Looting During Brisbane Floods Teaches an Important Lesson

As the Brisbane River burst its banks into the city of Brisbane and surrounding areas and threw its people into a state of disbelief and disarray, I was watching the “hundred-year flood” unfold on the television screen from a close-by suburb.

As much as the flood and its effects were tragic and devastating to many in the community, a large proportion of the television coverage focused on the community spirit. Evidently, customers were helping small business owners carry valuables out of their properties, good Samaritans were going around in small boats rescuing people from their inundated houses, out-of-towners were helping sandbag the houses of locals.

Positive energy was pervasive, perhaps even eclipsing the expected heavy mood summoned by the dark times. The television presenter made an ironic observation in an effort to sum up the altruistic character of the people: “We see this side of people come out in times of tragedies and difficulties; we can see what they are capable of.”

The warmth of the community spirit was palpable even from where I lay watching the television, twenty or so kilometers from where all this was taking place. But then, all of a sudden, there was news that the presenter coined “simply disgusting” that seemed to force a dagger through the positive vibe and spirit engulfing the community. The news was that there were opportunists looking to loot homes and other properties where possible. Some were trying to snag empty yachts and jet skis floating down the river and some had even attempted to steal beers from empty pubs.

The feeling of scorn upon the alleged looters was conspicuous in the faces of the presenter and the reporters on television and it was analogous to that which is directed at a drunk who spoils the wedding ceremony by confessing his love and lust for the bride and proceeds to urinate on the cake. This was not your average looting; it was extreme greed and selfishness at a time when the victims were in deep despair over losing their homes and their sources of livelihood. The looters had not a fiber of humanity left in them, it seemed, for this was no different than the act of an animal. The whole community was infuriated and it was evident that this community could hate together as much as it could love if it was wronged.

The reason this case was different and quite interesting was because virtually everyone in the Brisbane metropolitan area was so engrossed in what was unfolding at the time that it seemed as though everyone reacted at that same instance to the news of the looting, which was very unexpected during times of such camaraderie. It was as when a burglar is caught and the whole neighborhood is out in the street watching, people shaking their heads, and some hurling their shoes at the burglar. But in this case, the neighborhood was the whole metropolitan Brisbane, two million strong.

There is always a similar level of negative reaction among people when it comes to judging acts such as stealing: it is simply deplorable. Seeing or hearing about stealing produces an almost innate reaction of disgust among humans. This is familiar to anyone who has seen a thief get caught in the act and exposed to the crowd. Even the pacifists can be seen having a punishing swing at the thief. Even if it was a relatively small act of stealing, it remains as one of the most humiliating experiences of the thief’s life.

The instinctive reaction of disgust towards the act of stealing comes from one of the basic moral codes of humanity. This moral code asks of a person to respect the right of ownership of property of another person. If this moral code of respecting the ownership of property was to be broken freely, mankind as we know it would not exist. The reason mankind works as a civilization is because when a fisherman spends his whole day catching a few fish, he gets to keep the fish as the fruit of his labor. The fish become his property. This is the fundamental principle that civilization runs on. If another person were to simply take the fish from the fisherman without offering any compensation and if bystanders were to simply go about their businesses as if nothing unusual had happened, the fisherman would lose any incentive to fish again. The fisherman would not want to waste his precious energy and time all day if he did not get to keep the reward for his labor. In this way, nobody would really work and without work we would not even be close to what civilization has become today.

The looters of the Brisbane flood produced reactions from the community that is expected, as that kind of reaction is what has kept civilization from imploding, keeping looting and such activities to a minimum. It is quite reassuring to see that when necessary, a whole community of two million people can react instantly with a deep sense of injustice.

As I just stated, it is reassuring to see that the capability of a community to react together in such a large scale almost instantaneously exists but, on the other hand, it is also quite perplexing to see this capability utilized so rarely. It can only be presumed that the aforementioned kind of reaction to injustice does not appear against other acts of stealing because the people of the community are not all aware of it, at the same instance, as people were about the looting.

