Thursday, April 30, 2009

Practical Application of the Silly Putty Theory of Society

Having built a base with my last post, it is time to look at the practical applications of the theory. In the end any model is only as good as the utility it provides.

The main conclusion that I draw is that focused regulations will always result in undesired consequences. While one can point out specific flaws in individual regulations, that it not the true cause. The real cause it that a fluid system moving towards equilibrium of the forces acting upon it will always adapt around localized obstructions. The individual mechanism may matter in the details, but in a macro sense, not so much.

This should not be taken to mean that no regulation can work. It is rather an assessment that only actions that act as a force on a significant 'volume' of the system will ever achieve their desired goals.

In the comments in my last post Tao raised the question of the FDIC. At first I would have considered this a limit, but really it is a force. It creates a vector the magnitude of peoples faith in the governments ability to meet the guarantee, placed in precise opposition to their fear that money in the bank could simply vanish if the bank collapsed. The existence of the FDIC is probably the single most important difference between this recession and the great depression.

Social security, food stamps, and various 'here's your money' programs act to prevent those who fail to succeed in society from going into unrecoverable free fall. Even from a purely economic sense, it is hard to deny the importance of this. People with nothing to loose are dangerous. The proper balance between this type of assistance and programs oriented towards providing an upward impetus is a question not yet fully answered.

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A truly blatant example if what I don't like about focused legislation is here (by way of the Coyote Blog) . The response may be to say that policy can be better designed. I would disagree. Anyone who has ever tried to get management types to do a use case scenario analysis for software design will understand why. Even people whose main job is to look at the big picture are incredibly bad at envisioning all the ways a system may be needed to act. Rarely can you get them to come up with more that half a dozen cases. And of course they complain the software has a bug when it does exactly what they asked for and yields a bad result.

(An unrealated observation. It is hard to type while on an excercise bike. But is easy to pedal a long time when typing. Go figure.)

2 comments:

(O)CT(O)PUS April 30, 2009 at 7:37 AM  

OMR: "my model required a non-newtonian fluid and that is the best known ..."

Okay, I'll go along with silly putty but only on the condition that I can poke it from time to time ... and watch it return gradually to its original shape when it reaches stasis. Perhaps more to the point is not the unintended consequences but the resistance exerted by the substance. Lets compare this to say ... a giant oil tanker that requires hours to execute a turn, or the AI programming in your thermostat. If your thermostat cycled on or off with the slightest change in temperature, it would actually be less energy efficient than the model having a switching delay. Incentives, like money or a gun to your head, can actually make water run up hill ... contrary to Newtonian fluid dynamics.

Generally I am wary of models. Phenomena, especially those involving human beings, are far too complex to be captured in such terms. Silly putty is not so much a model but an extended metaphor, and you will need lots of mixed metaphors to describe these spectra.

OpenMindedRepublican May 1, 2009 at 3:38 AM  

Any model or metaphor is really only usefull in a fairly limited context. But they work to put a concrete face on an abstract concept, and that helps communicate ideas that are otherwise very difficult to articulate.

For what it's worth, my actual world view can be described most accurately as a state diagram being acted upon by a nearly infinte number of competing vectors in a huge number of dimensions. But really, can you imagine trying to talk to people about that? Outside of engineers and maybe some physicists, who thinks in vector diagrams?

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