"I have a mind like a steel... uh... thingy." Patrick Logan's weblog.

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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

For Better or Worse?

A fascinating discussion is taking place over at James Robertson's site on globalization, labor, and progress. Below is a duplication of my most recent comment I added there.

Could things be worse? Heck yes. I agree they have been worse. Can things change for the better? Yes. How? Good question. That requires unselfishness to generally take a higher priority than selfishness.

We are genetically predisposed to selfishness. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It got a lot of us to a pretty good place. What's not clear to me is how well selfishness will get us to the next level.

Have we run out of room for selfishness as the driver for "progress"? Have we run out of room for our current definition of "progress" itself?

Are we at a point where for anyone to survive in the long-term more people have to adapt to "unselfishness" as a driver? Why are so many of our mainstream religions apparently based on unselfishness, and yet we do not seem to be predisposed to unselfishness beyond a relatively small group of people, especially those closely related to our own DNA?

Why is it easy to be "globally" unselfish as a result of relatively minor events like the recent tsunami in the Indian Ocean, and yet significantly more difficult to be unselfish as a result of ongoing major events such as the daily rate of deaths due to hunger, or even aids, or malaria?

There are a lot of fascinating questions about how we got here and how we get to the next step. One could argue we are on a good path. On the other hand one could argue we are not, by and large. It's hard to tell.


João Marcus said...

It's so easy to be unselfish about global events. It only takes a few words and, boom, you're that unselfish guy everyone talks about. Words, however, are useless. The people dying from malaria don't need speeches. They don't even need rich countries to donate tons of money to the poor, mostly because the money ends up feeding absurdly corrupt dictatorships. South Korea is a great example of a country that has done the right thing. Instead of blaming the rich for their problems, they actually did something.

Patrick Logan said...

I agree, talking about being unselfish is not the same as being unselfish.

Money ends up in corrupt people's hands on purpose. Read for example, "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man".

I don't know about South Korea. Any particular reference?

John Dougan said...

Not all aid efforts are bribery by the IMF et al.

As I see it, a substantial part of the problem is inefficiencies inherent to many of the cultures we're trying to aid. All we will succeed in doing is impoverishing ourselves unless we attempt to change some of their cultural habits. However, when we try to do this, the cries of "cultural imperialism" go up and a great deal of political effort is expended in making us stop.

An example of an inefficiency is the common practice in many African countries of _all_ the relatives of a successful wage earner expecting to be supported, up to the limit of the earners income. Capitalism works by taking local surpluses and investing them in wealth producing activities. No surpluses, no investment. Result: no progress.

Corruption and bribery have a similar effect. They have the added issue that they tend to make more wealth flow upwards, putting the local surpluses into few hands. Also those at the top have a precarious position so they tend to stash their money (in Switzerland) for a rainy day. They have some incentive to invest locally as it will net them more money and make the locals less likely to revolt, but the returns are usually bigger from investing outside the country.

In places like Japan and South Korea, the inefficiencies are much reduced and all they really needed was a kickstart. Capitalism doesn't work as well there because of the institutionalized bribery, but it works well enough. In countries such as Saudi Arabia there is/was enough income spread around that the inefficiency wasn't worried about. It means they can't go any farther, but for now the bedouins in charge don't seem to care. This is backfiring on them, and they're having to reassess the situation.

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Portland, Oregon, United States
I'm usually writing from my favorite location on the planet, the pacific northwest of the u.s. I write for myself only and unless otherwise specified my posts here should not be taken as representing an official position of my employer. Contact me at my gee mail account, username patrickdlogan.