Systems Thinking for President

Before the midterm elections in 2014, I wrote an article entitle, “Systems Thinking: An Old Approach to Today’s Problems.” I advocated for a holistic versus a reductionistic way of thinking call systems thinking. As election season starts to heat up, I wanted to revisit this topic and expand on my article.

As I look at all the nominees for president, I have to admit that I am not hopeful. Both parties suffer from flawed thinking and horrible approaches to today’s problems.

Near the end of my 2014 article, I stressed the importance of politicians admitting mistakes. Making mistakes is a process of learning and should be encouraged. Just don’t make the same mistake twice.


Measuring Mistakes

There are two types of mistakes: errors of commission, doing something we should not have done; and errors of omission, not doing something we should have done. Examinations of the failures or crises that organizations and institutions have experience reveals that errors of omission are much more serious. In accounting systems, however, errors of commission, the less important type of mistake, are the only ones recorded.

Therefore, for politicians who want to maximize their job security and stay in office, where only errors of commission are measured, the best strategy is to do nothing or as little as possible. This could become the slogan for the Republican Party.


Growth versus Development

A major tenet of systems thinking is that growth and development are not the same things. Growth is an increase in size or number. Development is an increase in competence. Growth is a matter of earning; development is a matter of learning.

In my 2014 article, I called out the failure that our government calls the War on Drugs. I’d now like to highlight an adjacent government failure, the United States prison system. Though only 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, it is home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population. In 16 states in the nation, there are more people locked up in correctional facilities than those residing in college dorms and it costs more per year to incarcerate them than to educate them.

In April 2014, the Bureau of Justice Statistics performed a study following prison releases for three and five Years:

“An estimated two-thirds (68 percent) of 405,000 prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison, and three-quarters (77 percent) were arrested within five years…. Recidivism was highest among males, blacks, and young adults. By the end of the fifth year after release, more than three-quarters (78 percent) of males and two-thirds (68 percent) of females were arrested, a 10 percentage point difference that remained relatively stable during the entire 5-year follow-up period.”

Prison is a school for learning criminality, not a correctional institution. This is just another example of government out-growing its abilities.

The Democrat Party focuses on growth. They want to expand the capabilities of government so that it can influence every area of a person’s life. This, of course, happens without any development of its skills. Development is not a matter of how much one has but how much one can do with whatever one has. And if we look at the responsibilities the government has today, one who have to be insane to want to give them more. Adding to a pile of filth, does not develop it, it only makes it a larger pile of filth.


The Principle of Subsidiarity

The expansion of executive power began almost immediately after George Washington left the White House. This was one of the many things that made the Father of our country great; his ability to walk away from great power.

All the Presidential Nominees today, talk about how they will solve our problems if they are granted executive power; how they’ll stand up to the establishment and bring change to Washington when they are elected President. But change does not occur by operating with the same patterns of thought that created these very problems. Einstein put it powerfully:

“Without changing our patterns of thought, we will not be able to solve the problems we created with our current patterns of thought.”

Our governing system was not designed for an over-extended central power. In The Federalist No. 45, James Madison explains that “the powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined.  Those which are to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite. The powers reserved to the several states will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and property of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the state.”

One of the key principles of Catholic social thought is known as the principle of subsidiarity: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.

In layman terms – nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. This is the perfect balance between the progressive and the conservative because, at these lower levels, key values and traditions can be wed with a need for new solutions

It is clear that the Federal Government can do very few things well and it must give back much of its power to the states. At it’s very core, systems thinking is about examining the linkages and interactions between the parts that comprise the entirety of a system. It becomes extremely difficult to understand key interactions, much less see the different parts when those making the decisions are encumbered by layers and layers of bureaucracy.

Russell Ackoff often used the example of an architect when discussing the nature of systems:

“When an architect designs a house, he first sketches the house as a whole and then he puts rooms into it. The principal criterion he employs in evaluating a room is what effect it has on the whole. He is even willing to make a room worse if doing so will make the house better.”

In the coming years, we will need a President that is willing to lessen his/her power and give it back to the states, for the betterment of the whole of the country.


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