Claiming to Find One Variable That Explains Absolutely Everything in a Complex System

Of late I have been seeing a lot of examples of people trying to claim that complex, even chaotic multi-variable systems are in fact driven by a single variable.  Whether it be CO2 in climate or government spending in Keynesian views of the economy, this over-simplification seems to be a hubris that is increasingly popular.

The worst example I believe I have ever seen of this was in the editorial page today in the Arizona Republic.  Titled Arizona vs. Massachusetts,  this article purports to blame everything from Arizona's higher number of drunk driving accidents to its higher number of rapes on ... the fact that Arizona has lower taxes.  I kid you not:

In the absence of discernible benefits, higher taxes are indeed a negative. We would all like to keep more of what we earn. That is, if there are not other negative consequences. So, it is reasonable to ask: What do Massachusetts citizens get for these increased public expenditures? A wide range of measures from widely disparate sources provide insight into the hidden costs of a single-minded obsession with lower taxes at all costs.

The results of such an investigation are revealing: Overall, Massachusetts residents earn significantly higher salaries and are less likely to be unemployed than those who live in Arizona. Their homes are less likely to be foreclosed on. Their residents are healthier and are better educated, have a lower risk of being murdered, getting killed in a car accident or getting shot by a firearm than are Arizonans. Perhaps these factors explain the lower suicide rate in Massachusetts than in Arizona as well as the longer life spans.

None of this supposed causation is based on the smallest scrap of evidence, other than the spurious correlation that Arizona has lower taxes at the same time it has more of the bad things the authors don't like.  The authors do not even attempt to explain why, out of the thousands of variables that might have an impact on these disparities, that taxation levels are the key driver, or are even relevant.

Perhaps most importantly, the authors somehow fail to even mention the word demographics.  Now, readers know that I am not very happy with Arizona Conservatives that lament the loss here of the Anglo-Saxon mono-culture.   I think immigration is healthy, and find some of the unique cultures in the state, such as on the large tribal reservations, to make the state more interesting.

However, it is undeniable that these demographic differences create wildly different cultures between Arizona and Massachusetts, and that these differences have an enormous impact on the outcomes the authors describe.  For example, given the large number of new immigrants in this state, many of whom come here poor and unable to speak English, one would expect our state to lag in economic averages and education outcomes when compared to a state populated by daughters of the revolution and the kids of college professors (see immigration data at end of post).  This is made worse by the fact that idiotic US immigration law forces many of these immigrants underground, as it is far harder to earn a good income, get an education, or have access to health care when one does not have legal status.  (This is indeed one area AZ is demonstrably worse than MA, with our Joe-Arpaio-type fixation on harassing illegal immigrants).

By the way, it turns out Arizona actually does pretty well with Hispanic students vs. Massachusetts  -- our high school graduation rate for Hispanics is actually 10 points higher than in MA (our graduation rate for blacks is higher too).  But since both numbers are so far below white students, the heavy mix of Hispanic students brings down Arizona's total average vs. MA.   If you don't understand this issue of how one state can do better than another on many demographic categories but still do worse on average because of a more difficult demographic mix, then you shouldn't be writing on this topic.

Further, the large swaths of this state that are part of various Indian nations complicate the picture.  AZ has by far the largest area under the management of tribal nations in the country -- in fact, almost half the tribal land in the country is in this one state.  These tribal areas typically add a lot of poverty, poor education outcomes, and health issues to the Arizona numbers.  Further, they are plagued with a number of tragic social problems, including alcoholism (with resulting high levels of traffic fatalities) and suicide.  But its unclear how much these are a result of Arizona state policy.   These tribal governments are their own nations with their own laws and social welfare systems, and in general fall under the purview of Federal rather than state authority.  The very real issues faced by their populations have a lot of historical causes that have exactly nothing to do with current AZ state tax policy.

The article engages in a popular sort of pseudo-science.  It drops in a lot of numbers, leaving the impression that the authors have done careful research.  In fact, I count over 50 numbers in the short piece.  The point is to dazzle the typical cognitively-challenged reader into thinking the piece is very scientific, so that its conclusions must be accepted.  But when one shakes off the awe over the statistical density, one realizes that not one of the numbers are relevant to their hypothesis: that the way Arizona runs its government is the driver of these outcome differences.

It's really not even worth going through the rest of this article in detail.  You know the authors are not even trying to be fair when they introduce things like foreclosure rates, which have about zero correlation with taxes or red/blue state models.  I lament all the negative statistics the authors cite, but it is simply insane to somehow equate these differences with the size and intrusiveness of the state.  Certainly I aspire to more intelligent government out of my state, which at times is plagued by yahoos focusing on silly social conservative bugaboos.  I am open to learning from the laboratory of 50 states we have, and hope, for example, that Arizona will start addressing its incarceration problem by decriminalizing drugs as has begun in other states.

