Regina Saphier: Corrupt Dictatorships Kidnap Societies
Political Systems Are Able to Powerfully Distort Behavior Using the Channels of Peer Pressure and Social Networks: A quick look at corrupt dictatorial socialism, democratic socialism, liberal capitalism… “good” societies… “bad” societies… and my memories of Hungary before 1989…
Stigmatizing Swedes in the US?
The more twenty something Swedish liberals are exposed to a social democracy during childhood the worse their journalistic superficiality when reporting a highly sensitive social topic in a major international magazine while studying in the US?
A fresh study from “The DHYB Institute” * revealed that young liberal democratic Swedish men, especially Columbia graduates interning at The Economist while studying at Harvard are highly likely to write one dimensional and superficial articles. *Note: “The Don’t Hold Your Breath Institute” does not exist, I just made it up to be able to hold up a mirror in front of Simon Hedlin Larsson, Marjorie Deane Intern at The Economist who wrote this unbelievably short, superficial and damaging article about Dan Ariely’s research involving Germans, a dice game and very little amounts of money (note that the word “dice” is still misspelled in the original article, because the editors could not care less… rest assured that valid and constructive criticism is also very unlikely to impact them…):
Economics and ethics
Simon Hedlin Larsson: Lying commies
“The more people are exposed to socialism, the worse they behave”
“The authors found that, on average, those who had East German roots cheated twice as much as those who had grown up in West Germany under capitalism.”
When in Rome, do as the Romans do? Are you sure? How did I perceive my own childhood before 1989 in Hungary? How do I perceive the Hungarian society today?
It is not easy for me to write about my experiences under communism, but not for the reasons you would assume. My story is highly atypical, but I feel I need to tell you where I am coming from in every sense of the word. I grew up in Hungary, in Budapest, but I also spent a lot of time in western countries since my childhood (mostly on my own, not with my family and mostly after 1989). A major social conflict I had to endure in Hungary (after I returned in 2002) was that people not only could not put up with my straightforward style, but simply called me an idiot for not participating in the local social cheating games. It is like not eating monkeys in a rainforest when visiting a tribe (that knows everything about monkey eating there is to know). You appear a loser to them, because it is survival that matters to these people and your best qualities mostly don’t mean a thing in their milieu. So, I have my insider experience with “the social jungle” in “Eastern” Europe, and it is not a fun one (not only because I am an eternal outsider in my own motherland, but also because I have never been a big fan of peer pressure and empty goals… plus, I keep having my own opinion and I even dare to voice it).
Surely you would like me to give you an example…
Note: If you don’t want to spend time reading about my childhood memories, skip the next part and scroll down ten paragraphs all the way under this title: “Now back to the article in The Economist”
When I renovated my apartment in Budapest several years ago, it was torture. The main contractor (who came highly recommended by some locals) was surprised when I asked him to sign a contract. I know! How shocking that I would ask for a contract! Right? He brought smoking, drinking, uneducated workers lacking the basic ability to read an architectural drawing (I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I am able to read architectural blueprints… so, I am the misfit here… obviously). There were idiots wanting to (secretly) run the electrical wires so that they would cross one another in the wall in a totally irregular and unpredictable way (less wire, more money stays with the contractor)… and they were surprised to learn that this would be life threatening and that doing this was also dishonest. And this is not unusual here (… but wait, is it not possible that this could happen anywhere in the world…? well, in fact it could…).
Also, to the half dozen other contractors’ dismay I asked for invoices when handing over money. People here mostly don’t ask for invoices when renovating their homes. But the most shocking development to them was that a woman would fire them without payment if the work was unacceptable… or when I noticed their dishonesty. That was unusual to them. These people still think that something was wrong with me. Here are my mistakes again: I did not want the workers to smoke and drink in my apartment, I wanted electrical wires to run safely in the wall, I wanted the workers to be able to read blueprints, I wanted contracts, I wanted quality, and I wanted invoices. How horrible of me. I am sure you get the picture. This is the local culture and this happened in the capital, in one of the best districts. These same people would probably be more educated, more intelligent, more diligent, more precise, more respectful, better regulated and managed in Sweden. While personally this was a very painful experience, I am able to see that these people were not born to be evil or stupid, and I know for a fact that it wasn’t socialism that distorted them… the problem is so much more complicated. Socialism was legally over in 1989… yet the social structure and the culture did not become healthier.
