Why we need to solve wicked problems using systems thinking

Do we solve the big political problems one by one or as a whole system? We say as a whole system.You can’t do it one by one.

In a system where everything affects everything else, if you change one element it has an effect on at least one other element and sets off a chain of responses.

We have assumed there is a need to change the tax system, the money system, the welfare system and the governance system. What happens if we don’t tackle it as a whole system?

Let’s just change the tax system. The result of taking off the deadweight taxes like income tax, GST and company tax and changing to charging a rent on the monopoly use of natural resources only, we still get an increased systemic pressure from the money system for growth. The result is continuing growth of private debt at interest. The banks become more powerful than ever.

If we change the money system but don’t tackle the tax and welfare system we get huge land and resource inflation resulting in inequality and booms and busts.

If we change two of them e.g. the tax and welfare system the result is more equality but still the growth of interest bearing debt.

Change all of these but not the governance system and the result is an equal but increasingly dissatisfied population. They are disenfranchised and don’t trust the government. Democracy deteriorates.

Everything in the political economic system affects everything else.

So we to change them all together by obeying Buckminster Fuller’s warning that “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

The new model that makes the existing model obsolete is this: Money is created at the smallest possible level of government by spending it into existence, not lending it into existence with interest. The rules governing the trade in that currency are made locally to turn the tax system on its head. The rules of rent are decided at local level to share the values of location of land and of monopoly resource use. A small Citizens Dividend growing to a full Basic Income is distributed. Power, function and revenue flow from the periphery to other centres to create a new system – a complex, dynamic and self regulating political economy.DSCF0029

Intractable BIG PROBLEMS need to be tackled as a living system

Over the last two years I have been increasingly puzzled about my own response to others.  Let me explain. I have a huge respect for several people who know a lot about the faulty money system and how its flaws cause so much pain, misery and environmental devastation. I also have a huge respect for those who have led the movement for tax reform so we tax what we hold or take rather than what we do or make. Nowadays in New Zealand income tax, sales tax and company tax comprise more than 80% of our government revenue and our local authority’s funding system is more and more regressive.

There are a growing number who know about both the shortcomings of the privately created money system AND the flaws of the tax system.

To save myself pain, I have focused my attention on only those who see the shortcomings of both systems. Yet when I broached the topic of tackling both issues together I received the reply “Of once we have done monetary reform we can get into land tax issues” or “Land tax will deal also to the faulty money system” or “Monetary reform will stop housing bubbles”. And these answers from people I respect.  Why did my hunch say NO?

So it was a relief the other day when researching systems thinking to watch a 20 minute interview of  the brilliant Frijtof Capra by Hazel Henderson. Capra was talking about living systems. He talked of the need to educate people eco-literacy and said there are multiple reasons why we are destroying our natural environment. A major one is that we are thinking linearly and not holistically. It is all too mechanical and Cartesian. He asked why do we want to save the spotted owl? The answer is because of the relationship of the spotted owl to humans. It is actually the relationships that we want to preserve.

Ecosystems are communities that have organised themselves over billions of years. There is true wisdom in them. Capra says we are thinking in fragments and we need to connect the fragments. We need to think in terms of relationships not objects.  And in Nature each living system is self-organising. We need to move from thinking about content to thinking about patterns, from content to context, says Capra. He says we can’t divide up a living system because it breaks those relationships and destroys the patterns.

So I have been thinking about the relationships between the various BIG PROBLEMS we face in the global economic system and the global environmental system. Though there are points of difference or scale, on the whole the big problems we in New Zealand face as a nation are similar to those faced by other nations.

If we focus on just one issue, say affordable housing, and forget about its relationship to bank created credit and a tax system which favours real estate investment, we will miss the target. Spain built more houses and it didn’t solve their affordable housing problem. If we think about the big problem of low wages for the working poor and just ignore its relationship to the tax system, the lack of investment capital for jobs and growing debt, we can come up with a temporary solution of a higher minimum wage. But it won’t solve the problem of  the declining affordability of food and housing. You see if you ignore the living system in which the problem is embedded, the problem persists. If we focus on climate change only and forget the flawed money system which demands economic growth, we won’t get very far at all. The next international conference will deliver exactly the same result where politicians favour economic growth over habitat protection. If you focus on getting a Universal Basic Income and forget about the fundamental reasons for tax havens (a faulty tax system) and the growing private debt issue, you won’t get very far.

So I believe my instinctual response to those monetary reformers who insist we tackle one problem at at time is actually well founded. It is time we all looked at the system as a whole and then worked out where to change it, where to tweak it. Family therapists do this every day. They don’t just focus on the difficult adolescent, they look at the family as a whole. Systems thinking works!

I have done a rough sketch of the what I see as the BIG PROBLEMS and the relationships between them. It gets really complicated and someone may do a better sketch. But here goes. Let’s look at this picture of a broken economic system and ask what small changes we can make that have the biggest effect on the whole system to restore it to health. The answers may be surprisingly simple. Here is my sketch:-

The economic system network

How everything is connected. Fix one thing and then attend to the knock on effects? No treat it as a whole system