All posts by alexlamb

Why the world has gone crazy

Do you feel like the world has gone crazy of late? I do. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Western civilization was capable of making relatively rational political decisions that crossed party lines and balanced priorities. Now all of a sudden, we are in a world where people cheer for Donald Trump even as his trade policies destroy their jobs, or cheer for Brexit as it threatens to obliterate their livelihoods, or doubt climate change even as they either roast in overpowering heat or freeze in a roaring polar vortex liberated from our broken North Pole.

Just watching this weird collective calamity unfold freaks me out, and if Twitter is anything to go by, I don’t seem to be the only person feeling this way.

So what’s going on? What happened to the world? When did our society get so very stupid? I believe there’s a simple explanation, and I’m hoping that sharing it will help.

Human beings are the most dominant species on the planet not because of our intelligence, I’d propose, but because of language. Neanderthal man had a larger cranial capacity than Homo Sapiens and may well have been more intelligent on an individual basis, yet we out-competed the Neaderthals handily. Why? Because human beings are both smart and social. Language allows us to propagate information and learn from each other to an extent that no other species on Earth is capable of. We think and act collectively, and that makes us unbeatable (to date, at least).

However, just because we have intelligence and language, that doesn’t mean that the rest of how we share information is fundamentally different from the way that any other species does it. There are a lot of social species that can learn and cooperate. Ants and bees are damned good at it. Huge shoals of fish adapt in milliseconds to avoid predators. Vast herds of wildebeest direct themselves to water sources unknown to most in the group as if by magic.

The mechanisms by which all these species make decisions are pretty similar. You start off with a few individuals expressing a preference or an idea that their group-mates then start to copy. As the animals mingle, the good ideas (usually with a few more adherents) tend to propagate faster than the bad ones (with less). Eventually, almost every member of the group is behaving the same way and a collective decision has been made. This mechanism produces decent decisions an amazing amount of the time. Try Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy for an astonishing account of how it works.

As it turns out, there is plenty of evidence that human beings use this same copying rule. We mimic each other’s choices far more than we let ourselves believe. In his recent book The Formula on the social causes of success, Albert-Laszo Barabasi makes the case clearly. The Knowledge Illusion by Sloman and Fernbach goes into greater depth on the same topic. Or for even more compelling evidence, try Robert Cialdini’s classic book Influence.

And why do we mimic each other? Because it’s an incredibly cheap and effective way to coordinate. The reason why nature employs almost the same algorithm in such a large number of unrelated species is because it’s the easiest one for natural selection to pick out. It would be weird if we didn’t copy each other contagiously. After all, that’s what language is basically for.

But there’s a problem here: we no longer live under the conditions in which we evolved. And the conditions we have now are basically a perfect storm for shitty decision making. Let me explain.

While I was briefly working at Princeton, I had the great fortune to meet and interact with Iain Couzin and the members of his lab. Iain was a pioneer in the study of how social animals make decisions. I watched a terrific talk by one of his postdocs outlining the specifics of the mingling-copying mechanism one day and thought to myself: I bet it doesn’t work on networks.

What I mean is: I suspected that the mingling-copying approach to group choice-adoption would work really well when animals were always moving around and encountering new opinions, but if you locked animals onto a social network, the method would start to break down. Why did I suspect this? Because if you’re always copying the same people, local opinions will reinforce. It’s going to be much harder for good ideas to propagate through the whole group because they’ll face bottlenecks and blockades. In a social network, there are only certain routes from one person to another. It might be that the only way for a good idea to reach the people it needs to convince is through someone committed to an idea that’s fundamentally at odds.

It only took about two hours of coding to both reproduce Couzin’s basic result and demonstrate that my suspicions regarding the effect of social networks were correct. Furthermore, the bigger the network, and the more biased the distribution of node connections, the worse the decision making got. (In a biased network, a few nodes have loads of links radiating out of them and most nodes have very few.)

Then, when I put the animals with the bad ideas on the nodes with the most connections, the decision-making went straight to hell. All the benefits of copying each other went out the window. Suddenly,  bad ideas were winning all the time.

This is a problem, because that same mingling-copying algorithm in our heads encourages us to build social networks that have exactly the wrong kind of bias. These networks are what’s called ‘scale free’, another term that comes up in Barabasi’s work.

Imagine that you’re choosing some music to listen to. You ask five friends, and three of them happen to recommend the same artist. You’re then more likely to listen to that artist and than the others you were given, and also more likely to share her work with the next person who asks. This means that those nodes (artists) with a lot of links (attention) tend to get even more. You’re more likely to find yourself listening to Taylor Swift than a local band, for instance, unless you’re trying really hard to do otherwise. Similarly, you’re more likely to choose Google for a search engine than DuckDuckGo, and that’s going to affect what you subsequently see. As technology has advanced, our tendency to bind ourselves into these kinds of social networks has exploded into a kind of digital pandemic.

The upshot of all this, in case it’s not already obvious, is that our natural collective decision-making instinct, when combined with technology, creates networks that degrade the quality of the decisions we make. Fortunately, we seem to be noticing. The push-back against the effects of social media have started. But unfortunately, the problem doesn’t end there.

This same decision-making feedback effect drives how society allocates money to people. We assess how much a person is worth by the amount of success they already have. So, successful scientists get more rewards heaped on them. Painters who are already in the right galleries get into the right museums. And CEOs trade up to new positions with ever higher pay. It’s a feedback effect baked into our very nature as animals because we simply don’t have the time or information necessary to assess everyone exclusively on their merits.

