Thursday, February 25, 2010

Patriotism, Nationalism, and the Olympics

I teach English in Japan, and when I ask students what's up these days, the answer is inevitably "the Olympics." Japanese are particularly entranced with their female figure skaters, as Mao Asada and Miki Ando are the only Japanese competitors thought to have a chance to win a gold in any prestigious event. As would people in any country, most Japanese say they want Japanese athletes to win. When they say that, I ask them: why?

Duh, responds the reader. But I think it's a good idea to occasionally give serious thought to questions that we'd normally consider too obvious to bother answering. Why should I care whether Athlete A from my country defeats Athlete B from another country, when until two days ago, I had never heard of either of them? Personally, I don't, though I know I'm unusual.

Of course, I know the answer: "I identify with my country. My country is my 'team', and I want it to win. I like to know that my country is better than other countries, because I then feel as though I'm better." Well, okay, people wouldn't say the last part. But it's definitely true. Many will say they want their country's team to win because "I'm patriotic." Now, is this a good thing?

In some cases, certainly. Patriotism can bind people together, help them come together in the face of attack or tragedy. It can be a legitimate feeling of pride when one's country has done something admirable. Used for positive purposes, it can enable a country to do what it perhaps otherwise could not. But used negatively, it morphs into nationalism, the use of national pride for political purposes. It fosters and encourages a 'we are better than them' feeling, tapping into the human need for recognition, validation, and social standing.

Sad to say, throughout history patriotism has been used for far more negative than positive purposes. There are few better examples of this than in the recent history of the country in which I currently reside. The Japanese of the early 20th century were ceaselessly told by their leaders that they were special, led by an emperor considered a living god, superior to any other country, and thus divinely destined to rule others, starting with Asia. That didn't quite work out, and nationalism got such a bad name here that even saying that one is patriotic is something one doesn't do too loudly.

This has never been a problem in the U.S., a country in which it is a felony for a politician to speak for 15 minutes or more without mentioning that "the U.S. is the greatest country on Earth." (Okay, that's not true. But it seems like it.) Quick quiz: what was the last time Americans' patriotism was used by the government as a political tool for a major policy objective? If you didn't say 'the Iraq War', then you weren't thinking very hard. The Bush government repeatedly invoked patriotism in support of the war to remove the terrible danger that Saddam posed to America, and routinely questioned the patriotism of anyone who questioned or opposed this objective. Not that this was unusual; if there has ever been a war in which patriotism was not invoked, I'm not aware of it. I don't mean to suggest that patriotism is bad because it is used to support wars, any more than I think fire is bad because it burns down buildings. Both have positive uses. At the same time, both have to be watched carefully, lest they spin out of control. Neither should be used recklessly, or just for the sake of enjoyment.

A reasonable observation at this point would be, "Dude, it's just the Olympics. Lighten up." It's true that I'm not worried that we're going to suddenly invade Canada. But at this time, when most root for athletes for no more reason than their national origin, it seems like a propitious time to make and consider such comments. Our country seems almost addicted to patriotism. You see the flag not only at political rallies, but in supermarkets, TV commercials, car dealerships, and dozens of other places where its relevance is questionable. Why? Because it causes the desired effect. Just like it did for the Iraq War. (I supported that war, but not out of patriotism, or U.S. interests, but because Saddam was a clear threat to his neighbors and a danger to regional stability. Americans, however, wouldn't have supported the war for those reasons. So, Bush waved the flag, and Americans responded like Pavlov's dogs.)

A majority of Americans now think that the Iraq war was a bad idea. I would feel better if they had a better sense of what it was that led them there in the first place. It wasn't the Olympics. But that kind of thing is the first step along what is clearly a very slippery slope.

Friday, February 12, 2010

An Ideal Democracy

What would the perfect democracy be like?

It seems to me that to understand more clearly what's wrong with something, it is useful to consider what could be right. Imagine, for a few moments, a democracy in which every citizen took his or her civic obligations very seriously. I don't mean just that they vote, of course.

