This is sub-chapter #9, of Chapter #3, Politics, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World.
Would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the MOBI, ePub, or PDF, then please let me know in the comments—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published.
ARE WE RESPONSIBLE?
Now that the ‘facts nonsense’ is over with, I can start with the rhetoric, where any opinion can be made to sound right. But before we begin, I’d like to apologize in advance for the overabundance of negativity in the next 8 sub-chapters. I am only calling it as I see it, but it might be difficult to slog through. If you can make it through the seven hells, plus the free bonus hell, then you will be rewarded with an overabundance of positivity in the last 4 sub-chapters, as I’m saving the best for last. With that out-of-the-way, let’s talk about responsibility, personal as well as social responsibility in the context of the question, are we responsible enough to govern ourselves?
Let’s begin with social responsibility. The majority of us are part of the collective called society. We enter into a social contract with our fellow citizens and our government to give up some of our liberties in exchange for certain conveniences—usually by accident of birth.
For example, we allow the government to tax us in exchange for them to build infrastructure. We expect them to pass laws, regulations and statutes that protect us from those who would do us harm, to enforce the rule of law, and to look out for our best interests on the international stage. So while we lose some freedoms, we gain greater freedoms in the form of convenience; that’s the theory anyway, and generally how governments function at a democracies inception, when everybody is an idealist.
Onto responsibility: there was a study some time ago titled, The Bystander Effect. It aimed to clarify what, if any, difference occurred in the response time of normal people giving aid to complete strangers who were in the process of getting, or were hurt, depending on how many other bystanders were present. The final result was quite interesting: the more people watching, and as long as they could see each other watching, the less likely help would be rendered in any form.
What? Common sense should dictate that help be rendered faster, but as usual, the truth flies in the face of common sense. The theory was that because everybody could see everyone else also watching, subsequently assumed that somebody else would dial the police, ambulance, or render aid. Another study take a different approach to the same problem. They put a lone person in a room, and started pumping smoke into the room. Seventy-percent percent of people reported the smoke within seconds. When other subjects (actors told to ignore the smoke) were present, the number of people reporting the smoke declined significantly, to ten-percent in one scenario.
So what does this have to do with society?
Think, by and large, of Western governments that a lot of us are in this contract with. By now, most of us know that something is wrong. Spending is too high, government meddling in the economy is distorting the marketplace causing the misallocation of capital, we are being endlessly manipulated, and corporations employ armies of lobbyists so democracy is swayed their way, at times, regardless of the social cost.
At times, greater liberties than are required to be removed are being removed, seemingly with no immediate benefit to us, along with an anthology of other seemingly small inconveniences that, when added up, paint a confusing, perhaps disturbing picture.
No one, however, does much of anything to protest it, if they even know at all. We all assume that someone else will do it, and yes, there are those who stick it to the man, but they are few and far between.
The world sits atop a precipice, most importantly, a financial one. (I will goto in more in the chapter Debt Crisis 101.) The Western world is in so much debt that any day now we could plunge into another depression. And if that was our only problem we might be so lucky:
- Online privacy is a thing of the past. Governments and corporations are increasingly intruding into our private lives, both offline and online.
- Inflation is accelerating around the world. That is, your purchasing power is being slowly eroded, and the Consumer Price Index (CPI) which tracks inflation often tracks novel and unimportant price increases to underestimate inflation
- ‘Too Big To Fail’ banks are getting trillions—not a typo, trillions—of free dollars because, apparently, socialism is now ‘in’ for friends of the government
- The mainstream media seems to be getting more biased by the day, sometimes outright trying to misinform us. Accidentally or not, who knows. (Cough fox news cough.)
- US politicians are domestically passing draconian laws that other countries might, and usually do, emulate such as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)
The Bystander Effect is also known by another phrase, the diffusion of responsibility. So it’s quite obvious that when it comes to social responsibility, we’ve dropped the ball there, and in most cases, we demand that governments continue on the path to fiscal disaster, which I’ll explore soon.
Onwards and forwards to personal responsibility. We like to think of ourselves as responsible, more so as we age, yet are we really? Using the populations of Greece, Italy and Spain as examples, are they really acting responsibly by protesting the governments’ austerity measures in 2012 that are removing unsustainable programs that can’t be paid for?
”It is not the function of our government to keep the citizen from falling into error; It is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.” ~ Robert H. Jackson (US Supreme Court Justice)
These programs will only make their own eventual situation worse by accelerating their countries’ economic downfall. Sounds silly protesting to keep entitlements that are damaging to your economy, and by extension, your future personal well-being, does it not? We are predisposed to future short-term thinking, and it seems our educational systems are not preparing us to see past this default mode.
