Friday, August 3, 2012

The Collapse of Our Institutions

A few months ago, I came across this article, compellingly titled "In Nothing We Trust", which catalogues our widespread lack of faith in the institutions of public life. Here's a sample:
People have lost faith in their institutions. Government, politics, corporations, the media, organized religion, organized labor, banks, businesses, and other mainstays of a healthy society are failing. It’s not just that the institutions are corrupt or broken; those clich├ęs oversimplify an existential problem: With few notable exceptions, the nation’s onetime social pillars are ill-equipped for the 21st century. Most critically, they are failing to adapt quickly enough for a population buffeted by wrenching economic, technological, and demographic change.
The article goes on to highlight all the ways our institutions seem to be failing us. And who can deny that the pillars of civic life listed above are failing badly? Anecdotally, I speak to many people who feel as though we don't have the will or the ability to accomplish great things -- or even necessary things -- collectively.

The authors imply that this is a failure of adaptation: we need to change but we won't. But I think it is more fundamentally a failure of communication. We are increasingly incapable of telling others what we need and what we can offer. We don't have the shared assumptions, or the shared vocabulary, necessary to accomplish much institutionally.

An example: there was recently a dust-up about whether government created the Internet. An article by Farhad Manjoo ridiculed conservatives who challenged Obama's claim that the Internet was a fruit of government spending. He correctly points out that most of the fundamental technologies that allowed the Internet to develop were created by government agencies or government-sponsored research. But let's look at the original Obama quote that sparked the controversy:
“The Internet didn’t get invented on its own,” Obama said. “Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.”
This was part of Obama's now (in)famous Virginia speech, where he uttered the often-quoted words, "You didn't build that." Conservatives have spent the month or so insisting that the speech revealed Obama holds to a liberal worldview that the government is the prime mover of society. Liberals pushed back by saying he was making a totally uncontroversial point about the role of infrastructure and basic research in allowing society to function and advance smoothly. But let's go back to the quote above: Obama uses the phrase "so that", implying that (to a conservative's ears) the purpose of the Internet was to allow private enterprise a new opportunity to make money. That's pretty clearly not true: the basic technologies of the Internet were invented to allow easier communication between a group of academics and researchers, and additional technologies and programs were, over decades, layered on top of it to create much of our current online experience. Conservatives are objecting both to the apparent diminishing of that private contribution, as well as the notion that government was far-sighted enough to develop the Internet for the private economy's gain. But again, liberals hear the same words and take away only that the government's efforts were a necessary precursor to private entrepreneurship.

The schism in the electorate exemplified by the above controversy suggest it is going to be near-impossible to get the two sides to agree on anything. Which leaves institutions two options: choose a side or try to split the difference. Choosing a side, of course, infuriates the other, while attempting to be "objective" just invites endless gotcha moments whenever one side thinks you've failed to live up to that ideal. It leads to a culture marked by scorekeeping and interminable squabbles over details rather than the progress that comes from a clear and widely accepted purpose. What we have now is two adversarial social tribes, each searching for a way to win.

To some degree, this tribal combat has always existed, but it is enhanced and made more toxic by information overload. Try to figure out, for example, the potential impacts of Obamacare on our budget and deficit. Read the Congressional Budget Office analysis, which alone will overwhelm you. (I'll be honest, I haven't read it all and don't plan to.) Now look at the responses from conservatives who criticize its more optimistic assumptions, and liberals who don't think the CBO credits certain cost-saving measures enough. Who's right? They'll all make at least superficially plausible arguments (unless you wade into the depths of the blogosphere) but there's no final answer. When there were relatively few information sources to choose from, consensus was at least possible, or you would have two or three arguments, a number manageable enough to consume and judge. Now, there's always another voice clamoring to be heard, and so most people throw up their hands and trust the folks representing their tribe to be right.

I'm taking a Coursera class on fantasy literature taught by Eric Rabkin, of the University of Michigan. For our first class we read Grimms' Fairy Tales, and he lectured that part of the purpose of the Tales was to forge the basis for a common German identity. The stories we tell each other, the fundamental beliefs that inform how we process information and make decisions, those are the basis for agreement and the starting point for institutions that can function well. Nowadays, though, we don't have any common stories, and even the words we hear mean different things depending on our politics. We seem doomed to fight over who is right while our institutions collapse around us.

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