We need leaders that embrace complexity, not dumb it down
In a recent NY Times opinion piece, Tim Wu, like Elizabeth Holmes, lionizes Steve Jobs. Like Jobs with the iPod and iPhone, and Holmes with the Theranos Edison machine, Wu tells us we must simplify the public’s experience of complex policy into a simple box with an intuitive interface. In this spirit he argues that “what the public wants from government is help with complexity,” such that “[t]his generation of progressives … must accept that simplicity and popularity are not a dumbing-down of policy.”
This argument provides remarkable insight into the complexity problems of progressive thought. Three of these are taken up below: the mismatch of comparing the work of the government to the success of Jobs; the mismatch between Wu’s telling of and Jobs’s actual success; and the latent hypocrisy in Wu’s “simplicity for me, complexity for thee” argument.
Contra Wu’s argument, we need politicians that embrace and lay bare the complexity of policy issues. Too much of our political moment is dominated by demagogues on every side of policy debates offering simple solutions to simplified accounts of complex policy issues. We need public intellectuals, and hopefully politicians as well, to make the case for complexity. Our problems are complex and solutions to them hard (and sometimes unavailing). Without leaders willing to steer into complexity, we can never have a polity able to address complexity.
I. “Good enough for government work” isn’t good enough for Jobs
As an initial matter, there is a great deal of wisdom in Wu’s recognition that the public doesn’t want complexity. As I said at the annual Silicon Flatirons conference in February, consumers don’t want a VCR with lots of dials and knobs that let them control lots of specific features—they just want the damn thing to work. And as that example is meant to highlight, once it does work, most consumers are happy to leave well enough alone (as demonstrated by millions of clocks that would continue to blink 12:00 if VCRs weren’t so 1990s).
Where Wu goes wrong, though, is that he fails to recognize that despite this desire for simplicity, for two decades VCR manufacturers designed and sold VCRs with clocks that were never set—a persistent blinking to constantly remind consumers of their own inadequacies. Had the manufacturers had any insight into the consumer desire for simplicity, all those clocks would have been used for something—anything—other than a reminder that consumers didn’t know how to set them. (Though, to their credit, these devices were designed to operate as most consumers desired without imposing any need to set the clock upon them—a model of simplicity in basic operation that allows consumers to opt-in to a more complex experience.)
If the government were populated by visionaries like Jobs, Wu’s prescription would be wise. But Jobs was a once-in-a-generation thinker. No one in a generation of VCR designers had the insight to design a VCR without a clock (or at least a clock that didn’t blink in a constant reminder of the owner’s inability to set it). And similarly few among the ranks of policy designers are likely to have his abilities, either. On the other hand, the public loves the promise of easy solutions to complex problems. Charlatans and demagogues who would cast themselves in his image, like Holmes did with Theranos, can find government posts in abundance.
Of course, in his paean to offering the public less choice, Wu, himself an oftentime designer of government policy, compares the art of policy design to the work of Jobs—not of Holmes. But where he promises a government run in the manner of Apple, he would more likely give us one more in the mold of Theranos.
There is a more pernicious side to Wu’s argument. He speaks of respect for the public, arguing that “Real respect for the public involves appreciating what the public actually wants and needs,” and that “They would prefer that the government solve problems for them.” Another aspect of respect for the public is recognizing their fundamental competence—that progressive policy experts are not the only ones who are able to understand and address complexity. Most people never set their VCRs’ clocks because they felt no need to, not because they were unable to figure out how to do so. Most people choose not to master the intricacies of public policy. But this is not because the progressive expert class is uniquely able to do so. It is—as Wu notes, that most people do not have the unlimited time or attention that would be needed to do so—time and attention that is afforded to him by his social class.
Wu’s assertion that the public “would prefer that the government solve problems for them” carries echoes of Louis Brandeis, who famously said of consumers that they were “servile, self-indulgent, indolent, ignorant.” Such a view naturally gives rise to Wu’s assumption that the public wants the government to solve problems for them. It assumes that they are unable to solve those problems on their own.
But what Brandeis and progressives cast in his mold attribute to servile indolence is more often a reflection that hoi polloi simply do not have the same concerns as Wu’s progressive expert class. If they had the time to care about the issues Wu would devote his government to, they could likely address them on their own. The fact that they don’t is less a reflection of the public’s ability than of its priorities.
