Monday, July 30, 2012

Stage Two Thinking and the Great Divide

Scenario 1: A drunken drug dealer (say that 10 times fast) breaks into the wrong house, shoots a single mother and her three children with a Saturday night special. Shocked by this vicious crime the city council heads up a campaign to get people to trade in or sell all their handguns.

Scenario 2: A hundred-year-old brick building in a California coastal town collapses during an earthquake. The family gets out safely, but their dog dies in a rain of falling bricks. This event sparks 42 new housing restrictions.
Scenario 3: The state bird, the purple-legged honey-sucker, starts dying off so the state sets up strict regulations, which disallow the use of the insecticides used to protect the state’s all-important cabbage crop.

OK – these are all fictional, but the stories must sound familiar: a problem arises – a shocking, emotional yank that scares us silly. We react in a natural way – “Mommy make it stop hurting!” The truth is that Mommy never did have much control over life’s nastiness, but we believed in her and her reassurances made us feel so much better.
When my children were little, we lived in Nebraska where giant, dramatic, fabulous thunderstorms frequently lit up the night sky. Lightning would suddenly brighten the world and then thunder would shake the house and the kids would cry. I’d run upstairs to their rooms and hug them down out of their fear, but before I went back to bed I’d put little wads of toilet paper in their ears. We all knew that smidgen of tissue was not going to do anything to block the next thunderclap, but the fact that I’d gone through that ritual warded off the terror and they’d go back to sleep. It was a lovely illusion.

But we’re grown-ups now, in fact, we’re taking care of Mommy, so who’s taking care of us? We transfer that dependence onto our spouses, our friends, our shrinks, and, wisely, onto God, but in a society that’s becoming more and more secular, mostly onto our government. Make a law against whatever it was that rattled our sense of security; put toilet paper in our ears and we’ll be fine. The problem is that the laws are just that – toilet paper.

It was Thomas Sowell and his book Economic Facts and Fallacies that helped me figure out why the toilet paper doesn’t ever fix anything and why we continue to use it; it’s only Stage 1 thinking, which is far more emotional reaction than actual thought. There’s no follow-through.

And no matter what the problem, follow-through is necessary. Here in Oregon we fight blackberries. They can take over almost as quickly as kudzu, and even worse -- blackberries are covered with thorns. If we don’t think about it long enough, if we fail to do some Stage 2 thinking, we haul off and spray them with brush-killer without realizing that dead blackberries leave behind two formidable problems: masses of dry, brittle thorn-covered brambles and seeds that quickly become more blackberries. Don’t ask me how I know this.

Stage 1 thinking supposed that the spray would just make the thicket disappear. Instead, it created a new problem without really solving the old one. In politics that’s called “unforeseen consequences” as if it had been impossible to figure out ahead of time all the possible repercussions. No one did any Stage 2 thinking.

Stage 2 thinking is all about what happens next. Consequences are heavy things. Here in Oregon several decades ago, some environmentalists discovered that the spotted owl was dying out. The Stage 1 thinking went like this: Owls are dying, owls live in old growth timber; timber companies are cutting it down, therefore, if we stop doing that the owls will be fine. That rudimentary thought process ruined the state’s most prosperous industry, put tens of thousands of people out of work, blotted out entire towns and drove up the price of lumber. Now, decades later, the economy still has not recovered and the owl is still dying off. Turns out that logging wasn’t what was killing the spotted owl. The hapless bird was losing its competition with a more effective species of owl.

Political examples surround us, but let’s look at some less polarizing illustrations:
             We teach our children that if they find themselves on fire to “Stop, drop and roll.” Why? Because our natural instinct, our Stage 1 reaction, is to run, but running has dire consequences – it isn’t a reasonable solution. Running creates wind; wind is full of oxygen, and oxygen feeds fire. But since we are unlikely to go through all that Stage 2 thinking with our pants singeing our backsides, we hope that pre-thinking in the form of training will help.
            We tell each other that in a storm we should not run for the shelter of the nearest tree. It’s a natural reaction – duck and cover, but it’s a bad idea for Stage 2 reasons – the only thing between you and a HUGE electrical charge is the insulation of the atmosphere; anything that pierces that atmosphere – like a tall tree – opens a path for the electricity to follow, and you do not want to be in that path.  

Now we find ourselves so divided as a nation that we may well not survive and that rift, for the most part, showcases the two different stages of thought. 

The Left reacts to a crisis with a rudimentary, almost childlike, simplicity of thought. 
            -- The Batman shooter killed those people with guns, therefore we should have a law against guns. 
           -- The government needs more money, the rich have money, therefore let’s take it from them.      
           -- Living in apartments is not as nice as living in single family dwellings, therefore we’ll use building regulations to limit the number of apartments built so everyone will live in houses. 
That’s what Stage 1 thinking looks like.

The Right, on the other hand, looks at those same scenarios and sees past the immediate emotionality of the situation.
-- If a city bans guns then criminals will be emboldened to attack the unarmed citizenry; they, of course, will have guns because breaking the law is what they do.
-- If a country raises taxes on the rich, the rich leave; they’re smart and they don’t mind taking risks – that’s how they got rich in the first place. Once the rich leave there are no businesses to hire people, therefore no revenue and massive expenditures because the government is having to support all those people who no longer have jobs.
-- The city that makes building apartments difficult forces its citizens to move out into the suburbs which necessitates long commutes, hundreds of miles of tangled freeways, and all the traffic problems and pollution that go with a commuter culture.
That’s Stage 2 thinking – it’s all about what happens next.
Frankly, I’m a little worried about what’s going to happen next. Here’s hoping a lot of other people are too. 


  1. You had me until the "be all and end all" statement of the Left reacting solely with Stage 1 thinking, while the Right responds with methodical, paced logic.

    Your example of the spotted owl is a good illustration of how people/politicians/environmentalists whip themselves into a frenzy without really understanding the underlying cause/problem at all. Though that doesn't mean that every subsequent decision made with similar rationale is inherently wrong either.

    However, look at the Right's knee-jerk reaction towards the government getting involved with any sort of subsidy or "interference" in the private sector - talk about Stage 1 thinking. The truth is that sometimes there are things that unbridled capitalism can't solve - sometimes we NEED the government to be that angel investor, to either bring economies of scale to a product, develop new technologies that vastly improve on existing ones, or to simply prove that an idea IS economically viable, among other things. That's not to say the government should be tossing around money to every Joe who asks for some funding, but the risk of being an angel investor is that you really don't know how some things are going to turn out.

    It goes on on both sides - too much so to make a black-and-white statement like that, I feel.

  2. Yes -- the 1200 words I allow myself each week isn't enough space for a nuanced discussion, and for every pattern there's an exception. If, however, you look at this nation's history from the 1920's on the record is pretty convincing -- the left is consistently more emotional and less far-seeing than the right. I'm not talking Dem/Rep -- the record there is much less clear. I do appreciate your reading and taking the time to respond. dc

  3. Anonymous wrote: "The truth is that sometimes there are things that unbridled capitalism can't solve…"

    I'm curious as to who is advocating "unbridled capitalism?"