Systems sans sense

Column by Michael Alcorn
Posted 3/6/19

So, the wife and I were having an argu… a discussion the other night. You know how that goes — starts out as a philosophic discussion, then somebody misunderstands something, then, suddenly, …

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Systems sans sense


So, the wife and I were having an argu… a discussion the other night. You know how that goes — starts out as a philosophic discussion, then somebody misunderstands something, then, suddenly, it’s something less than philosophic.

ANYWAY … Our daughter is having trouble with her knee. An entirely predictable situation for a dancer. Trouble is, this time it seemed like trauma, not overuse, so her physical therapist recommended she get some imaging. No problem, of course — gotta know what’s wrong before you can treat it and, you know, start dancing again so you can damage it some more. At any rate, the provider told her the cost of the image was $580; but, if she had insurance, it would be $630.


So, my daughter, a struggling college student, assumes that the $580 was the obvious way to go. At which point, my wife, who understands these things, says it’s not, because you have to submit it through insurance so that we get credit for the deductible and because the insurance company may reduce the cost because $630 may be beyond the “contractual allowance.” I say, “what?” She says, “the insurance company only allows the practice to charge so much for something, so they might reduce the bill.” I say, “that’s stupid.”

At which point it became a less than philosophic discussion.

We went around and around about this for a while, her trying to make me understand how that works, and me wondering why the system is so stupid. Within the context of the system, it makes sense, and I understand the purpose of that process. But, from 10,000 feet, it seems pretty stupid. Given that this is a product of the same system that charges $3 for a Tylenol in the hospital, I’m guessing the image actually only costs $300 to produce.

“CHANGE THE SYSTEM!” Unfortunately, so far the only ideas for a new system look suspiciously like the one that is leaving our veterans so ill-served, or the one from England that was responsible for the deaths of one in three elderly people — while in the hospitals — due to neglect.

Systems crack me up. I’m pretty sure nobody designed this system to behave this way, but, over time, little problems got resolved by the system in ways that benefitted the system as much as it benefitted people. Like SkyNet, it developed its own sort of intelligence, and eventually evolved into the monstrosity we have now.

There are other system that work just as poorly. We recently had the joy of applying for student financial aid for college for the second child. Talk about your stupid systems! Not to be all “get off my lawn,” but it will cost my daughter more to go to school for one year in lovely Greeley, Colorado, than it cost me to get an entire degree from the flagship school in the state. You know why? At least in part, because Congress got involved.

That’s never a good thing.

Lo, these many years ago, Congress decided every child should have an opportunity to go to college, so they took over the process of student loans. As a result, the cost of college has more than doubled in 20 years in real dollars, and the salaries of professors have increased at more than four times the rate of inflation. But graduation rates are relatively flat, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to make the case that graduates are better prepared for life than their parents were. It was a solution in search of a problem which screwed up an entire system.

My point? Can we please be smarter about systems? Let’s try to have a better picture of our desired outcomes and be more purposeful about designing systems that serve those outcomes. At the very least, let’s be more leery about handing over too much to “the system” (ahem….schools…Google….ahem).

Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His new novel, “Charon’s Blade,” is available at, on Kindle, or through His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.


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