Can a small target be easier to hit?

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James K

James is a government policy analyst, and lives in Wellington, New Zealand. His interests including wargaming, computer gaming (especially RPGs and strategy games), Dungeons & Dragons and scepticism. No part of any of his posts or comments should be construed as the position of any part of the New Zealand government, or indeed any agency he may be associated with.

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78 Responses

  1. Implementation is important, and scope and intensity are perhaps less important these days than means.

    In two significant ways:
    1. Means of funding. Institutions that rely less on congressional appropriations are most of the time somewhat harder to keep accountable.

    2. Means of staffing and operations. There’s been something of a rise in utilizing subcontracting in all levels of government. This in turn has various effects on how accountable government activity is. The extreme outlier of course is private military contractors, but on the whole this sort of management style seems to promote substantial amounts of waste.

    Bit more to chew on, and need to go through some more notes, but I think one unchecked element is the scale/scope of monitoring institutions versus the executive institutions. That is: Congress is likely too small for the oversight functions it must exercise over budgeting, while the judiciary is clearly somewhat overtaxed.Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      Question for Nob and James:

      What do you guys think about the fragmentation of regulatory bodies (even on roughly the same area) e.g multiple financial regulatory bodies. At least one problem that seems likely is that one body will not know what the other is doing. So their separate regulations might interact in weird and unintended ways.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Murali says:

        I think it’s both unfortunate, but ultimately inevitable in many industries, particularly as the market becomes more global. Financial services regulation is a big one. I mean we have global bodies, national bodies, regional bodies and subnational bodies all interacting with one another. While you can harmonize some of their regulations, in the end they all have different priorities and you see that in how they construct their regulatory regimes.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      Certainly there are many factors that affect accountability apart from size of government.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      @Nob,

      Institutions that rely less on congressional appropriations are most of the time somewhat harder to keep accountable.

      This assumes that Congress provides accountability in a meaningful way, which takes us into the agency problem, which takes us into the problem of aggregating preferences.  Does Congress actually keep agencies accountable? I have in mind Lupia and MucCubbins “police patrol and fire alarm oversight” model.  A lot of oversight comes only in the fire alarm model–blissful ignorance until something goes wrong, then urgent reaction.  While it’s generally important to respond to a crisis event, figure out what went wrong, fix it, and hold people accountable, it’s generally an indicator that ongoing oversight and accountability was lacking, and in the rush to demonstrate responsiveness it’s easy to do a very bad job of it (think 9/11 and the creation of DHS).

      In the police patrol model, where Congress engages in more regular oversight (generally though the appropriates process, as you suggest), we have the problem of whose interests are being considered. Is it really the public’s interest, or is there an Iron Triangle or Issue Advocacy Network that represents not the general interest but a fairly specialized interest that may be composed predominantly of rent-seekers and rent-providers?  This, then, is the agency problem–is whatever degree of accountability Congress, as an agent, is providing actual accountability to its principal, the public?  And to the extent it is, does that principal–the general public–really have any idea of what these agencies should be doing?

      And then we have to ask what the public wants, which assumes there is some kind of general preference order that accurately represents the summation of public preferences, which is dubious, at best.

      And of course that assumes we’re treating Congress as a single agent of a single principal, which it isn’t, as in reality each member of Congress is a an agent of only a specific portion of the public.

      So now that I’ve dumped on your solution, what do I have to offer that’s better? I’ll hold that off to another day, because given the way things go here, whatever I propose will become the target of critique so that folks can avoid having to actually consider the critique here.  Overall, my general point is that I don’t think there’s much reason to be very optimistic about even appropriations-dependent agencies being kept accountable in a meaningful sense.

      It’s something I’ve thought a lot about precisely because I agree with you that implementation is crucially important.Report

      • I’m not necessarily saying that Congressional funding in and of itself is sufficient for good oversight. But insofar as congressional oversight should exist, the difficulty is as much effectiveness of congressional agents to act as principals in their own right with sufficiency agency to deal with the actual issues pertaining to the agency, rather than being so short on resources that they be required to rely on conflicting (and often self-interested) actors to process information on their oversight role.

        That said, what’s so special about government agencies that they’re less accountable (if they actually are) than private entities of similar functions or scale? We have auditing agencies for government departments, just like there are regulatory agencies for industries. In both cases, though, the strongest accountability mechanism is usually internal. The strength of those internal accountability mechanisms often determine how far along a country is on the road to a rule of law based system. You can see the weaknesses of that institutional habit when you get a glance at things like accounting fraud in developing economies.

        Note also that I’m not necessarily stating that congressional appropriations are a panacea to accountability. I don’t actually believe they are. Just that funding mechanisms are another constraint on government behavior as much as scope, intensity etc. are.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

          Nob,

          Sorry, I can’t follow that first paragraph.  As to your second paragraph, it appears that my prediction that that there’d be an immediate critique of alternatives, rather than serious consideration of the critique I made, was so right that it happened even though I didn’t provide any such alternatives.

          I suppose liberals avoiding serious consideration of a critique of government is not really any different than libertarians avoiding serious consideration of a critique of markets, but “not really any different” necessarily means “not any better.”Report

          • The first paragraph was trying to say: “Well, the problem with congressional oversight is that congress has too much to have oversight over, hence the agents (congressmen) rely on lobbyists and other self-interested sources of information to inform their decision making.” Which is to say that congressional oversight is weak, and it’s even weaker when we’re talking about arcane bits of policy that are hard enough for an expert to critique.

