futility, geometry, and action

To bypass the rage and righteousness around an issue, and move toward solving it, we first have to convince ourselves that solving it is impossible.

That's the thesis of Andrew Sullivan's piece today, "Why the Healthcare Question is Insoluble."  He's talking about healthcare in the US context, but few countries have achieved widespread contentment on the issue.  I'm not sure you can expect widespread contentment on an issue that requires thinking about sickness and death, at least not at humanity's current level of spiritual development.

My work on transit policy has always come from the same existential position that Andrew lays out.  Like every family working out its budget, societies have to make choices between different things that they value.  As in healthcare, arguments about these choices often use pre-emptive appeals to compassion or justice to shift our attention away from the the real choice.  Government actions that are "compassionate" or that address "civil rights" seem to be responding to an absolute standard of goodness and truth, but often, they still cost money, possibly more money than any government can expect to spend.

I'm very glad to be in transit instead of healthcare, because a few hours debating healthcare makes transit problems look easy.  Easy, but still impossible

By easy that I mean that the questions are relatively easy to frame (Connections or complexity?  Ridership or coverage?  Wide stop spacing or close?) and it's not too hard to explain (a) the consequence of each choice and (b) why the choice is geometrically unavoidable.  Laying out those questions is a key task of my book Human Transit

But once you lay out those questions, you have to pause and see that by their nature, there's no answer that everyone will like.  There may not even be an answer that a majority will like.  And in that sense, the task of resolving the issue is impossible

The geometry of transit tells us that each of these choices gives us a spectrum of possibilities.  A transit network can go to the extreme of relying on connections, and thus minimizing complexity, or it can go to the extreme of avoiding connections, which maximizes complexity, but every time you move toward one desired outcome, you move away from another one.  That's how a spectrum works.  And you can appeal to "civil rights" or "compassion" or "common sense" or "the needs of working families" as much as you want; those appeals may prod policymakers to move one way or the other, but they don't change the geometry.  In fact, they're dangerous to the degree that they encourage us not to notice what has to be sacrificed to move in the direction that the speaker advocates.

My experience with many transit agencies is that everyone is a little scared of stating these questions in such a simple way, because it means you really have to answer them.  And answering them requires accepting, with some humility, that any possible decision will leave many people outraged.  Faced with the courage that this requires, it's tempting to retreat into the confusion.  It's tempting to want the issue to be complicated so that you'll never be called to account for making a clear, stark choice of this over that — even though true leadership lies exactly in the willingness to make those choices.  So when an issue seems complicated, we always need to ask, "what interests are being served by the sheer complexity of this issue?"  "Can the issue actually be made simple?"

I'm not sure that can be done for healthcare, but bravo to Andrew Sullivan for trying.  I am pretty sure it can be done for many of the main debates in transit policy, and that's the core of my work right now.

10 Responses to futility, geometry, and action

  1. Moshe Sharon April 11, 2011 at 12:58 pm #

    Geometry governs every aspect of our lives and even determines how we think. The infrastructure of any transit system is a conglomeration of straight lines and arcs connecting an infinite number of points; a microcosm of the universe representing the creation of something from nothing.

  2. Alon Levy April 11, 2011 at 2:31 pm #

    Honestly, I don’t think the debates are alike at all, except that on both issues, Europe far outperforms the US. With health care, the issue within the US is entirely political: how to get to what Europe has while pissing off fewer than 50% of the population. It is not a technical debate, or even a technical value debate: it’s more equivalent to endless complaints about war on cars. The closest health care analog of stop spacing, mode choice, and similar questions is debates about add-on insurance, comparative effectiveness studies, and whether to emulate France or Switzerland, and those involve only a small number of liberal wonks. Geometry is practically irrelevant to health care, as the differences among the various serious alternatives are much smaller than the degree to which they all outperform the US.
    Andrew Sullivan’s article is your standard Very Serious Person screed, complete with putting down Europe without knowing much about it. Yes, Blair and Brown increased health care spending, but that was from a very low base, as Thatcher cut the NHS budget to make it stop working so that she could privatize it; Britain’s per capita government health spending is still one of the lowest in Western Europe.
    Because health care is almost entirely a political issue and transit is not, transit gets its fair share of serious centrist and conservative pundits; those participate in straight-value, technical-value, and straight-technical debates and contribute a fair amount. The same almost never happens with health care, on which the serious position, as opposed to the Very Serious one, is too Europhilic. While Europe vastly outperforms the US on transportation as well, this is in part due to issues conservatives can agree on, such as less onerous regulations and fewer subsidies to automobiles, so it doesn’t create nearly as much polarization.

  3. Pat L April 12, 2011 at 6:21 am #

    This is, in general, a fair point. On most issues, there is no perfect solution. There may be, given a community’s situation and values, something like an “optimal” solution, but someone will always be dissatisfied. Good systems can be built to accommodate potential changes in opinion, but flexibility has costs as well.
    This particular article runs into another issue. I like Sullivan, but I don’t particularly trust him around spending numbers, because he is morally opposed to government debt (rather than for any practical economic reason). This is the sort of false constraint that can result in the sub-optimal policy that people are satisfied with but leaves them demonstrably worse off. The transit equivalent would be irrational mode preferences.

