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Old 08-21-2019, 07:39 AM
Wesley Clark is online now
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Is there a name for this concept, similar to the Peter principle


I was thinking how as a society the problems we still have are ones we are unable or unwilling to solve. All the problems we are able and willing to solve have been pretty much taken care of.

As a result in modern western society its uncommon (but not impossible) to die of starvation or exposure in winter because we're competent to solve those issues. However we can still die of cancer because we aren't competent to solve that.

So what's it called where individually or collectively, whatever problems you face are problems that we aren't competent to solve individually and collectively, because all the ones we could solve have been solved already?

The Peter principle implies you get promoted until you are no longer competent. It's similar but not exactly the same thing as what I'm asking.

It also kind of reminds me of something president Obama said about how only hard problems come to his desk. If it's an easy problem someone would've solved it before him.
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Old 08-21-2019, 08:16 AM
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Low hanging fruit
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Old 08-21-2019, 08:20 AM
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What you are stating is just a tautology. The problems we can solve have been solved, so the ones that we can't solve have not been solved yet. The dividing line between solved and unsolved problems moves every day. I see no similarity to the Peter Principle, which is a tongue-in-cheek way to explain why everybody is incompetent at their jobs. It's more like: Is there a term for the fact that all the water in the oceans is below sea level because there is not enough water to rise above sea level?*

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* Don't get technical with definitions of sea level and where the water really is; you get my point.
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Old 08-21-2019, 12:47 PM
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What you are stating is just a tautology.
I agree. The word "problems" itself pretty much satisfies OP's criteria "[undesirable situations] that 'we' are incapable or unwilling to solve".

I think you could make more subtle points about problems which arguably aren't solvable (for example poverty if it's always defined in relative terms) or where solution to one problem is inevitably a new problem, as compared to low hanging fruit like everybody has enough to eat. To use Pareto's name again, Pareto optimality is where you can make some people better off without making anyone worse off. But that depends how you define 'problems' and whether objectively or subjectively worse off. For example if you developed very expensive treatments that could prolong human life indefinitely it would arguably be Pareto optimal objectively. The people who had the lawfully earned money to buy them could do so if they judged it worth it to them, like anything else they'd do with their money. That wouldn't make the people who could not afford it any worse off objectively: before the treatments were invented they couldn't extend their lives indefinitely, now they still couldn't. But you can bet in real modern human society those treatments and/or cost would be perceived as a new problem.

Last edited by Corry El; 08-21-2019 at 12:49 PM.
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Old 08-21-2019, 12:56 PM
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Originally Posted by Corry El View Post
I agree. The word "problems" itself pretty much satisfies OP's criteria "[undesirable situations] that 'we' are incapable or unwilling to solve".

I think you could make more subtle points about problems which arguably aren't solvable (for example poverty if it's always defined in relative terms) or where solution to one problem is inevitably a new problem, as compared to low hanging fruit like everybody has enough to eat. To use Pareto's name again, Pareto optimality is where you can make some people better off without making anyone worse off. But that depends how you define 'problems' and whether objectively or subjectively worse off. For example if you developed very expensive treatments that could prolong human life indefinitely it would arguably be Pareto optimal objectively. The people who had the lawfully earned money to buy them could do so if they judged it worth it to them, like anything else they'd do with their money. That wouldn't make the people who could not afford it any worse off objectively: before the treatments were invented they couldn't extend their lives indefinitely, now they still couldn't. But you can bet in real modern human society those treatments and/or cost would be perceived as a new problem.
Especially if the cost of the treatments was inflated artificially and the actual resources and labor required were very little. (For example it takes a week of a doctor's time and a small car's manufacturing cost in materials to make the exotic biological drugs and replacement organs to give a patient another 10 healthy years. Hugely and obviously worth it big picture wise, society would make a profit to treat even a minimum wage worker for this cost.

But there very well might be artificial shortages and patents and artificial limits on how many doctors are trained to do the needed procedures and hospital space limits. Making this treatment "cost" a million dollars.
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Old 08-21-2019, 03:44 PM
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Especially if the cost of the treatments was inflated artificially and the actual resources and labor required were very little. (For example it takes a week of a doctor's time and a small car's manufacturing cost in materials to make the exotic biological drugs and replacement organs to give a patient another 10 healthy years. Hugely and obviously worth it big picture wise, society would make a profit to treat even a minimum wage worker for this cost.

