100 Questionable Assumptions – 5

Informed Decisions

More information automatically leads to better decisions

Making choices can be difficult - ©Bard 2016
Making choices can be difficult – ©Bard 2016

The more I know about something the better I can weigh my decisions: instead of having to guess and assume, with enough information I can simply reason my way to the best decision. With all the information at my disposal I will always make the right decision.

But is this true for all decisions? When there is only one choice, the decision is obvious. When there are two options, one of the two usually stands out as the better choice. When there are five choices, however, making a decision becomes difficult and I need information to work out what is best. When there are dozens of choices, the decision is complicated, and I need a lot of information to work things out. When there are a hundred choices or more, the choice is now complex, and even a single new bit of information can completely change the outcome. What exactly is the best decision when the outcome changes with every new bit of information and the information available is never complete?

Is the constant demand for more information an example of believing you can never have enough of a good thing? Sure, without any information at all, your guess is as good as mine – or as random. So a bit of information can be helpful. But piling up information from different sources, of varying quality, of variable levels of relevance, does that clarify things for us, or does it merely confuse us?

Maybe we need to come to terms with the limits of our decision-making abilities, and the limits of what information can do to improve them? Maybe we live in a world that is too complex to fully fathom and all we can hope for is on average to get things more ‘right’ than ‘wrong’, trusting that we have more than just our rational thought processes to guide us; and trusting that in a complex, highly dynamic, and never fully understood reality even our ‘wrong’ decisions can be portals of discovery leading to completely new and unimagined opportunities?

100 Questionable Assumptions – 4

The Trickle-Down Economy

Concentrating wealth in the hands of a few increases the total wealth available to all

Too much food on not enough tables - ©Bard 2005Too much food on not enough tables – ©Bard 2005

When the total sum of wealth in the world increases, should we care about its distribution? We are all related, and everything is connected, so when the wealth of the world increases, the whole world is better off, even when only a lucky few benefit directly. Feeling left out and disadvantaged is just a narrow-minded, selfish reaction of the misguided ego that fails to see the bigger picture. A rising tide floats all boats, they say. And the trickle down principle works better when there’s more at the top to trickle down from. So let’s just keep slaving away at increasing the size of the pie, and not look too closely at how the slices are divided.

But if all the food of the world ends up on one table and the rest of the world is starving, does it really matter how richly stacked that table is? Does it matter how big the pie gets, when its parts are shared more and more inequitably? Does it benefit the world that a lucky minority can waste water on pools, parks, and fountains while the masses are dying of thirst? Is it right to boast of our fabulous cities and technological marvels while the rest of the world is turned into a wasteland to make those wonders possible? Does concentrated wealth really count as wealth, or it just another name for distributed poverty?

There is something deeply flawed about our current economic models. It all sounds really good in theory: in a free market, with all players having equal access and the freedom to choose, supply and demand, surplus and shortage, production and consumption will all balance themselves out in a dynamic equilibrium. The most deserving will get a bit more, the most productive will make the most profit, while the least productive and least deserving will get a bit less. But that is only fair, and much more fair than any centrally led economy or government-regulated system could ever be.

For a long time I have tried to believe this narrative, in spite of the plenty of evidence to the contrary. I wanted to believe the fundamental theory was sound and that a free market was – in theory – the best solution to our economic needs. I tried to explain the obvious failings of the system – the rising income inequality, the massive environmental damage, the overwhelming power of the wealthy elite over the poor majority of humanity – not as a flaw of the system but of the people running it. It had to be because of bad people, corrupt politicians, greedy businessmen, and criminal governments that the system refused to balance out. Surely, if we could find a way of weeding out the bad apples that were ruining the beauty of the free market, everything would work out OK?

An article in this month’s Scientific American, titled “The Inescapable Casino”, changed my mind. What the article claims, using fairly simple mathematics, is that the free market theory is fundamentally flawed. Even a truly free market, untainted by the distortions and machinations imposed by bad and greedy influences, will not move towards a balanced distribution of goods and value. Instead, small ‘errors’ of value exchange – where one party receives slightly more value than they should – build up over time. Once the value distribution is skewed, the unfair advantage of having received slightly more builds up over time, invariably leading to a lucky few owning almost everything, with only a few scraps left over for the rest. Instead of trickling down, the authors state, a free market tends to trickle up: shaving off value from the poorest to add to the increasingly disproportionate abundance of the rich.

