The Dangers of Over-Simplification

I was listening to an FM talk-radio host (I know, I know, when will I ever learn…) this afternoon, and caught a peculiar rant. He was complaining about how terrible the public sector (and government in general) was compared to the private sector, based on two events.

The first was that he had bought a large amount of classical music using Amazon’s “one click” service, which he had “downloaded to a cloud driver [sic]“. He was able to listen to this music almost immediately following his purchase.

The second was that he had received a call from a local town tax collector, saying that he owed excise tax on a car. He had told the woman that he had sold it already, and she told him that he would have to bring paperwork from the RMV (in Massachusetts they tend to call the “Department of Motor Vehicles” the “Registrar of Motor Vehicles”) indicating that he had, indeed, sold the car. When he questioned why she couldn’t do it herself because “you have a computer in front of you”, the woman told him that it “isn’t my job to help you.”

At face value, these stories seem to confirm the free-market world viewpoint that private enterprise is more efficient than public institutions. However, there are a few problems with this story — namely that we’re really not comparing apples to apples, unless you’re living in the world of The Matrix or (ugh) Hackers, which have about as much to do with modern computing technology as a rock tends to resemble a Star Trek phaser, or a phone booth has the same abilities as the TARDIS (if you prefer a Doctor Who reference instead of a Star Trek reference).

Amazon is a commercial company. They own every part of what they’re doing, and the only “standards” to which they conform (in this instance) is using HTTPS and MPEG Layer 3 audio encoding to deliver content. Everything else is part of their infrastructure. They own the entire thing — and more importantly, they’re just a reseller. They essentially produce nothing — just tack a profit on top for delivering something in an accessible way.

The RMV is a public institution, which means that they most likely have purchased a suite of software to manage their data (and it’s probably ten or twenty years old). If it resembles the software used in other states, it’s pretty useless for anything other than its primary functions, because it was designed by a lowest-bid contractor to conform to a particular set of RFP standards. It probably does what it’s supposed to do pretty well. Interfacing with other software suites, particularly those not written by the same software vendor — not so much. I cut my teeth in the IT industry writing conversion software (back when I was 11 or 12 years old), and believe me, *nothing* speaks to anything easily without a particular set of standards to do so. Most town tax collectors receive a data dump from their motor vehicle registry/department (and vice versa), which is imported into their local software. There isn’t some Hackers-like ability for the two systems to talk to each other. Leave that crap for bad movies and bad TV shows (Horatio from CSI, anyone?) — computers simply don’t work that way.

I’m sure most people with little or no interest in the intricacies of data import/export probably tuned out half-way through that last paragraph. It’s not particularly exciting stuff — yet it’s very important to understand in the context of the initial narrative.

This vaguely resembles the traditional right-wing meme that “poor people caused the economic collapse” which occurred in 2008. It has been debunked repeatedly — and yet the meme lives on. In a recent poll, 42% of Southerners still cling to the notion that the “Civil War” was fought to preserve “States’ Rights” rather than simply being a way to exploit human labor, even though it’s very easy to demonstrably show that the primary motivation, both economic and social/political, was maintaining the status quo of a slave-owning set of states. You can’t simplify a complicated argument, unless you want to lose the meaning which is meant to be present in that argument.

Or, you could argue that this is all the end-result of cognitive bias. Maybe people see the government as broken because they *expect* to see it that way, and ignore evidence which is contradictory to their preconceived notions.