Blog 138. American Angst Part 6 of 7: Relieving angst in a complex system

The daily TV news sustains the angst in America,* but unlike the repetitive TV news, the situation isn’t hopeless.

The known science of complex systems indicates the route to remedy: alter the rules of interaction among the players.

Complexity means the emergent (self-organized) characteristics of a complex system. A complex system is a set of many actors (things, persons) that alter their actions in response to each other. Examples: the stock market. Drivers on a crowded freeway. Cells and chemicals in your body. Schooling fish. Human society is a complex system.

An emergent behavior of a complex system is different from the behavior of any single actor in the system. It’s the coherent movement of the schooling fish. It’s the fluctuations, large and small, in the stock market. It’s the traffic jams on the freeway without obvious causes. It’s your body’s response to stress. The symptoms underlying angst in our society are emergent behaviors.

The doubling of population in a lifetime increased social complexity, but the million-fold increase of each person’s interconnections by the internet and the social media increased our complexity astronomically. We feel powerless to manage the emergent trends of our society, such as the move into fascism, the governance by money, and the confusion by deliberate misinformation.  But we are not powerless.

To change an emergent behavior in a complex system, you must alter the rules of interaction between the actors.

To avoid schooling of fish you could breed fish without the instinct (rule) to swim next to each other. To reverse the inequality of opportunity, access to education must be open to all. To stop economic collapses and extreme income disparity, we must alter the rules regarding money in politics and set gradual limits on the accumulation of wealth and income. Otherwise, the positive feedback of money and politics will ultimately destroy the system—which is the society. I repeat: any system with unlimited positive feedback will self-destruct.

We don’t openly acknowledge our ideology of winner-take-all, which generates loses for a majority. Winning should have gradual limits (progressive taxes, anti-monopoly), but not prohibition. The Communists tried that and it didn’t work. Elections should select statesmen, not theatric winners. The function of government is to protect the common good, not to promote domination.

Avoid suppressing the unwanted behaviors directly.

Suppressing unwanted behavior of the system will result in some other unforeseen effect. For example: To end traffic jams, we build more roads. That induces more commuting and more traffic jams. Good public transportation would alter the unwritten rules of commuting. To fix the 2008 economic meltdown brought by the banks’ risky speculation, we infused failing banks with seven hundred billion public dollars, which encouraged the foreclosure of homeowners’ mortgages. The fault was (and is again) incorrect rules for banking. We have too many bureaucratic rules regarding the response to pollution after it’s made, and inadequate rules discouraging the generation of pollution.

We make social decisions by politics, but American political discussions ignore or deny reality. Political rhetoric centers on winning, not on the realities of budgets, education, opportunity, pollution, and immigration. We prefer to hear comforting messages rather than to hear the facts.

Real budgeting would compare costs, benefits, and who gains or loses.

Education is the opportunity to learn by doing, not accountability by performance tests of memorized material.

Opportunity is the possibility for growing. The disparity of opportunity is driven by money in politics, subsidizing business instead of schools.

Pollution is disposal of wastes into common land, air, and water—not an ideology you either believe or disbelieve.

Immigration: The American ideal was written as “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.“** Fact: mass migration brings its culture with it. Repulsion of immigrants by itself fails to recognize that massive immigration is an emergent behavior of someone else’s complex system. We haven’t considered what national or international social rules underlie the mass movement, and what can we do about that.

We must decide what’s in the commons and what’s private, and let government protect the commons, not make market decisions.

That doesn’t mean that everything should be regulated, nor that everything should be government-owned (socialism). We haven’t decided what should be common and what should be private. We can’t decide whether public health is a common good or a private market item, so we apply a broken insurance system (Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare) to maintain the appearance of a medical market—but it has different prices for different people. Health care or highways or oil might be either marketable or common goods, but not both at the same time.

Good government is freedom, regulated for the chosen common goods. Don’t tell me that absence of regulation is “freedom.” That’s chaos run by corruption. Society is regulation, right down to how you set the silverware on the dinner table.

So long as we won’t talk about the hidden rules—the actual ways we interact and govern—we feel powerless to change the problems and we react in fear.

When fearful, we elect suppression by money, the fascist solution. Instead of “winners” we need political candidates who say, “I’m not here to win. I’m running to fix the distortions that divide us. My loyalty is to the country, not to a party or a political creed. If you don’t want that, I’m happy to lose.

Make politicians and media analysts talk.

Talk about

  • how the inflationary effect of deficit budgeting selectively boosts the upper classes at the expense of the lower economic classes—those who own neither property nor speculative investments;
  • how public universities are run like research corporations;
  • regulatory agencies managed to favor particular businesses;
  • opportunity for the economic ghettos, including groups being displaced by gentrification;
  • identification of what things we consider common and which things are marketable: when is water common, when is it owned, who benefits from marketing of common property and pollution;
  • the fact that unrestricted immigration brings cultural tensions, while the only permanent fix must be in the homelands of the refugees;
  • integrity in office, taking money out of politics, and attending to common needs instead of donors;
  • talking to each other, especially those on the “other” political side. Ask whether government exists to protect the commons, whether a regulated free market is a benefit in common.

Talk to each other, with each other. And vote.

Only 58% of eligible voters went to the polls during the 2016 election, 37% in the 2014 midterm election. In California, participation dropped from 44% in 2010 to 33% in 2014 to 22% in 2016.

Question the candidates. Every political brochure I’ve seen features only winning—beat the bad other side. No facts, no solutions, no integrity. Integrity—installing leaders who are what they say they are—is the objective.

If the speak-no-fact politicians remain in office, it’s the citizens, acting divided and powerless, who sold themselves to the big donors. The donors were just acting like winners.


Next: Part seven will offer a synopsis to conclude this series.


* The first five parts of this sequence described the state of the nation, the alienation of individuals, engineered inequality, the slide into fascism, and the unspoken rules of the disenchantment with America.

** Words on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty (original spelling).