The Way to Hell

October 16, 2013

Set theory in mathematics concerns itself with defining what exists in a given universe (the “set”), including how the elements interact with and respond to each other.  Political ideologies follow much the same pattern, and in the idealized world in which they operate, including their consideration of limited actors, their predictions generally prove accurate.  The larger and more relevant question however is whether the universe envisioned by any ideology bears any resemblance, and thus has any relevance, to the real world in which we all must live and make informed decisions.

An ideology is a worldview that, like any mathematical set, defines a universe.  Because the human mind is incapable of comprehending all of existence, ideologies are helpful in simplifying our thought and reasoning processes so as to enable day-to-day functioning.  However by virtue of such simplification ideologies must exclude certain, if not most, of the elements of the real world.

The very nature of the real world it that it is an exceedingly complex system whose myriad of elements and actors cannot be accounted for by any one ideology; hence the need for pluralism and constant empirical testing of results and without the blinders of “confirmation bias.”  Proceeding headlong with an ideological methodology without an appreciation of its inherent limitations and flaws will, of necessity and as the other actors and elements of the real world universe come into play, have spillover effects the have unintended and deleterious consequences.  Three such examples appear in three, unrelated editorials in today’s Wall Street Journal.

The first involves the push for federal ratings for colleges in time for the 2015 school year.  Mr Obama also wants federal aid to colleges based on those ratings.  Mr Obama’s noble intent is to reward “value,” a vague term at best and without evidence that the federal government in fashioning a “one-size-fits-all” protocol could do better that the current private ranking services. As Mitchell B. Reiss, the 27th president of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland notes in his editorial, the unintended consequences could be a disaster:

“For example, if you judge schools by their graduation rates, then you risk schools moving students along to graduation whether they are qualified or not.  And if you tie Pell grants and Stafford loans to graduation rates, then you may devastate many historically black colleges, whose students often leave college before graduating because they don’t have family support or can no longer afford college. …

“If federal aid is linked to a college’s rating, and a student attends a lower-rated college because it is closer to home to save money by commuting, then the student would receive less, not more, federal aid.

“If you judge schools by the income that graduates earn after joining the workforce, then you discourage schools from helping students seek jobs that benefit society, such as teaching or nursing, but don’t pay as well as many others.

“If you measure schools by the amount of debt that graduates leave with, then you automatically favor those schools with the largest endowments, which can better afford generous financial assistance.

“The list could go on, but you get the idea.”

A second example involves a case now before the Supreme Court and involving the EPA’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act.  At issue is whether the EPA’s right to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars (“mobile sources”) applies to “stationary sources’ like buildings and plants.

It is clear that when Congress first drafted the Act, it had in mind traditional pollutants like sulfur dioxide or ozone and, accordingly, set the level at which “stationary sources” would be subject to extensive permitting and supervision at 100 tons per year of pollutant.  However in 2004, environmentalists forced the EPA also to regulate CO2 in cars (Massachusetts v. EPA, 2007).  The unintended consequence of this was that if the 100 ton per year threshold is applied to CO2, by the EPA’s own estimates this “would require some six million buildings to get environmental permits, including such grand polluters as churches and farms … [and] would create ‘absurd results’ like shuttering the entire economy… .”

A third example involves a suit between Amazon and IBM:

“Amazon was awarded a large cloud-computing contract from the Central Intelligence Agency. However, IBM, one of the losing contractors, protested the award.  The lawyers circled the wagons, and the Government Accountability Office overturned the contract award.

“What was Amazon’s mistake?  It had the audacity to propose something better than what the government had originally requested.  The CIA, to its credit, recognized the better solution and went for it. Isn’t that what the procurement process is supposed to do—get the best solution?

“Not in the Mad Hatter world of government contracting, where adherence to rules and “fairness” are valued above all. Value to the taxpayer seems to have been long forgotten. Is it any wonder that sane commercial firms run away from the federal marketplace, or that government employees with procurement and budget expertise such as outgoing Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter end up frustrated in their attempts to reform the system?”

The above three examples are only from today’s paper.  What they have in common is that not only do ideologies that have the best of intentions regularly have spillover effects that are harmful, but that such consequences are likely because they can never contemplate either the full complexities of the systems within which they operate, and because life is dynamic, ever mutating and changing.  All that we can be certain of is that tomorrow will not be like today.  As Heraclitus observed, “No man steps into the same river twice; for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”

The Clean Air Act and the federal bidding rules can of course be amended by congress, but let us never delude ourselves that merely because “they are the law,” that somehow they should be regarded as sacrosanct commandments that came down to us from Sinai.  Similarly, before we start major tampering with our university system and make it subject to federal oversight (just look how well the post office is doing), we need to humbly acknowledge the limitations of our ideologies and constrain our passions to “do good” by Hippocrates’ rule that, at the very least, we do no harm.  The latter can only be achieved through pluralism; that is, testing our hypotheses in the crucible of opinions and concerns of all actors, each of whose knowledge base no one man, or one party, can have.

© Richard L Wise and 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Richard L Wise and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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