I happened to come across this NYTimes article by a Harvard Economist.
First, it’s a Harvard economist, okay, so a high status individual. His opinions matter, and that’s why they are in the New York Times. Feel free to interpret the previous sentences as sarcastic, you might even want to roll your eyes right…about…now. GO!
Ok, now that we have satisfied our coy and self-serving cynicism, or at least now that I have my narcissist projections on you out of the way. Let’s get idealistic and moralizing.
I recently attended an event honouring Romeo Dallaire. For the Americans who read this, Dallaire was a lieutenant-general (pronounced leff-tenant general) in the Canadian military. He is most well known for his role with the U.N. during the Rwandan genocide in which I am not well versed, but I understand he was handicapped by inadequate will on the part of the U.N. to effectively prevent genocide. I am not one to assign the designation of hero very lightly, but I feel as public figures go, there are few people who I hold in as high esteem as Dallaire.
The event itself was a shock to me. I am more than accustomed to any public speaking event to be largely empty rhetoric. However, this particular event was an incredibly emotional experience. Dallaire himself appeared to be on the verge of tears at many points, as he led the crowd through issues of mental health; women’s rights; the use of child soldiers; and the lack of leadership in contemporary politics.
On that note, young people really don’t want to be politicians.
What struck me the whole time was that this man is incredibly idealistic, and to his credit, he has managed to make some progress, as he has dedicated his life to fighting the phenomenon of children in warfare. This post is not about child soldiers, but I will add this: it’s modern slavery, “there is no ‘volunteer’ child soldiers,” to paraphrase Dallaire.
Other memorable quotes from the evening:
We don’t tolerate nuclear proliferation, we don’t tolerate the use of chemical weapons systems, but we are allowing the use of child weapon systems
We cannot consider ourselves a civilized society while we sit by and do nothing to prevent this [recruitment of child soldier]
and when asked about how he finds strength
I have attempted suicide four times, and I take nine pills a day to function with the injury I sustained over there
All quotes are paraphrased, I don’t know the exact wording.
I did a quick head count estimation, there were maybe a hundred or so people at the event. Meanwhile millions in the city were watching a bunch of guys with sticks give it 110% on the ice…
In conversations with people who were not aware of the event, the reactions were mixed. Some people were highly interested in what Dallaire had to say, others were happy to change the subject away from the troubles of the world as soon as possible.
Another paraphrased quote from Dallaire
There is no better time to serve in uniform than right now, there is important work to be done
This is true if you are in Canada, maybe, our country is not a super-power, and the role of our military is vastly different than that of the US military in global affairs. We don’t do heavy lifting in global security, but we have tactical purpose and flexibility to serve more humanitarian missions, a role that Canada has largely neglected, to my understanding.
I opened with a piece on rent seekers. And my last couple posts have been about engagement and people seeking status. All of this is connected.
I finished the book The Meaning of Human Existence in which some points can be summarized here:
Competing is intense among humans, and within a group, selfish individuals always win. But in contests between groups, groups of altruists always beat groups of selfish individuals.
We are all genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners, champions of the truth and hypocrites — not because humanity has failed to reach some foreordained religious or ideological ideal, but because of the way our species originated across millions of years of biological evolution.
I couldn’t find the exact quote for my last take-away in that reading, but it is alluded to in the second quote here. Humans have the programming to be both selfish and altruistic, and both functions are of use. Take one away, and you no longer have human beings.
The problem I have been thinking about is how our culture champions one trait: self-interest.
Here is what I just think, without any science. Human biology has not kept up, emotionally, with societies the size of those we have today. I consider theories like the Dubar’s rule , which states we can have about 150 personal relationships before our brains fart too much. We are good at tribes. We are not good at nations.
It’s believable that a set of laws that gets the human individualism aspect of our nature mostly right (think human rights) is useful for our societies to scale up.
What we don’t have figured out is how to use our emotional brains to give a shit about people that we do not know. Especially when we have information overload, and especially when we have to be wary of people abusing our emotional ties to things in order to advance further.
Which brings us finally to rent-seeking. Call it status seeking. It’s the same thing, just change the way you measure the currency from money to status. Status markets are unobservable, that is all, but who knows, that’s changing. What is a facebook like, really?
The article at the beginning basically asks: what happens to society when all of our brightest minds enter rent-seeking careers? The author points out that it is hard to know/judge externally what jobs are purely rent seeking, as it gets obfuscated by the fact that division of labour allows us to serve others best by doing what we do best, thus creating more value in society.
Mullianathan makes some good points about certain finance roles…people get massively wealthy by just having computers access information milliseconds faster than other computers…there is no value-added to society in these trades, they serve just to transfer wealth to people who invest in faster computers. They are probably rent-seeking.
Now I take all of this in. For Mr.Dallaire I hold great respect, but I just don’t have the hope in people that he has. I don’t know how to get people to even consider their role, or their responsibility in society. The vast majority of people I know may care about the problems of the world, but they don’t care enough to lose status points, or more appropriately put, they wont forego status points to advance a society as a whole.
Because it was entirely rational for status-seeking people to watch a hockey game rather than go to listen to somebody talk about how much we fail as a society. There is an emotional cost to learning about tragedy. There is an emotional benefit to being entertained by the hockey players. There is status to be gained in this city by supporting a hockey team. To go around telling people that they are part of a large system that has the power to prevent slavery, but is too preoccupied with feeling good about a sporting event is not a way to achieve anything but making people feel bad.
There used to be public figures…there even used to be Calvin and Hobbes comics, in which there were father figures telling us to do stuff we do not like to do because it builds character: Kennedy said we do not do bla bla because it is easy, but because it is hard. I feel, and the second paragraph I have is about us rolling our eyes at these grandiose sentiments. Many of those old examples of father figures were creepy, Orwellian politicians…old Ronald Reagan speeches are a good example. So now we garbage anyones’ attempts along these lines.
Which again, is why Dallaire is so compelling. There is nothing to be cynical about with the man. He lives his message. Now, it’s a no brainer that we should be against slavery. What about rent-seeking? You are guilty of this, so is everyone else, not myself of course, but you are. It’s not at all clear.
What can you do about it? I don’t know, maybe go make yourself uncomfortable trying to figure that out. I’ll tell you this much, every time you opt to not think about this stuff, and to ‘escape’, you are failing to do anything meaningful with your life. Not as a condemnation, but more as a fact. The good thing is that nobody will hold you accountable.
Which brings us back to the rule of 150, or Dunbar’s number. The reason nobody holds anyone accountable is that we don’t have that part of society figured out. We don’t have good institutions. The government has been broken by rent-seeking behaviour, our social prowess is dominated by status-seeking, within-group competition, which is likely just human nature. Our brightest minds are given the highest status when they use their talent to skim the wealth off of the top for themselves. The most popular stories we tell each-other are all about super powered individuals solving the problems for us. So hey, someone needs to be incredibly powerful to do anything, I can’t do anything.
So can we advance beyond our own nature? Probably only if somebody figures out how to make Mr.Dallaire as popular as Kanye West. And status-seeking or rent-seeking is steered towards public good creation…because otherwise too few people will see that they are guilty, that they are responsible, for allowing something as easy to intuit as slavery to exist today.
I choose to use shame. I know that it is out of favour, and I know you catch more flies with honey. Fuck it, this one is a big failure, we need to feel shitty sometimes, and right now, you should feel really shitty. Life isn’t about avoiding this stuff.
(you have to scroll down a bit to read the article because some shit a CBS doesn’t think a link to this story should be without the current trending news at the top…some shit about tornadoes)
You have google, maybe look up how to give money or something.