18 October 2018

Progress and the Marketplace of Ideas (or, how our love of villains and heroes is an obstacle to understanding systems)

There is a marketplace for ideas. It doesn't necessarily reward more effective ideas. It does seem to reward ideas that are easy to explain. Often, simple explanations that are wrong will triumph over more complicated explanations that are right.

One thing that is easy to understand it villainy. Bad guys and good guys, heroes and chumps. We love the movies that show the lone guy against the system, Bruce Willis taking on bad guys, bad officials and an entire skyscraper.

As it turns out, systems do more to define people than people do to define systems. I speak English. I never chose that. I was born into it and even the question of whether I would learn another language came to me in English. So much of who we are is not even our choice.

Much of what happens is the consequence of systems, not the people within them. Stories lend themselves to blame or credit to the people in these systems, though, and so those are the explanations we offer.

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Progress doesn't really impress people. We make about 6 to 8 times what people made a century ago and can buy things that they couldn't even imagine. The thing is, nobody is really impressed with that. We don't compare ourselves with our great grandparents. We know that they didn't have smart phones. What matters is whether our smart phone is two years older than our friends. We compare ourselves with our peers. We have this tendency to care less about progress than status.

How we are doing relative to our grandparents is a variable sum game. It is possible for all of us to do better than all of them.

How we are doing relative to our peers is a zero sum game. It is impossible for all of us to do better than all of us.

The more we teach kids to focus on relative status the more unhappy and disengaged they will be. Not only is that a lousy way to walk through life in terms of happiness but even in terms of progress it is bad: unhappy, disengaged people will be less effective at making life better relative to their grandparents.

The politics of status will be fear-driven and angry. It promises villains, heroes and quick change.

The politics of progress is slow. It actually works across generations. It is less concerned with villains and heroes than the systems that throw people into such a role. It is a less engaging, less simple story. That doesn't mean that it'll always be rejected, though.


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Progress is boring. I suspect that people are ready for that now.

08 October 2018

How Systems Thinking Will Define the Evolution of Democracy Within Your Lifetime

There is still a popular myth that our founding fathers fought a revolution in the late 18th century that - by the time they'd ratified a constitution in 1789 - culminated in democracy for all.

It was a much slower process than that. And understanding this process can give us a sense of how democracy will evolve.

Aristocracy were landowners. They inherited land and with it titles, privileges and power. Land was the basis of wealth during the emergence of nation-states and given that nation-states had borders it made sense that you'd look to the owners of the land within those borders (the king was often the chief landholder) and give political power to them.

In 1776 Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations and James Watt perfected the steam engine for use outside of mines. This birth of capitalism coincided with the birth of democracy across the Atlantic and what they represented was a shift in the basis of wealth from land to capital. The British had already seen a broadening of political power from landholders to capitalists even before the Americans designed a government that did away with royalty (the ultimate aristocrats) altogether.

At first, the vote in the United States was limited to landowning, Protestant, white men. It took nearly 200 years to guarantee the vote to minority, atheist, 18-year old women who rented. (A timeline for how democracy progressed from KQED is here.)

Commoners were allowed into the legislature throughout the West by about 1850. This dimension of democracy had to do not just with who could vote but who could craft legislation. About a century later, California gave voters even more power when the proposition allowed voters to completely bypass the legislature with a popular vote. By the time of Roosevelt's New Deal, voters weren't just able to vote for the folks who would craft their legislation but could actually craft their own legislation and put it before their fellow citizens for a vote.

Just like your car or computer, democracy has continued to evolve. And just like your car or computer, it has not yet reached its ultimate state. It will continue to evolve and I think that systems thinking will be a big part of what happens next.

Thomas Jefferson and our founding fathers understood how important education was to democracy. (Jefferson was apparently about as (more?) proud of founding the University of Virginia as he was in helping to found the United States.) Education still matters enormously to a functioning democracy but now it needs a new dimension.

Our lives are wildly dependent on systems. Ecosystems, financial systems, economies, healthcare systems, information systems, education systems, etc. If we get these wrong we get terrible outcomes; if we get these systems right we get wonderful outcomes. The most important political policy defines variables within systems and even the creation or change of systems. We can't make intelligent decisions about how to change or impact these systems without understanding their dynamics.

Systems often have lags and some causes explode to become a big deal and some causes dissipate into little or no consequence. Cause and effect in systems is complicated to understand and our systems thinking can be enhanced with the right kinds of simulations.

Cocaine makes you feel great but apparently isn't that good for your health longer term. Right now the American economy is phenomenal; 96 months in a row of uninterrupted job creation has doubled the old record (since records were kept in the late 1930s), unemployment at 3.7% is its lowest since 1969. Oh, and Republicans have doubled the deficit to one trillion dollars, its highest since the worst year of the Great Recession. We have a huge stimulus with unemployment under 4%. That makes for an interesting experiment but it also could be like cocaine binges that Trump's Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow was famous for in the 1980s. We may end up in rehab once the longer term consequences of this play out.

