in Innovation

Positive solutions that are neither left nor right

In this Bruce Mau talk on Global Creativity, he mostly discusses the Massive Change exhibit. But at the end he drops this, without making it clear how it’s tied in… (my paraphrasing)

Why are we seeing things on the political right and left that are both interesting? They should be at odds. What we realized is that there’s another political axis, and that’s what the project is about. There’s another axis at 90 degrees from the left and right which create a paradigm that is increasingly cumbersome and unproductive. And this new axis is about advanced and positive, rather than retrograde and not.

I sense the existence of this axis intuitively, but it’s difficult to conceptualize examples of this given the constant left-right framing we do. Days after hearing Mau I read Million-Dollar Murray by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker. To summarize/spoil it, some issues in society have a power-law distribution with regard to how they harm us, rather than a normal bell-curve distribution. Gladwell illustrates this with the examples of homelessness, police brutality, and car pollution, all cases where a small percentage account for the overwhelmingly largest costs. In comparing this to our usual political methods for dealing with these problems, he finds real progress is at Mau’s axis, 90 degrees to the left and right…

Solving problems that have power-law distributions doesn’t just violate our moral intuitions; it violates our political intuitions as well. It’s hard not to conclude, in the end, that the reason we treated the homeless as one hopeless undifferentiated group for so long is not simply that we didn’t know better. It’s that we didn’t want to know better. It was easier the old way.

Power-law solutions have little appeal to the right, because they involve special treatment for people who do not deserve special treatment; and they have little appeal to the left, because their emphasis on efficiency over fairness suggests the cold number-crunching of Chicago-school cost-benefit analysis.

I have to think, religion aside, that Jesus was trying to tell us this a long time ago in the story of the father that welcomes back his prodigal son with a feast. Our political institutions are like the other brother who feels cheated, but the wise father knows it’s better to solve problems than manage them.

  1. Victor, thanks for the excellent, wide-ranging post.

    This reminds me of most corporate policy making as well. For example, a few people take advantage of the system (e.g. expense reimbursement). The response is to create a labyrinthine, overly regulated new policy rather than penalizing or removing the offenders.

    Or, take this to the larger level. The Enron scandal and WorldCom implosions translate into Sarbanes-Oxley. If you work in a corporation, these regulations are sucking up a HUGE amount of resources, convoluting internal workflows, and hamstringing people’s access to information.

    These are the policy equivalents of bloated enterprise software – too many features, poor user experience. In the end, neither fulfill the needs of the affected organizations, their employees, or their users.

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