The Weakest Link

fearsome battle droidsIn the Star Wars movies, an entire enormous imperial military mechanism can always be destroyed or brought to a standstill simply by targeting some relatively small but apparently crucial component – a shield generator, a droid control ship, an exhaust vent on the Death Star.

I’d like to think this was George Lucas’s deliberate satire on the rigidity and inefficiency of centralised bureaucratic systems – though I have a sneaking fear that it may just have been lazy storytelling instead.

In any case, Darian Worden points us to yet another real-world example:

On Sunday, January 3, thousands of airline travelers were delayed after an unknown person walked the wrong way through an exit at Newark Liberty International Airport. Continental Airlines, the largest user of the affected terminal, was still behind schedule on Monday morning. … Most Americans depend daily on the functioning of a multitude of networks, from transportation to electricity. The Newark shutdown shows that something as minor as passing the wrong way through a door (from the “public” area to the “sterile” area) can cause a cascade of failures as flights are delayed, connecting flights are missed, and important business and personal meetings are disrupted.

I remember a similar incident at the Atlanta airport four years ago as I was waiting for my flight to Prague; someone went up the down-only stairway to retrieve something they’d left behind, and the folks in charge responded by shutting down most of the airport – though thankfully not the international terminal, so I didn’t miss my flight. (That incident probably did play a role, however, in our leaving late and my nearly missing my connection in Zurich; I’ve spent a total of fifteen minutes in Switzerland, and all of it running.)

Remember how one Christmas light burning out always made the entire string go dark? Notice how they don’t make ’em like that any more?

So why do governments design systems that can be jammed so easily? Well, because they’re a monopoly, so they can externalise the costs of this crap onto everybody else. Just try doing the same thing under free competition.

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13 Responses to The Weakest Link

  1. Anon73 January 5, 2010 at 12:07 am #

    To play Devil’s Advocate, what happens if the service being provided is a natural monopoly, either for the usual reasons (free-rider, economies of scale) or not? Then a free system would either not exist or would function the same as the monopolistic system.

    Then conceding this point, how do you know a decentralized system won’t have the same problem? In the given example maybe there are 3 airports run by different companies and they all shut down when just one of them has a security breach.

    • Roderick January 5, 2010 at 12:16 am #

      what happens if the service being provided is a natural monopoly

      I’m not convinced that there any such things as pure natural monopolies. That said, there is such a thing as degrees of ease of competition. But so what? There’s no reason to think there’d be many cases where the difficulty of competition was as great as that brought about by armed force — and if there were, well, we’d be no worse off.

      maybe there are 3 airports run by different companies and they all shut down when just one of them has a security breach

      In J. S. Mill’s words, “There is no difficulty in proving any … standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it.”

      In other words, if a few companies make dumb decisions that invite competitors to start up, and all the potential competitors are too dumb to step up and take advantage of the opportunity that’s being handed to them on a gold platter, well, I guess that would be too bad then.

  2. Brandon January 5, 2010 at 12:20 am #

    I’ve always thought that the torpedo-in-the-exhaust-port was believable, and I never thought it was a lazy storytelling decision.

    Shooting the torpedo into the port proves to be almost impossible. Most of the rebel ships are destroyed in the effort.

    Furthermore, the best scene in the movie is the one where Tarkin is told by one of his toadys that they understand the purpose of the attack and that it might succeed, but of course Tarkin’s arrogant confidence in “technological terror” overwhelms what should be his sense of caution. I’ve always been very impressed that the bad guys understood that they were going to be blown up. A lesser movie would not have included that scene.

    And of course that scene has directly to do with the fact that it’s a little thing they’re attacking. Too little for Tarkin to believe it could work.

    Note: all you have to do to cause an immediate blue screen in Vista is kill wininit.exe in Task Manager.

    • Roderick January 5, 2010 at 12:23 am #

      all you have to do to cause an immediate blue screen in Vista is kill wininit.exe in Task Manager

      Oh, quick, let me try it!

      • Anon73 January 5, 2010 at 12:27 am #

        I’m guessing this is some Athenian sarcasm. :p

        • Roderick January 5, 2010 at 12:36 am #

          More seriously: Vista is of course the product of state-protected oligopolist.

        • Anon73 January 5, 2010 at 1:25 am #

          You’ve always struck me as the type of person who would embrace linux purely for the principle of it.

