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March 31, 2024 | Why We Fail to Fix Things

Rick Ackerman

Rick Ackerman is the editor of Rick’s Picks, an online service geared to traders of stocks, options, index futures and commodities. His detailed trading strategies have appeared since the early 1990s in Black Box Forecasts, a newsletter he founded that originally was geared to professional option traders. Barron’s once labeled him an “intrepid trader” in a headline that alluded to his key role in solving a notorious pill-tampering case. He received a $200,000 reward when a conviction resulted, and the story was retold on TV’s FBI: The Untold Story. His professional background includes 12 years as a market maker in the pits of the Pacific Coast Exchange, three as an investigator with renowned San Francisco private eye Hal Lipset, seven as a reporter and newspaper editor, three as a columnist for the Sunday San Francisco Examiner, and two decades as a contributor to publications ranging from Barron’s to The Antiquarian Bookman to Fleet Street Letter and Utne Reader.
[My colleague Charles Hugh Smith is a true outside-the-box thinker who tackles big questions with intellectual rigor and bold imagination. In the commentary below, he explains why neither our political system nor technological wizardry have been able to solve problems that threaten to topple the global economy and destroy our quality of life.  You can support excellence by subscribing to his blog, Of Two Minds, on PatreonRA]
We say we want solutions, but we actually want a specific subset of solutions: those that already meet with our approval. 

The possibility that none of these pre-approved solutions will actually resolve the problem is rejected because we are wedded to the solutions that we want to work.

The sources of our resistance to admitting that our solution is now the problem are self-evident: holding fast to an ideological certainty gives us inner security, as it provides a simplified, easy-to-grasp frame of reference, an explanation of how the world works and a wellspring of our identity.

Our ideological certainties also serve as our moral compass: we believe what we believe because it is correct and therefore the best guide to solving all problems faced by humanity.

If we frame all problems ideologically (i.e. politically), then there is always an ideological “solution” to every problem.

If we frame all problems as solvable with technology, then there is always a technological “solution” to every problem.

If we frame all problems as solvable with finance, then there is always a financial “solution” to every problem.

In each of these cases, we’re starting with the solution and then framing the problem so it aligns with our solution.  This is not actually problem-solving, and so the solutions–all blunt instruments–fail to actually resolve the complex, knotty problems generated by dynamic open systems with interconnected feedback loops.

Self-interest also plays a role, of course, as self-interest is core to human nature, along with an innate desire to serve the best interests of our family, group, tribe, neighborhood, community enterprise, class and nation. That we prefer solutions that maintain or enhance our current financial and social position in the status quo is no surprise.

Many of the built-in biases we are prone to serve to protect and solidify our beliefs. When challenged, or proven incorrect, rather than relinquish our beliefs, we double-down and defend them more aggressively.

We can understand this irrational attachment as sunk costs: we’ve invested so much of ourselves in an ideological certainty that letting go of it is a tremendous loss: our inner security collapses into an unmoored chaos that is disorienting and uncomfortable.

We also fear the consequences of the world turning against our certainties, for both our inner security and real-world security are at risk.

No wonder we double-down on defending our certainties as evidence piles up that our proposed solutions are failing or making the problems worse.

Our initial response is emotional rather than rational: we slip into the comforting arms of magical thinking and reductionist thinking, simplifying the bewilderingly complex, interconnected problems down to either-or choices–left or right, capitalism or socialism, globalism or nationalism, etc.–and see glimmers of hope in unrealistic magical thinking: our desires for endless low-cost energy will be met by switch grass, test-tube biofuels, etc.

Technology-based magical thinking becomes a comforting ideology in and of itself. If we can return to the Moon, it means we can accomplish anything. We will innovate our way to technological solutions to all our problems. We’ll bury billions of tons of carbon, geo-engineer our atmosphere, launch tens of thousands of additional satellites, build new sources of limitless energy, all without having to sacrifice any of our current consumption, and in doing so we’ll create millions of good-paying jobs that will support permanent growth of our consumption of the planet’s resources.

Historian / critic Christopher Lasch (who died in 1994) saw that the either-or mindset of left-right, Progressive-Conservative was already a dead-end in 1990 when he wrote The True and Only Heaven“We need to ask whether the left and right have not come to share so many of the underlying convictions, including a belief in the desirability and inevitability of technical and economic development, that the conflict between them, shrill and acrimonious as it is, no longer speaks to the central issues of American politics.” (page 23)

If this is true–and it seems self-evident to me–then we’ve squandered 30+ years clinging to solutions that have not only failed, they’ve become problems that existing conventions cannot possibly resolve.

Lasch also grasped the impossibility of endless growth on a finite planet: “Both left and right, with equal vehemence, repudiate the charge of ‘pessimism.’ Neither side has any use for ‘doomsdayers.’ Neither wants to admit our society has taken a wrong turn, lost its way, and needs to recover s sense of purpose and direction. Neither addresses the overriding issue of limits, so threatening to those who wish to appear optimistic at all times. The fact remains the earth’s finite resources will not support an indefinite expansion of industrial civilization.”

