Dave Kukfa Security engineer etc.

Navigating Complexity

The complexity and nuance across the interconnected domains of knowledge in the world make it challenging to progress on social issues. For example, an environmentalist’s goals are connected with environmental science, engineering, manufacturing, economics, and politics, among others. How well should one try to understand these interconnected domains to progress on their goals?

The general consensus is it depends on one’s strengths, which is echoed by:

Scott Page

From The Knowledge Project:

One of the things I talk about in both The Diversity Bonus and also in The Model Thinker is that you can think of yourself as this toolbox and you’ve got some capacity to accumulate tools, mental models, ways of thinking. What you could decide to do is you could decide to go really deep. You could be the world’s expert, or one of the world’s experts, on random forest models or goals or the Lyapunov functions. You could be one of the world’s leading practitioners of signaling models in economics. Alternatively, what you could do is you could go deep on a handful of models, where there could be three or four things you’re pretty good at. Or you could be someone who I think … a lot of people are really successful … by having just an awareness of a whole bunch of models. Having 20 models that you have at your disposal that you can think about. Then when you realize this one may be important, then you dig a little bit deeper.

The world is a complex place. I think that the challenge is to become a more nimble thinker, is to be able to move across these models. But at the same time, if you can’t, if that’s just not your style, that doesn’t mean there’s no place for you in the modern economy. To the contrary, it means that maybe you should be one of those people who goes deep.

The point of the core philosophy of The Model Thinker is even if you do the best you can, even if you’re a lifelong learner, even if you’re constantly amassing models, you’re still not going to be up to the task of solving any one … you yourself are not going to solve the obesity epidemic. You yourself are not going to create world peace. You yourself are not going to solve climate issues. Your brain just isn’t going to be big enough. But collections of people by having different ensembles of models, creating a larger ensemble of models actually have a hope of addressing these problems.

You need this weird balance of specialist, super-generalist, quasi-specialist, generalist. There’s even people who I’ve heard describe … that their human capital is in the shape of a T, in the sense that there’s a whole bunch of things they know a decent amount about and then one thing they know deep. Where other people describe themselves as a symbol for pi where there’s two things they know pretty deep, not as deep as the T person, and then a range of things that connect those two areas of knowledge, and then a little bit out to each side. I think that it’s worth having a discussion with yourself … is to think okay, what are my capacities? Am I someone who is able to learn things really, really deeply? Am I able to learn a lot of stuff? Then think about a strategy for what sort of human capital you develop.

Because I think you can’t make a difference in the world, you can’t go out there and do good, you can’t take this knowledge and this wisdom and make the world a better place unless you’ve acquired a set of useful tools, not only individually, but also they’ve got to be collectively useful. Because you could learn 15 different models that are disconnected, that apply to different cases, and never have any sort of gestalt, any sort of whole, and that might make it hard for you to make a contribution. Or you could say, I’m going to be someone who learns 30 different models. But if you’re not someone who is nimble and able to move across them, that may be more frustrating for you.

In a complex world, your ability to succeed is going to depend on you filling a niche that’s valuable, which as in Barabasi’s book, it could be connecting things, it could be pulling resources and ideas from different places, but it’s going to be filling a niche and that niche could take all sorts of different forms.

Atul Gawande

From The Knowledge Project:

I majored in biology, but I also majored in political science, kind of looking for… there must be more to the world than just medicine. And I found it. I found it in lots and lots of different places. Some in science; I worked in a lab. Some—you know, I tried everything in college. I was in a band, I learned to play guitar, I wrote music reviews for the student newspaper. I joined Amnesty International. I worked on Gary Hart’s very shortlived campaign for president as a volunteer. Then, when I got out of Stanford I went on to do a master’s degree in politics and philosophy of economics at Oxford, out of hope that I could maybe do a graduate degree in political theory or something like that. I just found out I wasn’t very good at those questions and a lot of the things that I tried I just wasn’t really made for or cut out for. And I kept coming back to medicine as a place where I was familiar, I was comfortable. It wasn’t for the best reasons, right? It was a place that I knew and I could thrive.