(I can tell you from personal experience that my novels were taken more seriously after I worked at Princeton than I was before, despite the fact that the novels in question were written before I worked there. Princeton is a magic word that people use to assess likely intellectual aptitude because that’s cognitively much cheaper than trying to make a fresh assessment.)

We make up stories, of course, to justify the worth we allocate to companies, individuals, artists, etc, but stories aren’t science, and the science of how we make decisions is well understood at this point.

This is not to say that talent doesn’t count. You can’t even run a functional business unless you’re competent and hungry. Just like you can’t get your painting into even one gallery without some artistic ability. Achievement is hard work and the skills we need to succeed are very real. But those traits are just the table-stakes for the game of rich-get-richer success-roulette that follows. People consistently underestimate the effects of social feedback, just like they consistently underestimate how skewed wealth distribution curves actually are.

This is why our society is increasingly shaped by a small number of billionaires and a very large number of everyone else. Which is unfortunate, because nothing affects a person’s incentives like how much money they have. As a result, what looks like a sensible policy to the people with the most social power is inevitably going to diverge from what everyone else thinks is right, or indeed what’s actually objectively a good idea.

Of course, the more power those central individuals have, the louder their voices and the more likely that their opinions will affect decision-making. On top of that, those people directly connected to very powerful individuals have a massive incentive to support the beliefs of their bosses, otherwise their positions relative to social competitors are jeopardized. This drives the belief-systems of billionaires further away from the consensus understanding of what’s going on. They just don’t get the benefit of all the facts flowing through the rest of the social network. Consider the recent Time article on Donald Trump’s intelligence briefings for an example of what this looks like.

The upshot of this is that we make billionaires dumber, the more we pay them. This is not speculation or analogy, but a quantifiable impact you can model. The more attention billionaires receive, the less able they are to process information. And the more we power we give them, the more they’re likely to gain. And this is why we are in a global runaway cascade of stupid.

There’s another important factor that bears mentioning here. While we, as a society, are getting less able to respond rationally to unwelcome information, exactly the same process is happening inside the brains of those billionaires now running the show.

Here’s how that works. People who receive a lot of money for what they do are very likely to self-validate on that fact. What differentiates them from others is their apparent ‘success’, so they’re both likely to believe that their gains reflect some intrinsic personal quality and also to value that quality highly. After all, that’s what we all want: to be good at something and have it be recognized. And when you’re super-rich, people will line up around the block to tell you how great you are.

But as a billionaire gains more wealth, the satisfaction they gain from each bump in their fortunes decreases because it’s that much easier to achieve. They naturally habituate to the sensation, so each rush of triumph is less satisfying. This means that the more they gain, the hungrier they get for more of the same. Power and attention operate like a drug. This is another very well understood and extensively studied behavioral effect.

So here’s the next takeaway: we make the billionaires sadder, needier, and more desperate, the more we pay them.

Ironically, because of these same network effects, we’re more likely to believe that wealth and attention are valuable even as it harms us. We cannot help but be impacted by the consensus delusion that those enormous fortunes we see are somehow the product of a mysterious kind of personal excellence that we may yet be able to exhibit. We believe this despite the mounting evidence that the converse is true: that most super-rich people are idiots of our creation. Having made the people in the center of our society sick, we then acquire that same sickness. We try harder and harder to validate on the fuel that the billionaires run on even as it gets steadily less likely for us to ever succeed at it.

Historically speaking, this feedback process always goes to the same place. Those leading society lock in their wealth and make progressively worse decisions until some force comes along to disrupt the social disequilibrium that’s been created. That either happens through war, or invasion, or pandemic, or some other equally fun process. See The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel for exhaustively complete and utterly convincing details.

The upshot of all this is that without very significant social re-balancing soon, we will be unable to confront climate change or any of the dramatic consequences that arise from it. And without action, a great many will die. My guess is that the next upcoming social shock will kill about a billion people. (I’ll explain that number in a later post.) Somewhere in that difficult time, people will take to chaining oligarchs to the decks of their own yachts and letting the raging hand of Nature take its vengeance, but by then it will be too late.

Is there a solution? Of course there is. We don’t have to be blind and ignorant to social feedback effects like the civilizations before us. We have network science for crying out loud. We have neuroscience. And so we have hope.

The number of oligarchs in the world is tiny and their power resides exclusively in our imaginations. So how about each nation coordinates its efforts to simply require that all the money that anyone has over some amount, (let’s say one billion dollars), be returned to the state and distributed throughout the population.

We don’t do this out of some idea of ‘fairness’. There is no notion of fairness invoked here. Neither do we do it because it is ‘right’ in some sense. Certainly it is impossible for the billionaires to have ‘earned’ that money in any meaningful sense but arguably that’s irrelevant. We are still talking about wealth redistribution, which is always a charged concept. So why do we do it? Because the alternative is that everyone loses, including the billionaires themselves. Either we tell them that the money is going back in the pot for their own good, or all the money everyone has goes away anyway.

Who gets that money? It gets shared out equally between every adult.