            The second paragraph wasn’t really meant to be a critique of alternatives, but rather what I was trying to make an argument about institutional culture being as important as actual oversight mechanisms and implementation. The problem of course is that there’s always incentives to game the system. Government is particularly bad at this sort of internal accountability because there’s few external hammers that can be wielded on it other than effective congressional oversight or another institution, while regulators (if effective) can be brought to bear on private actors. That is to say: your critique of government is valid, and the way to deal with it has as much to do with bringing in practices and cultural norms from private actors a trend which showed from the shift from public administration to public management.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

              .., the problem with congressional oversight is that congress has too much to have oversight over, hence the agents (congressmen) rely on lobbyists and other self-interested sources of information to inform their decision making.”

              I think you may have just given away the store to James K., then.

              I agree with your second paragraph, but would add the value of competition for service provision.Report

              • I’m okay with that. But the limitations of congressional decision making tends to be why policy analysts even have jobs to begin with. If congress critters were competent to deal with the myriad of complex issues that they’re expected to handle, they wouldn’t need staffers or legislative directors.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                If by competency you mean sufficient subject-matter expertise, that’s really the least of my concerns.  Nobody can be an expert in many areas, so seeking expert advice isn’t a problem; it’s a solution.  The problems of having incentives to pay attention, the agency problem, and the problem of aggregating preferences are, from my perspective, the real problems, and ones that still aren’t sufficiently appreciated by the political science and policy disciplines as a whole.  I’m sure it’s more widely understood and appreciated than a few decades ago, but progress seems excruciatingly slow.Report

  2. Avatar Rod says:

    Perhaps not quite on point… but I’ve never considered size, per se, to be a very useful metric to judge the goodness of badness of a government.

    Which would you prefer: A government that is large, i.e. has high taxes but also provides generous social services — education, health care, pensions, effective environmental regulation, etc., while being socially permissive? Think Scandinavian social democracies. Or, on the other hand, a government that is “small”, i.e. low taxes and level of services but spends most of its resources basically terrorizing the population with draconian laws and harsh punishments? Think Singapore on steroids.

    I know which one I would prefer, but then I’m a bleeding heart liberal.Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to Rod says:

      Or, on the other hand, a government that is “small”, i.e. low taxes and level of services but spends most of its resources basically terrorizing the population with draconian laws and harsh punishments? Think Singapore on steroids

      Singapore does not spend its time terrorising the population with draconian laws and harsh punishments. I live in Singapore.I should know.Report

      • Avatar Rod in reply to Murali says:

        Caning for spitting on the sidewalk? But Singapore’s a lovely place; I visited it once in the Navy. In any case let’s not get hung up on that. I made an actual point that you could respond to.Report

        • Avatar Murali in reply to Rod says:

          Caning for spitting on the sidewalk

          You don’t get caned for spitting on the sidewalk. At most you get fined and only if you get caught. Also its making life just a little bit worse for everyone else to spit on the sidewalk. You do get caned if  you vandalise people’s property (which is only right and fair)

           I made an actual point that you could respond to:

          Which would you prefer: A government that is large, i.e. has high taxes but also provides generous social services — education, health care, pensions, effective environmental regulation, etc., while being socially permissive? Think Scandinavian social democracies. Or, on the other hand, a government that is “small”, i.e. low taxes and level of services but spends most of its resources basically terrorizing the population with draconian laws and harsh punishments?

          On the more substantive point, I’m inclined to agree with you. But to be clear, we must not under-estimate the way a lack of poverty and substantive opportunity to acquire wealth can allow a person to live life as he or she sees fit  without interference. And if a smaller sized government can get you there, that too is good. Of course, once you’ve got rid of most of the abject and grinding poverty, you should focus on securing the various personal and civil liberties.

          My basic point above was just to note that Singapore is not as illiberal as you think. There are illiberal aspects. On freedom of speech (including censorship), it is still quite bad (even though it has been liberalising lately). It is also somewhat bad on freedom of assembly. It is flat out horrible on gay rights. Oh and it has conscription. But so does israel and switzerland.

          Report

          • Avatar Murali in reply to Murali says:

            Actually, Singapore is okay on most speech freedoms. It onlhy tends to over-react when people start spouting racist crap. Pretty much the same way Germany treats its holocaust deniers.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Murali says:

              No it’s not.   Singapore is a police state.   Singapore’s doctrine of probable cause is a joke.   Singapore does observe all the superficial niceties of warrants but the police routinely walk around them with probable cause.  Singapore overreacts to protests of any sort.Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Singapore overreacts to protests of any sort.

                Which I’ve mentioned earlier on it being bad on freedom of assembly.

                As for probable cause, unless you’ve got some evidence to show, I’m not buying that is substantively worse than the way the US does things.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Murali says:

                I don’t suppose the Human Rights Watch reports would make much difference, would they….

                Singapore is substantially worse than most people realise, Murali.   Nobody’s trying to say it’s Mordor:  I’ve said a few nice things about Singapore myself.   But it’s got serious, fundamental problems, ones which can’t be glossed over by comparisons to Germany, or when confronted, with tu-quoque.Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Let’s look at the list shall we?

                 the use of preventive detention

                Yes. this is bad. If preventative detention made Singapore a police state, then fine. But then so is the US with its policy of rendition. While Singapore has used preventative detention in the past for political and criminal justice purposes, it has not done so in recent history except with respect to suspected terrorists. And as far as the war on trror is concerned America is not in any position to throw stones.

                the use of defamation suits to silence critics

                Sorry, if you’re going to shoot your mouth off you better have evidence to back it up. Chee Soon Juan is an idiot who doesn’t know how to make a proper case.

                restrictions on public protests

                These are not content based restrictions, but venue based restrictions. Protests disrupt traffic and public order. I will grant that laws are still too restrictive, but I have mentioned this above.

                 regular use of corporal punishment for a wide range of crimes

                I would actually like an argument as to why corporal punishment is any more morally problematic than imprisonment or the death penalty.

                criminalization of same-sex relations between men.

