Making solutions impossible by using better tools

 

One of the points made by Chowderhead in his recent outstanding post is that as computer processors and memory become cheaper and faster, the value of elegant and efficient programming is decreased.  Programmers use lots of inefficient loops and subroutines because they can – the computers are so good, they can run even big sloppy code and do it very quickly and precisely.  His point caught my eye, because I think this phenomenon is happening today in lots and lots of areas of modern life.

Rather than thinking of processing speed, think of money.  Imagine a problem.  Imagine how you would go about fixing that problem.  Then, imagine how you would fix that problem if you had unlimited money.  Fixing it with unlimited money would cost more, of course.  Why not?  Just like a programmer writing code for a really fast computer.  Who cares, right?  But my point is that the fix with unlimited money will probably not be better than the fix with a tight budget.  In fact, it’s likely to be worse, in much the same way as unlimited processing power leading to sloppy programming.

In my field, many believe that they can match the quality of care provided by a brilliant physician, simply with a nurse practitioner and a CT machine.  And it’s true to certain degree – even if the NP lacks experience and talent, if she has enough high-tech diagnostic tools available, she can pick up pneumonias, etc that she might have missed otherwise.  But there are problems with this approach.

Following guidelines and protocols, and doing lots & lots of tests, can lead to lots of wild goose chases that a more experienced and intuitive physician could probably have avoided.  Plus, his patients won’t all be glowing in the dark from all the X-rays, CTs, and Lord knows what else every time they get sick.  His intuition takes years to accumulate, but is cheaper than doing MRIs on everybody with a cough.  And he will naturally be better at taking into account individual differences, rather than treating patients as epidemiologic groups.  He can avoid a lot of mistakes and unnecessary tests & drugs simply by using his head.  And his experience and his knowledge base and his judgement.

But imagine you work for Medicare.  And imagine you want to improve America’s healthcare.  You have admirable goals, but the only tool you have at your disposal is great big towering piles of money.  That’s the only tool you have.

More money is unlikely to lead to better medical care, just as faster processors are unlikely to lead to better programming.

Now consider one last thing:  In absolutely everything the government does – from the military, to healthcare, to schools, to managing pandemics, to foreign policy, to social programs, to absolutely everything else – the government is attempting to fix a problem, and the only tool at its disposal is great big towering piles of money.  That’s the only tool they have.

The failures of government programs are not due to malice or incompetence.  The failures of government programs are simply inevitable.

All government can do is throw more money at the problem.  Which means the problem can’t be fixed.  At least, it can’t be fixed well.  There is no other way.

Lots of people, from Milton Friedman to Winston Churchill to Joe Rogan, have touched on this concept.  But none said it better than Chowderhead.

Better computers make programmers worse.  More government money makes society worse.

There is no other way.

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  1. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    Fixing it with unlimited money would cost more, of course.  Why not? 

    Slightly off-topic, but close: 

    A recent letter to the editor in our local paper rued that the county isn’t moving fast enough to build a fourth high school. “We can’t keep cutting expenses” his lament went. I’m crafting a response that basically says we NEVER cut expenses, especially in education. The costs always go up, they never get cut. Nothing in government gets cut.

    • #1
  2. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    Government can solve problems with a defined goal.   I.E.  “Get astronauts to the moon and back”   or  “Destroy Japan or force it to unconditionally surrender” or “Develop a network of highways across the US”   If you told the government to build & man walls on the Mexican border, it would get done.  Similarly, if the government took its healthcare funding to support emergency rooms and urgent care centers, we would have more of them.   

    Also, you forgot that government has force/law as well as money.   Though that is far more dangerous to misuse or use to excess.

    • #2
  3. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    Dr. Bastiat: Following guidelines and protocols, and doing lots & lots of tests, can lead to lots of wild goose chases that a more experienced and intuitive physician could probably have avoided.  Plus, his patients won’t all be glowing in the dark from all the X-rays, CT’s, and Lord knows what else every time they get sick.  His intuition takes years to accumulate, but is cheaper than doing MRI’s on everybody with a cough.  And he will naturally be better at taking into account individual differences, rather than treating patients as epidemiologic groups.  He can avoid a lot of mistakes and unnecessary tests & drugs simply by using his head.  And his experience and his knowledge base and his judgement. 

    I wish I knew how to find a doctor like this within a reasonable distance. My experience is that when you want to see the doctor he is booked up solid for the next four months, but the NP or PA  at the practice is available to see you in only a week and a half. 

