Why We Fail to Fix Our Large Problems

Today I read “Was the $5 Billion Worth It?” an interview with Bill Gates, Jr. at the Wall Street Journal, which asked him if he felt his money spent on fixing education in America was well spent.  Here is one significant reply:

Asked to critique these endeavors, Mr. Gates demurs: "I applaud people for coming into this space, but unfortunately it hasn’t led to significant improvements." He also warns against overestimating the potential power of philanthropy. "It’s worth remembering that $600 billion a year is spent by various government entities on education, and all the philanthropy that’s ever been spent on this space is not going to add up to $10 billion. So it’s truly a rounding error."

Every night when I watch the evening news I get depressed because we are facing so many huge problems that we can’t seem to fix, no matter how much money, effort and brain power we put into finding solutions.  We have education, the budget deficit, global warming, health care, unemployment, the economy, religious conflicts, over population, and the list goes on and on.  At first I was going to list the war in Afghanistan, but wars always seen to end someday, so they fix themselves – the problems I’m talking about are the ones that never get fixed and we argue over the solutions our entire lives.

If we spend $600 billion a year on education, how come education in America is seen as a huge honking failure?  Today I read that only 12% of the American public believes in evolution and that around 50% believe that Jesus is due to return to Earth sometime soon.  Is that a failure of the education system, or does it show a basic inability for the average person to learn.

But if you look at our big problems there is one consistent factor that few people want to address, and that is we’re polarized over how we view the fundamental working of reality.  Essentially there are two philosophical opposing groups which I’ll label Science versus the Faithful.

The largest group are the metaphysical believers – people that think the Earth is our temporary home while God decides our true destination.  They believe Earth is the center of God’s creation and humans are his chosen beings, and this life is a test of our souls.

The other group, sees the universe as being very old and very big, and the Earth and humans are insignificant compared to the rest of the cosmos.  They see reality working by very exact laws that can be discovered through science and mathematics.  These people believe our lives are only as important as we make them for ourselves. 

God’s faithful, whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, or the many spiritual followers of Eastern religions believe in ancient holy books, written before science or history.  These spiritual texts can’t coexist with science.  The worshipers of these books firmly believe the key to metaphysical reality is within their scriptures.  Most of the faithful accept the tenets of their beliefs after only a brief exposure to their basic concepts.  Believing is very easy.  Giving up these beliefs are very hard.

The followers of science believe knowledge is vast and to understand reality requires reading hundreds of books.  They are the believers in good liberal educations, which means it takes twenty years of solid study to get a decent grasp on reality.  Learning is very hard, and it’s so easy to forget.

The faithful believe much of education is a waste, and that a good deal of it are lies.  They refuse to believe in evolution because they can’t comprehend it and because they intuitively understand it invalidates their most cherish belief, that we have souls that can exist in an afterlife.  They refuse to believe in global warming because they can’t comprehend the science and because they believe this life is not important, but the next one, an eternal life in paradise should be our ultimate concern.

It’s probably more than obvious that I’m on the side of science.  The really good question is:  If we were all on the side of science, could we solve the really big problems we face?  I think so.  But I know the faithful also believe if everyone believed the tenets of their holy books the world would be a beautiful place too.

I wish there was some kind of compromise so we could make everyone happen, but there isn’t.  The strange thing is the faithful think Earth is of no value, so why can’t they let us have this world since we loved it so much more.  The faithful should live like the Amish, pursuing simple lives, following their spiritual disciplines until they die.  I can’t understand why the faithful want to run this world when it matters so little to them in their philosophy.  Why do they want political power when they should be seeking piety.

Here a logic puzzle. 

We have four possible paths – two real actions betting on two choices.

  1. Global warming is a fact, we fix things
  2. Global warming is a fact, we don’t fix things
  3. Global warming is a scam, we fix things anyway
  4. Global warming is a scam, we don’t do anything

There are four results.

  1. We save the world
  2. We kill off civilization
  3. We get an energy efficient society
  4. We save some money

If the scientists are wrong the worse thing that could happen is we end up with a very energy efficient society.  If the client deniers are wrong, we end up living in hell.  No logical person would place their bets that lead to result 2.

Yet, for many in our society action 2 is where they want to place all their chips.  And is it any wonder that most of these same people are also desiring the end of the world by wishing for the return of Jesus.  Do they think the Rapture is brought on by overheating?

We will never solve our big problems as long as we’re polarized between science and faith, and neither side seems willing to change.

Someone needs to create a religion where the path to heaven lies in mastering science.  Has none of the faithful ever wondered if their purpose on Earth is to figure out the mysteries of reality?  I guarantee there are plenty of clues if you’re willing to study science.

JWH – 7/25/11

5 thoughts on “Why We Fail to Fix Our Large Problems”

  1. I argue that the reason no solutions ever seem to be found for the many problems in America is that our politics have been allowed to become hopelessly corrupt. Not the run of the mill corruption that is the natural product of a government or any large organization, but wholesale corruption where money can literally buy anyone or anything.

    Elections have no meaning when the largest determining factor as to whether a politician wins an election is that he has the most campaign donations. Some democratic politicians still pretend they are on the side of the average person in their campaign advertising, but no democrats or republicans are.

