As momentum grows to change the rules of the United States Senate, it's important to look beyond partisan battles and evaluate the effect of the way we make major decisions on the prospects for American success in the 21st Century.
In his book Collapse, Pulitzer prize-winning physiologist and ethno-geographer Jared Diamond studies the collapse of six ancient societies. He also looks at successful decision-making that staved off potential collapse in four other societies -- as well as modern collapse scenarios in Rwanda and Haiti.
Some of the societies he studies successfully adapted to change. Others did not. Diamond writes: How can we understand such differing outcomes? A society's response depends on its political, economic, and social institutions and on its cultural values. Those institutions and values affect whether a society solves (or even tries to solve) its problems.
Why don't societies recognize and correct their problems before it's too late?
Diamond lays out four reasons why societies fail to make the right decisions:
1) Failure to anticipate the problem before it arrives.
Often a society or its decision makers have no prior experience that a particular course of action will lead to a particular outcome.
The Norse Greenlanders invested heavily in walrus hunting because there was a major market for ivory from tusks in Europe in the Middle Ages. They had no way of knowing that the Crusades would re-open Europe's access to Asia and Africa and elephant ivory. They also had no way of anticipating that climate change would increase sea ice and impede traffic from Greenland to Europe. Those factors ultimately lead to the society's collapse.
Other societies fail to anticipate because they rely on false analogies with familiar situations. The French military prepared for World War II by building the famous Maginot Line. It was intended to defend France from the kind of infantry attack that characterized World War I. World War I had involved heavily-defended defensive lines and trench warfare. The WW II German attack, when it actually came, was spearheaded by tanks and armored divisions that passed the Maginot Line through forest formerly thought unsuitable for tanks. Failure to anticipate often results from planning for the last war.
2) Failure to perceive a problem that has actually arrived.
Of course, some problems are very difficult to discern with the naked eye. Without the tools of modern science, for instance, there was no way for the first colonists of Mangareva in the Pacific to know that their activities were causing the soil nutrient exhaustion that was a critical factor in the society's demise.
The most common reason for the failure to recognize a problem is that it takes the form of a slow trend, concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations. The most salient modern example is global warming.
Medieval Greenlanders had similar problems in discerning that the climate was getting colder. The Maya and Anasazi had trouble discerning that their climates were becoming drier.
Diamond refers to the problem as "creeping normalcy" - slow trends hidden in noisy fluctuations. If educational performance, the economy, traffic congestion or anything else changes gradually, our baseline for evaluating them gradually changes, too. You get "landscape amnesia" - until you see an old picture of the seacoast where a huge glacier once ran into the sea, and suddenly realize that it has shrunken and receded for miles.
To use an old analogy, if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump out. You put a frog in a pan of cool water, and gradually increase the temperature, and you get a boiled frog.
Part of the answer to the mystery of why the residents of Easter Island completely deforested their island is that every year there were fewer and fewer trees, and fewer people alive who remembered how things used to be. At the point when someone cut down the last fruit-bearing adult palm, the species had ceased to have economic significance.
3) Failure to attempt to solve a problem even when it has been identified.
This turns out to be the most common, and surprising, reason why societies collapse.
The major cause is "rational behavior" by actors - and decision-making elites - that benefits some individual or private self-interest but is harmful to the prospects of the entire society.
This is often complicated because the benefits to a small group that profits from the action is great in the short run, and the resulting damage to everyone else is not very palpable or immediate, except over time.
When the hard-rock mining companies in Montana polluted the environment, they profited enormously. Those who got scarce jobs benefited as well. The fact that they were poisoning the rest of us was not as immediately obvious. So the stakes for the small group with a special interest were much higher than they appeared for each individual who was negatively impacted.
The "tragedy of the commons" also plays a role here. It is in the private interest of every fisherman to maximize his catch in the fishery. But it is in the interest of all - including the long-term interest of every fisherman - that the renewable resource of the fishery should be preserved for everyone by limits on catches. The same goes for all potentially renewable resources from trees to soil nutrients to wildlife.
Common action is necessary to address these kinds of problems.
Often societies fail to act to solve obvious problems when elites think they can insulate themselves from the consequences of communal disaster.
For generations, the governing elite in Haiti felt insulated from the effects of deforestation and poverty. As in other societies where rich people believe they can buy their way out of common problems by living in gated communities, buying bottled water and sending their children to private schools, they were simply not as inclined to make decisions in the interests of the entire society.
In America today, the massive power of the financial sector, the insurance industry, the energy companies - and the disproportionate wealth of a tiny percentage of the population -- represent our biggest hurdle to solving the long-term problems that threaten our long-term success.
Another major reason why societies fail to solve perceived problems is a heavy focus on short-term interest instead of long-term interest. The worldwide liquidity of capital markets has helped contribute to the growing pressure from those markets on next-quarter's profits.
