Then and now

overpopulationMy parents had it good. Actually they have it good. They have it much better than I have it now compared to when they were my age. I know, most of the older folks would disagree with me, but stick with my argument. How many people were living on planet earth when my dad was 21? Any guesses? Well, less than 4 billion. When I was 21? More than 6 billion. In the ‘70’s not many people traveled, today moving across country boundaries for a job is not a big issue anymore.

So what does the world population have to do with my parent’s work ethic and hard work over many decades? We need to take a broader sociological approach before you will understand what I’m saying.  Then we can see the bigger pattern, or the forest for the trees.  In our own, personal situation it might feel that our success is due to our own ingenuity and hard work.  We see the phenomenon on a daily basis.  If I fail this math test, it is not because I did not study, it is because the teacher set the test too difficult.  On the other hand, if I passed the test, it is obviously due to my superior intellect and hard work.  If Johnny throws a packet out his car window I immediately ascribe his fundamental nature to the act.  I believe that Johnny is a filthy polluter who doesn’t care about the environment.  What I do not do is to consider any other motives Johnny might have had.  He might have discovered a snake in the packet and rid himself of the danger as soon as possible.  But when we find ourselves in a similar situation we can obviously justify our behaviour.   We call this the fundamental attribution error in social psychology.  It is a tendency for people to overestimate their own personal dispositions and underestimate the effect of the situation in explaining the end result.  Also see the actor-observer bias.  So how does this explain my parent’s hard work and my apparent laziness?  Our parents (baby boomers) do not think it is the situation they were in (global economic / population postwar factors) which contributed to their wealth, they believe it is due to their hard work and diligence.  Sure they probably did work hard, but if the system is working with you, it is much easier for many more people to reach those lofty goals. Unfortunately with the system working against you, your chances, statistically, are much slimmer.  Well, quite a lot. We live in a globalised world today where all these new people compete with me for resources. In my parent’s day they competed with fewer people, and less globalisation. A masters degree among my parent’s peers were nearly unheard of. If you had a degree, you had it made in life. Some of my uncles only had a grade 10 education, and they are financially well off today.

Today, when applying for the position of ‘bus boy’ in a restaurant, they actually want you to have experience – really? It makes sense when you are competing with 100’s of others who have been doing the job in a volatile economy. Want to be a new bus boy, well, bad luck. Today it is hard for someone in the social sciences field, after 5 degrees, to find work in their field because they have to compete with thousands more people who all have PhD’s. How do you pay to get to that level? Well, you have to compete with generational wealth. Many of generation X’s competitors might still live with their parents, or in accommodation owned by their family, their studies are easily subsidised because their overhead costs are close to zero, they have another generation supporting them until they eventually reach the top of their game, which is much higher than where the top was for their parents.

Having just moved to Melbourne I’ve noticed something intriguing. The invasion of the Chinese (and the rest of Asia as well) into Australia. When apartment hunting you compete with a rich Chinese mother renting an apartment for her son who will probably end up finishing his PhD in a few years. This Chinese mother just waits for all offers to be made, and then says she will double whatever the highest offer was. Who can compete against that? In Melbourne, 25 years ago, middle class people who owned a house could easily and safely borrow against that house and buy a second investment property, which many did. Today they own the rental market. Their children become property barons, and today no middle class person can afford to buy, unless you shackle yourself to a life long, overpriced, interest volatile mortgage. The people who survive easiest are the ones who have extensive family support and family wealth (or dubious means and connections). There is property handed down by generations, established businesses handed over to the children, and these family structures thrive. Unfortunately many people don’t like operating in this way, and their children have no choice.

It sounds like I am complaining. No. I’m observing. I think there are two things which I would wish for. Firstly, I wish that as a planet we could become more responsible. We will not be able to sustain the current world population indefinitely. The earth’s resources are running out, and we are increasing in number. How we solve this problem is beyond me, but if we don’t solve it, it will probably solve itself in a way that most of us will not like. Secondly, I hope that if I ever have a child, that I would be able to sustain them past the point where I was supported, because they will live in a very different world to the one I found my feet in.

Cognitive Dissonance

potter__s_chaos_legion_by_dinosaurusgede-d2xlq9vI’m currently reading a fan-fiction called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (awesome by the way), and I found this gem 41% in.  It’s a conversation between Harry and Dumbledore about death. Dumbledore is saying that he is OK with dying, and Harry is arguing that it is crazy to say that you are OK with it.

See there is a little thing called cognitive dissonance, or in plainer English, sour grapes.  If people were hit on the heads with truncheons once a month, and no one could do anything about it, pretty soon there’d be all sorts of philosophers, pretending to be wise, who found all sorts of amazing benefits to being hit on the head with a truncheon once a month.  Like, it makes you tougher, or it makes you happier on the days when you’re not getting hit with a truncheon.  But if you went up to someone who wasn’t getting hit, and you asked them if they wanted to start, in exchange for those amazing benefits, they’d say no.  And if you didn’t have to die, if you came from somewhere that no one had ever heard of death, and I suggested to you that it would be an amazing wonderful great idea for people to get wrinkles and old and eventually cease to exist, why, you’d have me hauled right off to a lunatic asylum!  So why would anyone possibly think any thought so silly as that death is a good thing?  Because you’re afraid of it, because you don’t really want to die, and that thought hurts so much inside you that you have to rationalize it away, do something to numb the pain, so you won’t have to think about it -“

This is a very poignant explanation for cognitive dissonance in my view.  Can you try to apply the truncheon logic to more situations in your life?  I can think of a few.  I might explore them some more.