What I also liked about it was, you didn’t actually have to decide what you wanted to be when you grew up. It deferred all kinds of decisions while I figured out everything else along the way. So when I got out of graduate school and decided to just stop with a master’s degree in philosophy… then I worked actually in politics for a couple of years on the Hill and found I didn’t want to just work in politics.

I kept finding myself gravitating back to medicine where you could have skill… the values were at the core of it for me, that it was about grappling with how science meets humanity in a place where—and policy and the world and all the complexities of life—in a place where you could really think about the individual in front of you, but also the system as a whole, and I wanted to somehow connect on both levels.

I like having a lot of irons in the fire. I like being a jack of all trades. Finding the edges between things is often where I have something to add. You know, if you look at what I contribute in these spaces, it’s not genius ideas. A checklist for surgery, it’s just taking an idea from one domain and saying let’s bring it over to the other and see if it can work, or understanding what people’s goals are when they face mortality and end of life. A lot of them just come from digging in deep enough to understand the gap between what we’re aspiring for and the reality of what we’re doing, and then trying to figure out where the bridge is to a narrow that wide gap.

I think I grew up kind of interested in how the world worked, and I had a very limited vantage point in my town in Ohio growing up. And every opportunity to see more, my handle hold, was through science. My parents were doctors and that gave me a way of seeing and thinking about the world, but then my parents were also people who were deeply involved in the community and trying to deal with the challenges in a community that had a college, but was also the poorest county in Ohio. My brain worked in such a way that, I loved understanding the ideas at an ideas level and then trying to figure out how you ground it. So I was always looking for ways to understand the world, and that meant needing to bridge and look more widely. And so each move, college and then going beyond, kept widening that, and I’ve just loved that. I’ve loved adding another space that I could explore and it was only by happenstance, it was very late that I found I had anything to contribute. That really wasn’t until my thirties when I finally found I could connect the dots between different things I had been learning about.

Charlie Munger

From the 2016 Daily Journal Annual General Meeting, on whether he is in favor of specialization or taking a synthesis/multi-disciplinary approach:

Saying one is in favor of synthesis is like saying one is in favor of reality. It is easy to say we want to be good at it, but the rewards system pays for extreme specialization. You are usually way better off being a deep expert [in one thing] than someone an inch deep in a lot of disciplines. It [synthesis] is helpful to some but not the best career advice for most people. The trouble is you make terrible mistakes everywhere else without it, so synthesis should be a second attack on the world after specialization. It is defensive, and it helps one to not be blindsided by the rest of world.

From the 2017 Daily Journal Annual General Meeting:

I don’t think operating over many disciplines as I do is a good idea for most people. I think it’s fun, that’s why I’ve done it. I’m better at it than most people would be. And I don’t think I’m good at being the very best for handling differential equations. So it’s in a wonderful path for me, but I think the correct path for everybody else is to specialize and get very good at something that society rewards and get very efficient at doing it. But even if you do that, I think you should spend 10 or 20% of your time into trying to know all the big ideas in all the other disciplines. Otherwise… I use the same phrase over and over again… otherwise you’re like a one legged man in an ass-kicking contest. It’s just not going to work very well. You have to know the big ideas in all the disciplines to be safe if you have a life lived outside a cave. But no, I think you don’t want to neglect your business as a dentist to think great thoughts about Proust.

Tyler Cowen

From The Knowledge Project, on Munger’s thoughts on specialization from the 2017 Daily Journal Annual General Meeting:

I mean maybe most people, but you know it’s person by person and for some people it should be 50–50. Certainly at the higher levels I think generalists are important. If you look at CEOs several decades ago, most CEOs were people hired from within that sector and now a CEO is much more often hired across sectors. So someone who, you know, worked for an oil company would then be hired to run a manufacturing firm. So that’s showing some kinds of knowledge are actually more general.

