X + Y = Z

By Sarason D. Liebler | May 21, 2012

Early on in grade school, we started with basic arithmetic. In my day we moved more slowly than they do today. Algebra was not taught until 7th or 8th grade. In high school we started geometry, memorizing theorems and then learned trigonometry. We moved on to advanced algebra and then, if so inclined, spherical trigonometry followed by calculus.

While some people love math, I am not one of them. But I learned the disciplines and still, mostly subconsciously, use the basic principles of all in routine thinking and problem solving. For instance, in basic algebra we all learn that finding a solution for a problem really requires that we first understand what the problem is.

However, a problem cannot be efficiently solved unless you know the questions and list all the relative unknowns. Then we can solve for the individual unknowns. However, as the pace of life has accelerated quantifying all the unknowns gets more difficult and it certainly gets tedious.

Simple algebra, as reflected in the title of this column, is straightforward. We started with only one unknown. Let me walk you through it — if Z=6 and Y=2, X must be 4. Got that? We solved for X.

But most real problems have more than one unknown and some of the unknowns are constants and others are variable. This rapidly becomes both tedious and difficult and most normal people do not like tedium even if they can handle the difficulties. That is okay, we can all try to avoid tedium, but for those who are really allergic to tedium, but still think they are smart, they really should refrain from mouthing off and making us share their simple-minded “solutions.”

We should not be asked to subscribe to their “solutions” when it is clear they do not even understand the problem. In our society two groups of people skip the tedium but yet claim solutions to all of our society’s problems. The ones who gave up on algebra completely (indeed they may never have understood it) are in tune with the Tea Party and the past. After all, it is easy to fall back on the past, it is like painting a connect-the-dots pattern. Problem is, they have not only ignored the unknowns but discount the constants and the variables that shift over time. They consider themselves the true conservatives.

The other group, the Progressives, learned some algebra but are hopelessly averse to tedium so they announce solutions based upon reliance on feel-good hypnotic thinking. Many of the Progressives got their basic education from “Mad Comic Books” and their hero remains Alfred E. Neuman. “What, me worry?” No way to solve problems.

One way around the simplistic attempts to solve massive problems with perhaps infinite unknowns is to break problems into chewable bites. If we can take on problems where the unknowns are clear, solving for them is less tedious and progress, even on lesser issues, can be very rewarding for all. On the other hand, this also lends itself to not really getting anywhere when we forever kick the big problems down the road and create more variables and unknowns making any required future problem-solving action even more difficult to understand and thus solve.

The effect we see is that virtually everyone who speaks out falls back on the claim that politics has become hopelessly polarized even though this is really not so. Politics has always been polarized, here, there and everywhere. And it is not that politicians of yesteryear were of a higher caliber than today, but rather that the problems have been allowed to grow in complexity so that unknowns have grown exponentially and certainly politicians of today are no better than those of yesterday.

From the uncontrollable budget to unaffordable health care, to a schizophrenic energy policy, domestically we are awash in nonsense. None of these critical problems is even close to solution.

The Tea Party folks have their mantra, simply turn back the clock to the 1770s and things will work fine. The Progressives' solution is to print money so that everybody has the wherewithal to satisfy their every desire even if wealth has to be taken away from those who earned it to be gifted to those who have not.

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