                Didn’t I say that Singapore was horrible about gay rights? Of course, the government has said that such a rule is un-enforceable, but having it  in the books does prevent further progress from being made on this front. There are openly gay celebrities in SIngapore.

                The Singapore government also kept tight control over broadcast, radio, and print media, using a web of interlocking laws and policies that enable censorship and control over media, films, video, music, sound recordings, and computer games.

                Yes, censorship is still a problem in Singapore. and SIngapore has a long way to go on this front

                Police rejected an application by the advocacy group Singaporeans for Democracy to hold a “Singaporeans United Against Racism” rally at the Speaker’s Corner, a legally designated spot for rallies, on December 10, International Human Rights Day.

                Yes, this happens every now and then. Is Singapore right in doing it? no.

                On July 9 the 76-year old British author Alan Shadrake completed his contempt of court sentence for “scandalizing the judiciary” by alleging in his book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, that the ruling party had interfered in court decisions involving capital punishment. He was immediately deported.

                This is also bad.

                The government also maintains mandatory death sentences for 20 drug-related offenses

                Yes. I left out the drug war. My mistake. Singapore, like lots of other countries, is absolutely bonkers about what people people put in their own bodies.

                Is Singapore a libertarian paradise? Certainly not. Neither is it the third Reich. I live in Singapore, there is no culture of fear. Take a ride in a cab and the driver is likely to spout a long list of complaints about the government. Yes, there are certain heavy curtailments of civil and political liberties. But the term police state conveys far more than this, it conveys the idea that people are afraid to speak out, that there is a culture of fear etc. Is Singapore good on civil liberties? no. But neither is it a police state. Spend some time in Singapore.

                 Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Murali says:

                The USA is becoming a police state.   Of that there is no doubt at all.   I have said so, loudly and often.   Singapore exhibits every possible manifestation of a police state yet you deny it.

                When Alan Shadrake points out Singapore is a police state you admit it’s bad but somehow manage to disagree with his conclusions about the very culture of fear you deny exists in Singapore.   People are afraid to speak out:  they’ve seen what happens to the critics. I’m not particularly afraid of being struck down by cars so I stay on the kerb.   I no longer put up a fuss at the airports in the USA either, knowing what happens to people who do.

                I have spent a few weeks in Singapore back in the 1970s and again in 1998.  I was not terribly impressed but then I don’t suppose I got the full import of the place and do not pretend to be an authority on it.    In such places, I inevitably hire a local guide, probably the best investment anyone can make in such a place.  Any concierge can find one on a moment’s notice.   I do remember an awful lot of policemen and my guide told there were more plainclothes police.

                This much I could tell, having lived in police states such as Niger and Pakistan and Lebanon and run a couple of businesses for a decade in the middle of Guatemala’s civil war, Singapore is a police state.   There’s only one real danger in such a police state, forgetting you’re in one.   Missionaries stay out of politics overseas for this reason.   Telling the truth can get you in serious trouble.   It’s becoming increasingly true in the USA as as well.  Since this seems true of Singapore by your own admission, I see no reason not to call it a police state.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Murali says:

                Protests disrupt traffic and public order.

                God forbid we should value freedom over convenience.Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to Murali says:

                God forbid we should value freedom over convenience

                Arguably, people have a right to  freedom of movement. Presumably, for any piece of public road, everything else being equal, I have a greater right to its use provided that I am using it legally than someone who is using it illegally. i.e. by jaywalking. While I do not have a right to run the jaywalker down, it seems that the presence of the jaywalker not only impedes my own lawful right to fair use of the road, but illegally does so. Protesters, whatever else they are, are often very blatant and obstructive jaywalkers as well. I have less problems with protesters if they kept to the sidewalk like pedestrians are supposed to. The fact that the Singapore Government penalises them even when they do keep to the sidewalk is very problematic. I’m not denying that.Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to Murali says:

                Singapore in the 70s was much more polie state like than Singapore in the late 90s, which was in turn quite a bit more police state like than Singapore in 2012. The system in Singapore is nowhere near as abusive as it is in Pakistan and Guatamela. I’m not saying that Singapore doesnt have severe problems on the civil liberties end. I just don’t think it is as bad as some people make it out to be.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Murali says:

                Arguably, people have a right to  freedom of movement. Presumably, for any piece of public road, everything else being equal, I have a greater right to its use provided that I am using it legally than someone who is using it illegally. i.e. by jaywalking. … it seems that the presence of the jaywalker not only impedes my own lawful right to fair use of the road, but illegally does so. Protesters, whatever else they are, are often very blatant and obstructive jaywalkers as well.

                I’m not used to you making such poorly thought out arguments.  This comment reveals just how minimally you value the right of political protest, that you think it should be subordinated to the right not to be inconvenienced while moving about town.Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to Murali says:

                 This comment reveals just how minimally you value the right of political protest, that you think it should be subordinated to the right not to be inconvenienced while moving about town.

                Its not that i value the right of political protest minimally. I actually do value it minimally, but that is irrelevant. My notion of which liberties trump other does not depend on how much I value the relvant liberty. I don’t really value the liberty to take drugs, but I still think it should be protected.

                However, I find political liberties fundamentally problematic. Here’s why. Let’s take voting for example. Political power is the power to have a say over other people’s lives. Because such power is something that could be used to deny others their basic liberties like freedom of the person, conscience and movement as well as economic liberties, it is suspect. As such people do not have any inherent right to political power and political liberties. That would be like saying that people have an inherent right to deny other people their basic liberties. The question of who gets to vote, therefore depends instrumentally on whether giving certin groups of people the right to vote leads to better policies. If universal suffrage leads to worse policies, then so much the worse for universal suffrage.

