an individual country, the better option is to keep burning low-cost fossil fuels while other nations reduce their emissions. Since all countries recognize that other countries are likely to cheat and continue to use fossil fuels, they all fail to cut their emissions.

Is there a way out of that dynamic? Two political scientists, Scott Barrett of Columbia and Astrid Dannenberg of Princeton, tried to find one in a 2013 study using game theory experiments. They concluded that if game players know for sure where the threshold for huge losses is located, they will cooperate to avoid it. The catastrophe threshold acts a form of punishment that encourages cooperation.

Cool but the experiments showed that “when the threshold for catastrophe was even slightly indeterminate, the players crossed it essentially every time” for some reason:

The current uncertainties about the effects and intensity of future climate change suggest that countries are unlikely to follow the Obama administration’s lead. Based on their experimental results, Barrett and Dannenberg hold out the hope that climate research that reduces threshold uncertainty might help spur countries into mutual cuts of their greenhouse gas emissions.

Good luck with that. One of our two parties is committed to the idea that all climate research is bogus, or a plot against capitalism. That’s structural too, as Paul Krugman explains here:

There are three things we know about man-made global warming. First, the consequences will be terrible if we don’t take quick action to limit carbon emissions. Second, in pure economic terms the required action shouldn’t be hard to take: emission controls, done right, would probably slow economic growth, but not by much. Third, the politics of action are nonetheless very difficult.

But why is it so hard to act? Is it the power of vested interests?

I’ve been looking into that issue and have come to the somewhat surprising conclusion that it’s not mainly about the vested interests.

Forget cap-and-trade and all the rest, as it’s about this:

Think about global warming from the point of view of someone who grew up taking Ayn Rand seriously, believing that the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest is always good and that government is always the problem, never the solution. Along come some scientists declaring that unrestricted pursuit of self-interest will destroy the world, and that government intervention is the only answer. It doesn’t matter how market-friendly you make the proposed intervention; this is a direct challenge to the libertarian worldview.

And the natural reaction is denial – angry denial. Read or watch any extended debate over climate policy and you’ll be struck by the venom, the sheer rage, of the denialists.

Ed Kilgore adds this:

There’s really not any solution to climate change that is compatible with systematic libertarianism, and as Krugman says, the whole issue has to be emotionally disturbing to people who assume the identity of self-interest and virtue.

So you have an interesting coalition opposing action on climate change, which represents the main factions of contemporary U.S. conservatism: the greed-heads who benefit from the very phenomena threatening the rest of us; libertarians whose world view would shatter if climate science is telling us the truth; and of course religious conservatives suspicious of science and prone to thinking of any environmental cause as thinly disguised pantheism.

As Krugman suggests, toxic ideology is as big a factor as economic self-interest in propelling the anti-climate change coalition. And compromise with that is not an easy proposition.

It’s the ultimate systemic screw up, and Salon’s Elias Isquith adds more:

The fact that climate concerns rest on scientific consensus makes things even worse, because it plays into the anti-intellectualism that has always been a powerful force in American life, mainly on the right. It’s not really surprising that so many right-wing politicians and pundits quickly turned to conspiracy theories – to accusations that thousands of researchers around the world were colluding in a gigantic hoax whose real purpose was to justify a big-government power grab. After all, right-wingers never liked or trusted scientists in the first place.

So the real obstacle, as we try to confront global warming, is economic ideology reinforced by hostility to science. In some ways this makes the task easier: we do not, in fact, have to force people to accept large monetary losses. But we do have to overcome pride and willful ignorance, which is hard indeed.

There is that, and then there’s this:

Rep. Vance McAllister (R-LA) openly acknowledged on Thursday that members of Congress expect to receive campaign contributions for voting a certain way on bills.

During an event with the Northeast Chapter of Louisiana CPAs, the congressman shared an anecdote that illustrated how “money controls Washington,” according to the Ouachita Citizen. He said that many approach their work in D.C. as a “steady cycle of voting for fundraising and money instead of voting for what is right.”

McAllister discussed a bill related to the Bureau of Land Management, which he voted against. McAllister told the crowd that an unnamed colleague told him on the House floor that if he voted “no” on the bill, he would receive a contribution from Heritage, a conservative think tank.

Yeah, well, everyone knows this is how things work:

Heritage Foundation, an educational nonprofit, is barred from contributing directly to candidates. Its sister political action organization, Heritage Action, however, is allowed to do so.

Those are the rules, and they get looser with every new Supreme Court decision – but no one is supposed to talk about it. McAllister did. Everyone is mad at him now, but he was just explaining the system. The current established incentives, now built into the system, preclude voting for what is right. The system has nothing to do with what’s right. The participants in the system aren’t bad people. McAllister is saying he is not a bad person. The system is what it is.

That’s discouraging. This and all the rest leads to widespread structurally induced pessimism, but then there is systems engineering. Forget the bad actors. Think like Simon Ramo. Fix the system. But that’s easier said than done. We’re not building electronic gizmos by the beach here.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Structurally Induced Pessimism

  1. Rick says:

    Interesting theme, the idea of systems-vs-person.

    It sort of fits with what I often say, that conservatives are always trying to get heads to roll when something goes wrong, and also sort of with the other thing I’m always saying, that conservatives don’t believe in fixing problems, thinking that we should just leave it all to God or Mother Nature to sort it out.

    But I’m also inclined to almost see this as a battle between all those people who “think too much” — on the one hand, liberals who think we can (and should) do something about global warming, and on the other, libertarians who see “self-interest” as the driver of all things good in the world, and think we should just let the polluters have their way with us. So in a way, it’s all about intellectuals of competing ideologies, battling it out among themselves. Who says ideas don’t have consequences?

    Unfortunately, the upper-hand here is given to the libertarians, since their side is joined by a gang of rich and powerful “self-interested” troglodytes, people who don’t care about philosophies at all but only see a chance to make a buck out of all of this.

    So I guess it’s sort of Cassandra’s dilemma, in that there are smart people who may see what’s coming, and may even know what to do about it, but faced with that alliance of self-interested rich folks who don’t give a shit and their intellectual toadies, the nerds in the know are powerless to get anyone to believe them.


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