We Can Change Our Wicked Problems!
Wicked Problems Introduction
While problems exist in every nation on Earth, it’s worthwhile to look closely at those exhibited in the United States of America (U.S.). As the wealthiest nation, operating the world’s biggest empire, consuming the most resources, responsible for the largest environmental impacts, actively and successfully exporting its beliefs, culture and practices globally, with by far the world’s largest military, and leadership in many of the most influential scientific, technology, entertainment, information and business industries, the U.S. is ground zero for, or at least exemplary of, many of our global problems.
Really, most social systems in the U.S. are broken and/or creating problems in other areas. Bummer. This section investigates 25 of them. It is not comprehensive. Many books could be written about each. It does show some of the brokenness, though, and how hard it is to fix these in existing social structures. It also encourages us to think about how we can change them, or at least lessen our personal impacts.
The scale of many of these problems is hard to relate to, because they’re so big, especially when it comes to numbers, and especially large dollar numbers. To help grasp those, let’s use a tool based on how much money the U.S. Federal Government can decide how to spend in a year, without borrowing. In 2018, at some point, government budgets in the U.S. looked like this:
Let’s not freak out over whether these numbers are exactly right. They change. They’re in the ballpark. Most people never see them and don’t really know where our taxes come from or how they’re spent. Tax revenues are about $3.7 trillion for the Federal Government, $1.6 trillion for State and $1.3 trillion for Local Governments, about $6.5 trillion total. Big numbers. The Federal Government gets about half.
In spending money, there are two big categories: mandatory and discretionary. Mandatory expenses are things our governments can’t really mess with, because they’re required spending for debt interest, and for retirement and medical programs (like Social Security & Medicare). Mandatory federal spending is about $2.5 trillion, 68% of federal revenues. If lawmakers try to take that money for something else, they’re defaulting on loan payments, or stealing from retirement or medical care insurance programs. They’re to put money aside for retirement and medical programs, and manage that to meet needs.
That leaves $1.157 trillion for federal discretionary spending. We spent $440 billion more than that, which we borrowed. To give us a tool to use to get our heads around what it would cost to fix or do something, let’s use a term called Federal Annual Discretionary Spending (FADS). We’ll grasp how big a figure is by relating it to FADS, or how much money the Feds get to decide how to spend from our combined federal tax payments and other U.S. government sources of money, if they’re not borrowing.
For example, the Military budget above for “Defense” is $886 Billion. $886 Billion/$1.157 Trillion is 77%. So, in 2018, the U.S. budgeted 77% of FADS for the military. More than 3/4 of all of the revenues the Federal Government had discretion to decide how to spend went to the military. Most don’t know that.
Not to get bogged down in it, yet, but part of that government discretion was to spend more than it got. The Federal budget has a deficit of $440 billion, 38% of FADS. In other words, it borrowed more than a third of what it decided to spend, in a booming economy. We see Federal debt at $30 trillion in 2018, 50% more than the entire GDP. That’s 2,616% of FADS. If it spent all the money it has discretion over to pay off the federal debt, spending nothing on anything else, which it cannot and will not do, it would take over 26 years to do that. That is how we’ll use the term FADS. Also to put big numbers in perspective: 1 million seconds is about 11 days; a billion seconds is almost 32 years; a trillion seconds is 31,775 years.
So, about now, as this concept and these numbers sink in, you may be feeling headachy, uncomfortable or bad, like you ate rotten food and are unsure whether you might throw up or have diarrhea. If not, you probably will before this reading on Wicked Problems is over. That’s natural. It’ll make you strong!
This section has some uncomfortable realizations, some new, some which we’ve ignored or repressed. It hurts to recognize this stuff. We’ll get uncomfortable, and maybe experience cognitive dissonance. That’s when something we are exposed to is so shocking that we cannot or will not believe it is true, because it’s too damaging to our existing belief system. It’s like an earthquake. Rather than have our current belief system challenged, which is simply too big of a task, we’ll space out and not take it in. That happens. If it does, stop and think about it. Rest. Keep moving. Do your best. Hang in there!
