Even a little ding can cause the dominoes to fall

Ever have one of those days?

Run a day late on a credit card payment, you’re dinged a $39 late fee.

Miss a traffic sign on our way across town – right in front of a cop – and get dinged another $150.

There are ways to compound your grief, too. Park under the red no parking sign for that lesson. Let’s not even go to a conversation about the IRS.

Is it me, or does it seem like we’re rowing with the slaves on a ship of some Egyptian taskmaster. We are constantly being whipped. Lash! Penalty for early withdrawal. Lash! Fine for driving while dialing a cellphone. Lash! Ding for this. Lash! Ding for that. Physical abuse may no longer seem to be part of the equation, but I clutched my heart the last time I received a letter from the IRS.

The sheer number of potential landmines being strewn in our paths must number in the millions.

How do we cope?

We live in a tremendously complex world, one that is growing more complicated by the day. Good thing lawmakers are in session only part of the year.

Examples: parents trying to balance schedules of two jobs, school and extra-curricular activities for their children; executives trying to keep business in the black while meeting countless government regulations; and don’t forget the scene from Little Miss Sunshine when grandpa dies. One of the several lessons of this darling of a movie is you can’t even get off this rock without paperwork, more paperwork and some more.

The burden of compliance is placed squarely on our shoulders. Here is another one: Let’s ding you for watering your lawn more than three days a week.

If we didn’t get enough fines for breaking city laws, now we have an additional layer of government handing down fiats for parking boats on the street – the dreaded Home Owners Association. New rules are being written on a daily basis. (Someone please pass the antacids.)

How many details can we possibly attend to?
Our Laws

A recent Internet cartoon depicts God handing down the Ten Commandments. Moses: “Only 10? The lawyers will be very disappointed.”

The United States leads the world in incarcerations. According to a March 2009 study by Pew Center on the States, a staggering 7.3 million or 1 in 31 people are under control of the U.S. prison system, with 2.3 million actually behind bars. This is enough people to repopulate Israel.

The US prison population outranks the combined inmate populations of the 26 European countries with the largest numbers of prisoners.

Our state of Georgia has the highest rate of incarceration, imprisoning 1 in 13. During the real estate boom, the fastest growing part of California was its new prison.

The U.S. also has the greatest number of laws of any country at any time in history. In fact, no one really knows how many laws, ordinances, regulations, and mandates are in existence. But it’s a safe bet that it’s in the millions.

Every state, city, county, township, parish, and special taxing district has been blessed with its own authority to enforce the rules. Driving across the country the invisible rule of law changes on a moment by moment basis as district lines are crossed. In the blink of an eye, with no awareness of the changing “lawscape,” people pass innocently from one cloud of laws into the next, until something happens to go wrong.

Drive through Arizona, and you can even run afoul of a different sovereign power, the Navajo Nation. Trust me on this. You want to take great care not to run over any sheep on the way to the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley.

You’re not even safe sitting at your computer. There are laws in cyberspace, too. Take for instance that user agreement.

And things often go wrong.

  • Between July 2006 and August 2007, Leslie Boudreau was accused of cheating the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority because the credit card he set up to keep his electronic toll transponder account current had expired. Without any notification of the problem, the Toll Highway Authority assessed a fine of $4,620 for the $180 in unpaid tolls.
  • On June 19, 2009, Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a 32-year-old mother of four, was penalized $1.92 million by a Minnesota court for maliciously downloading and sharing 24 songs on her computer.
  • In 1999 I was setting up for a presentation at Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago using my own video projector. An official from the hotel “caught” me and told me I would have to use a union projectionist. Because of my infraction, the conference company was “fined” over $800 by the union for this scurrilous violation.

Our Systems

Complexity in the universe is infinite. However, needless complexity creates an invisible energy-zapping toll on society.