The government, reflecting the long-term interests of society, is the only real counterweight to this tendency in the private sector. But this requires a government that is not dominated by those very same vested interests whose interests it must offset.
Diamond presents two final categories of reasons why societies fail to act even when they perceive a problem:
· Crowd psychology
As we know, people are pack animals. They get swept up into the goals and activities of the pack. Peer influence has a huge impact in determining what each of us defines as "common sense."
Support for the Crusades became "common sense" in Medieval Europe - even though it caused a massive drain of society's scarce resources. Germans were one of the most highly educated populations in Europe before World War II, but they were swept up by Nazi propaganda.
A key factor that allows these kinds of excesses is the suppression of critical thinking, public debate and the legitimacy of dissent. These all tend to occur in climates of fear. Fear has always been the principal rationale for the suppression of individual rights that are the precursors to "group think." That was as true in George Bush's America as it was in the old Soviet Union, or Nazi Germany.
Denial is yet another factor that paralyzes action. The prospect of an imminent disaster is so terrifying that we simply deny it. Action to solve problems requires hope that the problem can be solved. If the situation appears hopeless, the safest psychological course is to deny it exists or to believe that the problem isn't important. If Easter Islanders didn't believe they could do anything to bring back trees, it was better to deny that the deforestation was a problem in the first place.
There is of course one final reason that societies collapse.
4) Even after recognizing and attempting to solve the problem, they fail to do so.
They fail either because the solution is beyond their means, or their efforts backfire, or it's simply too late.
Even if the Easter Islanders had done everything they could on their isolated island to reforest, at some point there was a qualitative tipping point, and nothing more could be done. Maybe if they had access to other societies with seedlings, or modern science, the result would have been different. But given the geographic, environmental and historic context of the Easter Island society, there came a point where nothing else could be done.
Waiting too long has real consequences.
What does all of this have to do with the rules of the United States Senate?
The rules of the Senate - and their systematic abuse by the Republican minority - now effectively require a 60 vote supermajority to pass any kind of legislation. That requirement paralyzes action - particularly when the Republicans believe they can achieve partisan advantage by completely stopping the Obama agenda.
And if they succeed they will be right. The voters never punish or reward political leaders because of procedural maneuvers. Voters care about the effect of the policy on their lives, and they expect those in power to actually deliver real solutions. The excuse that the other side uses obstructionist tactics doesn't really matter to the voters.
And it's not just the filibuster. The rules requiring unanimous consent to proceed on most items of business, empower individual Senators to impede or delay action.
The Senate was constructed by the Founders to be a conservative body. By its nature it allows small states like Vermont to have the same representation as a state such as California that includes almost ten percent of the country's total population.
But the rules that now prevent or slow action were not envisioned in the Constitution - and for good reason.
Some argue that the Senate rules promote bi-partisan action. In fact, the opposite is true. The current rules incentivize the Republicans to obstruct action. If action required a majority vote, they would be much more likely to negotiate bi-partisan action in good faith because they would not have a shot at using its minority to completely stop action of any sort.
What's worse, those rules are now being used by the most powerful elites in the country to prevent action on a wide array of matters that critically impact the ability of America to succeed in a changing world.
Why do we spend twice as much on health care per person than any other country and are 37th in health care outcomes? Blame the rules of the U.S. Senate. Even if we succeed - as I think we will - at passing health insurance reform by using Senate budget reconciliation rules - the filibuster rules will be responsible for defeating a public option that could have materially reduced the cost of health care in America. Why? To protect the private health insurance industry.
Why do we have such difficulty dealing with the critical problem of climate change and the development of new sources of energy? Blame the Senate rules that protect the power of the oil companies.
Why is it so hard to rein in the exploding financial sector whose recklessness and greed caused the current recession, cost seven million American jobs and almost caused the collapse of the world economy? The Senate rules help protect the power of Wall Street.
Economists say the Obama stimulus bill created or saved from 1.5 to 2.5 million jobs. But as Paul Krugman says, it was too little of a good thing. Why? Because the 60 vote requirement in the Senate kept the new Obama Administration from doing everything that was necessary to restart our economy.
The Senate rules empower a tiny, economic elite whose interests run contrary to the public interest. They prevent the American government from making decisions quickly and forcefully -- to address the needs of the long run instead of the short-term interest of investment banks and insurance companies. Presidents since Harry Truman have tried to reform health care. The Senate rules have prevented action.
Change - accelerating change - is the central fact of the modern world. If America is to succeed and survive in the 21st Century it must have a government that can make timely decisions, look at the long haul, and act in the public interest - rather than represent the interests of tiny elites whose personal interests conflict with those of the society at large.
That requires that we change the Senate rules to make the Senate into a responsive, decisive body that represents the public interest and can no longer be used by the most powerful special interests to maintain their wealth and power at the expense of America's future.