Saturday, August 11, 2012

Systems, Part 1

Way, way back in the early Obscene era, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth and I was a wee lad just discovering politics, journalism, government, girls, and many other things of critical import to life in our Republic, I stumbled upon the arcane trade of commentary for pay. I remember marveling at this occupation – if memory serves, and it usually does, my exact thought was “What a racket!” – and resolving to inquire into how I might get onto this gravy train.

The ever-changing seasons accumulated into years and decades, as they are wont to do. I found another trade which has served me well, and have never looked back. However, the emergence of the World Wide Web, the most potent communications mechanism yet devised by Man, has allowed me to indulge one of my other loves as well: opinion writing. Oh, you could say I’d been doing it for a long time even before the Web…but I lacked an audience, and (of course) any remuneration for the effort involved. The Web seemed to offer a chance at both.

So here we stand today, I and millions of others bloviating onto the Web about all sorts of matters high and low. Some of us do it better and more copiously than others, and some have more readers than others, but we all share a critical characteristic with that callow Fran of decades ago: we don’t get paid for it.

What’s wrong with this picture?


I have a distressingly deep personal familiarity with systems of all kinds. Men confronted by some circumstance they deem less than satisfactory tend to build systems they hope will redress it. The record of the most prominent such systems at achieving their overt purposes is less than inspiring. In Systemantics, his compendious book on the behavior of systems, John Gall summarizes the matter thus:

What is the track record of large systems designed for the express purpose of solving a major problem? A decent respect for our predecessors prevents us from dwelling upon the efforts of governmental administrations to eradicate poverty, reduce crime, or even get the mail delivered on time.

And thus be it ever, for reasons we shall now plumb.


There are many ways to categorize systems, so please allow me a rather idiosyncratic approach to the topic.

There are systems that appear to contain no human component. Such systems are designed by men, ostensibly to achieve a particular effect, and often succeed in doing so…at a price. The price will frequently include facets and aspects users of the system did not adequately contemplate before adopting it...and which sometimes express aims the designers considered it impolitic to state directly to the intended users. To understand the governing dynamic, it’s necessary to study humans and systems that incorporate them.

Consider, for example, that least appreciated, most essential element of human sustenance in the Land of the Formerly Free: the privately owned automobile. Few Americans outside our largest, densest cities can live decently without one. We all quail at the costs of acquisition, ownership, and maintenance.

It requires a certain number of years behind the wheel or an unusual acquaintance with the history of the automobile to be aware that car repair and maintenance was once practiced by dealers for the major manufacturers as a break-even proposition. They operated their repair bays at an expectation of zero profit – sometimes, with a modest subsidy from the manufacturer. It was hoped at that time that drivers would appreciate how earnestly dealers, and the manufacturers that stood behind them, wanted us to enjoy and benefit from our cars.

As automotive complexity increased, and the training requirements for repairmen mounted, there arose a market niche for specialists of various sorts. For a while, the dealers’ break-even repair bays competed with an expanding third-party trade of auto repair for profit. This was an unstable situation, asymmetrical in both incentives and capabilities, which was inevitably resolved in the direction of the profit-based component. There were no evil motives involved on the part of anyone in the relevant industries; a quasi-evolutionary law was in operation:

Every ecological niche will eventually be dominated by an entity optimized for that niche.

This law does not have predictive power -- note the word “eventually” – but its explanatory power is unmatched by any other attempt to comprehend such situations.


The automobile itself contains no human parts. It’s purely a technological device meant to serve the desires of humans. Yet unless we incorporate human nature and human motivation into our examination of the auto industry and developments related to it, we have no chance of understanding how it has reached its present estate.

As I said above, there were no evil motives involved on the part of anyone in the relevant industries. (The Fifties and Sixties canard about “planned obsolescence” contained not an iota of truth; a manufacturer that attempted such a thing would not have lasted as long as a year.) What happened, and what’s happening today, expresses the deepest of all systems dynamics:

If a system fails to serve the purposes of its developers, it will not survive.

In a competitive systems ecology such as a free market, this is an engine of advancement: ever better systems that produce ever greater satisfactions for their users and ever greater profit for their developers. Compare this to Kevin Cullinane’s inadequately known and badly underappreciated definition of progress: the improved satisfaction of human desires, morally, with declining input.

But not all systems operate in a competitive ecology.

When some participants in a systems ecology possess an uncompensated power to exclude, hobble, or harm others, the dynamics discussed above that result in improvement are thwarted. If the consumer is fortunate, things won’t get worse, but there’s little hope that they’ll get better. That was the case during the years that American domestic auto makers enlisted the power of the federal government to impose import restrictions and tariffs upon imported cars. Needless to say, that alliance served the Big Three and the power-mongers in Washington very well. Equally needless to say, the cars available to Americans were mostly fat, slow, and inefficient, while prices rose and repair and maintenance became ever more problematic and expensive.

That arrangement could have persisted for far longer than it did. During our national sanity break in the Eighties, the Reagan Administration ended many of the impediments to competition prior regimes had imposed. The choices available to (and affordable by) American purchasers expanded greatly, and cars got better swiftly. Eventually, one of the participants to the arrangement –the federal government –acted on its incentive to grow at the expense of the others. Fresh regulations proliferated in a fashion that hobbled all the competitors in the auto market. Prices accelerated upward and the overall expense of auto ownership skyrocketed. Today, the survival system we call the automobile is near to becoming unaffordable to all but the well-to-do...because the systems ecology was forcibly taken over by the federal regulatory bureaucracy, and made to serve the desires of politicians and bureaucrats above all other considerations.


Have cars continued to improve? In some ways, yes, they have – but rarely in their core mission of enabling individuals to move conveniently and cheaply from point to point according to their own schedules. It’s arguable that what improvements have occurred since the regulatory explosion can justify the immense increases in auto price and cost of operation, maintenance, and repair. The systems ecology relevant to Americans’ desire for personal mobility unfettered by the schedules of mass-transit is still firmly dominated by the player with the most guns – Washington – and there’s no real prospect that that will change any time soon.

The quasi-evolutionary law cited earlier has a corollary:

If one participant in an ecological niche possesses an unopposable power to eradicate the others by force, that participant is de facto optimized for that niche.

More anon.

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