When I think of my childhood I don’t remember socialism and I also don’t remember communism…
My mother was in an unlikely position in those days, because she was a homemaker. My father opted for collecting antiques and independence (collecting art is not exactly a group activity you know), instead of an office job (or instead of anything involving superiors). Therefore I didn’t know a thing about people in offices and in factories. The only place that I knew before 1989 was the school system (beyond our home). My parents found ways for themselves to remain outside the system (as much as possible), while letting me endure the school system alone, because there were no other options (at least not to their knowledge). My mother loved school and summer camps as a child, but as an adult she did not mingle much. I was a girl and so I was expected to be girly, to be social and to love school.
I hated my schools in Hungary (in fact as soon as I could I registered as a private student at my high school in 1989 and moved to Austria for a school year on my own to learn German, to go to school in Graz and to work as a nanny… I was only 17), and I never went to summer camps. I’m more like my father, disliking formal schooling… he by the way never set foot in any of my schools in Hungary (he hated schools very much… I did not know that until much later) and he never really noticed how much I suffered from the formal school system (while girls are expected to put up with unbearable things, boys usually stop adjusting and quit… one of the double standards of societies)… We all loved to learn about things that were interesting to us.
At the same time I’m lucky that my parents let me move to Graz alone at a very young age to assume my own responsibilities and explore the world. This was very unusual 25 years ago in Hungary, to complete four years of high school in three years (I had to pass a series of private exams at the end of the third high school year to be able to join my former class for the final year), while also working during the third year, plus going to a vocational school and learning a new language in Graz, Austria. I had the chance to shape my own learning. I wish I had mentors, but no guidance system was in place for my kind of people. All this in fact could have happened to me in the US. I am sure you see that most of my story fits both socialism, democracy and capitalism. Non-conformists struggle with the system everywhere.
What I remember from my childhood in Hungary is that nobody was supposed to speak freely on the phone and people were standing in line for bananas and oranges. We could not travel freely. News and knowledge from the West did not really make it to Hungary. I don’t recall it as a system that shared its goods with me (no redistribution). I remember that during a class reunion (when I was already in my thirties) some of my high school teachers told us stories how they smuggled things across the border (from Austria). I also remember how in high school the old school, conservative teachers and the young, progressive, reformist teachers were yelling at each other. I always knew that I was an outcast in those schools, I just did not know: why? I didn’t yet know just how different my family was… while others grew up with cheap retro furniture and uniformity (everyone had the same kind of cupboards, chairs and tables), I remember antiques, colors, textures and diversity. While many families had no books or a few books, we had lots of books. This is how I remember the times before 1989… I remember the feeling of not really belonging to any social group. Meanwhile, I was surrounded by a society that either really enjoyed camaraderie (those were often either naive, or privileged ones, or people coming from a poor background) or at least diligently pretended to enjoy the system. I understand that most people did not have choices. People were locked into a bizarre, paranoid and isolated society.
As a child I was not aware of much. We lived in a small family bubble. What made me aware was the social and political transition and my own, independent travels beyond Hungary. It was during my teenage years that I found myself suddenly being one of the delegates of a school protest in Hungary when the director fabricated a reason to eliminate the best professor, a liberal history teacher (this was after I returned from Austria). Until that day (right before our high school leaving exams) nobody mentioned that I might be a courageous leader (and little did I care about the risks: high school exams in year four were important parts of the university application process and university entry was artificially limited to a small number of people). I felt that I should be able to stand up for what I believe in without being afraid. This in fact is a very democratic value and I didn’t pick it up in school, that is for sure.
