The Easy Button

There’s a well-known retailer whose advertising features “the easy button.”  Needless to say, I hate the ads.  Even more to the point, I hate the implication behind them, the suggestion that everything will be easy if only you go to the “right” retailer.  Yet this preconception appears everywhere in American culture, sometimes as overtly as in the “easy button” ads and sometimes only by implication – but it’s there.

If everything is so “easy,” why does the United States have the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression?  If it’s so easy, and there’s only one right and easy way that should be obvious to everyone, why are society and politics so polarized?  [Except… I forgot, my “easy” way is the right one; yours is wrong] If everything is easy, why does the U.S. government have huge annual deficits?  Why is the housing market first overbuilt and then in the dumps?  Why does the stock market go down as well as up?  Why do we still pay the Wall Streeters who caused much of the economic mess millions, and lay off teachers, FAA employees, police officers, and the like?

The fact is that, from the first human being who figured out something new, and even well before that, life has never been easy.  It’s definitely not as difficult today as it was for early humans or for those who lived in times of plagues, famines, and pestilence [except we still have those in places], but life has always presented challenges and difficulties… and always will.

What seems to go unrecognized is that as technology improves the quality of life for its beneficiaries, first, the gap between the beneficiaries and those who do not benefit or even benefit partially increases and, second, the consequences of system failures, bad judgments, greed, tunnel vision, and other human and technical failures become greater and greater.  Technology is essentially an even-handed amoral force multiplier.  It magnifies the capability to do good or evil.

In that sense, the people who believe in the easy button are correct.  It is indeed easier to do anything.  It’s far easier to be stupid and make a careless mistake that will hurt scores, if not millions of people.  Unfortunately, the laws of probability work against “good” easy mistakes, because most mistakes are not beneficial.  System designers know this, and that’s why, as a number of readers reminded me, the amount of computer code has multiplied drastically, largely to keep bad things from happening, both inadvertently and deliberately.

Technology also multiplies complexity, and sorting out the best solutions is anything but easy. Just look at the governmental policy chaos across the globe.  Contrary to popular belief, the majority of the politicians involved are anything but stupid.  They may be self-interested, selfish, beholden to special interests, ideologues, demagogues… and the like… but stupid?  Only a small percentage, and those individuals tend to weed themselves out [often it seems, recently, through the “easy” solution of texting inappropriately].

In the end, the bottom line remains the same.  While getting goods and gadgets has gotten much, much easier, the damage one can do with them and the complexity involved in determining how to use them has made acting wisely even more difficult… and anything but “easy.”



12 thoughts on “The Easy Button”

  1. Kathryn says:

    Some situations would be made all the better for an easy button. Ask me or any other transgendered person, anyone stuck in the closet or anyone with a health condition, and we’ll all say that an easy button or pill would be the greatest thing on Earth. The flip side to that is you open up a can of worms, as you’d imply. If they come up with an easy tablet for diabetes or even obesity, what’s to say that people won’t abuse their bodies and just take that easy pill to alleviate themselves of any true responsibility for their bodies?

    As for politicians, I think you summed it up well in an earlier post – or at least it came up in the discussion – was that politicians might not be stupid, but they can certainly be worrying. A belief in intelligent design and creation or a 6000 year old Earth might not make you stupid, but it does call into question your openness to ideas and new situations. As a politician, you need to be open to ideas, thoughts, movements, emotions – If you’re steadfast in a relatively trivial belief like the age of the Earth, that’s worrying.

    Life isn’t easy, and I don’t think it will be. Those at the very top of the chain, who are rich and live off the means of others, have concerns that we lowly folk don’t. Life certainly isn’t made easier by those same top-cats screwing up our economies and world situations, because it affects those in the lower wage groups the most (Whereas they get to keep their jobs after bringing economies to their knees).

    If we make life easy, we lose who we are and we lose our very lives. We as humans have the intelligence, the technology and the understanding to better ourselves. If everything becomes easy, then we waste our potential, our minds and everything our ancestors strove for. Maybe we need to take a step back from technology for a while and try to rekindle the use of brain power over technology once more.

