There is an independent Ford mechanic who has a YouTube channel called FordTechMakuloco. A couple of months ago, he told the story of a tail light on a 2018 F-150 Limited that cost $5,600 to repair. How could this happen? Here is the thing about tail-light housings: Moisture gets in past the gasket on the lens. It just does. This, in turn, causes corrosion, and eventually, the tail light stops working. In a sane world, what you would then do is clean the contacts (or replace them), put in a new bulb, replace the gasket on the tail light lens, and go on your way. Or maybe the lens itself is cracked, and you have to replace it as well. Maybe the wiring leading up to the contacts is also corroded, so you cut it out and splice in a few inches of new wire. Worst-case scenario, you might be down a few hundred bucks.

That isn’t the world we live in. On this particular luxury pickup truck, moisture in the tail light caused the usual corrosion, making resistance on the circuit go out of range. This circuit is in communication with many other circuits, so electrical gremlins propagated (probably reading as ground faults), and eventually, the truck was completely dead. At this stage, identifying the root cause of the breakdown was no trivial task. But most of the $5,600 charge for getting the truck running was for parts confined to the tail-light housing, not the diagnostic and parts-swapping labor. Commenting on this case, another YouTube mechanic named Uncle Tony points out that salvage yards are full of recent-model cars that are in great shape—mechanically sound and rust-free, with good interiors and good paint—but underwater on repair costs due to electronic complexity.

“As systems become more complex, they become brittle.”

As systems become more complex, they become brittle. In a recent Substack post, the writer N.S. Lyons explains: “The potential for even a single point of failure to ignite a catastrophic failure cascade grows more and more acute.” One world-historic example of this phenomenon, cited by Lyons, was the complete failure of Israel’s billion-dollar, high-tech border wall to prevent Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack. The Jewish state’s vulnerability to low-tech threats might be likened to the F-150’s vulnerability to rain. Lyons goes on to suggest that the same logic applies to an over-complex system such as the American empire. Perhaps complexity also helps account for the dysfunction we see in institutions, both public and private, in which layers of management intervene between any goal and its realization.