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(This essay is an elaboration of Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems).

Imagine that I offered each person in a group the following deal: You can agree to give me $30, and in return I’ll give $10 to each and every person in the group, including you. I’ll give the $10 to everyone, whether they paid $30 or not, for each person that does pay $30.

Each person is faced with an offer to pay $30 dollars in return for, to him or her individually, $10, a bad deal for that individual (a loss of $20). But since everyone else in the group also each gets $10, for any group with a membership of more than three people, it is a bigger return to the group than cost to the group. If there are 10 people in the group, and everyone makes the deal, they each pay $30 and each get $100 in return, for a net gain of $70. However, if one doesn’t pay, he or she gets $90 outright (9 people taking the deal times $10 to each person in the group) while each of the others only get a net gain of $60 ($90 minus the $30 paid in). The individual incentive is not to pay in, even though everyone is better off the more people who do, with everyone coming out ahead if 3 or more people pay in. Those who don’t pay in, however, always do better than those who do (the “free rider problem”).

This dynamic is a major underlying force in the generation of social institutions, which to a large degree exist to overcome this collective action problem. There are many scenarios woven throughout our collective existence in which people benefit from some form of cooperation (even those forms that establish the rules for competition, such as the enforcement of property rights in service to the functioning of markets), but are tempted by individual incentives to cheat or fail to act cooperatively. Our laws, our contracts, our governments, our social norms, our ideologies, all are laden with mechanisms that have evolved with the purpose of creating mutual commitment mechanisms, enforced either externally by social institutions or internally to one’s own psychological make-up. Combined, they form social institutional technologies which are robust sets of memes self-replicating and spreading throughout our shared cognitive landscape (see the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).

It has always been a dynamic at the heart of intertribal and international relations, in which sovereign societies must strategically interact in a world with limited international legal enforcement mechanisms. With increasing political, economic and cultural globalization, and information, communication and transportation technologies make the world ever smaller and more tightly integrated, examining these dynamics is one critical component of understanding the shared geopolitical landscape in which we live.

“The War of the Woods”:

Imagine that long ago, two countries, Apestonia and Pulgalandia, had a forest on their border. Both countries desperately needed the wood in the forest, because it was both their primary building material and their fuel. Each country was faced with the choice of either dividing the forest evenly, or attacking the other and trying to get more of the forest for themself.

There are 1000 acres of forest between the two countries. If the two countries agree to draw their border right through the middle of it, they can each have 500 acres of forest, which they both desperately need.

But if one attacks quickly while the other one is planning on sharing the forest evenly (and so isn’t prepared for war), the one that attacks will capture 700 acres of the forest, 300 acres will be burnt or destroyed during the fighting, and the other will get zero acres. Since they are militarily evenly matched, if they both attack each other at the same time, 400 acres of forest will be destroyed in the fighting, and they’ll each end up with 300 acres of forest.

Here’s a table that summarizes these choices and outcomes:

Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate(attack) Cooperate

(don’t attack) Apestonia: 500 Acres

Pulgalandia: 500 Acres Apestonia: 0 Acres

Pulgalandia: 700 Acres Don’t Cooperate

(attack) Apestonia: 700 Acres

Pulgalandia: 0 Acres Apestonia: 300 Acres

Pulgalandia: 300 Acres

Each country faces the following logic: “We don’t know what the other country will do. If they decide to cooperate (not attack first), we will get 500 acres if we also cooperate, but 700 acres if we don’t (if we attack unprovoked). Therefore, if they cooperate, we are better off not cooperating (attacking). If they decide not to cooperate (to attack), then we will get zero acres if we cooperate (don’t attack), but 300 acres if we don’t (if we attack). Therefore, no matter what the other country does, we are better off attacking.”

However, if both countries follow that logic, they each end up with 300 acres, though if they had cooperated and split the forest, they would have each ended up with 500 acres. So, while each country has an incentive to attack, if they can find a way to commit one another to cooperation, they both benefit.

So, even though they have a conflict over the forest, they have a shared interest in finding a way to commit one another to cooperating for mutual benefit. This is often the case, with war being costly in blood and treasure, and peaceful coexistence (and even mutually beneficial exchange) being far more conducive to general prosperity.

Historically, real tribes and countries have faced this challenge. Some have said, “Okay, let’s agree to cooperate, and to make sure no one cheats, we’ll exchange hostages.” And then each country would send an important member of their own society (often the ruler’s daughter to be raised by the other ruler as his or her own) to go live with the other society, so that if either cheats, that hostage can be killed in retaliation. Later, countries sent the children of royalty to marry the children of royalty in other countries, sort of as “permanent hostages,” but also to bind the countries together so that they can act more cooperatively.

In the modern world, we’ve developed a much more elaborate system of international diplomacy, with embassies in each other’s countries, and treaties, and international organizations (like the United Nations). The European Union, whose roots go back to post-WWII efforts to create economic ties that would diminish the chances of resumed warfare, is perhaps the most advanced example of emerging international political economic consolidation

Not just internationally, but within nations, overcoming this collective action problem is a big part of why we’ve created many of the social institutions we’ve created. Our Constitution, our laws, even our religions, have developed in many ways to help make it easier for people to commit one another to mutually beneficial actions even when they have individual incentives to cheat or act in non-cooperative ways.

With modern technologies, modern weapons (such as nuclear weapons), modern transportation and communication technologies, an increasingly global economy, increasingly global environmental and natural resource issues, all nations in the world face many collective action problems. Our increasing political globalization is a complex tapestry of conflict and cooperation woven within this underlying logic.

So far, we’ve assumed that the countries were equally matched, and looked at the cost-benefit analysis of each when considering whether to attack the other or to live in peace. But what if they weren’t evenly matched? What if one was militarily stronger than the other? How would that change things?

If Apestonia were more powerful than Pulgalandia, then Apestonia would capture more forest than Pulgalandia would if the two went to war. If Apestonia were to attack first, perhaps it would capture the whole forest against the weaker Pulgalandia, losing only a small portion (let’s say a tenth) in battle. This outcome can be seen in the lower-left square of the two-by-two table, in which Apestonia attacks first and captures 900 acres, while Pulgalandia ends up with zero.

Conversely, if Pulgalandia attacks first, it will gain the advantage of surprise, but will still be facing a superior force, and might manage to capture and control 300 acres against Apestonia’s 500, 200 being lost to the destruction of war. This outcome is summarized in the upper-right square.

Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate

(don’t attack) Apestonia: 800 Acres

Pulgalandia: 200 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres

Pulgalandia: 300 Acres Don’t Cooperate

(attack) Apestonia: 900 Acres

Pulgalandia: 0 Acres Apestonia: 600 Acres

Pulgalandia: 100 Acres

If they both attack each other at the same time, more forest will be lost to the destruction of battle, and neither will have the benefit of surprise, but Apestonia will still come out ahead. This is reflected in the lower-right square.

Because of the difference in power, when they negotiate a peace in which neither attacks, Apestonia can demand more of the forest than Pulgalandia. This is reflected in the upper-left square.

The logic that the two countries face is still similar to the logic that they faced when equally powerful. Neither knows what the other will do. Apestonia says to itself, “If Pulgalandia cooperates (doesn’t attack), we can get 800 acres for also cooperating (not attacking), or 900 acres for attacking. If Pulgalandia doesn’t attack, we are better off attacking. If Pulgalandia does attack, we can get 500 acres for not attacking first (only reacting to their attack), and 600 for attacking first, so, again, we are better off attacking. No matter what Pulgalandia does, we’re better off attacking.

Similarly, Pulgalandia is better off attacking no matter what Apestonia do. They say to themselves, “If Apestonia doesn’t attack first, we get 200 acres for also not attacking, but 300 for attacking, and if Apestonia does attack first, we get zero acres for not having attacked at the same time but 100 acres for having attacked at the same time. Either way, we’re better off attacking.”

But they both know this, and both know that they’d be better off not attacking one another. So, just as before, they need to invest in some way of committing one another to cooperation.

