Synopsis: 

This video explains that social problems are complex and, similarly to complex social conflicts which we discussed previously, social problems need to be addressed using "massively parallel problem solving."  What this means is discussed in the context of inequality and inequity.

Full Transcript:

This is Guy Burgess. For this post, I want to talk about the complex causes of social problems.

So far, we have spent a lot of time talking about how complexity-oriented thinking can open up a whole new world of possibilities with respect to strategies for dealing with intractable conflict.

The same principal applies to all other social problems. In fact, thinking about social problems as complex adaptive systems dramatically improves our chances of meeting the adaptation challenges that we have been talking about. 

The good news is that there are a lot of folks who are interested in helping move this adaptation process along and, in some significant way, "making a difference." In fact, we, as a culture, tend to believe that there really is a solution to every problem and that, if we would just buckle down, we could solve it. 

But the problem, again, is that we humans are tool makers and we tend to think about solving problems using complicated, mechanical approaches and not the complex, organic methods that social problem-solving requires. 

I want to go back to the metaphor I used in a previous post of a super-complicated pool table where the goal was to line up the perfect pool shot so that all of the balls would go exactly where you want them to go.  But, as we said before, this approach doesn't really work. 

Still, it's the way we tend to think about things. For example, you can still go to Hillary Clinton's campaign website and find dozens of position papers outlining step-by-step plans for solving every problem. While it is probable that implementation of these plans would be a step in the right direction (at least from a progressive perspective), it is also likely that a lot of things that need doing would be left undone.  

Here, I think, H.L. Mencken's Law comes into play, "Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong." Put another way, the complexity of social problems makes complicated solutions much less effective than we would like them to be. 

So what's to be done? First, we need to think about social problem-solving in a different way. This somewhat silly-looking diagram that imagines that society consists of lots of individuals, organizations, or groups that are doing things that tend to move society towards the undesirable futures of anocracy and autocracy that we talked about in an earlier post (red dots and arrows). It also imagines that there are other folks who are doing things that don't tend to make things much better and don't tend to make things much worse (orange dots and arrows).  Finally, you have others who are doing things that are helping to move society towards a more democratic ideal. The total progress of society reflects the combined influences of all of these individual efforts. Here we start with a pessimistic diagram where most of the activity is pushing society in a negative direction (red dots).

Going back to the three-dimensional continuum chart that I used in an earlier post, this would produce a society where the preponderance of activity is at the autocratic and anocratic ends of the spectrum. 

In this second, more neutral chart, some of the activities that are pushing things in the bad direction are converted to something more neutral, and some of the neutral orange arrows are converted to the more positive green arrows. 

On the three-dimensional continuum chart this pushes society closer to the center and toward the democratic ideal. 

And, if you can push things a further by converting even more activities into the green, positive arrows and, correspondingly, reducing the number of red arrows, you can get even closer to this democratic ideal. And, as I've explained over the last several posts, this is the goal of the MOOS seminars.

It's also worth noting that if you zoom into each of these arrows you find that they consist of the subsidiary arrows and the cumulative effects of many smaller scale activities. The bottom line is that basically everybody has a role to play in pushing society in either a positive or negative direction. 

So, how does this play out? Take, for example, the inequality problem, which has, I think rightfully, garnered so much attention recently. We could do a similar exercise with terrorism, climate change, or almost any other social problem. Still, inequality is a good place to start. It's also worth noting at the onset that the problem is not really inequality but inequity – the unfair distribution of income and wealth.

Perhaps the most stunning demonstration of the nature of the problem is from Figure 2 in "Building a Better America – One Wealth Quintile at a Time." The authors went around and asked people what they thought the distribution of wealth in the United States ought to be. Folks said that they thought that the richest 20% of the population ought to get around 33% of the wealth, while the poorest 20% still ought to get about 10%.  Respondent estimates of actual values were somewhat more pessimistic than the ideal, but still fairly egalitarian. In actuality, the richest 20% own 85% of the wealth and the poorest 40% don't even have 1% of the wealth. It is this mismatch between the ideal and the actual that explains much of why inequality has emerged is such an important issue. 