For me, this insight changes a core part of my own thinking about our economic future. The flaws in our system have always been obvious to me, but I kept thinking we could correct these by limiting the damaging influence of the bad people involved. I was hoping that a free market without their distorting influences would be possible, so we did not have to rethink the entire foundation of our current economy. But I am coming to the conclusion this was a naive and idle hope. The system itself is fundamentally flawed. Even without ‘evil’ influences in it, it will never lead to a just and fair distribution of wealth and power.

But hidden inside this realisation is some (perhaps unexpected) good news.

It means we can change our focus. Instead of fighting the bad people and thinking up ways to limit their evil ways, we can turn our minds and energy to solving the real problem. Fighting evil people may give us the satisfaction of righteous indignation and moral superiority, it will not, however, solve our current problem of income inequality and massive over-concentration of wealth. It may smoothen the curve a bit, and soften some of the edges, but it cannot ‘cure’ a system that is so fundamentally flawed. We need to find a better system if we want to have a sustainable future. We need a system that is fair, balanced and equitable at its core.

So, let’s keep calling out bad behaviour and abuse of power where we see it. But let’s stop blaming bad people for all the problems in our world. They may be taking advantage of it but they are not the cause of our economy’s failings. The root cause is our economic system itself. Finding a better system should have our full attention and complete devotion. This is not a matter of winning a battle between good and evil. It’s a matter of finding a way of life that offers us a future.

100 Questionable Assumptions – 3

Perpetual Growth

If growth is good, continuous growth is better, slow growth is bad, no growth is a disaster

Slow growth can be beautiful, too - ©Bard 2017
Slow growth can be beautiful, too – ©Bard 2017

When things grow it means they are getting bigger, stronger, more. The faster they do so, the better it is. Failing to get bigger, stronger, more – even for a moment – must mean falling behind in the race towards dominance. Losing that race means death. When we look at Nature, growth is a sign of health and vigour; of youth and potential. As long as things grow they thrive. So, with Nature showing us the way, isn’t it logical – natural even – that we humans strive for perpetual, ever accelerating growth?

Or is it? Most things in Nature do not grow all the time, but slow down, decline, and die. In Nature things have a natural limit to their growth, to keep the eco-system diverse and balanced. Only pests, diseases, and cancers don’t seem to obey this rule, and end up destroying the very environment that gave them life. Maybe ours is the choice between growing up or growing on: finding peace with our world or finding ourselves without a world at all?

What if bigger, stronger, more are not the dimensions we should focus our efforts on? What if there are other forms of growth we overlook? Growth in complexity, variety, experience, wisdom… Could it be that our obsession with material growth is blinding us to the real growth opportunities around us?

100 Questionable Assumptions – 2

The Mechanical Enterprise

An enterprise is like a machine we design, build, and operate 

Like a train speeding towards the abyss - ©Bard 2016
Like a train speeding towards the abyss – ©Bard 2016

An enterprise is very much like a machine. It is engineered to perfection. Powerful and unstoppable, if properly constructed if will fulfill the function it was designed for without hesitation or deviation. Like a train it will thunder down the track its masters lay down for it, squashing all that comes in its path.

If this were true, why do Enterprises so often surprise us? Why is there no guaranteed best formula for creating and running an Enterprise? Why can good companies turn bad? Why do winning Enterprises stop being successful?

Is it because the machine of Enterprise is being operated by humans and those humans are fallible, unpredictable, flawed? If that were true, the less human interference we need, the better our Enterprises would become. The perfect Enterprise would not need any human operators at all. The perfect Enterprise would be perfectly engineered to perfectly run without human intervention.

