Too Complex To Understand…or Control

By | May 16, 2016 | 0 Comments


Pages in U.S. Tax Code

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex. It takes a touch of genius − and a lot of courage − to move in the opposite direction.
− Albert Einstein

To make something simple is a thousand times more difficult than to make something complex.
− Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of AK-47

The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.
− Commander Montgomery Scott, Chief Engineer, USS Enterprise

This is tax season, and the very fact that it is a season illustrates my point. The Internal Revenue Code and its accompanying regulations occupy over 70,000 pages, over four times longer than the complete works of Shakespeare. One can argue that tax rates are too high, or too low, or just right. But no one can deny that the regulations are too complex for even intelligent, educated people to comprehend. Almost anyone can become an inadvertent criminal, thus vastly increasing the power of bureaucrats over our lives. Their arbitrary interpretation of the regulations can strip us of our money, or even our freedom.

The essence of tyranny is not iron law; it is capricious law.
– Christopher Hitchens

Question: Why are tax laws so complex? (1) They grew over time, with each special-interest group lobbying Congress to enact its pet provision. (2) Bureaucrats love indecipherable laws, so they can impose their own interpretations and increase their own power. (3) Both of the above. Answer: (3).

The same question arises in regard to ObamaCare, which runs in excess of 2700 pages. And it requires more thousands of pages of regulations, making the whole thing even more incomprehensible. A tax law too complex to fathom is painful. A health-care law too complex to fathom can be lethal.

Some people believe in magic. They believe that individual citizens are too stupid and irresponsible to control the health care of themselves and their loved ones – but once an individual becomes a bureaucrat, he magically acquires the wisdom to control the health care of 323 million Americans. Really?

Even worse, under ObamaCare, the individual’s requirement to buy health insurance of the “correct” type is enforced by − surprise! − the Internal Revenue Service. A complex, incomprehensible law affecting our health and very lives will be interpreted and enforced by the same bureaucrats who now do such a superb job interpreting and enforcing complex, incomprehensible tax laws. There, don’t you feel better now?

Needless complexity affects government, but it affects other areas as well. People stand in line for hours to buy the latest iPhone, but that is their choice. On the contrary, some effects of increasing complexity cannot be avoided. Consider this example:

The CAT scan is a life-saving innovation. But an excellent hospital exposed over 200 patients to about eight times more radiation than a scan should produce.

The excess radiation remained undetected for 18 months, until a patient reported hair loss. Apparently there was no monitoring of radiation dose. Perhaps the computer software was developed elsewhere − and was never checked. Perhaps the software or hardware malfunctioned − and was never checked.

No one took responsibility for assuring that the equipment was working properly. Everyone trusted the computer.

Misuse of technology is a separate problem. If people choose to talk on cell phones or text while driving cars − or even locomotives − that’s their fault. This problem is the new technology itself, which may be less effective or less safe than older technology.

Many “improvements” are merely fixes for problems that were introduced by a prior “improvement.” Fixing your own mistakes may provide a lifetime job, but it does not advance human well-being ‒ it just adds still more complexity. Surely this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, which will be recognized only in retrospect, complexity will be so great that no one can fix the problems. But what then?

Windows, which most of the world uses, is continually “updated” but only occasionally improved. What does this say about computer programs that control dangerous devices like cars, CAT scanners, airliners, or many aspects of our national defense?

Mercedes, one of the finest carmakers, produces models that are rated as below average for reliability. Even the best engineers and workers can’t construct devices that are needlessly complex but also reliable.

Or take the case of the man who deleted his entire company – servers, off-site backups, clients’ websites, everything – with four letters of code he accidentally entered. But was it his fault for being careless? Or was it a fundamental defect of a system so fragile that one inadvertent misstep can permanently delete years of work? Who but a fool or an enemy would construct such a vulnerable system?

We dumb down the SAT, yet we expect people who are less educated to run more complex devices. Instead, the complex devices will run them. We must not let computers control our lives − computers that are too complex for most people to understand, but which act too quickly for anyone to control in an emergency.

Don’t forget “algorithmic investing,” in which computer models supposedly gave objective evaluations of investments. But in fact, they allowed the biases of those who wrote the programs to continue without being questioned − until banks and investment firms went broke, and nearly brought down the whole economy in 2008.

Investment bankers knew a lot about business, but they knew little about mathematics or computer models. So they trusted “experts” – who may not have had their best interests at heart. Complex things we don’t understand are easily sabotaged, and we may not even suspect they were sabotaged. Can anyone claim to understand all that happened in the crash of 2008?

Finally, in both senses of the word, we have “end-of-life care plans,” which supposedly allow “terminal” patients to die painlessly, but which actually allow the biases of those who wrote the plans to continue without being questioned − until salvageable patients are killed. No more Hippocratic Oath. No more individual patients cared for by individual doctors. Just rote, mechanical, unfeeling, government-run “algorithmic medicine.” Algorithmic investing can kill your retirement account. Algorithmic medicine can kill you.

The human mind can handle only a limited amount of detail in a limited amount of time. We are continually “updating” our laws, our computers, our cars, our phones, and our very lives with increasingly complex new versions. Meanwhile, the pace of life increases.

Soon − if it hasn’t happened already − the lines will cross. Increasing complexity will cross decreasing time and ability to master it. Then cars will accelerate uncontrollably, computer-controlled systems will crash, iPhones will freeze after unexpected updates, and our health care will be managed by non-medical bureaucrats following cookbooks written by other non-medical bureaucrats. Still, the last possibility is self-correcting ‒ we won’t have to worry about the pace of life after we’re dead.

We should heed Scotty’s advice. If we continue to overthink the plumbing, the drain will eventually stop up, and we will drown in sewage before we ever get to the stars.

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