Whats wrong with the world

Misc people have lauded Kwame Anthony Appiah and his piece What will future generations condemn us for? He comes up with four fairly obvious and worthy answers: prisons, industrialised meat, isolation of the elderly, the environment. He doesn’t dare mention some other obvious ones: the war on terror, the war on drugs, for example, are notorious failures that have cost countless billions and countless lives. And mine, after not all that much reflection, are:

1. Our ridicuous decision-making processes. We have institutionalised bad leadership and institutions and structures that are appalling at taking decisions. And whenever anyone mentions this, some idiot is bound to pop up and say, aha, its the worst form of government except for any other, as though it made sense. This one fault causes so many others. For example, we have a fairly rubbish popular press that feeds the masses what they want: tripe. With a more sensible process, this wouldn’t matter.

2. Lawyers. First up against the wall when the revolution came, of course. Part of problem 1, too, but a problem in their own right. Far too many sane and sensible things cannot be done because of our ridiculous legal system, which similarly mandates and number of insane things. Yes, I’ve just confused the legal system with the lawyers, but I don’t care.

3. Waste and general “fatness”. Not fat as in your body being overweight, though that is a small part of it. Water-fat, as in Dune. Fat as in all the rest: the fools who drive SUV’s, who need ridiculous numbers of toys (who, after all, could possibly need a GPS watch? This one folds into “environment”, too.

4. Schools. Or, perhaps, just the general shape of society. Which indeed folds into his “isolation of the elderly”. Some schools teach some children well. But for many pupils at many schools they are really just a baby-sitting service allowing the parents to work. Am I being unfair? Yes, because in fact all the schools I’ve been associated with have been pretty good. But still there is that sense that there is just too much… teaching. I’m not being very clear, am I?

5. Religion. Sign of a sick society if there is too much of it (there, I threw that one in for PZ, I hope he is happy now). I’m prepared to cope with the good old C of E though.

Enough ranting for one evening.

Comments

  1. #1 Bill O'Slatter
    2010/09/28

    “For example, we have a fairly rubbish popular press that feeds the masses what they want: tripe. With a more sensible process, this wouldn’t matter.” This statement (1) is a non sequitur. For example the battle over ClimateGate is fought in the MSM. The basic idea is that if you pollute the meme sphere enough you can corrupt any political process , and so far this has been true.
    The solution to this involves disallowing creepy billionaires, like Rupert Murdoch, to own large chunks of the media.
    Points 2 & 4 are eccentric.
    Point 3 involves carbon pricing, see Point 1.

    [I think you are missing my point. If we drop the current form of representative democracy, the MSM wouldn't matter much. Though that might well cause "creepy billionaires" to shift their influencing patterns -W]

  2. #2 deconvoluter
    2010/09/28

    Good; that tends to make up a bit for your earlier use of the word emeritus as a term of abuse.

    I am tempted to go further and add the cult of youth * to this list. Look what happened to the Lib Dems and thus the country when they changed their last leader on the basis of age.
    ———
    * Maths is an exception. I have just been listening to an account of Galois’s work on symmetry and he died aged 20.

  3. #3 David B. Benson
    2010/09/28

    William, do recall what Winnie said about democracy…

  4. #4 James Annan
    2010/09/29

    Goodness me you have turned into a grumpy old man (at least for today). Have you time for a pint some evening in the next couple of weeks? We won’t be here for much longer.

    [Yes I have gone grumpy haven't I? My excuse is that I had to sit through 2 1/2 hours worth of Governors meeting last night, hence my #1 Evil of the World. Pint: yes, I was wondering -W]

  5. #5 Ian, Brighton
    2010/09/29

    David, he did (though a couple of typos rendered it unclear).

    [Oops: when the Red Mist descends it is hard to type straight: I can't touch-type. Corrected now -W]

  6. #6 Chris S.
    2010/09/29

    Ian, thank you I was just puzzling over what “its the worst for of governemtn” meant.

