The Complex Causes of Social Problems

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

June, 2017 with a July 2020 update note.

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This video explains that social problems are complex and, similarly to complex social conflicts which we discussed previously, social problems need to be addressed using "massively parallel problem solving."  What this means is discussed in the context of inequality and inequity.

July 2020 Update: 

In the summer of 2020, the United States finds itself grappling with two extremely complex problems--the COVID-19 pandemic, and the upheaval about racism that erupted after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The pandemic is afflicting the rest of the world as well, of course, and the protests over racial injustice have spread widely around the world as well. While this video didn't directly address either of these kinds of events, what it says about complex problem solving is relevant to those two issues as well.  And the specific discussion of inequality and inequity is very relevant to the racial discussions currently taking place.  It also relates to the COVID-19 response, since the impacts of COVID are not distributed equally throughout society.  So while this video was created three years ago, it is still very applicable today.

Full Transcript:

Includes minor editing to increase readability.

This is Guy Burgess. For this post, I want to talk about the complex causes of social problems.

So far, we have spent a lot of time talking about how complexity-oriented thinking can open up a whole new world of possibilities with respect to strategies for dealing with intractable conflict.

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The same principal applies to all other social problems. In fact, thinking about social problems as complex adaptive systems dramatically improves our chances of meeting the adaptation challenges that we have been talking about. 

The good news is that there are a lot of folks who are interested in helping move this adaptation process along and, in some significant way, "making a difference." In fact, we, as a culture, tend to believe that there really is a solution to every problem and that, if we would just buckle down, we could solve it. 

But the problem, again, is that we humans are tool makers and we tend to think about solving problems using complicated, mechanical approaches and not the complex, organic methods that social problem-solving requires. 

I want to go back to the metaphor I used in a previous post of a super-complicated pool table where the goal was to line up the perfect pool shot so that all of the balls would go exactly where you want them to go.  But, as we said before, this approach doesn't really work. 

Still, it's the way we tend to think about things. For example, you can still go to Hillary Clinton's campaign website and find dozens of position papers outlining step-by-step plans for solving every problem. While it is probable that implementation of these plans would be a step in the right direction (at least from a progressive perspective), it is also likely that a lot of things that need doing would be left undone.  

Here, I think, H.L. Mencken's Law comes into play, "Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong." Put another way, the complexity of social problems makes complicated solutions much less effective than we would like them to be. 

Complex Problem Graphic

So what's to be done? First, we need to think about social problem-solving in a different way. This somewhat silly-looking diagram that imagines that society consists of lots of individuals, organizations, or groups that are doing things that tend to move society towards the undesirable futures of anocracy and autocracy that we talked about in an earlier post (red dots and arrows). It also imagines that there are other folks who are doing things that don't tend to make things much better and don't tend to make things much worse (orange dots and arrows).  Finally, you have others who are doing things that are helping to move society towards a more democratic ideal. The total progress of society reflects the combined influences of all of these individual efforts. Here we start with a pessimistic diagram where most of the activity is pushing society in a negative direction (red dots). 

Going back to the three-dimensional continuum chart that I used in an earlier post, this would produce a society where the preponderance of activity is at the autocratic and anocratic ends of the spectrum. 

In this second, more neutral chart, some of the activities that are pushing things in the bad direction are converted to something more neutral, and some of the neutral orange arrows are converted to the more positive green arrows. 

On the three-dimensional continuum chart this pushes society closer to the center and toward the democratic ideal. 

And, if you can push things a further by converting even more activities into the green, positive arrows and, correspondingly, reducing the number of red arrows, you can get even closer to this democratic ideal. And, as I've explained over the last several posts, this is the goal of the MOOS seminars.

It's also worth noting that if you zoom into each of these arrows you find that they consist of the subsidiary arrows and the cumulative effects of many smaller scale activities. The bottom line is that basically everybody has a role to play in pushing society in either a positive or negative direction. 

So, how does this play out? Take, for example, the inequality problem, which has, I think rightfully, garnered so much attention recently. We could do a similar exercise with terrorism, climate change, or almost any other social problem. Still, inequality is a good place to start. It's also worth noting at the onset that the problem is not really inequality but inequity – the unfair distribution of income and wealth.