Even folks who study economies cannot say with certainty whether we're now creating a bad bubble (one like the bubble leading up to 2008 that raised home prices but didn't really create more economic capacity) or a good bubble (like one leading up to 2000 that actually created lots of new internet knowledge and capacity that would change what was possible). But we expect the average voter to make a judgement on policies and the politicians who support them without any real chance to play with simulations that would help them to understand dynamics.

Simulations can help to create new understanding. I think smart communities will tap into this.

Democracy will evolve to include massive online participatory simulations of the systems we depend on. One of the reasons I love history is that it lets us quickly - in the course of a book, chapter or even turn of the page - see how dominoes fall, even if those dominoes took a generation or two to fall. Like history, simulations don't require us to actually spend years or lifetimes to learn outcomes.

Simulations are not perfect but they do let you learn about dynamics in ways that you would not from prose. You can set up a model to capture what data and / or common sense tell you about cause and effect (e.g., raising interest rates will lower borrowing but increase the value of your currency on foreign exchange markets) for lots of variables and then run simulations to see what range of effects are possible as you tweak the knob on those variables. You're obviously hoping for a good model for predicting the future but almost as important as prediction (which is always hard and is at best probable, not precise), is learning more about dynamics that none of us are smart enough to keep track of ourselves. Simulations can sensitize us to cause and effect that isn't instantaneous and can be mitigated or exacerbated by other variables.

As democracy evolves to include simulations we participate in, it will make us smarter. Very few of us can calculate mortgage rate changes to reflect 20 vs. 30 year mortgages or a 3.2% vs. 4.1% rate but with a computer we can all easily discern that ourselves without reliance on an expert. Very few people can get across town in 15 minutes by running but with a car most of us can. Tools enhance our capabilities. Systems simulations seem like the most important tool one can imagine for any democracy that needs to navigate and manage the systems that so define our lives.

Whether it be tax rates or emission levels or research funding, in the future such important decisions will be accompanied by systems models that simulate these phenomenon. Will these simulations be perfect or even great? Definitely not and probably not. Will they be immeasurably better than reliance on prose and statistics to make the same determinations? Undoubtedly. And will future generations wonder how we could pretend to vote on such issues in the past without the aid of simulations, in the same way that we wonder at how people got around without cars? Definitely.

Progress isn't done yet. Democracy will continue to evolve, just as it has for centuries. The popularization of systems thinking will be a big part of that.


04 October 2018

The Most Important - and Largely Uncovered - Lesson from the New York Times' Article About How Trump Got His Wealth

This New York Times story about tax schemes used by the Trumps is a story of 3 things, only 2 covered by the media.
link:
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/10/02/us/politics/donald-trump-tax-schemes-fred-trump.html?smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur

1. It clarifies how dependent Trump is on his father for his wealth. His father gave him over $400 million in various ways (Trump was a millionaire before he was out of grade school.) Trump is definitely not self-made and his net worth is not much different than what it would have been had he simply invested his life time of gifts into a stock index fund.

2. It itemizes the various ways the Trumps cheated to avoid taxes. A massive amount of tax. In one instance, they turned about $900 million worth of real estate into an estimated value of $40 million in order to avoid millions and millions and millions in tax.

All that the media covered. What they don't cover is item 3.

3. This is really a story about origins. Trump became who he is because he hasn't known normal consequences. The most succinct way to illustrate how his father covered his bet is this: Trump owed a bond payment on his failing casino in 1990. He did not have the money. Fred Trump - his dad - sent a trusted employee down to the casino to buy $3.5 million worth of chips simply to infuse Trump's business with enough cash to enable him to make the bond payment. (And even that was not enough; he also wrote a check that day to Donald for another $150,000.) Donald could take risks knowing that his father would cover that risk, do what he could to protect his favorite son. A pundit once quipped of George W. Bush that he was born on third base thinking that he hit a triple; Trump, by contrast, stands triumphant at the plate simply because his dad owns the stadium.

We teach our kids consequences. They learn that if they are rude to someone, they could lose them as a friend. They learn that if they spend all their money for the week by Wednesday they are penniless until Friday. We do things and sometimes good things follow and sometimes bad. We use that feedback to adjust who we are, to learn how to survive or even prosper within our world.

Trump never had to do that. His father protected him from normal feedback and thus normal learning. Trump never had to adapt to the world; he had money enough that it adapted to him. Here, from the story, is how Donald was raised:
By age 3, Mr. Trump was earning $200,000 a year in today’s dollars from his father’s empire. He was a millionaire by age 8. By the time he was 17, his father had given him part ownership of a 52-unit apartment building. Soon after Mr. Trump graduated from college, he was receiving the equivalent of $1 million a year from his father. The money increased with the years, to more than $5 million annually in his 40s and 50s.
For our purposes, the biggest problem with this is that it insulated Trump from normal consequences. He could be rude. He could be crude. He could spend money lavishly or invest it recklessly. And in the morning he would still have more income than 99% of the adults around him.

Fred Trump is now dead and gone. He's not around to cover his son's bad bets. Who now does? I think it is us, the American people. Donald has yet to suffer any negative consequences for anything he has said or done. We already do and we're not even done with the payments.