Needed: A Marshall Plan for America

Originally published on The Huffington Post, September 28, 2011

In a recent op-ed (“The Gap Between the Size of Our Problems and the Narrowness of Our Thinking,” Huffington Post, September 12, 2011), I talked about the fact that none of our major institutions — least of all our main political parties — are able to acknowledge, and hence deal with complexity. And yet, increasingly on every front of our existence, complexity not only increases and overwhelms us daily, but complexity has become our new reality. Hence, the growing gap between the enormity of our problems and our inability to handle them.
This new reality is captured in one word: “mess.”

Technically, a mess is a whole system of highly interconnected problems. Indeed, they are so interconnected that none of them even exist without the others. As a result, no problem can even be defined, let alone solved, independently of all the other problems that constitute a mess. Indeed, one distorts the fundamental nature of all problems by severing their connections with all the other problems that make up a mess.

I also talked about the fact that all messes are now interconnected. Thus, the education mess is not only inseparable from the financial mess, but they are both integral parts of one another. Indeed, all messes (crime, education, financial, health, housing, infrastructure, political, etc.) are parts of one another.

I concluded by saying that we either learn to solve all our problems in concert, or we solve none of them. We either learn to manage messes or they will mismanage us.

The “bad news” is of course that most people have not been educated or rewarded to appreciate, let alone handle messes. Yet, increasingly, our future depends on our ability to cope with messes. The “good news” is that my colleagues and I have discovered some powerful heuristics for managing messes. Thus, the situation is far from hopeless.

All of this is merely a prelude to what I want to pursue here: Big problems–challenges, messes–require nothing less than big thinking, indeed the biggest thinking we can muster. In this spirit, consider the following.

In 1948, the U.S. spent 28 Billion dollars to help rebuild Europe after the ravages of World War II. It was called the Marshall Plan after Secretary of State George Marshall who proposed it. At the time, 28 Billion was approximately 5% of the U.S.’s GDP of 258 Billion dollars.
Today’s GDP is approximately 14.1 Trillion dollars. 5% of this is approximately 700 Billion dollars, roughly what President Obama’s Rebuild America Job program would cost.

Given that virtually all of our current systems are broken, doesn’t the U.S. deserve its own Marshall Plan to help rebuild America?

Yes, I can hear the Republicans pooh-poohing this idea. Their litany is well known. Don’t listen to it. And at this point, don’t get caught up in details for this kills the process of producing new ideas. Instead, bear in mind that as Progressives, one of our main jobs is to offer bold new ideas. The bolder the better.

I cannot emphasize enough that we either learn to solve all our problems in concert, or we solve none of them. Our problems are too big and too daunting to be solved piecemeal. In short, they need to be addressed simultaneously. In short, we need a Marshall Plan for America.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, September 28, 2011

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Investigator with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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