Here are some examples of systems that often confound the mind as well as the flow of progress:

  • Half-Implemented Metric System – Isn’t it about time to complete this transition? Still clinging to our old standards, we have muddied the waters with half-English and half-Metric cars, planes, tractors, lawn mowers, and snowmobiles. Speedometers show both miles and kilometers. Pop comes in two liter bottles; beer is sold in quarts. Some athletic events have a 100-yard dash; others have a 100-meter dash. Car engines are rated in liters; oil for them is sold in quarts.
  • Daylight Savings Time – Two times a year we are forced to adjust our clocks forward or backward one hour for daylight savings time. A rather bizarre concept if you think about it. Some people like it, some hate it, and others think it’s meaningless.
  • Our Calendar – Several aspects of the current solar/lunar calendar are clumsy. Specifically, not all months are the same length. Thus, there is no correlation between the date of the month and the day of the week. People who are paid by the month earn more per hour in February than they do in March.
  • Ethics & Morality – Our ability to distinguish between right and wrong in this country seems lost. Blurring of ethics and morality tends to be a natural byproduct of an ultra-complex society. There is a cynical dismissal of taking the higher road among our most prestigious university graduates. Why apply all those skills to anything other than stacking up more millions on Wall Street?
  • Our Money – Money is the lubrication that keeps our economy flowing. But money is becoming increasingly too complicated for average people to manage.
  • The Tax Code – The actual tax code coupled with all the legal documents that define it is estimated at over 64,000 pages in length.


The Power Laws of Complexity

As complexity increases, the cost of managing the complexity increases at an exponential rate until the system finally collapses. At some point, everyone throws up their hands.

Complexity itself is morally neutral. On one hand, complexity is necessary because it brings with it added functionality. However, complex systems are created by people for use by other people. And it is the interface with people that causes the problems.

As with the rest of life, systems are never static. So therefore system-related complexity is never static. Systems are always evolving. With people at the heart of any complex system, there is always a propensity for adding features, adding functionality, and adding coverage to the domain of the system. This desire to complicate the complicated is what I refer to as the exponential nature of complexity.

The recently introduced “Cash for Clunkers” legislation is a perfect example. “Eligible vehicles for trade-in must be less than 25 years old and insured and registered for at least a year. Cars have to have a combined EPA fuel rating of 18 miles per gallon or less. The buyer will get a $3,500 credit if the new vehicle gets between 4 and 9 miles per gallon more than the trade-in and the full $4,500 credit if the new vehicle gets at least 10 miles more per gallon.“

Another consequence of our ultra-complex society is that it heavily favors detail-oriented people. “Detail people” or left-brainers, as some would call them, function well in a world where pinpoint accuracy reigns supreme. Those at a major disadvantage are the creative, free-spirited, artistic crowd. People who either do not have the capacity to deal with these demands, or simply have no desire to occupy their brain with such minutiae, are being taken advantage of by the “game players” who make a living by splitting hairs over points of law.
The Simplification Mandate

When I worked as a design engineer at IBM, one key project required compliance with a federal usability standard. I had to design specialty workstations physically compatible with 95 percent of all users. By using standard anthropometric tables listing the size and dimensions of various ranges of humans, we built systems that would fit users ranging from a 5th percentile female to a 95th percentile male. This covered roughly 95 percent of the American population.

To give you a better understanding of what this means, the height of a 5th percentile female is 4’ 11’ and the height of a 95th percentile male is 6’ 2”.

Using this same logic, if the government made a requirement that all of the laws, regulations, and ordinances be understandable by 95 percent of the general population, they would look vastly different than they do today.

The system is not friendly. Imagine what a tax code that is understandable by 95 percent of the population would look like?

Laws are generally written by and for the system’s powerful – lawyers, legislators, and opportunists. The general public is expected to abide by these laws despite possessing few clues as to what actually exists in print. And the courts tell us that if we can’t understand the laws, it is our problem.

Much like the aftermath of an epic battle, we look around and see giant businesses collapsing before our eyes. The mighty have fallen and the carnage is breathtaking.

Staggering portions of society are finding themselves ill-suited to function in our emerging new world.