Or could it be that the reality our Enterprises operate in is not a mechanical reality? Could it be that the complexity of the Enterprise’s environment defies a full analysis, complete enough to robustly design the Enterprise for all the variables and variations it has to deal with in its existence? If that is the case, no purely mechanical approach will yield a workable Enterprise. Resilient, intuitive, intelligent, unpredictable people will always be needed to steer the Enterprise through the frothy waves of complex reality. The perfect Enterprise would be approximated but never complete. No design, however detailed and well-thought-out can capture all the possible variations branching out at every future moment. Without humans to give it life, purpose, awareness, and responsiveness it would remain a perfectly lifeless abstraction, incapable of sustaining itself in the real world.

There is plenty of reason to believe reality is too complex, chaotic even, to be fully predictable. Why then are we still trying to refine human action and human agency out of our Enterprises’ design and operation? Why do we keep thinking that less human control and influence equals more effective operations?

Isn’t it time to stop that train before it takes us over the edge of the abyss?

100 Questionable Assumptions – 1

This is going to be a series of assumptions I believe we should not always take for granted. They may be true sometimes, they may sound quite obvious, but are they always right? I am not claiming they are never true or useful, just arguing we should occasionally stop and question them. If we never critically examine what we assume about the world, how will we ever correct the flaws in our thinking?

1: Unlimited Wealth

If wealth is good, limitless wealth is infinitely better

Bard - ©2016
Bard – ©2016

Can you ever have too much of a good thing? If wealth enables people to do great and good things, limitless wealth should enable them to do an unlimited number of even greater and better things. But many great and good things are not happening in the world right now, whilst many deplorable and bad things are.

Why is that?

Is it because the wealthy are not wealthy enough? Are we limiting their ability to do all the great and good things they would do if only we let them grow even wealthier?

Or maybe wealth itself is not enough. Maybe wealth needs the human spirit to turn its potential into good. Maybe strong spirits with limited wealth can do great things, where weak spirits with great wealth do little good at all.

Maybe, when focusing on growing wealth, we are focusing on the wrong side of the equation? What would happen if we focus on developing the human spirit? If we encourage our children to be compassionate, fearless, strong, kind and caring before we teach them to be selfish, afraid, needy, greedy and aggressive? What would happen if we change the rules of the games our society plays by, so that wealth is not automatically equated with success, and money is not automatically equated with power over others?

I Struggle With My Cultural Heritage

It seems an inevitable truth that we are defined by where we come from: our country, our city, our religion, our upbringing, our culture… So many forces shape and confine us, knead and define us, mould and refine us, I sometimes wonder if any of us can say we are ourselves, truly our own individual self, rather than just an amalgam of everything that was poured into us from the moment we were born. Maybe what we call our ‘self’ is just the emerging complex of thoughts, beliefs, and behaviours rising up from the chorus of voices from our past – not something we can claim as ours, but something that claims us for itself and its own sense of identity. “You are what we made you into” those voices from the past seem to say, “There is no escaping your cultural heritage.”

And that poses a dilemma for me, a struggle that seems to become more prominent the more I feel the need to find a voice of my own; a voice that feels genuine; a voice that I can stay true to because it feels like the voice I would adopt if I had been free to create my own identity from the start. For many years now I have been trying to find that one true voice inside me by systematically extracting all the influences I could identify as coming from outside, studying them, and deciding what part of each of those influences I felt close to, or – on the contrary – did not want to be part of anymore. My hope has always been that by stripping away everything I objected to, everything that didn’t feel completely right and fitting, I would end up only with the parts that I could truly own and agree with: my own true and genuine voice.

But is that even possible? Aren’t the very preferences I am guided by in choosing what feels ‘true’ as much a product of all those past voices I’m selecting from? Can I claim my choices as my own?

And why do I even bother?

What is wrong with letting go of this elusive genuine self I’m chasing and just accepting the self I have ended up with? What is wrong with being a product of my past, my upbringing, my culture, and my history? Why not be content with the collected wisdom and experience of all the generations that came before me; the countless men and women that lived, struggled, and died so that one day I could be born and be who I am today? Isn’t that ungrateful and selfish?

Possibly. Maybe there is merit in just accepting the wisdom of the past and the collective learning of my ancestors and the culture I was raised in. Maybe I should just let go of my fixation on being an individual, let go of my ego, and go with the social flow.