The next slide has a stunning little calculation that further demonstrates the magnitude of the problem. I put this together a number of years ago and I really ought to update it. Still, the basic facts are solid and pretty stunning.  For this I looked at income share, and not wealth. In 1979, the richest 1% pulled down about 8% of the national income and by 2007 this had grown to 17%. For 2007 alone, this shift in the distribution of income amounted to $1.1 trillion – a staggering amount of money. This amounts to a yearly transfer to the super rich of about $12,000 for a typical family of four. This is also enough money to fund both Social Security and the Defense Department or almost all of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  This again explains why ineuality is a problem that demands attention. 

Not surprisingly, there are conservative explanations of the nature and causes of the problem that lead to one set of proposed "solutions." And, there are a different set of liberal assessments about the problem and what to do about it.  There are also a bunch of causes of inequality / inequity that nobody's paying much attention to, even though they are a big part of the problem. 

What I want to do at this point is very quickly go through a list of some of the causes of inequality that people have been talking about, along with a little bit about possible solutions. Probably as good a place to start as any is with Lester Thurow's notion of a "Zero-sum Society." He argued several decades ago (and, I think that this is still valid) that we have become a zero-sum society in which far too many people think that the way to get ahead is by taking something from somebody else and not by working with others to produce and share more of the resulting income and wealth. Obviously, this tends to sharpen inequality between winners and losers.

This tendency is even more pronounced when factored into the tendency of wealth and power to become increasingly concentrated. Kenneth Boulding liked to quote something he called "Matthew's Law" from the Biblical Book of Matthew, "to whomsoever hath, to him shall be given." Sometimes this is referred to as a different version of the golden rule, "he who has the gold, makes the rules." The truth is that wealth and power brings with it the ability to accumulate more wealth and power by taking it from others.

There is another set of problems associated with the ability of the very, very wealthy to rationalize what amounts to boundless greed. The phrase "makers versus takers" illustrates the problem. Folks with lots of money tend to see themselves as the "makers" and everybody else is a "taker." This was a big deal in the 2012 election. If you look at stories like this one by Touryalai on banking scandals, it's easy to see boundless greed in action. The number of things that supposedly respectable banks did to rip off their customers is pretty astonishing. 

Then there is the whole notion of poverty capitalism. This Edsall artlice article is an interesting compilation of clever business models that people have come up with for exploiting poor people in ways that further contribute to inequality.

There is also a sense, I think, in which the acquisition of lots of money is addictive. This artilce, "For the Love of Money,"  is a pretty persuasive article written by a former Wall Street hedge fund manager explaining how he had gotten hooked on making ever more money that tracks pretty closely with more conventional types of substance abuse. And, one could imagine ways of trying to treat this addiction. 

There are, of course, lots of other things that contribute to inequality. A big one is discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, color, national origin, or mental or physical handicaps. This photo from the segregation era show the "white" and "colored" drinking fountains and demonstrates the extremes to which discrimination can go. And, it is certainly true that we continue to have serious problems associated with the discrimination. 

Still, even within groups, there are serious problems as Charles Murray documents in his provocative book, Coming Apart. Within white society he outlines a number of dynamics that are reinforcing the wealth and power of the elites and further undermining the position of the working class. 

 

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Guy Burgess is a Founder and Co-Director of the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and has been working in the conflict resolution field, as a scholar and a practitioner, since 1979. His primary interests involve the study and management of intractable conflicts, public policy dispute resolution, and the dissemination of conflict resolution knowledge over the Internet. He is one of the primary authors and creators of the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflicts, and is the Co-Director of CRInfo -- the Conflict Resolution Information Source. Dr. Burgess has edited and authored a number of books and articles, the most recent being The Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution (with Heidi Burgess, ABC-Clio 1999). www.beyondintractability.org