Posts Tagged ‘society’

The Inverse Square Law

June 20, 2018 Leave a comment

The inverse square law is well known in physics. It states that some physical quantity becomes less strong at a rate relative to the square of the distance to the source. For example, if one planet is twice as far from the Sun as another, the gravity of the Sun won’t be half as strong, it will just be a quarter as strong, because a quarter is a half squared.

And the same applies to the light from the Sun. If one planet gets 1 unit of light, then another planet 10 times closer won’t get 10 times as much light, it will get 100 times as much, because the difference in distance is a factor of 10, and the difference in light is 10 squared, which is 100.

Basically it means that as the defining number (in this case distance) gets higher, the resulting number (gravity, light, etc) doesn’t just get lower, it gets much lower.

Of course, this blog post is not a lesson about physics, it is a rant about modern society. By the way, if any of my readers would prefer a lesson about physics please leave a comment because I know my basic physics fairly well!

Anyway, to get back to the inverse square law in relation to society. I always think of it in relation to large organisations and why they are so hopelessly inefficient.

If one person is responsible for getting a job done there is a good chance that it will happen fairly quickly and reliably. But add another and suddenly misunderstanding, miscommunications, poor relationships, and poor procedures suddenly become an issue.

Add another person and the total sources of issues increases exponentially. Imagine the two people situation (let’s call them A and B), then A could interact poorly with B or vice versa. There are just 2 sources of problems. But with 3 (A, B, and C) A could have issues with B or C, B could have them with A or C, and C could have them with A or B, additionally A could have issues with C via B, etc. The total chance of poor communication becomes high very quickly.

Now imagine an organisation where 50 or 100 people interact!

Yes, it’s not surprising that large organisations rarely work efficiently, is it?

In fact, this is far worse than an inverse square law because the number of interactions between a certain number (and therefore the potential confusion and inefficiency) is related to a factorial law, not a squared law. So a squared law would say that 10 people are 100 time as confused as one but a factorial law would say they are 3.6 million times as confused!

Of course, I’m not really saying that there is a simple mathematical law describing human behaviour in groups, I’m just saying the general principle applies in a general qualitative way instead of an exact quantitative one.

Now it’s time for an example. We haven’t heard from my friend Fred (not his real name) for a while, but just to remind you, he works in a large organisation in a similar role to me, so I sometimes identimes identify with his difficulties. Anyway, here’s the story…

A staff member needed help with a technical issue (I need to be vague here to avoid any repercussions to Fred or his employer). The staff member called the helpdesk which, after confusing the client with irrelevant questions, logged a call which went to a coordinator. That person forwarded it to someone they thought specialised in that area but that turned out to be the wrong person so they sent it back to the coordinator who then forwarded it to Fred.

Fred received the request and tried to contact the client, who was away and not answering their phone. He left a message in the system which the client didn’t notice, because the system is horrible to use and totally user-unfriendly. Fred got on with other work while he waited for a response from the client.

After about a week the client called the helpdesk again for an update and the request was sent to Fred (they got the right person this time). Again Fred could not contact the person but he left a voice-mail message, instead of using the system, which the client replied to the next day.

So Fred asked about the problem which turned out to be quite different from what was recorded in the system. Once he figured out the real problem he organised a time to visit the client. Unfortunately they didn’t have any time until the next week, but then Fred did meet the client, and figured out what needed to be done.

It turned out the client had to get her HOD to organise the required service, but because of her limited technical skills she asked for the wrong thing and the HOD sent the wrong information to the helpdesk. A request was sent to another support person who eventually figured out Fred was involved and sent it to him instead.

Fred corrected the information and re-submitted the request. When the helpdesk person received it they cancelled it because they thought it was a duplicate of the previous request which had just been corrected. So the wrong service was supplied, or at least the right service with the wrong settings.

After a while the client asked for another update from the helpdesk who gave the wrong information on how to fix it. When this didn’t work another request was sent and luckily the client mentioned Fred this time so the request ended up with him.

Fred visited the helpdesk staff in person and figured out who had made the error, which he then asked to be corrected. That went to the admins who ran that service and they assigned it to a technician who eventually got the service working properly. They noted this in the system. Unfortunately Fred was busy and missed the notification that the change was done.

So the client called for another update which went to Fred (they were getting used to who was coordinating it by now) and he organised another visit to undo all the wrong stuff which had been done after the first attempt, and to set up things correctly.

