A Complex Society

Recent challenges suggest that the complexity of society in the US has become increasingly difficult to understand and manage.  We seem to have great trouble agreeing on anything.  Consequently, we do not act to quickly understand what is happening and competently develop and execute compelling courses of action.  Let’s explore the sources of the impasse.

To begin, consider three substantial challenges that are currently threatening us, or lurking in the wings.  The current pandemic is an obvious major challenge, with more viruses on the way. Without thoughtful leadership, the various players have pretty much “done their own things,” currently with unfortunate consequences.

The next challenge will be the impacts of climate change.  See my recent post on “There’s no vaccine for the sea level rising” (blog.oup.com).  We are ill prepared for the pending consequences. There are some who deny this threat and others who argue that mitigation of this threat will undermine the economy.

Third, we have the challenge of seriously pursuing social and economic equality.  Massive investments in health, education, and social services will be needed to substantively level the playing field for all citizens.  These investments will have to be sustained for a long time, although as my recent post on this topic outlined, the returns on these investments will be substantial.

Various characteristics of the US society make it very difficult to pursue these major, long-term challenges.  One of these characteristics is our market-driven economy.  Entrepreneurs should solve all problems by creating a variety of solutions, from which consumers can choose winners.  This approach does not work very well for major societal challenges.

Another characteristic is the emphasis on states rights.  Each state can determine its own approach to these challenges.  This typically results in a lack of shared approaches and solutions.  It can also result in a state doing nothing, which can lead to citizens of that state infecting citizens of another state that did adopt a thoughtful and proactive approach to the challenge.

A third characteristic is what is termed a “Tragedy of the Commons.”   The basic idea is that everyone exploits a shared resource – the commons — for personal benefit rather than making sure that everyone benefits.  A related characteristic is individualism which prompts people to focus on “Me and my own.”

A fifth characteristic is tribalism.  This is particularly virulent now, and greatly exacerbated by social media.  The central theme is “Us against them.”  Anyone who is not like me is my enemy.  This stance provides an extremely poor basis for creating shared solutions that serve everyone’s interests.  In fact, one tribe may advocate a solution that does not meet its needs but assures that a rival tribe suffers more.

What kinds of solutions does a society with the above characteristics create for the above types of challenges?

The system of healthcare delivery in the US is highly fragmented.  It is a federation of millions of entrepreneurs with no one in charge.  Responsibility for the health of the US population is limited to a wide range of providers of individual services focused on particular morbidities and procedures.   People pay for each service separately, often encountering and having to negotiate provider-payer tensions.  A further complication is pharmaceutical pricing practices, which often makes drugs and devices unaffordable for many people.  The market-driven economy delivers very expensive services that result in poor outcomes relative to other OECD countries.

K-12 education in the US involves local control over content and delivery.  For example, local communities can decide to teach “creation science” instead of evolution. The quality of K-12 education depends on the wealth of the school district in terms of the tax base that typically funds education.  The result is that many students are very poorly prepared for college.  Colleges have to provide remedial courses for these students, which increase the costs of college.  National achievement tests could ameliorate this if schools would provide the education needed to pass these tests, but compliance would be local decisions.

The national security ecosystem in the US is composed of many agencies, e.g., DoD, DHS, CIA, NSA, FBI, etc.  These agencies often have conflicting agendas, for example, the Air Force wants more airplanes and the Navy wants more ships.  Information is often not shared across agencies.  Congress, which funds these agencies, is usually focused on near-term budgets and annual appropriations.  Congress also provides pressure to create and sustain weapon system production and other government jobs.  Every Member of Congress wants to deliver federal monies to their District or State.   Costs are inevitably increased by the ways in which budgets are sliced and diced.

The fragmentation portrayed for these three domains leads to complexity far beyond what is inherently necessary.  How might this fragmentation be remediated?  First of all, we need to understand the essential phenomena and relationships among phenomena underlying these domains.  We need to map the processes – the “physics” – of these domains.

Second, we need to understand how interventions – policies, regulations, and investments — propagate among phenomena.  Do policies, for example, motivate or hinder investment decisions by healthcare providers?  Do regulations positively or negatively influence decisions by school districts?  What interventions might increases investments by aerospace and defense companies?

Third, these types of understanding should enable portraying costs and benefits of interventions over time.  Short-term benefits may be very clear, but long-term benefits may be much more compelling – assuming people pay attention to the long term.  For example, investing in the education and health of children yields enormous returns on investment – see my July 1st post.  However, government often sees these expenditures as costs rather than investments.

Fourth, we need to communicate value propositions to all key stakeholders.  This requires an electorate that understands such lines of reasoning, as well as creativity in how best to communicate them.  We should think in terms of compelling evidence-based stories rather than academic lectures.  Stories focused on individuals and their successes will likely work better than statistics.

What is in the way of doing the above four things?  What are the barriers to success?  The short-term orientation of government is a pervasive barrier to investing in the long term.  If investments in the future require reallocation of short-term expenditures, there are numerous carefully guarded “rice bowls” in the way.

Distrust of expertise and impatience with analysis play major roles.  “Not invented here” rears it head when investments cross agencies and state jurisdictions. In a recent health-related project, a state executive asserted, “The people in Montana have nothing in common with the people in Mississippi.”  I asked, “Not even biologically?” and was ignored.

Social media could provide a means to communicate the process and outcomes of the approach outlined above. However, social media actually tends to be problematic.  There are far too many ill-informed opinions and outright false information circulating throughout social media.  Most people used to rely on trusted sources for important information, but trust is currently in short supply.

At some level, the whole situation seems insurmountable. Key stakeholders are, in effect, advocating destruction of the country to assure the next quarter’s bonuses and dividend checks – or the upcoming elections. People will not let pandemics, sea level rise, and racial conflicts challenge money in their pockets right now.

I think we need to develop a new story.  Moving beyond fragmentation and addressing the three example challenges could present enormous new economic opportunities, with many new high-paying jobs.  There would also be investments in education for these new jobs.  We can frame the need to recover from the pandemic as an opportunity to redesign ourselves.  Of great importance, the new story needs to emphasize “we” rather than “us versus them.”

Here are some key messages that might be considered:

  • Everyone can prosper regardless of race, gender, religion or sexual preferences
  • Investments will be made to assure this; education and training will be universally available
  • No one will be left behind; everyone will have the same opportunities available
  • Commitment and hard work will still matter; no one is entitled to investments in their success without effort
  • The playing field will be level, and the best ideas will prevail; everyone will benefit from the consequent competitive advantages

How can we afford to deliver on the promises embodied in these messages?  A detailed analysis in my July 1st post addresses this question.

The above intentions may seem quite reasonable and possibly affordable. However, there are significant limits on how predictably we can influence the complex ecosystem of society.  We may be able to predict how the average citizen will respond, but we cannot predict how each individual will respond, both to the above messages and to each other.

We also cannot predict what other messages — often contradictory messages — might be communicated, accepted, and recommunicated repeatedly.  It is crucial that we have leadership, at all levels, committed to get us all on the same page, singing the same song.  Our current inabilities to address the challenges discussed earlier could be our complete undoing unless we align our intentions and energies in making the needed changes.

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