There comes a time in every democracy, in every nation, when we reach a crisis that can’t be handled in the usual ways, in the ways that we have traditionally managed those challenges.
We understand the world by examining the past, by looking at how we solved certain kinds of problems before, then extrapolating from those experiences to utilize a similar solution to our current dilemma.
Often this works. A recession? We can increase the money supply as well as government spending. This works to prop up the economy and keep things moving until we work our way out of whatever led us to the slowdown in the first place. It’s not perfect; we still feel economic pain, but it usually eases the suffering.
But there are times when solutions aren’t so easy to come by. The world is almost endlessly adaptable. Which means that we can almost always find a solution to any given problem.
However, any given problem also has the means to find new ways to torment us. Bacteria killed us off for many years until Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin and we then developed antibiotics.
Many people believed bacterial infections would no longer be deadly after that, but the bacteria evolved, over and over, until we now have superbugs like MRSA that are either resistant to antibiotics or completely immune to them.
In the same way, economic downturns evolve as sophisticated players learn to manipulate world markets more efficiently. The recovery from a depression or recession isn’t always the same and in fact has generally gotten worse with each succeeding recession as more and more businesses generate their wealth without the use of employees.
If you’re able to create wealth without people, you can also recover wealth without people, which makes for jobless recoveries wherein stocks rise but those who did lose their jobs have difficulty getting new ones, and those who didn’t lose their jobs see slow wage growth.
Inequalities rise. Tensions flare. The haves blame the have-nots for their situations, asserting that they just have to work harder to get ahead, while the have-nots blame the haves for rigging the system to keep the wealth in the hands of the wealthy.
Those of us who have the right and inclination to vote elect people who promise to represent all of us, not just the rich. And on rare occasions those politicians do what they promise, but more often they don’t. Usually they work to maintain the status quo that got them elected. They protect themselves and their jobs, which means protecting the benefactors who helped them win their offices in the first place.
Nothing much changes but the faces of the candidates who promise change. Meanwhile, frustration builds. More and more radical candidates seek and gain office. Compromise becomes a dirty word, an indicator of the same old, same old – even though it’s not. And eventually we lose the ability to get anything done, except in the most extreme circumstances.
So politicians wait for crises, unable to take meaningful action until they’re forced to do so. And when the crisis hits, they do what they’ve done in the past, figuring since it worked then, it ought to work now. But like bacteria, crises evolve. Today’s recession (or healthcare crisis or opioid epidemic or environmental catastrophe) cannot always be successfully fought with yesterday’s weapons.
We’re on the edge of another crisis now. It’s just around the corner. I don’t know precisely what it will entail, but I won’t be shocked if we handle it badly because we’ll be so busy assessing blame and protecting our own that we won’t have the time or the will to properly fix it.
And when we finally try yesterday’s solution, it will no longer work.