It is amazing how good people are at problem solving. Think of all the inventions and methods people have come up with to fix everything from minor annoyances to large scale worldwide problems. Even as good as everyone seems to be at solving problems, we are notoriously bad at identifying the correct problem to solve. Let me give a few examples.
Our public aviation security in the US is based around the idea of keeping bad stuff off airplanes. The idea is that if we can keep anything dangerous off planes, we will be safe. Lots of problem solving effort has gone into keeping dangerous stuff off planes, but is that the real problem? There is stuff all over in a plane that could potentially be dangerous. I’m not going to try to give people any ideas here, but trust me there are many MANY items already on a plane that are far more dangerous than the pieces of plastic the 9/11 hijackers used. So what is the real problem? We need to keep terrorists off planes. It is going to be impossible to keep all the bad stuff off planes–particularly when some of the things that could be dangerous are part of the planes safety mechanisms. But if we can keep terrorists off planes then it doesn’t really matter what is on the plane.
Keeping specific types of people out of the air isn’t as easy as making knee jerk reactions to ban random stuff but it isn’t impossible and it is much safer. Israel seems to do a pretty good job of this–they don’t let you on the plane until they are convinced that you aren’t a terrorist. They still check baggage and stuff like that, but they are trying to solve a different problem than we are trying to solve in the US. They want to keep terrorists of planes. The US wants to keep tools a terrorist could use off planes. How you identify the problem determines to a great extent what type of solution you will achieve.
When it comes to countries where people don’t have enough to eat, governments and charitable organizations often go in and do problem solving on the issue of”People don’t have enough food.” Of course the solution to that problem is simple–send food. In many instances it doesn’t help very much because the food is thrown away because of local superstitions or stolen or left to rot because of inadequate distribution and red tape. Worse still, giving away food often causes bigger problems.
Most people understand that giving food to wild animals can do a lot of harm. If an eagle gets accustomed to being given fish by a human, he may lose the desire and skill of hunting for himself. This can happen to people as well.
What incentive does a farmer in Africa have to work hard to raise a crop, when he knows his inferior foods will be in competition with what some foreign charity is giving away for free near the market? Giving away free food can kill any self sufficiency that may exist. The free food might temporarily keep people from being hungry, but when war or politics drive out the people who are giving aid, the people are left in a worse position than they were before because they are less self-sufficient on local resources.
When it comes to helping people who are starving in foreign countries, the problem must be defined as “how do we help them become self-sufficient?” I’m not saying that you should never give away food, but it has to be done very carefully in much the same way that doctors may prescribe addictive drugs as pain killers for extremely sick patients.
I talked with someone from the United Nations who explained that his job was to go in and try to find way to help people without causing more harm. He said that many times, giving people the ability to own property by establishing banks and loan programs could reverse poverty in an area and create a self-sufficient ecosystem while having the fewest negative side effects.
Autos and the Environment
When it comes to pollution from cars, the obvious problem is: How can we make cars that produce less pollution in manufacturing and produce less pollution while driving? Hybrid vehicles are not the solution to this problem. Hybrid vehicles solve the following problem: “How can we make a car that people will pay more for because they think they are helping the environment and/or saving on fuel?” The car I drove in high-school and college required less pollution to make and got significantly better gas mileage than the current hybrid cars. Hybrids solve a marketing problem more than they solve the pollution problem. The pollution problem will be better solved with vehicles that are simple to make and inexpensive to propel. A car with both an electric and a gasoline drive system is going to require many many more components and much more mining of copper and nickle than a simple efficient gasoline vehicle. If a hybrid vehicle costs more than an equivalent non-hybrid vehicle it is probably because there is more involved in its manufacture and it contains parts that aren’t required in the plain version. The additional manufacturing and additional parts are all going to add pollution.
The smart choice for a strictly environmental perspective is going to be getting a used vehicle that can get 50 MPH. That’s better mileage than you’ll get with a hybrid AND you skip all the pollution of making a new vehicle.
Kids and self-esteem
Somewhere someone has decided that kids have problems with self-esteem. According to research that I’ve seen, this isn’t as much of an issue in the US. Kids in the US think they are very good a math and science. A study confirmed that most US kids feel they are better than other people at math and science. The problem is that they aren’t. They have the self-esteem, but not the skills.
Anyway, the people are trying to solve the “self esteem problem” have decided that they need to lower the passing scores on tests to 40% so kids can all feel good about passing and don’t have to experience failure. It seems to me that school would be a good place to learn from your mistakes so you don’t have to encounter that type of education on the job for the first time, but I guess that is the view of someone with real world experience and not as many hours of child psychology classes.
So back to what they are trying to solve. Is it really a problem that kids don’t have good self esteem? Maybe. Maybe not. But I can guarantee you this: Poor self esteem isn’t caused by tests being too hard. If you want to give kids self esteem, give them things to do that if they work hard they can succeed at. The problem is not that public school education is too rigorous, yet that is the problem they are trying to solve.
Welfare used to try to solve the problem of “How can we give these people jobs?” WPA projects started around the time of the Great Depression built a nearby lake, the highschool football stadium, and the cement picnic tables at a local park. In a nearby town, they hired people to go down the brick streets and flip each brick over. It looked a bit nicer, but it wasn’t really something that had to be done. The point was it gave people work for which they were paid. They could take their paycheck and buy food for their family.
Much of the welfare we see today tries to solve a different problem. “How can we give these people money?” This is a completely different problem that is solved in a completely different way. Trying to give people jobs helped foster a sense of self reliance. When other higher paying jobs became available it was easy for these people to transition to other work. Trying to just give people money creates as many problems as it solves.
I can see the need for unemployment, but I think it is horrible that you can sit at home and get an unemployment check. At the very least you should be required to spend 10 to 20 hours a week doing some type of public service work in exchange for the money you are getting. I think you’d see a significant drop in the number of people claiming unemployment if it still required some type of work. Work is a great way to weed out people who are simply taking advantage of the system and keep the benefits focused on people who it is actually helping as they try to find another job.
My point was to show that we often try to solve the wrong problems and put a tremendous amount of effort in to fixing the wrong things. If your car doesn’t drive well because the wheels need aligned, you can change the oil all you want with out fixing the real issue. When you are trying to solve problems, make sure you don’t jump so quickly to the solution stage, that you skip the part where you identify the actual problem that needs solved.