I’m not quite happy with this post, but I’m throwing it up anyway because I haven’t posted in a while, and I might be able to make this into something usable with feedback. Please, rip me one in the comments 😉
Safety engineers engage in the practice of failure mode and effects analysis. Basically, they look at life-safety systems, analyze them to find what sorts of faults may occur, what the results of those faults may be, and how to mitigate them. Engineers also practice risk analysis, attempting to identify weak points in a project schedule so that they can compensate for potential problems (manpower shortages or delivery issues, etc.) Business people do essentially the same thing, which they also call risk analysis, although the emphasis is more on cost/benefit or ROI instead of “can we get this thing done”. Engineers assume, more or less, that getting the thing done is a foregone conclusion. Security practitioners in IT build threat models for a similar purpose; to identify weak points in a security system.
Doing this badly in the security field leads to what Bruce likes to call “Movie Plot Threats“, by focusing on mitigating a single instance of a possible break in a system. Doing it badly in the economics field leads to large economic meltdowns like the one we’re currently enjoying, when very large impacts are discounted as unlikely or independent in a model where they are instead both likely and linked.
One reason for this is abstraction. If you do not properly abstract a class of exception scenarios from a collection of particular exception scenarios, you build a bad failure analysis. You spend too much time (or not enough time) pursing mitigation methods that aren’t at the same layer of abstraction.
For example, if you focus too much on the strength of the lock on your front door, you may wind up buying a lock that is very good, and very expensive, and easily avoided by breaking a window. We see this sort of bad abstraction in politics all the time.
“If we just secure the border, the illegal immigration problem will go away!”
The statement may or may not be a truism, but the conclusion only follows from the premise if the premise is possible (in the particular case of the U.S., it’s not). So attempting to alleviate the exception scenario (illegal immigration) with the mitigation methodology (securing the border) is largely a waste of time and money.
Now, of course, this is oversimplified. You can mitigate *some* illegal immigration by putting *some* border securing methods in place, but you only want the barrier so high (due to cost). The more difficult you want to make it for someone to get across the border, the more money you have to pay, and in almost all cases these costs don’t scale linearly. Once you hit the inflection point where your cost curve starts to skyrocket and your return starts to diminish rapidly, you’re doing what I like to call, “circling the drain”.
Again, from a political standpoint, both parties like to circle the drain quite a bit. Not because circling the drain is fun, but because most political positions are framework arguments dealing in absolutes, and when you deal with absolutes the idea of diminishing returns is quite often conveniently ignored.
The point? Everything breaks. All models are incomplete, all engineering can only account for assumed stresses. Having things break isn’t necessarily a crisis of any sort, the question is, “what sort of crisis are we looking at?”