Solving Hard Problems is Hard

Facebook and the news are filled with angry arguments over a myriad of political topics. People are screaming and citing facts left and right to support their cause, usually without understanding how these facts are curated, how they are being used to manipulate people, and more importantly, how the misuse of facts prevents real solutions to real problems. If you dare to question, say, police violence statistics, you are instantly branded a racist. If you dare to question the border wall, you are a libtard. These are not productive discussions. Understanding how to fix problems requires understanding how to analyze problems. And that requires a mix of critical thinking, math, behavioral psychology, management science, chaos theory, time and common sense. Eventually this blog will lead to solutions… but it will need to go through some foundational work before we get there.

I will pull apart some of the many articles from various news sources, and show other ways to look at them. I will tick off people from both political spectrums in the process, because I will question dogmatic beliefs and show some of the ways curation is being used. Eventually I will get to a series of concrete suggestions for improving a subset of political hot issues from a uniting perspective.

Facebook and Twitter are too thin for a substantial conversation. They are designed to foster anger, because doing so drives more advertising revenue for Facebook. The same is true for cable news. As a result, discussions and talk shows quickly devolve into partisan monologs being shouted over partisan monologs. The core argument becomes religious in nature. If you do not accept a belief system you should be excommunicated. It is great for cable and Facebook revenue. It is not great for society or our strength as a country. It is not how we would behave at a dinner party.

We will begin with some principles.

Discrimination is bad

I am against discrimination.

Discrimination is easy to prove. I have been discriminated against, I have seen people discriminate against others. I have heard stories from people who have been discriminated against. I have seen people who have been discriminated against discriminate against others. That direct first hand experience, however, is different than saying there is systemic discrimination, and we need to have a very high standard for that.

In this blog I will show why systemic racism is a problematic concept and can lead to problematic solutions. Racism exists, I am against racism (and other forms of discrimination), and we can make marked improvements in the lives of people being discriminated against.

People have much in common

I believe that most people are inherently good and inherently similar in normative circumstances. Most people care deeply about what I call the three F’s: family, flag and faith. (Note, I am not specifying the make up of the family, the nature of the flag, or the what faith and I do not restrict to religious faiths.) This stems from organizational nature of a tribal species. These are factors we can use to unify or to divide, and the nation is healthier when we are unified around our commonality rather than divided. Lincoln stated this well: A house divided against itself, cannot stand.

Perception is often more important than reality

As we look at issues, we’ll also look at the difference between the actual issues (e.g. what % of black men are killed by police) and the perceived issue (i fear for my children). Both of these issues are important, and both sides often make the mistake of ignoring at least one of these aspects. It is easier to ignore than to discuss on Facebook and Twitter. If we want to find solutions to problems we both need to understand the problems as well as the emotional impact and perception of the problems.

You get what you pay for

In any organizational system, the results of the system are strongly correlated to the reward system put in place. This is a core aspect of business and incentive plan design. Many problems we see as racism can be recast as an organizational reward system. Doing so takes the anger out of the situation (you are racist) and instead lets us look at solutions (design a system that rewards differently and the participants will behave differently or self select out) and root causes. Often we can find that the source of the problem is different than we imagine. (But not always. There are undoubtedly deeply racist people and people who are not good team members.)

Treat the norm and the exceptions differently

When we look at events, we need to look at the difference between what happens most of the time and what happens rarely. Both are important. You want the most common experience to be good and you also want the outliers to be handled well. When you design systems, it is best to consider these separately. You want to measure them differently and control them differently. If you focus on preventing the outliers you can often ruin the common experience. If you focus only on the common, outliers cause problems. As an extreme example, dramatically reducing the risk of air terror is simple. Allow no luggage and no clothes and require MRIs before people board planes. No more underwear or shoe bombers or drug mules. And since few people would want to fly this way, fewer flights. If you want to optimize the common experience, do no security checks. That also has obvious problems. Manufacturing uses a technique called six sigma. With this technique you first look at the average experience and one standard deviation away — effectively what do 68% of people experience? Once you figure out how to control that you go to two sigmas (95% of people) and continue out. Given a system with deep troubles you start at the 68% level but you also look at the worst experiences… what are the worst 5% experiences like? As you get better you reduce… what are the worst 1% etc. like.

Chaos is a mess

Chaos ruins all plans. With 20/20 hindsight it is easier to analyze what could be done better, but in the midst of chaos things go to hell. Some situations, such as those often faced by police or the military or in many team sports, are by design chaotic. Likewise, mobs are chaotic and crowds often act in ways that individuals do not. We need to take these factors into account. People in such situations will react instinctively and often based on what they see others doing, since this is an important decision making short cut. It is why, as I will discuss later, arming teachers is often a bad solution to school gun violence.

You can only control what you measure

This is perhaps the most important principle. It ties tightly with everything else discussed here, and it is why we need to be much more critical about the news. Choosing what to measure alters dramatically what we can change. If we use weak measurements we will likely have weaker solutions. If we do a better job of analyzing issues we can do a better job of constructing solutions. This applies to many issues, including racial justice, covid, climate change, illegal immigration, education, and shifts in the nature of warfare.

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