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Thursday, October 14, 2004

Open letter to the Left regarding the complexity of democracy

(a cross between a Bug's Life and Animal Farm)

I've been impressed by my emotional response to the recent Australian election. I wasn't sure how invested I was in the idea of the Australian Joe-sixpack until this election. Just to digress for a moment to lay some groundwork. The election was won by the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party is what most agree to be the party of the more well off. The Liberal Party is in coalition with the National Party, the party that represents the bush. The majority of Australians are not "the well off". The majority of Australians do not live in the bush. So, it would stand to reason that the majority of Australians would not vote Liberal. But they did. It seems that a significant percentage of Joe-sixpack Australia voted Liberal. It's an even more significant percentage if you take into account all of "the well off" contingent that voted Labor (whom I witnessed at a recent BBQ lamenting the swing towards the Libs). There is a certain percentage of urban upper-middle and upper class Australia that votes left of centre (who are ostensibly casting votes altruistically in favor of Joe-sixpack. This is an action I'll call "reaching down" - it's the opposite of the classic conservative "boot-strap" image).

I'm not going to ask the obvious question; why would Joe-sixpack vote Lib? I think the various answers are pretty obvious. They're as obvious as the answers to why relatively rich people would vote Labor. We all want Australia to be a better place. We just differ in how we imagine the means to that end. The extent to which "the means" evokes passion and emotion is what I'm more interested in.

I don't claim to know much about the Australian political landscape, so I intend to abstract to the behavior of complex systems and Darwinian fitness landscapes. These are systems that have several inputs or variables and are sensitive enough to changed conditions to react, but not so sensitive as to collapse when disturbed. 100+ years of democratic process qualifies the Australian political process as a complex fitness landscape. The obvious problem here is that I don't claim to know a lot about complex systems and fitness landscapes either, but they get us away from the emotional specifics of the political process.

If we suppose Joe-sixpack is a large, slow-moving member of the great unwashed, we can assume he has his share of parasites. We'll call these parasites "politicks". There are several species of politicks, but the dominant ones are the righnicks and the leftnicks. They fight for space on the hairy back of our Joe-sixpack, leaving the other species to fight it out for the less desirable bits of his anatomy. The dominant parasites provide certain services to Joe, so as much as he hates them (because they're a pain and they suck his blood) he never wants to entirely rid himself of them. He's used to them.

Every so often Joe is given the opportunity to have a dip. He's given a choice of tonics to kill off various politicks, or he can leave things be, skip the dip and go to the pub instead (for a complementary beer and counter meal). Joe sizes things up and tends towards the beer and meal. The politicks all breath in relief and we soldier on.

What could happen if Joe took the dip? He could kill off some, all or many of some, all, or many politicks. What would happen then? There would probably be a certain shift in the demographics of species of politicks over Joe's body. Would this be a good shift? we can't be sure. It could be good. It could be bad (he's heard that greennicks are worse than anything he's ever seen and as long as he keeps his leftnicks and rightnicks fed, they'll keep the greennicks at bay). Joe makes the decision to take the dip or not based on his assessment of the value of a beer-and-a-meal compared to a perceived risk of discomfort. The politicks have been selected over the years to take this into account. They instinctually give just enough services, inflict only enough pain, and suck just enough blood to persist in Joe's mind as a lesser pain than could possibly come from another species.

So in this landscape, it pays the politicks to be "conservative" and be perceived as stable. "It's the devil you know" has been tossed around quite a bit around this election. But I think that's only half of the equation. The other half is that the specific "devil" needs to be perceived as conservative to offset the promise of incremental change. The conservative "devil" is the only devil we -can- know. All other devils are somewhat more untrustworthy (because they embrace change). So "the devil you know" syndrome favors conservativism. (see Donald Shon's words on Dynamic Conservatism )

If we also conceded that the politicks' blood-sucking maintain Joe in a nominally functional state (i.e. he is not left with a lot of flexibility in his budget at the end of the month), we can understand that he will be less likely to place a "bet" on change that doesn't have behind it promise of a big payout. That's not to say Joe is not a betting man. I suspect if you examine socio-economic demographic of gambling-related-household-budget-problems you might see a correlation between Joe-sixpack Lib voters. The Labor party does not promise a big "payout", they promise instead a safety net and incremental improvement in standard of living (hardly a captivating or charismatic image for someone looking for a big payout). The Libs implied promise is a big "payout" (low interest rates, cash rewards, limitless economic growth in a meritocracy).

