Hidden Costs

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Decisions are all the poorer where evidence is not properly evaluated in the decision. But what happens where there is no evidence?

Where evidence can gathered, the major decisions we make would be better for the gathering. Often the cost of gathering the evidence exceeds either the benefits of doing so, or exceeds the resources available to the decision maker. But absence of evidence does not elimiate the need to make decisions.

UK politics, and large business, has become fixated with the evidence-base. Whatever evidence does exists drowns out opinion. Not enough weighting is given to the completeness or reliability of the evidence being used. Evidence should support the decision making process, not replace it.

There are many dimensions of human behavour and interaction where we lack the capacity or understanding to collect reliable evidence. Human nature equips us with great decision making tools that allow us to acquire an in-depth understanding of the issues relating to decisions and forming judgements based on comparable experiences. It is bemusing that we fail to use them in so many of our major decisions.

Three examples are set out below which highlight ill-considered decision-making by successive UK governments.

Food Waste
In the bad old days, food manufacturers/processors sent out food that made people ill. The government rightly acted by bringing in controls over food hygiene. One aspect is that food must be labelled to help consumers gauge when it passes its useful life. The severity of legislation is sufficient to ensure manufacturers/processors err on the side of caution. The stated useful life is a poor predictor of the date after which food is no longer safe to eat. In the UK, we have three million people who are malnourished. Tens of thousands of children go to school hungry, limiting their ability to concentrate, interfering with their body's natural development, setting them up nicely for a life that many of us will later label as anti-social. Many endure deep resentment of others, their sense of security and self-esteem suffers. The life expectancy of people who are malnourished declines. If the safe food thrown away were instead redistrubuted to people in need, levels of malnourishment would be slashed. Yet legislation prohibits supermarkets from distibuting food to people in need, either through charities or though any other means, requiring instead use of further resources in their disposals.

Inadequate consideration is given to the human cost of establishing the needed protection, with the consequence of avoidable deprivation.

Homeless Shelter
People in the UK still die on the streets. People die of hypothermia, and illnesses that stem from exposure and malnourishment. Sometimes death occurs months or years later, and is not connected with the exposure. People living on the streets are susceptible to cold, disease and physical violence. There is no statutarily enforced requirement for the provision of shelter. Some tax money is channeled to providing shetler in some areas of the UK. But there are areas where no money reaches. Charities are prohibited from provide shelter unless they achieve a minimum level of safety for the people they seek to help. The minimum levels are both arbitrary and ill-defined. The cost of providing the minimum level precludes provision of shelter in some areas. The consequence is people sleep in the streets and countryside, even when the temperature drops to mortal levels, in the absence of available shelter.

There is no provision allowing provision of shelter which falls below ill-defined and arbitrary minimum standards, even where lower standards of safety would be significantly safer for the person than exposure to the risks they otherwise endure.

Health and Safety
Companies and organisations are driven by profit or cost. Despite being run by humans, many prioritise profit and cost management over human wellbeing. Happily, well needed Health and Safety regulations compel companies to act more humane ways. The regulations are necessarily vague in their reach. Since organisations tend to weild huge levels of power, the regulations have left no provision for the beneficiaries of the legislation to opt-out from protection. The powerful are quite good at coercive techniques, and it would not take long for personal opt-out to become corporate cop-out.

Over the last few decades, people have been losing capacity to take responsibility for themselves. It will take many years, at best, to provide the means to measure capacity (which encompasses both skills and attitudes) or to enumerate the consequence of reduced capacity. Health and Safety legislation is sparse in apparent awareness of the costs, or of means of mitigating these costs. And the reach of legislation is limited to those human costs we easily relate to. The protection of legislation is virtually absent where the costs are less easy to understand (such as stress and depression), where we choose to ignore them (such as travel to work) or where the costs are indirect (such as pollution).

We are very good at measurement of certain dimensions of human understanding (eg. recollection of facts and solving simple maths equations), and very poor at others (eg. connection of facts and emotional intelligence). This has driven the direction of education. In the UK, the entire assessment of the quality of education is limited to an especially narrow series of easily and relatively cheaply testable aspects of learning. The consequence is that education is far too focused on skills that are artificial and likely to be irrelevant to the learner, and very poorly focused on work related skills or social capacity.

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