I think one reason for not knowing a thing about my leadership qualities was that I was wholehearted, independent, introverted (with some extroverted qualities that I picked up from my parents) and never subscribed to peer pressure… So, nobody in those days risked to tell me how to become a leader. I lived with the assumption that everyone should be able to think for themselves (it turns out, most people don’t really like to think or lead, most people like to mindlessly follow… but for some reason I think this is changing as more and more people have the opportunity and the ability to learn online). I never came across any acceptable role models either. I did not perceive my teachers as role models to be followed at all. I felt most of them were rather troubled people. Ever since I recognized my own intellectual and leadership qualities I also started to consciously observe and analyze people and their “group think” tendencies. The more I experienced in life, the more I observed the human rituals of leading, following, marriage, religion and politics, the more bizarre human behavior appeared to me. People, I realized, build surreally firm social structures even out of thin air to eliminate their suspicion that life is short and that they are not really important in the universe. People construct importance, positions, ranks, hierarchies and dictatorships, even now that they are able to learn almost anything online for free, can use tools that are a bit more complicated than a stone, should be able to think for themselves and are no longer monkeys on trees. But I know that positive change is also constructed out of “nothing”… because we imagine things and try to realize those ideals. We are an interesting species in the universe. I wish we used our mental powers to create healthy societies that respect people in groups and individually.
Hidden layers that I did not know about at the time, only came to see them later
At my schools, kids with influential parents, who liked to party and went to “elite” summer camps (so much about being equal under communism) were very likely to end up in leadership positions later. The ones willing to serve their groups mindlessly got nurtured, included, rewarded and promoted, especially the extroverted ones. Only decades later did I realize that classes that kids were grouped into by school officials (when kids first entered school) were very often selective based on their parental backgrounds. I can tell you, I have never been in class A in school, because my parents were not in the communist party, were outside of the top ranking leader range and held no offices (nobody in my immediate family held any public or “business related” offices). Those who enjoyed the last decades of the softened socialist dictatorship in Hungary were the ones closest to the fire, receiving the most benefits. If you adjusted, you were fine. If you did not adjust, you had to face a lot of problems and you often encountered invisible roadblocks. The most privileged of the system change era are now the “leaders” of Hungary, no matter what party they are part of. Needless to say: I am still not a party member and will never be one. I hope I managed to show you that I’m not a beneficiary of the past system and I have my critical opinion of this particular society. I also feel that my non-conformist tendencies and my unusual family bubble prevented me from being mentally “kidnapped” by the corrupt socialist dictatorship that surrounded us.
Now back to the article in The Economist
In my informed opinion, the way Simon Hedlin Larsson reported the Ariely research in The Economist is dangerously simplistic and even the original researchers came up with the wrong conclusion in their infinite “wisdom”, because it is not socialism on its own that causes people to cheat, rather it is corrupt socialist dictatorships pretending to be communist that distort people for generations (unless something provides protection, like an unusual family and personality in my case). Also, just one question: Have you done some thinking how likely the capitalists were to do amoral things in former “communist” states? (Perhaps at least twice as likely?) No matter what hypocritical “western” business schools like to teach about avoiding corruption in corrupt markets (I suspect that is impossible to avoid in international business).
While I embraced the system change (I went as far as graduating from Columbia University in New York in 2002), it is hard to ignore the fact that there were no homeless people in the district where I grew up in Budapest before 1989, and now homeless people are part of the landscape. This tragic phenomenon, as well as drug abuse (beyond rampant alcoholism), joblessness, anorexia, morbid obesity, body image issues on a large scale, overt racism, violent crimes, and so on arrived with “morally superior” capitalism. The negative results of “super” morals and attitudes of capitalism: objectified life goals, masses of homeless and jobless outcasts, stress, anxiety and existential fear among the masses. Starved and/or threatened people with limited means were centrally “slenderized” under the dictators of “communism”, and full employment was just a way of storing people in buildings (to stop loitering) while increasing the national debt (to keep up appearances of a “functional communist society”), so people mostly only traded the causes of stress when going from “communism” to “capitalism”… a healthy social structure never followed.
