Sunday, November 8, 2009

The most fundamental problem with politics today

Some say the trouble with politics is that it has been corrupted by moneyed interests. Others that the other side has gotten too powerful through lies and deception--the right says this about the left, the left about the right.

But there's a deeper problem: society has gotten more complex than at any time in the past, as have the issues facing us--and this complexity is too much for the average human mind. Over half the human race isn't up to the task.

This is nobody's fault. Intelligence is expensive, metabolically speaking. You learn this if you get scuba diver training. Your body pumps an incredible volume of blood through your head in order to feed all those brain cells. Every animal's metabolism represents a compromise between effectiveness and efficiency--that is, we're only as smart as we needed to be 50,000 years ago--otherwise, extra smarts would have added too much need for high protein food. smart did we need to be? Smarter than other animals. We had that. And in our recent evolution (over the last million years or so) our ancestors got quite a bit smarter. Then we stopped getting smarter, a long time before we developed agriculture and the rest of civilization.

We reached a balance point between what it took to feed our brains and what our brains could do for us.

At that point we were smart enough to become masters of our primitive world--to know what to eat, what to not eat, what the threats were, what the opportunities to make our way through that world.

The problem is that that world doesn't much resemble this one. It wasn't simple, to be sure. Look at what Kalahari Bushmen living traditionally had to know--such as how to find water in a desertlike landscape. But it was an environment someone with an IQ of 100 could master.

Ours isn't.

So there's over half the population, in over their heads. Not so bad when things are going well, as they were in the 50s (if you were white at least). But as things have gotten progressively worse for this group over the last 30 years or more, this group has dimly realized that rising tides didn't lift their boats.

They want hope. They want answers they can understand. They want revenge on whoever did this to them. They want to feel something besides helpless and futureless.

And--especially in times of stress--they want leaders who look like them and talk like them.

This opens the door to demagogues. They make people feel like they do understand the situation, and that they can do something about it.

So what do you say? That they're incapable of understanding the situation, and they're helpless? That dog's not gonna hunt.

So we're stuck. Maybe Slipknot is right..."All hope is gone."


Brian said...

Well said! I've been thinking about this too, but in the area of personal finance instead of politics. I think most people simply are not smart enough nor educated enough to make a rational choice when it comes to a house/loan. This (with a healthy dose of herd mentality) contributed greatly to the housing bubble. Even in every day activities we are making choices that are much more complex than they were 100, 50, even 20 years ago.

I'm not sure where you came up with the 50% estimate. Can I assume it is from your own observations?

Now, we are in the middle of this financial crisis and sorting it all out is *extremely* complicated. Just going through the mechanisms that make a dollar worth whatever a dollar is worth can make a persons head spin--at least it does for me.

So, does your solution tend libertarian: "the people are not smart enough to have so much influence over the whole population. Limit the powers/services of the gov't and let the people suffer their own consequences?" Or does it tend authoritarian: "the people are not smart enough, they need smart leaders to tell them what to do--they are however, smart enough to elect these genius leaders?"

Lastly, I had to look it up. Disturbing, disturbing stuff:


Ehkzu said...

Human intelligence appears to be distributed along a bell-shaped curve, with an IQ of 100 being, by definition, smack in the middle of the fat part of the bell.

So half of humanity has an IQ of 100 or less, the other has an IQ of 100 or more.

My own observations confirm this distribution.

I know, lots of folks complain that IQ doesn't really test human intelligence--it doesn't test artistic creativity, for example, nor does it test wisdom.

But for the purposes of this discussion it's accurate enough.

And I'm claiming that this intelligence distribution isn't random--it's what the human race needed, and prospered with, for the first 80,000 years or so of our existence here.

Now of course whatever you're born with can be enhanced with a good education.

But that doesn't happen a lot.

In my experience kids emerge from high school not having been taught how to evaluate a car loan, handle a 401K, or figure out when a politician is pandering instead of actually making sense.

Someone with an IQ of 100 can be taught to deal with such problems a lot better, but our educational system doesn't seem to have been designed to do that.

So very many thought problems in math classes could be based on what every adult needs to know. So many pieces of writing in English and Social Studies classes could help people learn to hone their BS detectors.

But they aren't.

And no, my solution isn't libertarian, a philosophy based on Any Rand's parents having their lands confiscated by Stalin's Soviet Union, causing her to conclude that all government is inherently evil.

That's cartoonish. And libertarianism blithely ignores all the powerful baddies who crowd in to rob you blind when government is hamstrung--as happened during the Bush era.

Ditto authoritarianism. Then you get bosses like the current Pope, a smart, highly ethical guy who--with the best of intentions--is trying to lead the human race off the cliff.

