HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

July 2, 2007
From Liberty Street

A Certain Imprecise Number

John Turner


Over the past decade there has been operating in my mental landscape a figure -- a ratio actually -- which can't be calculated arithmetically because the factors that make it up are too numerous and complex but which can be sensed with a moderate degree of accuracy. I've come to call it the adequacy index.

It is the ratio between the skill, intelligence and knowledge of social and political policy makers compared to the difficulty of the social problems that cry out for management. As long as that number is one or above we can say that society is progressing. When it falls below one, we are in a degenerative era and if it dips below 0.5 then disaster in the form of either widespread death or oppression so severe as to turn most people into automatons has arrived.

A reasonable reading of history tells us that in the United States during the entire 20th century the adequacy index was comfortably above 1.0. But with the coming of the new century it declined and now I fear it is in the 0.9 range with many indicators that promise continued shrinkage.

Over the past week, most notably with respect to the failed immigration bill, I have heard, or read, commentator after commentator remark that we simply don't have the political wisdom in the people or the skill in the leaders to confront or manage the flow of unregistered people into the United States. That's clearly the truth, and though I don't think unregulated immigration is close to being our most serious social pathology, the fact that we can't begin to deal with an issue that distresses increasing numbers of citizens shows that our human capital is inadequate to pay our bills.

The half-year between September 2002 and March 2003, when our entire political system was bamboozled by a handful of unbalanced ideologues into launching a useless, destructive, unaffordable military adventure, is a measure of how feeble we are. The pathos of our situation might be lessened if we could honestly say that the attempt to befog us was subtle or impelling. But it was crude in the extreme, employing the most obvious deceptions and manipulation. Yet Congress swallowed it whole and now we find ourselves, having killed tens of thousands of people and wasted billions of dollars, unable or unwilling to cut ourselves free from it. Instead, more and more, we hear voices proclaiming that we have to persist in it for another generation, or more. If we can't turn away from something so clearly disastrous, our intellectual condition is worse than a moth approaching the flame.

Linked to insane behavior abroad has been a wave of expensive, intrusive measures here at home which we continue to accept as enhancements of security when in actuality they are training exercises in public docility. Is there a rational person anywhere in the nation who actually believes that being forced to take off your shoes before you get on an airplane makes you or your fellow passengers any safer. And, if it did, then why wouldn't total disrobing and being forced to walk naked down a corridor lined with cameras also bolster your safety and therefore be justified? What about bone scans? Might not someone have a ticking device implanted in his femur? I hesitate to mention these procedures lest some fanatic take them up for implementation.

Public officials say they want to prevent death but obviously such statements are a sham. Hideous diseases which kill far more people than any of the measures we've adopted in our hysteria could possibly thwart continue to flourish. And we keep on starving the research that could banish them in favor of foolish militaristic schemes and irrational claims of morality.  Nor are we willing to adopt sensible efforts for employing fully the medical knowledge we already possess. Tens of thousands of our citizens die unnecessarily each year because they can't afford appropriate medical attention while we devote our resources to taking off people's shoes.

These are not the actions of a population that can think about its problems intelligently, and this can be said without mention of a selfish unwillingness to preserve a healthy natural environment. It's as though we think we're living in a cheap TV melodrama, where the only issue is catching a bad guy with a bomb.

Our most pressing need is to restore the adequacy index to at least 1.0, so we can stop marching downhill.  Even that's not going to be easy. Once a mind withers -- either an individual's or the public's -- it's hard to get it working reasonably again. But that's the task in front of us, unless we are happy to keep on being led by fools towards some cliff not far off in the future.


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