On Complexity, Simplicity, and the American Way
We don’t like complexity. We don’t like when things are messy. We like our movies to have good guys and bad guys, and we like it when the good guys win. Sometimes we like it when the bad guy wins, usually when the bad guy is secretly the good guy, like when the James Gang steals from the robber barons, when Robin Hood takes from the rich and gives to the poor, when the rebel leader turns out to be the rightful king who was thought killed as an infant.
Poor people, I was once told, cause their own problems. It’s their fault that they are poor. All it takes is a little work and a little planning and some forethought. All you needed to get a respectable portfolio started was, he estimated, about $10,000. At that price, he reasoned, anyone who didn’t have a portfolio that was earning them back some reasonable dividends was simply stupid and lazy, and deserved whatever hardship they got.
This was 1985, when the Reagan Revolution had convinced the electorate that the cause of the most intractable problem in the history of civilization, the problem of poverty, was simple: welfare mothers. When I started working, in 1983, the minimum wage was $2.85. In subsequent years a Democratic Congress pushed that wage up to $3.15, and then to $3.35. That meant that the average poor person working full time at a minimum wage job was bringing in $6968.00 a year. Minus State and Local taxes. One thing that the Federal Government figured out correctly was that people earning about half the poverty rate really couldn’t afford to give part of that to the government. Of course, most people didn’t get all that. They’d get scheduled for 38 hours a week to avoid the possibility of having to pay them overtime if they somehow went over.
So, it was simple. These people only had to apply the $10,000 that they had left over from their $7000 per year salary after paying rent and food and clothing for themselves and their kids, and they could work their way out of poverty in the time-honored capitalist fashion: investing in stocks of large corporations.
We’re a country of linear thought. Our contribution to music is Rock ‘n’ Roll; our contribution to Philosophy is American Pragmatism. We want to face our problems, overcome them, and move on. We don’t like things that don’t resolve smoothly – we want our movies, our books, our songs, to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We like our Comic Book Superheroes to have an origin, a purpose, and an arch-enemy. We don’t like loose ends. We don’t like it when we can’t pinpoint a cause and effect a direct and efficient solution.
We’ve applied this thinking to foreign policy. Sandinistas were communists, communists were bad, therefore the Contras were good. Serbs were committed atrocities in Bosnia, therefore Serbs were bad, and therefore Albanian Kosovars were good. So we bombed the snot out of Serbia, Serbs were ethnically cleansed out of Kosovo, and the Albanians from Kosovo crossed the border and started a similar ethnic conflict in Macedonia. Saddam Hussein was fighting the Iranians, therefore he was a good guy. Osama bin Laden and the people who would later become the Taliban were fighting the Soviet Union, therefore he was a good guy. Failing to find anyone whom we could assign good-guy status in Somalia, we fled. There was no oil there anyway.
We were actually surprised when the Iraqis decided that they didn’t like being invaded. We were surprised when the Iraqis, plagued with 70% unemployment following the fall of the government, thought that Iraqis should be getting jobs the jobs that were being handed out to Haliburton, who thought that perhaps 10 employees making $20,000 a year and putting the money into the economy while supporting their families would be better for Iraq than 1 employee making $200,000 a year and taking the money to the USA. We were surprised when the majority Shiite population decided that they had more in common with Iran than they did with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
We are confused by the complexities of these places. We imagine that all we need to do is get rid of Saddam and his core supporters and the rest of the country will suddenly become a small, slightly Islamic Federal Democracy and wholly owned subsidiary of Haliburton, Inc., just like the US. And we’re surprised when things don’t go the way we think. Ungrateful bastards.
It’s especially embarrassing since, failing to foresee this possibility, no contingency plans have been made.
So the other day, a friend of mine wrote about the catastrophe in New Orleans: "as i've said time and time again, this was a tragedy. plain and simple." Meanwhile, Kayne West gets on TV and rants: "George Bush hates blacks!"
There is a simple rule that I’ll mention here: Whenever you think things are simple, they are always more complex. There’s a corollary rule: No matter how complex you think things are, they are more complex.
I think Colon Powell is pretty much on target when he says that it was class, not race, that was at issue in the failure of the government to act in a reasonable manner. But he’s also right in pointing out how closely tied race and class are in this country. But even that is just a small part of the story. There’s stories of corruption and graft at all levels of government. There’s the story of North and South, of Industrial and Agricultural, of the French, of decadence and the bible belt, of Texas’s unique position in the Union and the attitudes that engenders. There’s stories of long-term failure to invest in infrastructure in the appropriate places, of misallocation of funds, of a war on Terror, and of political appointees and nepotism. Huey Long won’t be irrelevant to this story, nor will the social upheaval affected by the legal changes in the region as a result of the Louisiana Purchase. Books will be written about the disaster, but no matter how detailed, none of them will tell the whole story.
But it’s our duty to start trying to understand as much of this as we can, whether its regarding this story, or the story of Iraq, or the story of welfare mothers, or any other story. For now, we are the richest and most powerful country in the world, and the actions that we take in ignorance have disastrous consequences.