System of Idiots
Words of wisdom: The problem is the solution.
If you’re high up on a ladder and it falls, you don’t grasp your broken limbs while cursing gravity for working. You curse yourself for not making sure the ladder was safe to climb. Gravity works one hundred percent of the time. Gravity is the reason you fell, but gravity was not the problem. For the entire existence of humanity, they have had to find ways to prevent the problems caused by gravity. But, we have also found ingenious ways to make gravity work for us. One very obvious way we have used gravity and other laws of physics to our advantage is our ability to take a massive tube made out of tons of metal and carry people around the world through the air at hundreds of miles per hour.
Humanity has evolved with the immutable laws of nature and has learned to work with them. We question how we can work with them but we don’t question how to change them.
We have another set of laws that govern us. If you drive down the highway and the sign says 75 mph, unlike the natural laws, you can hit the gas pedal and go past that limit. The only thing that prevents you from doing so is you and the Pauli exclusion principle which won’t allow you to occupy the same space as the car in front of you while it’s still there. Traffic and our human laws are a great example of where things go wrong for humans. There are two parts to the failure of this system. The first is that we have an extremely dysfunctional process for creating these systems, and the second part is the people who don’t follow the systems.
Our highways system is an interesting example to explore this idea because, in principle, it’s a logical system. My dad used to tell about a man that said we didn’t need a speed limit. People just needed to drive at a reasonable and proper speed. The speed he thought was reasonable and proper was 35 mph. Having a speed limit gets us away from it being an individual’s personal idea of what is reasonable and proper to a group making an informed (but not perfect) decision about what a reasonable and proper speed is. The highway by my house has a speed limit of 75 mph. The vast majority of the traffic is within a threshold of that speed. A problem is introduced by people driving outside that threshold. We have all slammed on our brakes for the person who thinks 35 is reasonable and proper and we’ve all had a car zoom by us at speeds we know are not safe.
A problem with man-made laws is that they are not immutable. Unlike gravity, you can often break human laws without any consequences. If money was deducted in real-time when you drove faster than the speed limit, you wouldn't speed because the consequences are not immutable. The vast majority of the time we break traffic laws there is no consequence.
A major problem with our laws and systems is that people don’t realize they are part of a system. It is the same with natural law. We may have an understanding of how gravity affects our daily life but we have a limited understanding of many other natural systems like weather, immunity, nutrition, thermodynamics, hydrodynamics, etc. Some human systems mimic natural systems. If we understood how we fit in a system we could modify our behavior to make the systems work.
Back to the traffic example. In many ways, traffic follows the laws of hydrodynamics. I won’t use technical terms in the explanation but instead, use terms that I think are understandable. Picture a massive pipe with water flowing through it. Water can only flow through a pipe at a limited volume. If the flow is at or close to the maximum volume, water flows without an issue. Let’s call this choke capacity because as soon as an obstacle is introduced, a choke point, turbulence is created and the flow is drastically reduced. The obstacle could be a valve. Even after you open the value back up the turbulence that is created all the way back down the pipe stays until you reduce the flow enough to stop the turbulence. The turbulence becomes its own obstacle.
Now picture a very full three-lane highway that is flowing nicely. The right lane is going 65, the middle is going 70, the left lane is going faster. Cars can switch lanes freely as needed. Then there’s an accident on the highway going in the other direction. Someone hits their brakes and looks over to see what’s happing. The people behind them hit their brakes. Three cars switch lanes to get past the person who originally slowed down and the cars in the other lane have to slow down to let them in. We have just created turbulence and that starts flowing all the way back down the highway.
Think of how many times you’ve been in bumper-to-bumper traffic only to get to an accident on the other side of the road and then the traffic magically starts moving again. At choke capacity, any obstacle introduced will cause turbulence in the flow.
Rubbernecking is a natural phenomenon. I do it. You do it. Your mom and dad do. Ministers do. It’s human nature. We can try to get better at it but that is unlikely. This article is titled “System of Idiots” for the situations where people disrupt systems because they can’t understand they are the reason the system is failing. The world is full of systems that could work amazingly well but because people don’t understand they are part of the system, they break the system. I will use the highway example again and then move on to some other systems.
On a two-lane highway, we have a cruising lane (right lane) and a passing lane (left lane). That is the system. If you’re going down the road, you drive in the cruising lane until there’s a car going slower than you. At that point, you look over your shoulder, turn on your blinker, move to the passing lane, pass, turn on your blinker again, and move back to the cruising lane.
If the road is mostly clear, what lane you ride in doesn’t matter. If the traffic is flowing at choke capacity, and you’re cruising in the left lane, you’re an idiot who doesn’t understand how the system works. How many times have you got behind someone who feels the left lane was built just for them and you have to slow down and wait to get around them? They are the obstacle causing turbulence.
Humans have built highways systems, political systems, healthcare systems, education systems, economic systems, trade systems, social security systems, business systems, communication systems, voting systems, just to name a few. While they are imperfect, to say the least, they mostly fail because people don’t understand how they fit into the system.
Reagan tried to convince us that trickle-down economics would help America. He gave the wealthy massive tax cuts with the promise businesses would prosper and this would help the poor. He didn’t understand the system or human greed. What happened is that the company executives got massive pay raises and companies stopped investing in their workers. With lower taxes, there was little incentive to invest back into the company and employees to lower the company’s taxable income. The bank accounts of the rich got much bigger as they hoarded money. Money never did trickle down.
It’s an obvious statement to say that the way to stimulate the economy is to get money flowing. Money building up in bank accounts does not stimulate the economy. Buying food, buying cars, buying electronics, buying houses, buying clothing, eating out, going to the movies, etc, is what stimulates the economy. Making the rich richer is analogous to cruising in the left lane below the speed limit while holding up your middle finger to the people behind you.
If you get money to people at the bottom of the economic scale, that money will not trickle up to the top, it will be in the fast lane with no obstructions right into the pockets of the rich. The poor do not hoard money. They can’t. They spend every bit they have. If we want to stimulate the economy, get money in the hands of the poor. Poverty is not a product of laziness. Poverty is a product of greed.
Fascinated by how the behavior of the people who took 3 pieces of pizza at the pizza party because they thought it would run out and the people who took 1 piece for the exact same reason is such a perfect encapsulation of American beliefs about community. ~ Noble Spencer
The above quote is an example of scarcity and two different mindsets of how to approach scarcity. If there’s a limited supply, do we hoard or do we take only what we need so others have enough? I think with the great toilet paper shortage of 2020 we know what many people will do. We are part of a system of idiots.
Sadly, our political system is mostly a system of idiots and we can’t blame the politicians. We voted them into their positions. The failure of our political system is the will of the American people and most of the blame is on the one issue voter who doesn’t understand the political system. We treat our political party like sports teams and loyally support them without question. We self-identify as Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, conservative, liberal, left, right, independent, and on and on, and then check a box next to a candidate with that label. We are the problem.
And … We are the solution. We need to understand how the different systems work and our place in those systems. If the systems are broken, it is our duty to help fix the system. Our political system is broken and it is up to us to fix it. Our criminal justice system is broken and it is up to us to fix it. Our health care system is broken and it is up to us to fix it. I’m sure you can name many more.
We can only fix the broken systems if we understand we are part of what breaks them.