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Friday, February 6, 2015

Value of society’s health

Policy makers, both sides of the aisle and across the pond, often seem to miss the big picture. Sure, a democratic system that works in 4 and 5 year election cycles, is not amenable to strategy. Healthcare, a lighting rod for idiots running for office, is a complex question. For most of their history, humans were driven by simple objective functions – food and sex, dominating anything else. In the modern world, for most, the equation has not changed much. Although the village elders may have thought strategically about the health of the clan, as managing a portfolio of men and women with high specialization is not a trivial problem, such ideas did not flow much further.

The idea of society, an abstract concept, is very new. In the modern context of interconnected humans by technology, the definition of society certainly has been expanded. Facebook boasts of a society, nearly billion strong and that system is not significantly different from China and India. Although politicians would like to cleanly divide populations by faith, ignorance and color, fitting them neatly into societal fragments, such ideas have been rendered obsolete for a while.

Assuming that one can clearly understand societies – an interconnected organism - then one can envision the best way to nourish it. The foundational elements of a modern society are health and education. Every participant benefits from positive externalities associated with these common goods. Thus, policy imperatives that substantially enhance health and education should be dominant in a modern society. However, the tactics of implementation differ significantly. Health, for example, is as much the responsibility of an individual as it is of the society. Thus, an individual who does not care for her health and education (societal goods) cannot be helped by society. Her actions, then, will be against utility maximization for herself and more importantly, for the society.

Upgrading a society is likely a two-step process – first, information has to be widely available to all participants including the society’s objective function. Then market forces have to take over to move the system to a better state – providing appropriate incentives and disincentives to all participants as long as there are no market failures. If market failures are present in the provision and use of common goods, they have to be removed through appropriately designed constraints. And, all policies have to be consistently implemented.

It seems unlikely that modern humans can design next level societies as they seem to lack necessary knowledge and skills.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Cultural slippage

Human societies, from inception, have shown a positive slope, albeit small, toward higher culture – defined by a better and abstract understanding of extra-self. Arguably, contemporary modern humans show measurable slippage in culture. Alarmingly, this could be big enough to reverse many centuries of progress. The instruments used to sustain a positive slope in culture for centuries, such as religion, are largely responsible for reversing the trend, now.

For most of the history of the upstart humans, it was art that provided the fuel for a positive cultural slope. For the past several centuries, however, science has taken a dominant role. But it has been inferior to provide a sustaining momentum to the human psyche. Materialism, that spreads like cancer, coupled with prescriptive science, has largely assured that the trend reversal is permanent. It has been successful in dividing the world into tiny fragments, each apparently different but certainly fighting the rest. It is ironic that at the peak of pride for technologists, the world shows signs of humans returning to their origins, when little technology was present.

The slope of cultural progress, the only tangible measure of advancement for the human mind, has turned negative again with little chance of yet another reversal.