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Thursday, May 19, 2011

State Technical Debt

In software engineering, there's a concept known as "technical debt". As a software system ages, the cost of patching and fixing increases. At some point, the cost of patching becomes greater than the cost of the rewrite. However, most managers are adverse to doing a rewrite. The path of least resistance is to keep patching.

The accumulated lousy code leads to "technical debt". You're wasting time patching a lousy design. It would be better to do a rewrite, but it's too hard to overcome the inertia.

In my current wage slave job, some systems are 20+ years old. It's a horrible mess of patches. However, most managers prefer to keep patching to old system than rewrite it. The sure loss of extra work is less risky than the possibility of a failed rewrite.

State law has a similar problem. There's a severe "technical debt" problem. Each year, politicians pass more laws than they repeal. This leads to more and more laws over time.

Bad State law has accumulated, almost the same way that lousy software accumulates in a legacy system. Instead of fixing the fundamental flaws with the laws, more and more patches are added. For example, instead of fixing the law that says it's illegal to possess marijuana, police are allowed to do a warrentless no-knock raid if they smell marijuana, lest you destroy evidence.

It's almost impossible to repeal a bad law. For every bad law, someone is profiting from it. The people profiting from a bad law will always lobby against reform.

For example, farming subsidies started during the Great Depression. Now, large corporations get a lot of farming subsidies. They will always successfully lobby against repealing the farm subsidy. If you're receiving a State perk wortk $1B+ per year, you will always spend $10M+ lobbying/bribing to keep it.

If you told a politician "Let's repeal every law and start over!", they would say it's a stupid idea. Insiders want to preserve the system the way it is.

Reform isn't possible. Complete collapse is much more likely. Then, people will get to start over with a new system.

Over time, State law gets more and more inefficient. The State has a monopoly. There's no incentive for insiders to reform. Inefficiency and corruption become greater and greater. The end result is complete collapse.

Current State law resembles a crusty 20+ year old software system, more than it being efficient and useful. Insiders keep adding stupid patches, rather than fixing the fundamental problems.


Scott said...

Great analogy. Will use this one.

Redneck Philosopher said...

There's a reason I come to your blog and read your thoughts each and every day, and this is one of them. This is an excellent blog post and well worth contemplating. However, I feel there is a problem with your analysis.

Your analogy assumes that the software, or the reason for having the software, is valid, and it's the constant patching over of old, inefficient software that is the problem.

In our society, it's really not the passing of more and more laws (patching) that is the problem. It's the government/laws/control mechanism (software) itself. Better yet, it's the very idea that we need a government (a legal monopoly on the use of aggressive force/violence) at all that is the problem. Because once you can justify the need for some violence, you can justify the need for more and more violence and that's what you end up getting.

So it's not that we need to get away from patching the software, or to redevelop new software, what we need is to do away with the software altogether.

Thanks for keeping this blog going, FSK.

FSK said...

The correct answer is "Human society needs a complete rewrite, a new OS, market anarchism."

However, the original USA plan was a nice try, better than any that had been previously tried. It was a decent system of limited government and checks and balances. That has degenerated to the current mess via many accumulated crusty patches.

mario said...

Like Redneck, I like your post, FSK. And, like Redneck, I find the analogy wrong.

The reason for patching is truly, fixing the flaws, repairing, making broken pieces function again, as designed or better.

There are no laws that were written to repair (make it work) the system. Every new law is written either to extract wealth from the subjects, or to increase the ability of the same, or both. No law is written to protect your or my rights, property or life, or our pursuit of happiness. NONE.

Everything good that this system does, i.e. where it still "works" was written in beta version or in "the original release". Since then, nothing good has been added, not a law that makes this system work better. And every new patch that was added was to decrease the freedom, extract wealth, or to outright murder and incarcerate! Not a single "patch" in the direction of "the original release"! Where did you see that kind of patching? (M$ only)

In this way, it is different than your analogy. Only Microsoft patches to decrease performance, and to introduce errors, because they need to force users to stop using the OS they have already paid for, not to make the OS better and stop users from buying new versions.

If, however, you decide to view the state as a system that was designed to "work" in a way where "work" is defined as wealth extraction (as is the case, I believe), then we have a problem, because the rewriting will create a system that works much much more efficiently, thus extracting much more wealth from us, the subjects of this law.

So yeah, for a second I loved your analogy, for it made sense to me, but then I realized the details don't match, again, unless the analogy is M$.

Actually, your article today made me undestand clearer, that the system was never designed to serve the people! Working with your analogy and observing the conflicts between the assumed "original design purpose" and the patches, proves that the assumed purpose is incorrect! If we assume, instead, that the original design purpose was to incrementally steal our life , liberties, and pursuit of happiness, then the conflicts with patches disappear, and your analogy fits perfectly.

FSK said...

It's good that it was a useful analogy, if not perfect.

Some "founding fathers" (Hamilton, Adams) thought that the true purpose of government was for insiders to steal as much as they could. Thomas Jefferson was serious about limited government.

At least this isn't the stupid debate over a scummy policeman and a drunk woman making a false rape accusation.

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