Sunday, August 30, 2009

The new wowsers

The new "wowsers" in the state where I live are the Authority responsible for issuing drivers licences. Recently they raised the requirement for supervised instruction of new drivers from 50 hours to 120 hours.

Over the years the Authority has developed great policies to help reduce the road toll. But the latest requirement defies good sense and fails to be good policy because people now "cheat" the system. It's easier to get a license to fly a plane solo, a much more complicated task. Forty hours is all that is required.

The original concept of wowser was a person whose believed their view of morality gave them the power to deprive others of their rights to "sinful pleasures" such as alcohol, drugs and sex. A form of righteousness, the belief in "being" right, no matter what.

The issue has always been how much "social control" versus how much "individual responsibility". Often it is difficult to strike a balance between the two.

But things go off the rails when the new laws are unnecessary or do not work. Then we need to closely examine our rationale and together - across the political, moral, social or religious aisle - work out whether there is a better way.

It's very easy to accidentally become a "wowser". It often happens when no other solutions appear to be available, especially when a society is in transition, when change is accelerating, like right now. Or when the policy horses have bolted and there is a tendency to over compensate and use new prohibitions to put a band-aid on the problem previously created. Sometimes, policies take a long time to travel through society, like the indigestible meal you wished you never had. The effects are so remote from the cause it's not obvious what to do.

For example the strategy of setting tax incentives for investment in blue chips and property instead of business innovation and social entrepreneurship has led to investment bubbles in businesses that have refused to change their ways in the face of accelerating change. The oversight of a school system designed for the Industrial Age that bores our children and equips them for jobs that no longer exist has resulted in a growing pool of unemployables. Or failing to provide support to young families, so babies/toddlers develop the rich language skills that program their brains for success - being read to, joint activity, playful and conversation - before they get to school, means many people are behind the eight ball within 3-4 years of starting out on life.

A recent survey of young people shows many are faking their log-book entries because the task is impossible to achieve. Their parents do not have the time to supervise their driving and the cost of 120 hours of professional driver training puts a driver's licence on par with a university degree.

Any game player will tell you that when the game is "too hard" people give up playing, or subvert the game. Its the same with learning activities. If you were to drop a 5 year old into a calculus class they would soon be bored and boisterous. When we ban drink and drugs, people find ways around the law, to do what is banned anyway. It just goes underground. So from a psychological point of view the new law makes no sense.

It's the same with being tough on crime. There is not much evidence that these kinds of policies reduce the incidence of fraud, rape, murder, robbery, drug dealing or drug taking. But being tough on crime is a great strategy to get yourself elected as the sheriff or the district attorney. Lock someone up and there's a queue ready to take over the drug dealership or the robbery and fencing jobs of those inside.

In America some 2.3 million people are in prison out of a total population of 306 million, which is one in every 113. It's costing Americans a small fortune, money that might be better spent on early childhood, school education and encouraging entrepreneurship in the young and talented, to deal with the problem before it becomes an issue.

In marked contrast, the Australian prison population is just 24,000, out of a total population of 21 million, which is one in every 875. If Australia jailed people at the same rate as the USA 185,000 people would jave lost their liberty. On most measures of public safety, locking up far fewer people, does not make Australia less safe, although politicians are following the American trend, and have locked up 50% more people in the last five years, even though there is no evidence of an increase in crime.

The real test should be "what works?"

So here's a workshop to explore whether some of our laws/policies make sense or not:

1. What overly onerous examples of the law or policy position you or know about?
2. In what ways do these extreme prescriptions achieve a useful outcome for society? Give examples.
3. In what ways do these extreme prescriptions achieve a less than useful outcome for society? Give examples.
4. What might be a better/creative/sensible way to achieve a useful social outcome?

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