    The best medicine is prevention, but that is not always possible.

    • #3
  4. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Dr. Bastiat: Rather than thinking of processing speed, think of money.  Imagine a problem.  Imagine how you would go about fixing that problem.  Then, imagine how you would fix that problem if you had unlimited money.  Fixing it with unlimited money would cost more, of course.  Why not?  Just like a programmer writing code for a really fast computer.  Who cares, right?  But my point is that the fix with unlimited money will probably not be better than the fix with a tight budget.  In fact, it’s likely to be worse, in much the same way as unlimited processing power leading to sloppy programming.

    I think the bigger problem here may be that while many problems involving computers – and math in general, or engineering, etc – can be solved via money, especially unlimited money (if such ever actually existed), the problems we deal with regarding people were never really solvable via money.  Not even unlimited money.  And even begining to think so was simply the first mistake.

    • #4
  5. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    This reminds me of a favorite, telling quote from Mayor Pete Buttigieg; this being about EVs:

    “It’s inevitable, you see — which is why the government has to force it.”

    • #5
  6. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    This discussion reminds me of a favorite quote from Mayor Pete Buttigieg, speaking of EVs:

    “It’s inevitable, you see — which is why the government has to force it.”

    • #6
  7. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):

    This reminds me of a favorite, telling quote from Mayor Pete Buttigieg; this being about EVs:

    “It’s inevitable, you see — which is why the government has to force it.”

    Sounds like what Jonah (I think it was) said about the covid vaxes, “If people would just get them, they wouldn’t have to be forced!”

    • #7
  8. Keith Lowery Coolidge
    Keith Lowery
    @keithlowery

    Doc – I think what you’re really highlighting is that people and systems tend to self-optimize for the scarce resource. In almost anything, the laws of scarcity and plenty apply. In my field, compute capacity, storage, and network bandwidth tend to be the 3 levers you can optimize for. An individual sitting at his laptop has far more compute capacity than he needs. Since. his compute capacity is plentiful, but his time may not be, he can choose to do sloppy programming instead of spending more time tuning his code. 

    But I can tell you that people building city-sized data centers are scrutinizing every single byte that moves across the chip. Data movement is more expensive than actual computation in modern computer systems. And if you’re spending $1 billion on a new data center, improving the performance of your code by 5% may mean you can accomplish the same work for $50 million less than budgeted.

    So what people are willing to waste is, I think, a function of what is plentiful.

    As you point out, our government has piles of (our) money. They can print even more if need be. So money is plentiful for them, which means they migrate toward squandering money rather than things that are in short supply inside our government (competence and ethics are two things that spring immediately to mind). 

    On a related note, for 30 years we were patients at the same family group practice. Over those years our primary care physician change a couple of times because when you’re there that long people retire and age out. Along the way, our family practice was acquired by a massively large health care conglomerate. The environment in the office there became noticeably more frantic and hurried, but they were able to acquire lots of nifty machines and we could do more diagnostics in the office and it saved us some time. So even though we actually had less face time with our doctor, we sort of adjusted and things went along for a while. But about 18 months ago, our primary care doctor (whom we like just a whole lot) decided he had had enough of working for a big conglomerate, and left to join a practice that operates on a concierge medicine model. When he left, our big health care conglomerate practice offered us some choices for our primary care after he departed.  Not a single doctor was offered. Only NP’s and PA’s.

    Ultimately we chose to follow our doctor to his new practice. It has been the most fantastic experience imaginable. I guess you can get used to almost anything and, over the years, we had just sort of “defined deviancy down” in what we tolerated. Since moving to a concierge model, it has been a stunning return to plentiful, personalized care. When our 8 year old came home from school one Friday with a high fever and symptoms of strep, our doctor was examining him 45 minutes after we picked him up from school. He had his first dose of antibiotics (he did have strep) an hour and a half after we picked him up from school. Because of the prompt and timely care, he was well enough to go back to school on the following Monday. In our case, we have the money to afford a concierge provider so we’re optimizing around timely, personalized care. But we’re getting something else – a doctor who knows our names, and our stories. One who has no need to rush to the next patient when we see him in the office. We have his direct cell phone number for crying out loud. I’m not sure how to put a price on that, but I’m happy to optimize more plentiful resources around it.

    I may be less sanguine than you about whether government’s failures are unrelated to malice. Also incompetence. But lately it feels like there’s a palpable malice there somewhere. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m harassed with doubts.