  4. Jeff Wegerson April 12, 2011 at 10:55 am #

    Maybe you are familiar with it.
    For a while I was into alternative voting systems. It began with the understanding that majority rule was the bare minimum to count as democracy. Consensus was the maximum democracy, of course, but also increasingly difficult as the number of voters increased.
    One vote and the choice with the most votes wins is represented within website polls as “Radio Buttons”, for the choice buttons on a car radio.
    What falls between majority rule and consensus mostly resolves into three types of alternative voting systems and variations within those.
    Most common is IRV, instant runoff voting. That’s mostly useful for electing a candidate within one election to avoid a second runoff election.
    Next, and here we get into your territory, is Approval Voting. There you give people as many votes as choices. Then either you let them gang up their votes or simply vote once for as many as they like. On a website poll it would be analogous to Checkboxes where you can check all that apply. It’s actually very simple and very robust at the same time.
    Least common but supposedly the best for teasing out hidden majorities amongst varied choices is Condorcet voting. It’s ranked voting. It’s involved in the IRV above to a lessor extent. You rank the choices according to your preferences. Then each choices totals are matched against all the other choices in a kind of round robin process with the choice winning the most one on one matches “winning”. Supposedly the results tend to please the most folks and are often less than ideal, yet good, compromises.
    Them’s the theories in any case.
    I bring this up on the chance that you may find yourself in a situation to suggest a Condorcet process, even if only as an informational guide in the middle of the process. There are Condorcet websites that can facilitate the effort.
    Condorcet. Next time there are a number of difficult choices to be selected from by a number of people, give it a spin.

  5. Alon Levy April 12, 2011 at 12:18 pm #

    Jeff, the practice of consensus is such that there’s never a question of how to elect a single candidate. A consensus-based system would have multiple parties at each level – elected proportionally and not in single-member districts, according to Duverger’s Law. Since there are more than two ideologies, no party can have a majority, so parties have to learn to work together: figure out an acceptable status quo on intransigent issues, focus on good governance, and form ad hoc coalitions on contentious issues that have to be decided by majority. It’s sort of what happens on the lobbyist and urban community activist levels in the US, except with democratic accountability.

  6. Quasimodal April 12, 2011 at 10:45 pm #

    I would like thinking that geometry, budget constraints, reality, etc., actually can define a process of developing and evaluating solution sets on a rational basis. But I think the biggest parallel between transit battles and health care is that both have debated dominated by theology these days, where geometry and budgets are abstract and unimportant compared to the moral positions people attach to their favorite solutions.
    Hopefully you’re right – that reality will cause us all to focus and make hard choices, but it doesn’t seem as though left or right are willing to accept the constraints posed by reality in the weird climate we find ourselves living in these days.

  7. Joseph E April 12, 2011 at 11:10 pm #

    Healthcare and Transit are rather different.
    After a certain point, there isn’t any need to spend more money on health care, if your goal is longer life, less disability, or even better patient satisfaction. Overtreatment may happen, but often makes things worse. And unfortunately, there are many unsolvable problems in healthcare. Everyone is going to die of something, so if we cure diabetes and heart disease (say, by walking and biking more!) we will live a few years longer and healthier, but then die of dementia or cancer in our 90’s.
    But the geometry limitations of transit, while being more clear-cut, are solveable by application of large amounts of money. If you build enough subways, you can make just about everyone happy. Can’t decide on the best stop spacing? Make every subway 6 tracks wide and provide a variety of services. Want a transit stop on every street corner? Add streetcars or trolley buses on every street. Need to go long distances fast? Add a few high speed commuter rail lines.
    Sure, it will cost a fortune, but there is an engineering solution, which is not possible in healthcare.
    I believe this is a dangerous problem for transit planning. There is always a temptation to make fantasy maps with rapid transit lines everywhere, when the development patterns make that unaffordable. Even if all highway construction stopped and everyone started riding transit, you still couldn’t justify 6-track-wide subways every 1/4 mile in most cities. Yet the theoretical “solution” is there on the fantasy map, and often the yearning for that unattainable goal distracts transit advocates from real, immediate solutions, like speeding up bus service and making it more frequent, or improving existing commuter rail to metro standards.

  8. Wad April 13, 2011 at 12:58 am #

    We must also know this: People are stupid.
    It’s not an insult directed at anyone.
    Biologically, “stupid” is the brain’s default mode. In the default position, Homo sapiens has just enough for basic survival and propagation of the species.
    Getting the brain beyond stupid is the hard part. Keeping it beyond stupid is even harder.
    There are other base impulses that take precedence over the pursuit of knowledge. They are: life-and-death survival, gaining social acceptance or avoiding social shunning, “the wisdom of the stampede” in light of ignorance, inertia in light of cognitive dissonance, and pattern bias.
    The humor site Cracked.com has an amusing presentation with a serious tone of some of the “programming flaws” of the brain:

  9. Beta Magellan April 13, 2011 at 8:16 am #

    @Joseph E with regards to fantasy maps:
    More often than not, transit advocates and bloggers ≠ transit planners.

  10. Dan W April 13, 2011 at 9:05 am #

    I like Geometry. 🙂