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Friday, April 22

Your village called. They're missing an idiot. Stuck at the intersection of government and the Mass Age, Part II

Note to new readers: Kindly turn to the first essay in this series before proceeding.

John Loftus told a story at this year's National Intelligence Conference that illustrates the lengths to which smart, dedicated government workers have been driven since there's been government. I won't recount the details but the gist is that a dizzy congressional led a movement that resulted in an agency being instructed to purge vital data from their files. The agency workers complied with the exact letter of the instruction. They removed the papers from each file and stapled them to the outside of the file.

Traditionally, a healthy society can sustain many idiots in government and I think Americans can say with pride that this has been the case for our society. Yet there is a vast difference between stupidity and ignorance, and it's on the difference that the fate of civilizations seems to hang. A new set or combination of factors creates situations that find no referent in the traditional storehouse of wisdom. Intelligence then is measured in the ability to recognize ignorance--the limits of knowledge--and the need to learn and experiment.

Here society is at great disadvantage because government has the power to resist experimentation and learning. And because government is oriented to managing and containing problems rather than finding solutions, they tend to respond to the limits of knowledge in predictable fashion: with propaganda designed to reassure the populace that a challenge does not represent a new phenomenon. In short, government has the ability to play ostrich and convince the society to do the same.

Under the rule of monarchs and dictatorships, society doesn't have much choice but to go along with playing ostrich, until the challenge from the new phenomenon is so readily apparent that only a threat of revolt induces experimentation. But in a democracy there is always the chance to respond to a new phenomenon before 11th Hour actions are the only option left.

The question is whether we are really facing a new phenomenon in this era or a combination of old phenomena gussied up in a new dress. After all, overpopulation is not new and neither are desertification, violent climate changes, topsoil erosion, plague, doomsday weapons (the catapult was a doomsday weapon of its era), highly mobile armies, trade wars, and so on.

I think what's new is the will combined with the ability to play God on a global scale; i.e., the supporters of the nurture side of the Nurture vs. Nature argument have pretty much won. We now expect government agencies and international organizations to solve problems ranging from drought to forest fires, from desertification to starvation to pandemic. Not to mention dealing with impertinent asteroids wandering too near Earth.

Now here anyone with sense would ask, "Are humans insane?" If humanity only consisted of females the answer would be yes. But there is only one way to efficiently manage males, and that is to keep them sufficiently occupied. Pundita realized this the night she heard a male talk seriously about exploring the earth's core by tunneling there via setting off nuclear explosions deep within the earth.

Pundita blurted, "We need a program to colonize Mars--yesterday!"

Men have to keep going, you understand. Now that the globe has been mapped and shown to be a very small place, by the reckoning of the solar system, we need to get males started on exploring and colonizing the galaxy. That will keep them happily occupied for a few more million years.

From this angle, all the fiddling we're doing with Nature has a rational, beneficial purpose, provided we don't blow up earth in the process. We're getting ready to journey offworld and for that, we'll need a great deal of knowledge for creating climates and whatnot that will support human life offworld.

But here we come to a snag. The storehouse of bitter wisdom that the World Bank has built is proof that you can't fix anything without breaking something, somewhere down the line.

So the real task is not so much to solve the problems that plague humanity (and individual societies) but to solve them in ways that don't flagrantly ignore Guru David's First Law of large-scale systems design. To review: If your solution is truly effective, its success carries the seeds of failure.

Tragic illustrations of this law in action abound. The all-out effort to save many forests in the US was successful--so successful that it set up conditions for forest fires on an unprecedented scale. The decision by the Brazilian government to cut extensive roads through the Amazon jungle to help farmers truck their produce to market was successful. It was so successful that it allowed many farmers to use the roads to quickly migrate to more fertile regions of the Amazon. Because they used the slash-and-burn method to clear land for crops, vast tracts of the Amazon went up in flames. That greatly impacted the earth's climate.

With hindsight, the decisions--taken without modeling how they would play out if successful--were idiotic. The knowledge about how to project scenarios was out there; it simply wasn't used. That's the kind of idiocy in government we can, and must, learn to avert. That is the greatest challenge for this era.

To be continued.
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