Monday, May 19, 2008

Changing Behavior

I saw this mildly interesting bit on TV the other day where a group of almost-influential people were discussing how to bring environmental reporting to corporations. At least that's what I think they were talking about. I had jumped in the middle, and was only partially paying attention. They seemed to think that with enough effort the world could be changed and made a better place. That if there was dialogue and everybody was honest, it would all work out somehow.

When I stopped laughing, I figured I might as well dedicate a bit of thinking to trying to deal with the same underlying issue. From my quick glance at the tube, I figured they weren't going to get too far. So, it can't hurt. And I get some satisfaction for at least for trying to be a wee bit positive about the circumstances. My bet is still that we are tumbling towards the abyss, but just in case it's not a done deal yet, I can toss in my 2 cents.

My first observation is easy: you can't get people to do things that don't make sense. If you're some successful evil-capitalist, you're focus is on amassing the largest treasure, and nothing but.

We set the game around money, we can't just expect to change it midstream. Capitalism works because at its crudest level it promotes competition. Competition keeps every one trying, but it also keeps them trying to cheat. Winning at all costs is the essence of the game.

The world is headed for a major disaster, aided by this fierce competition and people are only just beginning to figure out that there are some undesirable side-effects of this approach. Sure it moves us forward, but does it do it too quickly? Progress at all costs. Quite the motto. Maybe if we open up enough boxes, the last one won't the one that wipes us all out?

The next observation is that the thing we need to do -- change our behavior -- is the thing we will not do on our own. Capitalism is about selfishness, greed and competition, all great qualities that were instilled into us by evolution. To win in the market, a nasty capitalist needs to take in account the irrational nature, and find some point to maximize the profits. It is an incredibly complex thing that has no easy answers. That's why there are more losers at business, than there are winners. It takes a peculiar sense of balance to manipulate the people around you, and make off with the riches. Exploiting is hard work.

If all the world understands is money, then the problem itself needs to be framed in terms of money. I.e. it needs some type of "value" to actually be a consideration. That is so much harder than it sounds. If you go in search of finding the "real" cost of environmental impact for example, you need to take everything into account, whether or not you understand the full long-termramifications. Lots of effort has been sunk into trying to value stuff correctly. It's not an easy problem.

But hey, if we are currently not valuing the real costs, then the current numbers we are using are incomplete and probably irrational, aren't they? And if they are, then putting a value on the environment can probably be irrational too, can't it?

That little leap is worth everything in that you don't actually have to solve the problem, you just don't have to value everything properly. There is no point. It doesn't really matter. All that matters is how things are valued relative to each other. Pricing is, and always will be irrational. Money is just a relative placeholder. It is meaningless by definition.

So the core observation is that if you want to change people's behavior, you simply need to add in an arbitrary cost into the mix. But as always we need to note that people being evil and greedy tend to rebel if you change their world too swiftly, so that any change must be gradual to be accepted, but it needn't be rational.

So the advice is simple: add an environmental tax, small at first but then growing over time. Give discounts to people who can prove that something they are doing has a 'positive' impact. Assume everyone else is lying. Place the onus on the companies for proof. Make it harder to prove each year.

If they do nothing they pay 100%, otherwise they can get discounted down to 100%, or even better if countries want to add subsidies. And we should allow that, if one location wants to artificially support an aspect of their community, we should just let them. Forget trying for a level playing field, it can never work, so why even try? Regions should be able to reapply their taxes in whatever way suits them best, it's really just a collected form of a discount after all.

If the tax starts out initially as trivial and increases gradually over the next twenty years, by the time its near its full height, its ability to influence behavior will be tremendous. As more and more people become motivated to avoid paying it, more and more will be done to improve environmental impact. Most of the revenue will fall into the hands of localgovernments, so there will always be incentive to collect more; so long as the two sides don't collude, behavior will change gradually.

Now I realize that this is far too simple for today's influential people. We live in a period where absolutely everything has to be made into a super-complex nightmare. I think that is a failing in our understanding, after all you can only simplify things if you really understand them. If you're just partially getting it, you'll only complicate it. That's the way it usually works.

In the end, however it never needs to be complex. Nothing does. Complex is stupid and ugly, and it never works right. Complex is the beginning of the end for all of us. Complex, in the twenty first century is the biggest threat to humanity, unmatched by natural, biological or external phenomenon. But still, it is extremely hard to convince the ruling masses that a simple idea could ever be effective.

My final observation: if you really want to save the world, keeping it from it's latest obvious impending doom, all you need to do is give it a simple push in the right direction. If your lucky it will shift. From there is will just go to the next great threat.

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