    • #8
  9. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Dr. Bastiat:

    Better computers make programmers worse.  More government money makes society worse.

    There is no other way.

    More wise words Doc.

    • #9
  10. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Dr. Bastiat: More government money makes society worse.

    Yeah, but just think how much better universities are when there are government research grants for every field.

    Then a philosophy teacher can spend 100 hours applying for grants, and if he doesn’t get one he can lose his job.

    But if he does get one then he can save 100 hours of time doing the research he would have done if he wasn’t applying for grants while someone underpaid does his teaching for him.

    What a great plan! Now all we need is an extra 3 hours of paperwork for the grant-winner and 20 people to work full-time managing this system. It’ll be great!

    • #10
  11. Chowderhead Coolidge
    Chowderhead
    @Podunk

    Dr. Bastiat: (from which the picture of the lazy robot is shamelessly plagiarized)

    Hey, there was no shame in that. About the other part, well you copied it from me. It took a long time to express my point, thanks for picking up on it. In that area Bender never fails.

    You’re perspective I have never thought of but it’s the same thing. Take any problem. We don’t have the money or the time. That’s the only thing holding us back. Now you have billions and decades. Why didn’t you get it done? 

    The government can throw unlimited money at anything but the next election is coming soon, so they fail anyway.

     

    On another note: I write like a programmer. I’m trying to get over that. I, haven’t, used commas, in, I would guess, twenty years. Also, enginers are terible at spelng. 

     

    • #11
  12. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Dr. Bastiat: Better computers make programmers worse.  More government money makes society worse.

    It’s your best insight of the day, Dr. Bastiat.  Maybe of the month or year.   

    • #12
  13. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Dr. Bastiat:

     

    But, is he cooler than Ed Straker?  

     

     

    • #13
  14. RufusRJones Member
    RufusRJones
    @RufusRJones

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):

     

    Rather than thinking of processing speed, think of money.  Imagine a problem.  Imagine how you would go about fixing that problem.  Then, imagine how you would fix that problem if you had unlimited money.  Fixing it with unlimited money would cost more, of course.  Why not?  Just like a programmer writing code for a really fast computer.  Who cares, right?  But my point is that the fix with unlimited money will probably not be better than the fix with a tight budget.  In fact, it’s likely to be worse, in much the same way as unlimited processing power leading to sloppy programming.

    That is exactly what he is like. He has no business in that job. Government is force, and they have no other tool.

    • #14
  15. Macho Grande' Coolidge
    Macho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    Government can solve problems with a defined goal. I.E. “Get astronauts to the moon and back” or “Destroy Japan or force it to unconditionally surrender” or “Develop a network of highways across the US” If you told the government to build & man walls on the Mexican border, it would get done. Similarly, if the government took its healthcare funding to support emergency rooms and urgent care centers, we would have more of them.

    Also, you forgot that government has force/law as well as money. Though that is far more dangerous to misuse or use to excess.

    You’re highlighting the *real* problem here, which is outcomes.  The outcome is a healthier populace.  Building more emergency rooms and urgent care centers won’t make that happen, if they’re all built in Nebraska.

    The politics of funding is just one of the issues with throwing money at problems.  Money isn’t an answer.  If it was, we wouldn’t have poor people, since we’ve spent about 22 trillion since the 1960’s, or about two thirds of the national debt, on “great” society programs.

    Gov’t is declaring that we must have more EVs by a certain date.  Stating it and throwing money at it will not build new power plants, transmission lines, distributions lines, substations, and charging stations, on a magical timeline, considering regional, state, and local impacts, and no assessment is done around having people available to actually do the work, not considering impacts to regional transmission operators/independent system operators.  Just as a starting point to assess what would need to be done to reach a certain goal.

    Gov’t can’t force physics or human nature.  No matter how big the checkbook.

    • #15
  16. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    If you look at it from a slightly different angle, you can see that Congress in particular and government in general doesn’t see any point in solving a problem unless it involves spending more money.   These days it would be completely unable to legislate that the people have a right peaceably to assemble unless it was accompanied by new spending.  Similarly, if it wanted to legislate restrictions on the right of people peaceably to assemble, that would require spending a lot of money, too.  It just can’t conceive of any other way to do it.   

    • #16
  17. RufusRJones Member
    RufusRJones
    @RufusRJones

    Public goods only.

    • #17
  18. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat: More government money makes society worse.

    Yeah, but just think how much better universities are when there are government research grants for every field.