But there very well might be artificial shortages and patents and artificial limits on how many doctors are trained to do the needed procedures and hospital space limits. Making this treatment "cost" a million dollars.
Yes that would be among the subjective impressions which I think would lead the treatments to being viewed as a 'problem'. Whether or not it were actually true. For example with artificial joints, if you conveniently forget the cost to develop them and get them approved...but those costs were actually incurred. If things don't sell for more than they cost to make, or especially 'should' cost to make in somebody's opinion, there's really no reason for anyone to make them. Patent laws have to be carefully crafted and aren't always. But some markets have big restraints on competition: it's probably not that patent laws work so much more rationally in tech than healthcare. It's probably more the barriers to competition in healthcare. Anyway usually there are trade offs to 'ordering things to be cheaper' which proponents of the idea just would rather not acknowledge.

My point is really about the general case where the imagined 'they could give that to us for much less if they weren't so greedy' is populist bullshit, which I believe is the general rule, though there are exceptions. My point does not involve assuming the cost is 'too high' because of 'greed'. It's to say that just the fact some people can afford a good new thing and other people can't is often viewed through the populist lens as a problem, even when nobody at all had the thing before. IOW even objectively Pareto optimal solutions (help some, don't hurt anyone) are often not subjectively Pareto optimal, as increasing the welfare of some is often perceived as in itself hurting others.
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Old 08-21-2019, 04:09 PM
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Yes that would be among the subjective impressions which I think would lead the treatments to being viewed as a 'problem'. Whether or not it were actually true. For example with artificial joints, if you conveniently forget the cost to develop them and get them approved...but those costs were actually incurred. If things don't sell for more than they cost to make, or especially 'should' cost to make in somebody's opinion, there's really no reason for anyone to make them. Patent laws have to be carefully crafted and aren't always. But some markets have big restraints on competition: it's probably not that patent laws work so much more rationally in tech than healthcare. It's probably more the barriers to competition in healthcare. Anyway usually there are trade offs to 'ordering things to be cheaper' which proponents of the idea just would rather not acknowledge.

My point is really about the general case where the imagined 'they could give that to us for much less if they weren't so greedy' is populist bullshit, which I believe is the general rule, though there are exceptions. My point does not involve assuming the cost is 'too high' because of 'greed'. It's to say that just the fact some people can afford a good new thing and other people can't is often viewed through the populist lens as a problem, even when nobody at all had the thing before. IOW even objectively Pareto optimal solutions (help some, don't hurt anyone) are often not subjectively Pareto optimal, as increasing the welfare of some is often perceived as in itself hurting others.
In this particular situation it would be the right thing to do to have the government nationalize the IP and fairly compensate the owners of it for the trillion dollars it's worth. Then start or allow mass training programs to train a hundred thousand doctors in parallel (or whatever it takes). And decide the Constitutional Right to life includes making these treatments available for all citizens.

Technically the government gets 1100 years to extract in taxes whatever this effort costs from each citizen. (That would be the expected human lifespan if each human were always as healthy as a 20 year old their entire life)

It might be "socialism" to have the government levy the taxes needed to pay for this - which might include wealth taxes - but again that's just the short term. Longer term costs would obviously drop as the tech and methods get automated.
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Old 08-21-2019, 08:42 AM
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Perhaps the Pareto Principle?

The idea is that the hardest 20% of problems take 80% of the time and effort you have to solve.
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Old 08-21-2019, 01:17 PM
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Semi-related is Parkinson's law of triviality, where organization members focus on the trivial problems because they can't understand the more complex problems. This does have a few names and may be what you are thinking of?

It is often called "bike shedding" in the software world.

Quote:
"The really, really short answer is that you should not. The somewhat longer answer is that just because you are capable of building a bikeshed does not mean you should stop others from building one just because you do not like the color they plan to paint it. This is a metaphor indicating that you need not argue about every little feature just because you know enough to do so. Some people have commented that the amount of noise generated by a change is inversely proportional to the complexity of the change."
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Old 08-21-2019, 01:47 PM
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I’ve heard the “bikeshedding” concept called “hairy arms.”

