On Discretion:

Jokes about the better part of valor aside; In most facets of our lives we largely impacted by the decisions of others, here in the U.S. (hopefully) that impact is diluted among many different people. In nations less developed or social/political systems that are mostly authoritarian one person’s discretion can have an effect on many people. While this CAN be a good thing, I am going to argue that discretion is more of a reflection of the environment and condition of the individual exercising it than of the individual’s worth or character. While this is not applicable to all situations: most times communication is the ounce of prevention where punishment is the pound of cure.

Making the right call: I think it is fair to say that no one can be expected to make the right call all the time every time. Part of the human condition is making mistakes and any student of history can point out countless examples of normally reliable people exercising poor judgment. That being said, the other end of the scale is that under the right conditions (almost) anyone can make the right call. Sadly we rely on the same people to exercise discretion on a regular basis: Cops, Lawmakers, doctors, teachers just to name a few.   Starting with cops and working my way through the list I will demonstrate how environment plays a critical role in how people in these ( and other ) professions exercise discretion. Most of the time officers exercise discretion it is for a “good” reason, meaning that if (via magic) you could go back in time and look in the officers head, and see the choices they had and the reason they went with the one they did you would agree, if not condone. I make this assertion based on a fact and a lot of anecdotal evidence. Fact: most interactions with the police do not result in complaints, I will not bog us down with research on the matter just go with me for now. So an average cop under average circumstances is going to make a good call, but what if the situations starts to get messed up? Debt is a super common reality of financial life for a lot of Americans, how would a lot of debt affect a cop’s discretion? Now I think that for most cops it would not affect it much, not to the degree necessary that they would do anything different from a non-debt cop, but it is plausible that they might have reason for pause when counting money for the first time. Now let’s take debt cop and add in a messy divorce, upset sleeping habits, generally poor mood and the like. Is he going to make a “bad” call? Maybe, maybe not the point is he is at best going to make the call that normal conditions cop is going to make, and he has a lot of pressure now to make a bad call. The more people making calls ( or exercising discretion) under circumstances like these the more bad outcomes we will get. So our system has no concern for the situation of the person making a call, but doles out punishment after the fact. It is too late after the fact, lets say debt cop gives in a takes some money, now he goes to jail and a life is ruined, but was he really a bad person? Or event a bad cop? With an all or nothing approach we are setting up these people to fail, then jumping on them when they do. A far better approach would be to allow “wiggle room” for people, judgment is not an on/off or good/bad switch there are gradients of gray, FAR better we encourage debt cop to let people know, but that kind of social change seems to be beyond what we are willing to do.

Why focus on environment though? What would happen if debt cop tried to talk to anyone about his debt possibly affecting his judgment (instead of letting it fester and lead to crime)? Best case scenario he is put on leave, worst case he is fired ( unlikely) or transferred (possible) and gets a reputation and a sharp halt in advancement. There is really no good reason for debt cop (or anyone!) to communicate that anything might be affecting his judgment. There are tons or reasons for him to keep that to himself. Our environment encourage people to “tough it out” alone, and that is a problem, when a person has only their own judgment to rely on that is the WORST possible judgment possible (especially when they are stressed somehow). Not the worst outcome necessarily, even on our own we are plenty capable of exercising awesome discretion, but it is like a die roll, when you add another person to the mix it’s like adding another dice: it is still possible for 2 die to come up snake eyes, but the more people/dice you add the smaller that chance gets more over while debt-cop’s dice might be rolling at a -1 penalty ( because of the debt stress) that will not apply to others. Forcing people to keep quiet about personal problems also forces them to make decisions on their own when they are the least capable of it, this is where discretion starts to cause problems for others and society at large.

The other professions I listed ( and many not listed) are the same way: admitting that something might be affecting your judgment is a death sentence in politics. Imagine if an elected representative held a press conference to say “I am concerned about the funds in my re-election campaign, to the point that I should not be running the state for a few days”. It will not happen, however the stress and poor decisions that result from that stress do happen, all the time. Take any corruption charge, who is more likely to accept a bribe, the person who has all the money they need, or the person who is poor? (Again, not all rich decline bribes and not all poor take them; my point is it’s a motivation)

So why do we incentivize dishonesty when it comes to our own judgment? That is a topic for another day, the point is that we do, and this causes the people we trust to exercise their discretion for good to instead exercise their discretion for … themselves.

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