2009-08-14

UK imposes direct rule over Turks & Caicos

Having been in Turks & Caicos twice, and dealt with them to some extent, I can confirm Britain's findings:
Britain has imposed direct rule on the Turks and Caicos Islands after an inquiry found evidence of government corruption and incompetence.

...

Politicians are accused of selling crown land for personal gain.

...

[The British government] examined the actions of the Turks' Cabinet and Assembly and found "information in abundance pointing to a high probability of systematic corruption or serious dishonesty".

It also concluded there were "clear signs of political amorality and immaturity and of a general administrative incompetence".
In my experience, this is exactly how it was.

The Turks & Caicos are fortunate. They have a foreign power to watch over them. This same amorality, immaturity, and incompetence takes place all over the Caribbean. Except that, in most places, there's no one to intervene. So it just goes on, and on, and on.

The British are intent on holding elections for a new government in TC in two years or sooner. My forecast is that the next democratic government is not going to fare much better than the last, and that a new intervention will be necessary within a number of decades.

Before the previous such intervention, in 1985, the then Chief Minister of TC and two others were arrested in Miami for transporting cocaine.

2009-08-11

Empathy out of control

To feel joy when others feel joy; to feel pain when others suffer. Every day, our own empathy enriches our experience. It allows us to feel not only for the events that affect ourselves, but also for the many more that affect others. It allows us to immerse ourselves into a story and not only understand it, but feel it - whether we are listening to a friend, watching the news, reading a book, or enjoying a movie.

Empathy connects us. Lacking it, we would be - at best - rational agents acting according to game theory, in a game of repeated Prisoner's Dilemma. We would be alone in a world in which no one feels for us, and we don't feel for anyone; a world inhabited by grayness and indifference.

Many people already live in a world like that. Many people don't have empathy. This doesn't make them broken - only different. Rest assured though, if a creature doesn't feel any empathy for you, you should not feel any empathy for it either.

But this is not an article for them. It is for those who wince at the thought of a grayless, unempathic existence. For people who might consider a life without empathy a life not worth living.

Do not led this feeling mislead you. The reason you feel that way, or I for that matter, is because it's how we're built. The capacity for empathy, it seems, does not come without strings attached. The owner has to use it to be happy. This does not mean, in and of itself, that empathy is objectively good; nor does it mean that creatures who lack it, cannot be happy. It means, however, that when you wince at the thought of a non-empathic life, you wince because you're built to require empathy to be happy.

Well-reasoned arguments could be made that empathy is essential for civilization. It could very well be that, without it, the threat we pose to each other would overwhelm the benefits that cooperation might bring. Without having empathy and knowing that the other does, trust becomes nearly impossible to establish. Rationality itself is hard to reach without people cooperating to share insights.

It would therefore be possible to say that empathy, to the extent that most of us share it, is a blessing. This blessing, however, comes with problems of its own.

The problem is that the pain we feel when we see other creatures suffer causes in us an emotional impulse for immediate action, even when the proper solution is unreachable without a tremendous amount of planning and rational thought.

One day, we may be able to eliminate suffering for all humanity. One day, we may even be able to bio-engineer animals so that they don't inflict pain on each other as well. One day, even, our empathetic descendants may fly to other stars - as many as we can reach, anyway - and heal any suffering that they may find there.

But today is not the day when we can do that. Today, we can only begin the work that may eliminate suffering later. This means that, no matter the amount of work we do - when we tune into the news and see the suffering worldwide, our empathic pain persists. This pain often causes anger. In anger, we lose the ability to even begin to understand what is likely a highly complex situation, and we seek short-term relief that likely only creates new problems on top of the existing ones.

All things considered, the problem is that our empathic circuits weren't designed for a world larger than our ancestral environment. We are built to help each other in a small group, but we are helpless and inept when it comes to understanding and building systems that can successfully avoid suffering in million-strong societies. We demand instant solutions, as if someone is in control. But we neglect to notice that, in societies that number millions, no person or group actually has control. To alleviate suffering on this scale, we must first understand the principles that govern large systems, and then design and implement a system that is resistant to failure, and which does not have major flaws.

Of necessity, the only feasible approach to solving suffering is a top-down approach; an approach that is founded in numbers, concepts, principles, and laws, much more so than immediate actions and emotions. The one approach that offers hope for our empathic pain is abstract and decidedly un-empathic.

The tragedy is that, having been built for the ancestral environment, there are many who don't recognize this. Not only do they not consider that solving large scale problems requires careful, abstract thought; frequently, one who speaks from this perspective is branded as inhuman and cold-hearted. It is perplexing how, of all professions, this is how economists get branded - people who are most concerned with human welfare and the common good.

Unfortunately, this doesn't get us any closer to solving our real problems.

