Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Unnecessary Hand-Wringing Of Accomplishment

Yesterday, we landed a spacecraft on a moving comet. (I'm using the royal "We," since it was Europe who actually paid for and accomplished the feat.) I'm enough of a pro-exploration nerd to slightly raise my first in a "Go Science!" sort of way, although I didn't know it was going to happen and wasn't following space news to know anything about what this is going to accomplish. I more or less assumed that all the space agencies in the world are just tossing probes up there and hoping something will stick, like bacteria on the moon or Trigilladian casserole recipes.

Of course, leave it to a major innovation in the fundamental understanding of the universe to bring out the unsatisfiable sourpusses of the world.

A trending twitter hastag--which at this point has eclipse the 24-hour news network and water cooler talk as the most important indicator of a story's importance--was created, the lengthy #WeCanLandOnACometButWeCant. (Pro tip to future trend-settings: Twitter only has 140 characters. Try not to use up a majority of them next time.)

A lot of people used it to make stale (and some admittedly clever) jokes, which is what I believe the intent of it always was. Of course, that didn't stop hordes of activists on both sides of the spectrum to instead use it to point out the seemingly pervasive misfires in society. As in, we can land on a comet but we can't (PICK ONE) fix health care/close the borders/feed the hungry/lower taxes/house the homeless/etc.

I won't lie--that's a pet peeve of mine. Society isn't some linear progression of problems to solve. We can work on some things while others are being fixed. We can trumpet our successes without guilt simply because there are other problems on the docket.

The sad reality is that certain problems are never going to be completely solvable. If you simply fixate on a problem that will never be solved, you can't progress beyond that. It's difficult to think about, but society does, in fact, set priorities on different problems, and that's okay. Society is about difficult choices, and those difficult choices will always exist. For example, is it better to leave .05% of the people homeless, if it means spending money on those .05% is going to cause 1% more people to go hungry, or .75% less job growth due to higher taxes, or cause a 4% increase in property taxes?  The best thing to do is to do the best we can, come up with a level of support that everyone agrees on once the tradeoffs are factored in, plant enough safety valves (such as non-profits) to try and catch everybody else, and move on. Finding that balance between all of these things is part of what makes a modern democracy work.

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