Friday, December 12, 2008

Do We Still Know How to Govern Ourselves?

All of our big national systems--national security, finance, health care, and governance--are in crisis. This pattern of failure suggests that fixing the mess will involve more than just replacing individuals or parties. Rather, these systems have become so complex that one wonders if American society still knows how to manage them.

Today, America’s most critical national systems have all become complicated beyond the comprehension of any single managing entity. Regardless of intent or determination, they can quite simply no longer be controlled.

First is what I will call the “national security system,” by which I mean both the protection of the U.S. and the conduct of foreign policy (which is associated but broader, in that it concerns not only U.S. security but other international goals). Second is the financial system, which I mean to encompass not just Wall Street and banks but the whole economy. Third is the health care system, including not just doctors and hospitals but also insurance. One could include other systems, such as one of looming significance – the system of maintaining the environment, but I will conclude the list of critical national systems for the purposes of this essay with the most important of all: our system of governance, encompassing democracy based on civil rights, tolerance for dissent, parties with different policies, and separation of powers.

Today, the national security system, the financial system, the health care system, and the system of governance all are not just too complicated for any single individual or managing entity to understand but seem to have become complicated beyond the ability of society as a whole to manage effectively. Widely divergent in terms of process, function, and the particulars of the challenges each faces, these four major national systems nevertheless share the obvious “feature” that each is in crisis. It can hardly be doubted that if all four national systems are simultaneously in crisis, then the nation as a whole truly faces a challenge. Beyond that rather obvious conclusion, this pattern begs the question: Do we have the knowledge to manage our increasingly complicated society?

As our technology and power and desire to satisfy all of society increase, we intentionally build more and more elaborate systems to deliver the goods. The more democratic we become, the higher the proportion of citizens who have significant involvement in designing these systems, which means that they become more complicated, like a house with many competing carpenters. Big, complex social systems tend to evolve without clear central direction, i.e., to evolve on their own, leaving society to keep up as best it can.

Partly as a result of this process of evolution and partly as a result of gratuitous mismanagement by executives intent on abusing the system, all of these systems are now teetering on the edge of a cliff. It would, of course, be easy to focus on the abuse, as innumerable articles in the media have done concerning the financial system since the Federal bailouts began during the fall of 2008. Important as abuse may be, to focus on it misses the deeper issue of whether or not we still have the capacity effectively tomanage the core systems of our society.

More ominously than suggested by the above metaphor of systems “teetering on the edge of a cliff, they stand like mountaineers roped together with rubber bands, every jiggle of each system throwing all the others off balance. When standing on the edge of a cliff, it is advisable to plant one’s feet firmly on what little ground there is. If, instead, you are not only jiggling but fail to recognize why you are jiggling, then you “have a situation.”

Having just observed that no one person or group can even understand the functioning of one of these major national systems, we are now forced to conclude that in order to manage society effectively, we must grasp how they all function together! Are we in the midst of a war that “must take precedence” over all else? Are we facing a financial crisis that “must be resolved first”? Sorry, in our modern world, the only answer that will work is to resolve the problems of each in the context of all the others (though certainly not necessarily in lock-step since the time scales of key dynamics in these systems vary, imposing yet another layer of complexity).

Among the various easily overlooked systemic factors contributing to the mess are at least two that must be understood. First, these critical national systems are constantly “self-adapting,” i.e. adapting as the result of a multitude of internal changes planned by no one. The second easily overlooked systemic factor impacting the evolution of these national systems is that each system affects all the others.

We need to learn to view these individual systems (or “sub-systems” of the “American system”) as complex entities that are both very complicated and constantly in the process of changing on their own, without direction from any responsible human agency, where “responsible” means people officially charged with managing. Instead, myriad lower-level individuals make endless unofficial, untracked, misunderstood decisions. These decisions are either unknown or at least their long-term implications are unknown even though they add up to forces that fundamentally reshape the system. These systems change for two reasons: because they are made up of a large number of interconnected components that are constantly jostling around, pushing each other in myriad directions and because each subsystem is connected with all the others.

The result is that the system evolves via self-adaptation into something that is not only new but unplanned: no one is in control. This, as one might expect, leads to surprise. Since society has already put a great deal of effort into designing these systems to maximize output, it should come as no surprise that the surprises generated by our loss of control are usually unpleasant.

The details of the dynamics pushing this process in contemporary America are essentially unknown, but much can be said by way of shedding light on the subject. Stay tuned…and contribute your own insights!

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