Holding the People In Control Accountable

The one simple thing we can do to make it all better.

Lots of bad things are happening out there. Climate change, political unrest, social inequality, military actions, megalomania, racial tensions, natural disasters, man-made disasters, religious fundamentalism, senseless shootings, wars, election politics. (Those were just the ones I could conjure off the top of my head.)

Most days, turning the news on can quickly become an exercise in steeling yourself against a tsunami of terrible, curbing your own rising existential dread as best you can. If you’re paying attention to the present goings on of human civilization, at least as it filters through the news, you probably have the sinking feeling that the world is not getting better on many of the fronts that matter. I don’t think this is due to sensationalist reporting either — I think that things are as bad as as they seem, sometimes worse. When I take a minute to examine some of these macroarenas of human activity, I personally don’t feel too good about the direction human civilization is heading. And despite the relative level of comfort you are probably experiencing at the immediate present, I bet you don’t either.

Here’s the craziest part: all this is happening in the face of hundreds of millions of people who would wish it otherwise. At least — and this may be an important distinction as we’ll see soon — they’d wish it otherwise in the point-of-fact, abstract sense. Aside from those few truly disturbed individuals who are ready to enact plans fit for a doomsday cult, almost every person on the planet would agree that: YES, we want a sustainable and prosperous future for ourselves and our children; YES, we want to increase everyone’s happiness, health, and well being, YES, we want to promote quality of life and opportunity.

So, if almost everyone on the planet wants these things, why is the exact opposite happening?

Punchline first. I’m pretty convinced that it all comes down to this:

The People In Control are increasingly less directly confronted with the consequences of their actions and decisions.

Let’s break this down a bit, digest it slowly, pick into how we’ve ended up at such a simple idea that explains so much.

“People in Control”

The PEOPLE IN CONTROL are the few politicians, business people, celebrities, influencers, technologists, and other social and cultural elites whose actions and decisions influence the many other people who aren’t in a position to take those actions or make those decisions. These are the folks on the news, the folks you read and talk about, the folks who call the shots, the folks who set the trends. These are the folks who probably will get out of speeding tickets and who get to skip to the front of the line simply because they are them. These are the folks with the cultural capital that most of us don’t have and think we want.

Why train our crosshairs on the People in Control? It would be just as accurate to make the more general point that any person on Earth is increasingly less likely to be directly confronted with the consequences of their actions or decisions. This is true, as far as it goes. Cultural evolution, specifically technology, has enabled this for us: any one of us can buy a cheap meal at McDonald’s and not really feel the impact of the minimum wage worker whose career isn’t advancing, the fleet of supply trucks pumping pollutants into the air around the clock to bring raw ingredients to the restaurant, the industrial farm and slaughterhouse required for such a quantity of food, the displaced people who used to call a now clear cut field home…all we feel is the end product, that bit of fast food, hit the bottom of our stomach.

The People In Control are no different. They crave calories too. But the ripples cast when People In Control enjoy this modern cultural privilege are much, much greater than someone who is not in control. The effect size is proportional to the amount of control the person has. In other words, it’s a much smaller problem for the world (but a problem nonetheless) for a peasant farmer in the steppes of Mongolia to not value disposing of waste properly than it is for, say, the CEO of a multi-national oil company to not hold the same value.

“Directly Confronted”

Being DIRECTLY CONFRONTED with one’s actions and decisions means that you experience visceral feedback via your five senses — you literally see smell, taste, hear, or feel whatever it is that may happen because of your decisions and actions.

This visceral sort of experience is important. It’s a very different thing to know as an abstract point of fact what may have come because of an action or decision than it is to directly be confronted with such consequences. It’s one thing to have an intellectual understanding that a certain amount of water is required to grow a field of grains; it’s another thing to actually grow that field and feed yourself when you have used the last of your water. It’s one thing to read about a shooting on the news; it’s another thing to have it happen on your street.