There are some kinds of stealing, although significant, may not even be seen as a form of stealing by many. And this incongruence of judgment may be the reason for the inexistence of a meaningful reaction.

Going back to the fisherman example, if the fisherman came back from a whole day of fishing with fifty fish and another person came by and took twenty of the fish, would that be considered stealing? Most people would say yes. Now let us assume that the boat and the fishing equipment that the fisherman used belonged to that other person. Would the other person taking the twenty fish considered to be stealing the fish now? Depends on how much is fair, what the fair rent is. Now, in the final scenario, let us assume that the fisherman’s livelihood is dependent on fishing but to maintain his livelihood he needs to bring home at least thirty fish per day. The fisherman does not have the resources by a long stretch to purchase or build the kind of vessel that would bring in at least thirty fish per day. So, in order to maintain his livelihood, he is forced to fish from the boat owned by the other person. He catches fifty fish in the whole day with his labor but at the end of the day, he is only given thirty fish to take home, with him having little negotiating power in the matter. The fair-value rent for the boat would be ten fish. The boat owner takes the other ten fish home. This is, in fact, the real life scenario of almost everyone who works for a profit-making company. Is this stealing by the boat owner? There may be a tendency to quickly resort to the answer of “unfortunately, that is just the way it is,” when asked to rate the fairness of the last scenario. But that does not answer the question.

This is where the feeling of powerlessness will make one blurt out something like, “Yes, a small part of it may be stealing, but there is nothing one can do about it but accept it as harsh reality.” When someone steals a couple of beers out of a pub full of other valuables it can apparently produce reactions of disgust amongst the whole community almost instantaneously and become the talk of the whole town. But when workers do not get back the full share of the fruit of their labors, which happens everyday, to everyone, everywhere, when some ‘fish’ that belonged to them gets stolen everyday, the deep instinct that usually springs into action at the slightest appearance of theft gets deflated, confused about what to think because we are paid ‘thirty fish,’ but we fail to realize that we had actually made them a lot more ‘fish’ than that. Is stealing just two beers out of twenty beers in the fridge not stealing? Should it not produce the same kind of reaction of disgust? You would not have to steal the whole twenty-pack of beers for it to become ‘stealing.’

What gives a company the right to take more than it deserves from the fruits of labor of a worker, which is the worker’s property. In fact, there is a euphemism for the stolen property: PROFIT. The fact that profit exists is also proof that the company is taking from its workers more than it deserves. If the rent for the fishing boat was ten fish but the fisherman only gets to take home thirty fish, the ten fish has become profit for the boat owner, something that was the fisherman’s property. As we know, when companies make profit (and most large companies make enormous amounts of profit), they grow larger and larger making people dependent on them and powerless over them. It can be imagined just how much stealing goes on behind the scenes everyday, infinitely more than the few beers looted during the floods. However, there is never a meaningful and sustained reaction by the community.

This great instinct of recognizing and punishing theft that has brought mankind so far into civilization seems to be getting duped in recent times, and when stealing can go on so freely, everyday, and in such a vast scale, a great catastrophe has to be imminent. Symptoms of this looming catastrophe can already be seen by events such as global financial crises and global warming (both borne out of corporate greed), but if we keep on tolerating and condoning this mega-scale everyday theft, our civilization could well collapse as its pillars of moral codes rot away unused.

I believe that humanity is capable of reacting against such greed and selfishness, but such reaction has been kept dormant so far. As was learned from what happened during the 2011 Brisbane floods, if enough people know about it, if the theft gets exposed on a large scale to a large audience at once, the community will react, especially if it is in a state of crisis. What will be ironic, I predict, is that this state of crisis will be brought about by the greed and callousness of the corporations and the companies that secretly exploit workers on an everyday basis.

