On systems, and what they do
From my admittedly comfortable perch here in Helsinki – a nearly-city of lakes, parks and server-sporting trams, where the cradle-to-grave social infrastructure shapes daily choices every bit as much as the network of bike/walk paths – it can too often seem as if the large-scale ideological battles over how to best organize a society have been fought and won.
None of which is to say that Finland is some end-of-history Paradise, by any stretch of the imagination, or that revenge effects – notably an outsize public drunkenness problem, and the human and structural attrition it gives rise to – aren’t significant factors in everyday life here. But it would be simply unheard of for a Finnish politician, of any ideological stripe whatever, to seriously argue that the social support system is anything but a strong net good and should be disassembled. Of course there are differences between parties – sincere, profound and not infrequently pungent ones – as to how to approach collective problems, but the central questions have been asked and answered.
So from here, it would be easy to dismiss the “debate” on public healthcare unfolding in the United States right now as comedy in the worst possible taste: the bad-faith flailing of an essentially unserious society, the civilizational equivalent of a Pauly Shore movie.
What serious polity – let alone would-be contender in the cutthroat global market American policy has been so strongly dedicated to the creation of over the last sixty years – would want to deny its citizens and native industries every possible advantage? What kind of patriot could possibly rest content with the notion that the poorest national of, say, Trinidad and Tobago has better healthcare options than most Americans?
No. It’s inconceivable. Unless you’re the type that gets your primary kicks from laughing at retarded children, it’s the kind of thing you turn your back on and walk away from.
But I just can’t do that. My heart is still and always back home in the States, and that’s why what’s going on there right now is causing me so much grief. I literally can’t spend three minutes on The New York Times without having to shut the tab in frustration and (more to the point) rage of a particularly corrosive kind.
If for no other reason than my own ongoing stability, then, it’s probably worth trying to figure out just what’s causing this rather pointless and self-indulgent reaction. Bear with me, won’t you? I promise you this will go somewhere productive.
When I unpack the current situation, it quickly becomes obvious to me which of its elements are most responsible for my agita.
There’s the heartbreaking, if by-now familiar, What’s the Matter with Kansas? spectacle of working people enlisted to act passionately and fervently against what is clearly in their own interest. (Witness the anti-reform protestor reduced to soliciting donations from supporters to cover his medical expenses…because he’d recently been laid off and had no healthcare insurance.)
There’s the nasty neo-’90s frisson I get when I consider the precise composition of the cohort that’s been so effectively mobilized to shut down the Town Halls and other public discussion fora: the black-helicopters-and-gold-fringe crowd, the same folks that gave us Tim McVeigh, the Murrah Federal Building and 168 dead.
There’s what history tells us about what happens when elements one and two above are brought together in the service of an idea. See, capital always finds its own uses for the street; some of those uses are arguably harmless, while others look a whole lot like Ernst Röhm.
And beyond that, there’s my sense of despair at the impotence with which the American body politic (and especially the “progressive” sector thereof, right up to and including President Obama) reacts to outside context problems or – might as well call ‘em what they are – exploits.
Consider “death panels.” This is clearly Big Lie territory, and of course the filthy little truth of the Big Lie is that it works and works consistently. But just what work does it do in the present context?
In trying to answer this question, it’s worth bearing this in mind: it’s not that the opponents of national health are playing the same game by a different set of rules. They’re playing a different game entirely. That is, a plurality of the folks who oppose some kind of public-sector involvement in health insurance almost certainly are not interested in helping to articulate a best-fit, balanced solution that would be minimally acceptable to everyone. Their all-but-stated aim is to deny, attrit, isolate, suppress and, ultimately, shatter their opponents.
The collectivites arrayed against the “Obamacare” bogeyman construct the body politic as a zero- or even a negative-sum game. They’ve identified a loophole, a vulnerability in the operating system of American democracy for which as yet there’s no patch. And because their victory conditions don’t require the affirmative production of a workable solution, the challenge before them is much (infinitely!) easier: all they have to do is drive a wedge through that vulnerability and they’ve won. The foreshortened, truncated, mutilated human lives that will result are collateral damage, an acceptable side effect. And the damage to the health and functioning of the republic? That’s a feature, baby.
Now, to tell the truth, I’m not all that surprised that there are people who would rather tear their country apart than articulate an honest ideological opposition and advance meaningful alternatives to the policies they dislike. But it’s not simply cynicism that teaches me this. It’s history.
If nothing else, I know the story of Project Cybersyn.
Por la razón…o la fuerza?
I can barely imagine what the world and its possibilities looked like from the vantage point of Santiago, Chile, in mid-1971. But part of what I can guess easily enough is that the Socialist president Salvador Allende, elected the previous year, was feeling the heat.
