What’s wrong with the US? Why can’t we seem to make any progress on solving fundamental problems? Congress is good at avoiding or postponing problems, but seems incapable of really dealing with them. Even discounting for the “Great Recession,” our long-term average economic growth rate seems stuck at an anemic 2% instead of the robust 3.5% to 4.5% that would be needed to get back to full employment and maintain our position in the world.
There is a widespread feeling that the United States is in trouble – that we’re either stagnating, in a long-term decline, or just not moving forward fast enough to keep up with the rest of the world. Whether this is true or not is an open question. There have been similar feelings of malaise in the US before, most recently in the 1930s and 1970s, and the country has emerged afterwards stronger than ever. But there is nothing automatic or guaranteed about that process. Just as in the past, getting out of today’s doldrums requires grappling with problems and finding effective solutions to them.
Throughout most of its history, America has been defined by optimism – a belief that this country is destined to be great. America has always been the land of opportunity, the place where the term “manifest destiny” was coined. Most people don’t realize how deep this belief goes. From early colonial times, the standard of living in America was at or near the highest in the world. In the twentieth century, the US became the preeminent world power. So why the sense of gloom, the feeling that our country and our leadership are slipping?
In part, it’s because it’s lonely at the top, and everyone has high expectations – perhaps unrealistically high – for the world’s leading nation. But mostly it is because there is a not-quite-developed, not fully conscious, but definite perception that we are facing a wide range of problems, and that we are failing to deal with those problems in ways that have a realistic and believable chance of solving them. There’s a sense that we have somehow become stuck, trapped in a quicksand of unresolved and seemingly unsolvable dilemmas.
This is reflected powerfully in the figures on public confidence in government. When asked the question, “How much of the time do you trust the government in Washington?” more than three fourths of adult Americans during the Eisenhower and Kennedy years said “Just about always” or “Most of the time.” By 2012, that had declined to less than 20%.
Congress, always the least trusted branch of government, has seen its approval ratings decline to single digits in recent polls, an all-time low. It now rates lower in popularity than lice, cockroaches, used-car salesmen, France, or root canals, and just barely ahead of telemarketers and playground bullies. To say that we have lost faith in government seems inadequate. These are the kinds of trust and confidence numbers you would expect to see in Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, or Syria, not the US.
Gloom can be overdone, of course, and the public mood does tend to swing to extremes, but even if we aren’t currently on the road to national collapse, there are some dark clouds on the horizon:
- Our government spends far more than it collects in taxes. When you look ahead to our obligations for things like Medicare and Social Security, our debt is heading toward unsustainable levels.
- Our infrastructure is deteriorating, and the price for fixing it goes up each day that we procrastinate.
- Our educational system is failing to produce better educated workers for our labor force, increasing income inequality, reducing our competitiveness in the world economy, and hampering our economy’s ability to grow.
- Our healthcare system is the most expensive in the world, yet produces poor results. We rank last among 17 rich nations on life expectancy and 47th, behind many really poor nations, on infant mortality, two key measure of health quality.
- Most importantly, we are stuck in what looks to many experts like a long-term economic slump. Barring major reforms, there seems little hope for returning to the average growth levels we enjoyed in the last century.
The list goes on, and for problem after problem – jobs, economic development, education, poverty, health, the environment, infrastructure, resources, political corruption – there is a sense that neither political party has credible answers, the answers they do have are diametrically opposed, and their positions are so far apart that no rational compromise or workable third solution is possible. The result is gridlock, and a widespread perception that we are locked in and unable to respond to current problems and impending crises – a sense that a train is barreling down on us and we are paralyzed and stuck in the middle of the tracks, watching it get closer and closer.
This is enormously frustrating for people on the left and right, who feel that they have the answers if only the other side would stop obstructing them. It’s also frustrating for those who are not true believers in left-wing or right-wing ideologies, and who see themselves as increasingly unrepresented in the national dialogue.
Interlocking Problems and the Failure of Piecemeal Solutions
In What is the Interlock Project, I describe the dependency analysis that led up to this project. One of the conclusions from that analysis was that many of the hardest problems we face are interlinked and interdependent in a way that makes them all much harder to solve. Because that isn’t something that is generally recognized, we have been attempting to solve them in a piecemeal fashion, which almost guarantees that attempted solutions will fail.
Over the last half century, we have launched grand efforts to solve a number of problems – like poverty, drug abuse, poor education, and flagging economic growth and stability – and we have made remarkably little progress for all the time, money, and political capital expended. These failures and others have wasted scarce resources, hurt the economy, and undermined the public’s faith in our institutions and our ability to solve problems. But this creates a vicious circle. As more and more voters see government as corrupt, wasteful, and incompetent, they withdraw their support for it. Without popular support, government becomes even less effective, undermining support still further.
If we are going to break this cycle, we are going to have look at the problems facing the United States and its sprawling, massively interconnected economic, social, legal, and political systems, and try to come up with a coherent set of affordable solutions that do not conflict with each other and actually have a realistic chance to succeed. To do that, we need to look carefully at how all of these problems are interconnected.
Here’s a sample. When you hear someone talking about why we need to fix our educational system, what reasons do they give? It’s usually to make sure that the next generation will be able to get good jobs and to help the economy grow. That’s one connection.
In addition to economic benefits, education helps people make better lifestyle decisions that help them get out of poverty. That’s connection number two. And then, the unfortunate fact that the poorer you are, the less likely you are to get a good education. Connection number three. And, of course, economic growth increases job opportunities which also helps reduce poverty, so there’s a link there.