“This program (of endless expansion of consumption) is self-defeating, not only because it will produce environmental effects which even the rich cannot escape but because it will widen the gap between rich and poor nations, generate more and more violent movements of insurrection and terrorism against the West, and bring about a deterioration of the world’s political climate as threatening as the deterioration of its physical climate.”

Though Lasch is often characterized as a social conservative, he had a keen appreciation of Marx’s critique of capitalism and the extension of this critique to the social order by 20th century Marxists. (Understanding Marx’s critique does not make one a Marxist; as with all either-or false choices, one can value Marx’s critique while dismissing his utopian vision of the workers’ paradise.)

Here is Lasch: “American imperialism grew out of the structural requirements of capitalism itself, which continued to rest on colonial exploitation. Those who rejected the economic determinism often associated with Marxism nevertheless took it as an essential principle of social analysis that a society’s institutions had to be understood as expressions of its underlying structure.”

“But the attraction of Marxism, in my own case, lay not only in its ability to provide a general explanatory framework but in its more specific insights into the ‘devastated realm of the spirit,’ in Gramsci’s wonderful phrase. I was much taken by the Marxist critique of mass culture. They (the critics) were on the track of something more ominous: the transformation of fame into celebrity; the replacement of events with images and pseudo-events; and the replacement of authoritative moral judgment by the need to know what insiders were saying, the hunger for the latest scandal or the latest medical breakthrough or the latest public opinion polls or market surveys.”

Everything Lasch identified 30+ years ago has continued on its trajectory to further extremes, extremes of dysfunction and derangement that now threaten to upend the entire status quo.  This reality is, as Lasch observed, rejected as “pessimism” in a mass culture which demands optimism at all times.

We are trapped in an self-destructive feedback loop of applying “solutions” that were obvious dead-ends 30+ years ago, and when they fail yet again, we double-down and claim that the “solutions” were inadequately pure and so larger doses of our “solutions” will do the trick.

As our dead-end “solutions” fail, we slip into the deranging polarization of us-vs-them: the problem isn’t our “solution,” the problem is the resistance of “them.”

We cannot bear to admit that all our existing ideological / technical / financial “solutions” are incapable of solving the problems that have arisen from the foundational economic and financial structures of industrial civilization that have destabilized systems we don’t understand and democracy by concentrating wealth and power in the hands of the few.

Our insecurities imprison us in dead-end polarities and magical thinking, and our response to the failure of our solutions is to double-down: the fix is an ideologically pure “solution.”

This all-or-nothing thinking is powerful evidence of a profound insecurity: we can’t let go of our beliefs and the “solutions” that come with them, and so we flounder into the swamps of magical thinking, distancing ourselves further from potential solutions which do not fit into our simplified positions of what is acceptable.

Lasch saw the end-game three decades ago: “My own reading and experience had convinced me that American society suffered from the collapse of legitimate authority and that those who ran our institutions, to the degree which they had lost public confidence, had to rely on bribery, manipulation, intimidation and secret surveillance.”

That is an accurate summary of the present.

We keep trying to “solve problems” by framing the problem as a lack of ideological purity (markets weren’t 100% unfettered, our social reform wasn’t 100% rigorous, etc.) or as a problem that awaits a technological innovation as the painless solution.

To keep our magical thinking hopes alive, we’ve “saved” the status quo from consequences by creating “money” in various forms, all of which are claims on future surpluses of production and resources which we measure as “income.”

History reveals the self-defeating futility of this project, yet we remain confident that technology will save us from consequences, even as technology creates new problems it cannot solve. Our magical thinking belief is that all we need to do is keep the status quo glued together long enough for a technological “solution” to arise and solve all our problems.

Some humility might be in order. As Lasch understood, an acceptance of limits is a necessary starting point. Admitting that our pre-approved “solutions” have failed and cannot possibly fix the problems that they’ve created would be useful. We could admit we don’t understand the systems we’re destroying. We could admit that the global Eternal Growth Machine is “melting everything solid into air” and reducing human life to a series of transactions.

Letting go of simplistic global “solutions” would be useful, as would embracing a more practical approach of social as well as technical experimentation and pursuing those incremental improvements that show promise.

Problem-solving demands we reject everything that gives us security. To frame the problems as they are rather than shoehorn them into simplified boxes requires us to embrace insecurity, contingency and uncertainty, all of which make us uncomfortable. This is one reason why “solutions” are so elusive.

Another reason is solutions are rarely painless and sacrifice-free. We must risk what we currently devote our surplus to–consumption, speculation, “investing” in excess and failure–in order to invest in potential solutions, none of which carry any guarantee of success.

As we all know, we only change when there’s no other option. The era of papering over crises by framing our complex, interconnected problems to fit existing “solutions” is ending, whether we approve of it or not.

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March 31st, 2024

Posted In: Rick's Picks

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