  3. Roderick January 5, 2010 at 8:14 pm #

    Latest update on the Newark airport flap: the security cameras weren’t working because it was bureaucrat A’s job to notify bureaucrat B to let bureaucrat C know that bureaucrat D needed to peel the chewing gum off the lens … or somethin’.

    • Anon73 January 5, 2010 at 8:32 pm #

      This quote is particularly delicious:

      “TSA must immediately conduct a full investigation to determine what went wrong and make sure it never happens again so that air passengers feel confident every time they board a plane.”

      Somehow I feel the “official investigation” the TSA conducts would find that the TSA did not act improperly in any way. It’s hilarious that these government goons can’t even agree with each other on who maintains the security cameras.

  4. Joel Schlosberg January 6, 2010 at 1:54 pm #

    In this trope, Lucas was following, deliberately or not, in the steps of a lot of early space opera, dating back to Edmond Hamilton’s stories in the 1920s and 1930s; as R. D. Mullen explains, “These were typically monster-machine stories: i.e., stories in which our enemies have in their world a machine that will, when they pull the lever, destroy our world, but since we (our heroes) are able to reach their world and slip and/or fight our way across it until we have reached the machine, it is *their* world that is destroyed when *we* pull the lever.”

    In terms of deliberate satire, Eric Frank Russell’s stores come to mind, with a bunch of them (Next of Kin/The Space Willies/Plus X, Diabologic, Now Inhale, and others) dealing with a crafty individual who is able to defeat an entire planet’s worth of aliens by cleverly exploiting the weaknesses in their bureaucracy. And the general idea of conflict between two very mismatched opponents, with what would seem to be the weaker side winning out, is a common one in the genre; some have the additional twist that the weaker side has advantages that would ordinarily be useful (e.g. in Katherine MacLean and Charles V. De Vet’s Second Game, the “weaker” side actually overwhelmingly outnumbers the “stronger” one).

  5. Ayn Fett January 8, 2010 at 9:13 am #

    George Lucas wrote and directed THX 1138. He seems to have a non-lazy grasp of the issue.

    “Fire Sale! Everything must go!”

  6. Jonathan Finegold Catalán January 8, 2010 at 4:21 pm #

    Professor Long,

    Reading the post, and reading through the comments, I began to think about how government responds to these failures. My objective was to compare government’s response to that of a firm enjoying inelastic demand. Although my eventual conclusion had little to do with the latter, I did think of an interesting point. It has to do with government’s drive to provide efficiency.

    Government, to some degree or another, responds to criticism. There is always a drive on part of government to provide something resembling efficiency. This, of course, is ironic, given government’s penchant for bureaucracy. But, government’s means of improving efficiency almost always means cutting bureaucracy where possible. They equate inefficiency with monetary gain. Because government does not actually profit from their provision of goods and services, their definition of efficiency becomes muddled, as they do not have the necessary information to more accurately change their services.

    The airport example is perfect. While an airport subject to the profit and loss of a free-market would provide greater efficiency by introducing redundant systems, this would be unthinkable to the government, since it would drive costs up. But, for a private firm these increased costs are justified if customers continue to demand their services, and marginal revenue remains higher than it would otherwise be (e.g. a loss in customers).

    To make this observation more relevant, I’ll apply it to your conclusion:

    Well, because they’re a monopoly, so they can externalise the costs of this crap onto everybody else.

    While government does externalize the costs onto everybody else, the problem lies in the inability to respond to demand, because your response is immediately restricted by the inability to experiment with different business models. A firm that makes a profit can experiment with redundancy, because it can afford to lose the investment. Government, which has to raise taxes in order to pay for investments, does not have this leeway, and so their model for efficiency remains one-dimensional: reduce costs.

    • P.M.Lawrence January 11, 2010 at 8:17 am #

      Here in Australia, competition between state governments led to them all eliminating death duties once one did, starting with Queensland over thirty years ago, and then the federal government did too so as not to look bad in comparison. More recently, the states have competed with each other in a race to the bottom to attract major sporting events and similar in the hope of trickle down revenues outweighing the costs; most of the gains are illusory because so much is simply the result of poaching from each other, i.e. the true counterfactual would have had much of the same anyway, and of course so many of the costs are externalised onto the public with disruptions to public transport, access, etc. that a true cost benefit analysis would probably show all this to be harmful even if the estimated revenue gains were all genuine.

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