Secret conspiracies and public systems

It’s tempting to believe that powerful people and organizations are conspiring in secret to cause mysterious or unfair events to occur. The conspiracies supposedly involve dozens of people working across many time zones in complete secrecy.

That’s unlikely. Unlikely because cooperation of this sort is hard to find, especially among the powerful, and because it’s essentially impossible to keep it a secret.

What’s actually happening, right in front of us, all the time, is that systems are causing uncoordinated actions to occur. When banks, for example, create a cycle of more debt and higher interest rates for students, they didn’t need to have a secret meeting to pull that off. All they did was act within the system that they’ve built for themselves. When companies race offshore to pay ever less in taxes, no one coordinated that. It was a ratchet, a system that rewarded a race to the bottom. And even though the NCAA is an organized entity, it’s the system that has driven up the pay of college head coaches, not a secret conspiracy.

If we’d like the world to work better, more fairly and with more of a long-term view, we have to identify the systems that push participants to do the opposite. And then we need to consistently and persistently work to change the incentives that cause the entities in those systems to act the way they do.