September 10, 2009

The Parable of the Frogs

One who knows “enough is enough” always has enough.

Tao Te Ching

What does it take to produce large-scale social change? Most historians, if you catch them in an honest moment, will admit that the popular levers of social change, such as education or legislation, are bogus; they don’t really amount to very much. What does make a difference–and then only potentially–is massive systemic breakdown, such as occurred in the United States in the fall of 2008. It was the greatest market crash since 1929, leading to widespread unemployment (something like 20% of the population, in real–as opposed to official–statistics) and the loss of billions of dollars in retirement savings. It had been many decades since the middle class found itself in soup kitchens, and yet there they were. In the face of all this, however, very little seems to have changed. Americans are still committed to the dream of unlimited abundance as a “reasonable” goal, when in reality it is (and always has been) the dream of an addict. President Obama’s $12 trillion bailout and stimulus plan is funneling money into the very banking establishment that gave us the disaster; it rescues the wealthy, not those who really need the money. And while he could have appointed economic advisers such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz (both Nobel laureates), who would have attempted to put the nation on a different economic path, he chose instead two traditional neoliberal ideologues, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, who believe in the very policies that led to the crash. “Change we can believe in” has never sounded more hollow.

The metaphor of addiction is extremely relevant to situations such as these, because addicts always seek to maximize their intake (or behavior) rather than optimize it, even though the former leads to self-destruction. In the face of what seems to be biologically driven activity, reason doesn’t have much of a chance. An experiment with frogs some years ago demonstrated this quite clearly. They were wired up with electrodes in the pleasure center of the brain, and could stimulate that center–i.e., create a “rush”–by pressing a metal bar. Not only did the frogs keep pressing the bar over and over again, but they didn’t stop even when their legs were cut off with a pair of shears And if you are going to object that human beings are not frogs, then you obviously haven’t been reading the daily newspapers, or observing the behavior of the people around you.

There are, of course, a few intelligent frogs around, ones who struggle to point out the difference between optima and maxima. They don’t have much of an audience, as you might expect, but inasmuch as this column has no pretensions to making a difference in the real world, let’s put the matter of popularity aside and concentrate on the ideas instead.

The first intelligent frog who comes to mind is the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, perhaps most famous for having been married to Margaret Mead. For Bateson, the issue was an ethical one. As he himself put it, “the ethics of optima and the ethics of maxima are totally different ethical systems.” The ethics of maxima knows only one rule: more. More is better, in this scheme of things; words such as “limits” or “enough” are either foolish or meaningless. Clearly, the “American Way of Life” is a system of maxima, of indefinite expansion.

But what if the reality of all social systems is that they are homeostatic, which is to say, designed to stay in balance? In that case, said Bateson, the attempt to maximize any single variable (for example, wealth) will eventually push the system into runaway, such that it will destroy itself. To take a physiological analogy, we recognize that the human body needs only so much calcium per day. We do not say, “The more calcium I ingest, the better off I’ll be,” because we recognize that past a certain point any chemical element becomes toxic to an organism. Yet we seem to be unable to extend this insight to the social or economic realm. We do not say, for example, “That company is making too much profit,” or “That individual (Bill Gates, Carlos Slim) has too much money for one person,” or “The Gross Domestic Product is spinning out of control.” Rather than being interested in balance, in stability, we are fascinated by asymptotes–frogs at the bar of pleasure, even while our legs are being cut off. We don’t get it, that if you fight the ecology of a system, you lose, especially when you “win”.

Maximizing a single variable, wrote Bateson, can seem like an ingenious adaptation, but over time it typically turns into pathology. The saber teeth of a tiger may have had short-range survival value, but this development weakened its flexibility in other situations that proved to be crucial. The “favored” species became so “favored” that it destroyed its own ecological niche, and disappeared. A gain at one level became a calamity at another.

