November 26, 2011

Governments and Disappointment

Governments and Disappointment

An African chief stated that there are only two problems in Africa – rats and governments. The chief’s obvious disappointment with governments is shared by people all over the world. There are different kinds of governments based on different assumptions.

A reasonable argument is that humans prefer autocratic leadership in the form of kings and queens or charismatic leaders with a military background. Humans have an impressive tendency to form hierarchies with groups, large and small. This is a tendency derived from an instinctual social order that relies on groups organizing around leaders, alpha animals, who by ability or inherited status can control others. In small groups, leaders are more visible and more accountable to other members of the group. Small group leaders must court favor on a daily basis or rely on intimidation of critics and competitors. As groups enlarge, leaders are less visible and less accountable and hierarchies become better defined and more fiercely defended. Dictatorship is the oldest and most prevalent form of government. The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy index 2010 reported on 55 authoritarian regimes in the world. They suggested that democracies were in decline.

The hope, of course, is that the autocratic leader is benevolent and shares the wealth with his or her devoted subjects. Hopeful citizens are usually disappointed. History tells us that wealthy aristocrats who fail to share the wealth can be deposed and killed by rivals or revolutionaries. Governments in Africa are often corrupt and belligerent. They sometimes organize mass killings to remove groups that are no longer wanted or needed. Any opposition is rewarded by imprisonment or death. The aberrations of African countries are consistent with human history and mirror the worst conduct prevalent in Europe over many centuries. Recent events in Arab countries are further repetitions of age-old struggles with ruthless elites using force to suppress dissent.

The invention of more or less stable civil service organizations is the real basis of government and the key to social stability. In democracies, politicians are elected to pass laws and may act as temporary executive officers of government institutions. They are seldom qualified for the responsibilities they assume. In the best case, government institutions are staffed by well-educated, well-informed experts who advise and guide elected administrators, accept some of their ideological biases without compromising the conduct of the institution's business.  Seldom is the best case achieved and instead, in many countries, citizens discover that they are victims of the worst case mismanagement of institutions – often a product of political meddling and nepotism. You could argue that the real result of elections is guaranteed incompetence of elected lawmakers.
Democracy Flaws

Democracy and freedom are not necessarily linked. An alert, well-informed citizenry and a politically independent judiciary are essential to the preservation of some personal freedom. A civil society develops multiple overlapping levels of dispute resolution with the right to appeal bad decisions that are common and inevitable when local tribunals decide who is privileged and who is not. A champion of civil rights is often in the uncomfortable predicament of defending the rights of humans he or she disagrees with, dislikes and even fears.
All governments are inefficient and are prone to corruption. In every large institution, there is a tendency to fascism, the dictatorial rule of an elite group who believe only they know what is right and true. A fascist displays innate tendencies, modified by learning, but devoid of compassion. A fascist promotes arguments and dissension, developing the idea that only some citizens have rights and privileges and others become outsiders who must be constrained, imprisoned, deported or eliminated.  A fascist leader is a dictator. The idealistic notion that governments only exist to serve the needs of the people turns out to be a denial of human nature. Attempts within governments to regulate themselves appear in the most affluent nations where the people are well educated and well informed. Well qualified citizens often demand better performance from their elected officials and their media often broadcast news of wrong-doing. An elected official representing well qualified citizens has a vested interest in protecting his or her reputation by behaving correctly and following ethical rules.  This peer pressure dynamic is essential for small group regulation and may work to some degree in larger groups because of the increased ability of private citizens to broadcast disapproval.

Elections are often thought to be the essence of democracy, but as human groups grow larger and social organization more complex, the ideal of citizen controlled government becomes impossible.  The Economist Intelligence Unit assessed the kind and quality of governments in 167 countries during 2008. Only 30 countries had full democracies, representing 14.4% of the world population.