It starts with staying well-informed. Everyone would read the newspaper enough to know about all the issues that affect us all. Everyone would know not just about the economy and the employment situation, but also about prison conditions, the military, domestic abuse, foreign aid, and all of the dozens of issues that affect us as individuals and as a country. We certainly wouldn't agree on all these topics, but we would know the important factors in understanding them. We wouldn't neglect an issue just because it didn't personally affect us.

We would vote based on this knowledge. We would, directly and through the media, demand thoughtful answers from the candidates on these questions, not just feel-good sound bites. We would know the candidates' stands on issues not only important to us, but important to the country. A candidate who evaded hard questions would not be seen as someone serious enough about his responsibilities to be elected. We would remember a candidate's past promises, and vote out someone who had not made a good-faith effort to fulfill them. We would not vote for a candidate who attacked his opponent's character, or made charges based on anything other than the opponent's record or statements. Insinuations and misleading statements would be recognized as the equivalent of lies, and punished by the voters accordingly.

We would vote based not just on how the candidates' proposed policies would affect us as individuals, but on how they would affect all of us. We might be ideological, but we would not be dogmatic. Liberals would respect the crucial role played by the free market in a free society, and introduce market principles in government where appropriate; conservatives would understand that sometimes governments must do what the free market isn't equipped to do. We all would encourage our representatives to negotiate to make laws that represent the interests of all of society, not to stand firm on ideology and reject any agreement not perfectly to one side's liking.

The media would consider themselves to have a sacred responsibility: to provide us with information designed to give us the best insight possible into the country and world around us. The more serious the issue, the more coverage there would be. Politicians and bureaucrats would be held to account, asked tough questions to which complete answers would be expected; a politician who evaded a question would be reminded that he hadn't answered the question. If a politician said something factually incorrect, the media would note this as a matter of course. Reporters would avoid being on friendly terms with members of the government, knowing this could interfere with their objectivity as journalists.

It would be well understood that money can be a corrupting influence in politics, so steps would be taken to prevent this. Public money would be allocated to pay for every political campaign, from President to city council member. The money would be given on the condition that it not be used for television advertising; the Web is more than sufficient to spread the politician's message to those who want to hear it. Private and corporate donations, while not being illegal, would be frowned on due to the potential for corruption, and those who took such donations would not be elected for that reason.

A politician would not be judged positively for acquiring federal money for local projects, as this would be recognized as thinly veiled support for a candidate's re-election at the taxpayers' expense. It would be understood that projects that benefit a particular city or region should be paid for by taxes collected as locally as possible, in the interest of not spending taxpayer money on projects that most taxpayers don't want their taxes to pay for. Voters would recognize that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and politicians would be praised for their fiscal prudence. A constitutional amendment would be passed requiring a 3/4 supermajority to allow deficit spending. Voters would approve of surpluses to pay for future projects, or to finance extra spending in the event of a recession, so deficit spending wouldn't be necessary.

Most importantly, we would recognize that our duty as voters was to reward politicians whose main efforts were directed at making a better country and a better world, as that would be of substantial benefit not only to us, but to our descendants. Statesmanship would be rewarded at the polls. It would be considered shameful for a politician to advocate putting off dealing with important problems for the next generation to deal with, even if that required an increase in taxes or a decrease in spending. Voters would support politicians who took a long-term view.

Will this ideal democracy ever come to pass? Almost certainly not. People are not like this. People, not politicians, though politicians are people too, subject to the same weaknesses and frailties. We don't pay attention to the newspapers. We want to spend less and get more, to have others pay for what we benefit from. We don't vote, or do so for superficial reasons. We are swayed by inspiring speeches rather than records of good governance. We allow ourselves to be influenced by campaign commercials that we should know are misleading at best. We sometimes don't punish our politicians for reprehensible behavior, for violating the public trust.

