All posts by alexlamb

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.



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!)


What is ownership? We tend to think about ownership in relation to money. You buy something, you own it. But ownership is much older than that. There are plenty of animals that claim territory, and retain control over tools, or mates, or sources of food. With respect to others of their species, their sensations of ownership are just as real as ours. So what does it mean to own something?

I believe that ownership is like a file-lock in an operating system. A program locks a file while it’s in use, because otherwise, other programs would be able to tinker with that data and consequently screw the program up. File locks prevent costly errors.

As social organisms, we express ownership if we want to be able to rely on a resource being available to us in the future. Being able to rely on a resource being there enables us to plan. And for the intelligent, tool-using creatures that we are, being able to plan is everything. Planning is the program we’re trying to not mess up. The rest of our social group, by and large, respects that right to access. When everyone’s access rights are taken seriously, friction within the social group is minimized, and thus collective effectiveness increases.

Note that this model doesn’t say anything about why a given resource-lock is established. It might be to advertise mating potential, secure sources of food or shelter, or a dozen other reasons. At some level, it doesn’t matter.

Note also that I’m not making a moral argument about whether ownership is right or wrong. I’m just saying why it’s there. Similarly, I’m not saying that it’s impossible for societies to arise in which property isn’t shared. Under unusual social pressures, other access patterns can surely be established. I’m sure there are anthropologists who could point you at half a dozen examples. But the fact that such systems can occur says nothing about the evolutionary reason why the pattern is there in the majority of cases, or why something like it arises in everything from ants to octopi to us.

So there we have it. That’s why anyone owns anything. However, something interesting can happen in human societies that this model doesn’t quite take account for. In our modern, complex civilization, it’s possible for people to claim ownership over commodities that they never even see, let alone use. How does that work? I have an answer, of course. Can you guess what it is?

In the next few posts, I intend to riff on this topic, and others related to it. I welcome any and all thoughts that occur to readers along the way.

Note: For any and all who’re interested, I’ve decided to split of my more writer-ish posts and host them on my main website, as of today. If you’re interested, you can find them here