Of course, the economy also impacts education, but it tends to do so to a large degree through the government. An unfortunate example of this is what we’ve seen in the aftermath of the Great Recession: the drop in tax revenues caused many state and local governments to fire teachers and slash spending on schools. So the economy impacts how the government spends money, which impacts education.
So imagine, if you will, how many of the issues that the US is facing can be fit into this kind of framework. Healthcare? It has an impact on education, poverty, and economic growth, and it absorbs a huge amount of money from the government. Infrastructure? This impacts education, poverty, and the economy too. Potholed roads and collapsing bridges drive up maintenance and transportation costs for everyone. Some of our cities and towns have sewers and water lines that are over a century old and are deteriorating rapidly; broken water mains and sewer lines threaten public health, disrupt business, and drive property values and school tax revenues down. And neglected infrastructure always requires large amounts of government money to fix. Let’s add some of those links:
That’s six issues that we’re worried about, and fifteen links. Is your brain starting to hurt, trying to think of all that at once? Well, that’s only half of the problems we’re facing.
The focus of this project will be on an interlocking web of twelve of these issues, selected for their impact and connectedness to other issues. The web of connections looks something like this:[Note: diagram has been color-coded for clarity; black for the Economy, red for Human Capital, green for Physical Capital, and blue for Social Capital]
This is what I call “the interlocking meta-problem,” or simply the Interlock, and I believe it is the real reason behind a lot of our inability to make progress on these individual problems. Efforts to solve any one problem are blocked by that solution’s dependence on solving others. You can’t solve problem A without having solved B, C, and D, but when you try to solve B, C, and D, you run into the same issue, that each of those is dependent on others, until it all circles back to wherever you started.
No matter how hard we look, there is no one obvious starting point, no simple step-by-step plan that says, “First, do this, then do this,” and so on. Yet we clearly do not have the money, will, or political consensus to tackle all of these problems at once at a high-enough level to actually resolve them. So we periodically try to solve one problem or another, and fail. Or, more often, we fall back on trivial measures that just kick each can down the road a bit.
There are some problems that need to be tackled first, and some solutions that are clearly better than others in terms of the whole tangled web, but they are not obvious and are definitely not the ones that would stand out in a voter survey as the highest priority issues or the most important policies. Their importance does not stand out until you look at the whole Interlock. Only then can you see that certain things are prerequisites for any general solution.
Missing the Forest for the Trees
The interlocking nature of our problems becomes clear if you look at the contrasting arguments of reformers and the targets of reform. In field after field, those who think they know how to solve a problem will tell you all the good things that will result from solving that problem now. They are experts on the downstream links radiating out from “their” issue. Implement my solution, they say, and look at how it will help with all of these other problems!
Meanwhile, the people in the system who are being blamed for their failure to solve that problem are passionate experts on the upstream links – all the reasons that their system can’t be fixed because of all the broken systems affecting it.
Thus, education reformers will rhapsodize about all of the other problems that will be solved, or at least become much easier to solve, if we magically create the opportunity for a first-class education for every child in the US. And they’re right, at least about the consequences. If there were a quick, straightforward way to “fix” education, it would help solve all kinds of other problems!
But teachers and principals and superintendents will tell you that school reform efforts have failed repeatedly because of a combination of poverty, dysfunctional families and communities, poor health care and nutrition, incompetent local and state government, contradictory demands from Washington, and lack of adequate funding. If you don’t do anything about those problems, they say, how can you expect schools to improve?
Both are right, up to a point, though it often seems that they spend their time talking past each other. And the same pattern is revealed everywhere you look. If you are part of a system, you understand why fixing that system is dependent on fixing many other things that are wrong. But that becomes a reason for not making a major effort to fix the system you are in. “Start over there,” they say, “and come back when you’ve made it possible to get results here.”
On the other hand, if you believe you have a solution, especially if you think you have a quick, effective solution, then you want to motivate people to implement it, and so you have a natural tendency to concentrate on the benefits and ignore or dismiss the upstream dependencies that will prevent your solution from working.
The result is like one of those Chinese puzzles, with dozens of pieces that lock together, and no obvious starting point. For decades, we’ve been doing the equivalent of pushing here and there on the puzzle and hoping for a response. Programs are periodically launched, with great fanfare, and then achieve little. Some are indeed important in terms of preventing problems from getting worse, but they don’t resolve the underlying issues, so the problems remain.
This lack of progress increases partisan bitterness, as each side blames the other for failures. It also seriously undermines our confidence in our leaders, our political system, ourselves, and our future as a nation.
Until we understand the Interlock itself, and acknowledge the degree to which these problems are interdependent, it’s unlikely that random, uncoordinated efforts will do any good.
Don’t doubt that there are solutions, though – workable ones. When I began this project, I was afraid that what I’d find would be an unsolvable mess, a Gordian knot that would be unbreakable without some sort of national collapse and reformation. But what I’ve found in the process of developing the project has given me hope that American can revitalize itself, just as we have in the past.
Like that Chinese puzzle, the Interlock is resistant to change from most directions. But, when pressed in the right way, one piece can be moved a little bit. Once that is done, each successive piece becomes easier, until eventually the structure falls apart. The US was the powerhouse of the 20th century – if we can find the right place(s) to push, we can take the Interlock apart in a generation, and the 21st century will be the second American century.