 % countries

 % population

Full democracies




Flawed democracies




Hybrid regimes








Five European countries Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands and Denmark had the highest ratings for fully functional democracies. Canada was eleventh and the US 18th on the list. North Korea had the lowest ratings as a dysfunctional authoritarian regime.[i]

By the end of 2010, full democracies decreased to 26 (12.3% of world population) and flawed democracies increased to 53 (37.2%). The democracy score was lower in 2010 than in 2008 in 91 countries out of the 167 they surveyed. They attribute the decline to economic distress in the afflicted countries.  [ii]

The Economist democracy report of 2008 stated: “Flawed democracies are concentrated in Latin America and Eastern Europe, and to a lesser extent in Asia. Despite progress in Latin American democratization in recent decades, many countries in the region remain fragile democracies. Levels of political participation are generally very low and democratic cultures are weak. There has also been significant backsliding in recent years in some areas such as media freedoms. Much of Eastern Europe illustrates the difference between formal and substantive democracy. The new EU members from the region have pretty much equal levels of political freedoms and civil liberties as the old developed EU, but lag significantly in political participation and political culture—a reflection of widespread anomie and weaknesses of democratic development. Only two countries from the region—the Czech Republic and Slovenia (just)—are in the full democracy category. Hybrid and authoritarian regimes dominate heavily in the countries of the former Soviet Union, as the momentum towards "color revolutions" has petered out.”

The Economist's 2010 report stated that:" The dominant pattern in all regions over the past two years has been backsliding on previously attained progress in democratization. The global financial crisis that started in 2008 accentuated existing negative trends in political development."

Kershaw recalled Hitler’s rise to power, exploiting democracy to create a demonic dictatorship. Other countries continue on a fascist course in the 21st century. Kershaw asked: “Could something like it happen again? That is the first question that comes to mind when recalling that Hitler was given power in democratic Germany 75 years ago. With the world now facing such great tensions and instability, the question seems more obvious than ever. Hitler came to power in a democracy with a liberal Constitution, and used democratic freedoms to undermine and then destroy democracy itself. That democracy, established in 1919, was a product of defeat in a world war and revolution and was never accepted by most of the German elites, notably the military, large landholders and big industry.  The Nazis’ spectacular surge in popular support reflected anger, frustration and resentment that Hitler was able to exploit among millions of Germans. Democracy had failed them, they felt. Their country was divided, impoverished and humiliated. Scapegoats were needed. It was easy to turn hatred against Jews, who could be made to represent the imagined external threat to Germany by both international capitalism and Bolshevism. Internally, Jews were associated with the political left which was held responsible by Hitler and his followers for Germany’s plight. These distant events still have echoes today. In Europe, in the wake of increased immigration, most countries have experienced some revival of neo-fascist, racist movements. Skillful politicians around the globe have proved adept at manipulating populist sentiment and using democratic structures to erect forms of personalized, authoritarian rule.” [iii]

From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

[i] Democracy report 2008 Economist Intelligence Unit
[ii] Economist Intelligence Unit’s  Webinar.  Democracy In Retreat: The EIU's Democracy Index 2010 . December 15, 2010  Online.
[iii] Ian Kershaw. How Democracy Produced a Monster. NYT February 3, 2008

November 24, 2011


When all the arguments about human needs and tendencies subside, one simple idea always works. Humans want to be well fed and safe. Happiness begins with shelter, healthy air, adequate food, and clean water available in a secure environment. To remain happy, each person must be accepted by a social group that provides access to resources, employment and human rights. Do humans understand how to become happy? Yes and no. Humans have restless minds and generate dissatisfactions at a greater rate than they generate contentment. The restless, nomadic human is driven every day to emerge even from a stable, comfortable home to satisfy these relentless urges and drives.

