Thursday, May 18, 2006


Problem No. 4: Breakdown of Human Relations and Polarization

This should have been at the top of the list because it underlies all other problems but it is far more difficult to quantify than the three issues I listed first and I was reluctant to start within something that may seem too subjective.

We are witnessing a breakdown of communities, families, institutions, and in general an increased emphasis on "everyone for himself/herself." While it is customary to lament the breakdown of the nuclear family that is not the worst problem. Families with two parents working long hours to attain luxury goods while paying scant attention to their children are in worse trouble than many single parent families. The constant barrage of advertising encouraging people to stretch themselves to the limit to acquire material goods is worse than any totalitarian brainwashing.

Nearly fifty years ago J. K. Galbraith wrote the book The Affluent Society where he pointed out a major weakness of the consumer society. Individuals could be well off but the commons, education, public transportation, environment, etc. were neglected. The neglect of the commons encourages people to look after their own narrow interests, thus feeding a vicious cycle. For example, if public transportation is poor, some people will abandon it and start driving to work. This will reduce the number of riders and therefore the income of public transportation which in turn will reduce the quality of service even further leading more people to abandon the service.

In addition, there has been an increasing polarization in the views of the public (there have been several articles in the press on this issue, often in terms of "red" versus "blue" states). The polarization is usually expressed in a Manichaean view of the world: a struggle of good versus evil. Policies are either very good or very bad. Unfortunately the world is quite complex and a simplistic view of good versus evil is too naive. This world view should be contrasted with the Japanese view that places great importance on balance. (I have already referred to Japan in favorable terms in earlier postings. This does not mean that I consider it a model society, only that they deal with certain issues in a better way than we do.)

Clearly, different segments of society have different interests (for example labor versus employers) and it is necessary to balance such interests. There is no magic formula for finding the proper equilibrium and the best we can hope is to avoid large deviations in favor of one group or another. This seems to be happening in several countries where power alternates between right-of-center and left-of-center parties. This is certainly the case in Western Europe, Canada, and Japan. It was also the case in the United States until the mid sixties. Then the Goldwater candidacy came up with the slogan that he was "A Choice, not an Echo." It was true that until then (at least since Roosevelt) that there was little difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, one favoring slightly the unions, the other favoring slightly business. Alternating between two parties with platforms that did not differ drastically was good for stability and changing those in power limited corruption.

Goldwater's defeat seemed to encourage the left and the late sixties and early seventies witness the excesses of the left. This in turn produced a reaction by the right and we were well on our way to polarization. For example, the left start pushing for the removal of any mention of God in state sanctioned activities and the right started pushing for teaching biology in accordance with the Bible. We have the strange phenomenon that some courts are dealing with lawsuits requiring the removal of the word God from various public statements while other courts deal with lawsuits requesting (in effect) that biology be taught in accordance with the Bible. If I read a story describing a "mythical" country where both things were happening I would find it far fetched. Unfortunately, it happens in our country.

Electoral campaigns seem to be dominated by what are mainly personal issues rather than the serious problems (economy, energy, education) that our country is facing. Because the real problems are difficult and hard to explain in sound bytes politicians (of both parties) prefer to focus on marginal issues.

The topic is endless, but I will close the discussion here and return to specific issues. keep in mind though that many of the specific problems are manifestions of the breakdown of our human relations.
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