Unlike most battlefield scenes where the opposing forces are visible and obvious, our chief enemy today is complexity, and it comes from within.

Much like a cancer on society, complexity is sending the livelihood of countless millions to an early grave.

As a form of preventative medicine for counties, any nation who is able to master their own complexity is a nation well-positioned to compete in this highly competitive global economy.

Simplification can no longer be relegated to “just another good idea,” it has to become a mandate.

By Thomas Frey & Raymond Alvarez


12 Responses to “The Simplification Mandate”

Comments List

  1. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Spherical Phil</a>

    Great piece on our crazy approach to the world and life. I am little concerned though that some 'left-brainers' will take heed to your message and attempt to legislate simplicity. Could be a major disaster.
  2. admin

    Phil, I think it would be okay to legislate it in a way where we curb complexity. but you're right, mandating simplicity would be a disaster.
  3. Don

    Incisive and and brilliant. Thoreau was absolutely correct: Sinplify, sinplify! Mandated simplicity would not be a disaster in anywhere near the dimension of the disaster we have visited upon ourselves by plotting a lazy-man's course of law simply because we were unwilling to give their writing the thought and fore-sight they required. The best laws have always been simple: eg. The referenced Ten Commandmants, the Bill of Rights--as have other timless documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, etc. In a nation where, at least in principle, the laws belong to the people, it should be a given that 95% (at a minimum) of the people they affect should readily understand them. Passing a tax code you can't carry in both arms not only invites non-compliance, it mandates it. Those struggling under the socialism of Eastern Europe used to observe that everything was illegal, but they never enforced the laws. The laws were just there so that at any given time, if they wanted you, that had you. Is this what we've willingly come to? Brilliant editorial. Send it to the Wall Street Journmal: It belongs on their editorial page..... or the Front Page!
  4. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>pedicabking</a>

    It is an excellent point that the government has all these mandates to be inclusive and have buildings and items conform to the needs of the handicapped. Yet when it comes to their own BS, they have no such rules tailoring to the abilities of "the handicapped". Last census, I got the "long form" at my business and was threatened with massive fines if I didn't fill it out. I have ADD -- I'm "handicapped." Shouldn't the government have a special "short form" of the "long form" just for us people who can't sit still long enough to do hours of extra work for the government?
  5. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>James W. Marcum</a>

    Wonderful perspective; loved it. Unfortunately, it's not enough. We're moving beyond complexity (which we use systems and hierarchy to cope with--according to H. Simon) to super-complexity, where the rules, the models, the very paradigms don't work satisfactorily. UK's Ron Barnett has written some interesting things about the role of the university in this new universe.
  6. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>vernon dolphin</a>

    complexity compounded geometrically has corrolaries: unintended consequences (the clatterfall of contradictory systems), desperate decisions by default (in the face of one ignorance and/or onerous complexity), manipulation through obfuscation( by fine print--hard copy or on online), gaming the system (by intervention of the rules...possible by automated slight of hand) domination of visibility (by ownership of media).
  7. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Nan Patience</a>

    I recently wrote a post that it seems we're living within a new truck system, "as in another day older and deeper in debt."
  8. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Brian Enke</a>

    Spot on! Whenever I give talks about NASA to others in the aerospace community, I always stress that the number one thing preventing us from achieving our goals in space is complexity. Complexity IS most definitely an exponential function.
  9. Beth Avery

    When we visited Thingvellir in Iceland we were told that for most of its history the President of Iceland was required to be able to recite the entire code of law by heart when he was installed. We often think how different the law would be if that were the case of every elected official.
  10. Spacer Nell

    Half-implemented metric system, I could only wish. It's more like not implemented at all with a few holdovers from the 1975 attempts at conversion. We really ought to grow up, bite the bullet, and go through the conversion.
  11. matt joy

    A simple way to simplify law may be to make all existing laws expire every so often and require every lawmaker to actually read every word of legislation he/she votes on.

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