But the pay-offs can look different as well. It may be that, while the weaker Pulgalandia has incentives to attack no matter what the stronger Apestonia does, Apestonia gets a stronger benefit from cooperation. In the chart below, Pulgalandia still is better off attacking no matter what Apestonia does, and Apestonia, knowing that, knows it has to attack to get 550 rather than 500 acres. This is reflected in the table below:

Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate

(don’t attack) Apestonia: 800 Acres

Pulgalandia: 200 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres

Pulgalandia: 250 Acres Don’t Cooperate

(attack) Apestonia: 650 Acres

Pulgalandia: 100 Acres Apestonia: 550 Acres

Pulgalandia: 200 Acres

But the most Pulgalandia can possibly get is 250 acres, if they attack before Apestonia does. Apestonia can just say, “look, we’ll give you 300 acres, 50 more than you can possibly get by attacking us. We’ll keep 700, which is more than we can get in any other way. If you attack, even while we are planning on cooperating with you, you lose 50 acres. You have no reason to attack, and we’re both better off than we can otherwise be.”

This is reflected in the table below, in which neither country has any incentive to do anything other than cooperate:

Pulgalandia Apestonia Cooperate(don’t attack) Don’t Cooperate (attack) Cooperate

(don’t attack) Apestonia: 700 Acres

Pulgalandia: 300 Acres Apestonia: 500 Acres

Pulgalandia: 250 Acres Don’t Cooperate

(attack) Apestonia: 650 Acres

Pulgalandia: 100 Acres Apestonia: 550 Acres

Pulgalandia: 200 Acres

This is an illustration of how power is exercised among nations (or factions within a nation), even without having to exert any military force at all to do it. Nations know their relative power to one another, and when they negotiate treaties and deals they negotiate agreements that favor the more powerful. When the United States was formed, the more powerful (populous) states made sure that their power was reflected in the new government (by having representatives in Congress proportional to their population). When the United Nations charter was drafted, the most powerful nations insisted on forming a “security council,” that had far more power over the organization than other nations did.

Weak nations sometimes have the power of threatening to create problems for stronger nations, and thus get concessions to keep them calm. But nations also sometimes have leaders or governments that cease to act rationally, like the current government of North Korea seems to not be acting rationally.

Of course, if, in the end, the United States, worried about an irrational nuclear armed North Korea, gives them large amounts of aid to keep them from causing problems, then it will have turned out that North Korea’s “craziness” was pretty smart after all…. Strategies that “trump” rational considerations can be very rational strategies, including various ways of binding oneself to a limited range of options in order to increase one’s own bargaining power, or behaving in ways which make an opponent question one’s rationality in order to make them more accommodating for fear of erratic responses.

The scenarios presented above are highly simplified, leaving out many factors, such as uncertainty (real actors in such situations don’t know what the exact outcomes of various combinations of choices will be), more complexity in available options (not just binary choices), more interacting actors (not just two), more conflated issues being bargained over (not just a single resource), more costs and benefits to be considered (not just the amount of that single resource gained or lost), factional conflict across levels (different interest groups and political parties vying for different outcomes due to differing material interests and political ideological orientations), less centralized decision-making (not a single ruler making unlimited autocratic decisions, but rather in various ways collective decision-making processes impinging on the negotiations between actors constituted in that way), and various intrusions of emotional and irrational considerations, that even rational actors have to take into account.

But the complexity of the real world does not mean that abstraction from it is not a helpful tool in understanding underlying dynamics. Rather, it is a way of isolating individual dimensions of those underlying dynamics, gradually adding in enough of the complexity to begin to capture a deeper and subtler understanding of how our social institutional landscape really functions.

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The following is an (edited) exchange that occurred on a thread following a Facebook wall post of a video of a woman whose parents were shot to death by an attacker, supposedly as a direct result of her inability to carry a handgun herself, testifying to Congress against gun regulations years ago. The original poster and most participants on the thread were congratulatory of the oration and convinced that it was a compelling argument against gun regulation. (I will give Jim -whose last name I deleted out of respect for privacy- kudos for his civility in the discussion, something I should have done in the course of that discussion.)

Steve Harvey: This is the perennial problem with your entire ideology, and not just as it relates to this issue: You don’t understand the effects of different levels of analysis (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems), or the different applications and relative weights of anecdotal versus statistical evidence. Let’s take the latter issue first.

Using anecdotal evidence similar to that presented in this video, I can argue against public service messages encouraging the use of seatbelts because I can relate an incident in which it was the wearing of a seatbelt rather than the failure to which led to a passenger’s death in a crash. It has happened, and the story can be told, hundreds of times in fact.

But the statistical fact is that it is far, far more likely that not wearing a seatbelt will lead to a death that would not have occurred had the seatbelt been worn. Just as, statistically, legally obtained, privately owned firearms are many, many times more likely to be used in EACH of the following: suicide, accidental or mistaken shooting, felony, crime of passion, escalation of an altercation resulting in the death or injury of an innocent person, provocation of an armed assailant who would not otherwise have fired on and injured or killed the victim.

In cross-national comparisons, there is a clear correlation between rates of deadly violence and laxity of gun regulations. Your ideology is based on the belief that the height of human civilization is a state of mutual universal threat of deadly violence, an approach which has defined many historical milieus, and has always resulted in higher rates of deadly violence than centralized pacification of force. Examples are international relations (endemic warfare), 19th century Appalachia (endemic feuding), and Somalia today. You argue the virtues of a primitive and violent approach to civilization that all history and all reason militate against.

And then you’re smug when you abuse anecdotal evidence, as it is so often and so easily abused, in the pretense that it is an actual argument supporting your position. Either get a clue, or learn how to defer to those who have one. Most Americans are sick and tired of being burdened with the insistence of irrational, fact-allergic fanatics that we live in an insanely violent nation, far more violent than any other developed nation. Most Americans believe that it is unnecessary, that we can do better, and that we owe it to the innocent victims and their survivors of our off-the-charts rates of deadly violence to address the problem in all of its dimensions, becoming a rational and humane people at last, like the rest of the developed world.

Those who insist that we must not include gun regulations in the mix of how to address this problem have the blood of innocent victims on their hands, including the blood of those 20 small children in Newtown. And if that is where your priorities lie, then shame on you. Shame on you.

Jim: Hello, Steve. You make a very good argument. Having said that, I ask you. Picture this, you, your wife and your children have just walked out of a very nice restaurant, headed towards your car, when you see this thug headed straight for you at a fast pace. He flashes a pistol as he approaches, in a moment you realize he means to cause harm to you and your family. Now I ask you: Would you rather have the opportunity to defend yourself and family with that .380 auto you have tucked in your waistband or would you rather defend yourself by spouting off the more “civilized” approach of explaining to him why you don’t carry a gun? I personally, lead a very peaceful life, but I am not naive enough to not realize that when I am met with force, that I must be prepared to answer it with force. Particularly when it comes to defending what’s dear to my heart. I wish you well. -Jim

Steve Harvey: Again, Jim, you want to reduce an issue of social policy to a carefully selected scenario that scrubs out most of the relevant contextual information. If we can implement policies that reduce the likelihood of my family being placed in such danger, that is preferable to a policy which increases the likelihood but arms me to deal with it, the latter resulting in a far higher rate of violent death than the former.

It’s like asking, “But Steve, if there were a nuclear missile heading toward Denver, wouldn’t you want to have your finger on the trigger of a ballistic missile that might be able to detonate it before it reaches any population center? So, therefore, don’t you think that everyone should have personal access to nuclear armed warheads?” No, I don’t.