The authors did convince me of one thing -- our state university system cannot be very good if it hires professors with this sort of analytical sloppiness.  Which is why I am glad I sent my son to college in Massachusetts.

PS- If the authors really wanted an apples to apples comparison that at least tried to find states somewhat more demographically similar to Arizona, they could have tried comparing AZ to California and Texas.  I would love for them to explain how well the blue state tax heavy model is working in CA.  After all, they tax even more than MA, so things must be even better there, right?  I do think that other states like Texas are better at implementing aspects of the red-state model and do better with education for example.  You won't get any argument from me that the public schools here are not great (though I work with several Charter schools which are fabulous).  For some reason, people in AZ, including upper middle class white families, are less passionate on average about education than folks in other states I have lived.  I am not sure why, but this cultural element is not necessarily fixable by higher taxes.

Update- MA supporters will argue, correctly, that they get a lot of immigration as well.  In fact, numerically, they get about the same number of immigrants as AZ.  But the nature of this immigration is totally different.  MA gets legal immigrants who are highly educated and who come over on corporate or university-sponsored visa programs.  Arizona gets a large number of illegal immigrants who get across the border with a suitcase and no English skills.  The per-person median household income for MA immigrants in 2010 was $16,682 (source).  The per-person median household income for AZ immigrants was $9,716.  35.3% of AZ immigrants did not finish high school, while only 15.4% of MA immigrants have less than a high school degree.  48% of AZ immigrants are estimated to be illegal, while only 19% of those in MA are illegal.  11% of Arizonans self-report that they speak English not at all, vs. just 6.7% for MA (source).


  1. Rick Caird:

    Why is it up to Warren to analyze the ope ed rather than having the Arizona Republic do an analysis themselves? I suspect the reason is that the Arizona Republic staff is innumerate.

  2. john mcginnis:

    One has to keep in mind that Journalism majors were guaranteed there would be no math in their program. Seems to be the more logical single point of failure to explore.

  3. tjic:

    Oh, all correlations are causal, it's true. So, Arizona should definitely hike it's taxes.

    ...just make sure to buy snow blowers and plows first.

  4. NL7:

    I suppose if Arizona had significantly raised taxes, they could have discouraged people from moving there and thereby avoided the housing bust by avoiding the boom. Which is a bit like not buying a car to prevent yourself from ever needing a tow.

  5. bigmaq1980:

    I think you can find examples like this throughout written history.

    The shame is these pair are "highly educated" people. Presumably they are very competent in their field of expertise. However, they don't apply similar rigour to their arguments that the founding thought leaders of their discipline of study must have applied.

    Given their education level and their professional standing, I cannot believe it is out of ignorance we see this.

    That is the most sad conclusion, as I see this across a spectrum of such people, many of whom are working for their "political" self interest.

  6. Sol:

    Funny, when I saw the headline I thought it was going to be a look at Drum's "Leaded gasoline is the major cause of crime in the US" article.

  7. Mondak:

    This sort of single variable over-weighting seems to be getting a lot worse. I have a couple reasons I have seen why:

    In the education system this happens a lot and is basically institutionalized. Folks who are looking for higher degrees usually need to write a thesis. To be approved, the thesis is typically very narrow in scope. The thing is that it has to be original as well to be a thesis in almost every case. This leads to a lot of card stacking in the argument. Essentially, all information that supports this new theory is used, and anything that does not corroborate the theory is suppressed. I mean heck, if you are writing a History thesis, you are under a lot of pressure to re-sort the existing tea leaves (insert flood of sources here) into a net new revelation on the makeup or mindset of a man or new framing of an event. Writing about a single variable's impact is something that can be specifically researched, may have never been approached before and most importantly is a story that can be packaged and "sold" to those reviewing the thesis.

    Another factor that seems to accelerating the use of single variable models is the way we consume information. Long form interviews are a thing of the past. Instead we are looking for sound bites that can go in a scroll at the bottom of the headline news feed or of course would work in something like Twitter. 144 characters or bust: complex systems not invited. Winning the facebook "like" war won't happen if the answers are complex.

    Heck, in Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury warns the reader of this sort of thing. We are inundated with information. We all think we KNOW things. But when it comes down to it, there is so much detailed information on such a variety of subjects, that we can't possibly consume it all. Even the most dedicated among us have to use some intellectual shortcuts to keep things straight. These stories are easy to understand and so we are simply more predisposed to want these kinds of shortcuts if for no other reason than to protect our self esteem on the grounds that we want to understand our world.

    TLDR Version: Single Variable Explanations of Complex Systems are becoming more prolific due to many reasons such as Institutional factors, the volume of information available, modern information delivery and our own self esteem.

    There are certainly other things contributing, but those factors seem to be helping. Now, if I were trying to explain expanding use of a single variable to account for complex systems WITH a single variable, I would go with the concept of Original Sin. I think I can eventually write up reasons why Original Sin is the cause of almost every malady known to man today. Even if it isn't, I bet I come up with a zinger of a soundbyte in the process!

