Dec 27, 2011
At around age 14, set aside a week away from the standard education curriculum for kids to work, in groups, in a very focused way: on a project with a simple brief, but a complex reality.
What does that mean?
Well, it might be to design a way of giving everyone in the UK £100 (as an alternative quantitative easing approach). It might be to identify all public buildings to find better ways of using them. Or to model what would happen if jails were abolished (or if speeding convictions carried automatic jail sentences). Or to design a rail system that would be ultra-resilient to sudden, massive demand and freak weather conditions.
Or at least anything that would show that a bit more effort is required in reality to do some of the things that really matter in this world. Even though they might sound simple. So that first one: giving everyone £100? Well, you’d need to work out who “everyone” was…what would qualify as entitlement…how to get the money to them securely and trackably…how to deal with claims that it hadn’t been received (true and fraudulent)…how to deal with those who didn’t want to be on any state registers but still wanted their cash… You get the picture. Putting real world details around a nice, simple concept.
You’d cover analysis, planning, teamwork, logistics, consequences (seen and unforeseen). And probably a whole lot more. You’d learn about edge cases, the ability of a small number of difficult situations to eat up disproportionate resources, and how you have to design for the awkward, not just implement for the easy.
And out of all this, there might, just might, be a tiny chance that statements like “well, I don’t see why they can’t just…” or “how hard can it be to…” would be cast around just a little less lightly. And questioned a little harder when falling from the mouths of politicians.
Because the problem is this: when we’re small, our world is small. And simple. Decisions are clear, motives unambiguous, morality absolute. Things are, or they are not. Laws are clear, enforceable and enforced.
The King says “make it so!” and the Knights make it so. The Princess makes her choice, and the losing suitor slinks away, never to play a part in this or any other story.
And so it goes.
And then things change. Our world gets bigger, and more difficult. We realise that society is a loose patchwork of consents, of unwritten codes, of behaviours.
And do we change, too? Or are we content to carry on with an increasing pretence that the world is monochrome, that things can be made to happen by dictat, and that anything involving sixty million people need not be any more complicated than something involving a handful?
Do we continue with these childish fantasies, and follow leaders who–even if they believe in their hearts that what they propose is at most only partly achievable–must dance the dance of the simple: spouting policies that can never be delivered, just so they continue to look…like what? Like leaders. Right.
Left-wing and right-wing, we dance up and down the same spectrum of choices: of levers that can be pulled in various directions, of societal mores running from the brutal to the soft, the feudal to the flattened. We might choose different starting positions, and have certain favourite themes and moves. But if we get stuck with these lame little models of “why don’t they just…”, and come to believe that wickedly difficult problems are actually easy, then we’re all stuffed.
Because we do believe. On a mass scale. Because we were never taught any differently. We weren’t taught to think harder, to go deeper, to challenge rigorously, or to live the reality of what implementation might actually be like.
And so things like social and economic policy get very broken. Preposterous, simplistic “solutions” float around: hoodies marched to cashpoints, rioters’ families evicted, a single ID number, watertight borders, cities scoured of benefit claimants, a single central health record for everyone…the list goes on. (That last one would make a great school project, by the way. Starter: think who might need to view and/or change that record–including the patient–what their interests and motivations might be, and how all those agendas stack up against the benefits.)
It’s an awful lot easier to believe in simple magic than to work through hard science. And very much easier to whip a crowd up behind you, too. Asking those hard questions has become the antithesis of leadership. What a splendidly vicious circle!
And yet, it can be broken. With so many other large scale problems of capability or understanding, we try to fix things at source. Through education, for example. It beats me why we’ve never seriously attempted this route.
Would a more aware, canny, and yes perhaps cynical population really be that frightening? Or would we sniff out the stupid and actually become far more tolerant as a result?
I think it’s worth a try. Be a hell of an interesting week, anyway.
(It took me until I was 17, and half-way through A-level Economics, before the reality pennies started to drop. That transactions mostly have two sides to them. That someone’s good deal is often another’s bad one. That public finance doesn’t begin with some kind of magic money tree in the Treasury courtyard. That expectation can be as powerful an influence as factual evidence. That people don’t always do what you expect them to, even when we have laws to force them to. It felt like a real privilege to have my mind stretched like that, and I’ve always felt a bit more of it could go a long, long way.)