Perhaps the most stunning demonstration of the nature of the problem is from Figure 2 in "Building a Better America – One Wealth Quintile at a Time." The authors went around and asked people what they thought the distribution of wealth in the United States ought to be. Folks said that they thought that the richest 20% of the population ought to get around 33% of the wealth, while the poorest 20% still ought to get about 10%.  Respondent estimates of actual values were somewhat more pessimistic than the ideal, but still fairly egalitarian. In actuality, the richest 20% own 85% of the wealth and the poorest 40% don't even have 1% of the wealth. It is this mismatch between the ideal and the actual that explains much of why inequality has emerged is such an important issue. 

The next slide has a stunning little calculation that further demonstrates the magnitude of the problem. I put this together a number of years ago and I really ought to update it. Still, the basic facts are solid and pretty stunning.  For this I looked at income share, and not wealth. In 1979, the richest 1% pulled down about 8% of the national income and by 2007 this had grown to 17%. For 2007 alone, this shift in the distribution of income amounted to $1.1 trillion – a staggering amount of money. This amounts to a yearly transfer to the super rich of about $12,000 for a typical family of four. This is also enough money to fund both Social Security and the Defense Department or almost all of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  This again explains why inequality is a problem that demands attention. 

Not surprisingly, there are conservative explanations of the nature and causes of the problem that lead to one set of proposed "solutions." And, there are a different set of liberal assessments about the problem and what to do about it.  There are also a bunch of causes of inequality / inequity that nobody's paying much attention to, even though they are a big part of the problem. 

What I want to do at this point is very quickly go through a list of some of the causes of inequality that people have been talking about, along with a little bit about possible solutions. Probably as good a place to start as any is with Lester Thurow's notion of a "Zero-sum Society." He argued several decades ago (and, I think that this is still valid) that we have become a zero-sum society in which far too many people think that the way to get ahead is by taking something from somebody else and not by working with others to produce and share more of the resulting income and wealth. Obviously, this tends to sharpen inequality between winners and losers.

This tendency is even more pronounced when factored into the tendency of wealth and power to become increasingly concentrated. Kenneth Boulding liked to quote something he called "Matthew's Law" from the Biblical Book of Matthew, "to whomsoever hath, to him shall be given." Sometimes this is referred to as a different version of the golden rule, "he who has the gold, makes the rules." The truth is that wealth and power brings with it the ability to accumulate more wealth and power by taking it from others.

There is another set of problems associated with the ability of the very, very wealthy to rationalize what amounts to boundless greed. The phrase "makers versus takers" illustrates the problem. Folks with lots of money tend to see themselves as the "makers" and everybody else is a "taker." This was a big deal in the 2012 election. If you look at stories like this one by Touryalai on banking scandals, it's easy to see boundless greed in action. The number of things that supposedly respectable banks did to rip off their customers is pretty astonishing. 

Then there is the whole notion of poverty capitalism. This Edsall article article is an interesting compilation of clever business models that people have come up with for exploiting poor people in ways that further contribute to inequality. 

There is also a sense, I think, in which the acquisition of lots of money is addictive. This article, "For the Love of Money,"  is a pretty persuasive article written by a former Wall Street hedge fund manager explaining how he had gotten hooked on making ever more money that tracks pretty closely with more conventional types of substance abuse. And, one could imagine ways of trying to treat this addiction. 

There are, of course, lots of other things that contribute to inequality. A big one is discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, color, national origin, or mental or physical handicaps. This photo from the segregation era show the "white" and "colored" drinking fountains and demonstrates the extremes to which discrimination can go. And, it is certainly true that we continue to have serious problems associated with the discrimination. 

Still, even within groups, there are serious problems as Charles Murray documents in his provocative book, Coming Apart. Within white society he outlines a number of dynamics that are reinforcing the wealth and power of the elites and further undermining the position of the working class. 

Then you have charts like this one that show that over the last 60 years, labor force participation by working age males has dropped from around 85% to 65%.  While some of this is attributable to the fact that people are spending more time in school and there is a little less pressure to "get a job," the truth is that an awful lot of folks have just dropped out of the labor force where they obviously don't make much money. 

