Why Are We Wasting Time?

Mendocino County

July 24, 2009 Ukiah Valley, Mendocino County, North California

I’ve nearly given up reading news and commentary of any kind. I hardly ever visit the usual widely read Internet commentary blogs or magazines of any stripe. There are only three notable exceptions: Ukiah Blog, the Ukiah Daily Journal letters to the editor, and the Anderson Valley Advertiser for Bruce Anderson’s commentaries and to get a laugh about the latest Supervisor foibles.

Surely, then, I’m not informed? I very much disagree. If you could see the stack of books surrounding us everywhere, you would see what nonsense that is.

Two of the latest books that have come my way are “Self Organization in Biological Systems,” edited by Camazine et al and published by Princeton, and “Navigating Social-Ecological Systems: Building Resilience for Complexity and Change,” edited by Berkes et al and published by Cambridge. Each includes reports of detailed studies and assume sophisticated understanding of ecology and other areas. They have much to say regarding our situation, but I’d bet no one in a policy making context will ever read them.

I don’t write these things to put you down in any way. My purpose is to buttress my feelings that almost everything that is dumped onto us by the media, Internet blogs, corporation marketing, and especially governments of all levels is superficial tripe. If we have a feeling for history, such as Howard Zinn documented so well in his “A People’s History of the United States,“ and all the discussions of related issues in the sixties and seventies that, in fact, were even then reprises of debates back at least to the seventeenth century, we surely must conclude all the latest is only endless repetition and gloss. The problems we are dealing with arguably may be traced back to the beginnings of intensive agriculture, e.g. fenced property and subjugated labor, and city-building almost ten thousand years ago, namely to the rise of hierarchal governments. This system in all its varieties of which I’m aware exists only by consuming people and the environment and scattering wastes everywhere.

Individuals and movements have been attempting to patch the situation in which we’re trapped from the beginning and failing. It appears there is a very simple reason for such failures. Towards the end of the 19th century, an Italian engineer-turned-economist named Vilfredo Pareto discovered a pattern in the distribution of wealth that appears to be every bit as universal as the laws of thermodynamics or chemistry. Pareto discovered that each time an amount of wealth is doubled, the number of people having at least this much falls by a constant factor, say typically 20%. That is, suppose for illustration purpose only that 50,000 Americans are worth at least $10 million. The number worth at least $20 million would then be discovered to be about 10,000, the number worth at least $40 million about 2,000, at least $80 million about 400, and so forth.

Another way Pareto’s curve is explained is by the so-called 80-20 rule: 20 percent of the population own 80% of the wealth; 20 percent of this 20 percent own 80 percent of that 80 percent or, i.e., 4 percent own 64 percent of the wealth; indeed, this pattern continues in ever finer detail, with 0.8 percent owning 51.2 percent and so on, with much of the wealth held by very few. The example ratio 80/20 differs for different countries at different times. In 2001, the American ratio was 84.4/20. Given the present recession, I suspect the ratio is even higher.

We’re always told that the favored are smarter, have better bloodlines and backgrounds, know more, and earn their wealth by hard work. Those of us who are dumb and lazy deserve what we get. In fact, there is evidence that is all nonsense. Two French physicists, Jean-Philippe Bouchaud and Marc Mezard of the University of Paris recently caste a different light.

Suppose a each member of a group of people are given money to invest (i.e. bet in a game), save, or some combination. When the game is played, a random few win while many lose. As investment bets are made on the next game, those who have lost are, it is said, more risk adverse and bet less; they have less to bet, in any case. Those who have won are more risk prone, i.e. they have been hooked by the typical gambler’s urges, and to bet accordingly. After this game is played, again a few have won, in fact won both games, but most have lost. If the game is played repeatedly with betting as before, a Pareto wealth curve results. In other words, wealth growth can be simply a matter of dumb luck and will happen whenever competition is free.

The Pareto game was played with money. Could have as well been played by dominance. Such behaviors aren’t only human. They have been documented in hens, cows, fish, frogs, rats, and several species of social insects. It likely happens between species as well and may underlie Darwin’s survival of the fittest. Bouchaud and Mezard’s result suggests that random winners in dominance battles are more likely to battle again, while losers may avoid future conflicts. If so, evolution would often seem to be a matter of dumb luck, the role of the dice. Of course, a bit of ability helps.

The dominance games we are playing are not just social and with other species, but environmental. The competitive capitalist economic system seemingly guarantees that the Pareto dominance curve will continue growing as long as there is wealth, i.e. power, in the form of non-renewable resources (oil, fresh water, agricultural soils, etc.) to be captured, which may not be too much longer.

My conclusion: as long as free competition continues, all the patching we little people might attempt won’t help, if only because those in power see no need for patches. All our votes, letters, petitions, demonstrations, and other attempts have been almost entirely for naught. Oh, they toss us scraps now and then so we don’t get too restive. Now we are being told the recession is over, but you and I down here aren’t expected to notice for a year or so. In fact, it seems to have been declared over because wealth doesn’t want regulations to get in their way. They know how the system works and don’t want our interference or even understanding. So, why is it that we feel compelled to play these games?

The most complex biological and ecological systems are marvels of cooperation, so called mutualism. Indigenous tribes were also frequently observed to be equalitarian and adapted without harming their places for thousands of years. Economists have used Darwin’s fitness to justify competitive economics and social and political policies, such as the war in Afghanistan. It appears to me to be wiser to consider cooperative approaches, to refuse to play the competitive game, to simply step out of the casino. I believe this is both possible and necessary for the future of some few us, as I shall describe later. Most seem lost in the game and will go down with the ship, but maybe not.
See also Muddling Toward Frugality