    Then a philosophy teacher can spend 100 hours applying for grants, and if he doesn’t get one he can lose his job.

    But if he does get one then he can save 100 hours of time doing the research he would have done if he wasn’t applying for grants while someone underpaid does his teaching for him.

    What a great plan! Now all we need is an extra 3 hours of paperwork for the grant-winner and 20 people to work full-time managing this system. It’ll be great!

    • #18
  19. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge
    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.
    @BartholomewXerxesOgilvieJr

    There’s a saying in the engineering world: of “fast,” “cheap,” and “good,” you can pick two. But you can never have all three. The Apollo program is an example of this: defying the norm for a government program, it was fast, and it produced excellent results. But this was only possible because NASA had a blank check.

    As @omegapaladin pointed out, the government can produce good results when there is a clearly defined goal. But those situations are actually rather rare. Unfortunately they get a lot of attention and send the wrong message; the old saying “if we can send a man to the Moon, surely we can do x” has been used to justify a lot of wasteful spending on pipe dreams.

    • #19
  20. Matt Bartle Member
    Matt Bartle
    @MattBartle

    Dr. Bastiat: lazy robot

    Bender!

    • #20
  21. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    If you look at it from a slightly different angle, you can see that Congress in particular and government in general doesn’t see any point in solving a problem unless it involves spending more money.

    We (both Democrats and Republicans) have had quite a turnover in the House over the last six years (I don’t have the numbers at hand), and all I can think is, “It’s the national debt. They’re leaving because there’s no money to spend.” :) :) :) 

    • #21
  22. RufusRJones Member
    RufusRJones
    @RufusRJones

    You can’t overspend if the central bank creates constant deflation.

    • #22
  23. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    RufusRJones (View Comment):

    You can’t overspend if the central bank creates constant deflation.

    I had never thought of deflation as something the central bank can create, like it creates inflation.  Maybe that was a mistake on my part. I’ll have to think about it. 

    • #23
  24. RufusRJones Member
    RufusRJones
    @RufusRJones

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    RufusRJones (View Comment):

    You can’t overspend if the central bank creates constant deflation.

    I had never thought of deflation as something the central bank can create, like it creates inflation. Maybe that was a mistake on my part. I’ll have to think about it.

    You just keep raising interest rates until the dollar goes up “too much.” Alternatively, you can just grow a great big bubble, and then it collapses because people quit believing in it. That’s what happened in the depression and 2008. 

    Everything the economy does creates deflation all the time, and then the Fed tries to fight it.

    • #24
  25. Nanocelt TheContrarian Member
    Nanocelt TheContrarian
    @NanoceltTheContrarian

    JoelB (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat: Following guidelines and protocols, and doing lots & lots of tests, can lead to lots of wild goose chases that a more experienced and intuitive physician could probably have avoided. Plus, his patients won’t all be glowing in the dark from all the X-rays, CT’s, and Lord knows what else every time they get sick. His intuition takes years to accumulate, but is cheaper than doing MRI’s on everybody with a cough. And he will naturally be better at taking into account individual differences, rather than treating patients as epidemiologic groups. He can avoid a lot of mistakes and unnecessary tests & drugs simply by using his head. And his experience and his knowledge base and his judgement.

    I wish I knew how to find a doctor like this within a reasonable distance. My experience is that when you want to see the doctor he is booked up solid for the next four months, but the NP or PA at the practice is available to see you in only a week and a half.

    The best medicine is prevention, but that is not always possible.

    Even when it is possible, the government forbids it.  Type 2 diabetes can be prevented in patients on the verge of developing diabetes with GLP-1 analogs (as well as diet and exercise) but Medicare explicitly forbids this. Such medicines can only be used once the patient has type 2 diabetes. And because Medicare does this, private insurers do likewise. 
    In medicine in America today, everything that is not permitted is forbidden.

    • #25
  26. Globalitarian Misanthropist Coolidge
    Globalitarian Misanthropist
    @Flicker

    Nanocelt TheContrarian (View Comment):

    JoelB (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat: Following guidelines and protocols, and doing lots & lots of tests, can lead to lots of wild goose chases that a more experienced and intuitive physician could probably have avoided. Plus, his patients won’t all be glowing in the dark from all the X-rays, CT’s, and Lord knows what else every time they get sick. His intuition takes years to accumulate, but is cheaper than doing MRI’s on everybody with a cough. And he will naturally be better at taking into account individual differences, rather than treating patients as epidemiologic groups. He can avoid a lot of mistakes and unnecessary tests & drugs simply by using his head. And his experience and his knowledge base and his judgement.