When you combine socialism and democracy, you get Sweden, and I don’t think that people in Sweden are more likely to cheat (I know that Sweden is also a capitalist market economy, but redistribution in Sweden and in the US cannot be compared). Only when you combine socialism and corrupt dictatorships will you get the cheating behavior of East Germans as reported by Ariely and his team. Socialism without corrupt dictatorship does not necessarily distort behavior. Both the researchers and the interning journalist failed to make, explore and emphasize this important distinction. The hidden agenda of the young and politically active journalist is that he hates socialism in Sweden, but he is afraid to say so publicly. He thinks socialism in Sweden makes “undeserving” people dishonest, so he opted for psychological, historical and geographical transference. I am only theorizing here, but might just be right.
Meanwhile in Hungary… today…
Right now the biggest problem of Hungarian society: the phenomenally rotten “elite”. Not only did they keep their past “morality” of “take everything that belongs to the community” (the best example from the early years of the transition is the privatisation process during the nineties… the biggest takers now have their own schools, radio stations, companies and offshore assets… left and right), but they also adopted the locally “new ethics” of capitalism: “the richer you get the better for you”. So now, here is how they think: “Let’s take everything that belongs to the community because the goal is to be rich” (and now the goods and funds include the EU resources too). These people live with the most shocking sense of entitlement, with amazing amounts of ignorance, and don’t know (or don’t want to know) that this is simply wrong. My problem: Just how do you distinguish this from the amazingly amoral and über risky behavior of the western bankers who caused this major economic crisis that the entire world suffered from (and in many places the suffering is not over yet)? We urgently need a new elite, but the members of the old “elite” are suffocating the country.
Sudden and prolonged trauma both go very deep into the psyche
Back to my issues with the above mentioned research and article. If by the end of the 1940s in New York you would have tested German jews who escaped Hitler, and at the same time American jews enjoying the safety of the US from birth, and if you did the same test with the offsprings of these people one generation later, you would have discovered that exposure to a nazi dictatorship resulted in understandable mistrust towards institutions and other people, and this probably resulted in questionable behaviors (that would not be present without the trauma). You could have discovered powerful behavioral differences. The same is true for people exposed to corrupt “communist” dictatorships. Trauma, existential fear, pathological social systems (like dictatorships and autocracies) and wars cause epigenetic changes and so: lasting personality, behavioral, cultural and social changes. The original research had more to say about the reasons and the causes (compared to the short article in The Economist). Unfortunately, the Economist article basically says something like this (I am making this up for demonstration): “Germans in 1944 were twice as likely to appear to be nazis based on a simple test compared to French people” (why not compare the two… they are neighbors in Europe… if we follow the bizarre logic of Ariely). This is how it sounds to me.
The Economist article ends like this: “The study reveals nothing about the nature of the link between socialism and dishonesty. It might be a function of the relative poverty of East Germans, for example. All the same, when it comes to ethics, a capitalist upbringing appears to trump a socialist one.” Says the privileged young journalist from social democratic Sweden who apparently did not really read the research and knows next to nothing about socialism, communism, democracy, corruption, capitalism and the possible combinations of these… he is the naive child who thinks that it is only personal effort in capitalism that makes a difference and “only the lazy never make it”… but this is a delusion. The young journalist failed to display true journalistic talent and missed an opportunity to publish a marvelously intelligent, compassionate, well researched and deeply analytical article in this area. Let us hope that he will learn and change and not let his social bubble isolate him from reality for ever.
It is easier to be honest and correct in a healthier and richer society and the devil is in the details
I wrote in one of my essays (mostly about China, but also about Hungary) in July 2013: “Dictatorships not only brainwash and isolate people, they also distort people on the cellular level for generations. That is a crime against humanity. Outsiders and even privileged insiders usually “somehow” fail to see that. Change makers in these countries are mostly regarded as strange and are powerfully hindered by the conformist masses and by the rotten status quo even after the dictators are long gone.” Regina Saphier: The United States of China (Part 2)
Simon Hedlin Larsson published his article in a major magazine. Imagine an HR pro reading that article and coming up with the sad conclusion that he or she will never hire an “East” German IT professional again because those people are “rumored to be cheaters” (rumored because not many read the original research article and the original article in fact says much more, yet still too little). The way Simon Hedlin Larsson framed this story (“Lying commies” / “The more people are exposed to socialism, the worse they behave”) fuels discrimination and stigmatization, and he failed to express basic empathy with a traumatized “group” that is as diverse as Europe and Asia combined.