  7. #7 Birger Johansson
    2010/09/29

    Regarding both lawyers and dysfunctional politics: see the book “Rich Democracies” were several rich countries in various parts of the world are compared (it should be compulsory reading for students).
    The absence of regulation in USA on a federal level is part of the reason of the bizarre growth of corporate lawyers. Without clear rules, you need an army of lawyers to get by in business -too bad if you are an ordinary bloke and get ripped off by a big company with lots of lawyers.

  8. #8 MacTurk
    2010/09/29

    One reason for the massive number of corporate lawyers in the USA is because the USA uses English Common Law,instead of Napoleonic or codified law. This means that every contract, in theory, has to to spell out every possible future eventuality and every recourse by all the parties to the contract.
    I knew an English teacher in the University of Strasbourg who used to moonlight as an interpreter when British companies wanted to deal with French companies. She said that the hardest part was convincing the British side that the French language contract of possibly 20 pages was as legally good as the English language contract, maybe hundreds of pages thick.
    The difference was in the legal systems.

  9. #9 Dunc
    2010/09/29

    I’m going to pick a controversial one: the internet. So much promise, sadly wasted.

  10. #10 darwinsdog
    2010/09/29

    There’s only one thing “wrong” with the world. A particularly nasty species of African ape learned to manipulate fire. All other “wrongs” stem from this one great wrong.

  11. #11 yogi-one
    2010/09/29

    The earth only needs one thing: an intelligent species to help manage it.

    So, there are none. Evolution may help.

    Speaking of which, note to whoever runs these things: next time you evolve humans from apes, try adding in a little more bonobo, ansd a bit less chimpanzee, please!

  12. #12 darwinsdog
    2010/09/29

    The Ocean Planet may have some truly intelligent species among the toothed whales but they are apparently too intelligent to think that something as complex as a biosphere needs “managed.” And I wouldn’t romanticize the bonobos too much; the more they are studied the nastier they appear.

  13. #13 Hank Roberts
    2010/09/29

    One US perspective:

    I seen the pretty and I seen the ugly and it was because I knew the pretty part that I wanted to change the ugly part ….

    I know that the people that run our desks and offices got so full of the desire to grab enough money to run away and hide on, that they let this thought run them, instead of the bigger plan ….
    It could very truly be that our office people are doing the best they know how to do,
    But we had ought to teach ourselves better and higher than this before we run ourselves and put ourselves into our offices.”

    from This Is Our Country Here (Woody Guthrie, 2001)

    hat tip to: http://users.humboldt.edu/swartz/Ronnie_Swartz_AIM.htm

  14. #14 Adam R.
    2010/09/29

    Your criticism of the hootings and scamperings of our gang of über chimps is unfair! After all, look at all the shiny things we’ve invented!

  15. #15 David B. Benson
    2010/09/29

    Ian, Brighton | September 29, 2010 2:48 AM — I suppose it now makes me an idiot in William’s eyes, but it does make sense when spelt correctly.

    Typed correctly as well.

    [Sorry :-( Ah, you know what I mean - it is in everyone's mind -W]

  16. #16 Neven
    2010/09/30

    Most, if not all (of the points raised by Appiah and W), are symptoms rather than causes. And they can all be traced back to the root cause: the neoclassical concept of infinite economic growth.

    It’s nice to put everything into little boxes, but the danger is that all those little boxes will then be viewed as separate problems that have separate solutions. But as long as the root cause isn’t mentioned first, none of the symptoms will be solved conclusively.

    [I don't think you can blame our inability to make sane decisions on econmics. But you might well blame the economics on the decision making -W]

  17. #17 adelady
    2010/09/30

    Darwinsdog “There’s only one thing “wrong” with the world. A particularly nasty species of African ape learned to manipulate fire. All other “wrongs” stem from this one great wrong.”

    Not really. All the fire burning ape needed to do was to replace all the things burnt. If the burning had been matched by replacements of various kinds, the urge to burn irreplaceable things might have been contained.

    Instead the ape learned to build great big impressive concrete thingies to burn even more irreplaceable stuff even more quickly. Now that is *not* clever.

  18. #18 Neven
    2010/09/30

    William, if it is decided that economic growth is unending, has no limits and is the highest good man can strive for, than this will invariably have effects on society, culture and the mental state of the population. Because it will only work if everyone joins in. You need an entire army of producers and consumers to make perpetually growing GDP possible. This has all kinds of effects, because of course infinite growth is not possible in a finite system.

