Saturday, August 16, 2014

On the Tyranny of the Status Quo

Ever wondered why so much energy must be expended to dislodge a long-established institution, law, or cultural norm? Why does the default have so much staying power? Are we as human beings ill-equipped to bring about, not to mention see, even the “no-brainer” changes that are so much (yet apparently not so obviously) in line with our individual and collective self-interest? In this essay, I look at Ukraine, Spain, and Illinois to make some headway on this rather intractable difficulty.

Ukrainian President Yanukovych refused for months to budge then suddenly disappeared as if a teenager fleeing from a now-likely punishment. (Image Source: AP)

In Kiev’s central square, Ukrainian protesters braved bitter cold for months in late 2013 and early 2014 without any movement whatsoever in disgorging a divisive president who may gone on to surrender Ukraine’s sovereignty for money  in line with Vladimir Putin’s imperial dream of a restored Russian empire under the rubric of a “Eurasian Union.” It took twenty and then seventy deaths before the steadfast protesters would see the president replaced by an interim parliament-centered coalition government. After months of stalemate, the president actually fell from power quite suddenly once his partisan support in parliament had sunk below a threshold.[1] Until that point was reached, any trickles of power shifting behind the scenes did not register in the least as even a slight movement toward a resolution in the massive tug-of-war. Such ongoing intransigence, or gravity, that seemingly inheres in a default is itself an obstacle that can easily dissuade anyone who comes to view the way things are as not only contingent, but also, well, rather stupid. Such an individual might wonder why societal self-corrections in the public interest are so elusive even though they are rather obvious.

Even realizing that a given domain is subject to the rigid longevity of invisible sub-optimality can be difficult to achieve. For example, only after seven decades did the E.U. state of Spain seriously reassess Franco’s decree on May 2, 1942 moving Spain from the GMT time zone, which Spain had adopted at the International Meridian Conference in 1884, to GMT +1. Falling back an hour would put the dictator on the same time as Hitler’s Germany (and France) and Mussolini’s Italy. Seven decades later, in October 2012, the VII National Congress for Rationalise Spanish Time Zones proposed returning to GMT. With more daylight in the morning and less in the evening, state residents might not stay up so late on work-nights. Once the state had been bailed out by the E.U. federal government after the financial crisis of 2008, Spain could ill-afford the continued loss of 8 percent of the state’s GNP due to productivity losses from the nocturnal proclivity that coincided with another cultural icon, the siesta. For our purposes here, why did it take decades even to propose the easily-rationalized correction even though it meant returning to a rule that had been in effect for decades before the rise of Nazi Germany.

Let’s travel across the Atlantic Ocean to Illinois, whose major metropolis is the bewindowed city of Chicago. The latest sunset there is at 8:30pm (20:30 hrs), which occurs during the last week of June. The sun rises during that week at around 5:15am, though relatively few Chicagoans are awake at 4:45 to witness daybreak. Bentham’s rule of utilitarianism would have us believe that the greatest good for the greatest number somehow matters in life. Might it be rather obvious that taking an hour of daylight during the summer from early morning and depositing it at the other end of the day, prolonging evening from turning into night, would be more optimal? Perhaps it is merely common sense that many more people could enjoy the hour of light in question were they awake to see it. This point would not be missed by many tourists from Spain. Why is it so difficult for the people losing out to become aware of what they could have in a better life?

Even moving another hour of daylight, such that sunrises would occur roughly between 7:00am and 7:30 during June and July (daylight before 7) and sunsets would be after 10:00pm (22:00hrs) would not unduly fine “morning people.” Yet this would mean a three-hour shift from standard time. Achieving even a 9:30pm sunset would entail a two-hour change (not necessarily on the same days). Lest such a proposal seem too catastrophic, the PSOE, a political party in Spain, established the addition of another hour in summer beginning in the 1980s.

Perhaps the fear of the unknown is assuaged by the news of the same unknown being part of the default somewhere else. Furthermore, perhaps what does not work in a state of one Union may work just fine in a state in another Union; even within an empire-scale Union diversity of clime and custom justify allowances for interstate differences (e.g., via federalism).

Perhaps, moreover, members of the homo sapiens species are “hard-wired” to prefer “missing out” in the face of even a relatively simple change that would add appreciably to the good for the greatest number. In this case, the good to be had is in terms not only of summer enjoyment in a clime whose long winters can keep the door open to extreme cold from the Arctic, but also of improved health (from more exercise en plein air) and greater safety (i.e., fewer muggings and rapes). Perhaps the over-riding lesson here is simply that making life a little better—a bit more enjoyable—need not be so difficult.

Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz, could have used the magic slippers to return to Kansas at anytime. Unfortunately, she did not even ponder the possibility, and thus had to come to it the hard way. 
(Image Source:

I am reminded of Dorothy in the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. The good witch of the North tells her at the end that she could have used her ruby shoes to return to Kansas at any time, but that she had to come to realize this herself. Perhaps the question for us is why we have such trouble in coming to realize that we, too, need not wait so long to effect change that we could have accomplished long before because it lies within our power. The pickle in all of this is that enough people in a given society must come to this self-empowering realization themselves for any movement to take place. For once a threshold is met, even a societal change can be effected surprisingly fast and much easier than expected or feared.

1. Jim Heintz and Angela Charlton, "Ukraine Parliament Boss Takes Presidential Powers," GlobalPost, February 23, 2014.