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Ok….last week Ferrebeekeeper proposed brainstorming some fundamentally new ways of doing things to help us out of the worldwide social sclerosis of the last two decades. Time is swiftly marching on… Where are the ideas already? Well, it turns out it is hard to reinvent the world (especially if you are tired out by working at a meaningless & incomprehensible dayjob which you are no good at) and…well…actually, maybe that is a great place to start! Let’s take a look at the worldwide economy, the “invisible hand” which compels so much our behavior. Specifically, let’s launch some broadsides at the self-dealing field of economics.

Sadly, in this iteration of the worldwide society, “the economy” has more recognizable power over your day-to-day life than probably any other entity. Such a conceit is nonsense, of course. If something were to go a tiny bit wrong with, for example, the sun, it could scour away life on the planet in an instant with a bullwhip of crazy radiation (other stars which are not so temperate produce this kind of solar flare all of the time). Yet all of the world’s stellar physicists could probably fit in a Denny’s, whereas there are more economists then there are crabeater seals (one of the most numerous large mammal left in the wild). These highly paid specialists (the economists, not the crabeater seals) accomplish very little except to fill our world with fallacies and misery. How did we end up with such fumble-fingered mechanics tending the great engine which powers all of our enterprises and hopes?

Economists study the ways that humans allocate and use resources. The dismal scientists try to frame basic rules based on the behavior which they observe and measure. Equipped with these axioms and principles, the economists then posit more productive and efficient ways to allocate resources and achieve certain desired outcomes. It is a famously boring and technocratic field filled with statisticians (and even more exotic varieties of advanced number crunchers). A few of the top performers get Nobel prizes or highly paid sinecures in academia. A handful more become talking heads or pundits. The majority are shipped off to be managers, financial consultants, CFOs, finance advisers, and the like.

Unfortunately, economists are infamous for getting all of their predictions and blueprints completely wrong! Just as medieval physicians could not save patients and medieval astronomers could not explain the motions of the stars, there is are basic reasons that economists are not good at explaining or modeling the economy.

Bacterial colonies in petri dish.

At an individual level humans resemble cruel and intemperate monkeys (for good reason–since that is exactly what we are) but seen through a god’s eye view at a global level we look more like a series of codependent yet competing bacterial colonies. This is the critical idea of today’s post. Economics pretends to be a hard-edged applied science like physics or mechanical engineering, but people do not behave like energy vectors or pistons. We really are more like bacterial mats, or corals, or colonies of crab-eater seals. If economics took its language and methodology from evolutionary biology (macro economics) or behavioral biology (micro economics), the discipline would become vastly more efficient at understanding and describing complex human systems of resource use. I suspect that we would also become much better at predicting and guiding our activities in useful and sustainable ways.

The idea that biology is a better template for understanding the activities of people (who are known biological entities) is hardly a new one. The great philosophers and thinkers who invented economics borrowed liberally from the forest and the farm to explain their new discipline. But alas, many of these ideas were burned away in the blast furnaces of the industrial revolution and in the mechanistic efficiency drives of hard-nosed capitalism. After Smith, Bentham, and Stuart Mill, economics quickly fell into the hands not of utilitarians but of rigid formalists, and there it has languished ever since!

Perhaps the great problem with economics is that it is paid for by patrons who have already decided exactly what they want (more of what we have right now, thank you). Economists got bought out. Those think tanks and endowed chairs are paid for by Koch brothers and their ilk. Don’t even ask about the second tier economists (who work as CFOs rather than professors). They are too busy squeezing the balance sheet to be bothered with any other concerns.

Anyway, the net result of the philosophical and scientific errors at the heart of this academic discipline are extreme. Public policy is poisoned by a priori economic assumptions which are obviously false–like the idea that people make economic choices by rationally calculating their best interest! Take a single cursory look at the world and then tell me if you believe that Homo economicus is really at the helm.

It is a shame that I have attacked and belittled economists throughout this article (although I’ll do it again). The economists I have actually met have demonstrated enormous mathematical talent, analytical ability, practical intellect, and quantitative genius (and self-discipline!) in ways I cannot understand, much less emulate. But since their discipline is corrupted by dogmatic faith that people’s behavior fits highly mechanical models (and by moneyed interests) these virtues do not much help us move forward.

All of this is starting to change, however, and there are economists who dream of reclaiming their scholarly discipline from the money men and business weasels. The real point of today’s post is to introduce an economics website which which uses the broader ideas of biology and sociology to inform economic thought. The website is called “evonomics” and it is filled with brilliant insights into how we actually work and spend (and how we could do much better). As you have probably gleaned from even this short essay, even the powerful tools of biology and psychology don’t fully address the full spectrum of economic concerns. Questions of what is fair and what is desirable–humanities questions!–enter into economics as well. As it uses evolutionary biology to rewrite the economics textbook, evonomics also makes space for such liberal arts concerns. After all, humans MADE the economy. We can remake it in better ways, if we can only think and plan better. We will talk more about this, but for the moment, check out that website (and, of course, let me know what you think).

