I doubt that we are ever going to deal effectively with lone shooters, especially if policing breaks down like it did in Parkland. We can, however, ameliorate the problem, including especially in inner cities where the real mass shootings occur: Almost sixty just in Chicago the weekend of El Paso and Dayton.

What is required jumps out, at least at me, from a model of the dynamics of social change and development that I have been working on and off for most of my life. I presented the bare bones of it before in a comment to “Whence Morality?” Here it is again.

In a nutshell, my larger model starts with the proposition that development and growth are driven by change, that at the core of change is specialization, and that specialization requires new rules to coordinate the various new parts. Not only are hunting and gathering, and agriculture classic examples, but specialization happens even in machines. Thus the steam engine was the product of separating and specializing the heating and cooling cycles, and the key to success, which took Watt more than ten years, was developing the rules, mechanism and equipment to coordinate the two.

With progress we have had continuous specialization and an explosion of rules to coordinate the growing number of entities at the product, company, and government level. I hypothesize that the different religions grew as the simpler set of rules groups could share to live and work together. It explains why some are more rigid than others, including within Christianity, and why some are able to lead the societies in which they reside to be more successful, or not.

My model also explains change as a process. Since my basic training is in chemical engineering, I’ve broken down the process into seven dynamic Unit Operations, a concept I took from CE. These are (1) change; (2) reconcile differences; (3) develop new rules; (4) relieve stress; (5) discard failure and obsolescence; (6) learn, modify, readjust; (7) homogenize, train, educate. That is not necessarily the internal order but at the end there is always a need to homogenize if a society is to remain together.

Aside from the growing speed of change overtaking the ability of our political process to reconcile differences and write sensible rules, the breakdown of the homogenizing process screams out loudly, especially among our children, who go through huge changes growing up. It used to happen primarily in the home where the best role models were, but it was also heavily influenced by the church, school and the community. It doesn’t mean that learning and homogenizing was robot-like. Of course there would be some generational breaks, but it did mean that at least the most basic rules of behavior, especially our morality, would remain fairly similar.

As I look around I see so many breakdowns that I can barely count them, but far and away the two most significant are the breakdown of the family with its role models; and the slow retreat from the main source of morality: Religion, and I say this as an agnostic. Like it or not that has been the main source of rules to keep groups together. Then there is a third one that I find rather surprising it went away because it was part of my safety net when my father, my main role model, passed just as I turned into my teen years: Organized sports and extracurricular activities, first in the streets, yes, in the streets, and then in school through my second year of college.

Let me explain what the street was like for me. I grew up in Mexico City before going to school in the U.S. at sixteen. My father had brought me up to be extremely independent, including giving me and my brother little motorcycles, designed for paratroopers during the war, when I was about nine or ten. I was fourteen when he died and my mother bought me a real motorcycle.

In Mexico there weren’t any organized sports in school, although I did join the equivalent of ROTC, so with my new motorcycle I joined a group of relatively well off kids that had formed a motorcycle club. Most of the time we were fairly loose but we did have occasional group activities led by a very Good Samaritan who was a gas station manager in the community we ran around in. He had a really cool twin engine BMW and rode with us on weekends. I’ve always wondered whether one or more of our parents had contracted him to look after us.

The point is that in my day healthy kids grew up learning the rules of social behavior all throughout their young lives, and, crucially letting off steam. Please go back to step four of my process of change. It is to relieve stress. Growing up is not just about learning and role models. We all have experienced how stressful change can be, and there is nothing more stressful than the changes we go though growing up. Kids need to relieve that stress and it is why organized sports are so important. Maybe I was lucky to have attended very good schools, including prep school in New York, but I was kept busy with sports throughout my second year of college.

Kids no longer have that, much less doing chores like they use to in the olden days. We are now spoiled, are going soft, and many don’t have a father as a role model. More than 70% of black kids, 50% of Hispanics, and one third of whites are born to single parents. Now imagine what those numbers are really like in the inner cities, where kids don’t even have a mother during the afternoon after school.

In the inner city one can form gangs and have wars, thus lone wolves are probably fewer than in the whiter suburbs where kids are more like to keep to themselves. Of course I’m speculating but that’s what my experience suggests. Someone could try to validate it with the vast data now available. In the meantime remember that the real problem is in the hundreds of shootings, and sometimes ghastly killings by gangs like MS13 in inner cities.

So what do we do about it? That will depend on how much we value a functioning society and remember that today we are going downhill. What we need are organized sports and activities, and role models to run them like i had growing up. The funds and organizational capabilities required are vast so the private sector needs to be mobilized.

Maybe there is even a market solution although I can’t think of one right now, short of the government giving kids, all kids, stipends for use only to pay quotas for participating and making participation obligatory. Somehow we have to get loners to participate—I was one of those but I also wanted a degree and to learn badly so I had to follow the rules and do my time. And about Good Samaritans, many former athletes already do this kind of work and can provide the seed around which these kinds of activities centers can be built and operated.

The answer then is that we have to spend many billions to create adequate facilities for sports and other activities. I’ve always been impressed by the facilities that my alma mater, MIT, created for its ten thousand plus community. In inner cities there is enough rat infested housing that needs to be razed anyway and the land can be used for our kids. Look, we go around spending billions in new stadiums to entertain adults, why can’t we do the same for our children? They are the future and if we don’t catch them before they fall into downward spirals of bad, our society faces a bleak future. On the other hand, if we have the political will to push this through we will turn the corner and begin bringing up healthy inner city kids.

Xavier L. Simon

About Xavier L. Simon

Two MIT engineering and one Harvard business degree turned me into a senior executive in business. Then I was off to the World Bank for 20 years trying to understand how countries work and can improve. Since retiring I’ve been developing a framework for how societies can be made more sustainable and effective. That has sent me into many fields of study.


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