Broken Feedback Loops

«Suppose you merely scolded your puppy, never punished him, let him go on making messes in the house … and occasionally locked him up in an outbuilding but soon let him back into the house with a warning not to do it again. Then one day you notice that he is now a grown dog and still not housebroken – whereupon you whip out a gun and shoot him dead. Comment, please?»
«Why … that’s the craziest way to raise a dog I ever heard of!»
«I agree. Or a child. Whose fault would it be?»
«Uh … why, mine, I guess.»
«Starship Troopers» by Robert A. Heinlein

Decisions have consequences, and they must have consequences that increase or decrease the likelihood of them occurring again. It doesn’t have to be on a «Darwin Award» level, but without early and noticeable feedback, things cannot improve. On the contrary, they spin out of control, because there is no correcting feedback.

I think one of the greatest underlying problems today is that we remove people from the consequences of their actions. Oversimplifying a bit, make bad decisions in life, no problem, society will catch you. A safety net will prevent the worst (at least in many Western countries). And nope, I’m not arguing against a safety net per se. There are many situations in which people made the best decisions, but — due to circumstances out of their control — they have to rely on that safety net.

But there are also lots of stupid decisions.

One of them is studying something that costs a lot of money (and time and energy!) but that will never pay the bills. It is a bad idea to cancel these student loan debts. Not only do other people have to pay for something that they did not do, but the former students escaped the feedback loop of having to — literally — pay for their bad decisions. Even worse, the ones getting the money — hugely expensive colleges and universities — are reinforced to offer expensive courses and maintain a bloated bureaucracy. They surely won’t stop offering useless degrees if they get reinforced for it.

And yeah, you see something similar with giving tax breaks for electric vehicles, or giving citizens more money to pay expensive gas/electricity bills. If the state — e.g., the taxpayers — pays, there is no need to improve or change anything. On the contrary, you can further increase the prices.

And yup, operant conditioning has its disadvantages, but we need that feedback loop. And we need it early when things are still salvageable.