Of course, those protesting don’t know this, but it is part of their responsibility, their social contract, to be informed on what does and does not work economically. It’s not good enough to demand something just because it benefits you. Ignorance will eventually hurt you, your fellow citizens, and in a globalized world, the entire region or planet.
It is often said, “Ignorance is bliss,” though it should be said, “Ignorance is temporary bliss.” Those who live this way are leaving their future well-being to chance, or to other less-than-savory characters—in many cases, the politician.
All three of the just-mentioned countries are in so much debt, they run the risk of outright default. In the case of Greece, they can’t even sell debt on the private bond market, relying solely on bailouts from the IMF and ECB. So why are they, and many others, drowning in debt?
One of the reasons is that the majority vote for politicians who bring the most benefits to them, without asking simple questions such as, “Where is the money going to come from to pay for this program?” Or anything remotely resembling a sensible question. And the recently elected politician can’t just raise taxes as soon as they’re elected to pay for their promises, so what is a politically expedient way of getting the necessary money to keep these promises without attracting the ire of voters? Thanks to Keynesianism, the answer is simple: borrow it. Problem solved! Of course, it’s only solved on a short-term basis, and we will be finding out just how shortsighted it really was in the coming years globally, though locally it is being felt in certain areas, as it is in Spain, where the youth have fifty-three percent unemployment, regardless of educational attainment.
There’s yet another reason government debts have spiraled upwards around the world. It’s not just limited to those three countries mentioned above, they are merely the top 3 examples! It is because previous government programs rarely, if ever, get cut as there are people who rely on those programs who won’t or can’t, give them up, and this affects a politician’s chance of re-election, no matter how small a minority it benefits. Just look at corn subsidies in the USA, corn farmers make up less than two-percent of the voting block, yet they receive billions in subsidies that simply isn’t economically necessary (and actually is economically destructive), while also contributing destructively to the entire planet, essentially raising the cost of corn, tying it to the price of fuel (converting it into biofuels with only a trivial 50% energy gain, compared to oil at 500%, i.e., one barrel of oil gets us 1.5 barrels of corn bio-fuel, while one barrel of oil gets us five barrels of oil out of the ground). This negatively affects food prices around the world, thereby increasing world hunger. But they still get their billions of dollars of subsidies without a care in the world, and no politician can touch that subsidy. Democracy was at first, the tyranny of the majority, though it has seemingly evolved into the tyranny of the minority, thanks to the art of lobbying. I need not even discuss the stranglehold of Wall St. Human intuition and shortsighted thinking is becoming so overwhelmed, that in a data-abundant world, it should no longer be used as the basis for democratic decision-making, an important part of it yes, but not the basis or foundation, as we are inherently bias and shortsighted (more on this in Fixing Politics and Chapter 5: Technology).
Thus, the upward thrust of government programs and the bureaucracies that goes with them, which history has shown happens time and time again, happens yet again in the modern-day where apparently we know better. This leads to ineffectual decision-making and government. Politicians are so concerned with keeping their jobs that they don’t do their jobs to the full potential and benefit of the nation. And people are so concerned with their own benefits or entitlements, or self-absorbed ideas that their socioeconomic system is the right one that they won’t allow politicians to do their jobs to their full potential either, even when a change of direction is required, or demanded to avert disaster! Responsibility? More like populist ignorance, with a serving of political cowardice, and a sprinkling of stupidity on both sides. (By stupidity, I mean the inability to recognize the long-term effects of actions.)
“How fortunate that men do not think.” ~Adolf Hitler (Sociopath)
This lack of personal responsibility lies solely at the feet of the populace. Yes, politicians have run up the debt making things unsustainable. They have spent and spend too much, borrow and borrowed too much, and printed and print too much new money—and we are right to blame them for their part in these problems.
