Sometimes things fall apart.
In the Great Depression, our nation's existing institutions collapsed. The banking system collapsed. The stock market crashed. Soup kitchen lines wound around blocks as no one had jobs. Most of the lawyers in New York City were earning less than poverty line incomes. Unemployment rates surged to unprecedented levels. The Dust Bowl buried whole farm communities in sand. In Germany, inflation grow so intense that a wheel barrel of cash would barely buy you breakfast. Angry crowds gathered. In reaction, the New Deal changed the scope and scale of the federal government so profoundly,. with enactment of programs like Social Security, securities regulation, huge federal public works programs, that political scientists often describe this transformation as a new constitutional system even greater than the one brought about in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War even though the transformation didn't involve an overhaul of the legal document adopted by the states in 1789.
In contrast, the Financial Crisis shuttered a lot of financial firms, financially ruined a lot of real estate investors, destroyed a lot of middle class home equity wealth, and left a lot of young people in the lurch as they tried to start careers, but our economic system didn't fundamentally collapse, and ever slow slowly, the economy has recovered without a wholesale overhaul of the workings of our economy. Instead of crowd of unemployed office and factory workers in soup lines and Hoovervilles in every city in the nation, we had a few hippies occupying public parks in a few big cities and college towns. Many people lost homes but almost no one starved. There was corruption in the way that a wave of foreclosures were handled, but basically, the ordinary legal process for foreclosures and bankruptcies continued to function on a stressed but normal basis. A few stimulus bills were passed, but not the massive make work programs of the Great Depression. New housing construction tanked, but in Denver at least, lots of public works programs planned before the economy collapsed continued as planned and there were even isolated small scale infill developers continuing to grow the city. The federal bureaucracy was reshuffled a bit and financial regulations were tweaked, but there were no reforms so dramatic that someone who wasn't a policy wonk could tell the difference between the before picture and the after picture.
Many European nations are experiencing double dip recessions, there is one regime toppling sovereign debt crisis after another, and the depth of their economic slumps have been greater than they suffered in the Great Depression. In contrast, in the United States, the financial crisis may have been the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, but it was just a very, very bad recession, not another Depression that did not lead many people to conclude that a fundamental overhaul of the kind of economic system we used (e.g. a switch from democratic capitalism to communism or fascism) was necessary.
The levels of organized crime, violence directed at law enforcement officers and politicians, gang violence and corruption associated with Mexico's drug war is at levels not seen in the United States, which has near record low homicide rates at the moment, since Prohibition.
Afghanistan has been in a state of civil war with only brief interruptions since 1978 when disco was cool and bell bottoms were chic. It still hasn't achieved peace. The U.S. Civil War ended in 1865 and it has been more than a century since the U.S. Army was involved in last of the Indian Wars.
In Iraq this week, Al-Qaeda in Iraq used rocket propelled grenades, mortars, and twelve suicide bombers to simultaneously break hundreds of prisoners each out of two of the country's prisons. I'm not sure there has ever been a prison break of that magnitude of all of U.S. history. Indeed, the number of people who escaped by force from within the walls of Iraqi prisons this week is probably larger than the total number of people who have escaped by force from within the walls of prisons in the United States since the Civil War ended.
Despite Congressional brinksmanship in a period of divided government, somehow our elected officials have continued to be able to pass budgets that keep the federal government in operation and have found ways to appoint enough senior civil servants to run the government. The Courts are still open and functioning, even if their performance sometimes leaves much to be desired. While progress these days in the United States is often a two steps forward, one step back process, there is a steady drumbeat of steps taken to help address, at least partially, one or another of our nation's many flaws.
In contract law, there is a distinction between cases where there is no substantial performance of a contract, where the contractor receives no compensation for the work done, and cases of flawed but substantial performance, where the contractor is entitled to the contract price for the work done reduced by the cost of completion or the diminution in the value of the work done caused by its flaws.
American society is flawed, but it isn't fundamentally broken. We are in an era where reform overwhelmingly seems like a better course than revolution. On balance, this is a pretty good thing to be able to say about our society.
This suggests that reform minded people like myself, and policymakers generally, should be as cautious about avoiding unintended consequences of reforms that make things worse as they should about fixing the flaws in the system that we are perfectly aware exist.
It is much easier to determine why something that is flawed isn't working than it to know precisely why something works. Most policies that are broken are broken for just a few reasons, and often enough because just one thing isn't done correctly. In contrast, when complex systems work, it is often because myriad different components of the system that are all necessary but not sufficient for the system to work come together in concert.
It is very common for conventional wisdom, and even very smart people, to misunderstand why a complex system works when it works - overemphasizing the importance of parts that actually aren't critical, while overlooking the importance of features of the system that aren't emphasized or even acknowledged as being part of what makes the system work.
In a situation like the one American society confronts today, it is as important to not try to fix the parts that aren't broken as it is to grease the squeaky wheels.