There is also pretty solid evidence that shows that married families are economically much more successful and much less likely to be poor than unmarried, single-parent families (Rector, 2010). So, the whole question of family structure factors into all of this. 

There's also an interesting book, Scarcity, Why Having Too Little Means So Much that makes the persuasive argument that persistent scarcity and economic difficulty affects the way that people think and undermines their ability to plan for the future in ways that can help them find a way out of the disadvantaged economic situation. 

As Edsall (2013) documents, another thing that we run into is that in times of economic stress (like the recent recession), even the relatively wealthy (but now insecure) tend to become less compassionate. In other words, we tend to be more compassionate when we feel comfortable. 

Another contributor to the problem is the fact that people who make lots and lots of money often do so because they are superstars who can be among the very best in an extremely competitive global environment. 

Another big driver of inequality are the job losses associated with automation (which may be about to get a whole lot worse). To get a sense of how big of a deal this is, think about a number of instances in which 10 or 20 years ago you used to interact with a person but now all you interact with is a machine. 

And, we haven't even talked about globalization yet. 

Once you have a globalized market, you run into what Karl Marx called the "reserve army of the unemployed." This means that the unemployed in one part of the world often find themselves competing with the unemployed in another part of the world where there is higher unemployment and lower prevailing wage rates. This creates what Paul Krugman calls the fear economy where everyone feels insecure and forced to take and hang on to whatever job they can get at whatever wage they can get.

There are also larger macroeconomic questions associated with secular stagnation, which is a concept that I have never been quite able to understand. Still, it reflects a struggle among economists to understand why economies are not performing very well and why our strategies for fixing them don't seem to be working.  

Still another problem is something I call the Lance Armstrong effect. In a highly competitive environment, where well-matched competitors have done everything that they can within the rules to strengthen their positions, the tiebreaker seems to be an ability to cheat better than one's opponent. That is where Lance Armstrong excelled. He put together an astonishing string of bike racing victories by doing an extraordinary job of concealing the fact that he was taking performance-enhancing drugs. The same is true for economic markets. Those who do the best job of exploiting (and hiding the fact that they are doing so) their customers, employees, and the environment tend to come out on top. This is what governmental regulations are supposed to stop.  

Conservatives also highlight the red-tape problem.  This chart, which John Boenher is credited with putting together, highlights all of the regulatory hoops that you have to jump through if you want to set up a simple small business.  These are things that give big advantages to large, well-established firms.

Something else that undermines the effectiveness of programs designed to deal with inequality is something that Stephen Teles calls the "kludgeocracy". Basically today's governmental rules all arose out of a lengthy series of very messy compromises that produced policies that didn't work very well. Over time these inefficiencies have tended to reinforce one another and create an overall system that is often counterproductive.

Finally, you have a tax and subsidy structure that, not surprisingly, tends to favor redistribution towards the rich (Reich, 2014)

This is a list that can go on and on. 

So the big question is, what's the solution? On this multiple-choice list of all the problems that I just highlighted, check off the ones that you think we really need to solve. I bet that you'll find that Republicans and Democrats check very different boxes and that there are a lot of important boxes that nobody ever checks. 

The truth is that we need to check the "all of the above" box. We need to work on each of the issues that I just talked about, as well as a bunch more. 

This requires an approach that we call massively parallel problem-solving. Massively parallel computing, which I have mentioned in a couple of previous posts, works by getting lots of computer processors working on different aspects of a problem from different perspectives at the same time. If we can get problem solvers working on all of the things that I just listed at the same time, then we will we have a lot better chance of being successful. 

While these problems are awfully daunting and certainly difficult, they are not impossible. Our society has faced far scarier times in the not-too-distant distant past. Think about the beginning of World War II. Today, we are fortunate to not be facing anything quite that terrifying. 

So, the big question is how well are we going to be able to adapt and find solutions to the many dynamics driving the inequality problem. While grand solutions are undoubtedly unattainable, it's pretty clear that we could do a whole lot better.  And, if we can, we can leave our children and grandchildren a whole lot more livable future.


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