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Complexity - Car Safety - Better Government - Saving Social Security


Here are some of my thoughts about current issues, on a variety of subjects. In some cases, I provide some of my own analysis.

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Complex Natural Systems

I have often observed that people frequently try to ascribe simple causes to complex systems. This is admirable when it works: Newton's laws of gravitation, Mendel's genetics, Mendeleev's periodic table of the elements, Maxwell's equations of electricity and magnetism, Darwin & Russell's evolution, and Einstein's relativity.

But often ideas are proposed that make no sense from a process point of view. Examples might include the Nature versus Nurture question (are differences in behavior due to inheritance or experience), the Gaia Hypothesis (the Earth evolved to support life), and enumerable examples ascribing single causes in history, politics, economics, and health (the gene for disease X).

A general view that I have often found useful is to think of these complex systems as changing in complicated and unpredictable ways until a steady state is reached that maintains certain patterns or features. This occurs in systems from atoms to societies to stars. A dynamic system in a steady state, may well look like it has been designed to maintain the steady state, but the reality is that it simply kept changing until it reached some pattern that repeats. Thus, molecules are collections of atoms that are sufficiently stable for chemists to recognize them and give them names. Animal bodies are collections of cells that maintain certain features for a certain length of time. Hurricanes are weather patterns that persist long enough to be given names. And societies (and biological communities) are collections of individuals that also maintain certain features for a sufficient length of time. In all these examples, there is a form of observer selection; the observer only pays attention to systems that are sufficiently stable and long-lived.

This understanding of stable states in dynamic systems informs us of the difficulty of determining the mechanism of origin of features of complex systems. Certainly the system evolved in the general sense of one state led to a similar state to another state, etc. But was there a mechanism of selection and genetic change involved or perhaps an analog of genes such as culture? Or did the system just reach a state with a longer persistence?

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Car Safety.

Thinking about chooseing a new car, I've been thinking of what the safety tradeoffs are. Crash testing is done against an object of similar weight, so it doesn't capture the issue of collisions between large and small cars. Basic principles of physics suggest that occupants of a larger car are safer, but how much? The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) publishes data on insurance claims for various car models (Insurance losses by model). In principle, this provides information about safety on the road, althogh there are complications because different kinds of people drive different kinds of cars and drive differently.

I've combined the personal injury data from IIHS with data on car turning diameters, which is a practical measure of size (Injury rates vs. Turning diameters). From this plot, it is clear that people in large cars are safer, but there are big differences among small cars and some appear as safe as large cars.

My friend Chuck Sams pointed me to this detailed analysis from 2002: ScienceBeat, and a copy of the full report is here. This research focuses on the risk to the driver of the vehicle in question compared to the risk to other vehicles. Pickup trucks posed high risk to both, while subcompact cars were risky to their drivers but posed little risk to other vehicles.

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Better Government.

Although many Americans think they have the best democracy, our constitution instituted some strong biases that are still in place, and many states have adopted practices that lead to the election of politicians with extreme views and dependent on large donations. These problems will not be corrected by wishing for better politicians. But they might be solved by changing the system so that it selected better politicians.


The problem: Political compromise led to a constitution that stipulates two senators per state regardless of population. Since states very in population from Wyoming with just over half a million to California with over 37 million, California's two senators represent 66 times as many people as Wyoming's. Given the equal voting in the Senate, a majority vote can represent only 17% of the U.S. population. And the current rules of the Senate allow 40% of the Senators to block any legislation; this can be done by Senators representing only 11% of the U.S. population.

A solution: The simplest change would be for the Senate to weight the votes of Senators according to the size of the population they represent. This could be either the total population of the state or the total votes received by the Senator. But the problem with making any change is that many of the senators and states benefiting from the existing system would have to vote for a new system. Since 3/4 of the states are required to approve a constitutional amendment, it could be blocked by 13 states with only 4% of the country's population.

House of Representatives

The problem: The present system, with house districts gerrymandered by the state party in power, establishes many districts that are safe for one party or the other and not competitive between parties. This results in representatives who have more fear of primary challengers from their own political party than the general election challenge of another party. As a result the House is full of representatives from the extremes of the political spectrum, who represent few people and are unwilling to compromise for the general good.

A solution: Eliminate party primaries. Have all candidates from any party compete in a free-for-all primary, with a general election between top vote getters. This could be conducted various ways with several rounds of runoffs, or more practically having voters record preferences in one voting event. In 2012, California initiated a system using a runoff between the two top candidates in the primary; it is expected to produce more moderate representatives. Other states should experiment with similar systems (although California did this through their initiative process, and it might be more difficult for most states that depend on their state legislature to make changes).

California also introduced a system in which House districts are set by a special Citizens Redistricting Commission. If this succeeds in creating districts that are more representative of the state as a whole, it should also help to elect more moderate representatives.

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Saving Social Security

In 2005, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzed the effects of 30 different options for making the U.S. Social Security (SS) system more sound financially. Their report is here. Under their baseline assumptions, the trust fund starts being depleted in 2020 and is exausted in 2052. Some options have little impact on these estimates, but others delay the start of depletion to 2028 and the fund is never fully depleted. A simple way to make the system solvent for the forseable future is simply to remove the cap on contributions to the system. Under the present system, income above the cap are exempt from the SS "tax" and do not contribute to SS. (In recent years, the cap has been near $100,000 and increases with inflation). In any case, the cap means wealthy people pay a lower percentage of their income to SS than most people. This simple change would make the overall tax system more progressive, helping with our needed transfer of money from the weathy to ordinary people whose jobs are being replaced by machines.

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Last revised 13 May 2013.

E-mail me: SeekingIllumination@hotmail.com