“Simplicity does not precede complexity…”


“Simplicity does not precede complexity, but follows it.”
-Alan Perlis

If you know the original source, please let me know so I can credit them. Thanks!

I never quite know how to respond when people say things like “The U.S. should adopt XYZ country’s policy to solve their problem with such-and-such,” when the person making such a statement doesn’t allow sufficiently for the major, highly relevant differences between any two countries, and therefore also between the approaches they must take to solving their respective problems. Circumstantial differences are not the only determining factors, of course. I just feel like until they are addressed adequately, any arguments for why the U.S. should consider similar policies can’t really move forward, no matter how effective the policy may have been elsewhere.

I believe that while these differences may not make it impossible for the U.S. to follow the other nation’s lead, they are certainly sufficient to at least supply some complications which the other nation may not have had to deal with in achieving its success in the area in question. And if the cons attached to those complications outweigh the benefits of the pros to enacting a similar approach here, then obviously the approach must be modified or dismissed.

I’m not sure why it bugs me when people argue for these sorts of demands. I get what they’re trying to say. “We do ___ poorly and they do ___ well. We should do it their way instead.” I mean, heck: I use the same reasoning in my own every day life when I fail at something others have done well. Maybe it’s just that I take the U.S.’s successes and failures too much to heart?

No. No, I think what really does it for me isn’t when people simply recommend following an approach that was successful elsewhere. I think what really does it are the occasions on which that recommendation is followed up with the implication that if you don’t agree that the method the U.S. attempted was not only stupid but morally wrong, then you’re an ignorant, totalitarian imbecile. And probably a Nazi, racist homophobe. Who hates art. And the children, who are our future. It’s like there’s no room for the U.S.’s errors (of which there are admittedly many) to be anything but moral evils.

The most basic examples that spring to mind on why a Swedish cure-all, for example, may not necessarily work the same way in the U.S. is that the U.S. is a lot bigger, has a lot more people, and has a more geographically diverse landscape than Sweden. We’re not comparing like with like when we compare how things operate there with how they operate here. Yes we’re all human beings, plodding along with our good ol’ “human nature” fully intact. But we’re also human beings tightly integrated into very complex systems in which things work in widely differing ways for a number of reasons, many of which are almost 100% unlikely to ever become the same between the two countries. (Ex. Barring major shifts in the tectonic plates, the U.S. and Germany will likely never have the same square miles of available farmland.)

“Human beings, viewed as behaving systems, are quite simple. The apparent complexity of our behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which we find ourselves.”
-Herbert Simon

US States Renamed For Countries With Similar GDPs (Links to source. Click for larger view and to read more about the comparisons.)

As such I believe it is worth noting in any such discussion the fact that another nation’s solutions, however well reasoned and well executed, will not provide identical results for all nations which attempt to repeat them. We should therefore proceed with all due research and caution before employing said solutions for ourselves, fully aware of the fact that the solutions still may not work for everyone.

Ex. Declaring that everyone has a right to internet access doesn’t change the fact that supplying universal, dependable access for a small country with a small population in which everyone lives relatively close together is going to be a lot easier and cheaper than supplying it for an enormous country with a huge population spread out across hard-to-reach areas in which everyone lives far apart. (Please note I am not making a statement on whether or not I think this is a right, or on whether or not access should be supplied. I am simply pointing out that the necessary methods of delivery will vary from country to country.)

For right now I’m going to ignore the factor of the differences in geographies (and the resulting differences in industry, agriculture, climate, art, educational/vocational training needs, etc.) between the U.S. and countries it is accused of emulating insufficiently. I’m mostly ignoring that factor because including examples would make my list below harder to read and I’m too lazy to learn how to insert a table into this post, but I’m also ignoring that factor because I figure most folks reading this are aware enough of those differences on their own without my having to Google it all to prove it.

(Basically: The U.S. has mountains, prairies, and oceans white with foam.)

(Actually: So do a lot of countries… But look at the figures below. I mean– you follow what I’m trying to get across about geographical diversity and each country’s relative quantities of various types of it, right? Some have a lot of mountains, some have none? Some have lots of deserts, some have none? Some have lots of fishing, some have none? Good.)

On to the other two major differing figures between the U.S. and the nations it should supposedly be mirroring: Population Size and Land Size.

Approximate Population | Square Miles

USA:              312 million  |  3,537,455 sq mi
Brazil:           192 million  |  3,287,597 sq mi
Germany:      82 million  |      138,000 sq mi
France:           66 million  |      247,126 sq mi
England:         52 million  |        94,525 sq mi
(California:   39 million  |      163,696 sq mi)
Canada:           34 million  |  3,511,023 sq mi
(Texas:             25 million |      268,820 sq mi)
Australia:        23 million |  2,941,299 sq mi
(New York:    19 million |        54,556 sq mi)
Sweden:             9 million  |      158,663 sq mi
Costa Rica:       5 million  |        19,700 sq mi
Iceland:             318,000  |         39,770 sq mi

I believe there is stuff the U.S. handles poorly which other countries have handled well. You name it, we’ve had trouble with it, in everything from education to health care, taxation, defense, etc. These are complicated issues for any country, and the U.S. has done its fair share of fumbling in its dealings with them. I think we should ABSOLUTELY look at examples from nations which have been successful where we have not, as well as historical examples of successes and failures from around the world, to learn new ways to go about trying to fix our existing problems.

A short primer on cultural differences

I just think it’s also important to be aware of, and realistic about, the fact that what works in one country may not necessarily work the same way in another, and that the sheer size of the U.S. and the enormous number of people living in it are HUGE determining factors. The idea may still be good (or even vastly better) than what we’re doing here, we just need to acknowledge that another nation’s solutions are not lay-over-the-top templates any other country can dive right into as a cure-all, and implying they are effectively ignores the complexities of reality.

No country can do things the exact same way as another and expect the exact same results– no matter how ideal the method, no matter how carefully it is applied, and no matter how much everyone wants it to work– because no country is identical to another in its physical, social, and cultural make-up, or in its ability or desire to maintain another country’s system on its own home turf.

“…if the universe is computationally capable, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that things are so entirely out of control.”
-Seth Lloyd

I think what I’m really trying to say is: Please acknowledge that it’s complicated, and please allow that arguing as much does not make one an imbecile.

(Though an argument could be made for one‘s being overly dependent on justifications for hesitancy…)

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3 comments

  1. I think the attitudes may in part be to the “down with patriotism” political correct garbage. Couple that with wide spread arrogance and very little experience outside of the country learning what it means to be “not” American and you have a recipe for lazy people looking to place blame and fix the problem easily.

    We currently live in Paraguay. They have very limited landline telephones. The cellular technology was well advanced when they were developing as a nation and they determined that it would be too costly and labor intensive to travel the entire country set poles and stringing lines. They could place a cell tower and boom there was communication. We in the U.S. didn’t take this route and it would be foolish for this country to look at our perceived success and then implement it.

  2. Crud, how did the Barba beat me here in comment world? So, yeah, I like your soapbox. Great points. I think sometimes folks just want to jump into SOME sort of opinion so badly that they don’t stop and think these common sense things through.

    Aside from that, you had me rolling in my chair laughing at “the implication that if you don’t agree that the method the U.S. attempted was not only stupid but morally wrong, then you’re an ignorant, totalitarian imbecile. And probably a Nazi, racist homophobe. Who hates art. And the children, who are our future.” I’ve made that point a trillion times but never so eloquently as you did. I’ll be quoting you forever on this one!

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