But we blame them for the whole problem when we are part of the problem; we, or at least the majority, voted them in based on what they would provide to us. We are to blame for not asking basic questions on how they will fund these generous entitlement programs, and are at fault for not understanding basic economics. We are to blame for leaving to others the responsibility of keeping their actions in check because we were too busy watching American, British, or French Idol. Being social mammals evidently has its drawbacks. Consider the Asch Conformity experiments conducted in the 1950s, and repeated many times since. Seven-to-nine participants (all but one being actors designed to fool the one real participant), when accessing two pictures on a card; the picture on the left is of a straight line, compared to the picture on the right with three straight lines, one of which matches the length of the left line. Cycling through variations of the cards, the actors were on some occasions told to purposefully give the incorrect answer as to which line from the right-side matches the line on the left. The lonely real participants answer, who was made to judge last, was recorded. In one-third of cases, the real participant overrode his gut intuition (the answer was exceedingly simple) and conformed to the crowd. This experiment was repeated over many years, many universities, and hundreds of people. It also found that the more ambiguous a situation, that is, the more uncertain (as we find in public knowledge of politics, economics etc), the greater the conformity effect. Now all those political pundit TV shows begin to make sense on Fox News and others.
We are the instigating factor in the crux of this huge worldwide issue that will come to bear down on us in the ensuing years. There is currently fifty-trillion dollars in debt worldwide, with a global economy of seventy-trillion dollars. (By the way, this is just government debt, and doesn’t include institutional or household debt.) When you take account just the ten largest mature economies, debt-to-GDP is 350%. I’m not playing tricks on you…cumulatively speaking, for the ten most mature economies (Australia, US, UK, Japan, Germany et al), their debt burden is over three and a half times larger than the size of their economies, and this spread is growing. (This figures does not take into account the derivatives and Wall St investments which notionally total $668 trillion, though they only carry a market value of $15 trillion.) Think about that for a heartbeat, for every dollar in a Westerner’s hand, there is three-dollars-fifty of debt. In a near future coming to you, many won’t get paid their $2. Will it be you? (The specifics of how there is more debt than money will be explained in the chapter, Infinite Growth.)
The USA, the cornerstone of the world economy, now has, at the time of writing, $16.5 trillion in debt compared to a GDP of $15.81 trillion, and that’s just government debt; it doesn’t include household debt, which raises that ratio many times higher. This doesn’t even begin to even image the entire problem. The unfunded liabilities of the US government: Social Security, Medicare, and federal employees future retirement benefits are on the order of $86.8 trillion, as calculated by Chris Cox and Bill Archer, who both served on President Clinton’s Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform (drawn up in 1994), which of course was never acted on. (An unfunded liability is the amount by which the liabilities of the plan, in this case benefits, exceeds the plans assets at a given date. The reason why it has grown into such a huge problem, is the federal government does not do the same accounting as is legally required of public and non-profit firms.)
“If the economy isn’t growing, it’s not because the government isn’t spending enough to “stimulate” it. Government spending comes from: taxation, which is a burden on the economy; borrowing, which is a future burden on the economy; or printing money – inflation – which is an especially dishonest, hidden form of taxation makes people think they’re richer while they’re being impoverished. No. If the economy isn’t growing, it’s because the government has burdened it with heavy taxation, smothered it with excessive regulation, distorted it with false information (the Fed’s manipulation of interest rates), and replaced real money—gold—with paper.” ~ Doug Casey (Investor)
So, what is the solution to this debt problem? There are no solutions, that I know of, except for a reset, which will happen all on its own as it stands, and anyone saying bailout knows not of what they speak. Creating more monetary debt to solve a debt problem is akin to giving heroin to a heroin addict and expecting it to solve his addiction problem; despite what politicians (pushers) will tell you. It’s only meant to buy them more time, not you. To show to you that is indeed the case: consider the fiscal cliff fiasco, where in 2011, the US budget passed by congress, factored in automatic budget cuts and tax increases (or expiration of tax decreases rather) to take effect by the end of 2012. This was done to ensure they had time to work out which cuts really to be made, with across the board cuts taking effect if no political compromise was forthcoming. At the time of writing this paragraph (Jan 2, 2013), they’d just passed an extension again for two more months while compromising on the tax increases. By the way, that compromise is projected to increase the national debt by four-trillion dollars over the next decade. (Doing nothing would have kept—theoretically at least—the debt-to-GDP ratio constant, but they managed to screw that up too! As journalist John Cassidy on the New Yorker, in an article concluding the deal wrote, “Congress is only buying time—and precious little of it.”
So what are some solutions for these political problems that are so endemic? I will get to them in a later chapter, after asking a simple yet elusive question in the next chapter.
“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.” ~ Unknown (Unknown unknown)
Note: the book is fully sourced, but because of the writing program I use, the links don’t transfer over to WordPress. At the conclusion of the twenty chapters, I may throw up a post with all hundred-fifty+ sources, but the final book will have all the relevant sources in the proper locations.