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About fliqside

This blog is called back to evolution because it is partly influenced by evolutionary psychology as a tool to explain human behavior in the modern world. It is also influenced by the belief that nothing should be taken at face value and everything should be challenged. Most importantly, it is inspired by the possibility of understanding the human psyche in order to promote the well-being of our global community as a whole. - Hridesh Gajurel
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11 Responses to Looting During Brisbane Floods Teaches an Important Lesson

  1. Pingback: Anonymous

  2. Dipanker says:

    If the boat owner couldn’t make a “profit” he would have no incentive to even own a boat to rent out to the worker to begin with, then the fisherman would well….have less than thirty fish. If the boat owner was taking too much of the share, another boat owner who at the time is not renting his boat and has no time to fish from this boat himself, or a person who is willing to take less profit, would come along and offer the fisherman the right to keep 31 of his fish, cover the cost of maintaining the boat with 10 fish, and keep 9 fish…and so on and so forth until the last marginal person thinking about buying a boat will drive down the “profit” to simply the opportunity cost of the boat.

    • fliqside says:

      Why are you thinking of incentive in such a narrow-minded way? Is profit really the only incentive that exists in the world? People can own boats for many different reasons if you step out from the paradigm of capitalism for a minute. How about the incentive of being helpful to someone instead of seeing it as a chance to exploit his labor for his own benefit? The profit incentive scenario leaves someone who inherits a boat from his father in a position to just rent out his boat to others, never fish in his whole life, and yet have plenty of fish without deserving the reward of labor.

      Furthermore, the second scenario you presented of ever-decreasing profit until it only covers the opportunity cost does not exist in the real world. In the real world, there is no perfect competition because there exist things such as political influence, unethical behavior, propaganda, and so on. And economists seem to have the hardest time grasping this simple reality. And when one or two entities gain advantage against the rest, by having two boats each instead of only one, that two will soon become four, eight, sixteen….until most of the boats are owned by the one or two entities and they set the price, or the rent of the boat. And of course, how lucky are their children compared to the other children of the world. I guess that’s just the way it is.

  3. Dipanker says:

    The boat owner supplied the capital and the fisherman supplied the labor, why is the person who supplied the capital so undeserving of anything? Maybe he didn’t just inherit it from his father, maybe he worked hard enough and did something of enough value for someone else to be able to afford a boat (in the “real world” not everything is not inherited – I’m being sarcastic here, of course you know this and of course economists know that political influence, unethical behaviour and propaganda exist, I don’t think there are many economists out there who do not believe in laws to help prevent such things, as a matter of fact their models depend on it). Even if the guy did inherit it it was his fathers choice to give to him, and maybe his father worked hard for it. In any case without the boat the fisherman would have a lot less fish, he is also profiting by using the boat, a full 30 fish. Now with his 10 fish the boat owner is free to do whatever he wants, maybe he donates the 10 fish to a near by orphanage – what he does with the ten fish is his prerogative. In fact letting the fisherman keep the ten fish he is donating the ten fish to the fisherman, he maybe just decided the orphans needed it more)

    • fliqside says:

      The boat owner is not undeserving of anything. If he built the boat himself, then he certainly deserves to reap the rewards as long as the rewards he reaps are equal to his labor’s worth and does not encroach upon the fisherman’s labor unfairly.

      I was referring to companies as boat owners here. Now you know as an economist, that what a company is supposed to do is maximize its profits. When a boat owner (a company) maximizes its profits, it sure doesn’t stop when it’s fair to stop (because fairness is not something the market considers). It will try to get as much fish out of the fisherman as possible and the boat owner always gets more than he deserves. Why? Because, like you said, the fisherman needs a boat to get fish and feed himself, so he doesn’t have a choice. Just as when a worker has to get a job to survive and he doesn’t have a choice. And how do we know that the boat owner always gets the much better end of the deal? Because it is much harder to find a job that to find a worker – the negotiating power of the boat owner is much higher. Now just because you have a boat and I am a fisherman, why should life be much easier for you?

