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The Biggest Problems and Most Important Issues

“To me,” Bannon said, “the economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we're five years away, I think, ten years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we'll never be able to recover.”
- ROBERT KUTTNER, Steve Bannon, Unrepentant, The American Prospect, AUGUST 16, 2017


In 2012, Senator Mitch McConnell referred to America's debt as "the nation's most serious long-term problem":

About the long-term debt problem facing this country, and we all know that it's on the entitlement side. So at some point here, this President needs to become the adult because the speaker and I have been the adults in the room arguing that we ought to do something about the nation's most serious long-term problem.
- Mitch McConnell, "Face the Nation" transcript for May 20: McConnell, Warner, Graham, CBS News, May 20, 2012


McConnell and Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said on separate Sunday interview programs they considered sovereign debt to be the nation's biggest problem — and Boehner likened the U.S. debt crisis to that of Greece.
- UPI, McConnell: Obama 'needs to become adult', May 21, 2012


Now, the budget office forecasts that deficits will total $10.1 trillion over the next decade. The deficit is expected to top $1 trillion a year in 2022 and keep growing from there. Federal debt held by the public is at the highest level since shortly after World War II, at 77 percent of the gross domestic product.

“I think the greatest threat to our nation is us,” warned Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and a member of the Senate Budget Committee. “The way we handle our finances, we as a nation are the greatest threat to our nation. It’s not ISIS. It’s not North Korea. It’s not ascendant China. It’s not Russia. We are the greatest threat.”

But such voices are strangely quiet these days in Washington.
- THOMAS KAPLAN, With Tax Cuts on the Table, Once-Mighty Deficit Hawks Hardly Chirp, NYT, SEPT. 28, 2017


Neville Chamberlain is best remembered for his capitulation to Hitler at Munich in 1938. But at the nadir of the Great Depression in April 1933, when Hitler was consolidating power in Berlin and Chamberlain was serving as Tory chancellor of the exchequer in London, he said this: “We are free from that fear which besets so many less fortunately placed, the fear that things are going to get worse. We owe our freedom from that fear to the fact that we have balanced our budget.” Such was the perverse conventional wisdom, then and now.
- Robert Kuttner, The Man from Red Vienna, NY Review of Books, DECEMBER 21, 2017 ISSUE


Dataism declares that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing. ...
You may not agree with the idea that organisms are algorithms and that giraffes, tomatoes and human beings are just different methods for processing data. But you should know that this is current scientific dogma, and it is changing our world beyond recognition. ...
A critical examination of Dataist dogma is likely to be not only the greatest scientific challenge of the twenty-first century, but also the most urgent political and economic project.
- Yuval Harari, Home Deus, pp. 428, 429, 459


Our biggest problem at the moment is that the human tendency to cherry-pick information to support one's existing beliefs is explosively magnified by the internet.
- Steve Fankuchen, Oakland, CA, Feb. 22, 2018, commenting on David Brooks, The Virtue of Radical Honesty, NYT, FEB. 22, 2018


The core problem today is not tribalism. It’s excessive individualism....
- David Brooks, A Renaissance on the Right, NYT, April 12, 2018


... bigness, or oversize, is really much more than just a social problem. It appears to be the one and only problem permeating all creation. Wherever something is wrong, something is too big.
- Leopold Kohr, Introduction to The Breakdown of Nations (1957, 1978)


Kohr's claim that bigness is the only problem is a great example of foolishness. If the canteen of a hiker in a desert cannot hold enough water to ensure survival to the next oasis, that is a problem of smallness, not bigness. It's easy to think of other examples. A Vitamin D deficiency is a problem of too little, not a problem of bigness. A more promising hypothesis is that many modern problems result not from bigness, but from more complexity than people can handle.
Alek, a Stanford sophomore, pointed out that in the vitamin D case, you could argue that the problem is the person's body is too big relative to the amount of available Vitamin D. And in the case of the desert, you could say the problem is not that the canteen is too small, but that the desert is too big.
But any reasonable person will agree that when someone suffers a vitamin deficiency, the problem is not that the person is too big; the problem is the amount of the vitamin is too small. When woolen socks washed in hot water shrink so much I can no longer wear them, the problem is the socks are too small, not that my feet are too big.
And when a claim or argument lacks plausibility because it cannot overcome obvious counterexamples, like this one, the problem is not that the claim or argument is too big.
Cancer is problematically big, but a failing brain is not too big, a broken leg is not too big, failing a test is more likely a problem of tiredness or ignorance or stupidity rather than bigness, and so on.
Of course you can argue that in the case of any large problem, the trouble is the problem's bigness; if it were sufficiently small it would not be a real problem. But it would be hard to come up with a more fatuous insight.
It should be recognized, nevertheless, that some of Kohr's writing deserves serious consideration, such as the last claim of this passage:

"For social problems, to paraphrase the population doctrine of Thomas Malthus, have the unfortunate tendency to grow at a geometric ratio with the growth of the organism of which they are part, while the ability of man to cope with them, if it can be extended at all, grows only at an arithmetic ratio. Which means that, if a society grows beyond its optimum size, its problems must eventually outrun the growth of those human faculties which are necessary for dealing with them." (Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations, Introduction)

- Jason Silver, private communication (excerpt from a draft of "Our Biggest Problem"), 2018


American intelligence agencies have identified cyberthreats as the No. 1 risk facing the United States — it has ranked ahead of terrorism for years now in the annual assessment provided to Congress, even before the Russian intrusion into the election.
- David E. Sanger, Pentagon Puts Cyberwarriors on the Offensive, Increasing the Risk of Conflict, NYT, June 17, 2018


This is no joke. It won't be long before some nefarious group creates waves of homegrown pandemics for which there are no cures. The Black Plague will be a picnic by comparison.

Having the ability to modify the human genome by hand can have great value. But with that comes terrifying risks. Uncontrolled genome editing is the most serious threat to humanity possible. It isn't nuclear Armageddon. It isn't autocracy and the dissipation of liberal democracy. It is this.
- Max Dither, Ilium, NY, May 15, 2018, comment on Emily Baumgaertner, As D.I.Y. Gene Editing Gains Popularity, ‘Someone Is Going to Get Hurt’, NYT, May 14, 2018


Our global cooperation may have taken a couple of steps back in the past two years, but before that we took a thousand steps forward.

So why does it seem as if the world is in decline? Largely because we are much less willing to tolerate misfortune and misery. Even though the amount of violence in the world has greatly decreased, we focus on the number of people who die each year in wars because our outrage at injustice has grown. As it should.

Here’s another worry that Harari deals with: In an increasingly complex world, how can any of us have enough information to make educated decisions? ...
But Harari is such a stimulating writer that even when I disagreed, I wanted to keep reading and thinking. All three of his books wrestle with some version of the same question: What will give our lives meaning in the decades and centuries ahead? So far, human history has been driven by a desire to live longer, healthier, happier lives. If science is eventually able to give that dream to most people, and large numbers of people no longer need to work in order to feed and clothe everyone, what reason will we have to get up in the morning?
- Bill Gates, What Are the Biggest Problems Facing Us in the 21st Century?, NYT, Sept. 4, 2018




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