If you think, well, insiders have some kind of natural advantage in having, you know, an inside track, if companies are more willing to hire these outsiders, I think that’s a clear sign that executive knowledge is becoming more general in nature, more global, more a set of skills about communicating, understanding how politics, global economy, internal management all tie together. Those are somewhat general skills. You do need to understand something about your sector too, though.

Patronage and Ideology in Politics

Explained by Zack Lerangis in his introductory video on patronage:

What is patronage? … It’s a kind of relationship in which you have a patron and a client: the patron provides favors to the client … in exchange for the client’s support, especially political allegiance.

A particular person can be in many different patronage relationships, and they can and often do fulfill both roles. You can have a patron who has multiple clients, who themselves have multiple clients – and you can have two patrons who are allied, who share clients. The result of all this is an interlocking web of patronage which you can call a patronage network. These patronage networks can be very powerful social and political entities: they can take control of institutions, and they can have a tremendous influence through this means on their society.

People often think of political parties as unified by shared ideology, and although shared ideology is an important part of their functioning, what’s actually more fundamental usually is patronage. …. The particular politician is very often motivated much more by personal interests than by ideological commitments.

He expands on this by describing how patronage shapes ideology itself:

The common view here is that the ideologies of political parties are these natural worldviews, … and the people who make up the political party coalesce around them and that forms the basis of the party. Instead, I think the way it works is that the different components of the political coalition that makes up the party each have their own ideologies, and these different component ideologies are often not compatible. But nonetheless, these different coalition members come together because of a shared political interest, even if they don’t agree on everything about the way the world works or the way the world should be. In order to reconcile or patch over these ideological differences, the different component ideologies are stitched together into this patchwork in which the differences between them are suppressed or not brought to the forefront of people’s attention.

Another corollary of this is that ideologies need a strong institutional basis in order to spread and in order to take hold politically. A lot of people think that if they can just find the true ideology, and if they can communicate it to people clearly, then it will naturally spread throughout society. It would be great if this were the case, but in fact, an ideology needs to have a strong institutional basis in order to spread and in order to make its way into the core institutions of a society.

Some examples of this system of patronage are described in the Interest Group Advocacy and Role of Public Opinion in Policy Making models.

Theories of History

Explained in both essay and video formats by Samo Burja:

Everyone has an implicit theory of history– usually inconsistent across time periods and typically incoherent without explication and conscious work, it will nonetheless be the basis of much of your action in the world. Most people never discover theirs simply because they don’t realize they’re acting on one. Now that you have the concept– what is yours?

Advantage of the Status Quo


Status quo policies and incumbent politicians often have a systemic advantage in the political arena.


Some examples from Interest Groups and Lobbying:

Supreme Court

In sum, when public interest groups are the challengers of the status quo, there is little evidence that they are getting anywhere at the Supreme Court. Of course when it comes to the consumer protection and environmental laws that these groups convinced Congress to enact in the 1960s and 70s, they are the ones defending the status quo, and they have the advantage. Basically the judiciary is a conservative institution in that judges and justices defer to the legislative and executive branches when they can, so challenging any policy status quo in the judiciary is an uphill battle. The payoff is enormous when successful, but it is a significant gamble of time and resources. … Petitioner groups win far more than respondent groups, but remember that in an appellate court it is likely that the petitioner group was originally the respondent and is actually defending the status quo! It is a common lesson in this book: status quo policies are hard to overthrow.

Negotiations between interest groups

Bargaining Between Competing Interest Groups


  • When the government leases land for oil drilling, it receives a royalty
  • In this example, the National Wildlife Federation and the American Petroleum Institute are competing over the issue of how much of this money should be spent on parks
  • The NWF and its members want more money for parks and less miles for drilling; the API wants the opposite
  • Each respective group’s ideal policy is at the points labeled NWF and API, though each group would never agree to the other’s ideal position
  • The solid curved lines represent the maximum trade-off that each interest group’s members will tolerate
  • Point C represents the best possible compromise between the two groups