Is that ‘fair’? Shouldn’t we go further and hand it out proportionally? We could, but if we do that, we create a power vacuum and start fights and the whole process will break. It’ll be like that scene in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World where they can’t decide on how many shares of the treasure there should be, only with machine guns and shrapnel bombs. So we keep it very simple. The more important step is to repeat the capping process five years later, and to keep doing it indefinitely.

But what happens if the billionaires simply hide their money overseas while the wealth survey is taking place, I hear you ask? Then they are forbidden from entering or trading in that country unless they participate in the program. Those people are watched and imprisoned if they’re caught. (Remember, these people still get to keep one dollar less than the one billion threshold. That’s still more than nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine million dollars. They still have more money than everybody else and far more than they can possibly spend. Their fate is nothing to be sad about.)

Why do I think this is a sensible approach? In short, because a social wealth distribution that cannot go over a threshold will reorganize itself. People who want to retain power won’t want their visible wealth to go over the limit so they’ll find other ways to exercise social control by sinking money back into society. This system will take time and effort to figure out, so while the system is likely to eventually be gamed somehow, in the mean time, there will be plenty of opportunity for new fortunes to arise and for rationality to return.

I see this approach as far better than trying to force-equalize society because forced equalization strips away the social incentive for individuals to succeed. It might seem fairer but it’s a surefire way to make an economy nosedive while an entrenched elite of self-appointed enforcers establish themselves to replace the oligarchs who’ve just been removed.

What you actually want is something like capitalism, but with a mechanism in place to prevent runaway idiocy of the sort we have now. People have tried to do that with progressive taxation, of course, but the institutions we might look to to effect that change have already been gamed via the current process of stupidification. That means we can expect those institutions to be remarkably sluggish in their response to our votes, and to draft legislation that is more arcane and full of holes than anyone wants. Look at the legislation imposed on banks after the Credit Crunch if you want an example of how that is likely to play out.

To my mind, the fix has to be something simple, blunt, and obvious, so that there is no wiggle-room for laws to be altered and cheated. We want a law you can can fit in a tweet, because that way it’s easy to apply a social check on whether it’s actually being carried out properly. And because the process exclusively impacts a tiny, overfed, and badly-confused minority, violence in its exercise might actually be avoided.

It wouldn’t work forever, of course, but it might buy us enough time to get rational about the world we live on, and how to keep it from burning up. And that would be a lot better than what we have now.

How do we implement such a change? That’s harder. It requires coordination and persistent agitation, and is undoubtedly the topic for another blog post.

In any case, that’s my take. If you disagree, or believe you have a better solution, I’d love to hear about it. I shall be reading the comments with interest.

 

Why not Nationalism?

Politics are strange these days. The Right and the Left seem to see eye to eye ever less frequently. People on both sides become increasingly frustrated with each other. People conclude that others with whom they do not agree are fools for not seeing the obvious. And a lot of people are feeling let down by their governments. They are pedaling faster and getting less. Job stability is evaporating. They watch their lives get harder instead of easier, while those in power seem to make decisions that are ever more opaque.

I feel this too. Acutely. However, my situation is a little different. I have spent the last few years modeling human societies as what physicists would call ‘critical systems’. This was not a deliberate choice for me. I happened to walk into a brief academic job doing this kind of work because of the career trajectory my wife was on at the time. But having been bitten by the social modeling bug, I now cannot look away. I feel that I have seen more, and further, by trying to analyze our collective fate with software than I ever did before, and I would like to share a little of that with you, dear reader, regardless of which side of the political spectrum you happen to fall. I want so share because I believe that we have reached a turning point in history. We either act together to save what we have built, or together we watch it crumble. Our fates are shared whether we decide to cooperate or not.

The first thing I learned is that building models that track human habits requires that I had to accept certain ideas that did not fit with the political ideals I had ingested from the society around me. Unless I put these features in, the models I made didn’t produce output that looked like the real world.

For instance, people work harder and better when they feel like there is something significant for them to personally gain, and something for them to lose. This notion is frequently invoked by the political Right, and it is backed up by neuroscience. When human beings are assessing goals, they look for things that are both doable, and worth doing. This is true whether one is talking about children’s education, career choices, or our smallest scale day-to-day habits. This is because it is determined by how the dopamine system in our brains gets activated. No matter how good our intentions are, or how much we want to believe in the capacity for human compassion, or the power of fairness, this fact is unavoidable.

It is also true that the primary source of stress in human societies comes from the centralization of wealth in the hands of a few. This is a notion that tends to be invoked by the Left, and it is just as unshakable. In fact, it is inextricably linked to the conservative ideal described above. When wealth is centralized in the hands of a few, the wealth gradient for everyone else necessarily flattens out, and there is less reason for everyone else to strive. Having billionaires kills productivity as sure as math is math.

On top of this, there is bottomless evidence to show that people perceive wealth on a comparative basis. Once a group of individuals feel like they have won at life, they will work to make sure that they remain the winners, and in doing so will suppress opportunities for others, consciously or otherwise. Wealth inequality thus suppresses innovation. This too, is written into the fabric of our nature and the inexorable logic of game theory.

Nature, then, does not seem to care who we vote for. It follows its own rules. And when I play those rules out on a computer, here’s what I see.

One: I see that human societies aggregate. It is easier for human social systems to merge than it is for them to split. For instance, it is easier to join the EU than it is to leave it. This is true because once a society becomes connected, people take advantage of the opportunities that such connection affords. And if you try to split a society back up again, you have to break up all the new patterns that have been made.