Under severe economic and political pressure – some but by no means all of which was orchestrated by the United States, and a certain proportion of which had no other cause than his own actions in office – Allende probably felt he had little to lose by plunging his administration, and by extension his nation, into the unknown.
And leap into the unknown he certainly did. Facing a restive domestic constituency, seeing lines of foreign credit dry up one by one, Allende invited the renowned British cyberneticist and management consultant Stafford Beer to Chile to advise his administration on how best to restructure the economy. The result was something called Cybersyn, which as far as I’m concerned to this day remains the all-time high-water mark of the idea that data should drive policy.
Cybersyn had its genesis in the Allende team’s desire to modernize (and, it must be said, significantly nationalize) Chile’s import-substitution economy, while avoiding the inherent weaknesses of a Soviet-style centrally planned system, with its inefficient allocation of resources, suppression of local initiative and disregard of local intelligence. If a unique vía chilena al socialismo were to be forged, it would have little enough to do with the top-down, command-and-control models found throught the Eastern Bloc – and much more to do with the inputs, flows, gates and outputs of Beer’s whole-systems analyses.
Taking advantage of the happenstance discovery of some 500 teletype units purchased and immediately mothballed by the previous administration, Cybersyn collected near-real-time production, supply, demand and utilization statistics from factories up and down Chile’s 4,300-kilometer length. These reports were fed, on a daily basis, to a rather unbelievably stylish operations center in Santiago, where they were subjected to analysis by the project’s single (!) computer. Finally, recommendations for next actions were apparently hand-carried to the adjacent presidential palace.
What does this all have to do with the present day, the Obama administration, and the crisis in American healthcare?
The problems with Cybersyn were clearly legion, and weren’t and aren’t simply glitches of implementation, as some of Beer’s latter-day apologists insist. And of course I’m just as suspicious of ostensibly “rational,” data-driven decision making as anyone. (If nothing else, I came of age intellectually during the first full flowering of postmodernism in the American academy. Skepticism regarding any positivist claim to perfect knowledge forms a big part of my default settings.)
But there is, in Cybersyn, an inherent, wonky confidence in the power of accurate situational information to guide good decision-making. The retro-cybernetic flavor that garners so much of the initial interest is merely piquant; the core proposition is essentially that underlying deliberative democracy and similar contemporary notions: If only we could present [The P/p]eople with the right information, surely – surely – they’d come to the correct conclusion. It’s the kind of thing that brings Al Gore to mind – or, dare I say it, the Barack Obama of the 2004-8 period.
And lest we forget, the Cybersyn experiment was ended not by some demonstration of the bankruptcy of the ideas on which it was founded, nor by some notional inability to put it into practice, nor by the emergence of a better, more accurate, or more equitable solution. It ended with the rest of the Allende administration, amid the ashes and blood of a US-backed right-wing putsch.
Is it fair to draw even the sketchiest of parallels between this and what we face now? Does it even make any sense? I don’t know. What I do know is that history suggests that one is not well advised to bring a spreadsheet to a gun fight.
But that is an ugly, ugly square to land on, and it really does mean the end of everything I personally hold dear. (So long trams and sidewalk cafés, so long bike paths.) So where can we go from here that might offer a little more hope?
Let’s leave it at this: If you want to believe that humanity has a future, of course we have to work for better collective decision-making systems. I’m excited by the work that’s being done around deliberative democracy, complex data-set visualization, and design both strategic and tactical that’s intended to strengthen systems of collective response, to make them wiser and more supple.
But it’s not enough. Those of us who geek out over such things also have to remember that the pushers of the “death panel” shibboleth, like all those who came before them and all who will follow in their footsteps, are playing a different game. And feeling the imminent threat to their bottom line, they’re playing for keeps. If we want to regain control of the national discourse – if we feel and believe in the bottom of our souls that every American deserves to live free from the fear that an unexpected injury or illness will bankrupt them as well as damage their health, just like citizens of every other developed nation on the planet – we can’t simply huff indignantly. The “At long last, sir, have you left no sense of decency?” card worked once, but it was played in a different context, in a different century, in what might as well have been a different world.
Stafford Beer famously said that “the purpose of a system is what it does.” I’d like to believe that the purpose of the American system is what we’re taught it is: to safeguard each citizen’s inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But that is not nearly what the system is doing right now, and apparently it’s up to us to fix it.
If you’re hungry for more about Cybersyn, see Kazys Varnelis’s take here, which was the first place I heard tell of it. There’s a wonderfully detailed write-up here; the latter includes a link (PDF) to Eden Medina‘s authoritative dissertation on the topic.