Jim: Well, you make a very good point. Except. In the real world. The world that is today’s world, I believe that my scenario is very realistic. I don’t think that it in any way promotes violence when law abiding people choose to carry a weapon for protection. The pacifistic approach that I am getting from you is sad. Stand up for your rights. Think on this, when an atheist is faced with certain death…he’ll pray to God. When some thug kicks in the door to your home, you’re going to call the police…someone who has a gun. Then of course you too will be praying that they get there in time to protect you! Now that, Steve, is what today’s world is about. -Jim

Steve Harvey: What you think isn’t as important as what the evidence indicates. In a comparison of developed nations, we have both by far more lax gun regulations than almost all others (Switzerland and Canada provide more complex possible exceptions, though it depends on how you look at the nature of the regulations), and by far higher rates of deadly violence (2 to 11 times the homicide rate of every other developed nation on Earth, with the average tending toward the higher end of that range). Your policy increases the threat to all of us and increases the rate of accidental and mistaken shootings (as well criminal uses of firearms) far more than it increases the rate at which people successfully defend themselves against such attacks. Facts are an inconvenient thing for ideologues, but our public policies should be based on facts, not arbitrary fabrications that serve a blind ideology. I have no interest in your caricature of reality; I’m interested in rational and humane self-governance.

Again, I refer you to the essay I linked to above (Debunking The Arguments of the American Gun Culture). It addresses all of your points, and does so very decisively. I am standing up for my rights: My right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, of which I can be deprived not just by a government, but also by a government’s failure to exercise its Constitutionally defined police powers. Your policy increases rather than decreases the threat to my, and my daughter’s, life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Therefore I stand up against it, with great passion and conviction, not as a pacifist, but as a rational and humane person who looks at the evidence and bases his positions on it.

In making arguments, there are three dimensions to be attended to: Logos, pathos, and ethos. What is the most logical position? What position appeals to the emotions? And what position is most humane and right? When you can align all three of those, you have a good argument. When you use one to obfuscate failure on the other two (and especially when you use any to undermine logos), you have a very bad and very counterproductive argument.

Logos: Cross-national statistical evidence strongly demonstrates that more stringent gun regulation leads to reductions in deadly violence. (Intranational evidence has to take into account an unobstructed internal market, and the ease with which arms bought in one location are transported to another within a country, looking at where arms are bought as well as where they are used.)

Pathos: 20 dead first graders; major mass shootings occurring with increasing, troubling frequency; the horror of violent death and the loss of loved ones.

Ethos: We should not strive to achieve some sort of balance of violent supposedly “good guys” (like the one who shot an unarmed black teen walking home from the store) and violent “bad guys,” but rather a reduction in deadly violence, in the notion that deadly violence is the answer, and the accessibility of the means of deadly violence.

It’s time for more “real Americans” to be rational and humane people, because that’s the “real America” that most of us want to live in.

Jim: Let me ask you, do you think that more stringent gun control will take guns out of the hands of criminals? That’s a very naive thought. Secondly, it seems that you have already decided the case with Treyvon Martin. Witnesses have already stated that he was on top of George Zimmerman beating the hell out of him. Self-defense? The courts will decide. Basically, you are a pacifist. Although you do make a good argument, I can find just as many well written and articulate arguments that would negate your statements. Basically, what it comes down to is that as an individual you make a conscience decision to either exercise your right to protect yourself or depend on others to do that for you. AKA. Government. I, and many others like me don’t want to depend on our government to take care of our needs. Personally, history shows, they do a lousy job of it! Obviously, Steve, you have made your decision, and I have certainly made mine. -Jim

Steve Harvey: Jim, let’s start with Trayvon Martin. Actually, all I did was state an undisputed fact, which you find inconvenient enough to confuse with anything under contention. There is no dispute over the fact that Zimmerman shot Martin, an unarmed teen walking home from the store. That simple fact makes the incident sound as bad as it is, whether self-defense was involved or not, because the fact is that there would never have been any need for Zimmerman to defend himself had he not instigated the encounter in his quest to assertively find people to “defend” himself against.

The courts will decide if it was self-defense at the moment it occurred, not if the need for self-defense was created by the orientation and philosophy you are now advocating, which is clearly the case. If Zimmerman had never pursued that unarmed kid walking home from the store, creating an altercation that would not otherwise have occurred, Zimmerman would never have needed to defend himself from that kid.

it’s a bizarre and horrifying ideology that says it’s okay to go out with a gun and pursue an unarmed kid who you assume might be a threat (possibly affected by racial prejudice), and then defend yourself with deadly force when that unarmed kid defends himself against you, the armed pursuer, but that the kid had no right to be concerned about being pursued in the first place! The bottom line is, the shooting death of that unarmed teen walking home from the store never would have occurred had Zimmerman not been out assertively seeking people to defend himself against. The fact that the shooting death of an unarmed black teen walking home from the store does not trouble you is part of the horror many of us feel at the resurgence of your disgusting ideology.

And that is exactly the point. Your ideology increases the rate of violence, by being committed to violence in such a deep and pathological way. People eager to go out and defend themselves against threats end up being intentional or unintentional instigators of violence, as Zimmerman was, without a doubt, in that case. Your ideology creates or increases the violence it purports to defend against.

The mass shootings are frequently committed by mentally unstable people who otherwise are not “criminals.” They acquire their weapons legally, or from someone they know who acquired them legally, and would not have been well equipped to acquire them illegally, which is a function of having the connections and criminal knowledge necessary.

Furthermore, weapons aren’t dangerous to innocent people only in the hands of “criminals.” Accidental shootings, mistaken shootings, suicides, crimes of passion (by otherwise law abiding people), escalations of violence in an altercation or home invasion (a home owner confronting an intruder with a weapon is four times more likely to be shot and killed than other home owners in a home invasion scenario), are all far, far more common than the successful use of a firearm in defense of person or property. The price the rest of us pay for your illusion of increased safety is the reality of increased danger to ourselves and our children.

The Zimmerman-Martin incident demonstrates that innocent people have as much to fear from the so-called “good guys” as from the “bad guys.” That’s because we all have much to fear from violent people who are primitive enough to believe that violence is the best and highest possible solution to violence. Most of us know that that’s absurd, and most of us don’t want to live in that kind of a primitive, archaic world.

Furthermore, no one is arguing for a gun ban. We are only arguing for reasonable regulations on military grade arms and accessories, whose sole purpose is to maximize the carnage done to human beings in mass slaughters. And you folks are so insane that you try to prevent that discussion from happening by skipping straight to the straw man argument that you have a right to guns no one is taking away from you.

As for my supposed “naiveté”: Since every single other developed nation on Earth has managed to accomplish what you claim we can’t, and since there are in fact ways of doing it (control the manufacture and distribution of bullets, for instance, without which the weapons are just very awkward and unwieldy clubs), the answer to your question is: Of course we can reduce the ease of accessibility of arms and accessories. There’s no doubt about it.

You address my arguments by claiming that there are just as good ones supporting your view, though you can’t provide them. That’s a backdoor attempt to raise irrationality to a par with reason, by refuting reason through the claim that reason is no better than its absence, since any position, in your view, can be argued rationally. In the real world, that’s not the case; some arguments are better than others, and that’s why people who use fact and reason professionally overwhelmingly reject your ideology, which generally runs counter to fact and reason. (It’s one incarnation of a right-wing two-step I’ve often seen: Rely on the relativistic claim that all opinions are equal to insulate yours from fact and reason, and then in another context claim that yours is irrefutable truth, because to think otherwise would be to commit the error of relativism!)

In fact, your ideology has identified and dismissed precisely those professions that use disciplined methodologies to gather, verify, analyze, and contemplate information as bastions of liberalism, never pausing to ask why it might be so that precisely those professions that systematically gather, verify, analyze, and contemplate information would be bastions of liberalism, and what lesson that fact might hold for you.

Again, I’ve addressed all of your points in the essay I linked to (Debunking The Arguments of the American Gun Culture). Every single one of them. And just repeating debunked arguments doesn’t make them any stronger, or any less debunked. You make very clear which of the two narratives I describe you are committed to, and I make very clear why and how it imposes tragic costs on all of us.