Two: I see that no society is immune to corruption. Every human society runs on a set of common behaviors, and there is always a way to capitalize on those behaviors for personal gain. And because gain can be had, it will eventually, inevitably, be sought out. It does not matter whether you are talking about the government, or the board of a multinational corporation, or a band of freedom fighters, or a grassroots social movement aimed at improving social justice. No social body is immune. In fact, the more tightly held the ideals of that group, and the more fundamentally cooperative it aspires to be, the faster it lays itself open to distortion from within. This is because as soon as any tightly-held set of social norms become policed by those with their own ends in mind, a utopia becomes a prison for its members. A little mutual mistrust and judgement, it turns out, doubles as an immune system.

There are two key outcomes to these truths I see when I put them into a computer model. The first is that societies that invest effort in preserving equality, and spend money and energy on preventing the centralization of power, outcompete those that do not. The second is that once those societies have merged into a single tightly-coupled system, no matter how benign, it is only a matter of time before it is corrupted, allowing wealth to slide into the hands of a few. And once this happens worldwide, the models say, there is no going back. Globalization is a trap.

Given this, one might look at the popular move to various forms of nationalism that has risen in recent years and see in it a little hope. People have lost jobs. They can see the perils of globalization clearly. So why not close borders and protect their own tribes? In doing so, surely they are not only helping themselves, but limiting the spread of an inevitably corrupting global system. What’s not to like?

The problem is that if these borders are closed whilst a pattern of connected global trade is retained, the situation gets worse, not better. Shutting the borders after wealth centralization is already in full swing only reduces opportunity for those seeking to gain wealth, not those who already have it. That’s because it’s the opportunities for advancement available to everyone except the controlling class that are being removed. This pulls up the drawbridge behind those who are already in control, locking everyone else out. And after that, money is siphoned out of the hands of population even faster. The remaining jobs vanish. Poverty sets in.

Nobody wins in this situation. First, the people who wanted to protect their livelihoods suffer. Then the allies of rich who were hoping to gain advantage are turned upon, because there is no money left outside the castle gates to take. Then the rich compete against each other. The knives come out. And all the while, the entire society gets poorer because innovation has been turned off.

It does not matter how rich your country is when this process starts, or how much one might intend to dominate a global market from a position of national strength. That’s because, if the pattern of locked-in wealth inequality is already established, it does not matter how much national potential you have. You can’t access it because your leaders have no incentive to invite the risks that come with growth. After all, why should they? They have already won.

So what’s the solution? If nationalism is a part of it, then another part is necessarily the removal of all oligarchs from their pedestals. If radical wealth redistribution doesn’t accompany the closing of borders, then there can be no gradient of hope for those wishing to better their lot to climb afterwards. To build a conservative dream, you ironically first need a spasm of raw communism.

I believe that there must be better solutions than this, though I am still struggling to define them. Social idealism does not save us, because idealism only creates cooperative norms that can be gamed. Market forces cannot help, because markets only function when there is relative parity between those who are trading. Putting people on other planets, beyond the reach of money and power, clearly works, but that may cost more than the human race can bring itself to spend.

However, if we do not find a solution, nature will find one for us. There are two ways the model ends. One is with global, existential war and the flattening of hierarchies everywhere. The other is with disease, such as the plague that rescued Western Civilization from itself at the end of the Middle Ages by killing a third of the population. Either we act together to find solutions that can work, or we watch what we have built unravel. It is that simple.

So, in asking yourself whether you want to vote for a populist party promising to bring back jobs by closing borders, ask yourself how much of their own wealth are those populists prepared to set down. If the answer is not ‘all of it’, then chances are they are looking to take whatever you have left. Ask yourself how much more you can afford to lose.

Brexit: what I got wrong

In April, I posted the following anticipated timeline on Facebook regarding Brexit. Looking at it now makes me laugh, sort of, in a hysterical kind of way.

1: Tories tell angry right-wing voters that they will A: insist on a change to the relationship with Europe. B: Hold a referendum.
2: Tories mop up votes and win election.
3: Tories create fudged Europe arrangement with no real change.
4: Boris aligns with angry right-wing voters to capitalize on fury after staged referendum.
5: Tories announce referendum, list reasons to be afraid.
6: Public told ‘leave’ and ‘stay’ support almost perfectly balanced.
7: Now. (As in April 18th)
8: Labour effectively compromised by appearing to support Tory government position.
9: Staged referendum returns ‘stay’ vote of surprising strength.
10: Tories use apparent mandate to promote unpopular social programs held in reserve for after result.
11: Boris capitalizes on the fury generated by social programs to hijack Tories.
12: Weakened Labour now faces panicked, furious right-wing re-aligned under Boris in next election.
13: Etc.

Wow. How wrong I got that! Really. But despite that, I’m still proud of that post. Here’s why.

1: The referendum was staged

Only now is it becoming clear just how staged it was. The market expected a Remain win. So did the Conservatives. So did Boris. Everything was designed that way. But things did not run as planned, and so now we get this morning’s stunning reveal that Boris won’t run for prime minister after all. Why? Because it’s one thing to capitalize on a nation’s fury. It’s quite another to be responsible for cleaning up the mess that fury causes. I don’t believe for a moment that Gove has somehow pushed him aside. That’s a ridiculous interpretation. Boris has run for the hills.