  2. Another aspect of the problem is that the easy button is an illusion, and spreading the idea that anything is easy creates unmet expectations… and, often, even more anger when things don’t go right. Making home loans “easy” crashed the housing sector, ended up throwing people out of their homes and creating huge financial hardships for others, and resulted in a great recession.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      Yes! And of course it’s human nature to want someone, be it deity, parents, government, or whatever, to make everything smooth and safe.

      …which is unaffordable, and impossible, and even if it were, would simply breed a bunch of helpless sissies.

      (note that the existence or lack thereof of deity is of no relevance to the tendency to want to avoid consequences; whether by design, or merely by physics, consequences _exist_, and behavior that does not deal with reality as it is will in the long run harm both the practicer and others)

  3. Bob Howard says:

    The “easy button” is pervasive and corrosive to our society. No one has the patience or the will to pay the difficult price real reform requires. Real reform will require a fundamental reordering of our priorities and will mean real sacrifice from all levels of our society.

    This is well within our abilities and capabilities, but just as no corporation can survive without genuflecting to the next quarter’s stats, so no politician can survive by asking for that sacrifice for the greater good of the country over the long haul if it means short-term costs. We have allowed ourselves to become captive to the ideologues and the ranters and I’m afraid things will have to get much worse before we are forced by those dire circumstances to take the actions we should have decades ago.

    As you said, our politians are not stupid (exceptions for Bachman and her ilk), but all (forgive me, but especially the Republicans) have locked themselves into a “faith”-based ideological straightjacket. When one drinks the political koolaid that says the only way out of our economic crisis is to slash spending, that “faith” demands slavish adherence to its tenets regardless of the historical record. Cut taxes to let business generate jobs, they say, but corporations are sitting on historically huge piles of cash already, so how will that help? Government stimulus spending has led the way out of virtually all previous serious recessions, but dogma says any gov’t spending is evil and therefore to be spurned. And to be fair, Dems are almost as bad, and have equally damaging ideological blinders.

    Sorry for venting, but I’m ready for my own “easy button” to purge our poisoned political system.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes the “easy” button.

      Mine is failing to phase out _all_ benefits and entitlements over just enough years to grandfather the current addicts to such perversion.

      People _need_ to take responsibility for their _own_ future, and their present too, as much as they’re able…and for any relatives they’re able to look out for, as well. Most who depend on benefits, and who lived often paycheck-to-paycheck, _could_ have done better had they put not only effort but a little foresight into it.

      The few that truly are _incapable_, private charity can care for…with my support in both organized and individual acts. But the indolent masses of ne’er-do-wells that simply _fail_ to plan because they know someone else will pick up the tab, are IMO parasites and should be given the simple choice of get it together or starve.

      Guaranteed outcomes are just slavery with a nicer name.

  4. Sam says:

    There was something I read as a child about the flow of either water or electricity – I can’t remember which – that it follows the path of least resistance.

    That concept stuck in my mind and by my early teens I’d come to believe it was true of humans and in fact still do.

    In the case of humans the resistance is often internal and the path of least resistance isn’t always obvious since it varies from person to person. The resistance can manifest as guilt/fear/shame etc. when it comes to not doing things or avoiding doing them and sometimes it is those things that can drive a person to do something when their inclination might be to do nothing.

    I strongly suspect that if people felt no emotion/instincts/drives or equivalent they might just lie down and die even if they were still capable of reason.

    So people will do the “easy” thing in my view but easy isn’t always obvious. People will invest great time and effort in things that are important to them even if it accomplishes very little ie. religious ceremonies.

    Also some great and/or incredibly simple inventions have come about because someone thinks there must be an easier/better way to do this.

    Here in Australia we have a TV program called the New Inventors that showcases Australian inventors. One inventor showcased recently was a builder who had developed a new scaffolding system that would save time and energy to erect. Should his invention prove successful in the marketplace it will save time and energy for builders arounds the world making their job easier. Is that a bad thing?