    Our “inability to make sane decisions” is not so much an inability in itself. Most of this is caused by the fact that corporations write the laws and not the people. It has nothing to do with inabilities or evil schemes. The economy has to grow, period. And thus large corporations and government are wedded, and laws will be shaped to make this possible. The outcome will only change if the system changes.

    [But "Most of this is caused by the fact that corporations write the
    laws and not the people" is part of inability to make sane decisions. In this sense, the corporations are part of the government (you didn't think I was talking narrowly, did you?) -W]

    But you might well blame the economics on the decision making

    Of course, it was a decision to accept the neoclassical theory of infinite economic growth as gospel truth. We can decide that we need another economic concept that is more rooted in our biophysical reality. But we need to see the root problem first, to even be able to start discussing about what we need to decide.

    [I'm still not convinced. The pursuit of continuing growth is indeed a problem, but it is not really a theory adopted by everyone; instead it is the combination of a large number of decisions by a great many people. Prisonners Dilemma, if you like. Hence, at least in part, a decision-making problem -W]

    And we won’t see the root problem, if we keep focussed on the symptoms (some of which you and Appiah mention).

  19. #19 Neven
    2010/09/30

    To quote a few excerpts from your piece:

    Fat as in all the rest: the fools who drive SUV’s, who need ridiculous numbers of toys

    Toys make for higher GDP numbers. That’s why they are made. The system demands it.

    But for many pupils at many schools they are really just a baby-sitting service allowing the parents to work.

    This is two-fold. First, parents are stimulated by carrot and stick to (both) work. This stimulation stems for the need of the economy to grow. Second, kids have to be taught on a subconsious level that their goal in life is to get a good job (produce) in order to be able to get what one needs in life (consume). Schools are doing that, culture is doing that. Children are being brainwashed. The quality of education is not the issue here. It is of no consequence when culture is toxic.

    Sign of a sick society if there is too much of it

    And why is society sick? Because everything revolves around economic growth. And that’s because neoclassical economic theory has been dominant for so long that it has become as natural as breathing.

    The real questions are:
    1) Do our economies – at this point of enormous wealth – need to grow even further?
    2) Until when can we keep doing that? Indefinitely?

    In my view the answer to both questions is no. Nothing grows indefinitely. Either it stops growing of its own accord, or it gets stopped. The neoclassical concept of unending economic growth is poisoning our minds and our habitat. It is the root problem of all symptoms, from financial bubbles to AGW, from diabesitas to top soil erosion, from resource wars to the death of oceans.

  20. #20 adelady
    2010/09/30

    I’m not entirely convinced about the economics. You can still have the economic theory – so long as you count everything properly.

    A long ago book brought this home to me. The writer was comparing GDP for UK and Germany during the 50s and 60s in one chapter. He pointed out that the figures were deceptive for judging economic success. Simple examples.

    Fruit and veg – for Germany, mostly commercial enterprises with the products purchased with cash. England had many houses with their own gardens as well as the allotment system. Out of this arrangement, the economically visible cash transactions were for seed purchases only – although the populace at large probably had more and better vegetables and fruit available to them. But the measured cash economy showed the Brits to be worse off.

    The effects of housing. English homes were much more likely to have “spare” rooms and garden sheds than German households were. So people could sew their own clothes and furnishings, have enjoyable hobbies at home, repair their own household goods. The German economy had a lot more cash transactions for the purchase of household and entertainment services – for no better standard of living.

    I very much doubt that a book called “Capitalism, Socialism and the Environment” would get a big following nowadays, but it was good stuff.

    Finding a way to measure these sorts of things better can make a “growing” economy viable without irrational activities and expenditures running out of control.

  21. #21 Neven
    2010/09/30

    The pursuit of continuing growth is indeed a problem, but it is not really a theory adopted by everyone;

    There cannot be any doubt that it is the pumping heart of the whole globalised system. Of course there are a few maverick economists with radically different theories, but on the whole the neoclassical theory of unending economic growth is gospel truth. In the West at least.