The good news here is that Joe is optimistic. Just as he continually goes to the pub and pumps $2 coins into the pokies expecting to get paid-out more than he pays in, he wears the elite aristocratic rightnicks on his back with pride. He has the best parasites possible, quality parasites, parasites worth keeping around, parasites with promise of greater things. These are parasites that promise; "The more wealth you create, the less blood we'll suck" whereas the leftnicks promise;"we'll suck from each according to ability to provide to each according to need". That's not as optimistic promise, however noble.

We're suspending disbelief here. I am using the word "promise" with the implied allusion to election promises. Which is to say, promises that probably never will be honored. But these promises form the basis of a philosophy. In the case of Joe-sixpack voting Lib for the promised "big-payout" it's not a well-reasoned philosophy (therefore as a philosophy, it's flawed - which makes those who favor reason over faith uncomfortable).

Philosophy is a study of reason. But well reasoned philosophies seldom form accurate explanations of real life (e.g. There isn't one rational synthetic language in common use. Instead languages are natural and full of unreasonable foibles. Why fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, but not oneteen, twoteen?) Complex systems are not well suited to conforming to rational (or relational) behavior. We are rarely able to label the easily understood "rational" choice in any complex situation a "good" or "bad" choice. It's essential that the aforementioned "those who favor reason over faith" admit the validity of complex behavior over the validity of simple binary (good/bad, Good/Evil, yes/no) reasoning. If those who favor reason over faith desire to retain credibility they'll need to remove the constraints of rational "A+B=C therefore C-A=B" thought and start proposing solutions based on equations with multiple variables acting on A,B and C in a relational matrix. (political, economic, social) Reality conforms more closely to "A+B=C if E condition is met, when F condition is true, because G condition existed just previously AND G=B-A OR G < 33 BUT > 64". There's no easy way to tell what the value of any given variable will be at any given time. It's complicated, but boundable.

Complexity doesn't map itself to politics very well. The recent US presidential debate highlighted this. Bush was able to score points over Kerry by putting a full stop after his statement on late term abortion. Kerry, articulately argued for late term abortion in the case where the mother's life is in danger. Bush was able to frame this as indecision. This was one (unanswered) example that the Left has a lot of work to do to colour their grasp of complexity as valuable (as opposed to the liability the Right is able to portray it as). The Right is effectively using a philosophy of mastery over complexity through decisive faith to allay Joe-sixpack's fear of the unknown. Not only is this attractive, it's effective.

Faith and decisiveness -actually work- in complex systems like economies and elections. That's the magic the Left (or the well-reasoned) are missing out on. Economies respond equally well to poorly reasoned (and even poorly executed) strategies as they do to well reasoned, well executed strategies with the caveat that they are "believed in" strategies. While arguing against poor reason they're wasting time that could be spent acting decisively.

The beauty of the Australian political system, the Australian economy and Australia in general is that it's homeostatic and subcritically catalytic. That is, because of certain accepted limitations (laws, culture, etc.) it tends towards stability and does not tend to self destruct through wildly uncontrolled reactions to considerable disturbances. Italy is less so, and the Netherlands more so. You can poke the Australian democratic process with a stick (Pauline Hansen), you can kick the Australian economy ($AUD from $US 0.55 to $US 0.78 in the space of a year) and it remains stable, you can hurl bombs and threats at the people and they don't riot. So, there's mostly nothing that politicks can do to Australia that will destroy it (tarnish, yes. define it, yes. but make it totally come undone, probably not within the confines of the generally accepted Australian identity).

So this leaves us arguing over that identity. Who or what defines Australia? What image is sold to the world? This is mostly of concern to Australians (as it should be). Australia's broad identity does not reside in academics, aristocracy, efficiency, wealth, affluence, stress, greed, gentility, or activism (and it's very unlikely that political effort is going to coax Australia towards these attributes). There is a strong thread of village libertarian mercantilism, tall poppy syndrome, under-dog-rooting-for, fair-go, self-reliance and toughness/ruggedness (think Ute with a bullbar). The Left in Australia is left with this identity to contend with. It's an identity that, believe it or not, lends itself to the Right. A quick comparison of Left and Right against the attributes I've listed above may explain where I'm coming from.

