Tackling Weighty Issues:
Final Question Two

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright July 2013


If you could change anything about our society and culture what would it be and why?



American culture and society have done pretty well over the last two hundred fifty years. Better than pretty well, astoundingly well! But leading-the-pack improvement is a delicate matter. It's not well understood, and it can end at any time. The examples of societies having Golden Ages and then falling back into obscurity are numerous... routine in fact.

So what I would like to see change in our society is becoming more aware of what it takes to keep America lean and mean, and a continuing leader of the pack. And being willing to do what it takes to keep us there.

A chilling example: The Midwest Disease

Post World War Two America was king of the heap. And the Midwest region was king of America. It was the world's leader in manufacturing. It's population was large. Its wealth enormous. Its workers and managers skilled and clever.

In spite of all these advantages the region stagnated in the 1950's and steadily declined for six decades after that. In the 1950's Detroit was the fifth largest city in the nation, and Cleveland, my home town, was the sixth. Cleveland made the steel that Detroit made into autos, and both did much more. The manufacturing base was diverse, all sorts of things were made.

But times changed. Instead of taking advantage of these success virtues, the region tossed them off and declined. In 2013 Detroit had shrunk to 18th largest city and declared bankruptcy. Cleveland was the Incredible Shrinking City and down to 45th.

This stagnation and decline I call the Midwest Disease because I experienced the first wave of it first-hand while I was a teenager growing up on Cleveland's East Side in the 1960's. My father ran a successful high tech business of the time, and I got to watch his travails first hand. I lived and learned, I listened to the news. And... I left! College and the army took me away to experience other places and regions, and when I graduated I saw no reason to return and lots of reasons to stay away. As many other of Cleveland's best and brightest did, I voted with my feet.

Why did it happen? Why did the Midwest transform from the Steel Belt into the Rust Belt? Why did Cleveland go from being "The Best Location in the Nation" to "The Mistake on the Lake"?

The Grand Distraction: Being Fair

Over the recent decades I have studied human thinking. And I now have some answers for why the Midwest Disease happened. The heart of the problem was the community focusing on the wrong issues. (I write extensively about this in my essay Thoughts on Cleveland.)

The big wrong issue is fairness. Socialism, Communism, Unionism and numerous "Rights" causes have at their heart trying to be fair about how work and rewards are allocated. This is their big emotional appeal. This is a wonderful example of a good intention powering social choices. It is also a wonderful example of a good intention producing bad results. The bad result came because fairness and progress mix poorly.

Sadly, progress is disruptive. Example: Building a steel mill changes the surrounding environment enormously. It requires roads, railroads, canals and docks to be built around it. And that's just the start of the disruption. Operating it is a difficult, dangerous and dirty task that moves lots of iron ore, coal and limestone in, and lots of slag, steel and pollution out. Building and operating a steel mill requires a lot of guts, resourcefulness and patience with change. The reward for all this scary sacrificing is a wondrous new way of doing things.

But... it is scary. And when someone then says, "OK... I've got a new idea! And it's going to take big changes!" A lot of people who have just been through the hell of a previous disruption will hiss and boo. They've made the sacrifice and now they want to enjoy their rewards. NIMBY (not in my backyard) feelings get strong. And its first cousin, prescription ("There's one right way to do this, and we're doing it that way now.") becomes the rule of the day in the community.

As these fairness and prescriptive feelings grow and become strong in the community, this is when the stagnation starts. In Cleveland this showed up as the rise of unionism, socialism, elaborate zoning laws, and other regulations. The reality became, "You want to do business in Cleveland? You need a 'partner'. Hire a city councilman to help grease the skids for you."

The decline began when the bright and ambitious moved elsewhere to start up the next wave of high technology businesses, and the existing businesses got obsolete. In the case of Cleveland of the 1970's, the electronics industry kissed Cleveland good-bye and headed for what became Silicon Valley. And the obsolescing of existing industry was felt as, "Those evil companies are building factories overseas and giving our jobs to foreigners."

Those who remained in Cleveland remained blind to how their place in the world was changing for the worse. They enjoyed great comfort in, "Doing things the right way... as we have always done them."

Focusing on the Right Issues

The moral of this story about Midwest Disease is that focusing on the right issues is damn important. This is what our education system needs to be concentrating on. We need to be raising our children to understand that, yes, change is scary, but we need to embrace it nonetheless.

"And, you, the kids, need to learn how to become change agents! You need to learn how to match careful analytic thinking with your 'let your heart be your guide' thinking. And you need to learn how to support others who want to change the world."

Fairness is nice, but growth is necessary.

The good news is that with even more prosperity, fairness can be afforded. "The rising tide lifts all ships." is a good proverb to keep in mind. (If you want to read a lot more about this topic, I recommend my book "How Evolution Explains the Human Condition".)


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