One factor that has severely eroded our communal problem solving capacity is news and electoral cycles that are shorter than the long-lived consequences of various actions and policies. The approach of reporting on political issues as if they were short term sporting events (who’s winning, who’s losing? who landed the latest blow? will it slow the opponent down?) further obscures the complexities of the issues at hand. We rarely look back at the choices both made and not made and how they might have compared. And we rarely look at what questions were not asked that might have led to a different result.
The Indiana Public Utilities Commission in an order addressing a request for emergency rate relief quoted last year from “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable Event” by Nassim Nicolas Taleb (Random House, 2007): “We concentrate on things we already know and time and time again fail to take into consideration what we don’t know.” The Commission rejected claims that the “emergency” triggering the request for rate relief was a “black swan” event — defined as an event that is unpredictable, carries a massive impact, and compels us after the fact to make up an explanation that makes it appear less predictable. More often we are the victim not of an truly unpredictable event but of an unwarranted optimism at the outset, the failure to identify or analyze alternative (and likely) scenarios, and the failure to look at the interactive consequences among related issues. This failure to plan for the long term in favor a short term benefit (such as keeping taxes or rates lower than they might otherwise be) is reflected in our deteriorating highways, bridges, utility infrastructure, and school systems. Another example is the failure to look at the long term costs of imprisonment in favor of short term appeals to “law and order”, which resulted in a rapid rise in prison populations due to the incarceration of low-risk, non-violent offenders, and burdened state budgets to the extent that many states are now quietly looking for less costly alternatives. Yet another example from recent years is the optimistic re-allocations of state funds for ethanol production, which unexpectedly raised animal feed, and ultimately food prices as demand for corn surged.
Lurching from crisis to crisis does not enhance our communal life. As we design new structures for public dialogue, we can also expand our evaluation processes to focus on what have we learned and how we can ask better questions so as to make better choices. As we look back at decisions made we might ask what data was missing and why? How can better data be obtained in the future? What interactive effects were observed among issues and how can those be better anticipated? Are there better, less costly ways to make progress towards a desired end? Would the issues look dramatically different if we were looking at a 5, 10 or 20 year time frame? Which frame best fits the need we are trying to meet? This approach might also help us move beyond the winner-loser mentality of our current politics, and focus on who is helping us think in sustainable ways, and who is not.