Above all, we don't have a high regard for politicians; we regard them as hypocrites and power-grubbers at best, and crooks at worst. In most cases, this view is well justified. But who's to blame? We are the ones who elected them, after all. They represent us, in more ways than one. They are we, writ large. There are dozens of problems with politics, but it starts here. Until a great majority of us recognize this, nothing will change.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Avoiding the Argument

As an English teacher in Japan, I hear about a lot of things that sound odd to Western ears. Most of them I've become used to, but I still get a new one now and then. A few weeks ago, a student told me that his wife gets angry when he puts salt on his food, which surprised me greatly. Apparently, the reason is that she feels that salting is an indication that the food is unsatisfactory, and therefore an insult to her. I found this ridiculous; I'd have thought that everyone separates how well something is cooked from one's taste in saltiness. Excessive salt is a problem; insufficient salt clearly is not. It's elementary. Did many Japanese feel like this?

Determined to find out, I conducted one of my (extremely scientifically invalid) surveys, asking fifty students the same question and getting their answers. Here is the explanation I gave, and the questions:

There is a (Japanese) couple in their mid-thirties, no kids, both work. He works more than she does; part of their division of labor is that she cooks. When she serves him food and he salts it, she gets angry. She says it means he thinks her cooking is poor; he says it's just that his taste is different from hers. She does not accept this explanation.

1. Is her attitude reasonable?

2. Should he stop using salt?

3. Sometimes she puts the food on the table and heads back to the kitchen to get something. He quickly grabs the salt, salts his food, and puts it back before she returns. Is it okay for him to do this?

From my point of view, these are easy questions: her attitude is highly unreasonable, he shouldn't stop, and he shouldn't sneak the salt, but rather, use it openly. I suspect that most Westerners would agree. I got, however, some unexpected responses from my Japanese students.

I wanted to ask students about this at first mainly to find out how many people agreed with her, but the more significant responses came out with the second question. Here are the results:


Yes: 7 (4 female, 3 male)
Somewhat: 3 (3 female, 0 male)
No: 40 (23 female, 17 male)

Should he stop?

Yes: 23 (9 female, 14 male)
No: 27 (21 female, 6 male)

Is sneaking the salt okay?

Yes: 28 (no gender breakdown)
No: 22

While it seems that being angry at salt use isn't that common, it does exist; the wife's attitude was vigorously defended by a few of those who answered 'yes'. They felt that the kitchen is the woman's domain, and her decrees should be followed. One lady insisted that even if his taste is different, he should try to adjust it; he would eventually get used to the lack of salt, and enjoy the food just as much. Asked why he should have to, she gave a few reasons, such as the idea that it would show respect for her efforts in the kitchen. One response I got a lot, especially from women, to the 'is she reasonable' question was, "no, she isn't reasonable, but I can understand her feelings."

What surprised me about the second question was not the results, but the gender breakdown, which as you can see is sharp. 70% of women said he should go ahead and continue, while 70% of men said he should stop. Of the 23 women who said the wife was unreasonable, 21 said he should continue using the salt, which makes sense to me: you follow reasonable requests, and you don't follow unreasonable ones. But of the 17 men who said the wife was unreasonable, only 6 said he should continue using salt. In almost every case, the reason given was to avoid a conflict. Very typical was a man around 50 who immediately dismissed the wife as unreasonable, said the husband should stop using the salt 'to keep the peace in the family,' and when questioned about sneaking the salt, laughed and said 'good idea!'.

By Western standards, giving in to such an unreasonable request would be widely considered a bad idea. It's bad in principle to agree to unreasonable demands, it represents an unhealthy degree of control by one partner over another, and it only puts a Band-Aid over a problem that needs to be dealt with. A discussion needs to be had. But Japanese are very conflict-averse, almost reflexively so. Not that they never have it, of course, especially between spouses. But though not everything needs to be a knock-down drag-out fight, many Japanese react as though any argument means just that. Some of the men didn't care that much about using salt, so would give in quickly. But in my case, even if I were indifferent to using salt, I would resist the demand on principle and initiate a discussion. What I found about many Japanese–not all, but probably upwards of half–was that they simply don't consider the notion that the problem can be solved with a discussion. They would argue their point, they would maybe get angry, but it wouldn't occur to them to explore the dynamic of the situation in order to solve it. Why does she get angry, when most people wouldn't? Is she sensitive about her cooking? Has he given her reason to be? Has he appreciated it enough, perhaps made a few unintentional slights? They wouldn't ask these questions. When I say 'discussion', what they hear is 'argument'.