It becomes more complicated if a status quo policy already exists, and it usually does. Say point SQ1 in Figure 9.2 is the current policy and provides NWF with more money for less drilling than the API’s lobbyist would accept because it is higher on the vertical axis than the API’s curve. SQ1 is closer to NWF than it is to point C, so the NWF’s lobbyist will not bargain with the API because he or she knows the status quo is better than anything API will agree to. In other words, there can be no bargain in this scenario, and the NWF will fight to preserve the status quo. If the status quo was SQ2, then the NWF’s lobbyist would jump at the compromise at point C because it gives his or her members more of what they want than the status quo. But the API lobbyist would not support a deal at C because the status quo (SQ2) is closer to what his or her members ideally want. So bargaining and coalition building depend on what trade-offs members will tolerate and what the alternatives to not bargaining are, including the status quo.

In interest group negotiations like this, the status quo provides an advantage to whichever side it benefits most, since it bends the range of acceptable compromises towards the side of the status quo holder.

Campaign contributions

It takes money to raise money in politics. Raising money early is crucial to elected officials, especially challengers, though incumbents use early money to discourage potential challengers (Jacobson 1992). PAC leaders understand this, and some, like EMILY’s List, specifically contribute early to help favored candidates raise more money down the line (Box-Steffensmeier, Radcliffe, and Bartels 2005). Most PACs, though, are conservative about contributing early because they want to back winners. It is another reason why they favor incumbents (who nearly always win) and are often unwilling to take chances on challengers unless challengers show early on that they can win, usually through aggressive fundraising. For candidates challenging incumbents, this PAC mind-set makes raising money extremely difficult. More ideological, nonconnected PACs and super-PACs, however, are more likely to take risks on challengers who embrace their ideological positions. Non-ideological PACs, however, are only likely to give money early when a partisan wave is building that might change the balance of power, as happened in 1980 (Eismeier and Pollock 1986), 1994, and 2010.

Institutionalization of Social Movements


If a social movement succeeds in cracking open the political system, it must then learn to play by the rules of the institution it has worked to crack.


From Interest Groups and Lobbying:

If a social movement succeeds in cracking open the political system, it must then learn to play by the rules of the institution it has worked to crack. Movements rearrange some of the pieces of the power structure that supported policies at the root of their grievance, forcing back older, more entrenched interests by making them accept the legitimacy of the movement’s demands. They add their interest to the array of interests deemed worthy of government support, expanding the range of policy problems receiving government redress. This success is significant, but victory comes with costs, which may not be immediately apparent to the organizers of the social movement, who are now looking at careers as lobbyists. They must play by the rules and norms of the game they have struggled to join. The movement changed the beneficiaries of public policy and the values it enshrines, but not the way it is made. Activists-turned-lobbyists are now expected to work with lawmakers through the regular, institutionalized procedures of the political system. Bills will be introduced, other members of Congress will be lobbied, information packets developed, email campaigns launched—all with a united message that benefits their new legislative allies as much as their members. Other interest groups must be recruited as allies or bargained with as opponents. Because operating on the inside is much cheaper than staging protests, the groups staff are usually happy to oblige.

Passionate, dedicated movement members may not understand this transformation. They may not understand that further pursuing their interests now requires compromises with competing interests and paying attention to the needs of lawmakers. They may not understand the growing gulf between themselves and their leaders as the latter become part of the Washington social scene. While in many cases this simply leads to the loss of dispirited, disillusioned members, political scientist Anne Costain (1981) describes a much more dramatic result. At the 1975 national convention of the National Organization of Women (NOW), members forced out much of NOW’s Washington staff for the crime of playing by Washington’s rules, even though the professional activists had learned how to use them to the members advantage.

Social movements are therefore embryonic interest groups, though not all interest groups start as social movements. The trade and professional associations representing businesses and white-collar professions certainly did not start out as street protests. Citizen groups, on the other hand, often started out as some kind of social movement, their origins grounded in passionate political activism. Sometimes they still try to keep the trappings of it and fire up large numbers of members just to keep them involved in the group. Of course the real difference between the two is that social movements represent interests truly excluded from regular politics but who have the opportunity and resources to break in, whereas interest groups are already on the inside.