Getting Ready for Turkey Day

turkeys

I wish I were talking about cooking for our Thanksgiving gathering. Many years ago, I aspired to a political job to run a regional Federal agency. I was on the short list and due for an interview. I prepared myself by getting up to date on what I thought were the most important issues facing the Agency. When the interview finally happened, I got through the first few questions, but was unprepared by the next that was, “How will you deal with all the turkeys.” I have forgotten my response. It made little difference as the job went to someone whose political credentials were far greater than mine.

The question has stuck with me and arises quadrennially. Governing this vast country gets harder every year and requires thoughtful people to keep it inside some unknown bounds of stability. I have long given up on any ideological set of rules that will suffice. The world, including every nation with it, is complex and pays little heed to any fixed rules. I have always been located on the liberal side of the political balance, largely because I think any potential solution to the barriers to a fairer society has to be discovered anew, not by looking backwards, even to ideas that may have worked previously.

I am not dissing ideas, but what matters are not the ideas per se, but how well the ideas fit the immediate situations. In complex systems, ideas are always and only starting positions. The infinite possibilities in an ever unpredictably changing world rules out the likelihood that any idea will work for very long. Just think about the election. Virtually every plan will have unintended consequences. The bigger than plan, the larger these consequences may be. Just look at the mess in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Inequality grows as capitalism works its ways. Climate change comes along.

The only, and I do mean only, way towards a satisfactory resolution of situations like this is to have thoughtful, committed people working on them. Russ Ackoff called such kinds of situations, “messes”; others call them “wicked problems.” Ackoff used the word “dissolve” to point to solutions that eliminated or greatly reduced the problematic situation. Importantly, he called the activities necessary to make the problem dissolve, “research.” That usage means than no easy solution to messes is ready at hand. If it were, one might ask has the problem hung around.


Research on complex problems requires pragmatic methods. The usual abstractions of ideologies and scientific principles and facts do not apply to process of understanding complex systems. Their complexity, in part, is due to the failure to be able to reduce them to such rules and laws. Pragmatism, in turn, requires a cadre of committed, concerned inquirers to wrestle with the system and try to pull its secrets out. Turkeys will not suffice.

In their first meeting, President Obama said of the President-elect, “I don’t think he is ideological. I think ultimately he is pragmatic, and that can serve him well, as long as he’s got good people around him.” I think President Obama made a serious categorical error here. The opposite of ideological is not pragmatic. Pragmatic applies to a very specific methodology for understanding complexity and for interacting with complex systems. It requires care, inquiry, and the monitoring of any intervention. Unsuccessful attempts, whether they move the system in the wrong direction or produce significant unintended consequences, must be modified. It is not easy to track the results of interventions (policy); patience is always necessary.

The lack of ideas, knowledge, or specific programs does not turn into pragmatism automatically. Much of the time it turns into chaos. One critical, essential characteristic of pragmatists is humility and a willingness to suspend those beliefs that don’t appear to be effective. My first impression of those involved in the transition is that this trait is largely missing. Rittel and Webber, who coined the phrase, wicked problem, note that solutions to complex problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad. Unlike technicians of all ilks, those who would solve wicked problems have no right to be wrong. They cannot blame the error of the abstract rules for failure. There is a deep-rooted moral responsibility involved.

I am disappointed by the election results for many reasons. With a few days to think about the outcome, I can explain my feelings in the arguments of this blog post. Democrats, as a generalization, are more committed to making government work. That fits my observations that, with all its warts, it is an essential institution. If we neglect it and turn toward the market as the solution to all problems, we will be making a great mistake. I am not being ideological here. My conclusion comes from a look at history and some knowledge about how markets do work vice how they are supposed to work.

Economists and political scientists tend to reduce the essence of political economy to mathematical abstractions. Economists are better at doing this than political scientists, which may be one reason markets appeal more to ideologues than does government. It seems clear to me and (many, many) others than some combination is always necessary, but getting that right is very difficult. Again, humility, not hubris, is needed.

I am almost finished with my new book and am getting ready to find someone to publish it. The three most important words in it are flourishing, complexity, and caring. This blog focuses on the second of these. My disappointment stretched however to the other two. I do not hear a lot about what I would call caring coming from those preparing to take the reins of government. Nor do I hear much about flourishing as I define it.

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