But, most interestingly: why the men and not the women? Even the students weren't sure, though there was a general consensus that the most recent generation of Japanese men aren't as confident and sure of their place as men of previous generations. Tellingly, one of the few men who said he should continue using the salt was my oldest student, a 75-year-old man who was a company executive, a very traditional guy. He said the wife should make the food to the husband's specifications, and if it isn't, he should use the salt and tell her why. He's not an arrogant guy; he just has a strong idea of how things should be. Anyway, for whatever reason, Japanese women appear to be much more willing than men to have an argument. Most of my students were interested, but not terribly surprised, by this.

As for the third question, the student whose problem this was (who was quite interested to have me take the survey and give him the results) said he was surprised at the result, that he'd have thought that 90% would say it was okay. Most who said it was liked it as a way to avoid the argument/discussion, and for him to get what he wanted (most of the men gave this answer). Most who opposed it said that he should simply use it openly, so in a way, it was another way of asking the second question.

As for my student, he hasn't used the salt recently, contenting himself to sneak it in when possible. When I asked him why he didn't bring it up with her, he quoted a Japanese expression, 'kotonakare-shugi'. It doesn't seem to have an exact English equivalent; it comes across best as 'leaving well enough alone' or 'not making things worse'. Personally, I think that it's not dealing with these things that makes them worse. But, of course, that's what cultural differences are all about.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Avatar: The Lowest Common Denominator

There's been a lot of attention in the media recently about the movie Avatar, especially about the fact that it has broken the U.S. and international box office records (not adjusted for inflation, of course). This being the case, one imagines that it must be pretty good. When talking about it with others who've seen it, I hear the same thing a lot: the story is standard Hollywood formula with so-so writing, while the visuals are beautiful, the best they've ever seen.

But if the story is only so-so, why is it so successful? Basically, I believe the answer is that the great majority of movie-goers don't mind a formulaic story; it's like different frosting on the same cake, one that they like and are comfortable with. They don't think deeply about the structure of the story, like a critic would; they just want to sit down and be entertained for two hours. Stories that are adventurous and different have a hard time getting made, because they don't make much money. Critics sometimes complain that Hollywood films aim for the lowest common denominator.

So, is that a bad thing? Some will say no, that if you like formula movies and I like art-house movies, it's just a matter of taste, nothing anyone should be criticized for. Some say yes, that there is such a thing as artistic merit, and that those who ignore this (and refer to those who value artistic merit as 'pretentious') are only trying to defend their poor taste and lack of discernment. I think I tend to fall in the middle of this. I do think there is such a thing as artistic merit, that many works of art, music, literature, and movies have subtle touches of skill that escape those who lack the knowledge and insight to appreciate them. But I definitely don't want to condemn those whose taste in film runs to action movies with lots of explosions and little story, or comedies that rely heavily on slapstick humor and fart jokes. Maybe that's not my taste, but if it's yours, what's wrong with that?

What's wrong, the sophisticate will sniff, is that our culture will then be overrun with such dreck, which will crowd out the 'good' movies that otherwise would have been made. I would say, maybe so, but that's the world we live in; the taste of the masses is what composes our culture. (I'm a lot less sanguine about this notion when it comes to politics, but with good reason: it affects me not at all if the taste of the masses makes Transformers 2 a huge hit, as I don't have to see it. But when the selfishness and ignorance of the masses causes improvements in health care to run aground, that may affect me, and it definitely affects the poor and uninsured, probably costing lives in the long run.) Especially now that technology is making films easier to make (home filming and computer software) and show (the internet), I think we're never going to run out of good movies.