But… and herein lies the struggle for me … my cultural heritage is a mixture of great deeds and horrible crimes, heroes and villains, sages and fools, merit and malice, greed and generosity, angels and demons, all woven together into this complex tapestry of contradictions, conflicting assumptions and dubious certainties I see when looking at ‘my’ culture.

Symbol of greatness and genius, or of cruelty and oppression? Or can it be both?
Symbol of greatness and genius, or of cruelty and oppression? Or can it be both?

Am I supposed to mindlessly accept all of this heritage? Must I accept the horrible deeds of our history’s villains and call them heroes, because that’s how they were seen and portrayed by the chroniclers of their time? Do I have to be proud of my country’s past achievements and accumulated wealth, knowing that these accomplishments often came at untold and barely imaginable suffering of millions of unfortunate souls born on the wrong side of history? Am I supposed to adopt my culture’s self-righteous and self-aggrandising image of itself, when even a cursory look at the facts shows that there is as much wrong as there is right about our values and practices, as much stolen and appropriated as actually genuinely produced by our ancestors themselves?

I don’t think so.

I think it should be perfectly reasonable for individual to look at their culture and history, critically examine that mixture of good and bad, and make their personal judgment of what they want to adhere to and what they want to distance themselves from. That should not just be permitted, it should be actively encouraged, so that the culture can actively learn and improve itself by the conscious choices made guided by the conscience of its members.

But that is not how it works, is it?

In reality, the moment a member of a culture (be it team, company, region, country, class, ethnicity, or even hemisphere) openly questions the past deeds and implied merits of their culture they will inevitably encounter fierce opposition from their fellow members. Just by not blindly accepting all that their culture contains, it seems, they are placing themselves if not outside then most certainly at the fringe of it. And from that fringe it is a small step to being outcast and ostracised completely. Apparently we – as a species – so much need a collective identity we can feel part of that even the simple act of questioning some of the constructs of that identity is felt like an attack on our very lives. To protect our collective identity the person raising doubts must be made an outsider, so they can be dehumanised, made into the “other”, the lesser being that does not deserve to be part of the cultural identity that makes us feel strong, safe, and special.

I think I understand the instinctive reaction that drives this fiercely defensive behaviour. And I don’t want to unnecessarily antagonise people or cause them to feel less safe and special. I also want to genuinely admire the good things my cultural heritage has to offer: to acknowledge the heroism of the past, the sacrifices that were made by our ancestors, the victories, and the sheer determination to survive and thrive. I want to learn from and lean on the wise and holy men and women that lifted their culture above the merely material and immediate and brought us science, philosophy, spirituality, and morality.

But it seems that one cannot receive the blessings of one’s past without having to accept its curses as well. If I am to believe the cultural arguments I observe around us, you don’t get to pick and choose. You’re either with us or against us. Any attempt to be discerning, to ask questions, to point out the darker sides of being us automatically voids your membership of us. By trying to be selective I have forfeited the right to claim a place inside that circle.

I am human, too. I, too, want to feel proud of all the forces that shaped me and brought me to where I am now. I, too, want to show gratitude and respect for the countless generations that lived, struggled, and died so that I might have my moment under the Sun. But I cannot do it unconditionally and I cannot simply ignore the darkness that is there as well. And so I struggle with my cultural heritage: wanting to be part of it, learn from it and benefit from it, but by its own rules apparently doomed to be apart from it the moment I dare to question things.

And if there’s one thing I know it is that I will never stop asking questions.

The ‘Free Rider’ Problem

Whenever the topic comes up of the need to help the less fortunate and disadvantaged, invariably someone will bring up the ‘free rider’ problem: that there will be people taking advantage of such assistance and get undeserved benefits from it, at the cost of those providing it. I don’t deny that such people exist and that they throw an unfortunate blemish on the genuine desire to help people that really need assistance. But is that a reason to stop such assistance? Even more important is to stop for a moment and wonder if people taking advantage of help offered by people that are better off are the only ‘free riders’ in the equation, or the ones we should worry about most.

I believe most people want to be good and do good. And most people want to help people in need. There is plenty of evidence that helping others is more than a cultural imperative – a learned behaviour – but a much deeper, instinctive behaviour, genetically programmed into us because it has proven beneficial to our survival as a species. Yet when we look around we see plenty of people in need, plenty of people not getting help, and plenty of well-to-do people not really sharing their wealth freely with others. Why?

