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Compartmentalisation and the Big Picture

Why do reasonable people come up with bad policies? Because either they have failed to sufficiently subdivide a problem, or because they have been unable to see the big picture.

Written by johnleemk on 5:27:00 am Mar 21, 2007.

There is no policy or proposal without a downside. Many ideas which carry great benefits also carry great pitfalls. What can be irksome is that often, people oppose ideas which are good on the balance by arguing that the costs are too high.

A typical argument might be that greater international trade is harmful because it costs jobs. Well, yes - but it creates jobs too, and we can always retrain people to work in new sectors which are in high demand because of the expanded global market.

A major problem I see with many such arguments is that they identify a problem, but cannot see the problem as separate from the issue at hand. To return to the earlier example, they identify the problem of unemployment - but they cannot divorce it from the issue of globalisation.

If you look at the issue in a dispassionate light, you see that we are being offered a false choice by the opponents of international trade. The choice is not between "no trade and jobs" or "trade and no jobs". The problem of unemployment can be fixed without restricting trade and losing the benefits it carries.

I think one main reason we often find ourselves forced into such a false dichotomy is that we are too used to thinking in linear terms of cause and effect. If we want to avoid the effect, we assume the only way to do so is to address the cause, ignoring other potential solutions.

I return again to economic policy because economics often offers non-obvious solutions to problems that people don't think about. In the example of trade, what do we view as the cause of the problem of unemployment? Trade. To halt the unemployment caused by trade, we decide to reduce trade and regulate or prohibit it, and don't pause to consider other ways to reduce unemployment that can allow us to still enjoy trade and the benefits associated with it.

Another example of problematic thinking is Malaysian politics. Many erstwhile opposition supporters note that the electoral system is flawed and often subject to fraud, and thus there is a negative effect on the support for the opposition. They then decide that the problem lies solely with the electoral system, and that the way to increase their share of the vote is to fix the broken electoral system.

It's true, no doubt, that there's quite a bit of cheating going on. But how substantial is this cheating? Certainly not enough to have prevented the opposition from consistently winning about 40% of the popular vote, even in "landslide" government victories such as the one Barisan Nasional enjoyed in 2004. And I daresay few people would declare that the opposition in reality won more than that — that they deserve at least 50% of the popular vote and would receive it under a fair electoral system.

By leaning on the flawed system of elections as a crutch, the opposition then chooses to ignore some of its more fundamental problems. Its aging and recalcitrant leadership, especially among the ranks of the Democratic Action Party, is one problem they have refused to face up to.

Neither do they seem willing to accept that they have yet to touch on and promise to address the issues closest to the hearts of people. They bring up corruption and philandering in the halls of government, which are no doubt worthy issues, but issues that cannot win elections and appeal to the average voter in a politically-undeveloped society such as Malaysia's.

Compartmentalisation is a bad thing. We should never attempt to isolate a problem from its context, because this places us at the risk of losing sight of the big picture. The only exceptions are cases where we want to simplify the problem by dealing with it in bits and pieces, and even then, we still have to reconstitute it into a whole and test our findings before we can come to a conclusive answer.

But when faced with an opportunity to subdivide a problem and examine its different aspects from different angles, we should grab this opportunity. We cannot rely on superficial judgements and analyses to cloud our thinking. The normal human thought processes do not lend themselves to viewing the big picture while yet being able to isolate its different parts.

It requires training and discipline — and if we are met with policymakers who cannot be counted on to perform such big picture thinking, we will find ourselves with policies that simply do not work.