While recognizing its limitations, I enjoyed Avatar. I had read reviews, and knew what I was getting into. I do tend to avoid formula movies; I dislike watching a movie and knowing what's going to happen. Avatar contained no surprises. But while I experienced twinges of annoyance, for the most part I was able to forget that and lose myself in the movie. It may be a formula movie, but it's a really good formula movie. Just because a person is capable of fully appreciating a meal prepared by a great French chef doesn't mean that he can't also enjoy some well-prepared fried chicken and mashed potatoes. (I don't mean that the diner in this analogy is me; I'm not quite such a high-level movie buff. I'm just speaking generally. And as for me, I'd probably rather have fried chicken and mashed potatoes than the great French meal. I suppose I'm lowbrow when it comes to food.)

What I really dislike in this whole discussion is the literate, intelligent 'lover of fine things' who ostentatiously turns up his nose at things that the masses enjoy, and he turns it up more the more they enjoy it. More than a few times, I've had to listen to snobbish people say things like 'well, I like x and y,' with the clear implication that it's self-evident that they are superior to those dolts who like a and b. 'Everybody's gotta have somebody to look down on,' goes a lyric from Kris Kristofferson's first album, and the simple truth of that is especially apparent at such times. I try, however, not to look down on the people who look down on people. I have mixed success. I am human, after all.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hot Lesbian Amateurs

The standard joke here would be something along the lines of "now that I have your attention..." This post is obviously not about hot lesbian amateurs (or should it be, hot amateur lesbians? I guess not, as that suggests there must be professional lesbians, which sounds strange, but anyway...), but the post's topic does have some connection to the headline. I should say now, though, that there are no pictures, no links to pictures, or pornography of any kind on this page. I wouldn't want someone who found this page by searching for 'hot lesbian amateurs' to actually read the post, only to not find what he was looking for, and leave nasty comments.

If you have been using the internet at all to look at English-language pages–and if you're looking at this page, it seems likely that you have–then you will have seen ads for the online game called Evony. Evony is apparently (I haven't played it) a game in which one builds one's own city, then empire. Evony is a lot less well-known for its gameplay, of course, than it is for its ads, which usually include an attractive underwear-and-bra-clad young woman whose ample cleavage is highly emphasized. The ads are ubiquitous, appearing on a substantial percentage of the websites I tend to frequent (which generally have nothing to do with either online games or porn).

At first, I wondered what the young woman had to do with the gameplay, then I realized that I was being naive. Nothing, of course; apparently, women (much less scantily clad ones) have no connection whatsoever to the game. Then again, bikini-clad women have nothing to do with cars or sports, but one sees them in car commercials and in one very popular issue of Sports Illustrated. The well-known site The Huffington Post started as a political blog, but it gets a lot of traffic through celebrity skin and nipple-slip photos. Whatever brings in the eyeballs.

I was moved to write this post while looking at a movie review website called Reelviews, written by a guy named James Berardinelli, who I think writes far-above-average reviews that I like to read whether I plan to see the movies or not. He writes reviews as a labor of love, and unfortunately can't make a living from the income from internet ads on his site. His most recent column was accompanied by two Evony ads, which much to my surprise did not include any breast-related photos. Each had a few short, pithy phrases, and while reading them, it occurred to me that advertising attempts to tap into and exploit fundamental human desires. Some ads do it subtly, while others are far more blunt. Even without female flesh, Evony ads run much more towards the latter than the former. Here are the phrases in the ads:

Be A Lord. Appeals to the desire to have high status and to rule over others.

Conquer Your World. Appeals to the desire to feel powerful. Humans have been trying to do that since the dawn of time. Since it's difficult and dangerous to try to do it for real, maybe a virtual world is the best we can do.

Our City Is Under Attack, Come And Save Us! Appeals to the desire to be a hero, the white knight who rides in to save the day. And maybe if you save them, they let you have the underwear-clad woman in gratitude?

Build Your Kingdom. A combination of the desires to build something lasting and rule over others.