    I think there will always be people inclined to laziness and indolence but there will also be people willing to put there time and energy into making their and other peoples lives better.

    I don’t think making things easier is ever a bad thing. If there are those who fail to make productive use of the extra time and energy afforded them by easier lives then that is on them not on the inventors who are trying to improve things for everybody.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      Who is to say what a religious ceremony actually accomplishes?

      I doubt it’s actually turned away hurricanes (notwithstanding what some televangelists might fantasize), but what use are objective phenomena in measuring how something might help the participants in purely subjective ways? There is exactly the same amount of objective proof that the paranormal, or supernatural, or one (or maybe more, although I think I could call a plurality of deities into question if I understood transfinite math) deity exist, as there is that they _don’t_ exist…namely zero. I’m pretty sure I could make the case that (a) one might as well assume that free will exists (notwithstanding both some agnostic physicists and a few religious folk that say it doesn’t); and (b) that if it does, and a deity exists, that it presumably exists with their permission, and that therefore flaunting their existence might well be in violation of their own purpose; so the lack of proof either way does itself not provide much of a clue.

      The _point_ of faith is that it’s in something that one chooses to accept as worthwhile but not provable.

      But as to the more practical: despite all the widely advertised cases where people’s beliefs caused them to do crazy or self- or other- harming acts, there are far more cases where they caused people to go the extra distance being patient, or polite, or helping one another; but like any other news, quiet positives don’t get much coverage compared to noisy negatives.

      Having said that, I agree that people will expend considerable energy (and sometimes produce improvements) looking for easier ways of doing something. I got into programming at least in part because I thought it
      truly stupid to be doing certain tasks mostly by hand (and with poor and uncomfortable handwriting, a love of gadgets, and complete ease _thinking_ like a computer program, it was obvious for me to do that).
      It’s even said that a certain type of laziness is an asset to a programmer…not laziness in programming, but laziness in doing other things that a program could automate.

  5. Joe says:

    Politics is the art of the possible. To succeed a politician must craft a message which pleases the media (so he gets coverage), pleases his rich sponsors (so he can get his message out) and which outcompetes the messages of his opponents among the voting public. This set of constraints is now so binding as to ensure no wise politician can emerge.

    This makes the US very dangerous: with the full might provided by science and rationality, but run by profoundly irrational interests.

    Consider new presidential candidate Governor Rick Perry. One could do the same analysis with any of the other Republican candidates (except perhaps Ron Paul who the media do not like).

    * Disbelieves in climate change, opposes any emissions regulations, is praying for rain in his own state Texas because it’s suffering an unprecedented drought.
    * Wants to teach “Intelligent Design” in schools
    * Threatened violence against the Fed Chairman if he prints more money. Instead believes in cutting the deficit now.
    * Strong on law and order. Executes people. But pro-life.

    We can posit one of 2 hypotheses:

    a/ He doesn’t get it:

    * Climate Change results in extreme weather events. As the air heats up more water evaporates in some places (drought) and falls in other places (floods). Expecting God to do something about it is abdicating responsibility. Even within the religious paradigm, when God created us, he gave us brains to use.
    * Intelligent design is not scientific. To be scientific, a theory must be falsifiable. Intelligent Design is not falsifiable and therefore isn’t science. You can teach it in religious class, but not in science without corrupting the scientific methodology which has brought us all the technology we rely on.
    * When you “deposit” your cash into your checking account, you are loaning your money to the bank. In return they give you a promise to pay you back (“account statement). As long as you can go to your bank and redeem cash for that promise on demand you feel safe “leaving your cash there”. However the bank knows on average people only withdraw 10% of their account in cash. Thus if you placed $1000 in cash into your account, they know you are unlikely to withdraw more than $100. They can lend $900 to other people. But In fact they can lend out $9000 since they know those people also will only redeem 10% of the promises they make. Thus from your $1000, an extra $8100 ($9000-$900) was created. This means there is more money in the system for the same number of goods, so money loses value. When people pay off their loans and save, this additional fake money disappears, so money gains value. This is called deflation. In “good times”, people buy stuff. Companies borrow money to expand and sell more stuff. This increases the money supply, causing inflation which makes money cheaper, which makes debts easier to pay off. In bad times, people don’t buy stuff. Companies can’t sell and go bankrupt, causing people to buy even less and pay off their debts. This reduces the money supply, making money harder to come by: deflation. To help the economy, governments should be countercyclical: spend in “bad times” and save in “good times”. Instead by following the herd, and imposing austerity and spending cuts, the government is guarantying more deflation and unemployment.
    * Austerity and reduced job prospects correlate with more “chaos” — murders, riots, strikes, etc: less law and order. If you want law and order, you don’t increase repression, you create a society in which people gain and support the system.

