Complex Ideas Take Time: Sequestration Edition

by a.l. castonguay

Back in 2011 as we were all sifting through the pieces that was the Occupy Wall Street movement and the (first) debt ceiling crisis, I wrote a piece arguing that these issues were not simply going to disappear and that we needed to be patient with this long transformation.  Though I didn’t have a plan for solving specific issues, I argued that the various dialogs and protests that characterized the second half of 2011 were key parts of the problem-solving process.  Even the failure of the SuperCommittee to modify previously agreed to deficit reduction cuts was part of this dialog.


However, I failed to address two key issues related to this process.  First, I offered no insight or suggestions on how to deal with the frustration that comes with a long, rambling dialog.  Second,  I also neglected to divine as to when these conversations (small and large) start to add up to something substantial.  The only explanations I can comfortably offer with any sense of (imagined) certainty is that I too, was in the thick of it and was still in the fact-finding stage of problem solving, and that since history does not follow a linear path,it is impossible to guess the future based on the present.

Neither excuse is meant to be a throwaway,  since they are directly related to the human limitations that govern us all and indirectly affect the choices we make.  Moreover, it is in these limitations that we can find both the means and methods of coping with the long process of problem solving.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the only thing standing between us and the inner peace needed to deal with the stress of complex ideas is an understanding of how we solve these types of problems. If we know how something works, we can then recognize the limitations and carefully select which ones to push, and which ones to just leave be.  This is a philosophy that governs much of our live, from self-improvement manuals to religion  and even business optimization.

By far the most fundamental problem facing us is that we as humans move only so fast as our surroundings and abilities allow us to.  The more pieces in the air and the more complex and abstract the problem, the slower we will move and the more energy it will take to solve said problem.   Planning and problem solving –as opposed to execution of a solution– appears to be a function that overly taxes our mental abilities, requiring greater attention to the task at hand at the expense of everything else.  It also burns tremendous amounts of energy and taxes our brains in ways that require longer periods of rest and recovery.

Note everything that goes into the problem solving process - and how multi-directional it is.

Note everything that goes into the problem solving process – and how multi-directional it is.

On top of that, this function can be easily derailed by unrelated matters (like say, a personal event or even a piece of chocolate cake) especially when there are more factors to consider in the planning and problem solving process.  Not only are we trying to deal with the long aftershocks of a financial crisis but we’re also trying to fit this crisis into our own accepted world view and belief systems.  If your a member of Congress, you’re also trying to hang onto your job at the same time. All of this is an incredible amount of information to review, process, prioritize, and act upon and sometimes we  veer away from that task at hand.  Thus, all this back and forth over the debt ceiling and sequestration, with long gaps between problem solving brainstorming sessions, proposal submission, and execution, may have every bit as much to do with our own mental limits and how we grapple with complex problems as it does “political gridlock and the climate in Washington”.

In addition to biological limits, there is also the question of time.  We should remember that it’s been almost five years since the economic collapse of several major investment banks, the argument over deficit spending and budget reduction has been playing out for four, and that this “sequester” was both presented as a solution and agreed to by both political parties over 20 months ago.  Finally, it’s worth remembering that the  direct effects of this proposal will last 10 years, giving us a time span of 15 years within which to continually reevaluate our past actions, brainstorm news ways to solve the problem, and possibly bring several more solutions into play.  In short, the shear scale of this project coupled with our very limited biological abilities prevents us from solving and resolving it in a quick, orderly fashion.


This is a very bitter pill to swallow, even if one is not  looking (or hoping) for a quick fix.  The historical consolation that it took 16 years for the United States to recover from the Great Depression.  Given the fact that this Great Recession has been noted as one of the worst financial collapses since the Depression, this long period of recovery makes (some) sense, though it still remains to be seen where things will be once 2023 rolls around.

For once, Africa and Asia are the economic bright spots.

For once, Africa and Asia are the economic bright spots.

To return to the second oversight in my original post, the issue of “when does it all add up” is one that can only be gauged in hindsight.  Again, almost five years have passed since the market first collapsed both here and abroad and much has happened since then.  There have been two Presidential elections (and more than two Congressional) that offered us the opportunity to decide which party — and by extension, which philosophy and action plan–we though would be the better remedy for these problems.   Various pieces of legislation, from the Emergency Economy Stabilization Act of 2008 (a.k.a. The Bailout), the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (2010), and various extensions of long-term unemployment benefits (see: 20092010, 2011, and 2012) have been drafted, passed, and slowly (if fitfully) put into action.  The economy, while contracting, has started to grow very incrementally, and employment rates appear to have been holding steady, which is a nice change from the incredibly dramatic (and swift) free-fall.

At least our job numbers are not falling like they used to.

At least our job numbers are not falling like they used to.

Even the sequester, which everyone has been wringing their hands about for months, was something that has been in place for the past 20 months — and something that we can point to as an example of both problem solving and puzzle pieces “adding up”.  Let’s remember that the sequestration’s purpose is to trim federal spending and reduce the overall deficit over 10 years by 1.2 Trillion dollars — and that this was something everyone agreed needed to happen.

So, five years into this post-recession world, we can objectively point to real pieces of evidence and see that yes, things are coming together.  The long and frustrating process of problem solving is starting to bear fruit.  Yes, we do have a long way to go before returning to a pre-recession economy but we are working at it.  We are not standing still, twiddling our collective thumbs, and just waiting for things to happen.  We are thinking, discussing, arguing, and testing.  We are doing this as best (and as fast) as our human brains can allow us to do.

We are moving forward; we just need to remember that it all takes time.