Make New Friends. Appeals to the desire to be popular, to have many friends. Maybe you can make alliances in this game, or maybe the phrase is trying to tap into the fact that some people do make friends online, and making friends in the game has as little to do with the game as the busty babes. I don't know.

10 Million Gamers. This is along the lines of '50 Million Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong.' (I believe that is an actual album title I saw once.) If so many people are doing it, it must be good. Get in on the trend, another strong human tendency.

As I mentioned, there were no women in these ads, but another page I happened to be looking at did have one. It included the phrases:

Play the New Game Everyone's Talking About. Similar to the 10 Million Gamers one, it tries to tap into the herd mentality of the human psyche: if everyone's talking about it except us, we should know what it is. (And yes, everyone is talking about it. They're saying, did you see those ads?)

It's Obvious Why They Are. As the words move back and forth over the cleavage, I guess that's hard to dispute. They have poor impulse control, and couldn't stop themselves from clicking on the ads!

It Makes You Feel Like A King! A more blatant appeal to the ego and/or low self-esteem would be hard to find. Like I said, these ads are not subtle, to put it mildly.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that the game isn't actually that good, or at least one gets that impression by reading its Wikipedia entry, which suggests that it's quite derivative of the popular empire-building game called Civilization. Apparently, while it is a free game, in order to really succeed in the game, one must use real money to buy game-related progress and enhancements. I'd wondered at first how they could afford all those ads, but now I understand: people, especially men who clicked on the breasts, get competitive once they get into the game. Once hooked in, they try to advance over others by buying the enhancements. So, the ads use psychology to get you to play, and once you play, they use psychology to try to get you to spend money on an allegedly free game. Really, it's almost diabolical. Not that there aren't a lot of other things like it on the Web, but this one is so ubiquitous that it's interesting to analyze. And if they really have 10 million players, it seems to be working.

So, morally speaking, how bad are the ads? The ads don't lie outright, it seems: I imagine that no one expects to click on the link and suddenly 'be a Lord' in any realistic sense. They are somewhat deceptive, as the babes have absolutely nothing to do with the game, but a lot of advertising would fall into this category. I suspect that a lot of big companies do things worse than this. Anyway, I titled the post as I did partly in humor, and partly as a demonstration of a tactic similar to what the Evony people do: babes have nothing to do with their game, but are just an attention-getting tactic. In my case, part of the humor is that I'm not really trying to get more readers by shameless deception, but rather to make it appear as though I am. (Or, I could be lying...)

Even the oldest of us have been exposed to advertising all our lives, and I suppose it's like any other aspect of life: some will see things for what they are and some won't, with many in between. All except the most stupid or naive know that ads mislead or even lie, but I suspect that many don't know or don't consider the part that understanding the way the human mind works plays in creating advertising. I'm pretty sure that in most universities there are classes on advertising that explain this, but those classes are about how to make advertising. I'd like to see classes as early as elementary school that deconstruct advertising, and explain how to resist its appeal. But I'm pretty sure there's no chance of that happening. Ours is a consumer society, and the companies that run it would fiercely fight any attempt to teach children to resist their sales pitches.

Friday, January 22, 2010

climate change: who pays?

It is largely agreed that the international conference in Copenhagen last month to address climate change was a failure, as no legally binding targets were agreed to, and there was too great a disagreement between what Europe wanted (stronger targets for all countries) and what less industrialized countries wanted (especially China, which is rapidly industrializing and wants as few constraints on its behavior as possible). An article I read in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian squarely blames China for the poor outcome.

Let's imagine that I'm the Chinese leader. What if I said the following to America and Europe:

"The climate crisis is the responsibility of those countries that caused it by putting large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere for the past 60+ years. When you ask us to cut down our emissions, you are asking us to help clean up the mess you made. So, the following is our position. Let's go back 60 years, and calculate the total GNP for all countries. Let's assume that a country's contribution to the CO2 problem is proportional to its GNP. For the next 15 years, there will be a global target each year for reducing emissions. Each country will have a share of that target assigned to it. Each country's share of the target will be the same percentage as was its contribution to global warming over the past 60 years. For example, America has over the past 60 years accounted for 25% of global GNP, and was therefore responsible for 25% of global warming. America must therefore cut its emissions enough to account for 25% of the global target. After 15 years, we'll agree to renegotiate based on GNP over the past twenty years."

