The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

August 3, 2011

Byzantine complexity confounds America’s lawmakers

Zachary Hubbard

— The term Byzantine complexity originally referred to the complex government bureaucracy that existed during the later years of the Eastern Roman Empire. Byzantine Rome had overextended its territorial borders and the government bureaucracy had grown so large that, beyond a few politicians, almost nobody understood the system.

The Roman system was so complex and corrupt that other countries dreaded doing business with the Romans.

Now this term describes any system that is overly complex. Has today’s American system reached a state of Byzantine complexity?

During the past weeks, Americans watched as Congress wrestled with raising the national debt ceiling. As this unfolded, it frequently appeared that none of the key players, Democrat or Republican, seemed to know what she/he was doing. 

Rather than being profoundly incompetent, could it be that the American empire has grown so large and complex that even our leaders don’t understands it anymore? Recent events on Capitol Hill suggest this is so.

The collapse of the subprime mortgage market in 2007 puzzled many financial experts. With encouragement from the U.S. government, lending institutions gave so-called subprime mortgages to risky borrowers. Lenders liked the program, since the government guaranteed the loans, shifting all of the risk to American taxpayers. Borrowers liked it because many people who lacked good credit could get mortgages.

Financial institutions bundled these risky mortgages into securities and sold them on the stock market. Many of these were traded again and again. Eventually their financial risk penetrated the entire stock market and financial institutions panicked when more and more borrowers defaulted on their mortgages.

Banks abandoned the subprime mortgage market, which collapsed violently in 2007, eventually spawning a federal bailout of the banking system.

As chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan was thought by many to be a financial genius. Yet, after the subprime collapse, he admitted he never saw it coming.

Can it be that the complexity of today’s economy is beyond the comprehension of even our greatest financial minds?

Today, millions of American home mortgages are in foreclosure. Financial guru Dave Ramsey recommends that homeowners involved in foreclosure demand to see the original loan paperwork for their mortgages. As it turns out, a lot of the mortgages that were bundled and sold as securities were traded so many times even the banks couldn’t keep track of the loan paperwork. Consequently, some facing foreclosures have gotten off scot-free. Is this another case of Byzantine complexity?

President Obama made a campaign pledge to reform national health care. The final version of his Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is nearly 1,000 pages. Obama and the Democrats claim the act will reduce the cost of health care and make it more accessible. Republicans claim it will make it more expensive and destroy thousands of  jobs.

Which side is correct? Has America’s health-care system grown so complex it is impossible to project the effects that changes to it might cause?

Have you prepared a federal tax return lately? The U.S. tax code contains more than 54,000 pages. Income taxes embarrassed the Obama administration in 2008, when it was revealed there were discrepancies in the tax returns of Obama’s Treasury secretary nominee Timothy Geithner.

Geithner paid no Social Security or Medicare taxes for several years while working for the International Monetary Fund. During confirmation hearings, Geithner claimed his failure to pay was a simple oversight. Did he lie or was he a victim of an overly complex tax code? Only        Geithner knows for sure.

In 2006, American cultural anthropologist and historian Joseph A. Tainter published an essay titled, “Social Complexity and Sustainability.”

Tainter’s thesis suggests that social complexity and sustainability emerge from successful problem-solving, rather than from environmental conditions.

Tainter describes how in the late fourth century the Roman Empire was so over-extended it had to rely upon the services of Germanic tribes to keep the expanding peoples of Central Europe out of Roman lands in Western Europe and North Africa.

He explains how the Romans responded to this near-fatal challenge by   “… increasing the size, complexity, power and costliness of the primary problem-solving system, the government and its Army.”

Unlike in previous eras of the Roman Empire, “the higher costs were taken not to expand the empire or acquire new wealth, but to maintain the status quo.”

It appears that the same thing is happening in America today. The government keeps expanding and spending more, yet seems unable to solve or improve anything.

Tainter explains at some point the level of governmental and societal complexity begins to produce diminishing returns, where it is nearly impossible to solve highly complex problems no matter how much money is thrown at them.

Just look at national defense. America has spent billions in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet the situation doesn’t seem to improve.

American military forces in Iraq occupy one of the oil-richest countries in the world, while a domestic oil supply crisis persists at home.

President G.W. Bush invaded Afghanistan seeking to destroy al-Qaida after the 9/11 attacks. American forces have fought there nearly 10 years, yet the Homeland Security Department still assesses al-Qaida as posing a serious terror threat to America. This enormous war spending has merely maintained the status quo.

Defense acquisition is another area where complexity is making it a struggle just to maintain the status quo.

The F-22 Raptor is a complex aircraft. The onboard systems require more than 1.7 million lines of software code to keep them operating.

By comparison, the newer F-35 Joint Strike Fighter comes in three versions with more than six million lines of avionics software code alone and 19 million lines for the entire system. Is it any wonder there are cost overruns?

It is becoming increasingly difficult to estimate the final cost of modern weaponry.

If those in Congress can learn one thing from Tainter, it is that overly complex systems cost more to manage and maintain, while producing little more and sometimes even less than simpler systems.

National politicians must heed the call to simplify the entire United States Code.

Let them begin with the federal tax code and work their way down the list.

Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

It’s high time Congress gets more “sophisticated” in its lawmaking.



Zachary Hubbard is a retired Army officer residing in Upper Yoder Township. He is a member of The Tribune-Democrat Reader Advisory Committee.

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