Our beautiful, barely functioning world

Lakeside Village of Hallstatt

When the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, billed as a tragic mistake in the middle of NATO’s bombing of Serbia, an inside source commented on the U.S.’s struggle to explain themselves:

“The reality is that in the U.S. government two things coexist: on one hand there is magnificent technology, including stealth bombing, laser target pinpointing and in-air refueling; on the other hand, there is a guy in a basement reading the sports section while eating a powered donut and sipping from a big-splurge Slurpee. In between bites, he is picking out a target to be bombed in a city he has never visited.” (Managing Sino-American Crises, p. 338-339)

Nine years and one president earlier, when the U.S. sought to respond to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, we similarly struggled:

“The U.S. Navy was almost totally lacking in minesweepers, a potentially fatal weakness. The United States had to borrow minesweepers from Britain and Italy. [In addition,] American logistics capacity to move troops to shore was strained. President Bush had to commandeer commercial airliners, rent cargo ships, and call up the reserves. Once on shore, the United States possessed little equipment designed for desert warfare. The sharp run-up in the price of Mine Safety Appliance and Survival Technology stock reflected the lack of gas masks to counter Iraqi chemical weapons.” (The Great Reckoning, p.228)

In our current state, the world watches as the U.S. struggles to handle the COVID-19 crisis. When do things get handled? I think things get handled either when there is a crisis (e.g. shit, we accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy) or desperate need (e.g. we need military equipment), or when there is another incentive to do so. Sometimes beautiful buildings get build, for example, even though there is not a need. A desire will do, if there is the means.

But the obvious problem with incentive-based systems is that there are lapses in the functioning of things, especially when there are incentives (e.g. financial) against things being handled in a good and straightforward way, or simply if there hasn’t been a strong enough incentive to do things “right.” How do we correct these incentive problems?

Traditionally, morality and ideals have been the way to manage these cases where an individual is incentivized to do something that goes against a group. Things get handled at a higher level if people all feel motivated and compelled to behave honorably, for example. Our material problems aren’t purely a result of material mismanagement. They are a result of moral mismanagement. In a world that is too pragmatic, we follow incentive gradients to unfortunate and unnecessary places–compare the beauty of Alpine villages to California’s strip-mall chic.

“What is necessary?” is a different question than “What is worth doing?”