One reason often given is that freely helping people is a sure-fire way to end up being taken advantage of. Whether the help is given by an individual or a collective (such as the state), so runs the argument, people will abuse anything that is too easily given to them, and profit unfairly from it, at the expense of the donors. This is often referred to as the ‘free rider problem’, and brought up as the reason we cannot simply go and help people in less fortunate circumstances than ourselves.

Free riders are everywhere and unavoidable, it is claimed, and would profit from the hard-earned wealth of other people, without having done anything to deserve this, and without giving anything back. It is because of those free riders that we cannot expect hard-working people to share their wealth with just anyone: that would not be fair. Instead we need to be really careful with any help we may want to give, and make sure that the recipients are made to feel that they are in no way entitled to that help, should feel guilty for needing it, and are actively discouraged from seeking it.

The sad thing is that such reasoning doesn’t distinguish between people that just need some help; that have fallen onto hard times through no fault of their own; that simply drew the short straw in the big lottery of Fate; versus the – in my observations minority – who rather take advantage of other people’s naive good nature than make even half an effort to fend for themselves. So help is withheld on the basis of a generalization that does grave injustice to a large number of people.

But there is another assumption underneath the free rider problem and the way it is used to stop or hinder assistance to those in need. And that is that it is always the weak that profit from the strong, the poor from the wealthy, the sick from the healthy. After all, the weak are in need of what the powerful have in abundance, so they are the only ones that can take advantage of that fundamental inequality.

That is a dangerous assumption, and deeply flawed. Dangerous because it ascribes to the needy not just weakness but envy as well. They are not just needy, they are also greedy – greedy for things they did not earn. Deeply flawed, because in reality the direction of advantage runs as easily from the needy to the wealthy, as the other way round. It is probably easier for the rich to take from the poor than the reverse; easier for the healthy to profit from the sickness of others; and easier for the powerful to suppress and disempower the powerless.

There are at least as many, if not more – because it is easier – free riders amongst the people that are well-off than amongst those that are in need. People that have taken advantage of other people’s misfortune; slaveholders getting rich from the suffering of people that lacked the power to defend their freedom; industrialists coercing masses of workers to spend dismal, long hours in dangerous and dark factories, because those people had no other means of income; pharmaceutical corporations raking in massive profits from people desperate for medication; banks taking advantage of people caught out by natural disasters or economic downturns; … the list goes on. And don’t think I am just talking about some small group of evil-minded people we could single out and blame for their greed and avarice. If we take an honest look at ourselves, our Western society, our own wealth and relative power, how much of what we at present consider our birthright and product of our ancestors’ hard work and diligence was in reality stolen, under threat of violence or worse, from people that had no way to defend themselves?

So, here are my three reasons to reject the free riders problem as a reason to limit or stop help to those in need:

  1. Psychologically, once you can master your fear of scarcity and lack of control, giving is more likely to make you happy than receiving or hoarding. By clinging to your wealth you are denying yourself a chance to feel that happiness;
  2. Amongst those seeking your help there are more genuinely needy people than free riders. Most people don’t actually like asking for help, and will hesitate to do so, unless they feel they have no other choice. By pre-judging anyone asking for your help as a free rider you are probably doing them a grave injustice, not just not helping them, but contributing to their psychological suffering of feeling helpless and unwanted;
  3. If you are amongst the wealthy people in your society, you are probably a free rider yourself, taking unfair advantage of many people all over the world, that are exploited and suppressed to provide you with the many luxuries you surround yourself with. You may not do so on purpose, and oppose these practices in principle, but since our society is built on these practices and you are part of these systems, you are profiting from it, and thereby complicit. So the least you can do is to share more of those profits with those in need, and help, if not to abolish this unfair advantage completely (which may be beyond any individual’s power anyway) at least to somewhat alleviate the pain and suffering caused by them.

Sharing can be messy, but it's much more fun.
Sharing can be messy, but it’s much more fun.

1

And that, my dear readers, is my parting thought for this year: dare to care more and share more. It will make the world a better place.

  1. (Image by Kathy on Flickr – published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)