I think one of the great new plagues of the 21st century is people who believe they have the answer in a paragraph—who believe that they can conjure an explanation for how we should do governance and how we should array our society that will apply to every single problem and in every single circumstance to which we find ourselves. You show me somebody who is certain that the liberal or conservative or libertarian or Marxist or free-market capitalistic mode is going to solve every problem and I'll show you somebody who is in one moment going to sound clever and cohesive on one issue and then will fall on their ass and sound like a fool in the next moment. The truth is is that I have very little patience for any of that.—David Simon, creator of The Wire.
In my professional life, the phrase "low-hanging fruit" has been repeated so often it has developed a meaning outside of the metaphor it came from: "Why not do this easy thing now so that we can have progress while we're waiting for the harder things to get done?"
We have a few fruit trees, including my prized kumquat that I moved from the backyard to the front when we started a construction project:
I'm tall enough to reach all of the fruit on this particular tree, but suppose I were shorter or this tree were taller. I'd need to invest in some way to get all the fruit:
- Deploy my ladder.
- Fashion a fruit harvester with a long pole, a hook and a basket.
- Employ an expert who knows the tricks to harvesting this fruit.
In the meantime, I can just grab the fruit that's easiest to reach:
That might work for today, but what about tomorrow? I still need to show progress and there are no more low-hanging fruit on the tree. Thankfully, there are a few fruit that have fallen. These are even easier to collect and maybe nobody will notice they are shriveled and rotten? If they do, I'll just collect twice as much fruit off the ground and say quantity makes up for low quality.
This is the inescapable logic of low-hanging fruit. Getting the "easy wins" means you aren't working toward the real wins. It means making the numbers today and hoping something will bale you out tomorrow. It's a recipe for poor results.
The Wire demonstrates the "low-hanging fruit" problem in the context of the city of Baltimore. Across the 5 seasons of the show cops can either make the numbers or do real police work. It's easier to turn a felony into a misdemeanor (thus "reducing" crime) than actually solve crimes, so guess what most of the cops do? Similarly, schools sacrifice effective education in order to increase test scores. Politicians put off painful, but necessary, policies in order to win reelection. Newspapers stretch the truth in order to pursue Pulitzer nominations. Nobody is immune from short-sighted gaming of the metrics.
David Simon's entire talk is worth watching, by the way:
The problem is bigger then Goodhart's law1, however. Frequently "low-hanging fruit" comes with the implicit assumption that making progress in one small part of a problem means progress is being made in the entire problem. That's hardly ever true and especially not true in the analogy. Picking low-hanging fruit doesn't make the high-hanging fruit any easier to harvest!
If you want to harvest all the fruit, you can go after the low-hanging fruit if it's helping you learn how to reach your goal. Go ahead and pick fruit from the lower branches as you test the stability of your ladder. It's just there's a huge risk you'll be distracted from your goal. Or you might fall into a much worse trap.
And now we can finally discuss the quote at the top of this post. I'm going to pick on Bernie Sanders to illustrate the point. He was once asked by a student from Russia how socialism in the US could avoid the atrocities of the Soviet Union. He used the example of a neighbor to Russia, Finland, which has a democratic socialist government. Later he listed a few more examples:
I'm talking about Finland. I'm talking about Denmark. I'm talking about Sweden. I'm talking about countries all over the world.
Only these aren't countries all over the world. They are all part of a tiny corner of the world called Scandinavia. By population, Finland, Denmark and Sweden are roughly the same size as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. They are 60-75% Lutheran, which is one sign they are substantially more homogeneous culturally than the US. I'd say these countries are low-hanging fruit when it comes to trying out democratic socialism.
It's hard to argue that democratic socialism doesn't work because we can see it working in Scandinavia. I wouldn't be surprised if it could work in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan too. It's much harder to imagine it working in larger, more diverse states such as Texas, California or Florida. Not to say it can't work outside of Scandinavia, but rather success in the easy case doesn't demonstrate progress toward solving the harder case. And this goes for free markets or libertarianism or any other "answer in a paragraph" you could name.
Solutions to hard problems frequently require solutions that look nothing like the solutions to easy problems. In grade school I was taught the sieve of Eratosthenes to find the prime numbers less than 100. But large primes require other techniques. If you insist on using the simple technique, you will never discover more advanced methods.
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