As the 2012 election cycle caries on, the more I’m convinced that no matter who is elected, no fundamental change will take place. The system in which our politicians work will not allow for real change. Ultimately, our elected politicians are a reflection of the society that elected them. Unfortunately, our society is addicted to instant gratification. We are transfixed with real-time statistics, quarterly reports, last month’s unemployment figures, and yesterday’s public opinion polls.
Our society cannot hope to get better from top down policy change because politicians will nearly always seek symptomatic “solutions” instead of fixing the underlying systematic problem. Our politicians are experts at what Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline would call ‘Shifting the Burden.’ Senge captures the current political climate perfectly:
An underlying problem generates symptoms that demand attention. But the underlying problem is difficult for people to address, either because it is obscure or costly to confront. So people “shift the burden” of their problem to other solutions — well-intentioned, easy fixes which seem extremely efficient. Unfortunately, the easier “solutions” only ameliorate the symptoms; they leave the underlying problem unaltered. The underlying problems grows worse, unnoticed because the symptoms apparently clear up, and the system loses whatever abilities it had to solve the underlying problem.
Even worse, many of the symptomatic solutions have a whole host of their own side-effects, or unintended consequences that can be worse than the original problem. We’re seeing this play out very clearly in the economy right now. The public’s almost religious focus on short-term metrics creates a hostile atmosphere for any politician that is calling for any real fundamental changes. Why? Because, fixing the underlying problem is usually very painful in the short-term and would almost certainly cause the politician to lose their re-election to someone that promises an easy, painless ‘fix’. The longer that the underlying causes of the problems goes un-fixed, the harder it will be to fix them. Senge explains with the following example:
If a problem was caused originally by an unhealthy lifestyle (smoking, drinking, poor eating habits, lack of exercise), then the only fundamental solution lies in a change in lifestyle. The drugs (the symptomatic solution) make the symptom better, and remove pressure to make difficult personal changes. But they also have side effects that lead to still more health problems, making it even more difficult to develop a healthy lifestyle.
As long as our society is focused on what the government can do for them and because the public has no sense of delayed gratification, our government and politicians will never take the necessary steps to correct the health of our country. Rather than fixing overspending (the unhealthy lifestyle) by making difficult and painful cuts to entitlements programs like medicare and social security along with
defense nation building (exercise and no more smoking) they would rather just have the Fed print money and inflate its way out of the mess (take drugs); kicking the can down the road for future generations to deal with. As a result, the nation both publicly and privately takes on more and more debt. Eventually, the debt and the interest on the debt will become unmanageable. The longer we wait to fix the chronic overspending, the harder it will be to fix. This very well done video does a great job highlighting short-term vs long term solutions:
The answer to the problem isn’t some politician. The answer lies in the general public. The solution is a public educated in history, economics, finances, and the ultimate source of our freedom. We need a people who understand personal responsibility; who don’t expect any sort of handout from the government. A people who are devoted to personal mastery. A people who refuse to get drunk and leave the tab for the next generation. It’s time to sober up as a country and deal with our problems head on!