The Lesson of 2020: To Build Back Better, First Get the Structure Right

Thursday, January 28, 2021

This image is not an accident: Car near port of Beirut, 2017.

In my 2020 retrospective, I promised a reflection on last year's greatest lessons for humanity. Turns out, if you boil it down far enough, there's just one big one:

Two years ago Nina and I visited my aunt and uncle in Colorado, spending a week at their cabin outside Granby, near Rocky Mountain National Park. In 2020, Colorado recorded the three largest wildfires in state history. One of them, the East Troublesome Fire, finally halted just a stone's throw from the cabin's front door. The season's fires collectively burned 840,000 acres, an area larger than Rhode Island—but not because of drought or beetle-infested dead timber. Not really.

Two years earlier we were strolling with friends along the Beirut corniche, surrounded by joggers, fishermen, skateboarders, and kids on tricycles. In 2020, their world was turned upside down, their businesses and schools and homes ruined, and over 200 killed—but not by an abandoned pile of fertilizer igniting in the port. Not really.

And a few decades before that, I was born into a world with problems that had worsened until they threatened our species' very existence: nuclear war, epidemic disease, climate change. In 2020, we all saw our world turned upside down—but not by a virus from a wet market in Wuhan. Not really.

The real problem? We can't get the structure right.

* * *

Let me illustrate what I mean by focusing on my own country, the United States.

It shouldn't have taken a cop choking the life out of George Floyd on a Minneapolis sidewalk, millions plunging willingly into QAnon fantasy-land while a deadly pandemic ravages the real world, or Confederate-flag-toting paramilitary wannabes storming state houses and the US Capitol for all to see that America is broken. Some did see it earlier. Anyone with common sense can see it now.

How did the US get here? By fighting over the symptoms, not the causes of our woes: for too long, too many failed to notice—much less nurture—the boring structures, institutions, and processes that might actually allow us to solve our problems. We failed to update them to keep pace with the times, or to defend them from nefarious reactionaries tinkering under the hood: choosing their voters by gerrymandering congressional districts, reapportioning resources and representation by manipulating the national census, or trampling norms to pack the Supreme Court. Perhaps deluded that because they represent noble causes they need not fight ignoble battles, progressives ignored these structural attacks and for too long failed to counter them. As a result, the US is today a land where "corporations are people" and "money is speech", where the electoral college allows a few thousand retirees in Midwestern diners to elect the world's most powerful leader, and where the Democratic half of the Senate represents 41 million more Americans than the Republican half.

The result is deadlocked government and stalled progress on the many proposals that most Americans actually support, from a public healthcare option (70%) to increased renewable energy investment (67%) to stricter gun laws (53%) and more.

It has become nearly impossible for Americans to solve basic societal problems—much less grand existential ones—without first repairing the very structures we use for problem solving.

* * *

Popular revolts against power have been a fact of life for eons. But in the modern era, the one that came to define the genre was the French Revolution, when the pitchfork-wielding masses stormed the Bastille fortress and later executed King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette.

I spent much of 2020 thinking about a more recent revolution: the one I witnessed firsthand the previous year in Algeria. The book I have been writing (and that I will publish this spring) explores the origins and impacts of that uprising, but more fundamentally it explores a critical question: What happens when the ground shifts beneath a society and its state, imposing novel challenges? Can the state adapt, retool, and restructure to face the challenge? Or does it refuse and retrench, opting instead to gamble that it can defy history and maintain the status quo forever?

The second response leads to stormed Bastilles, executed monarchs, and prolonged turbulence. The path of adaptation, however, enables new growth and possibilities—to those societies who can pull it off.

In my lifetime, nearly every society on earth has been upended by a perennial source of disruption: a new communication technology. The Internet first threw us an innocent fake (the days of dial-up, EBay, Geocities, Hotmail, Yahoo!, etc.) then hit us with a roar (cheap smartphones, mobile data, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, YouTube, etc.) from which we will not soon recover. As access exploded, social media flattened discourse, bowled aside information curators and gatekeepers, and undermined the very foundations of our previous reality: shared experience and shared truth.

Institutional carnage has resulted (and with it, real carnage too). The subsequent reordering has only just started, and will not end soon. One thing is certain: this reordering can proceed much more smoothly, and produce much better outcomes, if we actually focus on the real issue at hand. In other words, on structure, not its symptoms.

* * *

In the US, this means understanding why progressives have repeatedly failed to convert popular support for a long list of issues into law. In reality, it's because while our side focused on individual solutions, a rapid technological shift and deliberate manipulation by our opponents warped the very system through which those solutions could be born into law.

Forward-thinking Americans who want to see any progress should set aside their pet issues and instead focus on structural reform. DC and Puerto Rico statehood, Senate filibuster reform, National Popular Vote, reversing Citizens United, redistricting reform, ranked-choice voting: instituting any one of these ideas would have a greater longer-term impact than any single social policy imaginable. Only then can we effectively confront the web of climate, land use, invasive species, and socioeconomic challenges feeding the western wildfires.

The technological transformations driving much of the institutional dislocation in the US are nearly universal today, so while national contexts vary, similar focus on structural reform will be needed in every country. Citizens of Lebanon, highlighted above, suffer from spiraling inflation, frequent power outages, corruption, weak leadership, and avoidable disasters in large part because Lebanon's model of governance, now deadlocked and ineffectual, was established by colonial administrators a century ago. Fixing the day-to-day mismanagement will require an update of that model to reflect the transformed context.

On an international level, institutions are even fewer and even weaker, and more bad-faith actors roam unimpeded. In building effective global and regional governance (of the kind that could help coordinate an effective international response to the next pandemic), humanity's task is only just beginning.

Individual institutions also have a huge role to play. Companies, first and foremost, need to explore new organizational structures, revenue models, and management strategies to better align their shareholders and their stakeholders.

The challenge is individual, too. How can each of us focus more of our energies on the structural causes of our problems, not their day-to-day symptoms? It's a question that smart minds across the world need to consider seriously. For my part, this month I have begun a Master's degree at the Sorbonne in Paris in information and knowledge systems—an interdisciplinary field exploring how human beings can best organize, share, and build together. Exactly where these studies will lead me remains to be seen, but I intend to keep thinking about these big questions and contribute where I can.

The reasons to focus more energy on repairing structural failures are only growing. Covid-19—and most countries' inept responses to this predictable catastrophe—should have woken us up. More troubling are the pandemic's parallels to climate change, a comparison that doesn't augur well for humanity, which is only beginning to confront our greatest existential threat. (Our greatest threat, that is, until we invent AI.)

As we build back in 2021 and the years to come, we will be forced to choose which problems to prioritize. Will we stumble ineptly into the Bastille scenario—violent, destructive, and plunging us into the unknown? Or can we rise to the moment, organize ourselves intelligently enough to overcome the great civilizational challenges before us, and live to see what promise lies beyond?

Further food for thought:

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