Jim: Now that was a mouthful! Steve, while you command a mastery over the English language, all I can hear is, blah, blah, Liberal, blah, blah, BS. It’s not for lack of intelligence. You just simply believe you’re right-I believe I am. I think our President is hell bent on making people dependent of Government. You believe he is the anointed one. I see him hell bent on destroying America and systematically taking away our rights. You think “it’s all good”. I hope the evil lurking in the shadows never makes itself known to you…you will not be prepared to meet it. -Jim

Steve Harvey: All you hear is “blah blah blah blah” because I’m making actual arguments, citing actual statistics, and applying actual reason to them, and that, to you, is anathema. Your response is devoid of fact, devoid of any reasoned argument of any kind, filled with irrelevant noise (we weren’t discussing, and I made no comment about, our respective opinions of the current president, for instance), and regresses to a mere series of sounds signifying your blind ideological conviction. And THAT is both the difference between us, and the defining distinction in the political divide in America today: Irrationality in service to primitive, tribalistic impulses, v. reason in service to humanity. (See Un-Jamming the Signal.)

You want to reduce public discourse to a competition of arbitrary opinions, treating evidence and reason as irrelevant. (In this case, in fact, both reason and the majority of Americans are up against an inhumane and irrational position backed by a powerful, predatory industry and its organizational lobbyist: The gun industry and the NRA). I want us to govern ourselves as rational and humane people doing the best we can in a complex and subtle world.

I’m not unaware of the world’s dangers: I was an enlisted soldier in the Army infantry, have traveled all over the world and lived in some hot spots, did urban outreach work with heroin addicts, have taught in tough inner-city high schools, have done nonprofit work inside detention centers, and taught, among other things, college criminology classes. I know about the world, but that knowledge simply doesn’t lead to your conclusion that the ubiquitous mutual threat and availability of deadly violence is good for society. In fact, it strongly militates against that conclusion, which is why law enforcement officials overwhelmingly disagree with you.

The most dangerous and ubiquitous of evils in America is not lurking in the shadows, and it has once again just made itself known to me. I will continue to meet it, prepared, as I am, with knowledge, comprehension, and a commitment to humanity.

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Social institutional innovation, like technological innovation, has an evolutionary quality to it: New instruments fumblingly addressing new challenges or opportunities sometimes grow up into highly elaborate systems that take on a life of their own. Market economies in general are an archetypical example of this phenomenon: From places where people came together to exchange their wares, markets have evolved into highly complex and robust networks of global transactions, implicated in a velocity of wealth production and transmission that would have boggled the minds of ancient merchants. Therefore, as we stand on the threshold of inventing new kinds of market instruments which trade in artifacts of administrative regulation, even those of us anchored to the dusty tomes of law and economics might benefit from stretching our imaginations a bit, and contemplating what may lie beyond the horizon.

For the purposes of this fanciful conversation, let’s refer to all present and future market instruments that trade in artifacts of political regulation or aspiration as Political Market Instruments (PMIs). The question posed in this essay, therefore, is: If the challenges involved in current tradable regulatory instruments are increasingly surmounted, and the range of PMIs is extended into other realms, such that the trading of such instruments becomes commonplace, what might such markets evolve into?

In order to explore this question, we need to consider what kinds of goods or services PMIs would commodify. Current and recent uses, including global warming abatement, renewable energy credits, and pollution reduction, are examples of a broader category of challenges called “collective action problems,” which have been discussed extensively, in various forms, in the economic, social scientific, and even mathematical literature (see . Global warming, for instance, invokes the need to create viable international accords through which a preferable global energy and GHG emissions regime can be developed, implemented, and enforced. The challenge emanates from the fact that nations individually bear the costs of contributing to such a regime, but collectively reap the benefits. Simplifying the matter somewhat for this initial discussion, all have an incentive to arrive at an optimal agreement and see it enforced, though all also have an incentive for not complying with the agreement to the extent that they can get away with non-compliance.

Here’s a simple thought experiment which illustrates the nature of collective action problems well enough for the average high school social studies student to understand. Imagine that I make the following offer to a group of thirty people, of which you are a member: For each of you that chooses to pay me $10, I will give each and every person in the group (including you) $1, regardless of whether those other members of the group chose to pay the $10 or not. To avoid discussing any complexities at this point, let’s say that the decision is made in secret, no member of the group ever knows what any other individual member chose to do, and all members agree that their only goal in this exercise is to maximize their own individual wealth. If each individual acts in his or her own rational self-interest, since accepting the offer costs him or her $9, no one would choose to do so. However, if everyone does accept it, each person is made $20 richer. No matter how many people accept or reject the offer, those who chose not to take it will always be better off than those who chose to take it. In other words, rationally doing what best maximizes one’s own individual wealth (in this scenario) leads to an outcome in which everyone does worse than they would have done had they been able to enforce a cooperative agreement.

Real world collective action problems are generally much more complex, in which, just as in market exchanges, there are a variety of comparative advantages (differing concessions or contributions which each is best positioned to make, such as Brazilians being better positioned to offer deforestation reduction, and Americans better positioned to offer industrial CO2 emissions reductions). And they occur on multiple overlapping and nested levels and regarding multiple issues, with myriad collective action problems coexisting intranationally, internationally (among nations as the actors), and transnationally (across national boundaries by non-state actors).

Social institutions arise primarily in response to such collective action problems (and, relatedly, in response to time horizon problems resulting from the devaluation of future consequences leading to insufficient foresight in decision-making processes), and utilize four distinct modalities in order to align individual to collective (and immediate to long-term) interests: Hierarchies, markets, norms, and ideologies. Hierarchies are systems of legitimate authority relying on formally codified and enforced rules. Markets are decentralized systems of multilateral exchange, usually facilitated by some form of currency. Norms are informal rules mutually enforced through decentralized social approval and disapproval. And ideologies are internalized beliefs and values enforced through self-policing and auto-sanctioned by cognitive dissonance (in the form of self-inflicted feelings of guilt or shame). Individual social institutions generally are comprised of some or all of these modalities, usually in combination, developing interdependently both within and across individual social institutions.

PMIs are essentially a hybrid institutional mechanism, comprised primarily of the hierarchical element necessary to regulatory regimes, and the market element which facilitates an efficient allocation of resources and burdens. Governments or international commissions imbue PMIs with their value by creating scarcity (in the case of compliance allowances) or subsidized demand (in the case of off-sets or RECs). The benefit of creating an accounting and exchange mechanism for political concessions and accommodations is the same as creating one for the exchange of goods and services: Like money, it frees actors involved in an exchange from what Edgeworth called “a double coincidence of wants,” that is, the necessity of two actors each having something the other wants more than they want what they themselves have. And, like money, it permits multilateral, geographically and temporally decentralized exchanges among a potentially unlimited number of actors, facilitating the achievement of collectively beneficial arrangements with greatly reduced transaction costs. PMIs are a mechanism for duplicating this innovation in the context of political rather than economic exchange.

Differences among nations, among their individual conditions and priorities, provide opportunities to make political exchanges which help both to facilitate such agreements, and to distribute responsibilities and benefits in accord with each nation’s particular circumstances. The expanded PMI model I am contemplating explores both the potential and the limitations of exchanging political concessions among multiple parties to arrive at mutually beneficial outcomes.

The simplest illustration of the PMI model involves three parties negotiating over three issues. Country A wants a concession from Country C, but has nothing to offer Country C in return. Country B wants a concession from Country A, but has nothing to offer Country A in return. And Country C wants a concession from Country B, but has nothing to offer Country B in return. No bilateral agreement can be arrived at among any combination of these three nations. But if it is worth it to A to make the concession to B in return for the concession from C, to B to make the concession to C in return for the concession from A, and to C to make the concession to A in return for the concession from B, then the three of them can negotiate a tri-lateral exchange that satisfies all of their needs. (In this case, the transaction costs are manageable, and PMIs are not required.)