The worst Neo-Nazis in Sweden might have better politically correct table manners… I’m assuming (at least these people think that they love Sweden, while the young, liberal, expat intern apparently hates socialist Sweden and is inclined to stigmatize others)… Some of the Swedish extremists are being pushed out of Sweden to fuel extremist right groups in Hungary… in a country with a very fragile social and political immune system… Plus, Hungary wasn’t so lucky financially and economically as the East Germans were… “Communist” Hungary did not have a “Capitalist” Hungary to pour money into the recovering and devastated economy after 1989… Just how “dishonest” would the average Hungarian be during Ariely’s dice game? (I know Hungary was called The Happiest Barrack… but still…) I even give you this assumption: Mr. Larsson quit Sweden because he so powerfully hates the socialist tendencies of his motherland. Mr. Larsson is a big fan of liberal capitalism, and he is probably a democrat. Telling you the truth, I dislike all of the political and social systems discussed in my blog. When I think about options like the “Unconditional Basic Income”, I am thinking about options to restore Basic Human Dignity and let people explore new avenues in their lives. (Regina Saphier: Unconditional Basic Income) I strongly believe that technological abundance, an optimal unconditional basic income, and free online learning will lead to some very important and positive social changes.
Wait! Why are West Germans still cheating in such a simple game?
In the end I ask you, and here I refer back to my example of not devouring primates in the rainforest with the tribe you are visiting: Why are “West” Germans still fond of social “monkey eating” (cheating and lying for no good reason during a meaningless game)? Mostly well adjusted human beings use white lies to keep a healthy social balance, but: Why do people with a high standard of living, high income and no recent trauma caused by a dictator still cheat on a silly game? To me, this is the real question! And this is the kind of irrational behavior that Dan Ariely truly likes to explore. Therefore the right questions are these: How come “average” people are only twice as likely to cheat after so much past suffering and readjustment stress? Is it not possible that the truly irrational behavior happens when people without recent or inherited trauma, and with optimal income still cheat during a meaningless game?
It is simply not true that the original research article does not say a thing about the reasons. On page two and in the “Discussion and Conclusion” section there is an explanation saying that there was extensive scarcity, citizens were constantly observed, followed, interrogated, and freedom of speech was not a viable survival strategy. However, for no good reason the researchers keep saying that it was socialism that resulted in distorted human behavior. Again, in my opinion this is wrong. Socialism without a corrupt dictatorship does not result in lying and cheating. If you grew up in Sweden (like Simon Hedlin Larsson did) where democratic socialism is dominant, you should know this. It is dictatorial socialism or dictatorial anything (mostly) that distorts people… but even more precisely it is corrupt dictatorships that are inherently dishonest. But have you seen how people are distorted by unregulated market economies and capitalism? I have seen the change. Both systems are powerfully distorting, dishonest, and misguided.
Let’s see: Surveyance is present in the US, scarcity is present in African countries, preference for the common good is present in Japan, utopian socialists built the Kibbutz system in Israel. Cubans and North Koreans live in two different kinds of dictatorships (Cuba is now a bit like Hungary was a few decades ago, while North Korea is a bit like former East Germany+The GULag, so N. Korea is much worse).