      Of course, there is no way to stop this, the wheels of capitalism started turning a long time ago, and I bet it is going over the limit at the moment. What humanity needs is not a focus on profit and giving it such high status as the number one priority of all organizations. After all, where do all the profits go? To those that can afford to buy capital, and the more capital you can buy the bigger chunk of profit you can get. And after you get that, your buying power increases even more, raking in a bigger chunk of profit next time. So basically, the richest people in the world, who have a huge collection of profits in their banks, have nothing more but the labor surplus of hundreds of thousands of people that was taken from them unfairly. That’s why I have much more respect for a university professor (especially those in the non-financial sectors) than a company CEO because because what the former is doing is adding true value to mankind while what the other is doing is adding profits to the pockets of the capitalists.

    • fliqside says:

      by the way, you should start a wordpress blog too. Would like to read your articles. You have good analytic ability and critical thinking skills.

  4. Dipanker says:

    Ok so now are getting into price setting (ie how many fish is the “fair share”), as you know top down price setting was attempted in communist russia but because markets are dynamic, intricate and non uniform, and there are millions of things with prices, this was a huge failure, some things in some places were grossly overpriced, somethings is some places were grossly underpriced. In the capitalist model, prices are decided on the margin, ie each individual scenario might be different (in one village there might be two boats but only one fisherman, in another there might be one boat and two fisherman, the prices would be different but top down price setting cannot distinguish things like this – think about the man power needed to set the correct price for everything in a vast economy given that every economic transaction is pretty much a unique one) and the price is the market clearing price (or closest thing to it given some people exercise monopoly power, extortion etc..all of which are illegal but exist)…..so now that pricing takes care of itself, where you decide the “fairness” is in your tax code. If the boat owner takes the 10 fish a day, and lets say his overall income from other sources is a 1000 fish a day, so he earns 1010 fish a day, then you tax his ass at a higher marginal rate, and with that you provide services to the fisherman like healthcare, welfare, education grants because he is only earning 30 fish a day. So in conclusion since price setting is impossible to manage efficiently, you try to bring about fairness through the tax code, this is where you decide it by figuring out what the tax rate should be at each tax bracket, what size the tax bracket should be, at what level do you levy no taxes and and start providing benefits etc.

  5. Dipanker says:

    And on a more macro level, companies that look to hire the cheapest possible workers, I see this as a good thing, because those willing to provide the cheapest labor are the people who need it the most, as long as people are not forced into labor (and some certainly are, either by physical force or by destruction of their previous means of a livelihood – ie pollution etc…all of which I agree are bad things and will touch on later). For a quick analogy say a minimum wage of 8 dollars an hour, and take the homeless guy on the street versus a college student, both are willing to work for 8 dollars an hour and there is one job open, who are they going to hire? Because the price is not allowed to fall the college student will get the job even though the homeless guy needs it more, so the college student makes 8 dollars and the homeless guy makes the few pennies you give him. Now lets say the price is allowed to fall, at somepoint the college student says fuck it but the homeless guy is still willing to work, even if his pay rate is slightly above what he is making just begging (which apparently is in the 20 grand range in some places in the US) he is better off, also since the company has cut its costs, it has more profit that can be taxed etc. Lets say people in developing nations are the homeless guy and people in rich countries are the college student. People in North America sometimes balk what workers in developing nations are paid to do ridiculous hours of work, they say oh they should be paid more etc, but if they were paid lets say as much as American workers, then the company that makes the products is better off having the factory in America than elsewhere, and if so there would be no factory in the developing country, and people in developing countries need the jobs so much more than the americans. There is mis perception that before the capitalist model took hold everyone was living large off the land and that factories from abroad came and ruined peoples lives but this is not true, infant and maternal mortality rates were through the roof, as were mortality rates from preventable or easily treatable diseases, life span was short, the amount of hours worked was pretty much all day…..all just to sustain life (no extra savings)….think about the poor farmers in the hills of Nepal. For a person like that, when a factory comes in and pays them even that marginal amount more than what they can make now it is a positive thing, maybe with that marginal amount they can improve their diet, or they can buy some medicine, or after saving a little they can buy a goat etc…often the governments of these countries cannot provide the services I talked about above because there are not enough profits to tax, but as slowly more factories move in the more services the government can afford because there are more and more economic transactions that they can take a slice of. Now to talk about the ugly side, when factories move into developing countries, governments are poor and often do not have the sufficient resources or expertise to deal with issues like pollution and other externalities that should be illegal (maybe is but the government can’t enforce it) but companies can get away with it because they hide it, or they exploit the developing country’s lack of expertise on the issues – this is where I have a problem. As wrong as it is even if you take this into consideration on a broader scale if the number of people who benefit is large and the number of people who lose out is small, would you make the trade off? most developing countries have decided its worth it and I tend to agree, in the end private enterprise has brought around 3 billion people above the level of just barley being able to sustain themselves so that they can think beyond just their next meal and become things like University Professors.