The total span of time was about a month and about 10 different people were involved. The client had to delay their work for that period because the service they needed wasn’t available. I cannot imagine what the total cost to the organisation was, but it could easily have been tens of thousands of dollars.

And do you know how long it would have taken if the client had been allowed to contact Fred directly, because he had an established working relationship with the client, and if Fred had been allowed to make the small change to settings to the system that was required? Fred estimates it would have taken about 5 minutes.

And this is the inverse square law in action: involving 10 people instead of one means it takes 100 times as long. A month is about 40,000 minutes. Fred estimated 5 minutes, so in fact it was a lot worse than the inverse square law, although I do have to admit this was an unusually dysfunctional interaction. On average, and allowing for somewhat more efficient examples, the inverse square is probably not too far off.

But if our systems are so obviously inefficient why doesn’t somebody create something better? Well first, I have to say that not every system run by a large organisation is as bad as what I have portrayed here, although they are all fairly bad. And sometimes the people involved in the day to day running these systems are not particularly skilled, or well-trained, or motivated, usually because they are not paid very well and not treated with much respect.

But the real problem in most cases is that the people who design these systems are idiots. They are the failures in life who can’t do anything except become managers. They have no ideas themselves and are not prepared to listen to those who do. Instead they just regurgitate what they see in a management magazine or what they learned in their MBA course. In other words: mediocrity and ignorance begets more mediocrity and ignorance.

Corporate processes tend to go through phases. Managers just latch on to the latest fad and blindly follow it. Eventually the pendulum might swing back to more sensible systems again, but who knows how long that might take. Until then we are all victims of the inverse square law!


No Religion, No “Religion”

June 18, 2018 Leave a comment

I think the biggest problem with people, which I find on a regular basis, is their inability to accept reality, or at least to accept that reality, at least in a social or political context, has a lot of nuance. Why would people reject reality? Why would they refuse to concede that the world isn’t as simple as they think? Why would they not want to change their mind?

Well, there is one reason which applies to a huge variety of different people with different belief systems: that is they already know what they want to believe before they look at the circumstances under discussion. They have certain “bottom lines” which are not negotiable, and these act as a block to accepting new ideas.

So let’s look at some examples…

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. That is religion. It is true that there is a wide range of views out there which all could be interpreted as being broadly religious, but they all suffer from one basic flaw: they all must believe some supernatural entity exists. After all, if there wasn’t one it would be rather pointless being religious, wouldn’t it?

So religious people have to subscribe to the most extraordinary convoluted explanations of why the world is the way it is. If they believe in some sort of indistinct, generalised god they have to say why, because when the world is just as well explained without one, they have Occam’s Razor against them.

And it all goes down hill from there. Because if they believe in a specific god then the lack of evidence becomes far more obvious. The first group (generalised god believers) can get away with a lot because they don’t really say anything, but the more claims you make the easier it is to disprove those claims.

And at the extremes fundamentalists are ridiculously easy to dismiss, because they make very specific claims which no reasonable person would take seriously. For example, the “Young Earth Creationists” can be shown to be wrong in many ways, yet they still believe. Why? Because they have no choice. The young earth is a foundational claim of their worldview, and they cannot abandon it under any circumstances.

But religious people cannot accept this, because if they did accept the weakness of their ideas they wouldn’t really be thought of as religious any more. It is just part of their religion.

As I said above, that is an obvious case. Where else does this phenomenon appear, maybe in a less obvious form?

Well, my old friends the social justice warriors, feminists, and bleeding-heart liberals also suffer from it, of course. Note that I am not making any negative claims against left-oriented people in general (since I am one myself), just the extreme cases who have taken leftist principles too far.

So what are their foundational views? Well, I would suggest the idea that all the problems which befall disadvantaged groups are the fault of the conventional, patriarchal system they claim we live in. Note that there is some validity to this claim, but suggesting that no fault rests with the “disadvantaged” groups themselves is both dangerous and just plain wrong.

Another basic view might be that the products of big corporations, high-tech, genetic modification, nuclear energy, and anything “unnatural” are all bad and must be substituted for more natural alternatives. Again, this is not totally wrong. I think it’s fair to be suspicious of the motives of big corporations for example, but we should also accept that they also perform a useful function and their contributions should be considered on a case by case basis.

But the far-left cannot accept this, because if they didn’t reject these ideas they wouldn’t really be thought of as far-left any more. It is just part of their “religion”.

