The term “the sandpile effect” was coined by the Danish-American physicist Per Bak and his co-authors Chao Tang and Kurt Wiesenfeld to describe how, as someone builds a sandpile by dropping one grain of sand on another, the pile eventually becomes so steep that little sand slides occur and then, eventually, an avalanche. But it is impossible, or at least very difficult, to predict which single grain of sand will create the cascading avalanche. One grain of sand is dropped and nothing appears to happen. Then, the next grain of sand is dropped… and there is an avalanche. (Think about California immediately before a devastating earthquake, or Texas before a devastating storm–all appears stable, but a moment later comes vast destruction.)
In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo illustrates how the sandpile effect exists in political and economic worlds as well as the physical world, and how seemingly small and random events can undo complex political and economic systems in momentous and unpredictable ways. Query whether our national tendency to “kick the can down the road” on many of the problems that confront us–our decaying infrastructure, our mounting national debt, our disappearing social cohesion–may lead us to a sandpile effect ending. Everything will appear pretty much the same as yesterday–infrastructure decaying just a little bit more, the debt getting just a little bit bigger, our social fabric getting just a little more frayed as politicians, the media and others pound away at their adversaries. But then, bam, that one additional grain of sand causes an avalanche. One only needs to remember the onset of the 2008 financial meltdown to see the vast and long-lasting harm such an avalanche can cause.
A good motto for Liberal Republicanism would be the words of Singapore’s famous Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew,”Let’s start thinking about it now.” This is how America should face it’s problems–not by kicking the can down the road, nor by continuing to engage in the degree of political partisanship we do today. Neither families, businesses, religious congregations, nor sports teams stay strong if they are divided against themselves, and neither can a nation. We need to change the political culture in America so that our politicians are only reelected if they compromise and succeed in enacting broadly-supported legislation– together they “think about it now” and do something. As John McCain stated on the floor of the Senate recently, “Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.”
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