Angry, educated and rich
July 11, 2020 1:11 AM Subscribe
Intra-Elite Competition: A Key Concept for Understanding the Dynamics of Complex Societies - "Elites are a small proportion of the population (on the order of 1 percent) who concentrate social power in their hands." (via; previously)
Intra-elite competition is one of the most important factors explaining massive waves of social and political instability, which periodically afflict complex, state-level societies... it is important to keep in mind that the social effects of elite competition depend critically on the norms and institutions that regulate it and channel it into such societally productive forms.Competition among the 1% could be a destabilizing force - "In recent years our economy has become more 'winner take all'. When success is defined as being the next Zuckerberg, almost everyone will fail. And slowing growth means that jobs like tenured professorships are also in shorter supply. A recipe for rebellion?"
Excessive elite competition, on the other hand, results in increasing social and political instability... A great expansion in the numbers of elite aspirants means that increasingly large numbers of them are frustrated, and some of those, the more ambitious and ruthless ones, turn into counter-elites. In other words, masses of frustrated elite aspirants become breeding grounds for radical groups and revolutionary movements.
Another consequence of excessive competition among elite aspirants is its effect on the social norms regulating politically acceptable conduct. Norms are effective only as long as the majority follows them, and violators are punished. Maintaining such norms is the job for the elites themselves.
Intense intra-elite competition, however, leads to the rise of rival power networks, which increasingly subvert the rules of political engagement to get ahead of the opposition. Instead of competing on their own merits, or the merits of their political platforms, candidates increasingly rely on “dirty tricks” such as character assassination (and, in historical cases, literal assassination). As a result, excessive competition results in the unraveling of prosocial, cooperative norms (this is a general phenomenon that is not limited to political life).
Smart, ambitious young people are told to compete ever harder for the plum spots, even as their efforts have a smaller chance of paying off. The danger is that eventually all the frustrated aspirants decide that the system itself is the problem, and seek to overthrow it. Over-competition is especially dangerous when combined with another factor: slowing growth. A long period of prosperity -- such as that from 1985 to 2008 – can create high expectations that leave a bitter taste in young people’s mouths when dashed by a slowdown."The underlying contention is that, in a State so wealthy as the United Kingdom, every citizen should have full means of earning by socially useful labour so much material support as experience proves to be the necessary basis of a healthy, civilized existence. And if in the actual working of the industrial system the means are not in actual fact sufficiently available he is held to have a claim not as of charity but as of right on the national resources to make good the deficiency." --L. T. Hobhouse, Liberalism, 1911
How can the U.S. reverse the trend toward elite over-competition? Increasing the number of elite positions is very difficult. Instead, adjust expectations. Taxing inheritances heavily would reduce the number of young people who feel entitled to great wealth. Reducing the number of PhDs would mean fewer disappointed scholars who fail to achieve tenure track. And wealth taxes on the greatest fortunes can lower expectations to more reasonable levels, making people with $10 million feel rich again.
Turchin believes that low inequality helps explain why the unrest of the 1960s and 1970s was ultimately mild and didn’t threaten the integrity of the nation. It’s too late for the U.S. to avoid the current period of turmoil, but by leveling the playing field and changing expectations, it can get an early start on minimizing the next one.
- This is a really interesting paper - "Price controls can be optimal in a high inequality environment, so if you like the efficiency of market allocation, you better support massive redistribution."
- The Pandemic Proved That Cash Payments Work - "An extra $600 a week buys freedom from fear."
- Trump Would Like to See You Now - "Workers are kept on edge — and willing to accept whatever wage is on offer — by the threat of immiseration. This, for politicians who back both big business and existing social relations, is a feature and not a bug of our economic system, since insecurity and desperation keep power in the hands of capital and its allies. Even something as modest as expanded unemployment benefits is a threat to that arrangement, as they give workers the power to say no to work they do not want."
- Do Economists Actually Know What Money Is? - "For economists, what has just occurred is an efficient transaction. Each person has been made 'better off'. The person who tosses the life preserver gets paid, and the drowning man gets saved, by paying someone to toss a life preserver. Everyone is happy. Of course, in reality, you have extracted a person's entire wealth from them by threatening to let them die, and callously refused to engage in the most basic of moral human behaviors unless you get paid for it. You have acted like a total sociopath. (Or, in other words, like an economist.)"
In my book World After Capital, I propose a theory of history in which technology changes the binding constraint for humanity. After hundreds of thousands of years of the Forager Age, constrained by the availability of food in the natural environment, humanity invented agriculture. With that set of technologies (planting, irrigation, domestication of animals, etc.), invented roughly 10,000 years ago, the constraint shifted from food to land in what became the Agrarian Age. Then only a couple hundred years ago a series of new technologies (steam, electricity, chemistry, mining, etc.) shifted the constraint again, away from land to capital. By capital I mean the physical capital of the Industrial Age, such as factories, buildings, and roads. More recently with the advent of digital technology (computers, packet-switched networks) the constraint has shifted yet again, away from capital to attention.
In the book I note that each of the two prior transitions came with dramatic changes to how humanity lives. In the transition from the Forager Age to the Agrarian Age we went from being nomadic to sedentary, from flat tribal societies to extremely hierarchical feudal societies, from promiscuity to monogamy, from animistic religions to theistic ones. In the transition from the Agrarian Age to the Industrial Age we went from living in the country to living in the city, from large extended families to nuclear families or no family at all, from commons to private property (including private intellectual property) and from great-chain-of-being theologies to the Protestant work ethic. I then go on to make the argument that we need a similarly dramatic set of changes to get from the Industrial Age to the Knowledge Age, which explains why the incrementalist changes pursued in most developed societies have fallen far short. I then propose three increases to freedom — economic, informational and psychological — to help us with the adjustment that’s needed.
I have been happy with this characterization of the role of technology in human affairs. Big technological shifts change the binding constraint on humanity, which results in large scale reorganization of how humans live. What I have been struggling with is to what degree we can understand the features of those reorganizations. While they make a lot of sense ex-post, we are now finding ourselves in the midst of one and would therefore ideally learn from history. This is particularly important for two reasons. First, in the past transitions we often wandered in the dark for long periods before finding a successful model (those periods were often marked by extreme violence through revolutions, wars as well as mass death from disease and starvation). Second, in the current transition we don’t have a lot of time as we are faced with the ever accelerating climate crisis.
So far we have seen how the prior shifts from food to land and then from land to capital corresponded to massive increases in the difficulty of the measurement problem. We went from nearly immediate measurement (Forager Age) to yearly (Agrarian Age) to multi-year (Industrial Age). This brings us to the current transition from capital to attention as the binding constraint.
While I don’t claim to know what the features of successful Knowledge Age societies will be, it is clear now that the measurement problem for attention exists on a decadal or potentially even hundred year scale. Take the current coronavirus pandemic. The last prior pandemic of similar scale, including economic impact, was the Spanish Flu about one hundred years ago. So as a society you may only find out if you have paid enough attention to pandemic preparedness every hundred years. It gets even worse when you think about a big asteroid strike on earth. Those happen roughly every million of years.
This is also true from the perspective of the individual. If you commit your attention to some artistic endeavor or research program. When will you know if your attention was well spent? Often not within your own lifetime. Some art that we today recognize as magnificent as well as science which we regard as transformative was dismissed, considered fringe or even actively fought for decades. And conversely, much of what was popular in the moment has not withstood the test of time. The allocation of attention cannot and therefore should not take place on the basis of near term measurement.
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