  6. Dipanker says:

    I have always thought about starting a blog, but never felt my writing and rhetorical abilities were good enough to do my views justice – ie I feel like I have a hard time saying exactly what I want to say in a easy understandable way. I am pressed for time now though with my exam but maybe I will take some writing classes after June and finally get around to starting one.

    • fliqside says:

      First off, I think you are articulate in your writing (from what i can see above) and pretty persuasive as well. You have the right mixture of facts and opinions, connected with logic in a relevant way – and this is rare. You come across as knowledgeable and reasonable. So, I definitely think you should start a blog. It really isnt as much work as you think at all. Even if you cut and paste what you’ve written above in the comments and give it a title, it could be your first article. The thing is I get a lot of good ideas in my head, but they get lost, sometimes for good, because I don’t write them down. I can’t even imagine how many good ideas I have lost. When I pour my idea into an article and put it in my blog, not only have I saved something that could turn out to be very precious, but the big list of ideas that will build up over time could have many uses: could write a book, could help organize my own views on the world, could become stepping stones to even grander ideas, could help me get the spotlight i may deserve, could get noticed by someone influential, could help me see the changes in my thinking over time (mental evolution), could spread those ideas to receptive minds, could even be used to sell as content for websites (original content is a big thing these days), and so on and so on. For me, personally, as I want to go into academia – it could prove to be something that gets me into a top school. The benefits are too big to ignore. And seriously, starting a blog is as easy as setting up a new e-mail address, and definitely easier than starting a facebook account but far far more meaningful. If you got an idea, type it up in 10-15 mins and put it into the blog. haha, just read the shit above; i come across as a wordpress representative. but for real tho, you really cannot ignore it. And since I know you well enough, I bet you’ll become addicted. I guess thats how highly I think of blogging now.

      Anyway, I was gonna reply to your comment before I started my homework, but I got carried away about blogging and don’t have time left for it now. But I’ll defnitely reply to that soon, check back for that.

  7. fliqside says:

    you argued very well for economic efficiency, or even socio-economic efficiency with your argument about developing countries. but that’s not the point i’ve been trying to argue at all.

    My point is that the economic system that is presently employed to dictate the condition of the world is a system that is devoid of essential human characteristics such as emotion, empathy, and spirituality.

    When you talk about the developed and the developing world within the current economic paradigm, there is only one linear supremacy – the richer the better. What you clearly ignore, as you know, are such things as culture, attitudes, and manners.

    Of course, in the capitalist paradigm, the fact that nepali workers (the beggar) get the job instead of americans (the college graduate) is better for the nepalis. Why? Because we consider money to be the fundamental and the solitary contributor to happiness (utility) in economics. Here, of course, I have to call upon the legendary Maslow’s heirarchy of needs. If the basic needs of food and shelter and security are met, man’s desires stop becoming materialistic. Then, you have to acknowledge that the basic structure of classical economics starts to break down because it has no explanation for the higher needs of humans.

    As far as your tax explanation goes, it was a very pertinent point. I agree with you that the way to deal with the current situation is with taxation. But, you have to agree with me that that taxation in that sense is no more than a bandage to a very deeply cut wound.

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