So now that I have dispensed with far-left ideology, let’s look at far-right, or more accurately, libertarian philosophy. In this case the market seems to be a bit like their god. Despite numerous examples where markets fail they refuse to accept their limitations and instead “double-down” by suggesting that the free markets which fail aren’t free enough, and if we just let them act they way they really needed to everything would be fine.

A friend of mine, who was a politician in the past, made a perceptive observation on this recently. He said: markets are a good servant but a bad master. This is the same slogan used for fire safety in the past: fire is also a good servant but a bad master. Give either too much freedom and you get burned!

But libertarians cannot accept this, because if they didn’t fully support free markets they wouldn’t really be libertarians any more. It is just part of their “religion”.

At this point I really should address the criticism that everyone has principles, beliefs, or ideas they don’t want to compromise on, and that therefore everyone suffers from the blindness I described in the three examples above.

I guess this is true, to an extent. For example, the claim that foundational beliefs are a bad idea is itself a sort of belief. But I think this belongs in the same category of criticisms of atheism which claim it is just another religion. This is clearly untrue, because atheism is the rejection of religion. In the same way rejecting foundational beliefs isn’t really itself a foundational belief.

Another criticism might be that no one really thinks they have these unquestionable ideas, and they would say they believe this stuff because the evidence shows it is true. Would a similar criticism not also apply to people not in the three groups, such as myself? Well, I guess it is always hard to judge yourself, especially in a critical way, but if I have a foundational belief I would challenge anyone to tell me what it is.

Sure, I have foundational guidelines. For example, I follow the principles of skeptical thought, but I realise that doesn’t always work and I am occasionally skeptical of something which is actually true. And I take scientific discoveries very seriously, but also realise that science is often wrong too.

So there is nothing there which seems to me to be as bad as the unthinking acceptance in the three examples above. So I am an atheist when it comes to religion but also when it comes to other bad ideas too. I don’t have a religion, and I don’t have a “religion”.


June 11, 2018 Leave a comment

It has become increasingly apparent to me in recent times that the human species is having trouble getting past its evolutionary and social past from thousands of years ago where its members lived in small tribes. Back then a person from another tribe was probably an enemy, or at least a competitor, and had to be treated with suspicion.

Now we live in far bigger groups (cities or states) and globalism makes even these less relevant, but tribalism seems to be making a comeback. Sometimes it takes the form of relatively harmless clusters, such as groups of supporters of a sports team. In most cases groups of fans can support their teams but still not want to kill each other. Yeah, I know there are exceptions where they do, but considering the number of potential venues for conflict around the world each year things aren’t too bad.

But there are other areas where peaceful coexistence is far more difficult. For example, the gulf between the left and right in western politics (especially in the US and some European states) has become very exaggerated recently.

And the unthinking knee-jerk reactions I see to various issues today is deeply worrying. This happens fairly equally on the left and right, and it has what has forced me away from my previous allegiance to the left so that I am now more towards the center (although still well left of the true center).

In fact, I really don’t identify too strongly with any political group. I don’t belong to a political party; I don’t automatically vote for any particular party; I don’t belong to any group espousing a particular political, social, religious, or environmental view; and in discussion forums and debate situations I get attacked equally from the left and right.

It seems to me that I don’t agree particularly closely with any person or group, and I think this is a really healthy place to be, because I honestly think I can predict exactly the way some people will react to an issue solely based on their politcal persuasion, and I know that they will react immediately without giving the issue any real thought or doing any real research.

In fact, in a couple of recent Facebook debates I had, a couple of far-left social justice warriors quoted exactly the same inane catch-phrase. Worse still, one of them didn’t even typing the phrase in, they just linked to a pre-made quote page.

The phrase was “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

This is the sort of thing I often see when there is no real thinking going on. Instead of thinking, and treating the topic as a unique case worthy of individual consideration, it is like a simple, automatic reaction occurs. Something like: what is my tribes position on this, it is this, OK here is a standard reaction others in my tribe have used.

I’ve actually forgotten what the second subject was, but the first was whether “old white men” should stop participating in controversial debates. Any sensible person who really thinks about the subject should conclude that ruling out a group based on age, race, and sex is utterly abhorrent, but the SJWs just couldn’t see that.

But maybe the phrase is true. Maybe if you really are accustomed to privilege, then equality feels like oppression. Well sure. But do you know another thing that feels like oppression? Actual oppression!

