Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Selective stupidity

Ignorance is bliss. “Once you know things you start seeing problems everywhere, and once you see problems you feel like you ought to try to fix them, and fixing problems always seems to require change, and change means doing things that aren't fun. But if you're willfully stupid, you don't know any better, so you can keep doing whatever you like. The secret to happiness is short-term, stupid self-interest.” - Calvin & Hobbes

It’s not likely that many people deliberately say to themselves, “ I think I’ll stay ignorant about _________.” More likely, they find themselves too busy to be bothered with some subject or other. Or, knowing little about a subject, they don’t see how it can either help or hurt them. They don’t take the time to find out any more about it.

It's frightening how much this could rationally explain why people seem to limit their knowledge and/or awareness of things that don't directly effect them in the here and now frame of reference. Not that it isn’t a very sensible approach to take. There are literally millions of things a person could be interested in. Tens of thousands of which might reasonably impact on a person’s life. And, many hundreds of which will directly affect each of us.

There would be no time to eat, sleep or work if we tried to learn as much as we could about everything that might remotely affect us. So, without even knowing we’re doing it, we use a very sophisticated method to determine what is really important. We rely on other people to determine what is important. Except in singularly personal matters, this works well.

The importance of a subject or issue depends on the combination of two factors, how many people seem to care and how much they care. It’s the combination of the quantity (how many) and the quality (how much) that determines how important we decide the subject will be to us. Depending on the subject, other factors such as our age, sex, occupation, economic status, tax bracket, geographical location, etc. will be part of our decision on whether or not we will personally get involved.

As we have seen in many cases, a few people who are passionate about an issue can prevail over a multitude who don’t seem to care. While this might not fit the definition of democracy that is the law of the land (one man, one vote), it is probably a more reasonable practical application that takes into account both numbers and intensity of interest in a topic. After all, if most of us aren’t interested in say, field hockey, why should that keep the few who are from having a place to play their sport?

Which brings us back to the subject, selective stupidity. It is a very good way to minimize the stresses in our lives. It does however have unintended consequences. Those who are most interested in more things tend, in the long run, to get more things their way. The price they pay is more temporary stress and personal time commitment.

On the other hand, those who minimize their stress and involvement, are often upset or angry when it seems that things in general aren’t going the way they would wish. This is the price they pay for letting others be the involved people.

There is no right or wrong answer to this natural tendency of human nature. Some people will always see a cause in the smallest happening and take steps to insure that something does or doesn’t happen. Others will go through life either blissfully ignorant of near disasters or the surprised victims of the random acts of others.

Perhaps this explains why so many can be governed by so few.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Invisible government

The invisible government
By Jack Balshaw

The thought of an invisible government conjures up visions of dark and sinister activities. Yet most people want the government to be invisible. At least invisible in the sense they aren’t aware it’s there. And in most cases, government has succeeded in providing the public with just what they want. You could almost say that when we are aware of government, it is because it has failed in some manner.

At the local level, probably 98% of what government does is just keep things working. In 42 years in my town there hasn’t been a single time I haven’t been able to turn on the water or flush the toilet. Neither the utility nor the phone comapnies have been able to accomplish that run of uninterrupted service.

Yet we never say, “WOW, what a great operation this is!” We never think to give credit to anyone when nothing goes wrong. It almost takes a disaster and the recovery from that disaster before we begin to thank and honor the “heroes” who saved us. It never occurs to us that those same “heroes” have been taking steps for years to head off many other disasters or at least unpleasant experiences. All the rest of the time it was, “just their job”.

We don’t usually appreciate even the police and firemen until they have done something that calls attention to the fact that they were there to perform some positive task. We never think to appreciate the many times that Planning and Engineering have caused poor designs of proposed developments to be modified so that we wouldn’t suffer from traffic or other problems.

For every stupid, rigid, insensitive or thoughtless action, there are dozens, hundreds and even thousands of governmental decisions and actions that are proper and correct. All this doesn’t mean that we should never criticize government operations. Just that, when we do criticize, we should also remember how many times things are done right.

Jumping to the other end of the government scale, the federal level, a similar case can be made. We’re all much more pumped up about the intrusion of the Federal Government into our lives because of the multitude of stories told of government arrogance, ignorance or laziness by those who want the federal government to either do or not do something.

We accept these tales as personal affronts even though they don’t directly affect us. That is, until the Federal Government doesn’t do something we think it should. Then it’s a different story. The arrogance of the Federal Government interfering with private sector operations quickly changes to government being too lenient with the private sector right after we hear of an avoidable aircraft accident. And the criticism of excessive federal employees becomes a demand for more inspectors right after the news of unhealthy food products causing illness or death.

Try to think of anything socially acceptable you wanted to do in the last year that you were prevented from doing by a governmental regulation. It’s much more likely that you had to do somethings you would rather not have done ( get your car smogged, pay your taxes, put your tray table and seat back in the upright position, etc.).

I do tend to view government in a more favorable light than most. I worked in government as both an employee and as an elected official. The people I worked and served with were no different than any cross section of the population. “We” are the government. If you don’t believe it, think about the people in town who hated government and its representatives last year and now are looking forward to government bringing about what they wanted to happen now that “their people” are government. All of a sudden, “government is good”.

I was thinking of calling this “Government Appreciation Day” but thought that would be expecting too much of the reader.