Everything is Connected

I promise I’ll be writing some pieces on something other than politics and economics, but my interests and the cultural conversation cannot be sidestepped. So, here we go…

As the purveyors of folk wisdom tell us, everyone knows how to raise their neighbor’s kids. It’s easy. The irony, of course, is how miserably everyone does at raising their own. From the outside looking in, any problem seems simple. If we fiddle with A and get rid of B, everything should be set to rights. But on the inside, it’s much more complicated. A and B, it turns out, are part of some irreducibly complex, chaotic web of algebraic functions and symbols that would make Mandelbrot curl up into a fetal ball and cry. The truth about childrearing is that everything is connected. When you take your neighbors’ children out of the sterile context of your backyard and place them into the mess of life, with all the failures of communication, bad days at work, and emotional investments of real life… how the mighty inevitably fall.

This same issue consistently encroaches upon our social discussions. In small-town Nebraska, I grew up with what I lovingly call “diner policy.” If you walked into the local diner around mid-morning, you’d find a group of leather-skinned old farmers sitting around drinking cheap coffee. Between talk of football and crop prices, you would hear these men’s takes on how to solve the world’s problems. “If I were in Washington, I’ll tell you what I’d do…” And what followed would be a bombastic but common-sense solution to war, poverty, education, taxes, and the repair of human nature.

Of course, nobody pays much attention to diner policy. But give these farmers a degree and some grasp of literary composition (or, worse, a spot on cable news or talk radio) and what emerges is something much more nefarious: pundit policy. We get solutions which, while perhaps more insightfully realized or worded, are no less simplistic. One would think that, with such a collection of solutions available, the lion would lay down with the lamb and all would be well. When it isn’t, the blame is laid on politicians or members of another partisan group.

The truth, however, is that pundit policy fails for the same reason you (think you) know how to raise your neighbors’ kids: problems never exist in isolation, and neither do their solutions. Everything is connected.

Let me offer an example. I recently read an article pointing out that the amount of corn used to produce ethanol could feed hundreds of millions of people. Tragic, isn’t it? All those damnable SUVs guzzling up food that could instead feed the world’s hungry? Let’s stop production now!

But consider how we got to this place. Corn is currently a lucrative crop because the federal government subsidizes ethanol. The government took this course because of environmental and political concerns. Thus, the issue of ethanol subsidies are connected with issues including American relations with the Middle East, drilling for oil in nature reserves, the war in Iraq, agricultural and environmental lobbies, scientific study of alternative energy, and a transportation-based economy. When you consider that the decisions made in these other areas were made by politicians who represented an agenda including other issues, this explodes outward even further to accompany debates about taxation, abortion, foreign policy, religion… and I could go on. To be really honest about policy, we have to recognize that our current production of fuel corn is an unintended consequence of a million unrelated choices in every sphere of life. What’s more, any policy change we make to ethanol production will have just as many other effects in just as many other spheres. Everything is connected.

I say this not to recommend a certain course of action on ethanol. That’s beside the point. Instead, I say this because pundit policy never considers these unintended consequences. Their focus is always on one problem: starvation, say, or helping the American farmer. Their solutions usually do an admirable job of solving this problem.  And, unseen by the pundit, thousands of people would starve as a result.

I know this sounds intimidating, but it’s the simple truth. The price of oil effects Supreme Court nominations, and tariffs on sugar effect health care costs. While nobody can forsee all of these consequences (they’re called unintended for a reason), failing to think them through as much as possible is simply irresponsible.

With all that said, let me recommend three conclusions I think stem from this discussion:

  1. We must be humble and realistic about any proposal. We don’t have it all figured out; not even close. In particular, our insistence on thinking that we have all the answers while we haven’t even begun to wrestle with the magnitude of our interconnectedness is silly and repugnant. Chances are good our neighbors’ kids might be cussing because they learned it from ours.
  2. As a corollary, we must think through and introduce social changes slowly and tentatively. The world’s problems often whip us into a panic, but quick decisions out of fear are the most likely to uncontrollably snowball. Far better to fiddle with one knob than mash all the buttons at once.
  3. While I realize this conclusion will be more controversial than the first two, I also think this reality cries for as much localized decision-making as possible. Given the exponential number of variables, keeping decisions and their effects into as small an area as possible helps us see and correct for unintended consequences. In particular, this means that giving individuals all the facts and then allowing them to make up their own minds is more reliable than trying to figure out the answers for everyone at once.
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