Saturday, November 06, 2010

Haiti's homes, Mexico's colonias, America's unemployment, and learned helplessness

I'm not sure I can imagine an earthquake. I can't even begin to fathom what it would be like to have a major city devastated as happened in Haiti at the beginning of this year. Immediately afterward, the news covered large populations living in tents.

Recently with a storm named Tomas going towards Haiti, there was news that people in the tent cities were refusing to evacuate. Tent cities? Still? It has been a little over nine months since the earthquake.

Once, before the "modern world" came upon us, many families built their own homes. They may have enlisted their neighbors' help, but the job got done. The homes may not have been fancy homes, but they were better than tents. I'm sure many people around the world still live in homes they or their families built with their own hands. On my father's side, I think my great-grandparents probably built their own home. These days it would probably be illegal for them to even try.

These days we expect better. We expect concrete slabs, electricity, plumbing, windows, insulation -- everything meeting the proper building code. I wonder, how much of that applies in Haiti? Is the insistence that people have better homes -- with all the right permits, and all the right contractors, and properly inspected -- is that part of what's keeping them in tents? How many attempts to solve problems have to be blocked before people give up on solving their own problems?

I look at the people who live in the colonias around the Texas/Mexico border. Their ancestors built pyramids that the archaeologists travel to study, quietly paying their respects to the greatness of the culture that was before. Our own culture has no monuments to match that. Now their descendants live in cardboard boxes made into rough shelters. What happened? Conquerors, bad governments at times in history, modern drug lords and drug wars and governments still widely rumored to be either thoroughly incompetent or thoroughly corrupt ... or relatively powerless against the better-armed and more powerful drug lords. Mexico has had it rough. How long before people stop trying?

I think part of it is something called "learned helplessness" by the psychologists. If someone is prevented from solving a problem for long enough, they can easily give up on trying. If someone does not see how they control things in their own lives, they stop making any attempt to affect the outcome. Even if circumstances change so that it becomes possible to make a difference, that may go unnoticed. Too many things have failed before.

When psychologists first started studying learned helplessness, the original animal experiments were an exercise in cruelty to animals. Not to put too fine a point on it, the animals were systematically abused. Those experiments could be sub-titled "Why PETA was ultimately necessary." And now, whenever I see people showing learned helplessness on a massive scale, I tend to look for some kind of problem with the system -- where someone is deliberately doing something that makes the problem worse or prevents escape. It's even possible for someone to have good motives, and still be part of the problem.

In the United States, unemployment has become something of a "learned helplessness" problem, in that some of the unemployed have given up on trying to find work. Much like the animals in the old psychology experiments, it's hardly their fault. Jobs that were once our jobs have been systematically shipped overseas for many years now, or a blind eye has been turned while those jobs went to our friends from the south, regardless of whether they were here legally. I mean, we could spare the jobs, right? Or we could at the time. And every session of congress, or of the state legislature, or of the city council, adds layers of regulations intended to make things always safer, always more orderly, always more beneficial. And always more difficult to satisfy all the legal requirements. For a "free country", we sure have a huge number of restrictions.

The immigrants without legal paperwork, and the employers who are hiring without legal paperwork, have shown one thing: it is certainly possible to get work still. But there may not be a way to get work legally. And if the way to get work is illegal, that does seem to mean that the laws are part of the problem. Or as others have noticed before, the laws create the black market. The size of the black market is a comment on how much real supply and demand is being prevented by the laws.

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