The Left has always been imaged as dominated by gentile, affluent academics with a belief in activism. The Left not only roots for the underdog, but it reaches down for the underdog - to help them up. You may counter that the Right is dominated by affluent, gentile merchants who make no attempt to help the underdog up. You'd be right, but "not reaching down" is forgivable. "Reaching down" is not. Reaching down makes you a tall poppy and it disrespects self-reliance. So the image of the Right is more closely aligned with the image of Australian - merchant battlers willing to give a fair go, but not molly coddlers.

The labor force that used to be the tough backbone of Labor (the Left) has become mildly uncomfortable (and regretfully forgetful of the battles fought for such things as the 8hr work day) with the left-leaning sentiment that doesn't conform to the Australian identity. The Libs portray a more romantically charismatic Australian - that of the self-reliant and resilient, optimistic individual. So if you, as I do, feel abandoned by Joe-sixpack in this election, take some time to consider your position. If, in essence, you voted to help someone other than yourself and have come to understand that that very person voted only to help themselves, take some time to consider the means you are endorsing to that end. It's in the means that the Left is losing.

Nobody can help another person. Or more precisely nobody may help another person (using "may" with both meanings - permission and probability) unless there is both permission and ability in the relationship. This means that no "help" can be afforded unless person A gets permission from person B to help them AND person A actually has the ability to help them. Because it's unleaderly to ask permission to help people, every political platform should be geared towards individual voters' values at an individual level (in most cases this encompasses family, religion, state, often in that order). The Left must form policy to their desired ends (general improvement of standard of living and care for those who are unable to help themselves) via individuals' concerns and in agreement with the conservative ideals that comfort the voter. How can the Left do this without forfeiting the moral high ground of pure good intentions? How the Left bend towards the Right's "the ends justifies the means" dogma without suffering the same ethical erosion? Those are the tough questions that face a reasonable person in the face of irrational behavior.

Progress has been made by leaps and bounds in recent years in attempting to understand the behavior of complex systems. We've seen weather prediction get better, market predictions getting better, progress handling turbulence (in markets and air), traffic control, pharmaceutical modeling and process design. Scientists have been able to bring chaos theory, topology, branching theory, probability and raw computing power to bear on difficult problems. They haven't developed a crystal ball that churns out specific answers, but they have developed methods to map the limits of problems and fields of solutions to those problems. With an idea of the terrain of a problem we're able to assume the appropriate vehicle to maximize out chances of solving a problem.

The problems the Left would like to solve are just such difficult problems. The analysis, using these "new" tools, has not been rigorously performed. That's what surprises me, but it's also what inspires me. I see a common lack from both the Left and the Right in approaching the same old problems of poverty and pollution from a new perspective. There is an established school of thought around difficult problems (that is problems that actually don't have individual 100% solutions, but instead have a field of n% solutions). The perspective I'm proposing is to think-tank solution-sets competitively. The Left should be developing a modeling engine that can distill solution-sets by evolving competitive economic landscape simulations. The resulting reforms should prove to be novel, interconnected, widespread and economically feasible. But most importantly the somewhat objective policies could then be put forward with the charismatic spin required to gain favor with voters without fearing an ethical erosion. If this strategy yields a Left unrecognizable to Leftist so much the better. The best way to become a conservative is to hold steadfastly to the same liberal ideals, never learn and never change your mind.

I slept on it and two things (at least) bug me about what I've written above:

1. "developing a modeling engine that can distill solution-sets by evolving competitive economic landscape simulations" sounds like hogwash.

2. If "put forward with the charismatic spin required" is "most important" as I've suggested above, who would want to be involved in that? and how why bother with the economic modeling if the Left has a leader charismatic enough to gain office? I think I put the cart before the horse here.