Besides, even when the authoritarian boss is good and competent (like Augustus Caesar was), wouldn't you know they then pass the reins of power to their halfwit depraved son.

Churchill, I believe, said democracy is the worst form of government possible...except for every other one.

So I guess I'll go with democracy--with gobs of checks and balances.

If it were up to me, though, I'd add a Department of Transparency. It'd have no power other than being able to throw lots of disenfecting daylight on all the dirty deeds done dirt cheap in the dark by those in government who've been bought and sold.

I'm working on a sci fi novel where my aliens have just such a department.

Great fun.

Ehkzu said...

As for Slipknot--they sure do well at expressing total nihilistic despair, don't they?

My spouse loathes them with a fiery passion.

Of course they have to practice hard--hone their art--to express total nihilism so perfectly.

Which makes them posers, actually, doesn't it?

Sean said...

I'm not sure if it's fair to sum the current state of politics/education/etc with a sigh of "oh, we're doomed... all hope is gone." Yes, it's true, the world is far too complicated for any one person to even begin to fathom, much less govern. In that sense, I agree that no ideal form of government exists. But I'd go so far as to say that this situation was inevitable since the dawn of mankind.

What measuring stick are you using to define success? If the ability to understand the fine print on a mortgage application or 401(k) are qualifications for a satisfactory level of intelligence, then yes, there will always be a group that falls short. Of course, there will always be winners and losers. However, the concept of a village somewhere where everyone is "above average" is what people will always strive for. Intelligence, equality, [fill in the blank]... these characteristics will never become ideal. Just like most people at a buffet line, humanity will always bite off more than it can chew.

PS: I really enjoy reading your blog. Keep it up!

Ehkzu said...

Sean, we don't even have to get into stuff like credit default swaps. The biggest difficulty is when our good common sense betrays us.

For example, it makes sense to only buy what you can afford to pay for up front, and to expect government to do the same.

But even in private businesses this isn't always the case. What one person calls going into the hole could be what another calls investment. Time after time the companies that have succeeded most have spent big during their startup phase--though they rarely do so on luxuries for top managment; they put the bucks into R&D, establishing distribution channels. They're always in a race with time--if you have a good, new idea you have to make it accepted, with you as the accepted purveyor of that idea, before someone else gets there.

Thus Sony's Betamax was arguably better than the competing VHS format. But it lost in the marketplace, and part of that reason could have been taking early profits instead of ploughing everything into establishing market dominance.

And today we have people in revolt over government overspending--a revolt led by the biggest government overspenders in the last 100 years (the Republican leadership). Why weren't they out in the streets during the Bush years, when the current deficit was created? Their instincts led them to trust the GOP because they looked and talked like them, and becuase the GOP was able to put the "pay the piper" moment past the 2004 election when Bush got his second term.

Now I'm persuaded by various savvy economists that we have to spend some serious money on the recovery.

It's like if you're standing on thin ice and it's starting to crack, the most cautious thing you can do is run like hell!

But this goes against conservatives' grain. Their instincts are mostly correct most of the time, both personally and governmentally. Just not always. And when it isn't, demagogues will exploit that instinctive loophole to produce exactly the opposite results those same conservative people desire.

Brian said...

Sean brings up a good point. As a clarification, I definitely agree that the world is not doomed. I think it would be a great help if people simply recognized the fact that if something is very complicated and confusing they should reject it on those grounds alone--no matter how good the salesman makes it sound.

Scott Adams talks about something he calls a "confusopoly" on his blog which is somewhat related to this topic.

As for your suggestion of a "Dept. of Transparency" that sounds nice, but isn't that close to what the GAO already is? Furthermore, the dealings of many gov't organizations are so, dare I say, confusing that we may end up right back at the root of the problem: the general population (myself included) won't take the time or interest in looking at the findings.

Ehkzu said...

Isn't the GAO limited to fiscal matters? I envision a broader mandate and a more aggressive stance. Moreover, I also see it as even more firewalled from the rest of government and big business than the GAO is. I'd make working there a dead end--no access to working with or for any public or private entity being investigated for 10 years. And its officers would have a right to drop in on any government meetings, both physical and virtual. It would be a calling--as patriotic as the Marine Corps, in its own nonviolent way.

BTW nobody on Earth can know whether the planet, the species, civilization, our country, our democratic form of government, are or are not doomed.

One sobering example: oxygen is not a natural component of Earth's atmosphere. It's entirely the product of plant metabolism, and a significant portion is generated by forests and marine organisms that human activities are degrading rapidly.

Can't vote if you cam't breathe.