  8. bigmaq1980:

    You forgot that "Money is the root of all evil"! As someone once famous said "Imagine no possessions...".

    We all want simple answers or explanations for complex problems. Even though we all live inside a relatively free society, few people recognize all the interconnected processes that are at work around us. We live on the trillions(?) of decisions made past, and the concurrent billions of daily decisions made around us. Many would like to think someone (impossibly) is directing it all - ultimately to have on "throat to choke", perhaps.

    This is probably why "charisma" and snappy one liners carry much weight with voters vs well thought out argument - they prefer the illusion and convenience of simplicity (vs the burden of analyzing/researching arguments for trade-offs, impacts, unintended consequences, etc.).

  9. Donnie Plunkett:

    Great analysis. They need to compare states with similar demographics and different tax structures. The obvious one to compare Massachusetts to would be New Hampshire (no income tax with some exceptions, no sales tax). I bet they would reach a completely different conclusion (if they weren't clouded by massive political bias).

  10. Steven:

    Actually, there is another factor that you forgot to address in your response, which is, that even in the presence of practically perfect correlation between certain tax and social policies today, and incidence of certain social ills, we are forgetting completely that we need to compare historically, how the two states have been governed. Today's Massachusetts, for example, is not at all a result of today's policies, but rather of 200 or more years of policy decisions. Like California, Massachusetts has many incumbent advantages as a result of good policies in the past, and from being one of the first states inhabited in a nation that overall, made good policiy decisions. A state like California for example, despite being a blue state today, historically has been very open and free, and until recently, a red state. It now has ,any incumbent advantages that have nothing to do with the current model, which is working to destroy the state...

  11. bigmaq1980:

    MA vs NH, I agree is a better comparison. Trouble is, these guys would find many reasons to justify why it is not a good pair. If they are in the mode of being selective about variables and comparison subjects to make their point, I doubt we could expect them to accept this. That is, it is not an intellectually honest debate.

  12. Doug Cotton:

    The 21st Century New Paradigm Shift in Climate Change Science shows what that "one variable" really is ...

    Carbon dioxide is no blanket. The "blanket" is produced by non-radiative diffusion processes primarily involving nitrogen and oxygen at the surface-atmosphere boundary. If the only consideration were the effect of water vapour and carbon dioxide you'd be sleeping under a handkerchief.

    Discover "The 21st Century New Paradigm Shift in Climate Change Science" (on the Principia Scientific International website) and discover what real physics has now proved, completely negating any significant relevance of the old 20th Century radiative greenhouse concept.

    No back radiation caused the Earth's surface to be 288K (or the Venus surface to be over 730K) all on its own, somehow multiplying the Sun's energy. What did cause it was thetemperature distribution brought about by diffusion of kinetic energy in a gravitational field, and this process continues to maintain surface temperatures as atmospheres absorb direct incident Solar radiation, the only possible radiation that can keep them at the observed temperatures. For more detail read “Planetary Surface Temperatures. A Discussion of Alternative Mechanisms”published by PSI in November 2012, as well as this week's article mentioned above and linked below.

    Doug Cotton

  13. skhpcola:

    What's the problem? If you (Warren) "no-borders, open immigration" folks wish to examine your nonsensical affinities for welcoming anybody that can swim a river and survive a desert crossing, then you also shouldn't have a problem with these other people that reside in their own nation within our borders, yet are perfectly legal residents. It's pure buffoonery to be a booster for illegal immigration while bemoaning the comparable low achievement of our indigenous natives.

    But, on point, yeah, the targeted article is absolute pabulum.

  14. morganovich:

    i would be willing to bet that crime has a very strong inverse correlation to home prices as well. expensive neighborhoods have less crime. thus, the course is obvious: mandate that all homes cost more and we'll have no crime in no time...


  15. nehemiah:

    You are all missing the point. These outcomes have nothing to do with taxes. It's the dry heat that drives these behaviors. That and the clear night skies that let you see the full moon.

  16. rxc:

    I would comment that even when there is a clear single factor, the solution may be a bit more complicated than the simple one proposed. i,e. "gun violence". It is true that IF you could eliminate all guns, you would eliminate "gun violence", but eliminating ALL the guns is a very non-trivial exercise. It is similar, in fact, to "eliminating alcohol". or "eliminating drugs".

    The real problem is politicians who want to be seen doing "something", so they give a supposedly uplifting speech, filled with compassion, and make proposals that are either ineffective (i.e., they do not actually completely address the single factor), or they are completely unrealistic (they actually DO propose completely addressing the single factor). Both are silly.

  17. Lawrence:

    Mental masturbation to be sure.

  18. SamWah:

    Yup--clearly lower taxes are to blame/credit!