Beware of Rigidity in Complex Systems

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The results of the Massachusetts Senatorial election are just in. The Republican, Scott Brown, trounced his Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley by about 53% to 47%. This counts as a trouncing given the demographics of Massachusetts and the recent history of this seat. (Disclosure: I am a life-long Democratic voter.) I am disappointed by the results, but that is not what I want to write about.

This election demonstrates the complex nature of our political system, and the effects of rigidity on the dynamics of the system. The theory of democracy is that the majority rules unless the process would disenfranchise the minority. The founding fathers understood the resilience of this form of governance. They wanted to build a system that would not freeze up or become unstable, but that is exactly what is happening. It is what happens with complex systems in general. They work for long periods, but then some small event sends them reeling and pushes them into a new state of affairs.

This was the case with the recent financial collapse. Everything was hunky-dory for a decade or so, until the system broke down in what seemed like a mere second. Bubbles are just another name for the rigidity that can accumulate in a financial system. The solidity of capital that maintains the system gives way to paper assets, created by leveraging. Eventually the real metabolism starts to founder as the assets no longer carry the nutrients that are required to feed the system.

The financial system is critical to nurture the financial concerns of the society. When it fails, the sense of security, trust, and confidence that emerge from the healthy economy evaporate along with the real monetary wealth. The political system is equally critical to the health of the nation. When it is functioning in a resilient manner, the citizenry find security, trust, and confidence in non-financial domains that allow everyone to go about their business of life whatever it is. When it become rigid and fails to operate in the democratic way it was designed to do, those emergent qualities of security and trust go south. And that is where we appear to be heading.

This country cannot be neatly divided into two polities that oppose each other in a series of zero-sum games. We are a diverse citizenry with a broad spectrum of political and other values. But somehow, that is how the governance system has come to operate. The diversity of the real population has become replaced by a two-class distribution. The classic description of politics as the art of the possible or of compromise applies only with great difficulty to this situation. Responses to the great problems facing the nation become, as they have, polarized and what could be a pragmatic response, employing the smarts of all, ends up as narrowly constructed.

Worse, nothing happens at all, and that is where we seem to be heading. Burkean conservatives believe that this is a good situation assuming that the present is always going to be better than the future, especially if the government starts tinkering. But the world is so different from that of Burke’s time that this stance is difficult to justify. There are many serious issues that need remedy and concerted actions. Climate change, in spite of those in government who would deny its existence or seriousness, will continue to threaten us no matter how much we ignore it and take no actions to counter those threats. The fabric of the Nation rests on the rights established by the founders, which rights have become eroded in the face of terrorist activities and the inability to obtain decent medical care. Separate, but equal, in education was exposed as a fraud, so it is in the medical system.

It is hard to predict what impact this single election will have on the polity, but the difference of a few thousands of votes will be magnified by the rigidity already present. The danger is that the whole system ceases to operate. We have seen this happen when the government was shut down a few years ago, but fortunately without serious aftereffects. More is at stake here; I foresee that possibility that the whole country starts to shut down. It already has in a way with estimates of as much as 15% or more of the work force unemployed.

This country, unlike any other, was created on a moral foundation. Adherence to the moral base has been and must in my view continue to be an output of the body politic. It takes a resilient political and economic system that is working to do this. It behooves all those who claim positions of leadership in the country to restore and nurture the resiliency of the system even as they defend their own partisan positions. Hard to do, of course, but absolutely necessary.The inherent nature of complexity demands that it be this way. In many ways, this what had happened prior to the Civil War and forced Lincoln to act as he did. For those who ask what this has to do with sustainability, the answer is everything. Global sustainability requires that everything said here about the United States applies to global governance and economy. The complex system here in the US is nothing more than a smaller fractal of the global system.

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