Thursday, November 21, 2013

Underestimating complexities or the eternal failure of the technocratic mind

Speaking before the Wall Street Journal CEO Council on Wednesday, President Obama said the following with regard to the rollout of the ACA website (my boldface):
What I have learned, though, with respect to setting up these marketplaces--which are essentially mechanisms where people who are currently in the individual market or don’t have health insurance at all can join together, shop, and insurance companies will compete for their business--setting those things up is very challenging just mechanically... 
The challenge has been just making sure that consumers are actually able to get on a website, see those choices, and shop. And I think that we probably underestimated the complexities of building out a website that needed to work the way it should.
I quoted the first paragraph above just to make a little political hay, insofar as the President talks about what he has learned here as if the entire ACA rollout is just something he can do on the fly, as if his learning something in the process is a notable achievement. Get that? Initiating a program that impacts the lives of millions upon millions of Americans taught the President something when things didn't go as he had hoped. Super.

But the real meat is in the second paragraph, the portion in bold: "we probably underestimated the complexities of building out a website." Building a website to coordinate all of the elements involved
here was is no doubt a very complicated endeavor. I couldn't do it, I lack the expertise. Most people could not in fact do it, especially in a limited time frame, even one encompassing several years. But let's get serious: there are plenty of people--teams of people--who could do it. And if you asked such people about it, they would tell you what would be required, in terms of time, labor, and equipment. They would tell it would be complicated, but hardly impossible or even herculean.

So how exactly did Obama and his team underestimate the complexities here?

The answer is simple: Obama and his fellow technocrats always underestimate complexities, yet always assume they have total command and control of all systems, no matter how vast and/or complex they are. I've spoken of this mindset previously; it's one I call the Great Conceit. Briefly, it's the belief that one has perfect knowledge with regard to how the economy operates, that the economy is fully dependent on government, and one can therefore exercise control over that economy via the mechanism of government policy/action. It's the key ideological component of the technocracy movement, with the caveat that the necessary knowledge is held only by the experts:
The driving idea behind it is that things are too complicated, too diversified when it comes to government policies and laws for typical people to understand, thus decisions should be left in the hands of the experts in a given field. As a "for instance," consider climate change and the question of what--if anything--should be done about it. For the technocrat, the answer is simple: climate scientists should decide, end of discussion.
But what happens when the technocrats actually get their way, when their expert knowledge is allowed to actually dictate policy on a massive scale? Well, we already have that answer, as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and its consequences represent the perfect case study. As most people--not blinded by partisanship--no doubt remember, that monstrous piece of legislation was supposed to ignite the economy, spur it into a state of rapid growth and cause the unemployment rate to tumble below 8% in short order. Four years later, the unemployment rate has indeed settled below 8% (though the LFPR keeps going down, as well), but not because of the Act. And the economy has never really taken off. It's remained mostly sluggish, at best, since the Act.

Yet, the experts--and the Administration--still count the Stimulus Package as a success. How? Simple, they ignore their own expectations and predictions and proclaim things would have been much, much worse without it. And the pseudo-experts in the media allow them to get away with such nonsense (again, for simple partisan reasons). The technocrats can't fail, even when they fail miserably.

But the point is, there was a supposition that the economy could be absolutely controlled, despite its very complex nature, because the people doing the controlling had a full understanding of this nature, because they were experts on the matter. So too, the ACA was supposedly a product of expert minds. The website--the key component of the healthcare marketplaces envisioned by these experts--was supposedly contracted out to more experts on doing that kind of work.

So when Obama talks about underestimating complexities, who specifically is he referring to? Himself? No, of course not. He's not involved in writing code, he's said as much himself. The company that was awarded the contract to do the work? If so, the "we" makes no sense. No, he can only be using that royal "we" in reference to his own experts, Sibelius and company, the team responsible for creating and implementing the ACA. And just as was the case with the Stimulus package, these experts don't have the absolute command of how things work that they are supposed to have.

But this is a minor issue for the technocrat. Rather than admitting a lack of expertise, the technocrat steels himself or herself with the belief that they still have the depth of knowledge they imagined, that flaws in the application of their ideas or a lack of achieving their predicted results are just glitches, small things to be easily corrected or explained away. Because again, the technocrat knows more about these things than you, or I, or anyone else. We can't hold their feet to the fire on these matters because we are ignorant of the complexities that they merely underestimated.

So fear not, gentle reader. All will be well. Our betters may have made a few mistakes, but they are still the only ones capable of saving us from ourselves.

Cheers, all.

No comments:

Post a Comment