Wednesday, August 26, 2009

They shoot, they score

CBO (Congressional Budget Office) scoring has become the hottest thing lately. CBO assessment of a health care plan, for example, is seen as definitive (at least until the results differ from what is desired, at which point the spin comes in - but the numbers themselves are rarely questioned).

So, and it seems to be a question day on the old blog, why can't the magic of CBO scoring be extended to a breakdown of costs and benefits by population segment? Why can't we put the wisdom of these analytic solons to the test of figuring out, for example, what a health care bill will really cost for different people, or anticipating how the market will change in response to passage of any of the myriad of bills we have?

The answer is probably that these matters are too difficult to forecast, that too many different things can happen. But can't that same argument be extended to the areas the CBO is willing to consider? Aren't all of their numbers, all of their revenue and deficit calculations, fraught with uncertainty? Perhaps we all need to take everything we're hearing with huge heaps of salt.

Software vs. finance

I've worked in software for quite a few years now, and I know that there are few more complex things that humans have created. To describe to anyone who hasn't worked in the field just how complicated an order entry system, for example, can be is almost impossible. You not only have thousands of lines of code, written by people of varying skill levels and experience responding to different requirements, but you also have interactions with the operating system, third-party software, external data stores, and so forth. Any moderately interesting application is orders more complex than the majority of the non-computer world.

So my question for the day is this:

Why do we need finance people to stay in place to unwind the crisis, when we let completely inexperienced people take over our software?

We're seeing our bankers making the big bucks again, and they were all kept in place through government bailouts. No matter what they had done to destabilize the world financial system, they were needed because "only they could understand these complicated financial instruments."

Now I have a master's in finance from a prominent school (FWIW), so I have some understanding of financial products, the misdirection, the assignment of risk (that theoretically reduces that risk, ha, ha), and I can tell you that there is no financial product, no matter how layered in legal jargon, that compares to a useful computer program in difficulty.

So, and I ask this in sincerity, why do we need to prop up the kings of Wall Street, restore them to their place in the universe, while every day we move some piece of software to an offshored company full of folks with meager training and experience? Why are we so comfortable taking applications away from the people who built them, giving them over to people who don't understand the business, the industry, the requirements of users?

Several answers present themselves, and at least one of them is right, but I still find it incongruous and unfortunate.

The final end to Camelot?

Ted Kennedy has, as pretty much everyone knows by now, passed away, and there is no end to the tributes for the great "liberal lion." A typical one comes from Robert Reich:
America has had a few precious individuals who are both passionate about social justice and also understand deep in their bones its practical meaning. And we have had a few who possess great political shrewdness and can make the clunky machinery of democratic governance actually work. But I have known but one person who combined all these traits and abilities. His passing is an inestimable loss.

Most Americans will never know how many things Ted Kennedy did to make their lives better, how many things he prevented that would have hurt them, and how tenaciously he fought on their behalf. In 1969, for example, he introduced a bill in the Senate calling for universal health insurance, and then, for the next forty years, pushed and prodded colleagues and presidents to get on with it. If and when we ever achieve that goal it will be in no small measure due to the dedication and perseverance of this one remarkable man. We owe it to him and his memory to do it soon and do it well.
I don't really have a lot to say about Ted Kennedy in particular. The whole Kennedy family mystique has always eluded me; I never found them as good-looking or effective or impressive as the common wisdom would tell us, but they seemed to fill some niche in America that people desired. We're starting to see some dispassionate looks at the legacy of JFK, finally, and it would appear that, whatever his potential may have been, the reality was somewhat more disappointing. RFK was a master of rhetoric, but he didn't really accomplish much either.

But Teddy, he's the one who rolled up his sleeves and did the work and stood as a beacon of hope. And that may all be true, at least to some people.

My point, actually, is about the expectations we have for people in politics and how different they are from those in any other walk of life. Look at the Reich quote above; we're supposed to commend Kennedy for fighting for universal health insurance for 40 years, for fighting the good fight.

But, bottom line, he didn't get it done. He spent 40 years under Democratic and Republican presidents, within Democratic and Republican Congresses, and it hasn't happened. He was undoubtedly sincere about wanting it to happen, he introduced bills and talked up the issue and cared about the people who needed it, I'm sure, but, in the end, we don't have it.

I can't think of another field of endeavor in which results are so severed from perception. If you worked in a company and spent 40 years never quite getting your product out the door - well, you wouldn't work in that company for 40 years. On the other hand, if you happened to be in a division that got lucky, you'd be lucky too. But it would all come down to what you had been perceived as accomplishing, not to the effort you had made, no matter how noble.

That's not true in politics. You can truck through 40 years, making speeches and showing you care, and, when you pass on, you'll be hailed as a success despite a lack of provable results. Whatever symbolic role Ted Kennedy filled (and symbols do matter, so I am not trying to deny the power of that), the reality is that very little of his effort in health care (and other issues) came to fruition. That doesn't mean he shouldn't be admired for trying; it does mean we should try to temper our awe, just a bit.

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