I've been thinking about the financial crisis recently. Many pundits and politicians have attempted to lay the blame at the feet of a certain party. Was it the consumers' fault for taking out a home loan they couldn't approve? Or the brokers who encouraged them to do so? Or the media that relentlessly pushed the idea of an endless rise in housing prices? Bank lending with low standards? Bad oversight of government agencies? Poor management of federal interest rates? Weak credit rating agencies? Highly-leveraged hedge funds? Credit default swaps?
The beauty of rhetoric is that you can argue that any one of these is principally responsible. But in reality, this is a system with powerful and multilateral feedback loops. It is not an example of linear causality; each part of the system contributes to the problem while acting on the other parts. Here's a sample argument:
- Pundit 1: "The real issue was Wall Street had willing investors but no place to put the money. By turning mortgages into securities they created huge demand for bad loans while encouraging funds to extend their leverage to get on the gravy train."
- Pundit 2: "No! If homeowners had avoided buying homes they couldn't afford there would be no problem to start with!"
- Pundit 3: "Pshaw! This is all Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac losing sight of their vision and gambling with the taxpayer's financial security!"
- Pundit 1: "You guys are both wrong. (Pauses.) But seriously, how awful was that last episode of BSG? I've never watched a series conclusion that made me retroactively hate the other episodes."
- Pundit 2: (Sighs.) "Yeah."
- Pundit 3: "True. The BSG writers should be shot."
A friend of mine recently posted an argument claiming "The Object of Education Isn’t Knowledge; it’s Action." Don't get me wrong, I like Chris. But this is a classic example of the author using rhetoric to focus on a part of a system by making it sound like the most critical component. I could easily argue that the object of education is judgment, or sensitivity, or temperance--because each of these are critical aspects of how learning about the world affects who we are as people. But Chris is a motivator, so for him education is about doing something. And that's fine. But it doesn't mean his view has ultimate validity or truth.
Reduction is very useful when talking about linear systems--where A always goes to B and then to C--and is a powerful tool for analysis. The reader (or viewer) should always beware when this approach is applied to complex systems where the elements are interconnected, and the process is not straightforward.
Here's a fictional example: there is a drug problem at a high school. The school is located in a poor part of town where drugs are prevalent outside the school as well. The school administration is understaffed, and is afraid to confront students for security reasons. Teachers try to intervene by contacting parents, but those parents rarely take action. The school budget is chronically insufficient.
So, what's the critical problem? Funding? Urban decay? Parents? Teachers? Drug-producing countries? The answer is: yes. Each of these issues are interconnected and create feedback loops that makes the problem worse. On the flip side, improvement in any one of the areas will tend to make the system better. Often the argument is which area should be addressed first, or which one will help most, but it is usually presented as the primary problem.
You'll always find someone vociferously arguing that each of these is the cardinal issue. Be wary when you see someone who claims they have found the critical link in a complex, multilateral system. Things are usually not that simple.