Be Fruitful and Simplify!
Conquering the Crisis of Complexity
By Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn
Illustrated. 237 pages. Twelve. $26.99.
The Future of Government
By Cass R. Sunstein
Illustrated. 260 pages. Simon & Schuster. $26.
Less is more. The bare essentials. Back to basics. User-friendly. No fine print. Clutter-free. Transparent. Clean. Easy.
Back in the mid-19th century Henry David Thoreau exhorted us to “simplify, simplify,” and his appeal to distill things down to “the necessary and the real” has only gained more resonance, as our Internet-driven, A.D.D. culture has grown ever more complex and frenetic.
The re-embrace of simplicity is not exactly new. In the 1990s some neo-hippies and fed-up yuppies took up the idea of Voluntary Simplicity, Downshifting or Simple Living. In 2000 the commercial possibilities of this trend were ratified with Time Inc.’s introduction of the magazine “Real Simple,” and in 2005 Staples started promoting itself with an “Easy Button.”
Two tech behemoths are completely identified with their minimalist design styles: Apple, with its coolly modernist iPods, iPads and MacBooks; and Google, with its distinctive, pared-down home page, which has become synonymous with its brand. Now come two new books that are part manifestoes, part templates for achieving simplicity in business and government. Both display a lot of common sense, arguing for the elimination of bureaucracy and redundancy and insisting that consumers (of health care, insurance, credit and products large and small) deserve more transparency. But both also sidestep some of the difficulties involved in reducing or containing complexity in today’s lawyered-up and interconnected society.
“Simple,” by two business consultants, Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn, is a straightforward brief on simplicity, providing the reader with interesting examples of companies that have successfully embraced it as a business strategy while only occasionally slipping into overly simplistic advice. (“Simplification requires a thorough and pervasive commitment by an organization to empathize, distill and clarify.”)
“Simpler,” by Cass R. Sunstein — who as the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009 to 2012 helped “oversee the issuance of nearly 2,000 rules from federal agencies” — is a more detailed, more nuanced look at how rules and regulations can be made simpler, and how the social environment in which we make decisions can be “nudged” in ways that help us to make more rational, sensible choices. Many of the more original and illuminating ideas in this book, however, were previously mapped out by Mr. Sunstein and Richard H. Thaler in their fascinating 2008 best seller “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness,” or build upon the groundbreaking ideas laid out by Daniel Kahneman in his compelling 2011 book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”
Both “Simple” and “Simpler” stress the importance of understandable language. Mr. Sunstein writes that he pushed for “the use of plain language, reductions in red tape, readable summaries of complex rules, and the elimination of costly, unjustified requirements.”
Both books also emphasize that more information does not necessarily mean more clarity, that disclosure, as Mr. Sunstein puts it, “must be not merely technically accurate but also simple, meaningful, and helpful.”
Mr. Siegel and Ms. Etzkorn cite a study showing that half of the gadgets returned to stores (and the cost of returned products in America, they estimate, is some $100 billion a year) are “in good working order, but customers can’t figure out how to operate them.” The authors also mention a study showing that “80 percent of child safety seats are improperly installed or misused and the instructions for installing them are the root of the problem.”
Needless to say, identifying such problems hardly equals finding a plausible solution. Ms. Etzkorn and Mr. Siegel point out that “banks, credit card companies, insurers and other types of businesses find ways to make money from the fine print nobody can read or understand,” and that “lawyers have inundated us with mind-numbing disclaimers, disclosures, terms, instructions, amendments and amendments to amendments” to “avoid lawsuits or other potential problems.”
We are reminded of the challenges of simplifying the federal government by the fact that the United States tax code, according to Mr. Siegel and Ms. Etzkorn, has “nearly tripled in volume during the last decade” to 3.8 million words. And CNN recently reported that the Veterans Affairs Department has almost 630,000 benefit claims that have been pending for more than 125 days, because of an outdated paper-based process and the complexities of returning veterans’ cases.
Government simplification, Mr. Siegel and Ms. Etzkorn argue, requires many of the same things needed to simplify businesses: “strong leadership, clarity of purpose” and a culture “that prizes openness, empathy, and innovation.” In New York City, they write, “Mayor Michael Bloomberg has demonstrated that it’s possible to radically simplify the way one of the largest cities in the world communicates with its residents.” Back in 2003 pages and pages of listings in the city directory were replaced with one phone number, 311, to cover a wide range of complaints and questions (in the authors’ words, “everything from leaking fire hydrants to gaping potholes”).
In “Simpler” Mr. Sunstein puts a lot of emphasis on the utility of “nudges”: approaches, based on how human beings act and think, that “influence decisions while preserving freedom of choice”: for example arranging items in a grocery store so that healthy foods are conspicuous, letting voters know on the day of an election exactly how to get to the polls or working with the private sector to discourage texting while driving.
Some of the nudges Mr. Sunstein mentions here are really default rules, which, he says, can have a huge effect on outcomes (in part because of inertia, in part because people see an implicit endorsement in a default choice). Take for instance a default rule that automatically enrolls people in a health care plan (unless they opt out), or a default rule that automatically protects users’ privacy online (unless they say otherwise). Such nudges, he says, “respect free markets and private liberty,” allowing people to make their own choices while at the same time emphasizing “that people may err and that, in some cases, most of us can use a little help.”
One of the central principles animating Mr. Sunstein’s tenure at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs — known as OIRA (pronounced oh-EYE-ruh) — was an empirical testing of regulations, he writes; another involved cost-benefit analysis and the maximizing of net benefits. He says that during the Obama administration’s first three years the net benefits of regulations reviewed by his office and issued by executive agencies exceeded $91 billion.
While at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Mr. Sunstein reviewed rules related to President Obama’s health care act and Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation. He backed higher fuel efficiency standards for motor vehicles and new toxic emissions rules for power plants, and he helped oversee a deal that would make appliances more energy efficient.
Along the way he also came under considerable criticism from environmentalists, consumer advocates and progressives who argued that under his stewardship the regulatory office had been too deferential to business interests and insufficiently tough in its regulatory role. Among the most frequently cited complaints was its role in a decision to postpone a plan to cut ozone emissions. In “Simpler” Mr. Sunstein describes that decision as “controversial but unquestionably correct” and writes that “we refused to issue a large number of rules favored by progressive groups, generally on the theory that they could not be justified, especially in an economically difficult time.”
Such debates over decisions made by Mr. Sunstein underscore just how difficult it can be to find consensus-winning solutions to complex problems. In other words, simplification is often not so simple at all.