Happiness may be equated with affluence but there are problems with affluence. I occasionally visit people who are rich and live in big houses. You can tour someone's elegant mansion and admire his or her couches, paintings, lavish bathrooms, wardrobes and swimming pool. While I live simply, I do have an appreciation for domestic comforts, interior d├ęcor, art and finely crafted art and artifacts, I know that being rich does not increase mind space nor does it decrease the constantly regenerating drives that sustain a state of dissatisfaction in all humans. A rich man with a big house may find that he is most comfortable sitting in his smallish study, in an old leather chair that is a little beaten up but fits his body after many years of daily contact. He might spend his leisure time watching videos, especially old movies that he has collected. The other 10,000 square feet of his mansion sits idle, except when he has parties but he does not enjoy those much anymore; he is tired of the ingratiating behavior of relative strangers, their idle chatter and malicious gossip. This is not to argue that having money and property will always make you miserable, as some poor people like to think.

One problem of affluence is that humans repeat behaviors that were once gratifying and successful. It makes sense to repeat drinking a glass of water when thirst recurs, since water flows through us and must be replaced continuously. If you add alcohol to the water, having the second and third drink turns a pleasurable experience into to pathological experience: a nice person may become a monster; a healthy person becomes mentally and physically ill. The absurd consequences of typical human behavior have been broadcast by centuries of literature and self-help advice.

As soon as an object becomes “mine”, its value increases. An object possessed becomes an object that possesses the owner. If you enjoy buying objects and taking them home, the numbers of objects increase over time and you have to buy a bigger home. If buying one pair of shoes made you happy, you go back for a second and a third pair. If one car makes you feel good, buy two or three. This tendency to repeat acquisitive behaviors is built into marketing strategy- merchants offer "two for the price of one" or "buy one at the regular price and get one free."

Some individuals rationalize their compulsive acquisitive behaviors and refer to themselves as collectors. They promote interest in their collections and inflate the value of their objects. Others simply fill the space available to them with inexpensive junk and then rent storage to handle the overflow. Others fill small living spaces with newspapers and magazines until their dwellings resemble the underground burrows of acquisitive rodents. We know from common observation and formal study that acquisitive behavior is an old animal pattern that is built into our innate tendencies and is not going away. Some individuals thoughtfully regulate their consuming habits, having understood and learned to control their innate tendencies to hoard and consume more. The best advice for humans is "do more with less."

Philosophers have noticed the human tendency to desire anything and everything. As soon as you have satisfied one need, another arises. They have recommended less material preoccupations and a more contemplative life. In contrast to constant preoccupation with devouring the world out there, a contemplative human needs spaciousness and contentment rather than consumption. You need a few hours to relax at home and say (with a sigh of relief) I have, at least briefly, everything I need.

One of the Buddha's insights is stated simply: "The cause of all suffering is desire." He would suggest that the route to happiness is to decrease expectations and needs and not to consume more of everything. Appreciating one flower, one friend, or one precious artifact is more gratifying than trying to have a hundred of each. Money does not buy happiness, but, if spent wisely; more money can achieve comfort, and relative security in healthier more pleasant environments. In the best case, more money gives you more options and more freedom denied to less privileged people, including the philanthropic option, helping others by donating money to worthy causes.

From Human Nature by Stephen Gislason. The book a 21st century description of anthropology, sociology, psychology and neuroscience - disciplines that need to be integrated as they are in this book. The topics are essential to understanding human nature, its origins and its problems.

November 21, 2011

Error and Limitations

Human cognition is inherently fuzzy. Human performance is also fuzzy and mistakes are common if not inevitable, even with advanced skills and years of experience. It makes sense that there should be some slack in the evaluation of human performance and conduct. One of the common themes of storytelling is the incompetence of others and humans take pleasure in recounting the errors that others make.

An industry of litigation has emerged around human error and the pretense is that there are perfect humans who make no serious errors. The legal case for damages is built on the assumption of a standard of care and due diligence that exceeds the standards achieved in actual performance. If a surgeon amputates the wrong leg, a lawsuit against him is likely to succeed.