                Let’s move to political protests. Political protests have two sides.

                The first, more benign side is the part where political protests are about telling the government: “Here we are, we are a sizeable group of people. Stop ignoring our interests” Whether or not people have legitimate complaints against the government, people have a right to engage in activity aimed at telling the government what they feel the government should be doing.

                There is however, a second, darker aspect to political protests. Here, the protesters are holding everyone else hostage to their demands regardless of whether those demans are legitimate in the first place. They are in effect saying “Do as we say or we will continue to disrupt order and bring the city to is knees. We will block the roads and prevent people from going about their lives in peace.”

                But people being free to go about their own lives in peace is precisely one of the basic and most fundamental functions of government and insofar as the second aspect is present, the government should limit, to that extent, political protests. To see how protests with the second aspect are coercive, consider what happens if there was a protest in your own neighbourhood such that you were prevented from entering your house. You are not just being inconvenienced, you are being coerced and illegitimately so.

                Also, having the freedom be sufficiently disruptive such that one’s demands are taken seriously is a form of political power, and as with voting, fundamentally suspect and can only be justified to the extent that it protects the other self-regarding liberties and interests.

                To be clear, political protests can fulfill the first benign function without involving itself in the second darker aspect. I can concede that it will be less effective, but even if people have a right air their views in public, it doesnt mean that they have a right to have such an airing be effective.

                Does the government illegitmately restrict the first aspect of protests when it restricts the latter? it is undeniable that there is some restriction going on. Protests of a certain size are going to spill over onto the streets. Certain ways of airing one’s views are blocked off. However, even if this is a restriction on speech, it is not an illegitimate restriction. Consider an analogy. Terrorist acts can be construed as a form of political speech. Yet, this does not mean that such acts are protected. Yet curtailing terrorist acts does curtail some avenues of speech. We can extend the analogy further. Disruptive protests, by their disruptive nature, are a mild form of political terrorism.

                Now, how does all this figure into my evaluation of how Singapore handles political protests. While Singapore does a great job of preventing disruptive protests from happening, it goes way overboard when it comes to non-disruptive protests. Preventing gatherings of size larger than 5 is blatant political repression and overkill to boot. Even though permits should be issued in a content neutral manner, this is not always done. There was one instance where the PAP (ruling party) youth had to cancel a gathering because they forgot to apply for a permit. But other than during election season, it is very difficult for the opposition to get a permit for anything. Permits could be issued way more liberally and protests could be organised such that they were non-disruptive. Crowds could be kept from blocking up roads, walkways and entrances. People would get to protest whenever they wanted and permits would just be a way to book particular venues (e.g. the field outside parliament house or the Istana) so that protestors don’t clash.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Murali says:

                To see how protests with the second aspect are coercive, consider what happens if there was a protest in your own neighbourhood such that you were prevented from entering your house. You are not just being inconvenienced, you are being coerced and illegitimately so.

                How long a protest are we talking about?  I don’t think you have much experience with protests.  I’m not talking about French style protests where farmers block the highways with tractors for days on end; I’m talking about a protest where people march up the street and you might have to wait 15 minutes to get through.  Even if you have to wait an hour, that’s still just inconvenience.  And this issue is crucial because ultimately without strong rights to political protest you have damned little security for any other rights.

                Putting the right to get into my neighborhood without any inconvenience above the right to political protest–and you do, despite your claims, because when the two conflict you ask political protests to give way–is the freedom of the subject, not the citizen.Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to Murali says:

                How long a protest are we talking about?  I don’t think you have much experience with protests.  I’m not talking about French style protests where farmers block the highways with tractors for days on end; I’m talking about a protest where people march up the street and you might have to wait 15 minutes to get through.  Even if you have to wait an hour, that’s still just inconvenience

                I’ll have to think longer about this. I always thought proper protests lasted from a few hours to a few days.

                without strong rights to political protest you have damned little security for any other rights.

                I seriously doubt this. When I think of protests, the kinds of things that come to my mind are anti-globalisation, anti trade, anti IMF protests. They don’t particularly inspire my confidence in the ability of protests to secure my liberties. And knowing my fellow Singaporeans, I doubt that there is likely to be any kind of pro-gay rights protests (more likely the opposite)

                Putting the right to get into my neighborhood without any inconvenience above the right to political protest–and you do, despite your claims, because when the two conflict you ask political protests to give way–is the freedom of the subject, not the citizen.

                I don’t deny that I put the right to get into my neighbourhood over the right to political process. I just deny that I do so because of how I personally value each kind of activity. I just think that there are more objective and substantive problems with political liberties. As to whether mine is the freedom of th subject rather than of the citizen, while I am not completely comfortable with the label, if the coat fits…

                 Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Rod says:

      Oh absolutely, size is not the only thing that matters, and the specifics of what the scope and intensity government activity matters a lot.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Rod says:

      Consider also how many important things Singapore’s government has a large hand in: housing, medical care, pensions.  The mechanisms may not be the same as those used by Sweden, but there are far too many government-guaranteed floors on outcomes for me to classify Singapore as a “low services” state.Report

      • Avatar Rod in reply to Michael Cain says:

        I shouldn’t even have mentioned any particular governments. In truth my knowledge of Singapore is very limited so mentioning it by name was obviously a mistake. Just mentally insert some god-awful place that meets the criteria I spelled out.Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Rod says:

          You’re not the only one that does it.  Singapore is regularly held up as the example of a small-government low-tax low-services developed country.  It’s not.  The confusion seems to me to be that US conservatives in particular don’t consider a mandatory employer-plus-employee savings contribution equal to 35.5% of salary into an account which can be used for only a limited set of things (medical care, retirement income, housing) to be a tax; I think it is.Report

  3. Avatar Roger says:

    James,

    Great topic and I agree with the various ways you measure government and with the warning that shrinking it, if done poorly, can backfire.