The idea was that when Disney animators pitched a new character to executives, those executives felt obliged not to sign off without requesting some changes—otherwise, they’d be functionaries who didn’t add value.

So the animators would put hair on the character’s arms. The executives would approve the character conditionally, requiring the animator to remove the hair from the arms.

I guess “hairy arms” is a prophylactic response to bikeshedding.
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Old 08-24-2019, 10:14 AM
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I’ve heard the “bikeshedding” concept called “hairy arms.”

The idea was that when Disney animators pitched a new character to executives, those executives felt obliged not to sign off without requesting some changes—otherwise, they’d be functionaries who didn’t add value.

So the animators would put hair on the character’s arms. The executives would approve the character conditionally, requiring the animator to remove the hair from the arms.

I guess “hairy arms” is a prophylactic response to bikeshedding.
A friend of mine was building his own house. The electrician helping him pointed out that you leave one or two obvious wiring defects for the building inspector. The inspector then says "You have my approval if you fix A and B." That way, in his report, the inspector can show he did his job - "I caught and corrected these mistakes". The builder is spared intense scrutiny of the entire building because otherwise, the inspector would have to find something and it may be a lot more work to fix that trivial or irrelevant item.

I'm going to add my vote to Pareto Principle. Basically, you find and fix the easiest and most productive problems first, then work your way through the ones requiring more effort for less payoff. Essentially, Pareto said that 80% of the cost of problems is caused by 20% of the problems, the 80-20 rule. Do statistical studies, see what causes your biggest problems, and fix those which you can first.

Last edited by md2000; 08-24-2019 at 10:18 AM.
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Old 08-24-2019, 10:33 AM
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Essentially, Pareto said that 80% of the cost of problems is caused by 20% of the problems, the 80-20 rule.
Pareto actually said that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the people. It has since been appropriated to apply to everything else you can think of.
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Old 08-24-2019, 10:40 AM
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I'm going to add my vote to Pareto Principle. Basically, you find and fix the easiest and most productive problems first, then work your way through the ones requiring more effort for less payoff.
But, note that, just because we've solved hard problems doesn't necessarily mean we can solve seemingly easier ones. See: Appeal To The Moon.
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Old 08-24-2019, 11:00 AM
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Pareto actually said that 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the people. It has since been appropriated to apply to everything else you can think of.
Yes, now it's the one-Percent.

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But, note that, just because we've solved hard problems doesn't necessarily mean we can solve seemingly easier ones. See: Appeal To The Moon.
They're only seemingly easier ones.

A good example - what sort of traffic problems kill the most people? Everyone says, "drunk drivers", which is probably true. How often are faulty brakes a problem, particularly in cars (not trucks)? How often does low tread cause a fatal accident? Yet every time you sell a car, you must have these details checked and if necessary, corrected. And then, after a few thousand miles, the problem may be present again, although the vast majority of car owners fix these problems when they occur anyway. I'm just waiting for legislators to make mandatory brake and tire inspection an annual thing. Why?

Similarly, we hand out speeding tickets although doing 80 on an expressway that is signed 70, or missing the hidden sign 20mph drop in road speed on a rural road with nobody else around - seems to be more about money than safety.

Yet, more strict enforcement of drunk driver laws would go much farther toward mitigating the death toll. Drowsy drivers? There's a problem that's a bit more difficult, but probably more cost-effective than brake checks. We do brake checks only because the state itself does not have to pay for that. You do.
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Old 08-24-2019, 11:07 AM
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But, note that, just because we've solved hard problems doesn't necessarily mean we can solve seemingly easier ones. See: Appeal To The Moon.
Also the other flaw about the Moon landings is that:

a. The technology used did not scale. Many of the components (everything from the rocket engines to the computers) were so incredibly expensive to never see any kind of commercial use.

b. It was only successfully done 6 times and 1 out of the 7 missions came extremely close to killing the entire crew.

c. It was so incredibly expensive per landing that Congress almost canceled some of the later landings but held off because the equipment was already paid for.

d. Nobody made any money from it. Old rocks from a nearby planetoid are only value to a field of science that doesn't have any commercially useful output. Yes, some of the technology developed was later adapted for civilian use, but it would have been more cost effective to spend the moonshot money directly on paying for R&D for useful products.

