I’ve been working on a research project I call the Interlock Project. At its heart, it’s an attempt to describe all the ways in which the major problems facing the US are interconnected, and how each of them makes the others harder to solve.
I think that this is important for people to understand, because while most Americans who think about it will realize – intellectually – that our problems interact with each other and make each other worse, there is little appreciation of just how much this is true. There is a tendency to see each problem as a mostly self-contained issue, rather than as a piece of an enormously complicated interdependent system, despite the abundant evidence that it’s nowhere near that simple.
I began by identifying approximately 60 major problems that have a long-term impact on the future of the US. Each one is a long-standing problem that has resisted obvious solutions and that has a high degree of linkage to other problems. Figuring that keeping track of that many individual problems would be a bit… mind-boggling (i.e., nobody can keep track of that many moving pieces all at once), I grouped similar ones together until I had reduced the list to a more manageable set of 12 domains.
One of the original problems, the slowdown in the long-term growth rate of the economy, has such a large influence (directly and indirectly) on all of the others because it determines what resources we will have available for fixing other problems, that it really constitutes a domain of its own. Starting from that point, the remaining problems clustered fairly naturally into three categories, with three or four domains in each of them:
- Issues involving demography, education, poverty, and health, which have an influence on the quality of our human capital.
- Issues affecting natural resources, infrastructure, and the environment, which are areas of concern within our physical capital.
- Issues of corruption, justice, taxes & spending, and foreign relations, which have an impact on our social capital.
Each problem domain is affected by some (or all) of the others, and each in turn creates its own impacts. Linked together, they form a complex web of interconnections – something like this:
Take that in for a minute, keeping in mind that a single domain can represent half a dozen different problems. You may disagree with my placement (or non-placement) of some links, but I don’t think you’ll disagree with me about the sheer complexity of the tangled web we’re dealing with. Because of the haphazard way our political system works, we typically try to fix specific problems with (comparatively) small and direct initiatives that assume that the pieces are isolated from each other. And then we’re surprised when those “fixes” don’t actually work … or, more often, cause even worse problems.
So, bearing all this in mind, I had four goals when I started the project:
- Define the most important and most intractable problems.
- Detail the links/interconnections/impacts between the problem areas.
- Determine how important the interconnections are, with regards to how much they actually contribute to the problem(s).
- Try to identify some promising and achievable first steps that would help unsnarl the whole mess.
It’s that fourth goal that I want to focus on here.
When I started the project, I worried that there would be no starting point, that the problems facing American society had truly become a single, massive, interlocking mega-problem that had to be solved all at once or not at all – and that an “all at once” total overhaul was far beyond both our political will and our resources. History has shown repeatedly that societies that get themselves in that kind of trap are on a path that eventually leads to either prolonged decline, or collapse, or painful revolution.
However, spelling out the nature of the interconnections in our current mess suggests that we are not yet in such a bad situation, and that there are several achievable starting points. This is very good news, because the nature of the Interlock is that it mostly works to prevent any meaningful reform. Trying to fix A without first fixing B and C will fail, but solving B depends on solving D and E and making real progress on F, and so on. My concern was that it would all loop back on itself with no entry point, but fortunately, that turned out not to be the case.
The big surprise, at least for me, was the nature of one of the best candidates for a starting point: ending the War on Drugs.
Drug use, addiction, drug trafficking, and drug-related crime are clearly problems for all modern societies, and they clearly have impacts on many parts of the Interlock, including health, education, justice, corruption, and government finance. But I think most people assume, as I did, that this is essentially a law enforcement issue, not a major contributor to why we seem to be on the wrong track and unable to solve major social and economic problems.
As I have worked on analyzing and documenting the interdependencies in the Interlock, I’ve slowly come to the realization that this seriously underestimates the harm we are doing to ourselves. The strategy we have followed for dealing with the drug problem has not only failed utterly to solve the problem, but has in fact become a major contributor to almost every part of the Interlock.