    Let me add another dimension…

    Governments as a rule don’t just do things for the sake of keeping busy (please no libertarian snipes). In general they are trying to solve problems. To defend the country, build roads, educate youth, etc.

    The other dimension of measuring government is how they attempt to solve these problems. Moderate libertarians are not arguing problems should not be solved, but that problems are often solved better in a decentralized, competitive cooperative system. Sometimes this means government doesn’t need to be involved at all, but often it means governments role is to ensure the decentralized problem solving system is working. There is a big difference between officiating that the retirement security industry works well, and centrally managing social security.

    I guess what I am describing is best covered under your term intensity. But once we go down the path of centralized top down problem solving via government, when we try to cut back, we are indeed doing what liberals fear. We are reducing the extent of our problem solving. The most important step in a journey is the first one… It is determining which path we take. The problem with big government falls on the initial error that the best way to solve problems is via top down government interference.

    The only defense against government bloat is a mindset that centralized top down problem solving should be the last resort, not the first.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Roger says:

      Roger,

      I found this an eexceptionally thoughtful comment, particularly in your penultimate paragraph.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Roger says:

      Why is a centralised solution invariably worse than fifty duplicates of the same?Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Blaise,

        Centralized solutions are NOT invariably worse.

        Though I am a big fan of bottoms up, I think a lot of creative systems involve institutional rules and protocols which involve a blend of judicious top down and ample decentralization and freedom. Science, free markets, and sports for example.

        However, humans have a cognitive blind spot for decentralized phenomena. Attached are some cut and pasted quotes from Mitchell Resnick from a 1994 issue of Technology Review:

        “People seem to have strong attachments to centralized ways of thinking, assuming that every pattern must have a single cause, an ultimate controlling factor. The widespread resistance to evolutionary theories is an example: Many individuals still insist that someone or something must have explicitly designed the complex, orderly structures that exist in the biological world. They resist the idea that complexity can be formed through a decentralized process of variation and selection.”

        “Similarly, many view the workings of the economy in centralized ways, assuming singular causes for complex, decentralized phenomena. In interviews with Israeli children between 8 and 15 years old, for example, David Leiser, a psychologist at Ben-Gurion University, discovered that nearly half of the children assumed that the government sets all prices and pays all salaries. Even children who said that employers pay salaries often believed that the government provides the money for the salaries. “The child finds it easier to refer unexplained phenomena to the deliberate actions of a clearly defined entity, such as the government,” he wrote, “than to impersonal market forces.””

        “By clinging to this centralized mindset to explain all phenomena, politicians, managers, and scientists are working with blinders on, focusing on centralized solutions even when decentralized approaches might be more appropriate, robust, or reliable.”

        The point is not that centralized solutions do not exist, nor even that in some cases that they are not better ( when the Mongols surround your town, for example), it is that we ignore the massive potential of bottoms up, and by rushing in to top down, we often crowd out and kill off better methods.

        Resnick’s final sentence says it all…Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Roger says:

          So, a multi-part blog post in a nutshell:

          Top-down and bottom-up structures are both tradeoffs between design considerations, and usually the differences between their efficacy when applied to a problem domain are specific to the problem domain.

          The only real difference between a top-down and bottom-up structure is that the bottom-up structure is more likely to have a middlin’ number of nefarious actors gaming the system a moderate amount… and a top down structure is more likely to have a few nefarious actors gaming the system a *lot*, or a lot of nefarious actors gaming the system just a little bit.

          Because human systems aren’t like other complex systems.  We have agents that move through them that look for advantage over the system.  Humans are meta, dude.Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Roger says:

          Top-down or bottom-up, complexity is an important axis along which government should be measured.  In my experience, many of the people who somewhat casually complain that they want smaller government actually want simpler government: they have trouble finding programs that they actually want to eliminate, but they would dearly like for the administration of things to become easier, clearer, more straightforward.  The federal income tax code is the most often-used example, but it doesn’t stop there. Consider means-tested public assistance: one program counts a car as an asset, another one doesn’t; one allows $2,000 in savings, another allows $3,000; one allows $6,000 in income, another $10,000.

          One of the sources of this type of problem arises when funding comes from multiple levels of government, all trying to do good.  At some point it became apparent that poor school districts couldn’t generate the revenue from their local tax sources to provide a contemporary education (eg, one that includes not typing, but “keyboarding” experience with common applications).  So states introduced equalization programs that transfer state tax revenues from one district to another.  But the richer districts’ representation insisted on some sort of accountability and all of the paperwork that entails.  Then the federal government decided to do the same thing at a national level, transferring federal revenues from richer states to poorer ones.  But the richer states’ representation insisted on some sort of accountability and another set of paperwork.  I can’t prove it, but I would be surprised if there were not districts where almost all of the funding from outside the district was consumed by the added administrative staff required.Report

          • Avatar James K in reply to Michael Cain says:

            Top-down or bottom-up, complexity is an important axis along which government should be measured.  In my experience, many of the people who somewhat casually complain that they want smaller government actually want simpler government: they have trouble finding programs that they actually want to eliminate, but they would dearly like for the administration of things to become easier, clearer, more straightforward.  The federal income tax code is the most often-used example, but it doesn’t stop there. Consider means-tested public assistance: one program counts a car as an asset, another one doesn’t; one allows $2,000 in savings, another allows $3,000; one allows $6,000 in income, another $10,000.

