The unsolvable problem

Last week we examined some of the causes of poverty in the Philippines.

One of these was the messy land title issue.

You probably wondered, why doesn’t someone just fix it?

It was be very difficult and any solution would be imperfect – but surely it is possible.

Reform the laws. Send out armies of officials into each region, hold public meetings, use GPS to map boundaries, set up an inexpensive dispute resolution system to deal with all the conflicts.

Back the process up with the national police as required. Catch a few officials taking bribes and make examples of them. Do this also with those who try to subvert the process.

It might take a decade or longer, but with sufficient will, the entire archipelago’s land ownership titles could be cleared up and recorded by the national government.

Many other countries have surmounted this problem. Some of them did it centuries ago without GPS, computers or M-16s to ease the process.

So what’s the hold up?

I’m not entirely sure, but I think the main issue is the lack of will.

The whole country would benefit from securing everyone’s property rights, through enhanced agricultural output, economic development and so on, but elites would not benefit in particular.

There’s not really anything in it for them, so why bother going to all that trouble?

Looking around the world, it seems that every country has at least one such intractable problem – a long-running issue which has a potential, difficult, imperfect solution, but a solution nonetheless.

These problems persists for decades because no one ever fixes them.

Let’s look at two other such problems in order to see the pattern.


Being my own country, I know several such problems there.

Some of them really are intractable, like Aboriginal poverty or the overlap of powers between the states and the Commonwealth. These are essentially unsolvable for reasons that I won’t get into here.

Others have potential solutions that are generally agreed upon to some extent, but nevertheless never get solved.

A good example is the tax system.

All sides of politics agree that the present system is inefficient and unfair. To take just one case, payroll tax effectively punishes businesses for hiring extra people. It would be better to scrap such inefficient taxes and replace them with a slight rise in a broader tax like the GST (VAT).

The whole issue is very complicated and cannot be solved easily. It would probably take bipartisan support, cooperation with the states, and would result in a camel of a plan that is a genuine improvement but satisfies nobody.

Such is policy.

It is possible, however. What’s the hold up?

Australian governments of late seem very reluctant to address difficult issues in general. It’s much easier for them to go for easy, popular, fairy-bread policies like ordering nuclear submarines that may never be delivered or closing borders to stop a nasty cold.

As with the problem of land title in the Philippines, the underlying roadblock seems to be the lack of political will. Elites running the country would suffer criticism from those quibbling about the eventual solution, while gaining very little from the effort personally.

It’s become a cliché for a reason: this sort of thing gets put in the too-hard basket. It’s easier to tolerate the inefficiency and let the country be much less fair, wealthy and secure than it could be. The consequences are hidden and diffuse, thus responsibility is easily dodged.


1. Japanese students take English from Grade 5 up to the end of high school, and often into university, too.

2. As measured by international surveys, Japanese consistently have the worst English of any comparable Asian country.

It is beaten not only by Malaysia and the Philippines, as you’d expect, but also by South Korea and Vietnam.

Despite its supposedly world-class education system, Japanese English skills are about on a par with Ethiopia, Colombia and Afghanistan.

Is this a problem?

Well, given the massive amount of time and money poured into it, yes, it’s a huge problem. They should either be good at English or devoting those resources to something more fruitful. Dance classes, perhaps.

But anyway, what’s the cause?

Everyone involved has known the answer for at least thirty years: students are taught primarily by translating convoluted, contrived, stand-alone sentences that are free of all context. The focus is mainly on memorizing obscure and sometimes archaic grammar.

Real-world English like stories, films, and funny YouTube clips never appear in the classroom. These are considered irrelevant compared to the stilted and agonizingly boring Japanese English found in the textbooks, which will be the stuff on the test.

If a bunch of psychologists at a conference, perhaps as a joke, designed the dullest and least effective curriculum possible, I don’t think they could beat it.

More successful countries focus more on communication and much less on little-used grammar.

So what’s the hold up?

There is no English communication on the test. It’s mostly grammar.

Why don’t they add communication to the test?

There’s no perfect way to do it. Assessment would not be black and white. It costs money. It takes time. Wealthy families that can afford private lessons would have an unfair advantage. And so on.

But aren’t these problems outweighed by the one we’re trying to solve, that all this English education doesn’t lead to any actual ability to use English?

Once again, we return to the basic problem that prevents any of the word’s intractable problems from being solved: lack of will.

When you get right down to it, the Japanese government doesn’t really want its kids to speak English. Nor does its aging population as a whole.