Look at North Korea and South Korea
There you have it: try to compare the honesty and dishonesty levels in N. and S. Korea. What does an active dictatorship do to people’s morals compared to the hyper competitive capitalist side of the same nation? You will see that those living (or having lived) in the North Korean dictatorship (and perhaps escaped… note: cheating and lying… note: to survive…!) will show a heightened level of motivation for cheating and lying (even the next generation). (Note: Forces that make South Koreans be so extremely suicidal might have some surprising impact on morals… Nothing is black and white…) The difference won’t be related to communism, nor to socialism, and not even to capitalism itself. The difference will show strong correlation with oppression, scarcity, anxiety, shame, alienation, stories of mysteriously vanished relatives and friends, forced labor camps and public executions… in other words powerful and regular stressors… and so with epigenetic changes… even changes in the microbiome… and with differential neurological development… and survival strategies observed within families and in a society. I would never judge a North Korean refugee for his or her understandable paranoia and hardly unlearnable visceral reactions. Would you? I would want to talk about this, I would want North Korean refugees to get help. Of course I would also want to know that people make conscious efforts to overcome the powerful inclination to distort the truth and/or cheat. At the same time those without the traumas need to learn what happened to traumatized people and be as compassionate as possible.
To quote my 2013 article again (Regina Saphier: The United States of China (Part 2)): “… look at citizens in Germany, so close to each other (not apart like the US and China). People in the eastern part are very different from the people in western Germany. Decades of epigenetic changes due to a long era of suffering, fear, stress, anxiety and lack of resources and lack of freedom don’t disappear from one day to the other. At least two generations have to go before people in Germany start to look similar and indistinguishable again.” I called this process in my article “PSCS”: “post-system change syndrome”. If it is easier for you, look at East Germans and North Koreans as victims of a mass kidnapping that lasted for decades. Look at them as former and present day hostages of a politically sociopathological system. Don’t be sorry for them, don’t discriminate, don’t judge, rather learn to ask: “What happened to you?” Learn to be compassionate and listen. (You might also like to read Part 1: Regina Saphier: The United States of China)
It was not primarily the economic context that impacted East Germans’ honesty. It was rather the corrupt political layer that impacted the culture (note: I am sure not everyone internalized this culture). If you have a political leadership that is not corrupt, you have a completely different game (Singapore is supposed to be one of the least corrupt countries with a strong economy and it does utilize elements of a dictatorial system). Composing the wrong hypothesis in this case is similar to comparing a rich kid who lives in a well to do neighborhood and a poor kid who lives in a poor neighborhood and ignoring the fact that the poor kid experienced domestic violence, as did his or her parents, while the rich kid and his or her family did not. First, I only assumed that The Economist simply permitted a young journalist to be the five year old running around with scissors in a supermarket, but while this is true, at the same time the researchers simply came up with the wrong hypothesis or the wrong conclusion, and were negligent in their analysis. Look what happens when research based on a misguided and superficially defined hypothesis ends up in the hands of a badly mentored Economist intern. (Who financed the study by the way? What was the purpose?)
There is a reason why I stopped reading The Economist many years ago. I also find it dishonest that the articles appear without the names of the authors. I only know the name of this author because he used to be my first degree connection on LinkedIn (until he noticed my open criticism… after that he simply deleted me… how “convenient”… but not my loss actually). I publish with my full name everywhere. Who is dishonest now? The woman with a face and a name who grew up in a former “communist” state (while it fell apart), or the international magazine publishers with capitalist backgrounds and their faceless and nameless writers?
Sweden’s democratic socialism does not make one dishonest (if you have the right culture). East Germany’s corrupt dictatorial socialism did distort people (without the right culture), while it pretended to be communist. But hey, what do I know, I’m just an independent thinker and blogger taking the time to actually think and write about the world we live in.
Tomorrow is the 58th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising that happened in 1956. Warning: Hungary today shows signs of a corrupt dictatorship in the making. The fact that the leaders of the past did not go away and the leaders of the present got their power during the global economic crisis makes this a very dangerous situation on the eastern edge of the European Union in a poor country with a very thin layer of European culture, a high number of people living in the underclass, while members of the middle class, the upper class and intellectuals (left and right) are migrating to richer and much more developed countries. The European Union must stop giving free money to the corrupt Hungarian leadership in the form of EU grants. It is imperative for the EU to introduce the Unconditional Basic Income on a European level in member states like Hungary to give the freedom of choice and power to the citizens to be able to free themselves from the corrupt leaders and to live an honest and productive life. The money is there, only the channels of distribution must be changed. We don’t want to go back in time. We want to go forward, face the future with optimism and build a healthier culture.
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