    I wish I knew how to find a doctor like this within a reasonable distance. My experience is that when you want to see the doctor he is booked up solid for the next four months, but the NP or PA at the practice is available to see you in only a week and a half.

    The best medicine is prevention, but that is not always possible.

    Even when it is possible, the government forbids it. Type 2 diabetes can be prevented in patients on the verge of developing diabetes with GLP-1 analogs (as well as diet and exercise) but Medicare explicitly forbids this. Such medicines can only be used once the patient has type 2 diabetes. And because Medicare does this, private insurers do likewise.
    In medicine in America today, everything that is not permitted is forbidden.

    Except if you have money, like the movie stars.

    • #26
  27. Nanocelt TheContrarian Member
    Nanocelt TheContrarian
    @NanoceltTheContrarian

    Globalitarian Misanthropist (View Comment):

    Nanocelt TheContrarian (View Comment):

    JoelB (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat: Following guidelines and protocols, and doing lots & lots of tests, can lead to lots of wild goose chases that a more experienced and intuitive physician could probably have avoided. Plus, his patients won’t all be glowing in the dark from all the X-rays, CT’s, and Lord knows what else every time they get sick. His intuition takes years to accumulate, but is cheaper than doing MRI’s on everybody with a cough. And he will naturally be better at taking into account individual differences, rather than treating patients as epidemiologic groups. He can avoid a lot of mistakes and unnecessary tests & drugs simply by using his head. And his experience and his knowledge base and his judgement.

    I wish I knew how to find a doctor like this within a reasonable distance. My experience is that when you want to see the doctor he is booked up solid for the next four months, but the NP or PA at the practice is available to see you in only a week and a half.

    The best medicine is prevention, but that is not always possible.

    Even when it is possible, the government forbids it. Type 2 diabetes can be prevented in patients on the verge of developing diabetes with GLP-1 analogs (as well as diet and exercise) but Medicare explicitly forbids this. Such medicines can only be used once the patient has type 2 diabetes. And because Medicare does this, private insurers do likewise.
    In medicine in America today, everything that is not permitted is forbidden.

    Except if you have money, like the movie stars.

    Celebrities and elites, as always and everywhere, transcend the system that is forced upon the rest of us.

    • #27
  28. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    Keith Lowery (View Comment):
    But about 18 months ago, our primary care doctor (whom we like just a whole lot) decided he had had enough of working for a big conglomerate, and left to join a practice that operates on a concierge medicine model.

    The socialists I know hate concierge medicine, but are silent when the advantages are pointed out.

    • #28
  29. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    Keith Lowery (View Comment):
    But about 18 months ago, our primary care doctor (whom we like just a whole lot) decided he had had enough of working for a big conglomerate, and left to join a practice that operates on a concierge medicine model.

    The socialists I know hate concierge medicine, but are silent when the advantages are pointed out.

    And they all belong to concierge practices.

    They want bad health care for other people.  Not for themselves.  Makes rational sense.  If you have the ethics of a leftist.

    • #29
  30. Jeff Petraska Member
    Jeff Petraska
    @JeffPetraska

    Back when I was close to graduating from college, I worked for a small company doing computer modeling.  The company used the same computer that I used in college, the university Amdahl mainframe.  As might expected, the university computer was the biggest and best computer to be had anywhere in the region, and they would rent out its services to local companies.

    The computer was so powerful that, throughout my college education, I was told that its capabilities were essentially infinite as far as I was concerned.  There was no need to worry about code size, speed, memory limits, etc., just write your FORTRAN 4 code, compile it, and run it.  And that’s how I learned to program.

    Later, working for that company, I was having trouble getting my computer model to run.  It kept giving me an error message that I didn’t understand, and it didn’t look like it was actually getting to the point of executing even the first line of the program.  I was stumped.  One of the more senior guys took a printout of my program to review, hoping to find the problem.  And he did indeed find it.  A day or two later he sat me down and pointed out to me that my code was needlessly storing data in huge, multidimensional floating point arrays that required more than the entire memory of the university computer!  I remember telling him that I was taught that the computer’s resources were essentially infinite, and it never ever occurred to me to write code with any computer limitations in mind.  With his help we cleaned and tightened up the program and got the memory requirements down to a tiny fraction of what I had been trying to use before, and the error message was never seen again.  Lesson learned.

     

    • #30
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