Monday, August 16, 2010

The Devil's in the Details

Late summer 2010 finds Americans facing many of the same problems they faced last year and the year before, including crime, homelessness, and pollution, as well as the increasingly heavy social and economic burdens resulting from global climate change.

Meanwhile, conservatives natter on about an Islamic center in New York City—where none of the loudest critics actually live—while idealists on the left complain that progress isn’t being made fast enough on Guantanamo, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I guess the heat makes everybody cranky.

Progress in America—for those who actually want progress—often does seem to inch forward at a glacial pace. But that’s not the fault of the government. Nor is it really the fault of the political parties—which, after all, exist only at the whim of their constituents.

Rather, lack of progress—or even of a vision of what real progress should be—is the fault of individual voters who, collectively, tend to be short on attention and analysis and quick to respond to emotional triggers. As voters, we seem to have unlimited tolerance for allowing ourselves to be manipulated.

Also, we’re not very strong in the area of self-knowledge—specifically, in understanding what we know and what we don’t know.

For this reason, I think Malcolm Gladwell’s 2006 essay “Million-Dollar Murray” should be required reading for every American voter. (It can be found here and in Gladwell’s recent book entitled What the Dog Saw.)

Basically, the essay shows how “power-law solutions”—those that focus on the minority, the stubborn few cases that cause the vast majority of problems—applies to human problems. Using specific examples of homelessness, police brutality, and auto emissions, Gladwell shows how our inability to really solve these problems is tied to our national obsession with what feels right (rather than what is right):

“Power-law solutions have little appeal to the right, because they involve special treatment for people who do not deserve special treatment; and they have little appeal to the left, because their emphasis on efficiency over fairness suggests the cold number-crunching of Chicago school cost-benefit analysis.”

It’s not natural for most of us to focus on the few rather than the many—and in America, it tends to violate our deeply ingrained feelings about being politically correct. But looking at the “big picture” is often the wrong approach to trying to solve problems. The devil’s in the details.

1 comment: said...

Welcome back, Jane!

Politicians rarely run on the big issues. They don't make good headlines. What they say has to sell newspapers. I think even if some of them want to work on the big issues - they probably don't think they can get elected on them.

I'm sure LBJ didn't run on The Big Society.