I'll try to address these two points in turn:

I. It's boring, but here are a series of links that very quickly float to the top when you start looking into economic modeling. I'm also throwing in some behavior and evolution modeling links. What I'm suggesting (that I don't think has been done) is a marriage between these ideas, treating public and private organizations like living organism in a network (or fitness landscape) in which they compete for resources and results.

a. Computational Economic Modeling

b. Computational Economics

c. software package for multi-agent simulation of complex systems

d. The craft of economic modeling
e. Core War - Alexander Wait's evolving memory game

f. History of Social Software - software that networks people and relationships

g. An example of competition of simulations

h. A graphic example of the effects of torture in simulations

f. As someone with just enough information to be dangerous (although only dangerous to my own credibility) I have to reference again, the context within which I'm writing all this is as someone who's in the middle of reading Stuart Kauffman's 1996 "At Home in the Universe" in which he clears up (to my satisfaction) why speciation in the Cambrian explosion is 180degrees opposite subsequent post-extinction event population explosions and other vexing riddles of self assembly, balance and blind progress in living systems.

II. Politics is a very clever yoke constructed to make big egos pull the heavy loads of society. No matter the shape of the plough it's best to have a draught horse rather than a pony pulling for you. No jokes about Kim Beasly vs. John Howard here b.c. I'm talking size of ego, not physical size. The aim of politics is to use the charisma of an individual to focus support for various aims. We've "chosen" to give a face to the difficult task of governing. Japan's Koizumi is one of the first (if not the only in recent memory) to attempt this charismatic leadership in the Japanese context. Previous to that party (read: group) mentality carried more currency (debatably more effective, politics without a face is generally less transparent). The American and Australian people feel more comfortable sacrificing gritty, rigorous, consensus governing for the more accessible (but possibly less serious) cult of personality.

Without the proper face of the Left, it'll be a hard row to hoe. But, as Bob Brown is discovering, even a well thought out platform combined with a charismatic/articulate face will stumble in the face of Joe six-pack, the doctors' wives, the soccer mums, the battlers, the diggers and the less adventurous swing voters.

To reference a specific example in Stuart Kauffman's "At Home in the Universe", they found that the more fit an organism is to succeed in a landscape, the less it pays to diverge from their current design. The average voter observes (and I'd submit they're broadly correct in observing) an ongoing pretty-fit governing organism (you can see the Liberals and Labor as two parties in stable competition, or as one organism living in balance - it's a Coke and Pepsi argument). Kauffman's conclusion is along the lines of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". But you're screaming "BUT IT'S BROKEN I TELL YOU! AND WE MUST FIX IT BY GOLLY!" I wouldn't suggest things are perfect, but in the face of a perfectly natural and suitably fit system (as I've suggested the 100+ years of Australian political system proove) I can't expect anything but incremental change.

The economic reforms I'd expect the Left to advocate are not, at this point, sufficiently sweeping to satisfy the idealist in me. I'm really just after a subtle shift towards a better way of doing things. And I think it'll take a very clever and very charismatic Left to start pushing in that direction (earnest, pedantic, dogmatic zealots are not typically politically effective - and like it or not, governing happens in a political environment).

The other thing I'm advocating for the Left is flexibility. Not flexibility as in "compromise", but flexibility as in "creative". The mid to long-term for non-conservatives holds the promise of societal phase-transitions (an incremental shift from oil to other fuels, shifts in geo-politics as China gains wealth and the US shunts its effectiveness in meaningless acts of bravado (a la Lou Ferrigno as Incredible Hulk - a deaf, giant of destruction with good intentions - will eventually culminate in a dramatically different landscape). The Left should be able to take advantage of non-conservativism to anticipate and react to new economies and new priorities. Is it an accident the US had a Dem. in the Whitehouse through the tech boom, but fell back on the conservative back-foot when the boom went bust?

In times of innovation, the Left flourishes, so part of the Left should be an engine to inspire innovation (see above engine no.1). The subtle change "towards a better way of doing things" I mentioned above is the same idea. It's the Left's job to inspire change, and convince a general public that change comes whether we like it or not, so it's healthy to embrace it (I can smell the incense burning). If you can convince a group of non-hippies that change is good, you've done your job as a Lefty. If you can then convince them that the Left is better at dealing with change than the Right, you've developed a doctrine the Left can carry forward. If you can do all of this in a four second sound-byte, we can get you elected. Until that time the leftnicks will inhabit the part of Joe six-packs back that is furthest from his ear (the lower-lower back, if you get my drift).

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