    b/ He does get it:

    * His corporate sponsors support him as long as he fights for their interests (no regulation of climate change). There’s no gain for him in accepting the scientific consensus. Plus, praying for rain appeals to his potential voters.
    * His electorate doesn’t understand what science is, but want to be right too.
    * His electorate doesn’t understand money, and believe everyone should suffer equally in bad times. However his rich sponsors know deflation is good for them. It means their money is worth more, and they can get more cheap employees more easily as the population fights for even smaller salaries.
    * His electorate believe there are good and bad people. Good people don’t upset the system on which good hardworking people depend. Anyone who threatens that systems deserves punishment. This means there is a giant difference between an evil wrong-doer and an innocent unborn child. His rich sponsors know that great inequality correlates with anti-social behavior which endangers them. More law and order to repress the population will protect them.

    I expect he does get it, and that is why I think he is dangerous.

  6. Joe says:

    I should not have singled out Republican candidates. Obama also does what his richest sponsors want.

  7. R. Hamilton says:

    @Joe: re Perry: disbelieving in climate change is an oxymoron. It would hardly be climate as we know it if it _didn’t_ change. The extent of human _influence_ on climate on a global scale (we know there’s plenty of human influence on a _local_ scale) is not altogether a settled issue. The costs of being wrong are high _either_way_. But the worst-case scenarios popularized thus far are dubious, even if they’re right about direction, influence, etc. Over very long stretches of time, humans have been better off with warmer conditions than with less warm conditions. Nevertheless, more energy likely means more violent weather, and not necessarily just hotter, but more of both extremes. But anyone who _lives_ within a mile or so of the shoreline is an idiot anyway, and national flood insurance should NOT be renewable in flood zones after one payout per customer, to discourage people from living in low-lying areas.

    Now…praying about whatever by a politician: there are cases where public prayer (not led by a politician) is not unreasonable, but Mark Twain’s “Letters From The Earth” (hardly popular reading among supporters of organized religion, since the institutional form thereof is precisely what he was criticizing) was quite clear that public prayer _for_show_ is worthless at best; but he was oddly enough quite consistent with the New Testament on that point. So…I have no problem with a politician having certain beliefs, or even saying so. It does mean I’ll hold them to a higher standard of consistency in certain matters than if they didn’t say such things. I don’t even have a problem with them encouraging people to pray or otherwise put their beliefs to work under difficult circumstances. But while a private individual may have a right, risking only themselves, to use prayer _instead_ of more conventional forms of action, I think a politician’s duties should preclude them from publically encouraging that sort of behavior.

    That’s not to say I think we ought to go all eco-freaky and ban CO2 or something psycho like that. I wouldn’t rule out prudent water projects, or planting trees, or whatever. But whatever approach was taken, it should be limited as to cost (in either spending or regulatory burden), and should not have unreasonable expectations of dramatic or immediate results pinned on it.

    I don’t think much of your economic approach though, except for the saving in good times part. That part makes sense because then you don’t build expectations of limitless benefits being present when bad times come around. Of course, I don’t think there should _ever_ be any government benefits, period, except to wean the current crop of addicts off of them. But if it were possible to get rid of them, I still wouldn’t want the government to try to pump money into the economy during slow times. I want whatever is happening to run its course with minimum interference, on the assumption that however bad it may be, it will be over with sooner with less meddling, simply letting the markets do what they wish to find their new level.