And in this case it is clearly that, because actually telling the members of a group chosen based on age, race, and sex that they should “pipe down” is ageist, racist, and sexist all at the same time. Even I don’t usually get accused of more than one or two of those at a time by my opponents when they misuse them.

My final comment in the debate was something like “why don’t we look at the quality and validity of the comment rather than who made it” and that’s where the debate ended. Maybe the SJWs hadn’t come across that particular angle before, so they didn’t have a pre-packaged reaction. Or maybe I’m just kidding myself and they had just got bored.

The point is that I often surprise people with my reaction to certain topics. I guess I am often seen as some sort of far-right nutter by the left and a far-left nutter by the right. That means that I sometimes agree and disagree with each of their positions.

But when it comes to people who genuinely are in those far-left and far-right tribes I know exactly how they will react on a given subject before they even start. And the topic areas they have fixed views on aren’t even related in any way. For example, people on the right are almost always against trying to reduce global warming and also against abortion.

Clearly those two topics aren’t connected, so one doesn’t lead to the other. So if the two are connected it must go back to the dogmatic beliefs of the tribe.

The other worrying trend I always see with these people is the total confidence they have in their own correctness. They never have any doubts. They never change their mind, even a small amount. Why? Because clearly their beliefs are a fixed part of their identity rather than a considered opinion based on facts.

It’s almost like a religion where membership requires that certain fixed views must be maintained. And that is a quite valid comparison, because strong religious and political beliefs both involve similar levels of unthinking acceptance.

At least that’s the way I see it. But what would I know? I’m an old white man. Some people don’t even think I deserve the right to express an opinion!

A Jury of Citizens

May 28, 2018 Leave a comment

In the past I have supported the idea of direct democracy, but critics claim the idea is unworkable and would result in poor decisions because of the lack of experience and skills of the “average person”.

I often respond to this by saying that, even if the people make a bad decision at least it is a decision they can own, and they should have the freedom to make bad decisions if they want to. Additionally, many elected representatives also make bad decisions so would we be any worse off anyway?

A recent podcast I listened to was quite pertinent to this issue, I think. It described a research project involving a “citizens’ jury”. This involves a group of people, selected at random, and asked to decide on a contentious issue after hearing information from experts.

The issue on this occasion was the law on voluntary euthanasia, specifically whether there should a law change to legalise “assisted dying”. In the past similar juries were asked to consider the age at which breast screening should start, and whether identifiable medical data should be available for medicine safety research.

In the breast screening example, people were asked whether the age the screening started at should be 40 or 50. The experts supported 50, and the advocates favoured 40. You might ask why not start at the earlier age, because that would detect a few cases which might be missed otherwise, and this is exactly what the all woman jury thought initially.

But after the experts revealed some points against the younger age – such as the increased risk of false positives, and the extra cost which might be better spent elsewhere – all the women on the jury, except one, changed their mind and supported the older age.

While all this happened the government decided on a compromise of 45, but if the jury had made the decision instead the superior option of 50 would have been chosen. The age of 45 has stayed the same for many years since, and I have to wonder how many extra lives could have been saved if that 5 years worth of wasted money could have been spent on other health-prevention measures.

There are some important factors here: first, the jury was made up of individuals from the affected group (women); second, they changed their minds after hearing the expert evidence (apart from one, and there is always likely to be a few unaffected by facts); third, the decision was reached after three days, instead of months or years; and finally, they made the right decision, instead of choosing the easy option or making an unnecessary compromise.

As far as I can see from my limited knowledge the citizen jury worked far better than the government did, in this case.

The next example asked the jury to consider the issue of whether it should be legal to use identifiable medical data for research into the effectiveness and safety of medicines. At the time it was up to ethics committees to decide whether the data could be used, but they were uncomfortable with that role.

Again, there was an obvious answer which the majority believed before the exercise: that was that privacy should take priority and the data should not be made available. But after hearing the experts’ information on the subject everyone changed their mind and decided that the use of the records should be allowed.

And again, the right decision was made, because the small chance of leaked data after the safeguards were put in place, was outweighed by the huge potential public good.

The final example was the most recent one, and the one that was the main subject of the podcast. It was: is legal voluntary euthanasia OK? Clearly this is a very emotional, difficult, and controversial subject, and one where there might not be a right or wrong answer.

