In times past our ancestors grappled with frustrating, sometimes terrifying problems. They built a new civilization in a wild place. They fought wars to give us our independence and free us from slavery. They navigated a complex course from a simple farming economy to a global commercial empire. Along the way they managed to build institutions like our public schools that opened up the opportunities of freedom to everyone.
In the last century they weathered an economic collapse and built a new economic order ushering in an unpredecedented era of American dominance. They bled and died to protect the whole world from Fascism and Communism. Then they managed a new transformation from Industrial Capitalism to the permanently accelerating wealth of the Information Age. Not too shabby.
We’re fortunate beyond the imagination of the men and women who created our Republic, and now it’s our turn to carry the load for those who will follow us. And the challenge of our time – Complexity.
Kinda disappointing, really. It won’t make a very good movie.
But there it is. And so far our response to this challenge has been a desperate search for other, cooler challenges. After all, in narrative terms this one sucks. How are you supposed to storm the beaches of complexity? How do you rally against it or demonize it? How do you organize a political campaign to defeat it? What will the bumper stickers look like?
We desperately need smart, pragmatic leadership capable of finding ways for government to function effectively in this climate of accelerating change. We need imaginative ways for government to continue to serve its role as a rule-maker without smothering the fabulous opportunities this complex and dynamic new environment presents. What we need in our time is capable, responsible administration.
BOOOORRINNGG! Screw that. We want enemies and suspense and fear. Throw in some conspiracies cause they’re cool. And what about God? Oh, and lower taxes too. Definitely lower taxes.
In the absence of exciting problems we’re finding entertainers to sell us some. A few of them tell us that the challenge of our time is Muslims. Others are selling China, atheism, or even our own government. Some of them are even resurrecting our favorite enemy of all, Communism, so we can keep fighting it over and over again like dead Vikings in Valhalla.
Can’t find any Communists? No problem. These folks can mint new ones like the arch-Communist villain (who as a villain super-bonus is somehow simultaneously a Fascist), Woodrow Wilson. Sweet.
While we stagger around drunk on entertainment, the challenges of complexity continue to pile up inflicting ever more serious damage. We will sober up at some point. It can’t be avoided. But when that day finally dawns the unidentified party injuries (UPI’s) we find in the shower could be gruesome.
The boom and bust cycle of our economy over the last fifteen years painfully reflects our failure to master this challenge. There are those who understand the role of complexity and are cynically using it to hollow out the entire system to their profit and to the ruin of everyone else. For all the horror and carnage of 9/11, the damage it did to America as a political force and a world power was nothing compared to what happened when the real weapons of mass destruction went off in 2008.
How do you build rules for a dizzyingly complex financial system that allow it to thrive and innovate without being destroyed by graft? Can we continue to be force for justice in the world without becoming a global thug? Is there a way to provide a social safety net to encourage risk-taking and growth without bankrupting ourselves? What role should immigration play in our continued growth? Where should the balance lie between economic expansion and environmental damage? Why do so many of our communities produce poor schools and how can we change that?
Tough, technical, boring problems. Adult problems for a mature civilization.
The urge to turn back the clock with religious fundamentalism, constitutional fundamentalism, or a Neo-Confederate approach to government provide some short-term escape from reality, but they solve nothing. The world will not stop accelerating no matter how stubbornly we refuse to adapt. We will either learn to keep pace or be run over.
We owe a duty to those who built this wonderful country and to those who will inherit it from us to sober up, confront the realities around us, and learn to make responsible decisions on highly complex matters. Maybe this is the year we grow up.
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