2: The result did look balanced before the vote, as intended

This is the new pattern. Politicians don’t even have to work at this one—the media does it for them. They sell more clicks if they can make a political contest look charged and close. Which the politicians then use to whip up the appearance of public engagement before tipping the result in their favor.

What’s darkly hilarious about the Brexit outcome is that this time, Britain had lost so much faith in its politicians that they actually did press the death button, rather than shying back in fear. Wow.

3: Labor was handed a sucker’s choice, but Corbyn didn’t take it

The Conservatives presented Corbyn with a heads-I-win-tails-you lose scenario. He could either get up on stage with Cameron and vote Remain, and look compromised, or he could avoid doing so, and look weak. He was supposed to get up on stage, but Corbyn saw that one coming and refused to do so, much to the frustration of the Conservative political machine, I’m sure.

The irony here is that in the wake of Brexit, it’s clear that Corbyn is as out of touch with his own electorate as the Conservatives are. Traditional white working class voters in the UK aren’t so bothered about international compassion or grand federal visions at this point. What they want is their standard of living back, their jobs, and their culture as it was before immigration started to ramp. Corbyn finds himself at the helm of a voter-base of would-be national socialists. That’s not all Labor voters, of course, it’s just far more of them than anyone wants to admit.

The extra irony here is that none of those who’re looking to tear down Corbyn seem to have clued in to this yet. They still think the answer is more Blairism, but that ship has well and truly sailed. You can’t even see it on the horizon any more.

4: Unpopular measures were being held in reserve

The unpopular measure in question, I strongly suspect, was TTIP. Who knows what’s going to happen with that now?

5: I also, in another post, predicted a looming surprise

We had inklings of this outcome before the vote. I smelt trouble in the wind in my last post. I just didn’t put two and two together. I wasn’t spending enough time in the country. I underestimated was how close Britain was to the clifftop of its own rage.

Ironically, I was in the UK for the day of the vote, as it turned out, as my father was having open-heart surgery on the exact same day. His condition was extreme. We half-expected him to die. As it is, he’s making a stunning recovery. My birth-country, not so much.

Maybe the Leave vote will lead to a golden dawn for England, released from the shackles of Brussels, and forging ahead into the future on its own terms. However, I’m not holding my breath.

Why I got it wrong

I think the reason I misread the tea-leaves on this subject was the same reason why many others did. We overestimated the placidity of the British people. We should have known better.

Human beings are designed to seek out low-risk opportunities to exact social punishment, because punishing others is dangerous. It is a form of violence. And the best way to reduce the risks of an aggressive act is to surprise the one being punished. What this means is that human beings don’t become predictable when they’re angry, though that’s what many would like to believe. In some ways, they become easier to organize, but only so long as you’re providing them with an outlet for their rage. Stop doing that, and you become the target. The French Revolution springs to mind.

On top of that, Northern Europeans are past-masters at mutual punishment. It’s built into our cultures. Furthermore, the British identity features a strong through-line of collective refusal to cooperate. That’s been obvious since the Romans. In retrospect, maybe we should have expected the first break in the current oligarchical regime to happen right here. In a way, a Leave vote is about the most English thing that could have happened.

So what happens next?

Regarding Britain, I suspect that nobody is going to really want to claim leadership when what’s on offer is so likely to be a disaster. Britain will either end up with a leader who is massively opportunist, or someone who the oligarchs deem suitable for the task of cleaning up the mess.

Because I believe that that the current crop of leaders is unimaginative, weak, and pre-selected by Britain’s shadow-rulers for their predictability, no opportunist will arise. My best guess is that they will hand the PM job to a woman for the worst possible reasons. I am guessing Theresa May. Either that, or they will hand the job to Gove as a sacrificial animal and use it to destroy him.

Regarding the bigger picture, as per previous posts, I still think the West is involved in a bank war with China. However, rather than being fixated on China’s limitations, I’m now concerned about the West. Increasingly, that bank war reminds me of the Cold War.

At the end of the Cold War, America simply spent the Soviet Union under the table. This wasn’t, as some American Conservatives like to hilariously imagine, a stroke of genius by Ronald Reagan. Rather, it was that Reagan was involved in a self-defeating psychotic spend-fest for reasons of his own.

Now, the tables are turned. The West and China are over-investing  in property and financial instruments rather than nuclear weapons, but the stakes are the same: global dominance. China is wildly overbalanced, but so, as it turns out, are we.

And the cracks are appearing in the West first. The bank war cannot last. Something has to give. So what cracks next? The US, with an alarming Trump victory, or China, involved in minor resource wars with its own neighbors? Who can say?

When a tightly-coupled system gets close to self-organized criticality, each crack in the system increases the probability of the next occurring, in a pattern of escalating cascade. Chances are, we won’t have to wait long for the next exciting installment in our global political adventure. Tune in stochastically-soon folks, the future is now!

Jo Cox, Precipices, China

I’m posting a lot about politics at the moment, but there’s a reason for that. And that’s that modern politics scares me. Apparently, it also scares this guy. In his eloquently blunt article, he expresses his astonishment and concern about the state of the UK. His main topic is the murder of British MP Jo Cox. But in the same week, we also saw the ludicrous battle on the River Thames.

