Two Secrets for American Greatness: Resilience, Injection Points

It’s hard out there for a systems analyst. Or a president, for that matter. Thinking narrowly is far easier, because it makes the solutions seem that much simpler. But when our leaders start thinking systematically, I believe we’ll all be better off.

To back up my point, we need two more systems terms. They’re not jargon; both are familiar terms, though you don’t usually see politicians use them. The first term is resilience. The second, injection points.

A resilient system bounces back from any shock or threat. A ponderosa forest in the Southwest gets devastated by fire, and within a few years you see a sea of green seedlings, from pine cones opened up by the heat of the fire. Resilience at its best. In a resilient economy, you often see the fastest growth after a recession burns away the weakest businesses.

Sometimes, though, a system faces a shock so large that it threatens resilience. A forest fire in a tangle of dead trees and branches accumulated over decades can burn so hot that it destroys the pine cones and seeds. In that case, foresters will intervene, with small controlled burns and logging that removes some of the fuel. (The worst fires out West were caused in part by decades of fire suppression—another case of bounded rationality, or failing to see the forest for the trees.) Some systematic problems fix themselves, while others form feedback loops that spiral out of control. On the other hand, sometimes a relatively small, well-timed, deft intervention at the right injection point will set everything working again. A tune-up, a new carburetor: the right injection at the perfect injection point.

Back to the American system and its subsystem, the federal government. What problems might hold back our chief functions? What’s clogging the system from being the world’s most powerful, rich, innovative, and creative? And what injection point could offer the most effective, efficient fix, at the least cost, with the least harm to the other subsystems?