On early retirement

early-retirementI wanted to call this post “on living well”, but that would cast the philosophical net a bit too wide.  What is the one thing you would say you need to live well?  Money, food, a house, family?  Yes, we might need all those things, but the one thing that would make all the difference for me is self-sufficiency.  When I say self-sufficiency I do not mean cutting myself off from civilization and starting a hippy co-op where I grow my own food (although the idea is not too distasteful), but rather being able to choose what I do with my time without the need to worry about money, food, a house etc.

Ooh, I can already hear the questions and recriminations.  “But we have to work to eat”, “You are just lazy”, “What will you do with your time?”.  Really?  I was recently asked by a rich man, who just basically manages his money, what I would do with my time if I did not work.  He stated that he would not be able to function if he did not ‘work’.  If only the 1% understood the tedious, mind numbing, scull crushing work of a windowless 9-5.  It is not really the work as such that is the problem, it is the loss of self direction that causes the most pain.  The fact is that I can do my ‘job’ in about 5 hours a week, yet I have to sit at my desk, breathing recycled air, 5 days a week, 7.5 hours a day, because I cannot be trusted to rule myself.  This is the sad reality of the modern working life.  So no Mr. Rich man, I don’t want to sit at home and sip soy latte’s all day, I just want to work without the need to work (managing my ‘portfolio’ would be wonderful).  I want to enjoy one job and do it well – not work my fingers to the bone for thankless corporations at two jobs just to cover basic living expenses.  I don’t want to be in a situation where I cannot decide that I want to do something different because I cannot afford to lose my job.  So maybe the word retire is the wrong word.  I don’t want to sit back and rest from 50 years of work.  I just want to have an alternative income which covers my basics.  That way I can focus on meaningful work, and live well.  Donations are welcome.

For those interested in early retirement the hard way, here is a useful calculator to help you plan:  http://www.firecalc.com/

Irrational opinions

Irrational-ArtWe have established now that irrationality is a human condition.  This does not mean that it should be accepted.  It is the same as stupidity.  Maybe we should also define the opposite of irrationality.  What is rationality?   According to Philip Johnson-Laird and Ruth M.J. Byrne humans are rational in principle but they err in practice.  Thus our tendency towards the irrational.  Now it is actually quite understandable that we might for various motivational reasons prefer the irrational behaviour.  Who am I to say that a chain smoker has not weighed the consequences of his behaviour and came to the conclusion that the pleasure of smoke filled lungs outweighs the risk of a painful suffocating death.  This would be considered rational behaviour, albeit an extreme example.  My biggest problem with irrationality is not the behaviour as such, but the sources from which we draw the information to make those choices.

The chain smoker cannot really come to the wrong conclusions if he wants to make a decision because the facts about smoking are quite well established, and his decision would be an informed one with only a rudimentary Google search.  Unfortunately many of our day to day behaviours are informed by advertising, and not science. We feed kids fruitloops because the box says that there are 9 vitamin and iron in it.  It is also made by a company we trust to make breakfast, and it’s advertised as good.  We do not questions this.  Why?  Because we trust in a broken system.  We believe if it was bad for us the government, or ‘researchers’ or someone who knows more or better than ourselves would have done something about it.  Well, we are wrong. We eat Nutella for breakfast because they say that it has healthy hazel nuts in it, and is good for breakfast.  Really?  Nutella is just spreadable chocolate.  See this video for a good laugh: YouTube link

Unfortunately we do this on a deeper level too, with bigger, more important things. Here we receive our information not from advertising, but from sources we think are authorities.  We tend to spend only about 10 minutes (not a scientific figure) initially weighing the authority of a source, and thereafter we automatically defer judgement to that authority. (Yes, there are actual communication theories to explain some of these phenomena, like the two-step, magic bullet, etc.)  A good example is the church, priest and Bible.  Most people probably spent less than 10 minutes evaluating the rationality, authenticity, and ‘truth’ of their church, priest or Bible, yet on all and any subject they are happy to defer their opinion to whatever the church say, because that’s what the Bible says.  We outsource our opinions to opinion leaders.  We spend little time verifying our source’s credibility (CNN, financial adviser, the Bible), and thereafter we fly blind.  Anything and everything coming to us from those sources adds to our existing opinion.  We generally do not question it. We buy a house instead of renting, because ‘they’ say it is the best thing to do.  We study, get married, have 2.5 kids, work for 50 years, retire and die, because that is what ‘they’ said we should do.  Well, it is irrational and that kind of thinking needs to stop, because irrationality is stupidity.

Ashamed of my irrationality

Ashamed head-in-handsSo after some personal reflection and constructive conversation with a friend, I came to the conclusion that I’m a hypocrite.  I actually struggled to fall asleep the other night because I realised that there are such gaping flaws in the way I think I act and the way I actually act.  My previous post was on the logic of being a vegetarian.  I may look harshly on someone who denies the facts of the benefits to self and society of a veggie diet, just like I judge someone who smokes, for various reasons.  But there are other similar things in my life which I don’t do, but know I should, or visa versa.  Which means I am a hypocrite.  I also know that the reason we do these things is quite simple.  We engage in ‘risky’ behaviour because we do not see the immediate consequences of those behaviours.  Or we do not do positive behaviours because the consequences are not immediately visible.  I have been trying for the past 8 years to lose weight.  I am still not 1kg closer to my goal, even though I have tried, and tried, and tried.  What’s my problem?  Whatever exercise I do today will have zero visible effect.  Denying myself that chocolate is not going to make me lighter on the scale tomorrow.  It is exactly the same reasoning as someone saying that the steak on his plate is not going to kill him, or have any effect on saving the planet.  It seems there is work to be done.