Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 October 2014

How our Eleven Big Yankee Problems Still Fester

Nearly three years go, I posted a table and essay analyzing what I called our “Ten Grave National Problems.” This essay and table updates that analysis.

My previous post was a bit deficient in counting. There are actually eleven problems: one had parts A and B.

But that really doesn’t matter. In the intervening almost three years, not a single one of the eleven has come close to resolution. Most we haven’t even begun to address seriously.

Isn’t that just what we should expect, with our do-nothingest Congress ever and a President stymied except for unilateral executive action? Supposed “leaders” calling each other names and fighting over abstractions, including ideology that borders on theology, don’t usually solve problems. Our present Congress is a far, far cry from the common sense, pragmatism and cooperative engineering spirit of our Founders.

We have made a little progress on a few problems. Fracking for oil has reduced our foreign oil dependence, but nowhere close to zero. The Fed’s new rules, plus similar rules of foreign central banks, have reduced the risk of finance going rogue again. But length, complexity and lobbyists have turned the much-vaunted Dodd-Frank law into mush. Mush won’t hold up well to pressure, let alone stave off the next financial panic.

We’ve made some progress on endless wars. We’ve wound down our direct combat involvement in two, in Iraq and Afghanistan. But a cynic would say we’re still at war in both places, just on a smaller scale and more discretely. And even if our new war against the Islamic State is not a whole new war, it’s at least an extension into Syria.

We’ve made some tiny progress on infrastructure decay: we’ve fixed a few bridges and we’ve talked a lot. But we still have about $2 trillion (with a “T”) of work to do and money to find. Our national deficit is falling rapidly, although our national debt is still increasing, albeit with lower annual deficits. We’ve not done much about our public education lag, but our states are experimenting with solutions, some of which seem promising. At least we’ve mostly stopped arguing about how venal and blameful are our teachers—the lowest-paid educated professionals in our entire society, and the ones on whom our collective future most depends.

Yet nearly half of the Eleven Big Ones are virtually untouched. Economic inequality, immigration, and the decline in our science (except maybe for medicine) are worse. That fact that we’re over a year behind in developing vaccines or drugs for ebola while it begins to penetrate our heartland speaks volumes. Broken government and global warming are much worse.

Meanwhile, nearly three years have passed. That raises the average longevity of our Eleven Big Ones up to 20.5 years—more than an entire generation!

Which brings me to my primary point. If you’re a regular post-secondary student beginning community college, college or university, our Eleven Big Ones are, on average, older than you are. If we continue to work on them at our present lazy rate for just twice again as long, you will be retired, or nearly so, and none of them will have been solved. Your retirement won’t be nearly as secure or comfortable as mine is because the Stars and Stripes may be flying over a banana republic.

Unless you become an activist, an Elon Musk, or an FDR, the most important thing you can do to keep all this from happening is to spend some time and vote this November. If you spend as much time researching for whom to vote as you do on your average daily homework, you will know how to vote. If not, you can read this essay.

The table below shows, for your despair, the Eleven Big Ones that have festered so far, on the average, for more than a generation. In my earlier essay, I explained at length why my longevity numbers are extremely conservative, i.e., very low, with a couple of exceptions. In essence, the listed years of origin for nearly all the problems mark the first broad public notice of them, not their true substantive origins. For global warming, for example, the true origin goes back to the Industrial Revolution.

Here are the Eleven Big Ones, arranged in roughly descending order of importance. Read them and weep:

The Eleven Big Ones: Our Long-Unsolved National Problems

1Broken GovernmentRoutine Use of Filibuster197539 years
2Foreign Oil DependenceSecond Arab Oil Embargo197341 years
3Global WarmingJoint National Academies’ Statement20059 years
4Economic InequalityGrasso Pay Controversy200311 years
5Infrastructure DecayMinnesota I-35W Bridge Collapse20077 years
6Decline of ScienceCanceling Superconducting Super Collider199321 years
7Public-Education LagReport A Nation at Risk198331 years
8Finance Going RogueGramm, Leach, Bliley Act199915 years
9Endless WarsBush Declaration200113 years
10ImmigrationImmigration Reform and Control Act198628 years
11National DebtOff-Budget Iraq War200311 years

Average longevity of The Eleven Big Ones: 20.5 years

(Comparisons: We rose from isolationism to become a decisive factor in winning World War II in four years. In the process, we invented atomic energy and nuclear weapons. We went to the Moon from a standing start in less than ten years.)
If you are not a pol yourself, or a billionaire, you have only one recourse to have any impact on this dismal record: inform yourself, think and vote. And as you think, ponder whether how easy it is for gays to get married, for women to get an abortion, or for anyone to carry a gun legally is as important to your children’s happiness as any of The Eleven Big Ones, let alone all put together.



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