Similarly, it may be possible at times for numerous nations to arrive at an agreement through such “circular exchange,” under circumstances in which no subset of that group could have arrived at any mutually beneficial agreement. At its most complex (and traditionally most difficult to accomplish, as discussed below), a PMI model aspires to facilitate a tangled web of multilateral exchanges of concessions of varying magnitude implicating numerous unrelated issues, such that the removal of any party to the negotiation or any concession being made would unravel the entire agreement. This frees the parties from the necessity of having bilaterally reciprocal interests, and permits the kind of decentralized, multilateral pattern of exchange typified by markets.

The basic premise of the PMI model is that the more parties and issues that can be conflated in a single negotiation, the more optimal the agreements that can be arrived at through a multilateral exchange of concessions on those issues among those parties. The logical conclusion would be that, therefore, conflating all issues and all parties into a single negotiation leads to the most optimal agreement possible. The limiting factor has been that the larger the number of negotiating parties and issues on the table, the higher the transaction costs of coming to a multilateral, multi-issue agreement. The PMI model, therefore, is currently useful to the extent that it can reduce transaction costs enough that the benefits accrued from the arrangement arrived at exceed the transaction costs spent to arrive at it, and to the extent that there is no other non-PMI-facilitated deal that any subset of the parties could have arrived at which would have given them a better benefit-to-transaction-cost ratio.

This is still an onerous obstacle. However, just as various innovations developed historically to reduce the transaction costs involved in economic exchange (money being the most critical one), the PMI model is not immune to future innovations which might reduce the transaction costs involved, and thus increase the range of its applicability. Such innovation begins with a precise analysis of the anatomy of the transaction costs imposed by political (or contractual) negotiations. The least intractable transaction costs involved in multilateral negotiations are coordination costs: Getting the parties to the table, so to speak. Coordination costs are most salient early in such negotiations, and have been greatly reduced, in international relations, by the proliferation of international institutions and treaties.

Bargaining costs, which involve determining the exact nature of the agreement and the precise division of costs and benefits, are somewhat more significant. Bargaining costs are incurred during the actual negotiation process, when the parties involved try to exchange their way to a multilateral agreement that is satisfactory to each and every one of them. At this stage, the negotiations most closely resemble a traditional bartering market, with all parties both sellers and buyers bartering around a single stall.

Finally, and sometimes most intractably, multi-party agreements are beset by defection (or enforcement) costs. Defection costs are those costs incurred by monitoring and enforcing the agreements arrived at during the negotiations. Improving the salience of the multi-party negotiations, and extending its range of applicability, necessarily involves finding ways to reduce all of the aforementioned transaction costs implicated by it.

The potential benefits of pursuing a PMI approach are myriad. As more activities or concessions are brought into a single market, coordination and bargaining costs are almost eliminated, and even enforcement costs are greatly reduced by creating a much larger shared investment in the integrity of the system. To the extent that successful multilateral political exchange agreements are implemented through it, it increases international interdependence, produces oversight commissions with enough authority to ensure the value of the PMIs, and thus provides an incremental back door into some limited though significant degree of global federalism. To the extent that political market solutions can be implemented, they have strong reverberating effects throughout our integrated social institutional and technological subsystems, creating new markets and new entrepreneurial opportunities, and increasing the ideological and normative association of the development and distribution of sustainable energy technologies with political and economic opportunity in general.

In fact, the development of commissions with the authority to ensure the value of PMIs is both a major benefit and a major challenge. Contractual arrangements within jurisdictions are made possible by a legal structure under which they can be enforced. International agreements are made difficult by the paucity of such enforcement mechanisms on the global level. But international commerce, more than perhaps any other historical force, has integrated sovereign nations into a single interdependent global system. Commodifying political exchange requires more oversight than commercial exchange, but also provides more incentives to create it than traditional international negotiations do, by creating more, and more distributed, opportunities to profit from international political exchange.

Despite the potential for PMIs to improve international and transnational cooperation, they would face all of the challenges already encountered by existing regulatory instruments, and to a far greater extent. The determination of the relative value of seemingly unrelated political concessions would be difficult, but fully established markets are particularly good at accomplishing that (their respective market values would determine their exchange rates). Ensuring the integrity of the instruments (preventing leakage, ensuring additionality, etc.) would grow in magnitude of difficulty as the markets become more multifaceted and extensive (though that could also reduce the problem in the long run by bringing more measurements of more changes in more places into the system). The transaction costs involved in every incremental step in establishing such a market will be enormous.

One benefit of such a comprehensive system is that the universal scope and coverage essentially eliminates the problem of leakage, since there is nowhere for any abated public bad to leak to. Just as the concern about leakage has pushed focus on off-set markets from individual projects to sectoral and nation- or province-wide abatements, it would be one force pushing the expansion of PMI markets in general.

Another obstacle for PMIs, already contemplated in regards to existing instruments, is the perverse incentives they can create. If, for instance, we incorporate deforestation avoidance into international carbon markets, then their value is a creature of past deforestation. When a market values the cessation or reduction of the rate of a destructive activity, it implicitly retroactively values having initially increased the rate of that activity in order to necessitate its reduction. In the context of enduring markets for the abatement of past destructive activity, such perverse incentives pose a serious challenge that must be decisively addressed. Many things we might want to incorporate into future and more comprehensive PMI markets -such as improvement in human rights, military de-escalation, and reduced trade barriers, to name a few- would all have current positive value as the result of the negative value of past or continuing actions and policies. Designing mechanisms to prevent the incentive to create problems in order to trade in their correction would be a fundamental challenge for establishing authentic value-generating PMI markets.

It’s worth noting that in our current international political bartering system, this problem already exists. In the lead-up to international treaty negotiations, countries frequently amp up certain misbehaviors in order to have more to trade with. The increased robustness of PMI markets would only increase the robustness of the problem. And, presumably, at the time of establishment of any new abatement PMI, the baseline set for reduction targets would precede any amping up that may have occurred in anticipation of the creation of such markets.

Stretching our imaginations to the utmost, PMIs could trade in a vast array of political goods. As stated above, there are many public bads that we all have a shared interest in abating: human rights violations, military build-ups, trade barriers, and domestic criminal activities with international consequences (e.g., drug cartels), to name a few. And there are many public goods or broadly shared aspirations that there is either already a shared interest in encouraging, or a potential for some degree of international consensus: improved worker conditions and salaries; more political, economic, and cultural freedom; more open borders; and stronger guarantees of protection for foreign nationals abroad, to name a few. In each case, measures would have to be created (such as a “human rights abuse index”); a target would have to be set for abatement markets (either by reference to a baseline, or by some other aspirational standard) and a system for ensuring the integrity of instruments measuring incremental gains in public goods would have to be established; and monitoring, reporting, and verification systems would have to be in place. As such markets proliferate, the ability to identify and implement new areas amenable to new PMIs would continue to emerge.

Though the notion of trading in human rights abuse abatement, or organized criminal activity abatement, may seem odd, and could certainly raise some moral hackles, it is essentially the same idea as trading in GHG emissions abatement: creating markets for the diminution of some undesirable activity. Given the fact that the obstacles are daunting enough for GHG emissions abatement markets, and that the problems facing them grow exponentially as the scope and coverage is expanded to more issues and parties, the path from the present to this possible future would be a long and tortuous one, with many seemingly insurmountable challenges and as-yet-unforeseen technical innovations defining the way. Whether such a future will ever come to pass is far from certain, but that some future which currently appears equally improbable will come to pass seems almost inevitable (assuming continued human survival).

Such speculation may seem to be an unwarranted flight of fancy from our current vantage point, just as to the ancient Greeks, not unfamiliar with the wonders of the agora, contemplation of the exotic financial instruments being traded today would have appeared equally untethered from reality. The preceding discussion is not intended as a blueprint of how to implement an imminently practicable policy instrument, but rather as an added perspective regarding how to contextualize current innovations in terms of potential long-term historical significance. The question isn’t whether current institutions will evolve to surmount obstacles seemingly insurmountable today, but rather which institutions and in what ways. The lathe of trial and error which will produce those innovations is more productive when we experiment with an eye to future as well as present possibilities. I believe that in a comparison between taxes-and-subsidies and tradable instruments as means for internalizing externalities (specifically carbon taxes and carbon cap-and-trade regulation), while both should be used, each in circumstances most appropriate for it, a less obvious (and perhaps still very slight) added weight needs to be accorded to tradable instruments, due to their dramatic long-term potential for facilitating mutually beneficial cooperation, particularly in the Hobbesian paradise of international relations.

