Sunday, September 17, 2006

There Is No System

The visiting preacher from the denomination’s seminary came today, and led the adult study class in addition to giving the sermon. She mentioned expanding how we look at our faith in action - I’m all for that – and went on to mention, very briefly, about looking at systems, and changing the system, and seeing how we fit into the system. That concerns me. Looking for systemic answers forces the thinker into seeing only certain types of answers. Specifically, it creates answers that look like they should work but don't. The example she gave was an excellent example of how I believe systemic thinking can go wrong. She noted an area of Mississippi where 30-40% of the population is black, but 80% of the prisoners are, and how we needed to look at a system which created that result. But the prison population is not a black/white divide; it’s a father/no father divide. Nationally, at least, when you correct for absent fathers, you find no difference in the incarceration rates of blacks and whites.

So contemplating that “system” and how it got there, and what our place in it should be, or what we should do, will get us precisely nowhere. We will pour our energy into a problem that doesn’t exist and neglect the one that does.

In America, there is no system. That's the American system. That's a gross oversimplification, and I could make a more accurate statement by going on about how there are many systems, all of them complex and interrelated, yada, yada, ya. But taking that approach only encourages people to stick with the same sort of approaches and answers. For purpose of rethinking, it is better to start from the radical statement: there is no system.

In seminaries, the people who intuitively understand the academic system and the church system attempt to help the unfortunate by changing systems about which they know little: business, government, economics, popular culture, etc. If that seems a harsh assessment, it is. Systems are more likely to be understood intuitively. Thus, there are business books and church growth books by people who have done very well at those things, and they all say something different. They can analyze parts of what's happening but mistake it for the whole. (And good heavens, what conclusion could academics in Chicago come to except that it’s "a systemic issue?")

People studying a system from the outside can learn a great many useful things, even correct things. But somehow, it doesn't add up to making changes that do any good.

Examples: you made an oblique reference to coffee growing in Central America. If we analyze that system carefully, we can note what other crops could be grown instead, or look at the distribution of money from American and Europe into those economies and who benefits. And we will learn enough to make any coffee-drinker a little queasy, wishing she could do something different that would be more helpful. So we come up with the idea of Fair Trade, and certifying it and everything. In doing so, we reward a random group of people in Central America who do things in a way we think should work better, and sell via cooperatives. But the cooperatives are as likely to be corrupt as the previous system, so we end by doing nothing but rewarding a different group of corrupt people. That's what you get when you look for systemic solutions.

Example two: Both before and after the revolution in Romania, people tried to get telephone access for poor people. Ceausescu closed down a lot of villages and moved people to the cities, hoping to get a manufacturing base and get people closer to electricity, phones, etc. At the same time, there were intermittent efforts to string wire on poles deeper and deeper into some rural areas. Neither approach fixed very much. But cell phones did. Cell phones did not destroy the old system, but exploited features of it. That sort of spontaneous creation of structure and destruction of structure is what actually moves things forward. And thus far, Americans do it best, for a variety of reasons - many accidental. That is changing, but is still true.

People don't change unless they have to, and systems don't change unless they have to. Rather than changing a system, it's usually better to blow out a door or a window. The Civil Rights Movement did not succeed because it modified the system. It succeeded by exploiting parts of the system - legal precedent and common values - and pressing the contradictions until something new happened. They neither destroyed nor accepted the old system.

We get taught very young to look at an illusion called The American System. We have highschool civics or history books which compare socialist systems, communist systems, autocracies, mercantilism, and then our own, the capitalist system. But capitalism is just one way to harness the free market, and the free market isn't a system at all. The free market is a constant stream of structures made and destroyed. That is both its strength and its weakness, and that's fertile ground for many discussions, but the key point to notice is that it's not a system at all. If people study it as if it is a system, they will be bound to see it that way. And as above, they will keep mistaking parts for the whole.

The Zen koan "The Tao that can be described is not the real Tao," applies here. The system that can be described is not the real system. Better to start from the idea that there is no system at all.


jw said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
jw said...

(Sorry, spellchecker went NUTS!)

An interesting way of seeing the system!

The actual system is a complex one and thus has multiple interactions in multiple channels. Like in any complex system, attempting to fix a problem by making a change in a single channel will move the problem or split the problem, rather than fix the problem. This is basic to systems dynamics.

