Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Problems with Solutions

In this past weekend's NYT, David Greenberg asks why last chapters of books that dissect social or political problems often fail to deliver.  Greenberg gives numerous examples to support the assertion that "[e]ven those social critics who acknowledge the difficulty of their solutions cannot help offering up the equally quixotic hope that people will somehow rise up spontaneously against the diagnosed ills."

He offers two possible reasons. One is "the sheer difficulty of devising answers to complex social problems that are sound, practicable and not blindingly obvious" especially when "those who give the most subtle diagnoses may not have the problem-solving disposition needed to come up with concrete, practical recommendations."

Greenburg  later contends that "most authors have themselves to blame."  Because they have researched and become an expert in the subject, "almost all succumb to the hubristic idea that they can find new and unique ideas for solving intractable problems."

Blogging for Mother Jones, Kevin Drum concludes, "any social or political problem that's hard enough to be interesting is also hard enough to have no obvious solutions. In fact, most of them are hard enough not to have any short-term solutions at all, obvious or not."

I'll add two more.  First, American readers won't listen to anything but an optimistic conclusion.  To his credit Greenburg hints at that possibility when he writes "[p]ractically every example of that genre, no matter how shrewd or rich its survey of the question at hand, finishes with an obligatory prescription that is utopian, banal, unhelpful or out of tune with the rest of the book."

Greenburg's examples certainly illustrate the banality.  For example, Walter Lippman concludes his 1922 Public Opinion by saying that "[t]he preceding years of world war and crisis . . .offered models of inspiration as well as despair, and a new realism might yet beat back 'the brutality and the hysteria' of modern life."  More recently,
Allan Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind” (1987), still an influential filleting of university life, features on its last page this thought: “I still believe that universities, rightly understood, are where community and friendship can exist in our times. . . . They have served us well.” Al Gore’s Bush-era polemic “The Assault on Reason” (2007), which argues that the rise of new media, increasing income inequality and deepening partisanship have driven evidence and logic from public debate, still ends with the former vice president declaring, “I feel more confident than ever before that democracy will prevail.”
My students demand happy endings to nearly every piece of literature the read; I can't imagine them or very many other people accepting that the problem can't be easily solved.

Second,  the authors have drunk so much of the ideological Kool-Aid that prompted them to do the research that they can't or won't listen to solutions that don't fit into their framework nor will they accept solutions that come from political foes.  No one seems willing to deal with substantive arguments.  Instead, most seem to prefer to deal with only the easiest straw men.  I suppose that problem is tied to the hubris that Greenburg cites. 

Greenburg has done enough to convince me that the simple, banal, one-size-fits-all solutions are as problematic as the situations they purport to solve. Dramatic cuts to education, busting unions, mandating everyone buy insurance, or bombing the hell out Mideastern country are simple solutions, but thehaven't fixed any complex problems. 

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