II. Jobs had no monopoly on simplicity
There is another aspect to Wu’s appeal to simplicity in design that is, again, captured well in his invocation of Steve Jobs. Jobs was exceptionally successful with his minimalist, simple designs. He made a fortune for himself and more for Apple. His ideas made Apple one of the most successful companies, with one of the largest user bases, in the history of the world.
Yet many people hate Apple products. Some of these users prefer to have more complex, customizable devices—perhaps because they have particularized needs or perhaps simply because they enjoy having that additional control over how their devices operate and the feeling of ownership that that brings. Some users might dislike Apple products because the interface that is “intuitive” to millions of others is not at all intuitive to them. As trivial as it sounds, most PC users are accustomed to two-button mice—transitioning to Apple’s one-button mouse is exceptionally discomfitting for many of these users. (In fairness, the one-button mouse design used by Apple products is not attributable to Steve Jobs.) And other users still might prefer devices that are simple in other ways, so are drawn to other products that better cater to their precise needs.
Apple has, perhaps, experienced periods of market dominance with specific products. But this has never been durable—Apple has always faced competition. And this has ensured that those parts of the public that were not well-served by Jobs’s design choices were not bound to use them—they always had alternatives.
Indeed, that is the redeeming aspect of the Theranos story: the market did what it was supposed to. While too many consumers may have been harmed by Holmes’ charlatan business practices, the reality is that once she was forced to bring the company’s product to market it was quickly outed as a failure.
This is how the market works. Companies that design good products, like Apple, are rewarded; other companies then step in to compete by offering yet better products or by addressing other segments of the market. Some of those companies succeed; most, like Theranos, fail.
This dynamic simply does not exist with government. Government is a policy monopolist. A simplified, streamlined, policy that effectively serves half the population does not effectively serve the other half. There is no alternative government that will offer competing policy designs. And to the extent that a given policy serves part of the public better than others, it creates winners and losers.
Of course, the right response to the inadequacy of Wu’s call for more, less complex policy is not that we need more, more complex policy. Rather, it’s that we need less policy—at least policy being dictated and implemented by the government. This is one of the stalwart arguments we free market and classical liberal types offer in favor of market economies: they are able to offer a wider range of goods and services that better cater to a wider range of needs of a wider range of people than the government. The reason policy grows complex is because it is trying to address complex problems; and when it fails to address those problems on a first cut, the solution is more often than not to build “patch” fixes on top of the failed policies. The result is an ever-growing book of rules bound together with voluminous “kludges” that is forever out-of-step with the changing realities of a complex, dynamic world.
The solution to so much complexity is not to sweep it under the carpet in the interest of offering simpler, but only partial, solutions catered to the needs of an anointed subset of the public. The solution is to find better ways to address those complex problems—and often times it’s simply the case that the market is better suited to such solutions.
III. A complexity: What does Wu think of consumer protection?
There is a final, and perhaps most troubling, aspect to Wu’s argument. He argues that respect for the public does not require “offering complete transparency and a multiplicity of choices.” Yet that is what he demands of business. As an academic and government official, Wu has been a loud and consistent consumer protection advocate, arguing that consumers are harmed when firms fail to provide transparency and choice—and that the government must use its coercive power to ensure that they do so.
Wu derives his insight that simpler-design-can-be-better-design from the success of Jobs—and recognizes more broadly that the consumer experience of products of the technological revolution (perhaps one could even call it the tech industry) is much better today because of this simplicity than it was in earlier times. Consumers, in other words, can be better off with firms that offer less transparency and choice. This, of course, is intuitive when one recognizes (as Wu has) that time and attention are among the scarcest of resources.
Steve Jobs and Elizabeth Holmes both understood that the avoidance of complexity and minimizing of choices are hallmarks of good design. Jobs built an empire around this; Holmes cost investors hundreds of millions of dollars in her failed pursuit. But while Holmes failed where Jobs succeeded, her failure was not tragic: Theranos was never the only medical testing laboratory in the market and, indeed, was never more than a bit player in that market. For every Apple that thrives, the marketplace erases a hundred Theranoses. But we do not have a market of governments. Wu’s call for policy to be more like Apple is a call for most government policy to fail like Theranos. Perhaps where the challenge is to do more complex policy simply, the simpler solution is to do less, but simpler, policy well.
We need less dumbing down of complex policy in the interest of simplicity; and we need leaders who are able to make citizens comfortable with and understanding of complexity. Wu is right that good policy need not be complex. But the lesson from that is not that complex policy should be made simple. Rather, the lesson is that policy that cannot be made simple may not be good policy after all.