2009-08-05

Tales of the Caribbean, #1

 
Monday

Employee: Boss, I'm in dire need, I'm all out of money. Can I borrow 200 EC dollars?
Boss: Well, I dunno. Your salary is on Friday...
Employee: But I really need the money. I don't have any left.
Boss: Well, that's not how it works. Where's your salary from last Friday? You'll get a new salary on Friday.

Employee: Dear boss's wife! I'm in dire need. Can you lend me 200 EC?
Boss's wife: Well, didn't you get your salary on Friday?
Employee: I did. But I have nothing left.
Boss's wife: Is that so. What you need the money for?
Employee: Well it's urgent. I really need it. I can't buy anything. I need just 200 EC. Can you lend it to me?
Boss's wife: I dunno. Let me talk to my husband.

Boss's wife: Well he says he really needs the money.
Boss: This isn't gonna work out. He spent all last week's salary on booze. Now he's gonna spend more money on booze. What do you think is gonna happen after you lend him the money?
Boss's wife: Well he sounds like he's in real need. I think we should lend it to him.

Boss: So, you want me to lend you 200 EC. How are you gonna pay it back?
Employee: Well, I guess, you could take it from my pay check. How about I pay you back 100 EC from each of my next two pay checks.
Boss: Okay. Deal. Here's the money.


Friday

Boss: Here's your paycheck, 300 EC.
Employee: Well... that's not enough! My salary is 400 EC!
Boss: Yes, indeed, but you see, I lent you money on Monday. We agreed that you would pay back 100 EC on each pay check. So you get 300 EC today.
Employee: What... You expect me to give you back that money?
Boss: Well, we made a deal. I lent you 200 EC. You said that you would pay me back.
Employee: But you gave me that money!
Boss: No, I lent it to you. That was the agreement.
Employee: But you didn't need it! You had extra money! I had no money, that's why I needed it. But you had extra money. If you didn't have the extra money, why would you have given it to me?
Boss: Well, that's not how it works. We agreed that you would pay back 100 EC from next two paychecks. So your pay check today is 300 EC.
Employee: *grudge*


Following Monday

Boss: Hey, could you take a broom and sweep that area?
Employee: Well, that's not my job! I'm not here to sweep the floor.


Employee then continues to operate at 40% performance until two weeks later, after he has begrugingly paid back the money, and forgotten about the grudge.

Then he hits up the boss for more money.

2009-08-03

Outlawing lying and deception

I get the impression that a whole lot of bad things that happen in the world are a consequence of, and perpetuated by, lying and deception.

It is curious that neither our legal systems, nor even our religions, have adopted such a prohibition categorically. Even the Ten commandments do not prohibit lying categorically - just testifying falsely against a person.

In the past century, developed countries have started punishing lying and deception when done for profit, to some extent. Scams are frowned upon and eventually might be prosecuted. Companies are beginning to be punished for misrepresentations in their ad campaigns.

In other areas of private and public life, however, lies and deception are not merely permitted, but routine. Politicians are expected to deceive the public and lie to it. Organizations, for profit and otherwise, fund studies which seek not truth, but rather a biased distortion of truth that aligns with their interests. People cherry-pick studies and refer to only those with favorable results. Car salesmen lie about their goods. People deceive their partners and their families.

These practices create harm both direct and indirect. They create distortions which serve to cast doubt, create uncertainty and deny access to truth about topics of interest, to anyone but the sharpest minds who specialize in that topic. The expectation that you will be deceived or lied to, and must constantly be on the lookout for it, is as detrimental economically as having to constantly be wary of pickpockets and others who would rob you, kidnap you or even kill you for minor benefit. Lies and deceptions create a hostile environment where the mind has to spend most of its time to defend itself, rather than to work towards desired goals. This is unpleasant, stressful, and a waste of our most valuable, fleeting resource: our thought.

So why, then, do we not do more to punish lying and deception? Why do such transgressions result only in moral backlash, and perhaps a resignation - if that, at all? Why are liars and deceivers, professional and hobbyist alike, not treated just like criminals and thieves? Even when the lies are small, but especially when they are large?

When a drug addict breaks your car window to steal your camera, he might be causing $1,500 in damage for what is a $100 benefit to him. Lies are similarly detrimental. When someone spreads misinformation, it is generally for a small personal benefit. But the damage caused by the misinformation is often many magnitudes larger. Damage can be caused both directly, when other people suffer from the deception or lie; but even greater damage may be caused indirectly, through a loss of public trust, and therefore transactions that fail to occur as a result. For example, one act of insurance fraud harms the insurance company; but rampant fraud causes everyone's premiums to rise.

The extent of damage caused by lies is sometimes straightforward to estimate, but more often hard. And yet, if one sticks to either being honest or keeping quiet, this is generally constructive, builds trust, and has beneficial or benign results.

So why do we not make honesty standard? Not just because our parents taught us not to lie; but because a widespread expectation of honesty is essential to the proper functioning of our society, to our prosperity as a civilization, and eventually, perhaps, to our survival as a species?

Why do we tolerate a force as destructive as lies?