Of the 15 people chosen, initially most were in favour of the change to allow euthanasia, and only 1 was strongly against it. After hearing the evidence from experts this changed somewhat to 10 in favour and 5 against.

I do have to say that the reasons in this case might have been less logical than the others. For example, one person said that they rejected the law change because once euthanasia was allowable for terminally ill people who were fully informed and in sound mind, then in future it was likely this would be extended to making euthanasia available for the disabled without their full consent.

This is the classic “thin end of the wedge” or “slippery slope” fallacy, and while it isn’t impossible, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to use it as a reason to reject a carefully controlled law which would never be triggered for a disabled person.

But even in this situation the process was relatively brief, well considered, respectful, and uncompromised. In this case no one was right or wrong, so it’s impossible to say if the “right” conclusion was reached (just for the record, I strongly believe euthanasia is an option everyone should have). The more important factor is that everyone saw both sides of the story and generally had good reasons for their conclusions

So it seems to me that “normal” people can make good decisions. Maybe decisions should be made this way based on random selections of citizens who are given brief (a few days) background information on all aspects of a topic under consideration. Maybe that is the answer to the “leader problem” I often discuss (that is that leaders rarely make decisions which are genuinely good for the people they lead).

Hey, it’s worth a try!

We Need Both Sides

May 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Back in my younger days I was quite naive about politics, society, and other general philosophical narratives. I thought everything was black and white, and most importantly, that the right (conservatives, Republicans, libertarians) were wrong about everything, and possibly evil, while every aspect of the left was honorable and just, and their ideas were based on facts.

Now I have seen the light. I still score well to the left on political opinion surveys, but I disagree with significant aspects of left-wing ideology and recognise some good in ideas from the right. I think the critical point is that I don’t care what the left or the right think any more, I just prefer to form my own conclusions based on my own personal morality.

And some of the most extreme right-wing opinions actually make a certain amount of sense. The political right’s objections to the mainstream media (MSM) for example, aren’t entirely the result of paranoia and extreme bias, because there really is a bias in the MSM.

My main news sources are RNZ (previously Radio New Zealand), the New Zealand Herald, the BBC, the New York Times, and TV3 (a New Zealand commercial TV channel). All of these have a significant bias to the left, in my opinion, although you might say the Herald has more a bias to trivia and clickbait!

How do I know there is a bias? Because opinion polls, elections, referenda, and other situations, where people can express their opinions anonymously and without fear of repercussions, show that the political views I see in the MSM are not the same views held by people in general.

So superficially our society seems to be very politically correct. It supports favourable treatment for every imaginable disadvantaged group; believes in gender-neutral, racially inclusive, non-aggressive speech; thinks those who don’t succeed are victims of an unfair system; etc. But under the surface there are a lot of people who believe the complete opposite of these things.

Sure, there are right-oriented news programs as well, and they are possibly even more biased than those on the left and the so-called center, but I would like to hear a bit more from people with that perspective on news sources which are allegedly more credible.

It would be nice if there was just one presenter on RNZ, for example, who has a right bias, who would challenge the constant simple-minded political correctness which every current presenter seems to have to varying degrees. This person would not have to be “correct” or “accurate” about anything, but he/she (oh no, look what I did there) would be able to offer an alternative narrative to what we usually get.

And ironically I think this would be advantageous to the left as well as the right. When I hear the one-sided material we currently have I always feel like I’m being lied to. Well, lied to is maybe a too strong way to put it, but I feel like I am being deceived by being fed just one side of the story. If I did hear both sides, and one side still came out ahead, that would be far more compelling.

So when I hear a story on RNZ which is clearly biased to the left I don’t totally take it seriously because I know there is another side I’m not hearing. And if I did listen to more right-oriented stuff the same reaction would apply there.

John Stuart Mill famously said “The greatest orator, save one, of antiquity, has left it on record that he always studied his adversary’s case with as great, if not still greater, intensity than even his own.”

This seems to be good advice for two reasons: first, that if you have an opinion you want to defend you can do that more effectively if you understand the alternatives; and second, if your opinion doesn’t stand up well to the alternatives maybe it’s time to change it.

Either way, I think there’s no doubt about it: to have honest debates on modern societal issues, we need both sides.

Jesus Says “Me Too”

May 2, 2018 Leave a comment

As any regular readers of my blog will clearly know by now, I am no great fan of political correctness. I do need to emphasise that the phenomenon of PC is often linked to genuine issues which we all should be dedicated to resolving, but it is the mechanism of political correctness: the concept creep, the unquestioning adherence, the simplistic generalisations, and the tribalism, which is the problem.

