What is wealth?

In my last post, I made a few hefty speculations without a great deal of intellectual support. Among them was the notion than monetary wealth could be seen as “legitimized social defection”. I felt that I should say a little more about that, and explain what I meant.

First, let’s talk about ownership. What is it? Why do we have the notion that anyone owns anything? Our society is full of statements like “you can’t take it with you after you die”, and “life isn’t about money, it’s about love”, and yet the principle of who owns what continues to have a massive impact on our lives. Why is that?

I would argue that ownership exists because humans are a lot more dangerous together than they are apart. Consider tigers–they’ve very dangerous on their own, and so don’t have much reason to cooperate. By contrast, humans are pretty feeble on their own. However, put a bunch of them together and allow them to communicate about tool building, and you’ve got something that should scare the wits out of any tiger with half a brain.

In order for us humans, collectively very dangerous creatures, to work together, we have developed complex protocols. The most obvious one is language, but beyond language is the whole slew of secondary protocols that make up culture. Of paramount importance in any decent cultural protocol is the notion of resource allocation.

Resource allocation shows up all over the place–not just in culture. For instance, it’s vital in whatever software you’re using to read this post. In order to make changes to data without making terrible mistakes, operating systems need the notion of file locks. A file lock is what happens when one program says “I’m using this bit of data stuff, it’s off limits to everyone else until I’ve finished with it”. This prevents two programs from trying to change the same thing at once and messing everything up in the process.

Human beings need an equivalent to file locks because of the way their brains work. We think by making predictions about what’s going to happen next. Those predictions fit together in hierarchies to make plans. Those plans require that the components of predictions be reliable and consistent. Thus, if a person has a goal that requires the use of certain resources, so long as it’s not messing up the other humans in the group, it makes sense to let them use it. Thus, allocating specific resources to specific individuals is a cognitively cheap way of making sure that everyone can pursue their goals without conflict.

Similarly, trade arises because it makes sense to have a system by which resources can be reallocated without instant social friction. Thus, barter, or money, or whatever system you want to use, is essentially a nifty way of trading file locks between social agents. This system is so efficient, and so engrained, that we accept it automatically, even in societies where the notion of ownership has not been fully fleshed out. It would be an odd society indeed where an individual’s half-eaten lunch was not considered ‘theirs’, or that underwear or sleeping mat or spouse wasn’t considered somehow personally allocated.

Problems arise because this notion of personal allocation is subject to game theoretic exploitation, just like everything else in society. Because increased resources entails increased social standing, people have a tendency to accumulate stuff. Because human beings often limit their sense of justice to members of their own perceived group, theft occurs. Because we want the ability to pass allocation of a resource to our offspring, we end up with inheritance. Because people will often trade favors or services for resources, resources serve as a proxy for power. And so on.

Put these things together, and it’s natural to end up with societies that engage in the bizarre habit of perpetuating and magnifying unequal resource allocation for generations, regardless of the inevitable consequences.

Hence, while the concept of ownership constitutes a form of social cooperation, gaming the notion of ownership until you have more resources than you can possibly use while others are lacking, is transparently a form of defection. This is because effective cooperation, the original goal of the system, has been compromised for individual gain.

For reasons I alluded to in my last post, we’ve taken this form of defection and make a pseudo-virtue out of it, because of the implied collective benefit of tolerating highly effective cheats. This makes things complicated, because, in order to encourage those cheats to try out, we wrap the accumulation of wealth in positive social symbols. This ensures that individuals who aren’t psychologically locked in by empathy or fear will try their luck.

I’m not proposing that we change this system. I doubt we even could if we tried. And even if we succeeded, we’d be more likely to create a botched horror than something wise and good. However, a game theoretic understanding of what money actually is, and how it relates to mental and social function, is going to be an inevitable part of 21st century science and reasoning. Therefore, we might as well embrace that reality now, and start building compassionate, honest ideologies around it based on science, rather than pretending that this isn’t how society works. That option is a recipe for letting the understanding of money remain with those keenest to exploit its dynamics, which, in the long run, doesn’t benefit anybody.


What are leaders?

We talk about them. We work for them. We aspire to be one of them. Occasionally, we elect them. But seldom do we ask what leaders actually are. After all, animals don’t have leaders. So far as I know, there are no examples of ‘leadership’ anywhere in the animal kingdom outside of the human race.