            This is an important insight, nicely done.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Roger says:

          Nature can afford inefficiency.   Systems can’t.  There’s more at work than human preference for centralisation: protocols and signalling obey the laws of information theory.   A good deal of my life has been spent building adapters connecting Square Pegs and Round Holes of mutually hostile systems.   Good for me, not so good for the people who have to rely on people like me.

          Centralisation and standardisation reduce overhead costs.   The best argument for decentralisation only arises when the system hits the endpoints, dealing with failover and redundancy.   There is never a good argument for decentralisation for its own sake, especially with standards.

          Long before the Internet, the EDI protocol appeared.   It’s still with us today.   You can’t talk to Walmart or health care or insurance or military procurement systems without using EDI.   Though I’ve seen dozens of different firms using it, no two implementers generate congruent EDI 810 invoices.   Though the HIPAA legislation obliged health care and insurance to provide standardized interchange, many organisations to have yet to become compliant.   The situation is so screwed up (ask any physician) and the problem domain so bizarre,  a good deal of the AI I’ve built deals with applying rules to it.

          EDI is a case where a top-down standard existed for many years.  Yet because nobody was obliged to conform to it, and larger trading partners could simply tell their smaller trading partners to bend the EDI standards to fit into their implementation, it’s produced a standards nightmare.

          The Internet RFCs, same tiresome story:  superficial compliance and yards of server side crap in everyone’s headers to do user agent detection, coping with deficiencies on the browser side.

          You want appropriate, robust, or reliable?   That’s great.   Decentralisation without standards is nonsense.   The government might just help us along here without costing us much of anything, by providing just such standards.    Want fucked-up parochial solutions which won’t interconnect and create more problems than they solve?   Boy howdy, we’ve got them in spades.   The only reason the HTTP protocol is a viable standard, bad as it might seem, is because it had government backing.Report

          • Avatar Roger in reply to BlaiseP says:

            Blaise,

            I agree on standards and rules being consistent and dependable. Not frozen, but consistent and dependable.Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to BlaiseP says:

            “The only reason the HTTP protocol is a viable standard, bad as it might seem, is because it had government backing.”

            My recollection is the use of HTTP, warts and all, exploding with no government involvement at all.  Perhaps because I was in a research organization at the time.  Certainly by fairly early in 1994 I was doing demos at a lot of places using it and the original chimera graphical browser.  What “government backing” were you thinking of?Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Michael Cain says:

              Please.   Tim Berners-Lee invented HTTP when he was working for CERN at the time, a European government consortium.   It rode over the TCP and IP stack developed for ARPANET with DoD funding.

               Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Okay, if you’re going to count support at that level — ie, relatively small research projects whose results are released to the world at large.  I tend to interpret a phrase (emphasis mine) like “The only reason the HTTP protocol is a viable standard… is because it had government backing” to imply either major funding, or government push for adoption by standards bodies, or government mandate for adoption.  At the time that TCP/IP really began to spread, there were a variety of competing commercial networking protocols with at least as much money behind them; arguably, TCP/IP won those battles because it was simple enough that various universities and companies could build implementations for almost all of the platforms around.  Certainly I was a lonely voice at one of the US regional Bell companies arguing that our data service offerings should be built on TCP/IP.

                At the lower level of “backing”, we can also include the release of NCSA Mosaic, particularly the ports to Windows and Mac, for the big success of HTTP.  Right application at the right time.  Amazing how many graphical Web browsers appeared quickly.  I did a lot of demos using a modified version of the chimera browser from UNLV (not to be confused with the early versions of Camino, which used that same name); I could readily get the source code for chimera, so could add pop-up windows for some very early streamed audio and video.  Quite possibly the ugliest streaming video ever done.  Pixels were either black or white, 15 frames per second.  But real-time encoding didn’t require exotic hardware, and all of the workstations, PCs, and Macs of the day could decode and display multiple small windows of it simultaneously.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Michael Cain says:

                I stand by my assertion:   the Web as we understand it was developed with government money, it ran over government backbones and IETF began with government entities.  NCSA Mosaic… well, gosh, that N just might give us a hint about how this process works.

                 Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to BlaiseP says:

            Centralisation and standardisation reduce overhead costs.  

            They can also reduce innovation (and sometimes innovation can do more to reduce overhead costs than standardization).  There’s a tradeoff there.

            Think of welfare reform for example.  We had a system in which each state had to precisely follow the central standard, and it was a lousy system.  States (beginning with Wisconsin) began to ask for permission to experiment with different program structures, and today we have a mix of systems, with a basic central standard but room for state-level innovation, and it’s a much better system.Report

            • Agreed.

              This is one of those industry/area specific things where certain things work better with localization. Others not so much. (The two examples I think about primarily are things like common pool resource management as local, and financial regulations as a global thing.)Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                Yes. It occurred to me after I wrote my prior comment that one of the ways systems can be distinguished is between those where the different parts must all interact smoothly with each other, and systems where constituent parts don’t interact much.  Blaise, by virtue of his occupation, is perhaps inclined to think in terms of the first type, and for those he is certainly right that centralization is critical.  My own particular interests tend to lead me to think in terms of the latter, for which centralization is not only not crucial, but sometimes devastating to successful functioning.

                things like common pool resource management as local

                Mostly, but if I can play liberal environmentalist’s advocate for a moment, don’t forget the oceans and atmosphere! 😉Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

                Blaise, by virtue of looking at supply chains for projects at the back of beyond, has a pretty fair idea of what bureaucracies do at local levels.   Want fewer bureaucrats?   Want better administration?   Want common pools of resources?   Let’s start with that word “common”, because that means “standard”.  Once these Innovators start in on the Improvements to it, it becomes a Vile Nest of Bureaucratic Fiefdoms.   Thought that was a bad idea.  Devastating, I believe was the word.

