A Wicked Problem

Wicked problems defy formulation and resolution.  They involve conflicting values, concerns, and perceptions that lead to conflicts, strong positions, and perhaps even hatred of the “others” who have opposing views.

We are faced with roughly 50% of the country being in fundamental conflict with the other 50% of the country.  Actually, Biden-Harris won 51.3% of the vote while Trump-Pence won 48.7%, but that’s pretty close to 50-50.

The Biden-Harris constituency includes a majority of women, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.  Trump-Pence won white men in general and non-college educated white men in particular.  The majority of white voters chose Trump-Pence in 2016 and 2020.

White voters want the country to remain a white majority country, but the demographics of native births and immigration are steadily moving in the other direction.  Another force is the increasingly educated urban – and suburban – population that supported Biden.

It is tempting to label the Trump portion of the population white supremacists.  This is reasonable in part, but not in general.  Many people are simply disaffected with where the country seems to be headed.  They feel left behind and losing out.

They are right!  Traditional blue-collar jobs will increasingly be automated, ranging from agriculture to mining to truck driving.  Yet, the many projections I have reviewed include a greater number of new jobs than lost jobs.  Who will fill these jobs?

People with the right technical skills will secure these opportunities.  We need to invest in the capacities to educate and train people for these jobs.  Here are some stepping stones.  First, the high school graduation rate in the US should be 100%.  This may require reconceptualizing high school for some, but that is sorely needed.

Second, the percent of students receiving advanced education and training after high school should be 100%.  Elsewhere, I have argued that this will require tripling the capacities of community colleges, and tailoring curricula to opportunities.  We need the skilled technical workforce to include everyone.

Third, people should expect and experience rewarding and well-compensated employment that leverages their hard-earned expertise to create and service leading-edge products and services.  Everyone needs to feel that they are creating value for themselves, their families, and society.

Fourth, and likely quite controversial, people need to elevate their aspirations.  When I read Amy Goldstein’s compelling book Janesville: An American Story (Simon & Schuster, 2017), I was struck by vignettes reporting four generations working at the GM plant, all hating their jobs, but enjoying the good pay that enabled buying off-road vehicles and speed boats for nearby lakes.  Is that the best deal available?

We need a healthy, educated, and productive population that is competitive in the global marketplace.  We need this population to be inventive and enable innovations that change he marketplace.  Past generations gave us electricity, indoor plumbing, and television.  Recent generations provided cell phones, the Internet, and social media.  We need the current generation to do their part.

So, why is our current problem wicked?  It is if we are trapped by our fundamental disconnects – white versus multi-racial; rural versus urban; poorly versus highly educated.  However, these distinctions may be diminished if we focus on what everybody wants.  I would expect that we could agree on wanting a healthy, educated, and productive population that is competitive in the global marketplace.  Everyone benefits from this and, together, we can make this happen.

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