Does that statement seem hard to swallow? Let’s think over the facts. Gorillas, for instance, don’t they have leaders? They have silverbacks, after all. Nope. They have dominant males. Those males don’t shape the feeding strategy or direction for the group. They just exercise sexual dominance. The decision makers in group behavior tend to be those individuals with the greatest need. Eg: pregnant females or females with young. The same goes for wolves, lions, naked mole rats, you name it. There are loads of examples of sexual dominance, but dominance is uncoupled from group decision making.

Okay, you may say, but consider bees and ants. They have queens that produce all the offspring in the hive. They produce pheromones that mediate a huge amount of hive behavior. Surely, in this case, we have some animals we can point to that exhibit leadership. The answer is still no. And, in this case, Richard Dawkins makes an important point about this in his 1990 book, The Selfish Gene. Namely, that it’s at least as legitimate to think of the workers exploiting the queen as it is to think of the queen leading the workers.

While there is still much discussion about exactly how hive cooperation arises, in the case of bees and ants it’s undeniable that the workers in a hive are more related to each other than they are to any offspring that are produced. Therefore, it’s in many ways the most logical approach to consider the workers as a group that’s using the queen to perpetuate a colony of sisters.

Having no other examples of leadership for nature is unsettling. It leaves us with the horrible challenge of explaining how the invention of leadership has sprung out of nothing in the last few million years.

But wait a minute. If examples of leadership seem so rare in nature, maybe we’re not thinking about leadership the right way. Maybe we’re so used to thinking of leaders through the lens of human interpretation that we’re missing the parallels with other natural systems. What happens if, instead, we turn our model of leadership about? Say, for example, if we look at the example of the queen bee, and see what other, perhaps hidden, parallels actually exist?

To my mind, the answers to this question are striking, and they’ve transformed my recent thinking about business and politics. To explain what I mean, let’s take a human example that hopefully makes the connection clear: Elizabeth II, Queen of England.

Queen Elizabeth occupies what is generally considered to be a powerful leadership position. Heads of state defer to her. Crowds come out to support her. She comes with top billing in governments and religious organizations world over. But what does she actually control? How many decisions that she makes actually affect anyone besides her own family? Arguably, none. Furthermore, Elizabeth has a busy schedule that’s administered by her handlers. She has international appointment bookings that stretch for years, none of which she personally chose. In many ways, our human queen looks rather like a bee.

So why do we call her a leader? The answer is, of course, historical. She’s the descendent of prior rulers who were actually exercising power. And as that power was whittled away and replaced with a democratic system, her symbolic role was retained. That, at least, is the popular answer, and it’s basically useless.

It’s useless because it doesn’t tell us why her symbolic role was retained. If leadership is about exercising control, as we generally assume, why wasn’t the monarchy dumped the moment it became irrelevant? The popular riposte is to say ‘because people liked the monarchy and wanted it to persist’. But this isn’t a good answer either. Why did people want the monarchy to persist. Why do people still want her there now?

I propose that the reason why the queen exists, and the reason why all leaders exist, is precisely because human beings are a lot like bees. We create leaders to exploit.

What I mean by this is that human beings select individuals to fulfill specific social roles. We make room in society for those roles, and we clad those roles in ideas that ensure that we never look too closely at what they truly entail. Why do we do this? We do it to make cooperative behavior more robust.

Cooperation is a tricky business. Anyone who’s spent a few years studying game theory will tell you that. A society of individuals who cooperate with each other is always at risk of being subverted by individuals who cheat, unless they have some strategy for punishing cheaters.

In the case of humans, this problem is even more pronounced. Because we have language, gossip, tool use, and planning, the number of ways to cheat is uncountable, and the number of ways for humans to punish each other is broad and ghastly. In order to survive, human beings have evolved a natural tendency to cooperate automatically, which only ever starts to switch off when conscious thought is brought into play.

In order to mitigate the risk of instinctive cooperation, I propose that humans have evolved social structure that allow us to borrow cheating from others.

Consider two populations. In one, let’s call it Population A, people cooperate automatically, except when they discover someone who is aggressively out for themselves at the cost of others. Let’s call these people ‘defectors’.

In the other group, Population B, people still cooperate automatically. However, when they encounter a defector, they call that person a ‘leader’. They cooperate with that person while still cooperating with each other. They relinquish control of some fraction of the social order to the defector and let them do what they want.

How effective is Population B? That depends on how good their defector is. If their defector is crappy and has no imagination, then Population B suffers. However, if the defector has ambition, Population B finds itself charging over the hill to burn Population A’s village and claim all their food. In this case, Population B wins big-time, even though most of the people in that group are still behaving cooperatively with each other all the time.