    As for austerity, disorder, etc. I believe the appropriate response to rioters is machine guns. Peacefully protest all you like, but mob violence (to persons or even to property) is to me one of the few occasions where I think that eugenics is an appropriate response. Sooner or later, it would teach the survivors to get the heck away from any peaceful protest that started to get disorderly.
    The apparently forgotten line was very simple: “incitement to riot is no excuse for rioting”.

    Unfortunately, the “easy button” means excuses for _everything_ have become the norm.

    1. Joe says:


      It seems to me that for a debate to be profitable, each side must learn something. Simply restating one’s opinion does not impart any new information.

      I stated my understanding of how something works (a model), and I stated logical conclusions from that model. In the case of money I explained why deflation causes economic contraction, and why the government saving in bad times will worsen the depression. History verifies my statement since after the great depression from 1929 to 1933 under Roosevelt the money supply fell by 27 percent. To debate you can either show me a fault in my model or a fault in my logical conclusions. Since neither of us is omniscient a third way forwards would be for you to explain your model of how the economy works and your logical conclusions from that model which I can then check for consistency.

      Similarly, there is evidence that CO2 changes how much heat the atmosphere can retain, which causes more extreme weather events. I know of no evidence showing
      that praying affects the weather. Therefore Rick Perry’s actions seem illogical to me, unless he is playing a totally different game, namely getting elected.

      I notice you criticize spending on wellfare for people but not on spending on wars. Is this an omission, or do you believe the government should be spending a trillion dollars on wars? The economic model of invading other people’s countries and taking their stuff was tried by the romans. It didn’t work out too well for them, and it seems the US is even less good at extracting its pound of flesh. Why then is this not simply corporate wellfare for the military industrial complex? Similarly, do you agree with bank bailouts, another major reason for our gigantic deficit?

      It appears you believe markets will “solve the problem if left alone”. Laissez faire economics that believes the market will find the magic equilibrium. Please read the paper proving that markets are only efficient if P = NP. There is no known method of solving NP problems within a non exponential time. I.e. it’s a proof markets cannot be efficient. Moreover Marx showed that capitalism eventually fails if profit is the goal. To maximize profit I must reduce costs. That means fewer employees, which means fewer people to buy stuff. Eventually you get to the current scenario with a vast wealth gap and no one buying anything. See Nouriel Roubini:

      You seem to have a problem with the word climate change. Would you prefer climate disruption? I do not agree that there is a real debate about the speed or cause of climate change. Even if a few scientists in different fields feel qualified to comment on areas outside their domain of expertise, it does not mean the science is unsettled. Einstein did not believe in quantum mechanics. The computer you are using is proof that quantum mechanics works. Scientists are people, and find it hard to change their minds too. Indeed it is said that science only progresses when old scientists die. In fact most of the projections so far agreed on by the IPCC are over optimistic, not over pessimistic. They ignoring such sources of additional greenhouse gases as forest fires due to warming temperatures, methane released due to melting permafrost, additional natural gas discharges due to fracking which releases more gas than conventional natural gas exploitation, etc. The real world is providing evidence that the projections (which are based on proven science) are getting it right since they predicted the types and number of extreme weather events we are seeing this year.

      The speed of climate disruption matters. If it’s slow enough, species can move and adapt. If it’s too fast, species die out. All the major climatic events that have occurred since the invention of agriculture (and therefore civilization) have been mild and slow, or at least temporary and localized. Current projections show this change is much more significant and much faster. Therefore few species on which we depend will survive and our numbers will be greatly reduced. Complexity such as civilization comes at a cost. Just as the Maya lost their civilization when confronted with ecological collapse, we will also have to cut costs and revert. Or we could try to mitigate the effects of the CO2 already in the atmosphere by drastic regulation and/or technical solutions. Most projections show It’s too late for anything less than a drastic change in behavior on our part since so many greenhouse gases have accumulated in the atmosphere.

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