                Bottom up is great, insofar as these things must be administered at ground level.   Be really nice if someone understood how to keep overhead costs low before they started in on all this Decentralisation idiocy.Report

              • Avatar Matty in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Want common pools of resources?   Let’s start with that word “common”, because that means “standard”.

                Are you sure, because going by James’ reference to the oceans I thought it meant resources where ownership is vested in ‘the community’ whoever they are.

                On the subject, while in principle I agree such resources should be managed by those who use them there can be practical problems in dividing up such responsibility. Who is ‘in charge’ of reducing the chance the river near your house floods? Any unit of management smaller than a catchment is going to find it far more difficult but neither local government or private property tends to follow drainage boundaries in the right way so we are back to some kind of central control.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                When the resource is money, centralise its management.   There are no exceptions to this rule.  All this hooey about how clever and innovative some local bureaucrat might be are mostly nonsense.   What these Local Innovator advocates want is for the Central Authority to give him Da Moneh and he’ll decide what to do with it and screw any oversight which might attend to those decisions.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

              Are you advocating for fifty bureaucracies?   Innovation is a dumb argument, the usual one we hear from people who think much paperwork is a great idea.  The money comes from the Feds in any case, so what we have is the worst of both worlds.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Blaise I am with you 98% of the way on consistent rules and standards and economies of scale. And certainly I agree bureaucrats are not paragons of innovation.

                There are some other issues though.

                First, institutions tend to bloat and become ineffective and sclerotic over time. Parkinson’s law and all.
                Second, institutions tend to resist change. This is often a good thing until the environment or problem set changes, at which time it becomes disastrous.
                Third, we can’t assume we all agree what problems an institution should even be addressing, let alone which way is best based upon local context and values
                Fourth, it is the existence of competing institutions which provides benchmarks and constructive competition and a set of ideas that succeeded or failed.
                One institutional solution offers the potential for monopoly exploitation. With no alternatives, the bloated, sclerotic institution can coercively demand customers pay for atrocious service at exorbitant prices. The “efficiency” of a company town.

                Decentralization can be taken too far, but we need variety and competition and selection at the institutional level if we want the system to be adaptive at solving a wide variety of problems over changing conditions for people of differing values.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Roger says:

                That’s mostly a bigger myth than Gilgamesh and Enkidu.    Bureaucracy enforces rules.

                Any time someone tells you about Sclerotic Bureaucracy and suchlike, you may bet the farm on the fact he doesn’t like the rules applied to him when he deals with that bureaucracy.Report

              • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to BlaiseP says:

                That does not mean the complaint is without merit.

                I’d expand on this, but my wife is in labor,so I can’t stay & play.Report

              • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Roger says:

                +1Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Roger says:

      Yes, centralisation is something else to consider.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Roger says:

      Roger, I want to second James H by saying this is a very well-thought-out comment. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now and I’m pleased to see it’s engendered some other thoughtful comments.

      I don’t have much to say about it right now, except that I think this is where the liberalism I like and the libertarianism I like meet up, and I’ve been trying in my own head to figure out how to say it for quite a while. This is about as close to capturing that dynamic as anything I’ve read or thought of on my own. (Well, there are things I could say, but I don’t want to be nitpicky until I getter a better grip on what you’re saying here.)

      Also, how ’bout developing this more in a longer FP post?Report

  4. Avatar Roger says:

    Hi Patrick,

    By the way, I completed my draft of the guest post on Property Rights in Surfing (which is an example of bottoms up problem solving). How do I get it to you? In other words, where on the site is your contact info?

    That said, I do not agree with your second to the last paragraph. There are lots of differences between centralized and decentralized systems, not just the number and range of nefarious gamers.

    It goes back to my opening comments to JK. What we are talking about are differences in problem solving systems. Some problems are solved better top down and centrally. Most complex problems are actually solved in a bottoms up ( or combo) system of experimentation, competition, selection, recombination, and refinement repeated over long time frames. Bottoms up or combo systems such as common law, science and free enterprise are complex adaptive problem solving systems. These are capable of unimaginably smarter, more creative, more adaptive, more robust and more complex solutions than top down rational designs.

    Indeed, they are so brilliant, that they are often incapable of even being understood by rational planners. Top down planning often dumbs down and destroys bottoms up complex adaptive systems.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Roger says:

      Email it to E.D. or Mark T is the fastest way; they’ve asked for guest posts to go through them.  Looking forward to reading it.

      That said, I do not agree with your second to the last paragraph.  There are lots of differences between centralized and decentralized systems, not just the number and range of nefarious gamers.

      Okay, I’m vastly oversimplifying for the sake of being pithy, but… well, okay honestly, there isn’t really any such thing as an entirely top-down or bottom-up social system.  Eventually, top-down systems start getting feedback internal to the system, and they become bottom-up-like if they respond to the feedback (and usually they do, indeed, they have to, to some degree – even large top-down solutions like Welfare aren’t really top-down any more, the income tax code gets feedback from voters who influence congresscritters who put in tax breaks, etc.)… and eventually bottom-up systems start getting scalability problems and have to impose *some* sort of structure in order to continue to grow (see: Wikipedia and its editorial scheme).