Right now the western democracies generally–and America, specifically–are caught in an agonizing cultural tar pit where we seem unable to reform or renew ourselves. The fundamental root of this problem is socioeconomic: business monopolies and corporate cartels are gobbling up more and more of society’s resources and using those resources to prevent true competition from emerging. The vast corporate cartels also use their resources to subaltern politics and prevent government from properly regulating and rectifying this unfair market dominance. As Republicans (or nationalists, or Tories, or fascists, or whatever they are called) sabotage and discredit the government at the behest of their corporate masters, the nation becomes afflicted by stalemate and gridlock. The more the pro-monopolist politicians can make things worse, the more they can claim “government is broken.” Then these corrupted politicians privatize services we all need (and destroy research and development, which are, after all, dangerous to the great monopolies). The corporate cartels become yet more powerful. The government grows more feeble. Voters grow more disillusioned and alienated. Society begins to falter and fail.

On the side of the world, our national adversaries have none of this to worry about. In Russia and China, the monopolies have won completely. This confuses many people since it happened the opposite way over there. Instead of business cartels installing a corrupt single party to cement their social control, a corrupt single party has installed business cartels. However, the net result is the same: a single cabal of autocrats makes all of the rules and controls all of the resources.

This perspicacious article from Matthew Rozsa makes this same case (albeit in a somewhat different way). The writer asks that a political and cultural coalition of Generation X, Millenials, and Zoomers rise to the political challenge of our times in the same way that the Lost Generation, the greatest Generation, and the Silent Generation managed the epic crises of the mid-twentieth century [by the way, here is a link to some long ago posts about these demographic cohorts].

I think this is a great idea…but it is going to call for more ideas. Imagination is allowed on the internet…but not anywhere else in our world! In order to out-compete the huge anti-competitive cartels we are going to need lots and lots of ideas. We will need not just new ways of doing things but new reasons for doing things. When I was younger I used to hear “Oh these ideas are great, but how will they make money” Well what is money doing for us? It is only a placeholding symbol for status and resources–like the score on a videogame, or the gilt crown on a tinpot king. It is not actually an end in and of itself. The fact that so many people think otherwise is part of the problem. The MBA-ification of our civilization has stolen our best minds and created this monopoly problem to begin with! Let’s brainstorm new solutions!

All of which is to say, Ferrebeekeeper is going to start a new series of posts about how society can better focus humankind’s dangerous primate drives and tendency towards certain terrible fallacies into more productive directions. Many of the most compelling new ideas for doing things are being suppressed–because people are afraid to even examine them or argue about them. I have no illusions that we will find the next economic paradigm to replace capitalism (like it replaced mercantilism or mercantilism replaced feudalism) but I do believe that by brainstorming, fantasizing, and looking more deeply at past societies and the world of nature we can do away with some of the reactionary thinking, corruption, and parochial obscurantism which are trapping us all in a system which is killing not just us but the whole world of life.

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We are swiftly coming up to the United States election and Ferrebeekeeper needs to endorse a candidate. You can probably already guess whether I will endorse the competent and hard-working patriot (the one who is admittedly very ambitious and bit sloppy with finicky data protocols) or the unhinged con-artist who is not only an ignoramus, a bully, and a bigot, but poses an existential threat to the republic itself. However, before we get around to making this difficult choice (and, maybe…finally reaching an end to this ghastly and divisive national contest) we need to think about primatology.

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Specifically there was an experiment conducted by primatologist Frans de Waal with some capuchin monkeys to understand social behavior and social cognition in primate groups.  In the experiment, the capuchins (who are exceedingly bright characters) were asked to do a small task in exchange for a food reward while the other monkeys watched the exchange.  Some monkeys were given grapes…which capuchins love.  Others were given little slivers of cucumber (a far less valuable treat) for completing the same task.

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Not surprisingly, monkeys who watched a different monkey do the same task for a much better reward flew into a rage. They hurled their cucumber away and banged on their plexiglass enclosures and shook their little bars and sulked.

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Now, a tiny sliver of cucumber is not a valueless thing for a monkey who spends all day being tortured by scientists and fed bland monkey chow. Probably the rational thing to do would be to take the cucumber and kiss the cruel scientists’ hand and call it a day (then quietly wait for a chance to rise up, bite some faces off, and enslave Charlton Heston).

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But if you were a monkey and reacted with apparent docility to unfair treatment, who knows how you would be taken advantage of next? It wouldn’t just be primatologists who took advantage of you, soon enough your fellow monkeys would too.

What is truly important to social animals is status: this intangible commodity is fungible and it is pegged to a highly complex and immediate relative framework. A cucumber slice, though fine in its own right confers less status than a prestigious grape.  To throw it away and freak out makes sense to capuchin monkeys because larger issues are on the line (even if they are apparently hurting themselves in the short term).  Spite matters for monkeys: it is one way that monkeys can mess with more powerful entities and protest the unfair allocation of resources and rewards.

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Again and again the question arises among the people I know in New York of how anyone could be taken in by an illiterate orange charlatan with a pronounced tendency to molest woman, steal from workers, and cheat on taxes.   Maybe some people truly believe in Donald Trump, but I believe for a larger number of people in the middle of the country he is neither the grape nor the cucumber: Trump is the act of throwing the cucumber away.  High status monkeys should take note and make some immediate changes, but I suspect they will only hide their equities in the Cayman Islands and buy bigger Bentleys. Primates are not great at solving social hierarchy problems without lots of shrieking, biting, and shit-throwing.

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