Thursday, February 21, 2013

Why we are Failing

The question of societal failure, believe it or not, was a topic of my ranting at one point. This rant was mostly aimed at some kindred folk at MIT while we were eating pizza (that tasted like delicious) and I asked them why it was that so much attention and effort from so many smart people (dealing with gamma rays and the like) was being focused on a lot of things like Iphone apps and social media, and delving further into the digital age rather then dealing with issues like water scarcity or climate change.

It then turned out there was an On Point piece with Tom Ashbrook about this similar topic. The question was, whether as a society we were capable of solving the big challenges that maybe we once were. The big comparison was  putting a man on the Moon in the 60's during the Apollo Mission... would we  be able to do something on a similar scale today?

When NPR's most wiley journalist (Tommy A. of course) and my self are on the same page, you know somethings real wicked in the water and I get the chance to wallow in feelings of vindication!

Tom Ashbrook at the WBUR Gala Oct. 15, 2012. (Mary Flatley for Liz Linder Photography)Mary Flatley for Liz Linder Photography
This cat can ball!
As follows, I'd love to discuss some of the reasons, I believe (believe cause I stole the beliefs... you know... from other people) that we might be less capable of solving some of the global challenges of  our age today, then other generations in the past. Many more capable peoples have similar pieces to this, but at least mine will be guaranteed to have poorer punctuation.

I'd point out that much of what we accomplish today compared to what we used to  accomplish is fairly useless. The development of social media and our dive into the "digital age" are neat but often don't help us deal with our unmet needs (mind you sometimes they  do!). Sure  we can develop "angry birds" and "farmville", of course the sub-prime mortgage that was developed was great for everyone. But hear me out...

Just Destroying Everything we Hold Dear

No time on a digital device will:

  • Directly provide us the food we eat or allow us to eat.
  • Directly provide us with shelter.
  • Or provide clean water. 
  • Allow you to have a real physical connection with someone (unless there is google touch).
It's not reality and it's the world of reality, the real reality, that one needs to address in our day of age so wrought with issues. Until we transport our consciousness  inside "the Machine" as some say we should be hoping for, we need to deal with the big challenges that exist in the same realm as we do.

What our government has evolved into has disallowed us to deal with a lot of large issues. First off, let me state off by saying I don't think I'm a communist and do believe in the nature of the free market as the major driver of our economic growth. That being said, government that works well has allowed us to direct our efforts into accomplishing things  way larger  than we could on our own. Whether it be the Marshall Plan, curing Small Pox, Ensuring Civil Liberties for minorities, investing in huge and new forms of energy such as Hydroelectric dams or creating our interstate highways system. Our government has been this catalyst and tool to progress and invest in our nation.

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein is Pumped about Solving Societies Big Problems 

As we now have a government that is riddled with special interest groups and infused  with a vocal vocal minority of officials who in many ways want to destroy it, this major tool has lost much of it's efficacy. The free market can and does accomplish a lot.  However, so much of what needs to be accomplished isn't always financially feasible. Instead, we get so many billions of dollars spent on industries that provide goods that are instantaneously gratifying but are not beneficial to our populace. Government, when done well has been a major tool for us to solve big problems, but when so many people want to gut it in the name of lower taxes and their is an utter lack of participation, this tool becomes fickle.

The fact that we under fund our government, largely in the name of by allowing many of the wealthiest citizens to maintain much larger sums of their wealth, has done much to erode the infrastructure that allows for the foundations needed to have a strong economy and solve our large problems. Obama mentions some of this in his State of the Union address, but if our roads, bridges, utilities, basic research, Public transportation and educational systems are  not invested in, what do expect to be able to do to have a better functioning society, economy and populace?

He's Ready to Solve Big Problems with His Hoarded Wealth

Some of these global challenges might make worthy targets to solve via free enterprise, but many of our catastrophic problems; like stalling climate change or having access to fresh water, like ensuring that we do much better then having 1 out of 6 American children grow up in poverty or 925 million people in the world facing food shortages, or ensuring that we have space to live and that the Earth is able to maintain it's integrity as a habitable body and ensuring a more equitable world that is able to sustain progress, have yet to be solved by the free market, as they are just not ways that an organization can work to generate the short term profits that they need to justify their efforts.

One can Doubt that The Free Market can Stop These Horsemen
The changes in our generation in the times that they inhabit also has an effect on what we're  able to accomplish. I and many others would argue that  some of our sociability has declined in our world today. We spend less time directly in contact  with other people. I would gander that there is less time where large groups of people are physically associated together compared to earlier  times, and I believe this is due to  so much of our time  being spent in a more isolated state due to the influx of technology. We can connect with others, but often these others we connect with are not in places we can physically see them. We might be able to associate with others on reddit and tumblr, and share an interest, but you can't touch these folks and much is lost in the digital association. This in itself is more then enough of a barrier to allows us to mobilize in some form of collective action to address a big problem as it's just hard enough to get enough of us in one place now.

For many reasons, elaborated on below, I think the world is more tolerant of shameful behavior and doesn't value the need to behave honorably. The financial / housing crisis might be an indicator. We're more willing to do the wrong thing to make a  buck. One big reason for this is just the complexity and inter-connectivity of our  whole world. Vested powers can screw over people they don't see. They won't have  to face these people and see the repercussion of their actions.

If lots of other  people do crappy things, or choose to do the right thing,  we can always feel that it won't matter that much if we do the right thing. If enough people taint the collective good, then really why do the right thing? If we want to deal with climate change, it's so hard to do so  if you know that your changed behavior will matter very little unless millions of other people change their behavior is well. The tragedy of the commons is more then in full effect in our very global and often unfettered economy where certain sectors can very rapidly profit and be rewarded for often crappy behavior.

There  is also the common argument that growing up in such a digitally wired world full of texting and tweets cause us to have short attention spans! RAA! Try to see me read Faulkner, it wouldn't work!

Yippy Kay Yay Motherfucker!

Through the destruction of much of our government's capacity to function successfully, through changes  in our generation that affect our behavior as it is now and through the forces that are currently in play that influence our behavior, we have many strong obstacles in place to solve large but important challenges and more so then previous generations.

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