Tag Archives: politics

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.

 

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Are we hitting peak social justice?

I have a prediction, and it’s this: outraged social norming on the political left is close to a tipping point beyond which the left will begin to collapse under the constraints of its own narrative. 

Do I like this prediction? No, I do not. Do I want it to be true? No. Do I have opinions about it? Yes, of course. But in this post I want to try to talk about what I think I see, rather than what I believe is right. I’m deliberately going to try to resist expressing direct sentiment here about the norming itself, or its moral value, or its targets. And that’s because I believe in a lot of the things that are being pushed for in the public dialog on the internet, but don’t want this post to automatically be about the value of my opinions or anyone else’s. Because that kind of exchange is part of what I see as the problem.

My goal here, instead, is to lay out the observations and reasons that led me to this prediction. If you disagree about the prediction and have evidence of a trend that balances it, I’d like to hear about it and know your reasoning. If you agree, then please feel free to help me figure out what the hell we can do about. And in any case, we’ll be able to watch what happens over the next five years to see if my fears play out.

I first became seriously worried about how the left-leaning dialog on the internet was functioning during the reaction to Patricia Arquette’s Oscars debacle. She made an impassioned speech about gender equality and subsequently made a less than stellar remark in the pressroom which social media seemed to pay far more attention to than her initial remarks. I didn’t understand at the time why commenters on the left would seemingly push so hard to take down a highly visible public figure promoting a progressive agenda, albeit in a flawed way.

I later learned about the internet debate around an essay written by Jonathan Chait, in which he criticized what he saw as a growing culture of political correctness. (I was apparently the last person on the internet to hear about this.) Jon’s concern was that the culture of the left was alienating its own liberal allies.

The number of loud, critical responses that were made to his piece are too numerous to link to here. If you’re interested, just google ‘jon chait pc’ and read what comes back. A lot of it is very interesting.

One particular line of reasoning that I encountered several times while reading through the responses to his piece was this: where is your actual evidence that the current form of social critiquing is doing more harm than good? 

It’s natural to see where this question comes from. A lot of the loudest, and most proactive commentary on the left comes from people who are urgently trying to advance a social good. Nobody wants to hear that their best attempts to improve the world may be counterproductive, even though the scale of their response kind of made Jon’s point for him. However, the consensus seemed to be that Jon Chait had no real data. He had anecdotes, some of which were questionable.

However, this year, we were presented with some very powerful and informative data: the surprise success of the conservative party in the British election. Against expectations, Labor were trounced. I say this as someone hoping they would win.

When British analysts attempted to understand why the polls had provided such wrong predictions of the election outcome, one phrase was extensively employed: ‘shy Tories’. In other words, people who’d decided to vote Conservative, but didn’t want to admit it.

In the wake of the Conservative victory, it wasn’t hard to find articles like this one, decrying the left as founded on a philosophy of exclusion and hate. There were other, more subdued articles such as this in the Guardian, that attempted to understand what had happened. Broadly speaking, it seemed that Britain had become increasingly populated with people whose views had not skewed left even though the dialog around them had.

I am not proposing here that the ‘shy Tory’ phenomenon was exclusively responsible for the Conservative win. It wasn’t. There was far more to the election than that. What I am doing, though, is pointing out that this is a national-level example of a particular social mechanism at work.

People’s opinions can fall out of step with the public narrative that surrounds them. When this happens, they will not necessarily admit it, but they may polarize against the narrative, and then subsequently act to obstruct or destroy it.  

Note that this phenomenon has nothing to do with the social value of the narrative being engaged in or who has the moral high-ground. All that needs to happen for the narrative to fail is that enough people feel that they cannot participate in it.

What is happening in Britain, though, is just one part of a dialog happening throughout the western world. Changes in one country will not necessarily repeat elsewhere. So, in order to make a guess about the future, it’d be useful to have some small, yet relatively globalized microcosm of politics where we could watch the polarization of social dialog play out.

Fortunately we science fiction enthusiasts have one. The tiny, hyperbolic world of fandom may give us a glimpse of the future. And yes, I’m talking about the dreaded Hugos debate again.

What amazes me most at this point about the Hugos fight is that posts are still appearing. The battle continues. The best post I saw recently was this one by Eric Flint, which I think shows both his wisdom and his exhaustion. I found myself wondering how people in the community had the energy to sustain their anger.

I now think I understand what is going on. People are validating on the conflict on both sides. By which I mean that in taking up an entrenched position and defending it, they are experiencing a neurological reward, regardless of how coherent or self-consistent that position is. Consequently, they will probably keep at it until something more distracting comes along.

If this pattern starts repeating itself in mainstream society, I suspect that the current progressive narrative on the internet will split. In the worst case, the consensus may go into reverse. We should not kid ourselves that social progress has enjoyed a smooth linear development.

Specifically, I would propose, a progressive agenda tends to have greater traction during times of collective prosperity, when the constraints on individuals are reduced. When inequality begins to dominate, social constraints tighten. Ironically, people usually become more right-wing as their freedoms shrink, sometimes dramatically so. They look around for someone to blame who they can actually reach and affect, rather than the financial barons that they cannot. Witness the rise of the radical right in Europe happening right now.

There is a lag, though—a period in which freedoms are reducing while the juggernaut of social commentary continues undeterred. I fear that we are in that gap right now. That scares me because only a unified, inclusive, non-judgmental left has any chance against the accelerating might of the world’s oligarchical class.

In reality, almost all of us are on the same side, because we will rise or fall together. Everyone who can remember how many houses they own on a given day is on our side. Everyone who struggles with the payments on their second yacht is on our side. Everyone who owns a plane but not their own jet is on our side. I say this because all of these people will suffer in the power-lockout that is evolving, even if they cannot see it yet.

