In August of 2011, MSNBC personality Dylan Ratigan became a viral video star courtesy of a clip of him going on a loud, angry rant about the subservience of our elected officials to the financial sector. He makes some good points about the problems at hand, but I felt like his performance got silly in a hurry once his (taken aback) co-hosts asked him to propose a solution. His response began with "The President needs to give a speech…" and the first time I saw this, I was laughing too hard to notice that it went downhill from there. The twin assumptions that A) the president is not "bought" in the same sense as the Congress he lambastes and B) that a presidential speech could accomplish anything in contemporary politics except to give the talking heads a topic for a few days are both naive and ridiculous.
Last week I spent a decent amount of time prepping my "Last Lecture" – and incidentally, thanks for all the suggestions. I considered going the "This is what's wrong with politics and this is how you can fix it" route. The more I struggled to address the second half of that equation, the more Ratigan's lame response made sense. It was jarring to realize that for all the time spent pointing out what's wrong with the political process, economic system, and society as a whole, I have next to nothing to offer as a solution. I don't even know where we could plausibly start fixing this mess. Maybe Ratigan realized the same thing and that's why he was so angry. Maybe being forced to admit that we don't have any answers makes us feel like the designated mourners for a society that kills another piece of itself every day.
Sure, we all recognize things that could improve the political process; getting money out of elections is a popular suggestion (albeit one with some fairly obvious constitutional hurdles), for example. Would that really fix anything, though? If we draw the necessary distinction between incremental improvement and legitimate reform, it quickly becomes clear that there is no viable "solution." Our society has broken down since 1970 in ways that we spend our days cataloging: income inequality has exploded, public education has collapsed, the health care system is broken, Congress is barely functional, lobbyists are more powerful than elected officials, the media is a horrorshow offering everything from a milquetoast Beltway consensus echo chamber to Der Stürmer style propaganda and outright misinformation, unemployment is up and wages are down, job security and retirement are terms discussed only in history classes, and the military is both a budgetary and foreign policy behemoth draining away what treasure remains from the empire. And that list is just the tip of the iceberg.
Our problems are not insoluble, but they certainly are overwhelming. Clearly the world needs individuals with more vision and long term problem solving skills than either Dylan Ratigan or me. Or maybe our guess is as good as any other when facing an interwoven set of problems so big, complex, and deeply rooted that nothing short of detonating the building and starting over from scratch appears to have potential as a solution.