Everything is too complex to exist

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There's a thoughtful piece in the Boston Globe arguing that some systems, like some businesses, are too complex to be allowed to fail--and therefore this complexity should be averted or abolished in some way by regulators. The idea, in a sense, is that dangerously complex systems are too complex to exist. And bigness is an implicit culprit. The author even suggests that instead of trying to deal with crises as they occur, the government could head off excess complexity:

On a routine basis, regulators could review the largest and most connected firms in each industry, and ask themselves essentially the same question that crisis situations already force them to answer: "Would the sudden failure of this company generate intolerable knock-on effects for the wider economy?" If the answer is "yes," the firm could be required to downsize, or shed business lines in an orderly manner until regulators are satisfied that it no longer poses a serious systemic risk.

It's hard for me to think of a more implausible project. Talk about penalizing success! What if foreign regulators did not share our readiness to prune any trees that grew too large? And how much bigger--and more complex--would the government have to be to carry out this kind of sage adjudication?

Simplicity is always preferred of course. But is complexity really so bad? Modern life is way more complex than it was when someone painted the walls of that cave France. Publishing the Boston Globe is an immensely complex choreography, supported by a vast legal, financial, educational and physical infrastructure. Complex networks, even those whose failures can be catastrophic, deliver a lot of advantages, and I can't see much alternative to them. Like bigness--in business as well as government--complexity is here to stay. The challenge is not just imagining and controlling the risks, but taking the trouble to tote up the benefits.

The author of the Globe essay, it should be noted, works for Yahoo, whose big problem is gigantic competitors. But I doubt that Google or Microsoft meet anyone's definition of too big or complex to be allowed to fail.

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Daniel Akst

Dan Akst is a journalist, essayist and novelist who wrote three books. His novel, The Webster Chronicle, is based on the lives of Cotton and Increase Mather. More

Dan Akst is a journalist, novelist and essayist whose work has appeared frequently in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Wilson Quarterly, and many other publications.
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