The sensory nature of the feedback is important: we humans are biological machines built to respond to what we experience directly. For all our cultural advancement, human beings still possess the same hard-wired responses to sensory stimuli as our caveman ancestors and animal cousins, which leaves us predisposed to tend to make decisions and take actions based on our perceived short term and personal benefits. That is, we are psychologically — no — neurologically primed to respond strongly to the things we can experience with our sense organs. And inversely, we are not neurologically primed to respond strongly to things more abstract than that. Things too small or big, too many steps removed, too far away, or to abstract to experience viscerally, palpably, or directly just don’t have the same sort of impact on us.

Does it hit you in your gut any different if you hear that there’s a $100 billion or $1 trillion deficit to overcome? Are you any more sad to learn that the latest natural disaster resulted in 10,000 or 40,000 casualties? Do you calculate your carbon consumption differently if you learn that the polar ice is melting at 0.5 or 0.8 inches per year faster than it used to? Probably not. We just aren’t wired for that sort of discrimination between pieces of information.

Confronting and digesting information like this is a distinctly modern (and postmodern) phenomenon. Until recently, the human animal had no way of conveying such information other than experiencing it directly. We might have seen 10,000 dead after a battle or natural disaster, and then (rightfully) thought to ourselves: dayyyuuuuuuum! Nowadays we read statistics, update dashboards, digest reports, and register as a point of fact that a situation of this sort qualifies as dayuum.

Our biological wiring hasn’t yet caught up to our explosive cultural growth, and therefore, our capacity to understand the products of our own creation is not very high. We are literally unable to make sense of our own modernity. This is true even as we humans slide inexorably deeper into the information age, where work for some of us is comprised of sending bits of digital data back and forth. And this is true of everyone, from the child slave in the poorest villages on Earth to the Heads of State in the most opulent mansions on Earth.

If the People In Control are making decisions and taking actions that ultimately cause bad things to happen in the world, and if those same people in control are not being directly confronted with the consequences of their actions and decisions, then the way to fix everything should now seem clear:

Force the People In Control to be directly confronted with the consequences of their actions and decisions.

It’s clearly not enough to have the people in control digest the consequences of their actions and decisions in the abstract. That the People In Control are able to insulate themselves from the visceral and very real feeling of what happens in the wake of their actions and decisions is not working either. So, somehow, it’s time to force the People In Control to directly confront the consequences of their actions and decisions. It’s time to force the People In Control to use, fall subject to, and live by the systems, conditions, and products they create.

Let’s look at some examples as to how this might play out:


Imagine what would happen if every elected and appointed lawmaker and holder of governmental decision-making power was required to use, fall subject to, and live by the systems and things that they create. Does a good contractor build a house that they would not themselves feel safe living in? Does a stock broker give advice that they would themselves not follow? No — by and large, professionals stand personally by their work. It’s not so far flung to think that politicians (especially career politicians) should do this as well. We could call this, simply, “leading by example.”

Imagine how quickly public education would change if elected officials were required to send their children to public school. Think of the immediate personal insights they might have if they were to subject their own children to this system. And reflect that President Obama’s children do not attend public school, nor do many senators’ children.

Imagine how quickly health care would change if elected officials were required to abide by the health care laws they write and pass. And reflect that the US congress has its own internal health care plan, separate from what they are requiring the rest of the country to live by.

Imagine how quickly laws that support the poor and perpetuate social inequality would change if elected officials were required to live in public housing and utilize public assistance for food. Why is this so ridiculous? It seems to me a fine and generous gesture that elected officials’ living expenses would be fully covered by the electorate while they are in the public’s service!

Imagine how quickly our military policies would change if elected officials would themselves take leadership on the lines of battle, or at least send their children in their stead. This was, after all, the way of almost every society until very recently. Reflect that the first President of the United States was a military leader, as were several Presidents after him.

The tragedy here is not that the status quo is what it is; the tragedy is that these notions seem far-fetched.

Business People

Imagine how quickly fast food restaurants would change if their executives and Boards of Directors were required to eat at those restaurants daily.