    [But "Most of this is caused by the fact that corporations write the
    laws and not the people" is part of inability to make sane decisions. In this sense, the corporations are part of the government (you didn't think I was talking narrowly, did you?) -W]

    I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here, but my point was just that corporations dictate our ‘democracy’, not because they are inherently evil (that’s just a distraction), but because the system demands it of them (maximise profits for the shareholders). And the system is what it is because of the neoclassical concept of infinite economic growth.

    And thus you get prisons, industrialised meat, isolation of the elderly, war on terror, war on drugs, waste and general “fatness”, and yes, even a comeback religion, as consumerism cannot on the one hand fill the spiritual void, and on the other hand causes so much social misery and environmental distress.

    But instead of desperately asking why and turn to God, people should ask why and follow the logic all the way to the root cause: the neoclassical concept of infinite economic growth.

  22. #22 Neven
    2010/09/30

    You can still have the economic theory – so long as you count everything properly.

    If you start counting everything properly and thus impose limits, you will effectively have killed off the neoclassical concept of infinite growth. Your economic system will automatically become more accustomed to physical laws.

  23. #23 adelady
    2010/09/30

    Neven, I claim the right to be as sneaky as anyone else.

    It sounds good and “common-sensical” to non-economists. The professional economists are then stuck with the job of being alarmist about such an idea bringing down “society as we know it”.

    And there are some academic economists working on these ideas anyway.

  24. #24 Neven
    2010/09/30

    And there are some academic economists working on these ideas anyway.

    Indeed, there are.

  25. #25 Neven
    2010/09/30

    From the link above:

    Discover the Steady State Economy
    True Sustainability

    Economic growth, with all of its downsides, is clearly unsustainable in the 21st century. Long-term recession is no panacea either. A steady state economy is the sustainable alternative to perpetual economic growth.

    Economic growth was never a magic bullet; it is simply an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services — it can’t possibly lead to a sustainable outcome. In contrast the steady state economy provides the means for present and future generations to achieve a high quality of life.
    The Act of Discovery

    Many people, upon discovering the steady state economy, experience one of two reactions:

    1. Relief and joy at having found a viable way for dealing with the daunting problems society faces, including climate disruption, dwindling natural resources, widespread poverty, economic collapse, and species extinctions.
    2. Doubt and denial due to old habits of thought, misconceptions about what a steady state economy is, and fear of change.

    As you take time to discover the steady state economy for yourself (see the links at the right), we hope that you will join us in supporting a new and better way of achieving true sustainability. The impeccable logic and sound science of steady state economics have moved many people from the second reaction to the first.

    Read more…

  26. #26 bob koepp
    2010/09/30

    Neven – I think what you are describing is free market capitalism, a species of political economy, and that it’s the political half of the equation that provides the warped valuatiions you decry. Neo-classical economics, I think, is a body of economic theory, the purpose of which is to model processes of production and distribution. This latter is a descriptive endeavor where the notion of ‘infinite growth’ (actually, I think, just ‘continuous growth’) should not be understood in a normative sense. True, some economists appeal to a theoretical idealization as if it were a normative, ethical or political ideal. But that’s not part of economic theory proper. What it is, is a dangerous conflation.

  27. #27 Russell
    2010/10/02

    As someone who does occasional field work:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2002/05/22/world/in-guatemala-a-rhode-island-size-jade-lode.html

    a wristwatch GPS might have spared me many hours of backtracking, some few toenails and the odd sunstroke

    [Looks like it must have been fun, even with the lsot toenails -W]

  28. #28 Hank Roberts
    2010/10/05

    Perhaps using a standard feedback form would help?
    http://www.bureauofcommunication.com/compose/unsolicitedfeedback

    (hat tip to Metafilter)

  29. #30 Hank Roberts
    2010/10/07

    http://littlebloginthebigwoods.blogspot.com/2010/10/harvard-business-school-has-no-clothes.html

    “Literally going back to the Code of Hammurabi, the very existence of all law is justified by the fact that, yes, innocent persons need to be protected from predatory humans.

    But here, a scion of the Business World, slickly suggests that sheep exist to be sheared, and that this is how the world works….”

    [I prefer Leviathan -W]