1See, e.g., John Von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (Princeton University Press 1944); John Nash, The Bargaining Problem, 18 Econometrica 155 (1950); Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, 162 Science 1243 (1968); and Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action (Harvard University Press 1965)

2See, e.g., Kenneth Boulding, The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth, in Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy (Henry Jarrett ed., 1966).

3See, e.g., Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, 162 Science 1243 (1968); and Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action (Harvard University Press 1965)

4I utilized this illustration as a high school social studies teacher, using classroom currency points.

5The actual results in my classroom experiment varied considerably, though there were always some students who accepted the deal and some who rejected it.

6See, e.g., Robert Axelrod, An Evolutionary Approach to Norms, 80 American Political Science Review 1095 (1986); and Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge University Press 1990).

7Steve Harvey, Institutionalizing the Production of Supranational Public Goods: The Shifting Locus of Interest Group Lobbying in Europe (August 1994) (unpublished paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association in Los Angeles, CA).

8F.Y. Edgeworth, Mathematical Physics, (Kegan Paul 1881).

9This is precisely what the famous Coase Theorem postulates. See Ronald H. Coase, The Problem of Social Costs, 3 J.L. & Econ. 1 (1960).

10See Douglas D. Heckathorn and Stephen M. Maser, Bargaining and the Source of Transaction Costs: The Case of Government Regulation, 3 J.L. Econ. & Org. 69 (1987).

11See id.

12See id.

13Admittedly, such discussions quickly run into the issue of cultural relativism v. universal human (and non-human) rights, and the related issue of “imperialism” or hegemony v. cultural and political self-determination, but this issue is implicit in all discussions of international law and international standards of conduct.

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As I wrote in The Dance of Consciousness, there is an eclectic coherence to the thoughts expressed on this blog, as there is to all thought that penetrates beneath a certain level of superficiality, and much that doesn’t. And as I explained in The Algorithms of Complexity, that coherence is a product of what might be described as “a tree of natural algorithms,” with larger branches controlling smaller ones, and our shared intellectual (and thus political) quest being getting closer and closer to the sublime and perhaps ultimately unattainable “trunk” controlling them all.

I described this in terms of a synthesis of several ideas about ideas, including paradigm shifts, dialectics, and meme theory. We live in a world forged by a competition of ideas, some sets of which may come to predominate in certain times and places (in the form of dominant paradigms), but which themselves are constantly challenged by both internal anomalies and conflicting interests or perspectives, combining an on-going problem-solving process with an on-going competition of both ideas and material interests.

To be clear, the competition of ideas has a large material component, such as the competition between military and economic technologies (which are implemented sets of ideas), a competition decided by which win in a physical competition over either the relative ability to physically coerce, or the relative ability to win market share.

In many ways, what happens in academe is more deeply political than what happens in politics narrowly defined, because it involves explorations into deeper currents that eventually inform the shallower ones. The processes are intertwined, so that as political permutations of academic ideas are discredited, so are the academic ideas, whereas political forms that succeed become academically rationalized.

So, the Enlightenment ideas of Locke and Montesquieu were derived from a combination of classical political philosophy and the recent historical experience of Western European, and particularly English development (most particularly in the form of The Glorious Revolution of 1688, which was arguably more the moment when sovereignty shifted from crown to people than was The American Revolution), and in turn informed the American Revolution and U.S. Constitution, which have been vindicated by historical success, securing the success of their foundational ideas along with them. Conversely, the equally intellectual ideas of Marx and Engels, as well as a variety of fellow-traveling anarchists and socialists, informed horribly failed political experiements, discrediting the whole complex of imperfectly implemented ideas along with the discredited attempts to implement them.

This sometimes involves “babies” being thrown out with “bathwater,” or “bathwater” being retained along with the “babies” that were in it, such as the popular Western dismissal of every idea Karl Marx ever had due to the abject failure of most societies that tried to implement his general doctrine, or the popular acceptance of an idealized laissez-faire economic philosophy because the more nuanced reality more or less incorporating it has proven to be generally successful along certain highly valued dimensions.

Not only are our ideas and political forms a product of various dialectic and paradigmatic dynamics (including the dialectic of conceptualization and implementation), but also of how these are compiled into ideological packages. The translation of ideas and political forms into political ideologies is very consequential, because even slight errors can be amplified into tragic proportions. For instance, Social Darwinism, despite how horrific it was, was essentially just the confounding of a descriptive reality with a normative one, justifying and even idolizing successful brutality because successful brutality tended, historically, to prevail.

The challenge we are faced with, as conscious beings, is how best to participate in these processes. There are many facets to this challenge, including identifying the purpose(s) of our participation, and the degree to which we feel any imperative to impose our will on the organic development of human history. Some might argue that there is no real purpose to our participation, that we should each simply pursue our own lives, addressing our own interests and the interests of those we care about, and let the rest take care of itself. This is the value-system of “mutual indifference,” caring about ourselves and those closest to us, but not caring about others only to the extent that doing so serves our primary concern.

But this is akin to “non-cooperation” in collective action problems (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems), condemning everyone, now and in the future, to fare less well than we otherwise might have. It is the embrace of a mere hyped-up animal existence, grasping in the moment, without far-reaching imagination or foresight or compassion in any way informing our choices. The result is a combination of organized violence and relentless exploitation of any human or natural resource that any group is able to exploit, to our own ultimate self-destruction.

Both humanity and Gaia are better served by more conscious participation in our shared existence, by the proactive effort to understand the systems of which we are a part and which comprise us in order to most fully realize the genius of the many, in service both to our collective material welfare, now and in the future, and to our cognitive capacity to most fully enjoy it. I call the ideology which best meets this challenge “cynical idealism,” the pursuit of the ideal in the cold light of an unflinching understanding of less-than-ideal existing realities.

What we see more frequently is the exact opposite: “Idealistic cynicism,” which is the idealization of who and what we are, while essentially surrendering to the cold, cruel realities of the world. One prominent examples of this is the “angry progressive” movement, driven by the belief that conservatives are the enemy, and committed to achieving immediate progressive policy ends while surrendering to politics as usual in order to do so. It is idealistic about existing realities, by frequently ignoring the real political dynamics by which those ends must be achieved, inconveniences such as compromising with competing points of view and interests, while remaining cynical about our ability to ever transcend our current state of being in any fundamental way (despite the historical reality of constantly transcending previous states of being in very dramatic ways, through a combination of technological and political economic revolutions, for instance).

Another example of “idealistic cynicism” is Tea Party conservatism, which is superficially the opposite of angry progressivism, but on a more fundamental level representative of essentially the same political modality. Tea Partiers are driven by an ideal that they believe to be immediately dispositive, the ideal of absolute freedom from state (i.e., mutual) coercion, which is mobilized in service to an implicitly cynical reality, that we are just a collection of ultimately disconnected individuals whose highest responsibility to one another is to stay out of each other’s way.

Both of these archetypal examples of idealistic cynicism are dogmatic, convinced of substantive truths without worrying too much about how those substantive certainties were arrived at. Cynical idealism, conversely, is the exact opposite: It focuses on procedures by which to improve both our understandings and our implementations of those understandings in service to our collective well-being, here and elsewhere, now and in the future. A cynical idealist recognizes our foibles, including the foibles of oneself, and so is more committed to careful examination of the strengths and weaknesses of various conceptualizations and proposals than to precipitous advocacy of the ones they find most emotionally appealing (the latter leading to our noisy and dumb politics of today, a competition of ideas less refined than otherwise might have been attainable in an alternative political culture).

