08/04/2011 12:37 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2011

It's Time to Get Serious About Getting Serious

It's time to get serious about getting serious. It's time that we stop looking for easy answers to complex problems. It doesn't matter if America's current public thought processes are new and a result of exposure to television sound bites, short emails, and shorter Tweets. It doesn't matter if they are an older outgrowth of historical American anti-intellectualism, or have their roots in Jacksonian populism or the Scottish Enlightenment. Simplified thought processes are not going to work. We need experts, or at least expertise, not popularity polls on Digg, and Facebook.
America is facing some of the most complex economic, military, and political challenges it has faced in my lifetime.

  • America needs to deal with the changing nature of its position in a global economy where the European market is larger, and the Chinese market is growing more quickly. It needs to fix its own aging infrastructure, it needs to ensure that its educational system continues to provide the best trained and most motivated workers on the planet. Or it needs to get used to third world standards of living.
  • America needs to deal with a world in which the strongest nations cannot use their full military might, and the weaker nations can deploy weapons roughly on a par with those that the strongest nations can actually use. This is not asymmetric warfare, since colonial warfare has always been asymmetric. Without this asymmetry how else could Britain have almost effortlessly occupied India, or the French almost effortlessly have occupied Algeria? This is asymmetric constraint warfare, and the dominant powers have never been less dominant, relatively speaking.
  • America needs to deal with political processes that have made America almost ungovernable. At a time when 1% of Americans have more wealth than the bottom 90% combined, we need to decide if our political processes really can be brought to a halt by the mere prospect of the mere discussion of tax increases for hedge fund managers, and when defaulting on the national debt looked to many of our politicians as a more attractive option than discussion or compromise.

I am not proposing any answers. I am merely proposing that the search for effective answers will require that we stop looking for easy answers in television sound bites, in political slogans, or even worse, in tweets.

Regrettably, wrong analysis is terse and easy to remember, and is often so intuitive that it resonates with listeners in a hurry. Regrettably, correct analysis is usually lengthy, and complex, and is often counter-intuitive.

Statement: The theory of evolution is merely a theory. We don't know. We can't know.

Short Counter: The Theory of Evolution via Natural Selection was merely a theory when Darwin proposed it. So was the Theory of Gravitational Attraction when Newton first proposed it. Evolution is no more merely than Gravity. People who disbelieve one should disbelieve both and try throwing themselves out a third story window. But if you disbelieve evolution you are going to have serious problems with insect populations growing resistant to mis-used pesticides, with bacterial infections growing resistant to mis-used antibiotics, and with a host of other biological phenomena.

Longer Counter: The Theory of Evolution via Natural Selection is no longer merely a theory. It is supported by a fossil record that demonstrates every multi-celled life form on earth is descendent from one that was present by the end of the Cambrian explosion half a billion years ago. It is supported by the more recent DNA record, which shows clear patterns of descent among existing life forms. It is supported by chemical analyses, which show how the invisible chemical processes of life forms show patterns of descent that mirror the patterns of their physical evolution. It is supported by observation, as when 19th century moths in Aberdeen and London evolved from gray to black, to provide better camouflage from predatory birds as coal smoke darkened the walls of city buildings. Nations that refuse to believe evolution are going to make poor public policy decisions concerning the use of pesticides and antibiotics. They are also going to distrust science, and will probably be at a disadvantage in the economic competition that America and all nations are going to face in a range of high tech industries.

The national debt is mortgaging our children's future. Families eventually have to pay off their debts, and so do countries. We need to pay off the national debt now, for our children's sake.

Short counter: Well, no, not exactly. Most countries never really fully pay down their national debts, though they do reduce extraordinarily high debts that were created as a result of military or economic crises. The problem with a debt does not come in some future time, when a nation's children pay it down. The problem with a debt occurs immediately, when it represents a wealth transfer between taxpayers to investors; historically the interest payments on bonds represented payments made by some us, not by our children, to those among us wealthy enough to own bonds. Now the problem is worse, because it represents payments by us, not our children, to bond owners overseas. It is as if we are taxing ourselves to pay the Chinese government.

Longer counter: Everything above should be included in the longer counter, of course. The national debt is creating wealth transfers overseas, and should be controlled. But controlling it requires complex thought. Not all borrowing is bad. My college loans were the best investments my family and I ever made, in real percentage terms. More significantly, America was the world's largest debtor in the late 19th century, with massive amounts of European capital pouring in to fund the explosion of growth in American public infrastructure (railroads, telegraph and telephone) and private companies in heavy industry (steel, oil). It's not the debt that's bad, but what the money is spent on. If my parents and I had borrowed the amount we did for my college education, but spent it on vacations, home electronics, or other forms of recreation, I would probably still be paying finance charges. And sometimes the mere process of cutting spending itself is a bad idea. What causes a recession, or what turns a recession into a depression, is the well-known multiplier effect. If we stop spending on housing or cars or computers, then the companies that make these things stop paying their workers, who also stop spending, reducing consumption further, reducing spending further. When companies stop hiring and stop growing they also stop investing in the means of production; this causes the companies that made the products they bought to reduce their employment, which will itself be subject to a multiplier effect. When consumers lose confidence in their economy they save instead of spend. Sometimes the only one willing to spend in a recession, and the only one able to get us out of a recession, is the government. Sometimes the worst thing to do during a recession is reduce government spending.

Note the pattern. A short sound bite is followed by a short counter, still longer and more complete, but still a sound bite. Finally, there is a more completely reasoned rebuttal, long enough to address the issue but certainly too long to be offered in casual conversation.
It is not my intention here to pick on the arguments of the left or the right. During the Nixon era, when the left was out of power, the arguments of the left were equally terse, equally resonant, and equally incomplete.

My intention here is rather to suggest that as we face complicated decisions we think through our options. We do not want to leave our children with a damaged economy, with weakened infrastructure, with a weakened military, or with a thoroughly dysfunctional political system incapable of making the necessary decisions and taking the correct actions.

Short comments attacking me and my arguments is, of course, inevitable after a post like this one. Can I suggest that we try something else as well. How about seeing how many very short posts we can generate in which we offer short statements on almost anything, and see how many well reasoned counters we can generate as well?

Let me start with a few:

Google is too powerful and needs to be regulated.

Google is my friend, a company that provides vast amounts of public service with little or no public expense.

The rich should pay their fair share to run and operate America.

Taxing the rich, and taxing small businesses, will destroy jobs.

President Obama's health care reform would have resulted in socialized medicine, destroyed private health insurance, and resulted in the rationing of care through government Death Boards.

The Affordable Care Act of 2010 would have paid for itself out of efficiency gains, including the benefits of early and rational provision of medical care.