I think one must throw away the idea of seeing a society (a complex system) as something which can be drawn on a piece of paper and see it as something which must be modelled in 3D. Think of a fly flying around your living room: All sorts of things interact with it. If you try drawing your fly on a piece of paper you will miss the majority of the interactions.

As you say, there is a high probability that fatherlessness is the primary factor in the jailing of so many black men. The problem with this is that almost all people demand that all of the blame for fatherlessness goes to the father. Again we have the flat view rather than the true and complex view.

The blame for fatherlessness goes to: society, fathers, mothers, the church, the government, the press and too many more to simply list. One fixes such a problem by fixing all channels at the same time, which means identifying all of the interacting factors which go together to create the problem.

DADvocate said...

Intriuing perspective.

At the least, the American economic "system" is so unstructured that it is easily amenable to change and innovation such as the much hated WalMart's approach to merchandising.

Your cellphone story reminds be of Air America. Conservative talk radio grew out of listener interest. Air America was created by rich liberals trying to spread their message. Unfortunately for them, all those listeners who chose to listen to conservative talk show hosts continued to choose to listen to conservative talk show hosts. You can't create an audience where there is no interest.

Anonymous said...

"In doing so, we reward a random group of people in Central America ...But the cooperatives are as likely to be corrupt as the previous system...That's what you get when you look for systemic solutions.

OK, I get it that you're peeved at this whipper-snapper seminarian, but I don't see some of your arguments regarding systems. In your Fair Trade example I would argue that you get the same (corrupt) result because you DIDN'T have a system. You chose a "random group of people." A system would have evaluated the desired end point (good, honest cooperatives) and would have put in place screening mechanisms to produce that outcome (sort out the good, honest coffee growers from the corrupt ones and only let the good, honest ones join). Even if you say "We looked and there are no good, honest coffee growers." Well, your systematic sorting and evaluation demonstrated that fact and would cause you to abandon the idea of a Fair Trade Cooperative that could work OK AND be true to its name. You would alter your goal, your targeted end point, or give it up as unattainable.

As far as the Romania cell phones, I would argue that this is the market system at its very best. Some times a market "system" seems chaotic but it is really the sovereignty-of-consumers at work. "We consumers like cell phones. We want cell phones. You must find a way to deliver them." A system is born to produce the desired results.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Agreed, akafred, and perhaps I didn't make the point well. The average seminarian thinks that Fair Trade is a modification of the system, and a good one. They are still in a systems mentality.

I am hopeful that subsystems can actually fix systems by taking them over, as with the cell phones. I don't rule out that some clever leapfrog over the system could solve much of the Guatemalan coffee-grower's problems as well.

I would sy that solving an identified problem is more likely to do good than trying to "fix the system."

Anonymous said...

As a fellow employee of the State of New Hampshire, we both see situations on a regular basis where you have people who identify problems and attempt to fix them. We had one at the Department of Safety recently. It even made the newspapers. It seems that some highly paid consultant determined that a high percentage of callers to the Division of Motor Vehicles were getting busy signals or no answer. Solution? Create a phone bank, staff it with numerous people whose only fuction is to answer the phone. One problem. The term "answer" is a misnomer. They don't know any answers. So now the phone gets "answered" but the person who answers the phone then has to figure out where to transfer the calls to get the caller an answer. These are the same people whose lines were previously not answered or busy because they are trying to provide answers to other callers. So, the state is spending an additional $150,000 annually, people are no longer getting busy signals, but answers are still hard to come by. It is not unlike when they widened I93 to 3 lanes from just south of Manchester to just south of Concord. The bottleneck is now in Concord where the 3 lines funnel down to 2 lanes. But I guess people "feel" better when there calls are answered instead of getting a busy signal.

PloddingPaPa said...

AVI, this post, among your others, is thought provoking and brings some things to mind. "jw" seems on to it in citing problems with the complex path of the fly. "jw" rightly points out how many factors there are that have to be fixed all at once...and I would guess "jw" would see that the fixability likelihood approaches zero.

Let's observe KISS simplicity and think about Microsoft's (any other software vendor would do) difficulties in managing the programming of computer software. Compared to solving the incarceration rate problem, solving, say, the XP programming problem is, IMHO, child's play. Most programming environment elements are relatively fixed and controllable, human programmer output being the most difficult to satisfice. The variability of human factors within and among the programmer teams I submit is more uniform than those human factors present and to be changed in the social milieu "jw" mentions.