So often giving a social issue the old PC treatment just reduces it to a farce, and while the people who love PC for its own sake (such as our old friends, the social justice warriors) thrive on it, they really just become an increasing isolated minority group making more and more noise about something no one else really cares that much about.

And so we have the “Me Too” movement. Undoubtedly there are times when women (and some men) have been treated badly, and this might occasionally extend to illegal sexual abuse and rape, but the Me Too movement encourages everyone to jump on the bandwagon and trivialises the whole thing.

As I said, I am sure there are genuine cases where people have been real victims, but I am equally sure there are many cases where people have seen this as simply a way to gain some fleeting fame, to feel the inclusivity of being part of a group they perceive as being persecuted, or just to simply jump on board the latest PC sideshow and virtue signal to their friends within the same sad echo chamber they exist in.

So when I hear someone proclaiming “Me Too” I wonder whether what they are really saying is “yes, let me be part of the latest trendy leftist fad too”. Let me say again, before I am criticised as a misogynist, or a privileged white male, or whatever else the latest trendy insult is, I fully accept there are real issues here, and the original purpose of Me Too might have been quite genuine, but it doesn’t seem that way any more.

To demonstrate how truly ridiculous this has become, I just heard that a theologian has claimed that Jesus was also subject to sexual abuse, and therefore deserves to be part of Me Too. This really does seem like an extreme case of everyone wanting to get on the old PC bandwagon. Actually, when I say “everyone” I really mean just those who subscribe to the victim mentality the politically correct left love to inflict on society as a whole.

So here’s the argument: in Mark 15 16-24 the crucifixion of Jesus is described. Here’s what it says, according to the NIV (which uses plain English and best suits the style of this blog). If you prefer other versions of the Bible feel free to look up parallel translations. You might also be interested to read the other gospel writers slightly contradictory accounts…

16 The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers.
17 They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him.
18 And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!”
19 Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him.
20 And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
21 A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.
22 They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”).
23 Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.
24 And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

Apparently this describes a case of sexual abuse, where Jesus was stripped three times. Your interpretation of the text may vary. But so what? Clearly this actually describes a hideous torture that no one should have been subjected to, yet many people were. Some imagined connection to Me Too just seems so obviously self-serving that I find it quite insulting, even as a non-Christian.

Christianity has a history of invoking a sentiment of persecution which has been used as an element of bonding for its members. If you are a Christian and you know you are being repressed by another group it tightens the bonds within the group and makes it stronger. If the originator or your religion was persecuted then the effect is even stronger.

Now it might make sense for a modern Christian theologian to reinforce that feeling of repression by latching on to its modern equivalent: the Me Too movement. Yeah, that’s a nice try, but I doubt whether there will be many takers on that one. After all, Christianity is the most dominant religion in the world, so just like all the other dominant groups (whites, males, Americans) it cannot be allowed into the exclusive club of the downtrodden.

What a world we live in. A serious academic thinks Jesus was the victim of sexual abuse. But wait, since Jesus was from the Middle East, maybe his skin tone was quite a bit darker than most portrayals show. I think I see an opportunity here: hey Romans, don’t kill Jesus: Black Lives Matter!

Goddamn Sucks!

April 29, 2018 Leave a comment

There are many conspiracy theories which attempt to explain the behaviour of big corporations. Some particular favourite victims of these theories are pharmaceutical companies and chemical companies, especially Monsanto.

But how true are these theories? Do big corporations really indulge in all the dirty tricks we hear about? Do they encourage the use of their products even though better ones exist? Do they use the legal system to lock people into using their products? Do they market products even though they know they are dangerous or ineffective? Do they use genetic engineering and other technology to force the use of their products? Do they gain patents on technology they have no real right to, then ramp up the prices after creating a monopoly?

Well, yes. I’m absolutely sure all of these things, and probably many others I haven’t even been devious enough to think of, happen quite often.

So does this mean we should stop using products made by these corporations? Or should the governments of the countries they are based in (mainly the US and Europe) use legislation to control them? Or should they just be shut-down completely?

Well, no. I am no defender of the current economic system, but until we come up with something better we should accept the bad with the good. Because there are many good products which have been created by corporations. For example, despite the plethora of bad publicity, Roundup is actually a really effective, and relatively safe product. Is Monsanto a well behaved and moral company? Hell, no! It is most likely guilty of most of the “crimes” I listed above.