And everyone who makes copious mistakes in their vision of social inclusion, but is nevertheless ready to stand up and act to defend inclusion, is on our side. To argue otherwise, I’d propose, is to participate in the death of progressivism, rather than to lead it.

(My first novel, Roboteer, comes out from Gollancz in July of this year.)

On Ostracism

In my last post, I talked about the current woes over the Hugo awards, but all the while I was writing it, I felt like there was a major point that I was missing out. That point was larger than SF fandom, and instead said something about the difference between the country I was born in (UK) and the one I live in now (US), so I left it aside.

Then, after I made the post, a commenter (AG) made the following remark:

I would also add that nobody doubts the benefits of diversity (at least nobody seems to in the sad puppies’ camp). We only differ in thinking that ideological diversity is good too.

I find AG’s comment, while apparently heartfelt, something of a stretch. (BTW, thank you for your input, AG.) While I trust that AG speaks fairly of his own opinion, some members of the Sad Puppy camp have been extremely vocal in their criticism of ways of life different from their own. That criticism does not always appear to have been designed to encourage dialog.

But my point here is not to indulge my own opinions (which lean left), or to add to the already impressive mass of Hugo-related rhetoric. Rather I was inspired by AG’s comment to address that missing critical point.

I wanted to ask the following question: what has happened to American public discourse, and can we fix it?

Science fiction fandom in the US has become tribal, as have many elements of American life. People have grown angry. One side feels impatient for change that it sees as long overdue. The other side perceives a wave of political militancy, and thinks it sees overtures of thought control because its opinions are not garnering equal respect.

This much is obvious, but why we are all so angry now? Why did this shift not happen thirty years ago?

My proposed explanation stems from the following observation: the US is a large country which, for most of its history, has been relatively empty. Furthermore, it has a lot of different kinds of people in it, and always has. For this, and a host of other reasons, the dominant mechanism for implementing politeness in the US has been what an evolutionary biologist might call ostracism. In other words, if someone says something that you can’t get along with or that strikes you as crazy, you give them room and try to ignore them. If necessary, you actively shun them. 

In Britain, by contrast, if someone you know says something crazy, society permits you, within reason, to tease them or call them out on it. Choosing to remark on someone else’s crazy is often perceived as a point of strength. Or, at least, this was still true when I moved.

Brits, and other Europeans, look at the US and struggle to understand a society that is seemingly first world, and yet supports populations of Amish on one end and holistic pet bathing enthusiasts on the other. They make television shows about it and wonder how come Americans appear to be insane.

But US culture is structured the way that it is, I’d propose, because leaving people room was always the more efficient solution given the conditions. With different ethnic groups arriving from all over the planet for the last two hundred years, simple, robust solutions to a variety of social problems have been a part of life. The US is not a European-style, self-norming, cohesive culture. It is a hyper-inclusive monoculture underpinned by a huge number of microcultures, some of which are extremely exclusive in nature.

Thus far, the US has succeeded with this model. However, the country is now presented with a problem. That mechanism of shunning or rejecting those who we cannot get along with has broken. Even without a rising population, increased urban density, and rapid transport, the internet makes it impossible. In effect, everyone is suddenly trapped in the same room. Shunning people doesn’t increase the social distance any more. It just makes people upset and more prone to aggression. And so a long stable nation has now polarized wildly, like oil and water desperately trying to escape each other while trapped in the same cup.

I find this worrying because the ostracism-first approach to social moderation is deeply baked into American thinking. The assumption that if you encounter someone who you consider intolerable, that you should exclude them, and ensure that your peers do likewise, is for many an almost instinctive response. It feels morally right. It feels just. When others fail to participate in the process, it can feel like a betrayal. It is not perceived as a cultural choice. It is just the thing that you need to do.

But there are two ironies here. The first is that what right-leaning SF fans parse as socialist thought control is, in truth, a profoundly American social behavior. The second is that left-leaning fans, in seeking to advance a social good, unwittingly resort to a traditional behavior historically more associated with conservatives. Funny, perhaps, but nobody is laughing yet.

Is there a solution? I am biassed, of course, but I would propose that the US borrow one from Britain: derision. By which I mean satire, mockery, teasing and all other forms of social reconciliation through mirth. It is not a surprise that social institutions like the Daily Show have become so valued in American society of late. They are badly needed and in short supply.

I believe that both sides in the Hugos debate, and in American society at large, need to set down their sense of outraged affront as rapidly as possible and start mocking each other instead. Mocking and accepting mockery in return. And if we find ourselves able to laugh at our own side from time to time, then we know that the healing has started. And after healing comes the potential for real, cohesive social change.

To my mind, the sooner we can achieve this, the better off we will all be, regardless of which social agenda dominates in the current debacle. Because, inevitably there will be another debacle that follows. Next time, it may be left versus left, or right versus right, and self-righteous shunning will be just as counterproductive as ever.

Similarly, in Britain, I think I see a growing trend toward the American cultural solution, perhaps because the distance between the US and UK is shrinking too. And this can’t work either. A Britain that abandons wry observation in favor of self-righteousness is likely to be a dangerous, unhappy place to live. It is too small to be otherwise, and righteous exclusion does not make anyone friends.

In short: the internet is not going away any time soon. We had better get used to it and adjust our social expectations accordingly.

(My first novel, Roboteer, comes out from Gollancz in July of this year.)

(My link in the above post is to a letter written by John C. Wright. For those seeking to understand whether, and in what specific sense, the letter may constitute resistance to ideological diversity, I strongly encourage reading the attached comments on this post. The discussion with John Wright included there makes his reasons for writing it clear.)

What are leaders?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Word for the day: Executard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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