Reality Is Not Mocked

This post is dedicated to all my personal friends who have had to listen to me talk about the book Traffic at one point or another.  Its length also hints that I really could use an editor.

Ramp meters often seem frustrating because the traffic on the highway appears to be moving just fine.  “People ask me, ‘How come you’re stopping me at the ramp meter?  The freeway is free-flowing,'” says Dawn Helou, the Caltrans engineer.  “The freeway is free-flowing because you’re stopping.” This is one of the most basic, and often overlooked, facts about traffic: That which is best for an individual’s interest may not be best for the common good.  Traffic, p.119

I often mention the book Traffic in conversation, because people’s behavior in everyday situations such as driving can tell you a lot about their mindset.  Do they understand the system they are working in, or do they see the world strictly through their own eyes?  Are they willing to screw over other people even if that also slows them down?  Do they even realize they’re hurting themselves?  Do they insist on driving close to the car in front of them, speeding up and slamming on the brakes as required?  Or do they gauge the overall average speed of traffic and stick to that, smoothing out the accordion of stop-and-go traffic, saving themselves gas, brake life, and risk of a fender-bender?

In almost any political issue, politicians pander to individual voters on the level of “what-works-for-me?!”  Anyone who attempts to point out that the overall system will break under the cumulative demand is accused of heartlessly attempting to deny each individual what they believe is theirs for the taking.  Continuing a bit further on the subject of traffic:

In 1999, a state senator from Minnesota, claiming that ramp metering in the Twin Cities was doing more harm than good, launched a “Freedom to Drive” proposal that called for, among other things, shutting down the ramp meters.  The legislation died, but under another bill a ramp-meter “holiday” was declared.  For two months, the meters were turned off.  Drivers could enter the highway at will, on so-called sane lanes, unfettered by troublesome red lights.  And what happened?  The system got worse.  Speeds dropped, travel times went up.  One study showed that certain highway sections had double the productivity with ramp meters than without.  The meters went back on. Traffic, p.123

Up front, I will say that I believe that many Republicans (and Democrats) vote out of cynical, short-sighted self-interest.  I think most people already believe this.  What I would like to add to this is that there is a segment of business-oriented Republicans who, by virtue of their business backgrounds, have at least some degree of understanding of system level effects of individual choices.  Well-meaning social-justice Democrats try to maximize individual benefits, but are oblivious to the inevitable second-order effects of their policies.  Out of this obliviousness they level the charge that their Republican colleagues are the aforementioned heartless bastards.*  When I find myself leaning slightly right-ward in my politics, this is invariably the reason.  The Left says, “don’t you want people to have <insert government entitlement here>?” and, while I usually do, I also am usually certain that their program to provide it is destined to fail.

So, this concept is on my mind as the Affordable Care Act flounders.  It’s not hard to extrapolate where I fall on the law itself as a matter of policy.  But this post is not about the ACA as a law or as a policy.

This is a post about science:

IMG_0548

Again, an up front statement is appropriate here.  I don’t know what went on behind the scenes of the creation of the ACA website.  Regardless of what truly happened, there will be a lot of narratives floating around for a long time to come.  If the ACA truly does flounder and fail, the Republicans will say “told-you-so.”  Yet the Democrats will not admit defeat; they will claim the failure was due to a lack of commitment to the cause, and the time, money, and energy spent fighting/defending the law that could have gone towards better implementation.   But it is obvious that at least one or more of the following is true:

  • The program managers did not test their product to determine its adequacy and completeness.  This is highly improbable from a professional organization.
  • The program managers did test their product but found no flaws.  This is also improbable.  Left-leaning media is trying to paint this as a system-volume problem, but reports have made it clear the coding itself is flawed.
  • The program managers were aware they were not ready to go live, and said nothing to their client, the US Government.  This is more likely than the above two scenarios, unless the PMs were completely incompetent.
  • The program managers were aware they were not ready to go live, and informed the US Government, who failed to act on this information in the form of a delay of implementation.  All things considered, this seems like the most likely scenario to me.

Why does the last scenario seem most likely?  Because of the predicament outlined in the photo above (credit to IFLS).  As discussed above, politicians deal in selling promises that may or may not be feasible on the systemic level.  Whether policies succeed or fail, the outcome can be explained in multiple ways.  Re-election depends on swaying the opinions of a considerable number of people who would remove ramp meters from highways because they are free-flowing.  If “success” is equivalent to re-election, than the success in politics depends more on what people can be led to believe rather than what is true.  Nevertheless, to paraphrase a Biblical passage, is that Reality is Not Mocked.  In the end, it always wins.  In a world increasingly populated and governed by people who are both dependent on human knowledge of reality (science) and ignorant of it, we will continue to have such epic failures until such time that we learn our lesson.  My optimism (and I am an optimist!) stems from the fact that these collisions with reality are unavoidable and that eventually those who support infeasible policy will suffer through the mess they created.  I am optimistic about America in the same way Churchill was.

I suspect that a political administration full of experts in succeeding through navigating the fickle ebbs and flows of American political discourse and public opinion simply never seriously considered the enormity of the task of creating the IT infrastructure to support the ACA.  In a room full of people who can succeed by inspiring people to believe in a cause, who serves as the anchor and a reference point to the boundaries of technical feasibility and even reality itself?  Politics breeds a certain type of hubris in that, one way or another, every election will have a winner.  But reality is not subject to this binary system; just because only two designs for a bridge are proposed to a structural engineer doesn’t mean he has to certify either of them; it is entirely possible that neither would be safe or suitable for construction.  While the root causes of success or failure of the ACA as a whole will be open to interpretation as I said, the manner in which the government appeared to be completely blindsided by this engineering failure is, to my mind, a symptom of the divorce between our political discourse and the very basic, fundamental facts about the world in which we live.

*A Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion contains a passage that touches this.  This is why the Right often sees their disagreements with the Left as matters of understanding, while the Left sees their disagreements with the Right as matters of morality.  Note that very seldom does the Right accuse the Left of “hating” anything, but the Right is accused all the time of hating the environment, women, minorities, foreigners, immigrants, etc.  I would list an exact reference but a friend has my copy.

Edit: Because my life is ludicrously full of serendipity, minutes after clicking publish I came across this article related to my Righteous Mind footnote, “Why Are Liberals So Rude to the Right?”  There isn’t a lot of substance to the article, but perhaps the book will be worth a read.

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7 thoughts on “Reality Is Not Mocked

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