Memo For File CLXIX


Inside the election/campaign season as well as outside of it, I am seeing a persistent trend: People with loose lips and loud voices running around (in the case of social media, those are obviously figurative expressions), clearly fancying themselves as capable thinkers who have managed to come up with the final solution or solutions to the problems that ail us — and when you talk to them a little while you find out all of what they have to say can be summed up in a statement taking the form “[so-and-so] should have no more influence than [he/she/they] already have had up to now, they should not have any more from this point going forward, and they’re probably overdue for some kind of a beat-down.” That is all they have to say; nothing more.

The comment I saw that primer’d this detonation had to do with “rich white men,” to which I objected out of personal umbrage. I am, after all, sixty-seven percent of the way there. Much of the world’s population would be well-justified in opining that I’ve crossed the goal line: White, adult, male, and in all the ways that really matter when you get down to it, richer than snot. Ahem, maybe I have a personal bias in so observing, but it remains true nevertheless does it not? There is coming up with a good solution to all of our problems so that they’ll stay solved — and then, there is making sure rich, white men are ostracized from any further discussions of influence as the loathed “guys who made the problem in the first place.” Those are two different things; they are not the same. I don’t think we can solve our problems merely by proscribing against which demographic classes should be able to affect our approaches to them.

I remember my Mom used to tell me when I was very young, something of Thomas Edison saying “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” It took me a lifetime of professional and amateur try-fail-try-again to learn what I could’ve learned in a couple minutes’ time, simply by reading some of Edison’s other comments: This has to do with deductive reasoning.

During all those years of experimentation and research, I never once made a discovery. All my work was deductive, and the results I achieved were those of invention, pure and simple. I would construct a theory and work on its lines until I found it was untenable. Then it would be discarded at once and another theory evolved. This was the only possible way for me to work out the problem…I speak without exaggeration when I say that I have constructed 3,000 different theories in connection with the electric light, each one of them reasonable and apparently likely to be true. Yet only in two cases did my experiments prove the truth of my theory. My chief difficulty was in constructing the carbon filament…Every quarter of the globe was ransacked by my agents, and all sorts of the queerest materials used, until finally the shred of bamboo, now utilized by us, was settled upon.

That is some hard work — if for no other reason, than the bushels and bushels of energy that have to be sunk into trying the thousands of (failed) theories. And, the logical thinking that has to go into each one, ultimately unrewarded, save for the incremental knowledge gained by the understanding that yet another theory did not work.

My realization in Anno Domini Twenty Twelve: This is what people on all points up & down the ideological spectrum, are trying to avoid. That’s a problem. People are trying to get it done on the cheap. “Get it done” meaning: Propose a solution, which may or may not pan out, and end up with lots of community esteem from being the hero. There is an excess of this “drive-by problem solving” in which people want to have their names fastened to a statement consisting of, “Here’s how to fix it once and for all, you just [blank].” Then someone else puts the work into implementation. If it works, the drive-by “here’s what you do” guy is a big hero. If it doesn’t, he’s still the big hero for suggesting it, it must not have been implemented right. If it’s implemented and the situation actually gets worse, he can still be the hero because someone else must have bolluxed it up.

It’s an understandable temptation. The trouble with it is, it leaves us with an acute shortage of real problem-solvers. Fewer people who are willing to stop their steed, dismount, attend to the problem, learn all they can about it and say “Okay, based on my learnings, here is what I think will fix it…and I’m going to stick by and own these results, for good or for ill.”

That isn’t happening, and we see the effect of it on the solutions being proposed. They don’t have to do with problem-solving. They have to do with alienation. “Rich white men made the problem, don’t elect any more of them, vote for Obama.” We’ve had four years to see that’s not the solution but people are still sticking by it. They like to go through the motions of learning from experience. They just don’t want to do any of it; it’s way too much work.

Update: Perhaps my pontificating in the above paragraphs is unclear. Perhaps I can bring things into focus by way of an example. Here is one of the best ones in recent memory: Warren Buffett fixes the deficit in five minutes!

I could end the deficit in five minutes. You just pass a law that says that any time there’s a deficit of more than three percent of GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for re-election. Yeah, yeah, now you’ve got the incentives in the right place, right? (Laughs)

I shouldn’t be too tough on the billionaire after whom the “Buffett Rule” was named…even though, it is my understanding that he lacks the resourcefulness to figure out where to send his excess tax payments. After all, he is worth a good deal more than I am.

But the fact remains: If you do think it is that simple and you do want to do something about it…you could run for Congress. I’m sure if Warren Buffett were to run, he would win, and from the lower house he could propose such a rule. It would likely get very far. It might even pass, and stand. Would it really solve the deficit in five minutes? Only then would you find out.

But the point is, he didn’t do that and he won’t do that. It’s so much more fun, more socially-uplifting, and more risk-free to just shoot the bull. Too much fun to do this drive-by problem-solving. This pull-pin-walk-away problem-solving. Which leaves the problem unsolved, and in all likelihood, exacerbated. But who cares, right?

He’s not the only one with this problem.

Cross-posted at House of Eratosthenes.

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