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Frank A. Weil

Frank A. Weil

Posted: March 16, 2011 04:53 PM

Time to Scale Back


The noise in the world all around us is rising and gives the feeling that a crescendo cannot be far off. And, that noise is coming from all quarters.

  • North Africa and the Middle East have shaken their moorings and who knows where those ships will fetch up?
  • The situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan give off the stench of a fetid swamp capable of swallowing us whole.
  • The budget challenges here at home hang by a thread over the deep chasm of the debt ceiling.
  • The States of the United States and many of their cities are experiencing wrenching debt and public service challenges.
  • Our rate of unemployment remains at a politically unsustainable level following the systemic collapse of runaway housing starts and auto sales in the past 3 years.
  • The global value of our dollar is wobbling and in peril of all of the above.
  • And our Chinese "friends" cling to their domestic goals, including looking the other way at Iranian and Pakistani nuclear threats, at a time when prudence and wisdom suggest rationally that they should be taking a more global view of their and our situations.


Indeed we have survived, in fact thrived, over the last 200 plus years when faced with an array of problems that often no doubt looked as daunting as today's collection summarized above.

But there are a couple of important differences to pause and reflect on. It is clear from today's perspective that there was a lot more margin of error for most of that 200 years than there is today and that we were at the end of those days then masters of our destiny when we pulled up our socks and attacked those challenges.

Today as we look into the future of our multiple challenges it is increasingly difficult to see anything but black holes.

So what does "dialing down" have to do with any of this mess of troubles?

For those who are not old enough to remember what a telegraph key looked like, or how it worked, imagine the following:

An armature which moves up and down to click against the base to send its signal of long and short dots and dashes (hard to conceive all that has been replaced by the internet?) On the top of the armature are thumbscrews which regulate the width of the gap which manages the sound of the signals generated by closing the gap. When the gap is narrow - with the thumbscrews down tight - the sound is reduced. When the gap is wide open - with the thumbscrews fully open - the sound is louder.

One hundred years ago when telegraphy was the main means of global communication there were many rooms everywhere which housed dozens of telegraph keys and operators. When all those keys were going full blast, with the thumbscrews all the way open, the cacophony of sound made it hard to hear clearly any one telegraph key vs its neighbors. In order to better enable each operator to hear/use his/her key - frequently twice a day - the supervisor of telegraph rooms would yell out "Turn down your thumbscrews!" The operators all cooperated because it helped them individually and collectively do their job better. And, then the escalation would begin again.

The relevance of the thumbscrew analogy is that we have yet to find equivalent tools in modern society to dial back to a dull roar many of the noisy challenges that our "operators" are dealing with every day.

A wave of excess broke over the last three years in housing starts, cars produced and bad mortgage loans, etc. But we have not yet figured out how to intelligently dial back coming waves of excess in public employees' retirement, nationwide health benefits, municipal expenditures and debts, Federal budget excesses and our global commitments, both economic and military.

Perhaps we need to look for 21st century equivalents of thumbscrews to be used regularly to keep the noisy challenges we deal with in check so we can at least hear each other talk in civil voices.

One overly simple but illustrative idea, which could help, would be to append to all appropriations a standard mechanism which would allow a minority of any relevant appropriating committee to call for a hearing to review the circumstances of that appropriation, thus putting abusers on notice that they could be at risk of exposure. Remember Brandeis said sunlight is the best disinfectant on earth! But, to avoid random fickleness, it would still take a majority of that committee to revise that particular appropriation. Nevertheless, the likelihood of public review can be a powerful warning to users of such support and, when and if things became excessive, tend to cause them to dial back their use to more normal, sustainable levels. While this idea obviously cannot cause all types of problems to dial back, it may be suggestive of other similar ways to attack other problems.

Perhaps we are destined to watch the waves of societies' activities build and finally crash as they come ashore. And, maybe the idea of dialing back is as nutty as King Canute of Denmark sitting on the beach and trying to will the tides from rising. But, if we continue to passively accept that status quo, we do not have much of a chance to solve our mess of serious problems.