In recent months, two American scholars of the intelligent frog variety began to understand this line of reasoning and to conclude from it that Adam Smith, with his theory of the “invisible hand”, was wrong. An early version of Gordon Gekko, with his eulogy of greed (in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, Wall Street), Smith argued that the collective result of individual self-interest was the prosperity of the whole. But the economist Robert Frank, writing in the New York Times (12 July 2009), argues that “traits that help individuals are harmful to larger groups. For instance,” he goes on,

“a mutation for larger antlers served the reproductive interests of an individual male elk, because it helped him prevail in battles with other males for access to mates. But as this mutation spread, it started an arms race that made life more hazardous for male elk over all. The antlers of male elk can now span five feet or more. And despite their utility in battle, they often become a fatal handicap when predators pursue males into dense woods.”

In the case of the market, says Frank, individual reward structures undermine the invisible hand. “To make their funds more attractive to investors,” he writes, “money managers create complex securities that impose serious, if often well-camouflaged, risks on society. But when all managers take such steps, they are mutually offsetting. No one benefits, yet the risk of financial crises rises sharply.”

Similarly, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner, in A Failure of Capitalism, points out that the crash of 2008 was brought about by individual actions that were actually quite rational: bankers and investors pursuing their own interests. Reckless behavior was quite consistent, he says, with being well informed about the risks involved in the context of an economic bubble, and so a great many money managers took those risks. The problem is that what was rational on the individual level was irrational on the collective level, thus leading to a systemic collapse.

We are thus led, quite naturally, from a consideration of optima vs. maxima to the question of individual vs. collective behavior. Which brings me to one of the twentieth century’s most intelligent frogs, the biologist Garrett Hardin, who posed the dilemma in a famous essay entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968). Consider, said Hardin, the example of a pasture shared by local herders. They all understand that the commons belongs to no one in particular, but supports the well being of all and is the responsibility of all. One day, however, one of the herders puts an additional animal out to graze, with the result that he increases his yield. The pasture, however, is slightly degraded by this. Meanwhile, other herders come to the same conclusion, and as each makes the rational decision to take advantage of the situation for personal gain, the net result is the overgrazing, and ultimately the destruction, of the common area. In a word, the system favors selfish individuals over those with greater foresight and restraint. Or as Hardin put it, “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” Frogs, in a word, are not to be trusted.

How, then, can excess be curbed in a free democratic system? For we can be sure that the intelligent frogs, who are really quite exceptional, are not going to be listened to, and certainly have no power to enforce their insights. True, there are certain countries–the Scandanavian nations come to mind–where for some reason the concentration of intelligent frogs is unusually high, resulting in decisions designed to protect the commons. But on a world scale, this is not very typical. More typical, and (sad to say) a model for most of Latin America, is the United States, where proposed “changes” are in fact cosmetic, and where the reality is business as usual. In the context of 306 million highly addicted frogs, the voices of the smart ones–Bateson, Frank, Posner, Hardin, et al.–aren’t going to have much impact or, truth be told, even get heard.

Of course, authoritarian systems don’t have these problems, which is a good indicator of how things will probably develop. Under the name of “harmony”, for example, China regulates its citizens for what it perceives to be the common good. Hence the famous one-child policy, introduced in 1979, supposedly prevented more than 300 million births over the next 29 years in a country that was threatened by its own population density. In the case of the United States, the imposition of rules and limits on individual behavior to protect the commons is not, at present, a realistic prospect; the population is simply not having it, end of story. But how much longer before this freedom of choice is regarded as an impossible luxury? In fact, no crystal ball is required to predict the future here. The tragedy of the commons–what Hardin called “the remorseless working of things”–is that a society like the U.S. won’t undertake serious changes even when it is sitting on the edge of an abyss. It has to actually be in the abyss before it will entertain such changes; i.e., it has to be faced with no choice at all. It seems unlikely now, but things are probably moving faster than we realize. In terms of population, food, resources, water, social inequality, public health, and environmental degradation, a crunch of the type I am referring to may be only twenty years away.

In Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, the character Valentine is confronted by an outlaw, who asks him if he is content “To make a virtue of necessity/And live, as we do, in this wilderness?” That may prove to be the only “choice” we have. As Thomas Hobbes put it, a few decades after Shakespeare, “Hell is truth seen too late.”

©Morris Berman, 2009