Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"Houston, We [Have] a Problem"

The actual quote is "Houston, We've Had a Problem" but stay with me.

I've been thinking about problems. Probably because I've had enough time to read political sites, pay attention to what was said during the campaigns (and mostly not said, but I'm ahead of myself), and consider the real issues facing contemporary society.

What I've noticed is that nobody is really talking about the problems we face. Instead, there are countless examples of specifics of solutions that then get tossed around as dividing points between parties, candidates, and cable new networks.

  • Want to argue about immigration issues? We talk about border security, going after employers, empowering police in Arizona to confirm individual status, and exploring the costs of the deportation of 12 million people.  
  • Want to talk about the economy? We talk about tax levels, outsourcing, labor unions, extended unemployment benefits, and infrastructure investment.
  • Want to deal with education? We talk about state funding, local control of textbooks, teacher's unions, testing to standards, and parental influence.
  • What about the war in Afghanistan? Should we increase drone attacks across the border, negotiate with the Taliban, have a fixed date to start withdrawal, or unconditionally support the Karzai government?

In all of these, and countless others, we don't talk about the nature of the problem we're trying to fix. Admittedly, sometimes that's not possible -- military action in Afghanistan may have been necessary without the time to properly analyze it, but somewhere in the last decade it might have been helpful.

But if graduate school taught me anything, it was the importance of properly defining the problem if one is to successfully analyze it. In fact, the world is full of insurance agents who never finished their dissertation because the research tproblem was too vague.

I think the heart of our challenges as a society rest in our inability or unwillingness to explore these problem definitions. If Republicans and Democrats, progressive and libertarians, tea partiers and career politicians, journalists and small business leaders, retirees and twenty-somethings, city dwellers and farmers, could sit down and say, "What are we concerned about?", amazing things may happen. At the very least, simple campaign slogans might be less palatable.

Take Social Security as an example. The program as originally designed was to support the needs of the orphans and widows (a Biblical imperative). There were real folks who were hurting. One may argue that churches, charities, and neighbors might have dealt with it, but in the midst of the depression they couldn't. Over time, it became a means of guaranteed income regardless of your situation (which is why it's called an Entitlement). But before we talk about Social Security as a Ponzi scheme (according to Governor Perry of Texas), or being "your money," we need to talk about what it is we want it to do. Surely we could agree that we need to care for the poor and needy in our midst. Forget "lock boxes" or "privatization". How do we come together for the social net we require as a society? (I'm assuming most of us aren't in favor of starving grandmas.)

What about the Housing Bubble, the Finance Industry, and Foreclosures? A rational conversation would begin to focus on how to align affordable housing, reasonable mortgage rates, proper loan evaluation, appropriate risk management for lenders, and planned development for cities. We got into this situation by NOT having this conversation. Instead, we based an economy on expanding demand (and creating it), massive construction employment, the financial benefit of making easy loans (both initial loans and equity loans), the game-playing of refinancing, the creative financial instruments of derivatives and "collateralized debt obligations", and robo-signers on foreclosure documents. It's only a focus on the solutions and not the problem that allows critique of "those who bought more house than they could afford" or "greedy bankers". Our failure to think through what we were trying to do allows us to pretend that we have no options.

I could do more but you get the idea. The general point is that there are issues we're trying to deal with as a society simply by sloganeering and occasionally passing legislation (if we can get a majority) that takes a stab at the amorphous blob that is the problem. And since we didn't define the problem, we have no real way to discuss the potential solutions without all the name-calling.

The Health Care "Debate" is the horrible but real example: how do we define minimally appropriate care for our citizens at a level that is affordable for the society? What does that look like? Is it in our interest to see folks healthy? These are important conversations that don't deal with "public options," "death panels," "mandates," or "massive government takeovers."

But we're not having them. I'm ready for coffee with anybody from any political persuasion who's ready to help define a problem. When do we start?


  1. Thanks so much John for sharing.
    In the pendulum-swing of ideas it looks like we are going into some kind of dark age, but wait! This blog is contradicting me!
    Is a new enlightment era in our way? Peace!

  2. Get tossed around as dividing points between parties, candidates, and cable new networks.thehoustonforum