The cover of the September 19th issue of Newsweek carries this imprecation in bold red: “Let’s Just Fix it.” The subhead reads: Move over, Mr. President. Everyday Americans Can Turn This Country Around.” Inside are 29 solutions, each one coming from someone with an narrow interest.The founder of Zipcar says, “make cars smarter.” The CEO of Nasdaq want more visas for high-level workers. The founder of Linked In suggests that “Young people need to think about their careers more like a business, and think about their brand.”
Having just written a post on the need for systems thinking, the approach taken by Newsweek is deplorable. The problems all of the respondents are addressing may appear to have singular causes, but come from a broad systems failure. In my previous post, I used a powerful quote from a Davis Brooks op-ed piece in the New York Times. He concluded an excellent article about the need to think holistically to be able to cope with the complexity of today’s world with this: “The world economy has many rigidities. The worst ones are in people’s heads.”
Everyone of the solutions comes from a person exemplifying Brooks’s statement. This is not a pejorative assertion I am making. It simply reflects the way our society—everyone—has learned to think. Even when we say we think out of the box, we are still trapped by the beliefs and norms buried deep in our cognitive systems.
The fixes proposed are at best short-term bandages applied to stanch the bleeding. There’s nothing wrong with trying to do this. There is enough pain around to justify action, but not at the expense of relaxing efforts to go deep into the system and begin to unearth the roots of the problems, and aim our remedies at that level. We were willing to let FDR take bold steps to do just this with outcomes that brought us out of the Great Depression and lasted for decades.
The solutions he applied are probably not appropriate today because the world is very different, even though many of the problems resemble those of the 1930’s, for example, in place of fascism we have terrorism. None of the fixes in the Newsweek article would scramble the world sufficiently to approach the systemic context necessary to design effective solutions. Smarter cars is not the answer to congestion or pollution. Public transportation, telecommuting, bicycles, or urban redesign would represent a rethinking of mobility needs at a more basic level. A better educational system (We once had one) would obviate the need to go begging for talent from outside the US. We are already doing too much to convince young (and old) people that they are nothing but an economic unit. Careers are about taking care of something that is valued. Careers are where one’s public identity is forged. Linked In’s suggestion would continue the depreciation of the “human” part of human being.
What Newsweek needs to do if they really care about the future of the country and the worlds is to begin to feature stories about complexity, pragmatism, possibility, local knowledge understanding, care and the rest of a long list of distinctions and ideas that are not to be found in the box they are stuck in. Instead of Jack Welch, T. Boone Pickens, or Lawrence Summers, we need to voices of Russ Ackoff, Donella Meadows or Ludwig von Bertalanffy (all deceased): Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Frijtjof Capra, Humberto Maturana, and a raft of others. They speak in the language of complexity without which these important ideas will not filter into the culture and to those with power to make real change happen. Our cultural ground goes all the way back to the Greeks with a substantial addition by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. The new distinctions they coined and put into play both make our life the way it is, but also bring us the problems we face. Without new thinking and new ways to understand the ways the world and our species work, we will be unable to get beyond merely fixing problems to constructing new institutions and technologies that will move toward sustainability and leave our current woes behind.

One Reply to “Mr. Fixit Is Out”

  1. What’s particularly deplorable about Newsweek’s story is that most people who read the story will make the assumption that what needs to be “fixed” is the market-based economy. This is so ingrained in people that what needs to be fixed does not need to be made explicitly clear.
    You and I know that what needs to be fixed is not the economy; it’s the system. Our economy functions within the broader social system, which operates within the broader environmental system. If anything, our environment (in which our social and economic systems function) needs some fixing.
    I read an interesting quote the other day about unemployment during the Great Depression (1930s). From memory it is something like this: “There is something wrong with an economic system that fails when three out of four qualified workers are IN the workforce”. There was 25% unemployment at the time, which was devastating to the economy. That tells us something about the lack of resilience built-in to a market-based economy.

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