As I’m approaching a rotary, there’s a guy ahead of me, on the right side, wanting to come out, and I slowed down and let him out. Sometimes letting someone in holds up traffic for a while, sometimes the effect is very little, but this time it was like not at all. Because what happened was that the guy shot out and instead of getting in the line of traffic with me thereby depriving everybody behind me of one space in line in terms of the time-hit they’re going to take trying to get to where they’re going, he shot across, got in another completely unoccupied lane, and I was caught up to the car ahead of me almost immediately. ‘Almost’ is the operative word here. So it cost the guy behind me a little bit, though he probably barely noticed; now think of the guy behind him, the guy behind him, and the guy behind him. And as you look back, to the 25th guy in line who’s not even turned the couple of corners necessary to be in the right street– as you look at the effect on him: it disappears.
It’s not really like the butterfly thing, the ‘Butterfly Effect’ (the phenomenon whereby a minute localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere; e.g. if a butterfly flaps its wings in China, I could lose Fantasy Football again this year.) Here it’s linear, it’s seeing ahead of you, and behind you, and so is therefore easy to map out. A good math student would have fun with these equations. You can really map out how this happens; you can figure out the ‘time-hit’ that each of your decisions imparts and upon whom and how it is further impacted by the subsequent actions of others.
What you can’t really map out are the levels of awareness behind you in line, car to car, because at some point people have accepted that when you’re driving somewhere, you will be impeded by traffic. It’s not like every time you drive somewhere, you expect the streets to be completely wide open. So, you take that mentally into account somehow.
But people cost you time by making those kinds of decisions- like the decision I made to let that guy out. Small though it may be, and smaller-seeming still the further downstream the decision impacts, I’m culpable for it. I’m responsible for the downstream, or down-traffic, -pardon the pun-, ramifications.
The more complex the society, the more traffic there is to absorb an individual decision, however selfish or altruistic it may be, and so people are subtly emboldened to indulge behavior that might not otherwise fly on an open road; and bad stuff flourishes when accountability dissipates like this. When blame disappears behind you in traffic, and people expect traffic, you can do what you want up at the front of the line. Let that guy out, or don’t let that guy out. And if you’re the guy trying to get into the traffic, you can wait politely, or edge out slowly while insipidly pretending you’re not making everyone swing wider and wider to avoid you- or you can charge out in traffic and make people squeal to a stop to avoid a crash.
And that’s what happens to blame in politics. The ordinary citizen expects traffic, and can rarely see what’s happening up front anyway, and so probably doesn’t fully comprehend what’s happening up ahead. That’s what’s going on now. There are politicians everywhere who don’t drive well. Their Unholy Triumvirate of Bad Driving: First, announcing something unpleasant on a Friday, so that by the time folks pay attention to the news again, two news cycles later, the unpleasantry is in the rear-view mirror, superseded by other news the way the latest fashion or pop song becomes the new focus for a hot moment. Second, dismissing mention of prior problems (DUIs, embarrassing votes, criminal associations, hot-mic scandals) as “old news,” which few people can view without distaste. Third, the effrontery of believing that, as a paid public servant, they are not required to answer questions forthrightly, but instead view each question as a chance to parry, and then trot out their party’s talking points.
And that gives me a new understanding of and a new appreciation for the term ‘gridlock’.”