So, what would be wrong with that?

To a fair-minded person, it seems eminently reasonable: is there anyone, especially who grew up with siblings, who as a child didn't protest against being made to clean up a mess someone else made? I think it can be very reasonably argued that to the extent that China, India, and other developing countries are asked to clean up more than they polluted, that is essentially what is being asked of them. Should it surprise us that they strongly resist it?

The opposing argument is, of course, obvious: we're all in this together, so unless we want the planet to go to hell, we'd all better get on board no matter who caused it. (I can't help but recall my favorite Monty Python movie: "This (wedding) is supposed to be a happy occasion! Let's not argue and bicker over who killed who...") This argument, of course, generally tends to be made by those who caused the problem. It's not utterly wrong, but it ignores the concept of fairness, and most people take that very seriously. Some psychology lectures I watched on the web gave the example of an experiment in which two volunteers were put together. One was given ten dollars, and he could give as much or as little to the other as he wanted, but for both to get the money, both had to approve of the final outcome. In many cases, the one with the ten dollars gave the other person five, which both approved. But in most cases in which the one with ten dollars gave the other only one dollar, the other disapproved–even though this meant neither got any money. It was clearly in the self-interest of the one who got one dollar to agree–after all, one dollar is better than none–but anger at the unfairness and greed overrode self-interest. It seems to me that on a much larger scale, that's what's happening here: the less-developed countries are angered at the obvious unfairness of the developed countries, and so don't cooperate.

As for the developed countries, many of them have majorities that want to do more, but the business interests (especially in America), in short-term self-interest, do everything they can to block progress, in willful disregard for the likely long-term consequences. (I love how they often say, when presented any legislation that will increase their costs, that the legislation is bad because it'll just force them to pass the costs along to the consumer. Clearly not, since if that was the case, they shouldn't care. Their profits might suffer, and that's all they care about.) The conservative politicians use China's intransigence as an excuse for inaction, but if there wasn't that, they'd find another. Those who want to start cleaning up the planet are going to have to do it regardless of whether anyone else does or not, and some are. Will it be enough to avert catastrophe? I'm 47; will I be around long enough to find out? All I can say is that there's more than enough evidence that we're in great danger, so no one can say we weren't warned. If we don't get it done in time... it would be very human.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Way We Think

There are about 40,000 traffic fatalities per year in the U.S., the equivalent of about one jumbo jet crash every two or three days. Can you imagine the level of panic if planes started crashing at that rate? Or the extreme panic if these planes were being brought down by terrorists rather than mechanical problems?

A person making 50K a year whose salary is suddenly cut to 40K will bemoan his fate, while a person making 30K suddenly making 40 will party it up. Shouldn't they feel the same, since they make the same amount of money?

An earthquake in Haiti or a tsunami in Southeast Asia, each taking thousands of lives, prompt non-stop news coverage and donations of millions of dollars. A genocide in Rwanda that kills nearly a million, or a government-assisted North Korean famine killing millions, get modest coverage and no telethons. Why?

An article a student brought in the other day mentioned the concept of anchoring, which is apparently a word psychologists use to describe the fact that we sometimes rely too heavily on one piece of information (of questionable relevance) when making judgments. It was mentioned in the context of buying stock: many stockholders sell or don't sell based on what they paid for it, which in fact has no relevance at a later time: the only consideration for selling or holding should be expectations of the stock's future value, not its past value. Yet many people consider this fact. While not the same thing, this brings to mind the fact that there are many people who think that if a flipped coin comes up heads ten times in a row, the eleventh is bound to be tails. The irrelevant past events color our judgment of the future event.