I join Chris in his concern, but I am not astonished. Rather, for me, I feel a kind of gnawing inevitable dread. Why? Because of something called self-organized criticality. I chant this phrase in political discussions with ever increasing frequency at the moment. The wikipedia page drowns the notion in science, so I’ll try to boil it down, and explain why I think it’s relevant.

Complex adaptive systems, like say, forests, or ecologies, or societies, have this tendency to organize themselves to max out the capacity of their environment. They try to squeeze in more and more trees, or lemmings, or dodgy property deals, until their environment collapses to some extent. The reach of the collapse is something you can never tell in advance. And after that, the squeezing begins again.

Our civilization is a complex adaptive system. The global financial industry has squeezed it to a precipice. Partial collapse is now inevitable. That doesn’t mean that the collapse will be big, mind you. The Credit Crunch was a partial collapse, and most of us are still here to talk about it.

This time, the vehicle for the collapse is the panic buying of international property by the rising Chinese executive class, and the attendant money-laundering storm that has come with it. The thing is, rather than let that bubble burst, the Chinese government keep bolstering their economy artificially. This means that the tension in the system cannot slip. Demand for property keeps rising. This makes the probability of a large cascade that much greater.

What does this have to do with the death of a British MP? Everything. Because the West is feeling the weight of that impending cascade, and it’s affecting all of us. It is our property that is being bought to sustain the overburdened system. The middle class is meanwhile shrinking. Xenophobia is growing. People are losing money and they’re starting to behave differently.

When major political shifts happen, they take people by surprise. By definition. When people can see a potential shift coming, they anticipate it. And so they don’t change that much. This means it’s always the changes that nobody believes can happen that strike hardest.

Britain, has for years imagined itself a fusty, sensible place incapable of blind panic or mindless brutality. We look on corruption elsewhere around the world, or even our own past, with confusion and distaste. We imagine that those things can’t happen at home. But of course they can. When a social system breaks, it breaks. The social contract that everyone relied on to keep things normal just goes away. Ditto the USA. Ditto Europe.

Fixing the global political problem is something that we no longer have the means to do through ordinary channels. We cannot will sensible, non-corrupt, kind, left-leaning political parties into existence, no matter how many FB posts we share. That is because the compressed mass of impending change is already too large for us to just-believe-in-democracy our way out.

Instead, what will happen is that something will cause the Chinese log-jam to break while the West retreats into Trumpian panic. Either there will be an unanticipated spike in the price of oil that the overextended Chinese economy can’t handle, or problems from within their own property market will cause a crisis. Say, for instance, the anticipated large-scale turnover of land leases in 2019. In the wake of that change, property markets all over the Western world will undergo massive, simultaneous reorganization.

When this happens, we will have a brief window for action. There will be those who will want to blame the poor, the weak, and the different, because that, unfortunately, is human nature. They will try to start wars. If we do that, things will get worse again. Instead, we should depose our oligarchs, no matter how hard that has become to do.

Whichever country in the world has the strength and far-sightedness to carry out that braver agenda is likely to come out best from the coming crisis. Leveling the economic playing field will create an arena in which functional capitalism of a sort we no longer have can actually occur. Prosperity will follow. It’ll be interesting to see who pulls it off.

In the mean time, I recommend getting to know your neighbors as well as you possibly can. Those with strong, local social ties will weather the coming storm most effectively.

 

 

Trump Slug

Slime molds are simple, single-celled creatures nevertheless capable of impressive feats of reasoning. They have a novel behavior that has been much studied. When food gets scarce and their survival is threatened, slime mold cells will bind together to form what’s called a ‘slug’. This slug then functions as a multicellular organism until it can seek out somewhere to release spores. When it does so, some cells in the slug get to reproduce. The rest do not.

I suspect that human beings are very similar. We move around, mostly doing our own thing, until we feel threatened. Then we bind together to form a slug to oppose the threat. That slug will obtain advantage via whatever is the easiest and most expeditious means at its disposal.

What makes humans feel threatened enough to bind? I’d propose that the signaling system is actually quite simple, despite our individual complexity. There are two parts to it. First, we need to feel like we’re experiencing a loss of personal wealth or freedom. Secondly, we need to have evidence from our social context that other people we consider to be like us have also experienced a loss of agency.

When those two signals are matched, we start looking around for something to bind to. But human slugs are not like slime mold slugs. Humans engage in heavy social organization. So we need a central social node. What kind of node do we look for? Once again, I suspect the system is simple.

We look for social defectors. In other words, we look for someone we know can fight and cheat. Someone who is not bound by social constraints. We look for someone who seems less socially constrained than ourselves because when death threatens, we need someone who can and will do anything.

But social defectors are dangerous. How do we know that we’ve found a good one, and not someone who’s just going to screw us over? By looking for one who is already popular. A human who is able to broadcast their defector status and yet isn’t becoming unpopular has shown that they’re a high-functioning defector. The more popular they are, the more likely we are to bind to them.

We call these defectors sociopaths. They show up in about one percent of the population. Which is also, interestingly about 1 / Dunbar’s number. Dunbar’s number tells you the notional size of a human tribe. There’s evidence that sociopaths are not mentally ill, and that rather, they’re the result of a naturally selected pattern. I’d propose that this is why.