Therefore, the first pillar of transcendental politics is a dominant commitment to procedures and methodologies, and a more humble and flexible commitment to the inevitably tentative substantive positions that are produced by those procedures and methodologies (see Ideology v. Methodology). This has already occurred to a large extent in one of the most important of our deep political institutions: Academe. Academe is political because it is a place where we produce authoritative (though often competing) statements about reality. And it is not, as has been the historical norm, a mere branch of politics narrowly defined, authoritative truth being a product of who can force it upon others, but is rather, to a large (if inevitably incomplete) extent, a product of a very sophisticated process, of a particular algorithm of for discovering certain facets of reality, carved on the lathe of history, and by the efforts of human beings engaging in it and advocating for it.

It has also occurred, to a lesser but growing extent, in law, where resolutions of legal disputes (including disputes over the meaning of the law itself) are resolved through a very highly refined academic process. This is not to say that politics narrowly defined do not in some ways and at some times control decisions in both of these spheres: Supreme Court justices and federal judges are appointed for political reasons, with attention to their political predispositions; scholarship can be funded or unfunded by political processes, and certainly is very much in the grips of the local politics of academe itself. The point is not that some absolute transcendence of the politics of competing material interests and precipitous substantive certainties either motivated by those interests, or manipulated in service to them have been completely transcended by the disciplines of law and science, but rather that some marginal degree of such transcendence has made significant inroads through these two methodologically-dominated spheres of our social institutional realm.

The major benefit of this procedural or methodological commitment is that, if well designed, it steadily increases The Signal-To-Noise Ratio, and does so at a constantly accelerating rate. The same methodologies can be used to continuously refine the methodologies themselves, and to continuously refine the procedures by which the procedures are refined, delving ever deeper into the The Algorithms of Complexity, just as the fictional character Algono did in the abstract metaphorical representation of this process in  The Wizards’ Eye.

We are on a journey, both individually and collectively, both haphazardly and intentionally, toward ever deepening consciousness, and toward ever more holistic and robust implementations of that consciousness in the form of our social institutional and technological landscape. It is a journey which occurs both despite and due to our efforts, one whose path and destination are not predetermined, but whose logic will sweep us along slowly or quickly, painfully or happily, in service to some at the expense of others or in service to all at the expense of none. These are the dimensions along which our shared fate varies, dependent on the degree of compassion and wisdom we employ and cultivate, in ourselves and in those around us.

I have offered my own nascent view of a way in which we can participate more consciously and more effectively in this shared endeavor of ours, as I have defined it in this essay (see The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, or, for the more in-depth version, A Proposal). But that suggestion is just one starting point for discussion. The essential step, and the only thing we ever need agree on, is that we are capable of doing so much better than we are doing now, and that there is a conceptual framework that better serves our ability to do better than the blind ideologies to which we currently cling.

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Preparing for an interview for an executive director position with a national environmental advocacy organization, I asked myself why I was passionate about environmental issues. The funny thing about such passions is that sometimes you have to reach down into yourself to find them, to find their source, to remember why you want to live a life that is something more than mere existence, a life dedicated to more than one’s own comforts and immediate (e.g., familial) concerns and responsibilities.

I grappled with the question, searching for the answer that was real and true. As with all things in my life, the core answer involves my sense of wonder (see The Value of Wonder). In my late teens, I used to write a lot of poetry expressing metaphysical or personal yearnings and contemplations, generally couched in the imagery of nature. Throughout my twenties and to a lesser extent through my thirties, I spent enormous amounts of time, usually alone, in wild places, hiking, camping, cross country skiing, canoeing. The sights, scents, sounds and sensations experienced in those times and places are the essence of life for me, the source of a profound spiritual euphoria.

Of course, my interest in environmental issues is motivated by more mundane considerations as well. It matters, to those who are concerned with human welfare, that even a systemically non-catastrophic environmental contamination can be personally catastrophic to those and the families of those whose health may be devastatingly impacted by it. It matters to those who look beyond the present and consider the future that we are, at an ever-accelerating rate, outpacing with our industrial activities in service to our growing populations and appetites the Earth’s ability to rebound and recuperate, destroying the planet on which we depend for our continued survival. It matters that accelerating global warming will cause increasing and increasingly catastrophic and costly challenges that would be far wiser to mitigate proactively far more assertively than we are currently doing.

But, almost more important than all of these tangible reasons to be passionate about our enviromental concerns, is the fact that we are a part of something unique and beautiful in the universe, this living planet of ours, an entity from which we, and our consciousness, emanate, and of which we, and our consciousness, are a part. That euphoria I described above isn’t just another recreational pleasure, but is rather something deep in our souls, some major part of our souls, given physical expression in the beauty and wonder of Nature.

It’s not that I subscribe to the notion that there is some actual, essential distinction between the products of human artifice and the natural context from which they emanate. The same hubris that considers Nature something to be conquered considers humans to have somehow removed themselves from it. We haven’t, we can’t, it makes no sense. Humans and all that humans produce and do is as much a part of Nature as is an ant colony or a bee hive. (See, e.g., The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). The issue is not our “naturalness” or “unnaturalness,” but rather how we articulate our social institutional and technological systems with the other complex dynamical systems of which we are a part.

Our social institutional and technological landscape is a beautiful blossom of Nature, and merits the same appreciation as the larger whole of which it is a part. Human consciousness certainly ranks high among Nature’s wonders, and, despite the temptation to attribute a status of exceptionality and superiority to that to which we belong or identify with (e.g., “American Exceptionalism,” religious fundamentalism, racism, ethnocentrism, species centrism, intolerance or devaluation of the “other”), human consciousness is a quintessential example of the beauty of the living planet of which it is a part, from which it emanates, rather than some external thing existing upon it.

But the naturalness of our existence, and even of our industry, does not mean that it is benign. The diseases which kill us are natural too, and yet we seek to save our children from their ravages. Few if any would argue that it is not right and just to do so. Some of those diseases involve parasites and some involve viruses (among other causes of illness), both of which have parallels at the global level, considering the Earth as the organism, and the things which threaten its continued survival as the illnesses.

Humans have become parasites on the body of Gaia, consuming that body more quickly than it can recover from the ravages imposed. We are killing our host, which, for a parasite, is suicide, unless it can migrate to another host (i.e., colonize other planets). But even if it accomplishes this expansion, it will kill host after host, perhaps surviving, but doing so by means of wreaking a devastating path of destruction in its wake.

Given the fact that we have not yet identified anywhere in the universe another living planet, that we are nowhere near possessing the technological ability to turn a dead planet into a living one (especially given the fact that we seem only able to turn a living one into a dead one, even though it is the only one we have), and that we require a living planet to sustain us, it is far from clear at this point if we will even have the choice of becoming a galactic scourge rather than merely dying with the host that we are killing.

As conscious beings, we can contemplate these facts, and can choose, through our processes of collective action (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems), to strive to be symbiotes on this planet rather than parasites, to discipline our industry to operate in harmony with the larger organic systems into which it is interwoven, preserving the health of the living planet rather than mercilessly exploiting it to the fullest of our potential, and killing it in the process.

Those processes of collective action are where the viral parallel comes in, because the “viruses” that affect how we articulate with the larger context of which we are a part are cognitive ones, spreading through our body politic and determining who and what we are (see The Fractal Geometry of Social Change). These “viruses,” these contagious memes that define our consciousness and, through it, our social institutional and technological landscape, can be beneficial or malignant, or some combination of the two.  And they can operate on deeper or more shallow levels, catalyzing more profound and far-reaching changes, or merely forming ripples on the surface of our constantly fluctuating social reality (see The Variable Malleability of Reality). The challenge we face is to spread the viruses that catalyze beneficial changes in consciousness, moving us in the direction of identifying with this living planet of ours, of identifying with all humanity, and of living lives in service to the compassionate, imaginative, rational, pragmatic, disciplined, and expansive celebration of life. 