Last edited by SamuelA; 08-24-2019 at 11:08 AM.
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Old 08-24-2019, 01:25 PM
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I'm just waiting for legislators to make mandatory brake and tire inspection an annual thing.
It's mandatory in Virginia.
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Old 08-21-2019, 02:20 PM
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So what's it called where individually or collectively, whatever problems you face are problems that we aren't competent to solve individually and collectively, because all the ones we could solve have been solved already?
This assumes that problems we still have are not solvable, but they are just problems to be solved in the future. It's progress, the fact that the next solution builds on previous solutions.

We haven't solved cancer yet, but you're not getting there until you manage to solve things like hunger and sanitation. You don't figure out cancer before indoor plumbing.


As an aside, this thread reminded me of a quote from the old Tick cartoon
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You arrogant jerks! Try inventing something THESE days, why don't you?! All the good stuff has been done already! I could have done movable type, Gutenberg! EASY! And Edison, the LIGHTBULB?! EASY! Carver, I invented peanut brittle when I was four, I had to get my stomach pumped. So what?! EASY!
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Old 08-22-2019, 05:40 PM
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This assumes that problems we still have are not solvable, but they are just problems to be solved in the future. It's progress, the fact that the next solution builds on previous solutions.

We haven't solved cancer yet, but you're not getting there until you manage to solve things like hunger and sanitation. You don't figure out cancer before indoor plumbing.


As an aside, this thread reminded me of a quote from the old Tick cartoon
Thats what I mean I suppose. Scurvy used to be a gigantic problem. It killed millions, made travel by ship very difficult, etc.

But over time humanities knowledge base and problem solving abilities grew, and now scurvy has gone from an impossibly complex problem to a pathetically easy problem to solve. The same thing will happen with other problems. Cancer (all 200 varieties) right now seem impossibly complex, but after another 500 years of us increasing our problem solving abilities and knowledge base it'll probably seem pathetically easy to solve the same way scurvy is pathetically easy to solve now.

Maybe it is just a tautology, I don't know. My point was more 'if we knew how to solve XYZ as of right now, it would be solved right now'.
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Last edited by Wesley Clark; 08-22-2019 at 05:41 PM.
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Old 08-23-2019, 05:18 AM
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'if we knew how to solve XYZ as of right now, it would be solved right now'.
That is the very definition of a tautology.

If p then p.
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Old 08-21-2019, 04:27 PM
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As for what would actually happen: I don't know. Would the average conservative who can't afford a million dollars in treatment choose death instead of socialism? Decide it's better for them to personally die - when otherwise they could live indefinitely, and if they can survive another century or whatever, be eventually fully restored to a completely youthful body. (I figure the first versions of such technology would allow someone to be basically a somewhat spry 110 year old when they are 150 but eventually if someone lives long enough they can get their entire body replaced or regenerated)

It is an interesting question. I can't imagine they would be so stupid - but there are diabetics on Medicaid who vote conservative.
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Old 08-23-2019, 07:58 AM
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Not sure if it's the same as what the OP is talking about, but there is the concept of a "wicked problem". It's basically a problem that becomes intractable because of a combination of complexity and conflicting or contradictory requirements and dependencies, particularly when they cause unintended negative consequences. This would describe a lot of problems related to economics or the environment.

Curing scurvy is an easy problem. It's just a matter of identifying the cause and allocating some budget to add oranges and limes to your ship's stores.

Solving homelessness is harder. You could encourage companies to come to your city to create jobs, but that could increase housing costs causing some people to not be able to afford their rent. You could increase taxes to build homeless shelters and provide various financial aid and services. But at a certain point, people with money will resent being taxed and move away, taking that tax revenue with them, creating a vicious cycle of decreased services and urban blight.

I'm not an MD or medical researcher, but I suspect that cancer is a similarly complex problem. Many of the ways we cure it now (radiation, chemicals used in chemotherapy) also have the potential to cause severe damage to the human body.
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