So why do we have people like Donald Trump? Because we always have. Why does he get more popular when the media tell us he’s an outrageous lying cheat? Because that’s what people are programmed to look for. That looks strong. Why does he tell everyone that people love him? Because that increases the likelihood of our binding. So, no mystery, I’d propose. Why does he remind us of Hitler? Because Hitler was a slug-head. Human slugs don’t look to right wrongs. They seek out advantage by preying on whatever source of social gain appears weak and accessible.

But Trump is ridiculous. He is not strong. He is weak and he will fail. However, while the middle class keeps being robbed, and the media keep scaring us to keep us predictable, people will keep looking around for slugs to bind to. So after Trump fails, which slug-head will the US choose? And in Britain, after the stage-managed idiocy of the Brexit referendum, where will all that social anger go? Who is going to be the English slug-head? I don’t know. Let’s find out!

 

Option Four

Gosh, isn’t modern politics weird? Here’s a scary thing that just happened in Austria: they elected a far-right group. It bears an uncanny resemblance to movements happening elsewhere in the western world, like Trump, for instance. (Anyone else here bored of hearing the word ‘trump’?) Here’s a nice NY Times article talking about the trend.

The NY Times article frames the apparently sudden rise of the far-right as something a bit puzzling. But I don’t think it’s hard to understand. Here’s another nice article pointing out that the patterns of democratic collapse have been at least partially understood for thousands of years.

As an SF author, I find that watching modern politics is like trying to shout through the insulated window of a spacecraft at people tinkering dangerously with the nuclear engine inside. I can see what’s happening, but I can’t be heard. Who cares what a serial fantasist has to say? Surely politicians and journalists and academics know more.

But as a writer obsessed with the future, I’ve put a ridiculous amount of effort into trying to figure out what’s going to happen to us next. I suspect I’m not the only SF author who feels this way. Being a complex systems modeler who’s tinkered with simulations of human society only makes that feeling more acute.

So what do I think come next? Well, first we have to know what’s going on. The New York Times says this:

We struggle to explain the rise of the far right in its various guises. Immigration is important, but the dynamics predated the refugee crisis. The euro crisis has not helped. High unemployment is crucial in France and Austria, but not an issue in Britain. Chaos in the Arab world, following the fiasco of the American-led invasion of Iraq, fuels new Middle East wars and terrorist attacks in Europe, adding to feelings of insecurity. Globalization, the loss of middle-class jobs, the rise of inequality and anxiety over the European social model have left immense frustration. Everywhere, anger toward ruling elites and mainstream institutions is patent.

So their answer seems to be: a bunch of things are responsible. My answer is just this: panic. Why are people panicking? Two simple reasons.

One: Wealth inequality has limited their personal freedom and they’re feeling the social constraints in their wallets.

Two: They’re being constantly manipulated by the media and politicians, who never hesitate to give people reasons to be afraid. That’s because people who’re scared pay attention and are easy to manipulate, and we have more media in front of us now than ever before.

So of course the traditional media itself is going to struggle to articulate an overarching cause to the mounting tide of panic. Because they’re a part of the problem. Ditto social media. Urgent political shouldisms propagate faster online than cat pictures.

The mechanics of what happens next is simple. If you constantly cheat and scare people, they get tribal. (Go look up research on oxytocin and testosterone.) At the moment, some of us are more scared than others, so when we look at the people who’re freaking out, they look weirdly non-rational to us. Their anger looks like plain old bigotry. But panic is contagious, and nobody thinks of themselves as politically irrational or self-centered until it’s way too late. And nobody is immune. We are fools if we imagine otherwise.

So what’s coming next? More demagoguery. More inequality. Shuffled steps closer to saber-rattling, xenophobia and eventually war.

Is there a way out of that trap? I see three:

One: Coordinate broadly to reverse the social trends that have brought us to this place. That means banning privately-owned media organizations that aren’t cooperatives. Introducing a strict code of journalistic ethics. Banning short-selling. Banning off-shore tax havens. Introducing harsh penalties for white-collar crime. Putting publicly accountable legal controls on social media. Mandating transparency in government spending. Closing legal loopholes that protect the rich. Removing the legal notion of corporations as people. Banning private donations to political campaigns. Ban gerrymandering, etc.

Two: Precipitate a small social cascade sooner rather than later, perhaps in the form of a market meltdown or minor war. That way,  society has easier access to the tools it needs to spontaneously reorganize, despite the attached costs.

Three: Wait for the environment to precipitate a social cascade for us.

Option one seems incredibly hard to execute, and one that nobody will pick because of the implied loss of competitive advantage. Option two strikes me as dangerous and unpredictable. And option three strikes me as madness, particularly as option three and war are likely to appear as an entangled pair.

What’s my solution? In the short term: vote for Bernie Sanders, who I see as something between a step towards options one and two. (I like Hilary, but for her to be able to pull of Option One in time while maintaining the political status-quo would need a superhuman, not a policy wonk.)

In the longer term: we build ourselves an Option Four. How? By encouraging everyone we know to be more informed and less afraid. We refuse fear. We look for new ways to socially organize. We disbelieve in the power of elites, because their wealth only exists in our minds. We show them our pity, because pity is the correct response to anyone mentally ill enough to obtain more wealth than they can use. We look after our planet. We put people somewhere other than our planet. We start being honest about human nature and how it works. We look at the man behind the goddamned curtain that lurks in our own minds and recognize that rationalism is the foundation for sustainable compassion and not the other way around. We keep trying. We never give up. We forge the New Enlightenment now, before nature forces it upon us.