But Roundup (and other glyphosate-based herbicides which have appeared since the patent expired in 2000) are useful products. Many of the claims against it: that it causes cancer, that crops genetically modified to resist glyphosate have a terminator gene to prevent farmers re-sowing them, etc, are not supported by good evidence. So Monsanto might be “evil”, but not as evil as that!

What about pharmaceutical companies? Well, many people prefer to take “natural” remedies instead of synthesised medicines because they are natural and therefore safer, and because they provide a way to escape the influence of the big corporations who manufacture the conventional drugs.

Except they are failing on both counts. Here are the facts: first, the vast majority of natural remedies don’t work, or at least there is little or no evidence to show that they do work; second, many natural remedies can have serious detrimental effects if they aren’t used carefully; third, many natural remedies either don’t contain the active ingredients they say the do, or they are in much different concentrations, or they contain potentially dangerous contaminants; finally, most of the natural supplements and remedies are made by big corporations, usually the same ones who make the conventional drugs!

So it makes a lot more sense to just accept the negative aspects of the pharmaceutical industry and make use of the fact that they produce many useful products which have been carefully tested and contain exactly what they say they do, in the concentrations they state, unlike many of the natural alternatives.

Despite what I have said so far, I do think large corporations need to be controlled far more than they are now. The free market does not provide good incentives for corporations to develop the drugs the world really needs, nor does it encourage fair pricing and good competitive behaviour.

Drug companies spend a lot of money on frivolous products which are not really necessary but can be sold for good profits, while ignoring important research on new antibiotics, for example.

How do I know this sort of behaviour exists? Well, recently investment and banking company Goldman Sachs produced a report of their clients in the biotech industry. One of the questions they asked was: “is curing patients a sustainable business model?”

Basically they were noting that a drug which cures a disease permanently does not result in a recurring revenue stream for the company from that product. Drugs which treat but don’t cure diseases, and might need to be taken for the rest of the patient’s life, are far more profitable.

Specifically they noted that a new hepatitis C cure will make less than $4 billion this year. They also noted that new gene therapies – which many people might think are an exciting new development – might lead to curing patients, but is this a sustainable business model? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be “no”.

Would a normal, profit-based company work to develop new cures where they could make far more from treatments, or even supplements which do nothing and are subject to very little scrutiny of quality and efficacy? That seems unlikely.

Journalists have contacted Goldman Sachs for comment, but while they confirmed the content of the report, they declined to comment.

So it seems that the “evil” corporations really exist. It also seems that taking “natural” supplements instead of conventional medicines is probably the worst thing you could do if you want to thwart their evil ambitions. So what should we do instead?

Well, there’s not an awful lot you can do really, because our whole society is built around capitalism, and capitalism specifically rewards this “evil” behaviour. Capitalism is all about maximising profit at any cost. How often do we hear the platitude “that’s just business” after a person or company has done something of a highly doubtful moral standard?

But within the system – which many people say is the best of all possible systems – this isn’t actually bad at all, which is why I always put the word “evil” in quotes. If capitalism leads to the greatest efficiency, the greatest reward for hard work, and the greatest prosperity for the majority, then any perceived evil is invalid. Of course, it has become increasingly clear that the trickle-down theory doesn’t work, and that capitalism has many flaws, but whether any other system is better is open to debate.

My usual recommendation at this point is to keep capitalism but control it carefully, and that conclusion hasn’t changed. I think the word “evil” can genuinely be applied to many aspects of capitalism, and that tendency must be carefully controlled. In particular we need to understand that the free market will never provide for the most important needs of society. For that we need people motivated by something other than greed. Universities do that quite well, but we need to be careful not to apply the same “evil” incentives to them.

What we can do is try to change the zeitgeist. It should *not* be OK to have greed as your primary focus. Greed is *not* good. If you want to change society then change as many people’s opinion on this topic as you can. Show them that capitalism is evil, but try to keep it real.

The alternative is not communism or some happy but impossible utopia – it is, at least as a first step, capitalism with its worst excesses – those espoused by companies like Goldman Sachs – eliminated. In fact, let’s eradicate companies like Goldman Sachs who are responsible for the evil side of capitalism. They should have no place in any decent society.

Goldman Sachs? Should be Goddamn Sucks!