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The Seven Deadly Sins of Dysfunction

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Dysfunction

Stephen H. Provost

Have you ever heard a child ask, “Why are things this way?” and found yourself unable to come up with an answer?

Why do we continue to rely on a dysfunctional process? An inefficient and unfair system? For transportation. For employment. For health care. You name it.

This question of “settling” for dysfunction always seems to come up at election time, and for good reason. The staggered primary system effectively disenfranchises massive numbers of Americans eager to vote on the presidency – a problem is magnified by media outlets salivating to declare “winners” and “inevitable nominees” before the votes are even counted.

If you live on the wrong side of Super Tuesday, it’s likely you won’t even get a chance to vote before two-thirds or more of the candidates have dropped out of the race. 

The solution is simple: A national primary. We all vote at the same time in the general election, so there’s no reason it can’t be done when we’re picking the nominees. 

But even if we were to change the primary system, when we get to the general election, we’d still be stuck with the Electoral College, an antiquated monstrosity that skews the popular vote by awarding electors (for nearly all states) on a winner-take-all basis. If you live in California, which has favored Democrats by 10 to 24 percentage points in each of the past five presidential elections, the result is all but a foregone conclusion.

I won’t even get into the problem with unelected “superdelegates” on the Democratic nominating process or the problem with voting on a weekday rather than a weekend or – as has been repeatedly proposed – a national voting holiday.

These mechanisms have all been in place for years, decades or even centuries. We complain about them, despair at them, and yet nothing gets done to change them.


For the same reasons we resist alternative energy sources, higher wages and guaranteed health care. I call them the seven deadly sins of dysfunction, and they apply to families, communities and organizations just as surely as they do to nations.

The sins

Fear. No matter how much we might moan about the current situation, we’re scared that any alternative will be worse. So we settle. We call ourselves "pragmatic: for failing to pursue options that promise to enhance our lives because we fear they have the potential to screw things up even more. This isn’t pragmatism, it’s fear. As long as we tell ourselves we’re “just being practical,” what we're really doing is reinforcing the status quo.

Pride. “America is the greatest nation on Earth, and we do it this way, so it must be correct!” When we make statements like this, we forget that America’s greatness is largely a product of its willingness to innovate. From Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers to Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, we’ve forged greatness through change, not through blind allegiance to past practices. Pride is the great antidote to ambition. It says, “We’ve made it” and basks in the glow of self-adulation. Meanwhile, situations are changing that require us to adapt or perish. In this instance, the great spiritual teachers are correct: Pride is a killer.

Greed. Once we’ve established a predictable flow of dollars based on a given system, those who are on the receiving end of those dollars have a powerful incentive to keep it in place. And those dollars give them the power to perpetuate systems, even as they become damaging to the public at large. This is true whether the recipients are political Super PACs, banks, lobbyists, oil companies, health insurers or lawyers.

Power. Those with the money typically wield the power, but money isn’t the only problem. Those empowered by the status quo routinely use shame, threat, peer pressure, manipulation and intimidation to bully and goad those without power into accepting things as they are. And it works.

Resignation. “It’s always been this way” and “It can never change” are the mantras of those who might wish for things to change but have seen attempts at reform and innovation stymied repeatedly by those whose self-interest lies in preserving the status quo. If your experience tells you that change is impossible, you tend to accept the way things are as the way they should be. You learn to accept the unacceptable and rationalize it as “good” in order to avoid the cognitive dissonance that exists between hope and reality. Welcome to Stockholm, my dear Syndrome.

Laziness. Sometimes, the necessary change seems to require so much effort it just doesn’t seem worth it. Switch to alternative fuels? How many oil workers will lose their jobs? How many gas stations will have to be torn down? It just doesn’t seem worth it. What’s forgotten is that we’ve done this before: Remember when the transportation economy consisted of railroads and horse-drawn carriages? Building the nation’s road and highway system was a far more mammoth undertaking than any conversion to alternative fuels would be. And the effort created far more jobs than were lost in the transition. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again. Sometimes, it just seems like too big a pain in the ass.

Negligence. We just don’t want to think about it. Election reform is a prime example. Every four years, we complain about how badly dysfunctional our election system is. But then, once the campaign cycle is over, we forget about it. It’s just not a priority anymore, so nothing gets done. Then, before we know it, four more years have passed and it’s too late to fix things, so we just accept – and validate – the broken system once again.

There’s a broad array of dysfunction arrayed against any hope for change. But the good news is that we humans are, despite our stubbornness, highly adaptable. What we have to realize is that, while there may be no perfect time to embrace change, every moment that passes is a bad time to perpetuate dysfunction.