    The so-called Socialist Kenyan we have for a president hasn’t done one single thing to stop the complete rape of our economy by Wall Street tycoons, in fact almost all of his appointments are hedgefund and other corporate executives. No one has gone to jail for what happened to the 401ks and home values of millions of Americans. Hundreds of thousand have been thrown out of their jobs and homes, but the people who caused the economic failure have no fear of punishment. Hell, they even had the balls to demand and get their bonuses.

    The ultimate corporate finance insider in the congress is Barney Frank a democrat. He’s considered a liberal! This is the sad joke American politics has become. We have two sets of corporate shills fighting over who will get the biggest bribes for cutting medicare and social security faster and deregulate business more. There can be no solutions from a system as politically degenerate as ours.

    Our revolutionary forefathers would cry to see these Teaparty morons march us into a dumbed-down, bigoted theocracy while democratic and republican politicians feed at the trough of the monied elites.

    1. I do believe money has corrupted our political system, but I don’t know if it’s the key problem or just another large problem we can’t solve. We’re just not very rational as a nation because of our polarized beliefs. But I do think the momentum of wealth controlling politics will be hard to overcome. The government is so completely blended with special interests that it might be impossible to undo the mix.

    2. I must disagree, Greg. The main reason why we can’t solve these problems is because we disagree on how. The corrupting influence of money doesn’t help, certainly, but it’s not the main reason why – or even a main reason.

      Jim has the right idea. Our country is split right down the middle, with at least half seeing government as the problem, not a possible solution to problems. They’re suspicious of scientists, figuring that the scientific consensus is just another opinion, no better than any other opinion and worse than their own. They’re traditional, and they want to believe what they want to believe.

      We could solve most of these problems, if we really wanted to, if we were willing to spend the money and give them our full attention. But we can’t get everyone to agree on that, or even on how to begin.

      The right is suspicious of education and resists paying taxes for anything but the military, prisons, and corporate welfare. They think that being poor is a moral problem, and that letting poor kids suffer is justifiable punishment for their parents.

      We can’t solve the budget deficit, because half the country doesn’t want to. They want to force lower spending by bankrupting the federal government, which will also make it easier to defeat Barack Obama in 2012. And they believe in tax cuts, anyway. When voodoo economics is your religion, you’re not going to favor any rational measures.

      We can’t solve global warming, because it will cost money and because the right doesn’t believe in science. And all the rest of these are the same. We could solve most of these problems, but it would require the kind of commitment we just can’t get in a democracy. Well, some of us would support it, yes, but not the overwhelming majority, which is what we’d need.

      And then there’s the huge mass of apathetic, ignorant citizens who sway with every political breeze. Mostly, they don’t bother to vote at all. But when they do, they’re woefully ill-informed and likely hopelessly misinformed by unscrupulous political ads and Fox “News.”

      1. There are no solutions because our politics are broken and cannot offer any. The Teaparty fools would have you believe we have a Mau Mau-inspired socialist, secret-muslim, president of Kenyan origin, but surprisingly his views and policies are not significantly different than George Bush’s in any way. The only Liberal thing he has down is get rid of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and he had to be dragged into doing that. We’re actively bombing people in at least 6 countries. We still have Gitmo in full gear. Bradly Manning, an American Citizen is in a Gulag that would make any Soviet Central Committee proud. Our financial and economic policy is completely controlled by Wall Street. Obama showed the back of his hand to Elizabeth Warren, and continues to drag his feet on implementing any new regulations.

        There is no solution because our political system cannot offer one. I say our politicians are bought and paid for. It doesn’t matter if 83% of Americans say something should be done. If it doesn’t make profit for the rich fools who own our politicians then it will not be done. We are offered the choice between two morons who offer essentially the exact same policies, just one wraps them in racist hatred while the other in kumbayah bullshit.

        That a large portion of our citizenry are apathetic and ignorant IS NOT A COINCIDENCE! It is actually the intended result of decades of government policy. People cannot agree on solutions because most are too stupid to even discern a problem. Or if they do they blame them on “the jews” or brown people.

      2. Greg, that sounds like a prescription for giving up. After all, it “doesn’t matter if 83% of Americans say something should be done”? (Gee, and in a democracy, too.) And you’re only offered a choice between “two morons who offer essentially the exact same policies”?

        So what’s the use, huh? Well, the right-wing isn’t very smart, but they’re smart enough to know that hard work can accomplish a great deal, even when you’re not a majority. Instead of throwing elections to the Democrats by starting a third party, they just took control of the GOP.

        And as the Republicans moved right, so did the Democrats, since politics abhors a vacuum. But are progressives smart enough to follow the lead of the far-right, or will we just give up?

        No, it’s not easy. If you want easy, you should probably just ignore politics. And progressives are a minority in America. They always will be, since most people keep the beliefs they formed when they were young.

        Heck, I’ll go so far as to say that democracy is a terrible form of government. It’s just better than any other we’ve discovered. Over time, we’ve accomplished great things. But it’s taken hard work for a depressingly long period of time. Look at racial equality – for at least a hundred years after the Civil War. Look at the long, long battle for women’s suffrage.

        It’s not easy. So what? Do we just give up then?

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