Don’t worry about if numbers or facts are precisely right. They give us a grasp by orders of magnitude. All of them come from somebody or other trying their best to give us good information, in good faith. Dirty secret: most numbers about anything are wrong, but if they are in the ballpark, they’re still useful.
Some 2,000 endnotes are provided. Follow them if you want to dig deeper. Do your own research! Thank you to all of those sources for their good work! Almost all are available on the public Internet. This is just cobbling together their good efforts to sketch out the big picture. Please help correct errors!
Totally honestly, there’s a lot of hard stuff to face in all these Wicked Problems, “What’s Not Working.” A lot of this will be difficult to read and admit. Notice your reactions as you read through this stuff. Does it make you squirm, blank out, or feel uncomfortable? Does it hurt? Do you want to argue with it? Do you want to blame someone for it, figure out why it’s someone else’s fault, not ours? Do you find yourself wanting to make excuses for why we go along with it? Do you want to put it down and quit? Do you want to get drunk or high and forget about it? Do you want to attack the writer? Notice that.
Stop along the way, like after each chapter. Put it down. Breathe deeply for a while. Think about it. How does it make you feel? Angry, sad, resentful, argumentative, embarrassed, happy, disappointed? What is there underneath that feeling? How does this information interact with your personal values? Do you notice conflict or agreement, harmony or disharmony, with something you think is important, for some reason or other? What is that something that you think is important, and what is that reason? That’s the kind of stuff we will try to dig into in the next section on deep programming.
Take breaks along the way! Turn off the electronic devices! Go outside in beautiful nature! Exercise! Get your heartbeat up, and, afterwards, rest! Sit! Really be there and experience it! Let thoughts go! Forget about the past, the future and the problems! Let the brain chatter go! Just be there and feel!
Watch the birds, insects and animals! What are they doing and feeling! What would that be like? Imagine being and doing that! Look at the trees and plants! See how they move in the air? Look at the shapes and patterns! Familiar? Which do you think is most beautiful, and why? What are they feeling?
Sit quietly and watch a beautiful sunset! It’s not over when the sun goes down. That’s when the colors often start getting better, when there’s bright coals in the fire. Don’t think about it; experience it! Feel! Then, come back to this when you feel like you are ready for another session, or bite.
One of the first reactions of many to wicked problems is denial. “I don’t have a problem. It’s not me; it’s those other people.” Maybe. For most of these wicked problems, we all have a role. It’s all of us. We’re each part of these wicked problems, in various ways. In some we have big and others small roles. Passively going along with it, allowing it to happen, gives it power. We let it happen, or it wouldn’t. Recognize your role in it, and admit it! Then, think about if and how you want to change!
We don’t have to take on all the guilt of all of humanity. We’re only responsible for our own thoughts, behaviors, actions and states of being. We don’t have to change the whole world. Just change yourself! Open your eyes, be honest and recognize that we are doing real harms! Try to stay mindful of that! Take charge of your own life and do what you can to change! Don’t wait for anybody else! Change!
It doesn’t have to be this way. It can be any way we want it to be. If it were the way you want it to be, how would that feel? What would that be like? Feel that and be that now! Live as if it were like that! Soon, it will be like that, at least for you. Trust and let that happen! That’s not that hard. It feels good! At the very least, you will be informed, and you will be living with integrity around your values.
There are some suggestions for how we might change at the ends of each chapter. You don’t have to agree with them, and you don’t have to do them. They are meant to stimulate thought about change. Most of these problems are as wicked as they are, because most of us don’t think and act consciously. We go along with whatever we are presented. Wake up, be informed, engage with life, with integrity! When enough of us do that, that is a revolution, and the whole world does change. This is not political. Democrat, or Republican, or whatever, you’re a human being. Use common sense! We can change!
 “What is the difference between mandatory and discretionary spending?”, Congressional Budget Office,