They are incapable of saying or even realizing this, but it is the truth.

So why waste all that money pretending to teach English? Well, to look international, I suppose.

That’s nothing unique. I reckon a third or more of all human time and effort globally is expended on ineffectual window-dressing.


Such intractable problems can exist anywhere – in households, companies, tennis clubs.

They persist because the organisation’s leaders lack the will to solve them. There is no direct benefit to them from dealing with it, only complication and headaches, so they let it go or only pretend to address it without really making the hard decisions.

What if their interests were impacted? Well, that’s different. Here’s a perfect example of what happens when the elite bubble is intruded upon by the real world.

I don’t have a solution to the problem. It emerges from human nature.

If we ever appoint an AI overlord that can make super-intelligent decisions to improve our nations, it will shake things up and ruffle a few feathers, I’m sure.



  1. Frank K · December 29

    Governments prefer to address easy, feel good, problems. For example, starting January 1st, retailers in my state will be legally required to charge 10 cents per plastic or paper bag (which have always been free). This fee is nothing more than a tax, as all the money will go to the government.

    Governments prefer to “fix problems” that have no real impact on the populace, other than picking their pockets. Solve homelessness? Affordable housing? Lack of good paying jobs that don’t require an advanced STEM degree? Forget that!

    Liked by 3 people

    • luisman · December 29

      You’re right. The probability the government solves a problem increases, if they can charge a vig for it permanently.

      In the Philippines, busloads of lawyers and their offspring to the 10th generation will charge an arm and a leg to clear up land titles, judges are paid handsomely to delay the court day for another year, etc. Lawyers are a large part of government. They may spit in the face of their colleagues, but they won’t dare to take their daily bread.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kentucky Gent · December 30

    “I reckon a third or more of all human time and effort globally is expended on ineffectual window-dressing.”

    Interesting. And probably a very good estimate. I think the problem is simply IQ-related. Half the population is of below-average intelligence. They are simply incapable of being as effectual as the higher-IQ folks who, by the way, are also not perfectly effectual themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nikolai Vladivostok · December 30

      Most of my present job is ineffectual window dressing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • lemmiwinks · December 30

        I feel like most, if not all, of my working life has been ineffectual window dressing*. However the pay was too good to refuse. After a lifetime of laptop class work, I’ve shoehorned my way into more interesting (to me) work recently. However using heavy machinery to maintain and prepare land is looked down upon, regardless of it’s actual value to the institution.

        I think the old series “Dirty Jobs” highlights this pretty well. There’s lots of unglamorous yet important (sometimes vitally important) jobs out there, but most people don’t care or can’t wait for that peon to be replaced by a machine and/or AI.

        * Possibly because I’m just a minor cog in the machine and don’t see the end result, possibly because it is actually ineffectual window dressing, or maybe a bit of both.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Kentucky Gent · January 1

        NV, my apologies – I didn’t mean to imply you have a low IQ

        Liked by 1 person

  3. dickycone · December 30

    I’ve long felt like classes to learn foreign languages are mostly useless. That makes me wonder how English is taught in countries like Sweden and the Netherlands where most people not only speak English, but speak it very well, nearly as well as native speakers.

    Is this really something that can be taught at school? In my experience, at least 95% of learning a foreign language is effort you make on your own: grinding out hours of study at home, using your broken Spanish game on a cute Mexican girl, etc. Do Swedes and Dutch people spend hours on their own obsessively working on their English for years like I did when I learned Spanish and Russian, or have they actually figured out how to teach foreign languages that well in school in those countries?


  4. Dinodoxy · January 1

    WRT intractable problems. The US has several.
    Our tort-court system is one. It’s a convoluted costly drag on economic activity and social harmony. All types of organizations, not just businesses, wind up going through ridiculous gyrations over fear of lawsuits. The total net cost to society has to be an order of magnitude or two greater than the gross aggregate of the judgements themselves and the cost of litigation – which runs hundreds of billions.

    Its a completely crazy system of social engineering that is unreformable because of the concentrated benefits to lawyers and successful plaintiffs and the fact that most of the coats imposed are opaque to average people. There’s also cultural factors involved, including risk aversion, atomized individualism and a leveling tendency.


  5. Vizzini · January 1

    I friend and I worked in Japan for a while. His characterization of The Japanese Way was that they always choose the path of maximum pain. Many other ways of teaching English would be more effective, but their method is more painful, so…. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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