Jessica Elkin takes a tongue-in-cheek glimpse at life in an Orwellian dystopia and asks if this could mean an end to flawed actuarial data
Boys and girls, this week I will start the student page with a bit of a story. A bleak, depressing sort of story, but a story nonetheless.
An East Berlin secret police agent, spying on a popular writer to look for evidence of anti-socialist activity, is startled to hear the writer planning to smuggle a friend into the West under the seat of a car. He picks up the telephone to tell border control, but hesitates. Despite never having met him, he has grown fond of his subject.
After a moment of deliberation, he changes his mind and replaces the receiver. "Just this once, my friend," he murmurs. Little does he know that the writer was testing to see if his apartment was bugged, and would take the lack of repercussion as a signal that he could start illicit anti-state activity undetected. Unbeknownst to him, the agent would hear
I watched The Lives of Others recently, and it is a brilliant, tense, unsettling film about the Stasi agent's ambivalent and evolving attitude towards the subjects of his observation: the playwright and his girlfriend. It won both an Academy Award and a BAFTA, which does not surprise me because it is subtle, understated and poignant. I wholeheartedly recommend the film to anyone, unless you hate subtitles, because it is German. It is especially disturbing to watch the tyrannical and corrupt machinations of state versus citizen because it is set in the recent past well, the eighties, anyway.
The film got me thinking, like most things, about actuaries. How would we fare in that same surveillance state? Think Orwellian dystopia, or Big Brother, or that disturbing programme where parents watch what their kids get up to in Magaluf. (Some may argue that we already live in a surveillance state, but that is not for me to debate today.)
By the sounds of things, data records would be meticulous and detailed. As the surveyed writer in The Lives of Others notes: "The state office for statistics on Hans-Beimler Street counts everything, knows everything: how many pairs of shoes I buy a year (2.3); how many books I read a year (3.2); and how many students graduate with perfect marks (6,347)."
This would mean that censored or flawed data would not prove to be so problematic as it is now, thus improving the daily working lives of administrators and actuaries everywhere. Additionally, it's difficult for people to lie about their activities when they're being watched. General insurers would certainly benefit from a system that virtually eliminated moral hazard. So far, so good.
This is assuming that insurers have access to the data, of course. It could be that the government would work against them. In the East Germany depicted in the film, there is - rather creepily - no state data kept on suicides. This would not bode well for life insurers. Government actuaries would probably be instructed to suppress information on mortality, or manipulate mortality tables to make longevity improvements look better. I am sure I needn't go into how this would contravene the Actuaries' Code. That being said, the state could always write a new Code! How convenient.
What about us?
Alas! For us students, the Student Consultative Forum (SCF) would probably be abolished, or at least it would become a process consisting of a lot of hot air with falsified reports. If you said something like, "I quite like the Great British Bake Off," you would probably fail all of your exams as retaliation for championing the non-socialist West. Although you'd at least have an excuse.
Following on from all of this, I would not be able to criticise the Establishment on this student page. The column would therefore be reduced to mere fluff - the very idea! Thankfully, this is not necessary. As usual, if there is anything in particular you would like me to explore, or if you have any comments you'd like raised at the SCF, you should drop me an email.
For now we can enjoy our lovely freedom. Freedom to work, freedom to play, freedom to study. Odd, really, isn't it? We so take our liberty for granted that we put ourselves in chains. Still, it feels worth it when you pass.