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Archive for September 19, 2013

Professions Usually Worsen Problems They were Meant to Solve

September 19, 2013 24 comments

The interactions of human motivations, capitalism, perverse incentives, fake jobs, technology and system inertia have been the subject of many of my older posts. It has been clear to me, for some time now, that nothing good can come out this mixture- except perhaps by accident. However most people still do not subscribe to my worldview largely because it is somewhat depressing. They would rather keep on believing ambient comforting lies than think for themselves. But I am not giving up and here is another attempt to make a few more people question their beliefs. It starts with a simple question.

Why do professions created to solve problems often end up causing more damage than the problems themselves?

Here are a few contemporary examples to better illustrate my point. Take school teachers.. why has increased funding and employment in the pre-university education sector not increased the quality of education? Why do teachers keep on insisting that more money, power, rules and guidelines will solve the problems? What is the problem anyway? Are human beings naturally not inclined to learn new and personally useful skills? Are children not naturally excellent observers, very curious and enthusiastic? So why do most of them hate school? Could it possible that schools, in their current form, discourage learning? Is it a coincidence that school architecture and procedures increasingly resemble prisons?

Or consider the legal profession.. why has public perceptions about the level of judicial dysfunction gone up in parallel with the number of people employed in that sector? Shouldn’t an increase in the number of people employed to solve a set of problems result in their diminution? Shouldn’t spending a larger fraction of your financial resources on legal costs make things flow more smoothly? So why do we end up with an ever-increasing number of laws, bylaws, rules and regulations whose sole purpose is to make things stickier? Why has the size of even simple contracts exploded within the last 30 years? Why are most ‘criminal’ convictions in the USA based on plea deals and mandatory minimums rather than something old-fashioned like a trial?

The medical profession provides more examples of this problem in action. Why has most of the money invested and spent within the last 30 years on medical care and research not yielded any large-scale improvements in outcomes? Why is most of the health care money spent on procedure and equipment of dubious efficacy, while we ignore problems such as development of newer antibiotics, better vaccines and truly innovative ways to treat diseases that are as yet untreatable? Why has all the money spent on finding a cure for various types of cancers, Alzheimers, Parkinsonism etc not yielded anything worthwhile after two or three decades? Why have rates of obesity and other metabolic illness gone up at the same rate as people adopting the dietary guidelines created by credentialed “experts”? Why are medical mistakes officially the 3rd and probably the 2nd largest cause of death?

Professions involved in maintaining “law and order” provide yet more examples of the problem. Why do we keep hiring more cops and other assorted law-critters when the rates of minor crime have been falling for over two decades- almost all over the world. Why are people not involved in gangs more likely to killed by a cop than a criminal belonging to some gang? What about all those barely reported unnatural deaths in judicial custody or jail? What about property forfeiture of innocents, rigged red-light cameras and a host of other rent-seeking behaviors? Does any of this increase the safety of most people? What percentage of simple property crimes do cops solve anyway? Do they protect people from large-scale financial fraud and economic crimes?

But is this a relatively new phenomena?

Certain vocations and professions have, since the beginning of human history, almost always worsened the problems they were supposed to solve.

Emperors, kings, dukes and feudal lords have been promising protection and peace to their subjects since the beginning of history. Oddly enough, things almost never worked out that way. Recorded history is full of accounts of constant skirmishes, mass persecutions, disastrous wars, endless palace intrigues and the construction of costly palaces or tombs. It is very doubtful if the presence of rulers improved the security of their subjects and the converse is likely true. Yet all these rulers claimed divine, semi-divine or otherwise special ancestry and fitness to rule.

Priest are another example of a professional class that promised people everything from a great afterlife to seeking divine intervention for stopping plagues, preventing earthquakes and ensuring bountiful harvests. Today we know that all those sacrifices, prayers, chants and other assorted bullshit were utterly useless and often counterproductive. Let us also not forget the role of the priestly class in supporting wars based on whose invisible sky-friend could piss further. Did I also mention that priests became priests through a lengthy process of being born to the ‘right’ parents, having the ‘right’ mentors and spouting the ‘right’ brand of lies and bullshit.

Scholars, philosophers and intellectuals are yet another example of a group that has not delivered. Under the guise of investigating the human condition, these sophists came up clever arguments to justify the oppression and abusive behavior of whoever paid their salary. The world would be no worse of if every ancient philosopher of every single tradition never existed. The same can be said about ancient scholars who were the PR guys and talking heads of their eras.

So, is there a link between the politicians, bureaucrats, teachers, physicians and cops from our era with the various rulers, priests and scholars of previous eras?

Yes, there is and it is called credentialism. Vocations and professions that require extensive credentialization and approval from prior members almost always tend to create far more problems than they are supposed to solve, if they can even do that. But why is that so? Isn’t credentialism meant to keep incompetent people out and promote people from within based on their merit?

While the founding myth and official story line about credentialism often portray it as the best way to keep incompetent people out of important and financially lucrative professions- it is anything but that in real life. To understand the “why” let us have a brief look at the psyche of people who crave endless amounts of power, prestige and money. Such individuals are typically the most self-centered, narcissistic and sociopathic individuals in any given society. They are also the least altruistic and humane in that system.

The very idea that such people are even capable of caring about anybody but themselves is laughable.

Credentialism is therefore just a scam to protect rent-seeking vocations by making them look official and natural. Insiders to any credentialism-based scam have no interest in actually solving problems or making the lives of other people better. It largely exists to put a pleasant facade on what would otherwise be seen as parasitic extortion and abuse. It allows the parasites to maintain the status quo and keep on exploit their position. The money and status obtained through credentialism also allows them to temporarily insulate themselves from the adverse consequences of their actions.

At this point, I can almost hear some of you saying- “but.. but would you let an unlicensed surgeon perform surgery on you?” Here is my answer.. when I talk about credentialism I am also referring to restricted admission in the vocation or profession. You cannot compare somebody who barely has some experience to someone who was admitted and trained in that vocation or profession. Furthermore, as I said before, medical mistakes are the 3rd or 2nd largest cause of death. So the original question is meaningless.

A far better question would be- “Is a surgeon trained in a well-funded medical program in India as competent as one trained in a similar program in USA? and my answer to that question is – Yes. The same is also true of individuals who got their degrees from a state university rather than some ivy league institution. The presence or absence of specific paperwork is really about optimal rent-seeking rather than the ability of an individual to perform a particular job.

Having said that, a larger problem still remains. How can you get people to reduce the incidence of problems if their remuneration is linked to the number of problems they supposedly solve? Wouldn’t eliminating problems also eliminate their cushy jobs? Furthermore, creating new problems is the easiest way to increase your income- regardless of their effect on the rest of society.

What do you think? Comments?