The first question above is one I've always thought was interesting. We freak out when a plane crashes, but the same number of people dying on the roads in a single day would be so ordinary it wouldn't even be reported in the national media. Granted, more people are on the roads every day than are in planes (I assume), so absolute numbers may not be a fair comparison, but the point is valid, I think. We have gotten used to the carnage on the streets and highways. It's the price we pay to drive, the cost of doing business. I guess part of the situation here is that traffic fatalities happen every day, at a fairly predictable rate, and only one or two tend to die at a time. Plane crashes are unpredictable, happen irregularly, and have death tolls in the hundreds; this seems to make crashes more attention-getting. I'd bet that if three planes crashed in a week it would be a crisis; many questions would be asked. But few note the toll on the roads. Could this number be reduced? If we put more cop cars on the roads and cut speed limits by a third, would it save lives? It would almost have to, though I can't know how many. If experts agreed that it would save 10,000 lives a year, would people agree to it? Not a chance in hell. 40 mph on the freeway? Yeah, right. My feelings about this may be colored by the fact that a very close friend (best man at each other's weddings) was killed in a traffic accident 15 years ago. Our experiences cause us to look at the same events or ideas in different ways.

The second sentence at the top of the post, about the salary, is a good example of anchoring. Is 40K a good salary, or not? If so, but we got a cut from 50, shouldn't we just say, 'well, 40 is still good, so I'm not going to sweat it'? Our idea of what is a good salary tends to depend on what our salary is right now. (I haven't seen any research, but I'd bet money that people who make 100K have a very different idea of what a 'good salary' is than those who make 30K.) It seems very natural to see things this way, but I wonder why we do, or rather, why we can't 'not sweat' a drop from 50K to 40K. Does someone who made 200K last year moan and whine about this year's 150K? I'm sure he does, even though he knows perfectly well that 95% of Americans would love to have his salary; 200K is simply his anchor. Similarly, a cut from 50K to 40K would feel devastating, even though plenty in Africa, India, China, etc. would feel rich if they had 40K. Thinking like that doesn't seem to help.

The third sentence is inspired by recent events. Of course, the Haiti earthquake is terrible and has caused enormous human suffering, as did the tsunami a few years ago. People saw the images, read the stories, and opened their wallets both times. But there's always great suffering in the world, usually preventable, at the hands of corrupt and despotic governments that prioritize gold-fixtured mansions for the rich over basic services for the desperately poor. Why are we not moved by this, why do we not insist that our government do something? Because it's due to a government's actions rather than nature? Why is the suffering of a tsunami victim more worthy of help than one of the many Zimbabwean citizens scrounging through garbage for food? I guess, because we've gotten used to that, as we've gotten used to the 40,000 traffic deaths per year. Tsunamis and earthquakes, like airplane crashes, are exceptional and startling events. It's true, also, that due to national sovereignty, the million who died in Rwanda or the million-plus who preventably starved in North Korea are widely seen as things we can do nothing about. But even if we could...

Bill Clinton has said that the biggest regret of his presidency is that he didn't send U.S. troops to Rwanda to prevent what happened, and it's easy to see why he regrets that. But the reason he didn't do it was that it was politically dangerous; U.S. citizens wouldn't have stood for our soldiers dying to prevent Rwandan deaths. 4,000 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq, and we stood for that because Bush 43 persuaded Americans that our interests were at stake. Probably he should have gambled his second term and sent the troops anyway, but more importantly, ordinary Americans should have read articles about what was going on, realized that our troops could save many lives, and urged Clinton to send them. But hey, there's always some African war going on somewhere, and we can't get involved in all of them, right? Even as the slaughter happened, public opinion about sending troops didn't change. The Rwandans who died would have gotten a lot more sympathy and help if they'd died in a tsunami instead of being macheted to death.

I don't mean that people shouldn't send money to the Haiti relief charities. But it would be nice if we looked around the world to see what was going on all the time, not only when something big happens, and made it easier for our leaders to do the right thing when they have a chance.