We are forever at a war with ourselves, and among ourselves, over whether we are just grasping, covetous animals, or conscious beings, and, if the latter, just exactly how conscious. Everything else we do, everything else we believe, everything else we are, should be disciplined and liberated by a growing, loving, joyful commitment to being and becoming fully conscious beings, living in service to one another, and to this beautiful planet on which we thrive.

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Given my frequent reference to collective action problems (and time horizon problems), along with the endemic levels-of-analysis error committed by right-wing ideologues who insist that individual volition (as opposed to social contracts) should be relied on to produce all public goods, I thought it would be a good idea to have one post to refer to which explains them and their relevance simply and clearly.

Collective action problems are those situations in which a group of people have some public good which they can produce together, or which they must maintain together. Each individual contribution to its production or maintenance costs only the individual making it, but benefits every member of the relevant public.  It is often the case that by a strictly self-interested individual calculation, the costs to the individual of contributing to the public good outweigh the benefits to that individual, though the benefits to the group (and thus to all individuals in it) outweigh the costs to the group (and thus to all individuals in it). (Put another way, the total benefits of each contribution outweigh the total costs, but since the individual bears the entire cost and receives only a fraction of the benefit, the costs to the contributor of contributing outweigh the benefits to the contributor).

The classic mathematical formulation of the problem is “the prisoners dilemma” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner’s_dilemma). In short, the scenario involves two partners in crime arrested and held in separate interrogation rooms. Each is offered a deal if he turns in the other. Since neither knows what the other will do, they each have to ask themselves what is the best choice for each possibility. If A doesn’t turn B in, then it is in B’s best interest to turn A in, and if A does turn B in, it is still in B’s best interest to turn A in. According to rational self-interest, B’s most logical choice is to turn A in. A faces exactly the same logic. They both turn each other in. But, if they had been able to coordinate their choice, and commit one another to it, they would have both been better off not turning one another in.

There are other classic formulations as well, such as Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons), and “the free rider problem” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_rider_problem).

When I was a high school social studies teacher, I taught my students about collective action problems using the following exercise: Using “classroom currency points” (ccps), I made the following offer to my thirty-or-so students: For each that chooses to pay me 10 ccps, I will give each and every person in the group 1 ccp, regardless of whether they chose to pay the 10 ccps or not. To avoid discussing any complexities at this point, let’s say that the decision is made in secret, no member of the group ever knows what any other individual member chose to do, and all members agree that their only goal in this exercise is to maximize their own individual wealth (the latter being, in practice, what students did). If each individual acts in his or her own rational self-interest, since there is a net cost of 9 ccps to accepting the offer (pay ten and get one back in return, along with everyone else), no one would choose to do so. However, if everyone does accept it, each person is made 20 ccps richer (pay 10, and get one back for each of the 30 students who paid). No matter how many people accept or reject the offer, those who chose not to take it will always be better off than those who chose to take it. In other words, rationally doing what best maximizes one’s own individual wealth (in this scenario) leads to an outcome in which everyone does worse than they would have done had they been able to enforce a cooperative agreement.

Even adding in some of the complexities I left out, communication without any mutually enforceable commitment mechanism doesn’t solve the problem, since each can assure the others that he or she will cooperate but then not actually do so, benefiting from others’ cooperation while not contributing him-or-herself as a result. Some enforcement mechanisms are informal, such as the loss of respect and reciprocal goodwill if non-cooperation is found out; and some are internalized, in the form of values and beliefs in which one feels shame at neglecting to do “the right thing,” and pride at doing the right thing. These are all aspects of the human and social institutional landscape, and all relevant factors in a complete analysis.

Returning to the basic model, it is not hypocritical, for instance, for someone to both support a higher carbon tax and yet not unilaterally pay to the government the amount they think it should be (though calling it “hypocritical” can act as an informal enforcement mechanism in some situations). The carbon tax is based on the calculation that we are all better off in the long run by paying it (and by having our carbon emissions affected by having to pay it), but the choice not to do so unilaterally is based on the calculation that the costs are borne by that individual only, in exchange for a very slight marginal decrease in carbon emissions. Even simply “driving less” faces the same logic: it inconveniences the individual, but does not fundamentally address the problem that is a function of widespread rather than isolated individual behaviors.

The lack of recognition of the difference between advocating for a social policy which incentivizes people to act in a certain way, and choosing to unilaterally act in that way, is an example of a “levels of analysis error,” analyzing social issues as if they can best be understood on the individual level of analysis. This error permeates Libertarian/Tea Party ideology, which doesn’t recognize the existence of public goods, and therefore of collective action problems.

Time horizon problems are similar to, and interactive with, collective action problems. A time horizon problem involves the fact that we quite reasonably value that which will be enjoyed or suffered closer to the present than that which will be enjoyed or suffered farther in the future. One psychological reason is that we cannot be certain that we will survive into that future, so delaying gratification risks never enjoying it, in proportion to how far into the future it is postponed, while delaying something unpleasant means possibly never having to suffer it, in proportion to how far into the future it is postponed. More generally, the present is visceral and certain, while the future is abstract and uncertain. This is why children have to learn to delay gratification, and most adults never get as good at it as would behoove them to be (though some overshoot the mark).

Collective action problems and time horizon problems combine in many instances to create a mutually reinforcing obstacle to widespread cooperation for mutual benefit. The classic example is global warming. Global warming is a global phenomenon, with every emission of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) affecting the whole world equally (in regards to global warming), but the costs borne by each individual, corporation, and nation that engages in GHG emissions reduction. Compounding this massive, multilevel collective action problem is the time horizon problem: The costs of abatement are in the present, while the benefits lie in the future. Uncertainty plays into these obstacles: Convenient distrust of the overwhelming scholarship demonstrating the reality of the problem is easily mobilized in service to not confronting this combined collective action/time horizon problem.

In the real world, collective action and time horizon problems are nested and overlapping, across levels and among various swathes of shared interests, group identities, or social institutional entities. And the ways in which human minds work, embracing frames and narratives rather than, for the most part, the most rational arguments utilizing the most reliable data, combined with our capacities for empathy and selflessness, complicate the systemic dynamics involved further, creating, along with the multilevel and multisector nature of collective action and time horizon problem, both more complexity in the challenges being confronted, and more opportunity for resolution.

Both biological and cultural evolution are driven, to a large extent, by the combination of collective action and time horizon problems (more the former than the latter). As Economist Robert Frank argues in his book Passions Within Reason, emotions evolved in a certain branch of the animal kingdom in order to facilitate cooperation: The costs of angering others, and benefits of earning their heartfelt gratitude incentivize acting cooperatively. However, genetic and memetic selection occur at the individual level, so incentives to cheat also exist. (Cognitive Scientist George Lakoff, in his book The Political Mind, describes how the mind is “hard-wired,” so to speak, with a capacity for empathy, illustrating the neurological correlary to Frank’s thesis).

Social institutions arise and evolve primarily to augment and improve upon this haphazard function of emotions, with contracts and laws and taking the place of trust, and enforcement by the state taking the place of private retaliation. Four distinct modalities combine in various ways in particular social institution to better align individual to collective (and immediate to long-term) interests: Hierarchies, markets, norms, and ideologies. Hierarchies are systems of legitimate authority relying on formally codified and enforced rules. Markets are decentralized systems of multilateral exchange, usually facilitated by some form of currency. Norms are informal rules mutually enforced through decentralized social approval and disapproval. And ideologies are internalized beliefs and values enforced through self-policing and auto-sanctioned by cognitive dissonance (in the form of self-inflicted feelings of guilt or shame). Individual social institutions generally are comprised of some or all of these modalities, usually in combination, developing interdependently both within and across individual social institutions.

A great deal of theory and research, within a great many different disciplines and paradigms, has explicitly and implicitly been devoted to these dynamics. The complexity involved is, of course, far more extensive than I have indicated in this brief overview. But understanding the basics described in this post should be a requisite part of every human education, for it informs the nature of the challenges we face, and of the solutions available, in essential ways.

(See also The Mathematics of Conflict and Cooperation, for more elaboration of this model.)

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