Quote, June 20 2012 – Which is more important: trying to fix a problem, or deciding who to blame for the problem?

Blaming somebody else induced policy paralysis because it subtly diverted intellectual energy away from the root problem

– Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, “Mr Barroso, Europe’s crisis has nothing to do with America”, The Telegraph, June 19 2012 (site last accessed June 20 2012)

If you’re reading this, then there’s other things you’re not doing. Very likely, if you’re reading this, you’re not doing anything else that takes a lot of mental energy and attention: you’re not solving a calculus problem, you’re not playing the flute, you’re not learning a tricky dance step.

Not that there’s anything particularly special about my writing. It’s just that the human mind has certain limitations. Reading takes enough concentration you won’t have enough left over to do other things that take a lot of concentration (like solving a calculus problem — and yes, I took college calculus, five semesters of it, so I know what I’m talking about).

So, we’ve established mental concentration is a finite asset. While we’re at it, your time is a finite asset too.

Now, let’s assume there’s a complicated problem and you’re trying to figure out a workable solution. That usually takes a lot of concentration.

Notice I said “trying to figure out a workable solution”. Unworkable pie-in-the-sky solutions are pretty easy to come up with (“Someone lied on their job application, so we’ll just add a checkbox to all future job applications which says ‘I promise I’m not lying’.”). Equally easy are lamentations about how such-and-such problem is a reflection of the state of society as a whole, or recounting a tragic anecdote about someone who was affected by the complicated problem being discussed.

Finding someone or something to blame for the problem is the easiest thing of all. And it’s usually wrong.

Complicated problems are usually caused by multiple factors and people. Which means any solution to a complicated problem will affect or be affected by multiple factors and people. It might even take a while to figure out what the contributing factors were. There won’t be an easy answer and there won’t be any answer which makes everyone happy.

Which isn’t to say that the problem shouldn’t be tackled and solutions shouldn’t be proposed — but it does mean it will always be tempting to quietly avoid the difficult questions and instead focus on finding one person, company, profession or country that is sole cause of ALL the problems.

And while all that misdirection and avoidance is going, the complicated problem isn’t being solved. It is true some problems solve themselves; it’s also true some problems get worse the longer they go on.

The European financial crisis is a good example of a problem that’s been misdiagnosed and has gotten worse as time has gone on because everyone has been too busy placing blame. A whole book could be written on what all has happened, I won’t try to cover it here. But no matter how bad the American subprime mortgage bond problem was (and it was pretty bad), it’s not responsible for a 40% difference in wage productivity between Germany and southern European countries, it’s not responsible for Greece having a long-running and huge problem with tax avoidance, and it’s not solely or even mostly responsible for Spain having an unemployment rate that is approaching 25%.

But blaming America is a lot easier than dealing with the ugly truth that the European Monetary Union had intrinsic flaws to begin with, one of the biggest ones being European countries are so diverse in both cultural and governmental attitudes towards things such as interest rates, inflation, and debt, trying to yoke them all to a single currency and single interest rate was almost impossible.

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