Diary

Systems Thinking: Why Obama's Program Will Fail - Without the Math

Obama’s economic policies can’t work.  This has nothing to do with politics.  It has to do with the complex understandings of systems that engineers and techies have gained over the last century or so.  They apply whether you are talking about an economy, your personal health, rocket design, or persistent toe holes in your right socks.

When we engineers learn about these things they are generally embedded in messy equations or at the least in very messy problems, though rarely as complicated as a national economy..  This stuff is as far beyond algebra one as algebra one is beyond learning to count.  But you don’t need the math to understand what is going on.  So I won’t be using it here.  What you do need in practice is to have a few competent techies around to advise you on systems, systems in general.  Obama and his people seem hell-bent on breaking all the rules about systems.  Apparently they have no one on board to tell them what an incredible mess they are going to create.

Systems are collections of various bits and pieces that tend to work together as a whole.  Let’s look at those socks.  You’re right toe keeps wearing through.  Are the socks too thin?  Did you forget to cut your toenail?  Is your heel out of line so your right foot is longer than your left?  But clearly the answer to your problem is not a triple layer of duct tape, however simple and direct that may be, nor is it deciding that you need to revise the diet of sheep in New Zealand to get stronger wool.  One thing is clear.  If you fail to understand the system; if you fail to consider all its component parts or at least most of them; you will get the wrong answer and really ugly things can happen.  Remember that brittle O-ring on the space shuttle?

So techies run tests.  They build small scale models and pilot plants.  Closer to home any good cook will tell you that you’d better try that fancy new recipe a time or two before unleashing it on an important dinner party.  With economic and political systems you generally don’t have that luxury.  You are changing the system as it works.  So you need to be all the more careful and move all the more slowly.  When you jump in with both feet and change everything you or any of your friends think ought to be changed without a very specific idea of what you want to achieve and a great deal of thought you always, I repeat always, will end up with a mess.  In politics and economics where you are listening to the emotionally loaded opinions of folks who know little to nothing of systems theory, and could care less, you end up with a very large mess.

Consider a car.  It’s older, well-worn, making a number of strange noises and not behaving at all the way it did when  bought  new.  I talk to my friends that listen to their advice, taking most of it, even from my aging hippie friend who thinks a new coat of paint will make the car feel better about itself.  On with the new tires, on with the special gas saving fuel injectors, on with the self-leveling shocks, the custom computer chips, on with all those little gadgets they advertise on television too.  I go nowhere near the expensive dealer service department.  And then, as Obama’s policy advisers will be, I am astonished when I start the car up.  Clunk, grind, bang!  And then a cloud of black smoke from the engine compartment.  There goes that custom paint job.

One other rule of systems you should remember.  Different changes can have vastly different effects and almost always take different periods of time to have those effects.  Beating up on executives for following the rules, out of personal envy whether you believe it or not, is immediately gratifying to some regardless of the unconsidered effects on the career choices of young people.  Pouring money into education will take a decade or two to produce all those doctors and expert techies.  Firms like Cypress Semiconductor know this.  They also know that they can’t wait a year, much less ten, to get their hands on the brains to design their new chips.  And last thing they need is folks who have been indoctrinated in remaking society but can’t do calculus or write a sentence with good grammar.  So they want to hire foreign graduates whose education systems are more concerned with providing useful knowledge than politically correct attitudes.

Obama’s plans violate another fundamental rule of systems.  Never let matters that have nothing to do with the system itself influence your design.  Like the paint on that car didn’t make it run better, seeking votes and paying back friends has no beneficial impact on prosperity.  Obama’s folks have the engineering hubris to claim that their fixes will all have immediate and positive effects.  Don’t worry, they tell us.  We’ll just fix things as they go along.  Just give us a blank check and have faith.  That, to use engineering jargon, is the mark of someone who doesn’t know his posterior from a hole in the ground.  It is an admission that they have what they believe to be marvelous goals and only the ideas from dead economists and political philosophers to guide them.  So they want the power to change their plans on no notice at all.  I guess I’ll drain my car’s tank of low octane and replace it with avgas.

I can’t tell you what kind of mess Obama will create.  But it will be a whopper.  And one thing it will not do is fulfill his promises.  It will fail.