There’s a catch here, though. In order to make this work, the people in Population B have to find a way to suspend their sense of fair play while doing or watching some of the shitty things that their defector has recommended. If they don’t, they’re going to have trouble holding onto their identity as cooperators.

So, to make the strategy work, the people in Population B have to be constantly evaluating possible ‘leaders’ from among any defectors who arise. Those who don’t make the cut are drowned in the village well as liars and cheats. Those who do are promoted and eulogized. We tell ourselves that their control over society is inevitable because ‘they’re the ones with the power’, and that their aggressive exercise of will illustrates ‘vision and direction’.

This, I’d say, explains why we have trouble understanding leadership or finding it in other species. We’re looking for what we want leadership to be, not what it is. In truth, we own our leaders. We make them happen. We take individuals whose capacity for cooperation is damaged, and we use them as tools for social advantage.

To my mind, this is an important point to be sharing with the world right now. That’s because the leaders we’ve chosen haven’t done a very good job, by and large, as evidenced by the Arab Spring, the austerity disaster in Europe, worldwide banking scandals, etc.

It’s important for us to remember that our leaders exist because we let them. Their power is, and always has been, exercised by us, because it’s less risky than cheating ourselves. At any time, we can take those leaders and replace them with others we think will do a better job. That’s how society works.

That idea is easy to absorb when it comes to elected officials, but it is at least as true for every banker on Wall St. That’s because wealth is just another form of legitimized defection. Hence, if we don’t like how they’re going about things, we should swap them out. After all, they, just like the queen, belong to us.


Word for the day: Executard

There are certain words that I wish were in the English language, but aren’t yet. Here’s one: executard.

What is an executard? It’s a person occupying an executive role, but who exhibits no obvious signs of political savvy, leadership potential, or decision-making expertise. Now is a great time to introduce this word, as we have the marvelous example of Mitt Romney to ponder.

In Britain, his remarks alienated the leadership of the US’s staunchest ally. In the Middle East, he’s created a political nightmare for himself should he actually be elected, by making lifetime enemies out of groups he’ll need to negotiate with. At home, he’s damaged his own chances with inappropriate remarks about ‘the 47%’. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you’re on, it’s hard not to wince every time you see this guy blow off another one of his toes.

Consider the implications of this. Mitt Romney was, for many years, an executive at Bain Capital. If he seems so politically club-footed now, how did he ever manage that?

Easy. He managed it because it’s dirt-simple to be both clueless and an executive, though we maintain a cultural myth that these two descriptors are mutually exclusive. In fact, in many cases, clueless executives are inevitable.

Why do I claim this? Because good leadership is hard. Really hard. And there are very many ways to get there that don’t involve working your way up through the sweat of your brow, or raw business expertise.

For starters, all businesses need money to run. And in many businesses, the people who provide the money often want a starring role. Furthermore, the people who want jobs are willing to let them. Nobody wants to think that they’ve put a half-wit at the controls of the corporate plane, so everyone engages in a little myth-building to keep things ticking along. (For anyone who doubts that this can happen, let’s not forget that George W. Bush was a business executive once, before he became the Chief Dismantler of the Free World.)

Secondly, once you have money, it’s easy to make more, because there are lots of people with skills who are ready to help you do that, in return for a cut. Thus, if your money comes from somewhere else, you can coast along as ‘leader’ for years so long as you don’t touch anything, or, as they say in business circles, ‘demonstrate the core leadership skill of effective delegation’.

Thirdly, not everyone who works their way to the top does so by making really awesome business decisions.  I have met and worked with several who found their way there by doing other exciting things, like lying on their resume, being in the right place at the right time, or thinly-concealed crime. Once those people get those prized executive roles, they don’t suddenly become business gurus overnight.

Why does this matter? Because while executards cause a huge amount of damage, people don’t usually want to call them out. It’s usually much safer to leave high-status people alone and do what they ask, rather than pointing out their mistakes. Nobody wants to point the finger unless they end up bearing the brunt of that person’s wrath.

Hence, historically, it’s been preferable all round for everyone to engage in the myth that all executives have talent, and that we should look up to them and admire their skills, regardless of how they got there.

The problem is that now the executards are sinking our economic boat. If we don’t start calling them out, there won’t be any jobs for us to go back to. Every time we let anxiety about our career get the better of us, and fail to call out leadership failure, we create room for our leaders to fail again.

So, for the sake of your job, and your children’s jobs, start holding your leaders to the high standards you need them to attain. Work out who you know who’s an executard, and tell a colleague today.