Thursday, April 14, 2011

One Size Doesn't Fit All

I don't need to tell you that we face a lot of problems. We face those problems as individuals, as families, as communities, as nations and as a species. It seems like no matter what direction we turn, problem after problem vies for our attention, if we're lucky, because someone brings them up to us, if we're unlucky, because they hit us in the face demanding our immediate attention. With the many problems that we have, we are also faced with many people who claim to have solutions. Like the problems, the people with solutions are on a vast scale, from well meaning friends, family members and associates, to local know-it-all's, to experts, to pundits and ever campaigning politicians.

How we deal with problems and people with solutions, of course, always has to do with circumstances. If the problem is that the sewer is overflowing into your basement, your grandmother might just have lots of experience with this problem and be happy to give you advice. If the cause of the overflow is in pipes owned by the city, the local know-it-all or politician may just have the answer. Probably you're going to need the expert aka a plumber.

Sometimes problems come in a cascade of problems. You may not have the money for a plumber, the local politician may be inaccessible due to how your problem falls on his priority list, corruption (he takes bribes from the guys who put too much stuff in the sewers) or incompetence.  Fixing the pipes isn't enough, you also have to disinfect the basement.

If the problem is a relationship problem, your mother or sister may have a lot of wisdom to share, or might be completely clueless but, sure that she has lots of wisdom to share. You may want that advice, you may not want that advice preferring to deal with it on your own, which, may or may not be wise. Mom and sis could be problems in and of themselves, refusing to leave you alone, always at you with their advice, making you feel worse than you already do. Sometimes mom can feel so much pain in sympathy with you over your problem that she becomes a problem. You don't want to hurt her, so you don't tell her your problem, even though, you'd like to talk about it with someone that you trust.

Sometimes you want the expert advice which could again be mom... or... could be a shrink. The problem with the plumber, the shrink or mom is, how do you know that they really know their stuff? Sometimes mom's are clueless, sometimes plumbers and shrinks are incompetents or con men and always expensive. It's always best when we are the experts. We may be a plumber or a shrink. We certainly should know all the details of our relationships more completely than mom or sis.

The thing with our example problems is, they are unique. While plumbing is plumbing and relationships are relationships, meaning that the basics are the same to every house with plumbing or every relationship, it is also true that different houses have different layouts and may be constructed with different materials. If you need a plumber, you have to have one who can figure out the layout of every house he walks into and can work with pipes of lead, copper, plastic or clay. Every person has unique quirks, outlooks, likes and dislikes so every relationship is going to have it's own unique spin.

The biggest problems that we face are the most intensely personal, you've lost your job, there's a guy pointing a gun at your head, you're sick. But... these problems can be the results of large social problems. You lost your job because the popping housing bubble bankrupted the company you worked for, the guy pointing the gun at your head is from a neighborhood ruled by drug gangs, your illness is part of a pandemic sweeping the world.

These Larger problems are the reason we have governments. To do the things together, that we can't do ourselves. This is also why we have big business. Producing products that thousands, millions, even billions of people want.. requires a large operation.

One of the reasons why government solutions to big societal issues seem so unsatisfactory is the disconnect between the deeply personal and the institutional. It's like the difference between home cooking and fast food. If you are cooking for you and your family, and have the time and ingredients, you can make a meal with an eye to detail that will please everyone (or at least yourself.) With fast food, the menu has to be prepared with an eye to pleasing millions of someone's and, as a result, the meal may be acceptable but it's most important value isn't how good it tastes or how nutritious it is.. but how convenient it is. 

Government solutions have to do the best that they can for an enormous number of people, if we're talking the United States, that's over three hundred million people to please. Global solutions are even tougher. Take climate change. It's a big issue and getting six billion people to agree on solutions seems like an impossible task. So, while a big solution to a big issue may help you personally, the odds are that it isn't going help you as much as you'd like, or in the way that you'd like, or take into account the cascade of problems that flowed off of the original problem.

This governmental problem is a problem not only with specific issues, education reform, unemployment etc. but with the law itself. The idea of equality under the law is a good one. Everyone is treated the same. Sure, a law may sometimes list exceptions to a rule but, it isn't really possible to think of every possible circumstance that might occur, at the time the law is written and forever after. That's one of the reasons that we have judges, juries and courts. So that each circumstance can be examined. So that the intersection of "the public" and "the personal" has a chance of being fair to "the personal". Whether or not this system works is open for debate.

The American system has tried to deal with this disconnect by, as much as possible, letting issues be decided and administered locally. I'll use education as an example. I've heard an enormous amount of complaint that government programs "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top" are no good and doomed to failure because, among other reasons, that, they create a one size fits all style of education that is completely divorced from the uniqueness of each teacher and student and that therefore, it is best for the government just to give the money for the programs to local school boards and let them tailor programs to the realities in their classrooms. The same arguments can be seen on both sides of any number of other important issues. The problem of course is... what do you do when, at the local levels, the well meaning friends, family members, associates, local know-it-all's, experts, pundits and ever campaigning politicians are incompetent or corrupt or just have no idea about what is going on in the larger world. In a worse case scenario, like many uncovered during the civil rights struggles of the 1960's, it is possible that local government can be down right oppressive.

So what do we do? If a problems needs all of society to pitch in on it... aka... the government needs to handle it... but.. the solutions have to work in individual personal ways which, just isn't possible, how do we get solutions? Well... there is no one answer to that. (There are probably six billion answers to that.) The more people are affected by any particular issue, the more complex the problem really is, the more complex the solutions have to be. The complexity of course will be expanded by the fact that we have to expect that a certain percentage of the people with problems and the experts offering solutions will be incompetent or con-men. 

As we struggle with our problems, we have to be aware that the reality is, we are not going to hear answers in five second sound bytes on television, no one person or ideology will have all the answers, as there are no simple problems there will be no simple solutions and that, solutions themselves may cause a cascade of new problems that no one anticipated. This is the way life is. We must always be working towards solving our problems, and yes, make sure that the people we elect to represent us in the larger world really understand our problems. We must listen to and critically judge experts and those with experience and when we find them wanting add to their experience and expertise by sharing what we know that they may have missed. But.. we must be realistic and realize that, there will always be problems and that constant fault finding adds to them and doesn't help in solving them. We must also know that sticking to a position or idea from which we will never allow ourselves to budged is very dangerous. If the problem is a tidal wave headed right for you, standing your ground might be a really bad idea.

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