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Saturday, January 16, 2021


The events at the US Capitol were so appalling and the details that continue to come out so unnerving that I find it almost impossible to comment intelligently about them. Lying in bed last night at 2 AM tossing and turning, I distracted myself by explaining to an imaginary group of students the origin of the phrase "it is a feature, not a bug." I gave as an illustrative example the Trump administration's deliberate policy of separating little children from their parents at the border, explaining that the pain-and-suffering this action caused was not an unfortunate side effect of the policy but was in fact intended as a disincentive to migrants – it was thus a feature of the policy, not a bug. Having explained the phrase, I  went on to use it in order to explain the large and growing inequality of income and wealth that characterizes capitalist economies. The unequal accumulation of wealth is the central point of capitalism, it is its reason for being, it is thus a feature of capitalism, not a bug.

All of this is obvious and old hat – or perhaps weak tea - but it was comforting to give a little lecture in my head as a way of enabling me to drift off to sleep, rather like telling old familiar fairytales to a restless child.


Anonymous said...

Arendt used to write, that the SS camps had also a "feature" which was not entirely accidental; they were put in place not only for their immediate, ostensible purpose; but crucially to train the SS man to be hard and efficient, to prepare him for his anticipated future, substantial role. The camps were there to develop a "new" kind of man; tempered by what he was forced to do; so he would be well-capable when the war was over, when he was then to be among the police and administrative overseers of the slave empire in the east.

jeffrey g kessen said...

Other countries seem to have figured out a more enlightened, more prudent, form of capitalism. Nothing wrong with a reasoned measure of regulatory over-sight of free-market practice. The rich ever aspire to get richer, so much is true, and nothing really inherently wrong with that. Just a bit of check on their more craven tendencies is what's wanted. Yeah, this is dreary old weak tea, but the only thing I'm capable of storming these days is my wine cellar. Still can't find that god-damn bottle of Chateau '56.

Anonymous said...

Professor Wolff, I've never commented on your blog before despite having read it for years. I believe you said you are getting the vaccine soon. If so, I think this is worth bringing to your attention.

Marinus said...

The origin of the phrase "it's a feature, not a bug" is much older than that. It comes at least from the 1990s, when the computer game Quake 2 came out. The first Quake game (which was revolutionary for having fully 3D environments and characters) allowed players to have coloured text in their names on-screen, which many players used for a bit of visual flair. Quake 2 didn't. When players contacted the publisher and developer to find out how to enable coloured text, they were told that the choice was deliberate, which many players found confusing and dispiriting. In one of those conversations something was said by a company representative which was paraphrased on an online message board as the lack of coloured text not being a big, but a feature. Quake had a large enough fan base (it was the most significant video game of it's time) that this ironic description of a removal of a feature in its sequel spread among enough people to establish the phrase.

The way language works, there may well be an earlier origin of the phrase, and the Quake episode may just have been something that gave it wider prominence.

Anonymous said...

The phrase "it's a feature, not a bug" comes from the software world and predates any specific game or software package. It refers to the practice of filing bugs and features requests for existing software. Such logs or collections then became the initial priorities for software maintenance (bugs) and software development (features). Bugs and features got their own scales of severity or desirability. Soon it became a jest to claim a bug as a feature to avoid blame. Most modern software maintenance and development tools have commands named after "bug", "feature", and "blame".

Cessero said...

Anonymy, anonymy
I so often wonder why
You don’t show your real name.
We can’t credit you - a shame!
Your say open attribution
Will result in persecution:
“They”’ll come after you tomorrow
Bringing with them grief and horror.

Would it put at risk your spouse
Or your kids, Anony-Mouse,
Were you to be venturesome
(would it shake your dentures some)
Would your rep go down the donicker
If you choose a clever moniker.
It’s up to you to clear the fog:
A nom de plume just for this blog!

Eric said...

@JeffreyGKessen: "Nothing wrong with a reasoned measure of regulatory over-sight of free-market practice. The rich ever aspire to get richer, so much is true, and nothing really inherently wrong with that."

Well, whether there's anything wrong with that really depends on what your goals are, and where you and your loved ones fit in the free-market pecking order, doesn't it? If the gently-regulated free-market response to climate change is anything like what the gently-regulated free-market response has been to COVID-19—I shudder at the thought.

Anonymous said...

A common refrain on the activist Left is that "the system's not broken. It's working exactly as it's supposed to."

Danny said...

'..rather like telling old familiar fairytales to a restless child.'


Danny said...

The sloppiness of Neil Young and Crazy Horse -- it's a feature, not a bug. Marijuana-induced memory loss, etc. The apocalypse, etc.

Danny said...

I think of something like this 'zero tolerance' border policy as being simply bungled. Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. Leadership failed to prepare to implement the policy or manage the fallout. Thus, for example, department leaders underestimated how difficult it would be to carry out the policy in the field and did not inform local prosecutors and others that children would be separated. They also failed to understand that children would be separated longer than a few hours. So okay, that was discovered. So okay, they pressed on. It's not difficulty to picture how Jeff Sessions, for example, wrongly believed that arrests at the border would not result in prolonged separation, and maybe ignored the difficulty in reuniting families. Top leaders were focused solely on increased illegal activity and didn’t seek information.

The idea that the whole point was inflict trauma on immigrant parents and children, has the virtue of being scathing. Maybe so -- the whole point was family separations. The idea, though, that Trump administration officials knew, just seems to blithely stipulate that these jokers ever know anything. It's government, if you believe in government then you blame somebody, I guess, when government predictably bungles everything.

Eric said...


"Miller saw the separation of families not as an unfortunate byproduct but as a tool to deter more immigration. According to three former officials, he had devised plans that would have separated even more children. Miller, with the support of Sessions, advocated for separating all immigrant families....

At the meeting, Miller accused anyone opposing zero tolerance of being a lawbreaker and un-American, according to the two officials present....

No one in the meeting made the case that separating families would be inhumane or immoral, the officials said. Any moral argument about immigration 'fell on deaf ears' inside the White House, one of the officials said."

May the Biden supporters on their high horses recall that while the Obama administration did not design a whole immigration policy around child separation as a deterrent to keep poor brown people out of the country, they did build many of the cages that the Trump admin used and, according to critics:

"The Democratic Party, at its highest levels, endorsed the strategy of using harsh consequences at the border to deter others. Confronted by Andrew R. Free, a US immigration lawyer, about how border detentions might stain his legacy, Obama stressed that it was important to deter and deport border crossers."

Obama administration officials, including former Sec of State Clinton herself, spoke of needing to send a clear message to deter immigrants from seeking to cross the border. Of course, the Obama admin spun this as their only being concerned about the welfare of the border crossers, not US domestic politics.

Robert Lovato writes:
"Obama did not, in fact, have a policy of separating children, but he did have the practice of separating thousands of children from their parents—5,100 in 2011 alone, according to a comprehensive report on refugee child separation practices of the Obama Administration by Race Forward. Again, the focus on Trump formalizing as policy catastrophes and immoral acts that Obama quietly practiced leaves out the painful truths of the many immigrant mothers and children I’ve interviewed. "