Can we do it? I wouldn’t be writing this article if I didn’t think we could.

 

Money

What is money? Why does it exist? In the last post, I talked about ownership, and proposed that it can occur in the absence of money. So if money isn’t necessary for anyone to lay claim to their resource of choice, how come we’ve settled on that system?

Human beings, I propose, come with an inbuilt currency system of sorts that has nothing to do with money. It requires no physical units, works brilliantly, and is far more flexible and sophisticated than money will ever be. That system is what you might think of as ‘validation tokens’. These are the neurotransmitter payoffs that we receive for matching patterns we perceive in the world that imply that we’re good or useful people.

We’re designed as social animals to seek out interpersonal reward. Any act of charity you make, any sporting achievement you attain, or useful object you build, all result in validation experiences. These are the things we do because it makes us feel good. And while human societies are small, this kind of currency is all you need.

However, something happens when human societies get larger than simple tribes. A tribe that doesn’t exist in isolation is likely to have limits on its territory. That means there will be certain resources that it can access more easily than others. This creates the incentives for warfare and trade.

When human social groups trade, some notion of the equivalence of goods needs to be established, even in the simplest barter transaction. Repeat trades establish consistency in that equivalence. Faster, more complex patterns of trade naturally produce units of equivalence, and so money appears. Once your society has reached the scales of hundreds of thousands of individuals, I’d suggest that some retained unit of value-equivalence is going to be hard to avoid.

That unit of equivalence is going to code explicitly for just one thing: the perceived fitness gain that each given commodity confers. Tribe A needs beans because they’re hungry. They’re prepared to give away pots because they have more than they need. Tribe B feels differently—they need somewhere to put all their beans. And so a transfer of resources can happen. Because of how money arises, it can’t really represent anything except fitness-gain. (Note: I’m using fitness in the evolutionary sense here, as in biological advantage. I’m not talking about workouts.)

There’s another reason why money arises. At large social scales, our validation system starts to break down. It only works when the people we’re sharing experiences with are personally relevant to us, and who we’re likely to meet again. We only have modeling room for about a hundred and fifty people in our brains, so when we’re interacting with strangers, some other measure has to suffice. Units of anonymous trade are the natural replacement.

But something interesting happens along the way to more sophisticated societies. Rather than trade happening at the group-level between validation-based tribes, complex societies have individuals engaging in patterns of trade and mutual validation that happen in parallel. The tribes have all dissolved into a social soup, leaving only interlocking social networks. That means trade now occurs between individuals, just like kindness. Correspondingly, the burden of extrinsic fitness comparison happens at the level of every member of our society.

That isn’t going to be fun, for the most part, because evolutionary fitness is inherently comparative. Even though the amount of money in a society can rise and fall because of changes in perceived need and the arbitrary nature of the units, the psychological implications can’t operate that way. Money is always going to be about oneupmanship and stress, because the brain naturally conflates the units of fitness-gain we happen to be holding with our own biological fitness.

What this means is that the only way to enjoy thinking about money is to imagine a subjective equivalence between the number of units you have, and the number that everyone around you has. But nobody can see those units, so you have to signal the number that you’re holding by taking out resource locks on ever larger social resources. You have to own things. (If you’re wondering what I mean by resource locks, take a look at yesterday’s post.)

What this means is that in large complex societies, in order to feel okay about themselves, a large number of people are going to attempt to optimize over their notions of personal equivalence. They’re going to try to lock down more and more resources, even if they can’t use them, because the alternative is personal distress.

They’re going to concoct schemes in which they notionally own resources that they never set eyes on. Even if someone is holding more units than they can count or comprehend, notionally reducing that imaginary pile can cause panic. However much you’re holding ends up coding for how good you feel about yourself. To our kludgy primate minds, having less units means we’re less good, regardless of how many units we actually have. That is, unless we exercise the cognitive effort to see just how ridiculous that parallel is.

For large, complex societies, noise and historical accident are invariably going to have a greater impact on the number of trade-units an individual ends up with than their fitness. That math is very simple. But it flies in the face of what we want to believe about ourselves, so the math isn’t invoked. The irony here is that people are designed to be cashless tribe-members, not solitary bean-hoarders. No number of individually held units is healthy or good. At some level, just having a surplus of un-utilized trade-units implies that an individual is doing something other than being reproductively fit. It’s a fascinating glimpse of psychological ill-health that we collectively choose to ignore.

When the exterior balancing pressures on a large society go away, the interior pressure of fitness-panic dominates. More and more of the society’s trade-units will be caught up in dead peacock-tails of interpersonal display. That means less and less units are available for trade, and that means that the transfer of goods becomes steadily less efficient. This process generally goes on until the society incurs an environmental shock of some kind. When that happens, the imaginary peacock tails usually disappear and everyone becomes ‘poor’. Society rebalances itself as necessary—usually not pleasantly.

Money, then, is a curious compromise that enables large societies to form and self-balance. It is simple, robust, and generates momentum for its own self-propagation. But like any such mechanism, it is flawed, and prone to the perils of self-organized criticality. Can we do better? Can we use our intelligence and human agency to come up with a system that’s smarter and less prone to catastrophic error? I don’t know. But if you have opinions, I’d like to hear them.

(Note: I now have two actual real posts in my author blog! Amazing!)