      So arguing about top-down vs. bottom-up is usually arguing about how the structure goes though its first evolutionary iteration; in these cases top-down systems usually suffer from overcoverage but get gains from economies of scale, and bottom-up systems usually have better alignment in coverage but lose on economies of scale.  You’re taking a least pessimum/most optimum approach in one, and a most optimum/least pessimum approach in the other.  Generally speaking, when I see people argue about one approach vs. the other, they’re comparing one approach’s most optimum part to the other’s least pessimum part.  Of course one approach will look better than the other when you do that, but it’s cheating.

      Part of it, of course, also depends on where you draw your systems boundary in your analysis, and since all complex adaptive systems are open, all analysis of them depend upon drawing an inaccurate-but-hopefully-good-enough-for-the-analysis systems border that isn’t the true border, but is close enough.  People cheat on that, too; it makes their approach look better if they fudge on what they call the “system border”.  See, qmail and claims of email security.

      But, due to the way the systems assemble (or are assembled), the breaks in auditability in the system are in different places.  Assumptions are different when building in security (default trust vs. default deny, etc.) and thus as stuff moves through the complex system, the areas of exploitation have a tendency to be completely different.  Hence the point about nefarious actors.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        Patrick,

        As usual, I agree with most of what you wrote. I agree that most complex systems are a blend. Command economies require feedback, and free market economies require institutional protocols, etc etc. I also agree that there are tendencies and strengths and weaknesses that go with each approach. Centralized can often be real fast. Decentralized can often be more experimental.

        However, I disagree with your implication that the difference between the effectiveness is only or mostly only true when we take the best scenario of one vs the worst scenario of the other.

        In summary, both extremes have their place, most real systems are blends, and most importantly, people tend to have a cognitive blind spot both to the potential and the existence of the bottoms up variety. Indeed, they attribute top down design even to primarily bottoms up things.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Roger says:

          most importantly, people tend to have a cognitive blind spot both to the potential and the existence of the bottoms up variety

          Oh, that’s true enough.

          However, I disagree with your implication that the difference between the effectiveness is only or mostly only true when we take the best scenario of one vs the worst scenario of the other.

          I didn’t mean to imply that I believe this is the case; what I meant was that usually when I see someone talking about, say, regulatory alignment, they’re usually giving arguments that depend upon that comparison.  People talk about the inefficiency of big government programs, but they’re (usually) inefficient in the sense that they cover some people they shouldn’t cover, or provide inaccurate or over-coverage, while they usually get pretty big economies of scale (barring nefarious actors).  People talk about small, locally run soup kitchens knowing their clientele better than a large welfare program, and that’s true (a church-run soup kitchen will know when Bob the Homeless guy will eat this type of something vs. that), but they can’t buy 1000 gallons of soup at a bulk rate, either.

          If you’re talking about resource alignment, of course a bottom-up organization will tend to have tend to look like it has better resource alignment.  They have huge incentives to have good resource alignment; they’re usually resource poor.  Now, maybe the federal government might ship an extra 10,000 cinderblocks to a disaster recovery site after a big event, and that *seems* like a big waste, but if the government has 900,000 lbs of cargo moving on a convoy that has a million lb capacity, shipping 100,000 lbs of cargo that they don’t need isn’t necessarily bad resource alignment, either.  They have incentive to throw extra resources at a problem because they are *not* resource poor and it’s better to have a little too much (which they get cheaply) than not to have enough.  They don’t want to be penny-wise and pound-foolish… the smaller organization can’t afford *not* to be penny-wise, because pennies is all they got.

          Slack time is a lot more expensive when you have 10,000 man-hours waiting for a part than when you have 1 man waiting for a part, even if it’s the same part.  If it’s an expensive part, it may seem like a waste to make 10 extras, and it certainly *is* a waste if you only have one man waiting for the part, but if you have 10,000, that’s a whole ‘nuther ball of wax…Report

          • Avatar Roger in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

            Patrick,

            I agree. By the way, what did you mean by “first evolutionary iteration”? Are you referring to how the system came about?Report

            • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Roger says:

              Sort of.  How Wikipedia came about was very bottom up, but once they got to a certain point they started adding top-down functionality to keep editing standards consistent, and then they did it again to get a semi-trusted editor corps.  If people talk about Wikipedia’s success, they fairly often talk about Wikipedia as if it’s always been the same since day one.  The same thing with the income tax code, which started the other way around (top-down) and has since changed.

              If you really pay a lot of attention to a particular organization or system, you can identify points of reference when these sorts of things undergo change… but it’s hard to do credibly unless you really study a particular organization or system.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                Patrick,

                We are dancing around several interesting concepts in complex systems.

                First, what are the critical elements that distinguish bottoms up from top down?
                Second, which elements need to be consistent and dependable, and how do we get experimental rule variation in something that offers consistency as an instrumental value?
                Third, what types of situations or problems are handled best by which type of system?

                I think I need to re-read Harnessing Complexity by Axelrod and Cohen. Leafing through it reveals I forgot most of what I read.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Roger says:

                I have to get around to reading the Axelrod.  It’s been recommended to me a few times, now.

                You should read The Sciences of the Artificial (Simon) and An Introduction to General Systems Thinking (Weinberg) if you haven’t.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Roger says:

      I’m pea ess sea at (cms dot caltech dot edu), if you ever want to email me directly.Report

  5. Avatar Roger says:

    No, but I will add them to my list.

    I have all kinds of good highlights and notes on my Axelrod, but when I look at it it is all fresh again. I have a terrible, pathetic memory.

    The only way I can retain things is to highlight a book, summarize it for myself in my day journal, and reread my summary notes a few times a year.

    I prefer reading real books still, but the summarizing is starting to get a lot easier now on my Kindle apps now that I learned how to cut and paste into my iPad.Report

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