Saturday, March 7

The Two Immutable Laws

One is the first law of large-scale systems design, as Guru David explained it to me several decades ago: The more a system is utilized, the faster it will break down.  Thus, the paradoxical fact that the very success of a system sows its failure. 

People who design large-scale transport systems such as bridges are very much aware of the law. So they build as many fail-safes into the design as they can in the attempt to ward off a sudden, catastrophic failure of the system.

The other law was explained to me decades ago by a World Bank economist. 

When I asked if the World Bank ran the world he replied that no, it was the IMF that ran the world; the World Bank fixed the world.  But when I then asked how he'd characterize the Bank he replied that it was juggernaut. Sensing a paradox I asked how he squared an engine of destruction with the world's Mr Fixit.

He replied, "Because it's not possible to fix anything in this world without breaking something, somewhere down the line."

The World Bank, he added, had produced proof that this observation was an immutable law.  He was speaking the truth. If the Bank collected reports on every one of the projects it's funded, and published them as a series of volumes, this would be humanity's Book of Bitter Wisdom.

The smartest people at the World Bank are very much aware of what could be termed the Fixit Law.  This is because they've studied hundreds of Bank project reports covering a boggling array of situations. And so they counsel governments that seek development loans from the Bank: break down the big complicated projects into simple little projects.  This way, when a project inevitably generates problems you didn't factor into your calculations, at least you'll have a shot at limiting the damage.

So if one removed human nature from the picture and allowed designers of large-scale systems and the smartest people at the World Bank to run governments, this world could be as close to paradise as it's possible to get on Earth.   

The catch is that just as human nature has never seen a law it doesn't try to outwit, so it hasn't made an attempt to outwit an immutable law that it hasn't screwed up. This explains the many pages of a contract between municipal governments and firms they hire to build big structures, like a bridge.  All the legal language from the construction company's side boils down to saying, 'If you don't conduct timely inspections and repairs for this structure once we've built it, first of all you're going straight to hell and secondly we're not liable.'

Yet no attorney, no sane person, would think to factor in the possibility that, say, some asshole in a governor's political organization would decide to get revenge on a politician by bringing traffic on one of the world's key transport arteries to a crawl, creating the mother of all gridlocks. This actually happened.  Reference Bridgegate.

This suggests there could be a third immutable law in existence, but I don't want to attempt to figure out how it might be worded.


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