Reframing Our Problems - Dilbert Blog

Reframing Our Problems

ISIS Reframing

The United States treats ISIS like a military problem, which it is. But I’ve written in this blog that it might be more useful to think of ISIS, and terrorism in general, as a persuasion problem with a military component. Framed this way, the military is just one element of persuading the other side to stop trying to kill us. 

Trump says that our allies and frenemies in the Middle East are the only ones who should be putting boots on the ground to fight ISIS. That approach is good persuasion compared to using U.S. troops, with a tradeoff of being less effective militarily. 

Evidently the world is no longer at risk of running out of oil, so the Middle East doesn’t have the same hold over us that it once had. Trump suggests it is almost time to slip out the back door and let memories of the United States fade. That is a persuasion approach because it is targeted at memory and perception. A military framing of ISIS, on the other hand, would involve permanent U.S. military bases in the region and ongoing operations that keep the U.S. at the top of the terrorist target list.

Economy Reframing

Governments tend to treat their economies like incentive problems, which they are to some degree. With that type of framing, the best a government can do is tweak tax rates. That tool seems brutish and antiquated in today’s world.

A better way to reframe the economy is as an information problem. Imagine how well the economy would operate if everyone knew where to go for a job, how to get there, and how to prepare. Unemployment is mostly an information problem in disguise. 

At the moment, most people are only capable of seeking and obtaining local jobs. Highly-paid professionals are semi-mobile, but the middle class and lower are not. So imagine the government sponsoring an app that fixes the job-seeking problem – really an information problem – for distance. The app could pair mentors across the country with job-seekers in a way that solves the distance problem via better information.

For example, if one carpenter in Alabama wants to get a job in another state, he has to figure out how to get there. For people at the low end of the economy, that task is daunting and probably cost-prohibitive. But imagine a network of mentors who can arrange for ride-sharing to another state as well as temporary housing at the destination. And imagine the mentors helping job-seekers find the right job training too. If you connect mentors who know how to navigate the world with the people who need jobs, good things can happen. 

I recently got involved with the UC Berkeley startup ecosystem. It is the largest startup environment in the country. Their biggest challenge is an information problem, which I have been working toward solving for the greater good. (You’ll hear more about that soon.) In Berkeley’s case, the information problem involves the need to connect the existing talent, knowledge, resources, and funding. All the pieces are there, but people can’t easily find what they need in all the noise, even in the same town. I recently provided seed funding to help fix Berkeley’s information problem. If our solution works, it can apply to other startup ecosystems. More on that later.

Just to put a size on this, Berkeley startups are solving for some of society’s biggest problems in the realms of healthcare, the environment, transportation, computing – you name it. Big, big stuff. 

Reframing Retirement

We tend to see retirement as a savings problem, and studies tell us that people are not saving enough. Not even close. So I think it makes more sense to reframe retirement as an expense reduction problem. Society’s goal should be to figure out how to create neighborhoods where the cost of living for retirees is cheap and the lifestyle is awesome. It would take hundreds of experts working together to design communities of that type. That’s an information problem.


Our approach to terrorism, the economy, and retirement are rooted in the past. There was a time when it made sense to see terror as a military problem, the economy as an incentive problem, and retirement as a savings problem. But in the age of the Internet, perhaps we should reframe those topics as persuasion and information problems. 

We have the tools to solve our problems if we frame them right. Otherwise we are fighting today’s wars with yesterday’s frameworks.

Speaking of reframing, my book has lots of it.