Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Unified Field Theory Of The Colossal Crises

It has been a while since I posted on this blog. In a previous blog, dated July 25, titled “Instant versus Delayed Gratification”, I had concluded with the sentence “It is going to be a long and bumpy ride....hold on tight!”

What a ride it has been. I was pinned to my computer as bank after bank, institution after institution, fell with breathtaking speed. And I am afraid it is just the beginning. Why was this happening with such rapidity all at once? Those who could not find a few million dollars to save headstart were all of a sudden begging the public to shell out $700 billion dollars to save our financial institutions. Why? How could this happen out of the blue, and catch everyone by surprise? I was struggling for answers. This prompted me to look beyond how I got started with blogging – math education in my school district. I looked into how public education is delivered to kids, how government regulates banks and brokerages, how micro and macro economics works, and finally, how democracy is supposed to work, and why we as a nation have been so ineffective in preventing such large crises. I have also been pondering if there is a common thread behind the reason for all these catastrophes. What I discovered was pretty obvious, yet hard to find these days. It is also too much material to fit on one blog, so I have split it into series of blogs.

I liken this quest to that of a Physicist who started with lessons on the theory of gravity, and along the way picked up the collective knowledge and wisdom on various forces that dictate the properties stars, planets, atoms, quarks, energy are all interrelated. Then they almost all seem to “lap dissolve” into one. This is the Physicist’s holy grail, called the “Unified Field Theory”. It remains unproven, but it has not stopped them from building giant particle accelerators to prove it.

Similarly, what started as a blog on education has now lap dissolved into economics, domestic and international politics, technology, and environment…. They all appear to be part of the same continuum. Have these crises just popped up out of nowhere? Evidence has been all over the place, sometimes for decades, that things have been seriously wrong. Yet, all the actions that were taken were ineffective in preventing the ultimate spectacular crashes – in the stock market of the late ‘90s, the 9-11 attacks of 2001, now the housing crash and the resulting credit crisis. It appears to me that the unifying force behind all these is defined by how uninformed, unskilled and apathetic we collectively are as a democracy. Let me expand on this a bit.

Democracy is neither new, nor is it a novel idea. We can brag America is the oldest democracy, but strictly speaking, it is neither. The oldest democracy in recorded history I could find was the city state of Athens, circa 100 BC. Every citizen with voting rights had the right to vote on any issue that the public considered important. It did not last very long. Democracy is a very fragile and unstable way to maintain order in any nation. But we are not a true democracy either. Even though we do not have a true democracy as the ancient Athenians had, we have a republic, started by ancient Romans, which is a close approximation. Theory goes that the elected “re”presentatives of the “public” are a close enough approximation of the real thing, because the representatives are beholden to the public that elects them. Well, like any theory, when put to practice, it becomes something else. Therein lies the rub. Whenever power concentrates in the hands of a few, other centers of power, like large corporations, unions, think tanks, religious and civic groups, government agencies, etc. try and influence their decision making. When all the time of a politician is taken up by the “sky is falling” message coming from these power centers, precious little is left to cater to the cries of the voters that got them there. When the voters do respond, their voices are often ignored. Take the banking bailout, for example. The vast majority of the emails from citizens have been against the bailout, but our leaders went ahead with it anyway! Did they act because they knew something the public did not? Like they did when “WMDs” were discovered in Bagdad? What happened to the idea of a representative being the spokesperson for the public, and not of another branch of the government? What constitutional remedy is left for a voter to have their voice heard, other than try to vote these people out of office? Only to find the new person falls victim to the same old game?

To be fair, this nation has performed better than the vast majority of the world, when it comes to creating a great place to live. The infrastructure, the universities, the business environment, and the ability to communicate freely are the envy of the world. But underneath it all, I sense there is something very insidious. I see that the public is content when they have a well paying job, a clean and secure living environment, good education for their kids, and some hope for a comfortable retirement. For several decades, these benefits have been taken for granted. They have counted on our elected reps to do what is in the public’s best interest, and maintain these benefits we enjoy. Now, one by one, these seem to be disappearing, often at a breathtaking pace, without a chance for us to respond. Is there a pattern behind each area that has gone or is going wrong? I contend there is. Read my the next blog on “Economics” for more food for thought.

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