Never Mind Obama... When Are the Rest of Us Going to Grow Up?

If history teaches us anything, it's that history teaches us nothing. A decade after the "mission accomplished" banner debacle, many voters still clamor for simple solutions captured by tidy slogans, such as "no new taxes" or "no new spending." As an electorate, we still don't seem to grasp how complex our 21st-century challenges are -- how they defy simple, sound-bite solutions. Never mind President Obama growing into his role by becoming "more presidential." When are we voters going to mature?

Witness the preposterously overblown confidence of our 20/20 hindsight. As in, "Unemployment would be lower if Obama's initial financial rescue plan had been bolder," or, "The economy would be on stronger footing if Obama had not increased the deficit so much." Really? The fact that economists didn't agree then and don't agree now should be proof enough that nothing was or is obvious.

Or the seemingly perfect clairvoyance with which we predict the future. As in, "We have to spend a lot more to get unemployment down," or "Our only choice is to reduce the deficit if we're going to keep the country strong for the next generation."

The reality is that 21st-century problems are too complex to know definitively how they can be solved. They are more than just complicated -- they comprise multiple causal factors that interact in intricate ways that are impossible to perfectly assess and predict. How much better or worse the economy would be now had the original fiscal stimulus been different is fundamentally unknowable. Same for the impact of policy decisions being taken today -- we are limited to best guesses at how all the moving parts will shift and adapt. To think that anyone, including the president, can assess and respond to complex problems with certainty, is to be caught in a child-like mindset where an economic system can be fixed as easily as glue repairs a broken toy.

This doesn't mean public policy has become just a crap shoot. We do have ways of tackling complexity, largely emanating from the two fields of complexity science and cognitive science. Complexity science reveals that the more complex aspects of reality are best analyzed as whole systems that can only be understood by examining the deeply-imbedded, non-linear interrelationships of the system's parts. Cognitive science reveals that our minds evolved to think not with a systems mindset, but to rely on simple, linear, cause-effect modeling that served our ancestors well but is inadequate for grappling with modern public policy issues. Therein lies the source of our intellectual immaturity: the mismatch between how complex things work and the simple cognitive methods we use to understand them. Our increasingly interconnected and interdependent world cannot be described with our default preference for clear, black and white solutions. Complexity demands a more sophisticated cognitive approach.

Complex problems require multiple perspectives, a variety of possible explanations and constant testing and retesting of hypotheses before it is safe to draw any conclusions. Even at the point of concluding, the best we can hope for are provisional solutions. In fact, while our natural operating style is rushing to certainty on the back of a simple model of causality, complexity is best handled with experimentation. Because the information cues we need to make sense of complexity lie below the surface, complexity forces us to try something, interpret the feedback, and then try again. While political leaders such as Obama may appear to be vacillating, they may be the best complexity managers around, because they never assume "mission accomplished."

Obama deserves some benefit of the doubt that he's managing complexity in the best way anyone can. It's time for us to grow into our roles as a mature and sophisticated electorate who resist the temptation of Republican-style "sloganism" -- especially the Tea Party variety. The race is on between the complexity that is exploding around us and our ability to understand and manage it. We're behind and the only way to catch up is to grow up.

Ted Cadsby, MBA, CFA, is a corporate director, principal of TRC Consulting, former executive vice-president of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, and author of two books on investing.