Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Efficiency and Robustness 2

The debate between Ian Welsh and Chandler Howell has continued since my previous post on Efficiency and Robustness, and the topic of Central Planning has appeared. In this post, I want to set aside the ideological aspects of central planning and discuss some of the practical aspects.

Central Planning - The Ideology

The question of central planning is widely seen as a political one, but it certainly isn't a simple matter of left and right. There are many right-wing libertarians who reject central planning as equivalent to Stalinism, the worst excesses of the Soviet experiment. (See this article Central Planning is Spontaneous Economic Order whose author complains that the Santa Fe Institute has betrayed the principles of complexity.) And there are left-wing libertarians who are puzzled or aghast at the centralizing tendencies of some of the right-wing authoritarians as well as corporate commercial interests.

Intelligent Design is of course a form of central planning - but executed by a perfect being rather than imperfect humans. (Boston Globe, via Snowdeal.) Robin Wilton asks whether it is possible for an atheist to believe in Intelligent Design. Well, it is certainly possible for atheists to believe in central planning. There are science fiction worlds in which central planning is carried out by a supreme computer, sometimes known as Multivac (or perhaps Spaghetti Monster). Science fiction writers often use technology as an oblique way of discussing serious philosophical and moral questions.

But if we put the politics and religion on one side, there is clearly a great deal of imperfect central planning that goes on within large organizations. We should be able to discuss this in pragmatic terms rather than ideological ones.

Central Planning in Practice

In a comment to Chandler Howell's previous post, Stu Berman advocates "horizontal integration rather than vertical" and rejects central planning. Chandler replies that, "Central Planning is the best analogy I have ever seen for how large corporations are run today. The only difference [with the Soviet Union] is that the corporations have a lot better computing power to manage their logistics." Chandler goes on to describe the fragility of systems (including large organizations) based on central planning, and suggests that H5N1 (aka Bird Flu) could have a more devastating effect than Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Chandler goes on to talk about coordination (what the military call C3I) in a crisis management context. "The disaster in Katrina may have started with the levees breaching, but lack of coordination at any level is what kept it going for days."

Discussion of central planning is relevant not just to the destruction of New Orleans, but to its subsequent reconstruction. The popular alternatives to central planning come under a range of labels including clusters (SwampFox) dynamic improvisation (Arnold Kling via OceanStateBlogger), organic growth (MCB) and private initiative (CapitalFreedom). These alternatives certainly don't all come from the same end of the political spectrum.

Advocacy for central planning also comes from various quarters, including Environmental Planning (WHY, WHAT, HOW and FOR WHOM).

In the real world, we are not likely to have either total central planning or total anarchy, but a complicated mixture of the two. To make a productive contribution to this debate, we have to be able to reason intelligently about outcomes (evidence-based policy) rather than ideological principles. (MCB also makes this point.) Furthermore, we have to connect outcomes with a specific context. (Not generic outcomes that would be exactly the same for New Delhi, New Orleans and New York.)


Central Planning is an attempt to produce all decisions from a single directing mind. To this extent that this attempt is successful, it puts the emphasis on endo-interoperability - coordination within the scope of a single plan. In contrast, exo-interoperability involves dynamic collaboration between autonomous agencies, whose plans may be formulated in entirely different terms.

... to be continued ...

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