But surgeons, like all other humans, make mistakes everyday – they forget to do things; they jump to conclusions when there is too little evidence and fail to make decisions when there is enough evidence; they misinform patients; they write undecipherable notes; they get tired, irritable and impatient. The problems that physicians and surgeons face are universal human problems. They face a constant barrage of events that are complex and uncertain. Their tools and understanding are limited and their own needs are often neglected so that their performance is compromised. On the plus side, you can argue that, given their limitations, medical doctors do well most of the time, creating some order out of random and chaotic events. However, not all doctors do well all the time.

When humans make mistakes, they often claim: “I am only human.” Of course, that is a redundant statement since we already know that they are human, but the statement does suggest that someone, somehow expected them to perform at a superhuman level. The protest “I am only human” refers us to the principle that all humans have imperfect performance but judge others more harshly than they judge themselves. The indignant storyteller assumes the disguise of the perfect one who knows no error or sin.

A complex fantasy of superhuman performance emerges in every culture that supports the delusion that humans do better than they actually do. This is a collective self-deception on a grand scale. Leaders and aristocrats with various pedigrees are often given unearned prestige and superhuman abilities may be attributed to them. All humans, regardless of status, share basic tendencies and limitations. Inflated attribution will lead to disappointment sooner or later.

Self-deceiving and unrealistically high standards for others have a social value and appear in every human group. Claiming a high standard makes it easy to shame, blame and discredit others who make mistakes. High standards are used to motivate group members to work harder, compete and achieve more. In the best case, high standards operate as attractors that align individuals with learning experiences that can improve performance.

Another function of high standards is to support claims of elite groups that they possess special qualities that others cannot attain or can only attain by seeking membership in the elite group. Humans can be described as animals with material ambitions and moral aspirations whose performance inevitably fails to meet their own expectations, but they ignore their own limitations and deny their own errors. A more realistic view is that even the smartest, nicest humans have distinct limitations, will routinely make mistakes, and occasionally, one of their mistakes will have major and tragic consequences.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the US is a prototype of interacting groups of smart people who sometimes cannot get it right. In NASA, the smartest scientists and engineers collaborate on making space flights and other projects. NASA is also a showcase for US technology and has a major public relations responsibility. NASA failures are highly visible tragedies that are well-studied. When the regular orbital flights of NASA’s shuttle began, managers estimated the risk of failure to be 1 flight in 100,000. After the explosion of the shuttle, Challenger, in January 1986, Feynman declared that NASA exaggerated the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy. In 1988 when flights resumed, the revised estimated risk of catastrophic failure at 1 flight in 50.

After a decade of successful flights the estimate of risk was improved to 1 in 254 flights. The shuttle, Columbia, disintegrated on re-entry in 2003, and the risk estimate became 1 in 100. A piece of insulating foam fell off the fuel tank 82 seconds after liftoff and struck one wing edge with sufficient force to punch a hole in the wing. On re-entry, hot gases entered the wing causing progressive damage and the eventual disintegration of the shuttle. All astronauts perished. NASA teams worked for two years and spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to fix the foam problem. When the next shuttle took off in July 2005, again pieces of insulating foam broke off the fuel tank two minutes after launch but drifted away in the thin atmosphere. The shuttle completed its mission, but NASA, displaying appropriate caution and concern, announced that further flights would be suspended until the problem had really been fixed.

The actual risk of catastrophic failure of the shuttle as of 2005 was 2 flights in 113 or 1 in 56.5 flights. In his report on cognitive problems at NASA after the Challenger disaster, Feynman stated:” It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask: “What is the cause of management's fantastic faith in the machinery?” We have also found that certification criteria used in Flight Readiness Reviews often develop a gradually decreasing strictness. The argument that the same risk was flown before without failure is often accepted as an argument for the safety of accepting it again. Because of this, obvious weaknesses are accepted again and again, sometimes without a sufficiently serious attempt to remedy them, or to delay a flight because of their continued presence. “ Feynman concluded that a successful technology requires that reality takes precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

From Intelligence by Stephen Gislason.