Once upon a time, a young boy got a horse as a present for his 12th birthday. It was a coveted gift and his entire village cheered and said, “Isn’t this wonderful!” “We’ll see,” replied the wise Zen master who lived in the village.
Two years later, the boy was violently thrown off of his horse, shattering his leg and causing great dismay throughout the town. The villagers all cried, “How unfortunate this is for the boy!” “We’ll see,” replied the wise Zen master. Shortly after the boy’s fall, a brutal war broke out near the village, but the boy could not fight because of his broken leg. Relieved that the boy would remain safe, the whole village said, “This is so fortunate for the boy!”
“We’ll see,” replied the Zen master — fully aware that, for better or worse, even the best intentions have unintended consequences. Understanding that events rarely occur in isolation and that seemingly random actions are often closely interconnected…and somewhere close by a butterfly flapped its wings.
The Butterfly Effect is the idea that small changes in the early state of a system can cause significant and unpredictable changes to its future state. For example, the flutter of a butterfly’s wings in Africa could possibly alter the atmosphere just enough to change a hurricane’s path from across the Gulf of Mexico to up the East Coast. Although the butterfly does not cause the hurricane, it’s a small part of a larger sequence of events that causes a major change in the ultimate outcome.
Most often The Butterfly Effect is associated with chaos theory, a field of study in mathematics. But this profound concept can extend far beyond mathematical equations or weather patterns. The power of this phenomenon is what Americans so desperately need to embrace to solve our national challenges and change the way our dysfunctional political system operates once and for all.
Just as the butterfly and the hurricane are elaborately connected, our domestic and foreign policies are linked in intricate ways. If we don’t pay close attention, a policy decision that we make today can have significant consequences down the road — in ways we may never have considered.
Passing a three-strikes law today can cause significant over-incarceration tomorrow. Increasing domestic ethanol quotas today can cause a massive worldwide food shortage tomorrow. Redlining neighborhoods today can cause a substantial wealth gap tomorrow. Overthrowing a Glass-Steagall Act today can contribute to a devastating subprime financial crisis tomorrow. Arming the Afghan mujahideen without appropriate oversight today can fortify terrorism tomorrow.
As fabulous as America is — and it really is an extraordinary country — it’s no wonder we’re not operating at maximum capacity. Instead of recognizing the wisdom of The Butterfly Effect and approaching our policies comprehensively, our politicians act like they exist in total isolation from one another.
Their actions (and inactions) suggest that they think our long-term economic health is separate and apart from our unstable entitlement programs, ridiculously convoluted tax code, schizophrenic immigration policy, non-evolving energy practices, suffocating debt, and severe inequality of both income and opportunity.
Evidently, they think that our ability to preserve supremacy within the international power structure is separate and apart from the way we educate our children, the way we treat the planet, the cost and quality of our health care, our level of investment in research and development, and the condition of our infrastructure.
Worse, politicians from both major parties seem to think we don’t notice this is going on. They constantly underestimate the American people. They act as if we aren’t smart, capable adults — like we can’t comprehend the magnitude of our problems or handle the hard choices we must make to solve them. This is not only false…it’s downright insulting.
Regardless of our political affiliation — if we still have any at all — the American people know it is impossible to safeguard our long-term economic health without a sensible plan to stabilize our entitlement programs; an uncomplicated tax code; a smart immigration policy; an evolving, self-reliant energy policy; manageable debt; and fair and equitable opportunities for every American.
We the People know it is impossible to retain our status as a superpower without properly educated children; a healthy planet; affordable, high-quality health care; a strong commitment to innovative research and development; and modern, cutting-edge infrastructure. We the People fully recognize that it’s impossible to sustain freedom and liberty without sacrifice and that, thanks to decades of political incompetence and irresponsibility, the time has finally come to buckle down and get serious about protecting our future.
The time has come for serious people to come up with serious solutions. From immigration to entitlements to our fiscal crisis — to the racial health, education and wealth gaps to criminal justice reform — we have to make very difficult decisions and come together as a nation to fix this.
Einstein once said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” We should take his advice and move beyond the ineffectual thinking of our past.
For politicians to view our challenges compartmentally — as opposed to comprehensively — is a lazy, irresponsible approach and does nothing more than waste precious time, as we are now so painfully aware. Because there are so many problems to solve, the only plausible answer is to be boldly strategic in our attack. We can no longer expect half-measures and incremental ideas to work in systems that have collapsed. Instead, we have to embrace a full and fundamental restructuring.
As we begin to make revolutionary changes, it is essential that we always make today’s decisions with tomorrow seared in our minds. Our best bet is to always keep our eyes firmly on the horizon and visualize the future we want for our shining city upon the hill, not only in the 21st century, but far beyond.
The Butterfly Effect can work either for us or against us. Decisions can be altruistic and intelligent and therefore have a positive impact on our future. Or they can be self-serving and illogical and therefore lead this nation into chaos. Lately it’s been the latter, but that trend is about to end.
1787 will prove that even the slightest disruption can transform our severely broken political system. Better yet, a large one can transform the world.