I think most would agree that most computer programs have flaws and quirks and often don't get along well with others. This is true even in, say, versions 1.0 and 2.0, no matter how many "hot fixes" for security are applied later to work in the background where we are scarcely aware of need for them.

Programmers err, hackers find holes (niches), new programs mess with shared files or demand more resources...we have in programming activity a crude analog for our society, in microcosm.

Our price and legal system, customs, and the residues of tradition work to fill virtually all the programming holes the socialist planners would otherwise leave. Individuals pursuing their personal interests read the pricing signals from relatively free and competitive markets to arbitrage time, place, quantity, and quality differences.

Friedrich Hayek, Ludvig von Mises, and, among the living, Thomas Sowell (e.g. Sowell in his The Quest for Cosmic Justice or his Vision of the Anointed) have a lot to say about the pitfalls (not impossibilities) of much (not all) top down management (planning) over broad spans or systems. The price system under capitalism seems to be the superior (probably about the least imperfect) moderator within and among suitably developed socio-economic units.

The challenge is in striving for "fair" relations between, say, Starbucks and the peasant Columbian coffee harvestor: the harvestor who is embedded in a markedly different "system".

Global planners and system people to the rescue: squash the peaks to fill the valleys; get universally equal outcomes.

Planners (Kofi anyone?, Fidel and other Marxists) mainly scribbling in their Gramscian enclaves, in their ivory tower sinecures, promise solutions they declare have never truly been tried. They teach that their solution will, at long last, be tried in purest (nearly unrecognizably patched up)form and will actually work next time.

Never mind the EU and/or UN roles in the following: Oil for Food Program; genocides in Rwanda, the Balkans(?)and Darfur; nuke weapons for Iran and N. Korea (hat tip twice toward Jimmy Carter); slaughters in what were the Congo and Rhodesia. The EU and UN planners and wannabes trumpet promises from atop 100+ million graves (of victims of Marxists, Nazis [National Socialists], and Fascists--Leftists all).

The Marxist solution: forced equal outcomes (except for those that are more equal than others).

Sowell, is a pre-Affirmative Action black Hoover Institution economist, who I believe was ghetto born and originally wrote from a Marxist perspective. He, as someone said, was mugged by reality and "came around". He critiqued an obvious planning fiasco: Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and Great Society. He faults these well intended but bottomless money sinkholes of Johnson's and of other Planner Do Gooders with near destruction of the black family.

He analyzed over time the development of several troubling disproportionalities between selected measures for blacks vs whites: illegitimacy , divorce, labor participation, incarceration. He points out that prior to welfare do-gooding beginning in the 1960's blacks enjoyed improving and nearly equal, sometimes more favorable rates than whites for these and other factors.

As I recall, liberal Democrat Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, universally admired and respected by Democrats and Republicans, was there and foresaw in the 1960's the looming problems Sowell analyzed.

The grand societal/cultural cycle probably has to play out here as it did for the Roman Empire after its character and discipline went irreversably slack. Our comfort has hidden the fact that there are hard edged absolutes that eventually and inexorably will lead to dividing and rebalancing the differences between rights, responsibilities, and privileges. The cutting edge of that instrument is working in Europe and we see the glint of it crossing our undefended borders.

Benjamin Franklin, I believe, indicated after the Constitutional Convention that we had become a Republic if we could keep it. Perhaps the miracle of our founding and flowering can be repeated in another 3 or 4 hundred years.

Sorry. Way too many cheap words here. Too late and time to quit this ramble. Please excuse typos, etc.,...I should have used and pasted in from a word processor.

Assistant Village Idiot said...


Studying linguistics, even as an avocation, is a great object lesson in how little can be controlled, and how solutions spontaneously arise.

Anonymous said...

"The blame for fatherlessness goes to: society, fathers, mothers, the church, the government, the press and too many more to simply list."

Please explain why the government, other than paying women to have children out of wedlock, which still shouldn't keep a guy from sticking around to raise his kid, but should just keep him from marrying the mother, is responsible for fatherlessness. Or the church. Or the press. Or society.

Then explain how my being overweight is also everyone else's fault but mine.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

class factotum - as this was a repost from two years ago, jw has long since left the building. As I recall, he is a Canadian who was on the short end of a custody dispute he felt was handled very badly. He was big into the Father's Rights movement there, I think. That may give you some perspective where he is coming from. I think you would actually find a great many places of agreement with him.