Imagine how rare-earth mineral mines and hydraulic fracturing operations might change their practices if their executives were required to live, with their families, on the premises, drink the groundwater, breathe the air.

Imagine what would happen if the fates of the leaders of Wall Street were personally bound to the fate of their banks, so that instead of taking obscene bonuses even when their banks fail, they too would be bankrupt.

Imagine how it might change the culture of business if CEOs positioned their offices and desks next to their lowest paid employees, ate lunch with the line staff, and received the exact same bonuses and benefits as everyone else.

But it’s difficult to get to this point of imagination in reality. This is mostly because the People In Control have the power to do things that will ensure they stay in control, and that they will stay insulated from the unpleasantness and inconveniences of being confronted with the consequences of their actions and decisions. The people who are not in control historically haven’t been able to do much about it.

Without getting too far into theories of liberation, it’s worth pointing out two things:

  1. the people not in control GREATLY outnumber the People In Control.
  2. Recent advances in technology have done a lot to even the playing field.

From these starting points, it’s not overly absurd to imagine ways in which the People In Control may be held accountable, and be forced to directly confront the consequences of their actions and decisions, should the people not in control all (or even mostly) agree that this would be a good and important thing to have happen.

For politicians, it seems completely realistic that the electorate could hold them accountable.

For business executives, it seems completely realistic that shareholders and customers could hold them accountable.

It’s also worth pointing out that some People In Control get it. Champions of the Cause exist in the seats of power, although they are few and fleeting. They are surely subject to enticing allure of becoming one of the People In Control and thereby securing their personal comfort, social status, and benefit. But every now and again, someone does assume a position of control who carries the simultaneous critical consciousness and value of sensible self-denial required to override, to some degree, their hardwired programming and sacrifice what could potentially be their personal gain for the sake of the collective.

We should rally around these Champions, use the tools available to us, and be aware of our strength in numbers.

This is important:

Let’s not fault or blame most of the People In Control. They are simply carrying out their hardwired programming: to tend to act in their perceived immediate short term personal best interest. We all do this, a fleeting few of us are able to successfully override this deep set imperative.

But at the same time, we should not let an an explanation become an excuse.

And yes, we should not totally excuse ourselves, we who are not in control. It is worth thinking about what might happen if each one of us were forced to directly confront the consequences of our decisions and actions:

If the garbage was never picked up, how might that change our consumption habits?

If we had to personally kill the animals we eat, how might that change our eating habits?

If we were not as readily extended credit, how might that change our spending habits?

Thinking about having to personally deal with these unpleasant inconveniences is antithetical to modern cultural progress, I get that. Modernity is set up to get us from Point A to Point B sitting down with as little exertion as possible. Modernity favors whatever gets us what we want as quickly and as easily as possible. This is itself a problem, especially when everyone the planet seeks the same privileges (look at the trouble resulting from China’s emerging middle class, for starters). Modernity’s short term miracles inevitably cause long term problems.

But for the time being, let’s cut ourselves a break and alleviate ourselves from the burden of change. Let’s instead start with the People In Control. The ripples their decisions and actions cast are far more significant and have a far greater impact on the collective. And let’s at the same time vow to put ourselves under our own microscope when it’s time to do so.

In this way, we can focus on very small, manageable number of individuals (picking out, say, 1,000 of the world’s most important People In Control and really working on them is not so unmanageable a task for the thousands of millions not on that list, right?) in order to produce potentially astounding changes for the human society.

By forcing the People In Control, and then all of us, to be directly confronted with the consequences of their actions and decisions, we create some feedback systems to which our human hardworking will respond, and in so doing we have a shot at fixing everything that’s wrong, and doing so quickly.

But, ironically, we’ll need to decide to take that up for ourselves, so that we may be (hopefully some time soon) directly confronted with the fruitful consequences of our decisions and our actions.

Thanks for making it this far, sincerely. More where this came from: I once started to co-write a book, or tried to at least, that was more or less about this topic. It’s lay stagnant for over 7 years, but if you want to visit that idea graveyard, you can poke through a first draft of The Fishbowl Principle.