Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! We only ask one time of year, but when we do, we mean it. Without your support we can’t continue to bring you the very best material, day-in and day-out. CounterPunch is one of the last common spaces on the Internet. Help make sure it stays that way.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Parable of the Frogs

by MORRIS BERMAN

One who knows “enough is enough” always has enough.

Tao Te Ching 

What does it take to produce large-scale social change?  Most historians, if you catch them in an honest moment, will admit that the popular levers of social change, such as education or legislation, are bogus; they don’t really amount to very much.  What does make a difference–and then only potentially–is massive systemic breakdown, such as occurred in the United States in the fall of 2008.  It was the greatest market crash since 1929, leading to widespread unemployment (something like 18% of the population, in real–as opposed to official–statistics*) and the loss of billions of dollars in retirement savings.  In fact, the crash  wiped out $11.1 trillion in household wealth, and this is not counting the several trillion lost in stock market investments.  It had been many decades since the middle class found itself in soup kitchens, and yet there they were.  In the face of all this, however, very little seems to have changed.  Americans are still committed to the dream of unlimited abundance as a “reasonable” goal, when in reality it is (and always has been) the dream of an addict.  President Obama’s upwards of $19 trillion bailout and stimulus plan funneled money into the very banking establishment that gave us the disaster; it rescued the wealthy, not those who really needed the money.  And while he could have appointed economic advisers such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz (both Nobel laureates), who would have attempted to put the nation on a different economic path, he chose instead two traditional neoliberal ideologues, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, who believe in the very policies that led to the crash.  “Change we can believe in” never sounded more hollow.

The metaphor of addiction is extremely relevant to situations such as these, because addicts always seek to maximize their intake (or behavior) rather than optimize it, even though the former leads to self-destruction.  In the face of what seems to be biologically driven activity, reason doesn’t have much of a chance.  An experiment with frogs some years ago demonstrated this quite clearly.  They were wired up with electrodes in the pleasure center of the brain, and could stimulate that center–i.e., create a “rush”–by pressing a metal bar.  Not only did the frogs keep pressing the bar over and over again, but they didn’t stop even when their legs were cut off with a pair of shears!  And if you are going to object that human beings are not frogs, then you probably haven’t been reading the daily newspapers, or observing the behavior of the people around you.

There are, of course, a few intelligent frogs around, ones who struggle to point out the difference between optima and maxima.  One such was the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, perhaps most famous for having been married to Margaret Mead.  For Bateson, the issue was an ethical one.  As he himself put it, “the ethics of optima and the ethics of maxima are totally different ethical systems.”  The ethics of maxima knows only one rule: more.  More is better, in this scheme of things; words such as “limits” or “enough” are either foolish or meaningless.  Clearly, the “American Dream” is a system of maxima, of indefinite expansion.

But what if the reality of all social systems is that they are homeostatic, which is to say, designed to stay in balance?  In that case, said Bateson, the attempt to maximize any single variable (for example, wealth) will eventually push the system into runaway, such that it will destroy itself.  To take a physiological analogy, we recognize that the human body needs only so much calcium per day.  We do not say, “The more calcium I ingest, the better off I’ll be,” because we recognize that past a certain point any chemical element becomes toxic to an organism.  Yet we seem to be unable to extend this insight to the social or economic realm.  We do not say, for example, “That company is making too much profit,” or “That individual (Bill Gates, Carlos Slim) has too much money for one person,” or “The Gross Domestic Product is spinning out of control.”  Rather than being interested in balance, in stability, we are fascinated by asymptotes–frogs at the bar of pleasure, even while our legs are being cut off.  We don’t get it, that if you fight the ecology of a system, you lose, especially when you “win.”

Maximizing a single variable, wrote Bateson, can seem like an ingenious adaptation, but over time it typically turns into pathology.  The saber teeth of a tiger may have had short-range survival value, but this development weakened its flexibility in other situations that proved to be crucial.  The “favored” species became so “favored” that it destroyed its own ecological niche, and disappeared.  A gain at one level became a calamity at another.

A few years ago, two American scholars of the intelligent frog variety began to
understand this line of reasoning and to conclude from it that Adam Smith, with his theory of the “invisible hand,” was wrong.  An early (much milder) version of Gordon Gekko, with his eulogy of greed (in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, Wall Street), Smith argued that the collective result of individual self-interest was the prosperity of the whole.  But the economist Robert Frank, writing in the New York Times (12 July 2009), argued that “traits that help individuals are harmful to larger groups.  For instance,” he went on,

a mutation for larger antlers served the reproductive interests of an individual male elk, because it helped him prevail in battles with other males for access to mates.  But as this mutation spread, it started an arms race that made life more hazardous for male elk over all.  The antlers of male elk can now span five feet or more.  And despite their utility in battle, they often become a fatal handicap when predators pursue males into dense woods.

In the case of the market, said Frank, individual reward structures undermine the invisible hand.  “To make their funds more attractive to investors,” he wrote, “money managers create complex securities that impose serious, if often well-camouflaged, risks on society.  But when all managers take such steps, they are mutually offsetting.  No one benefits, yet the risk of financial crises rises sharply.”

Similarly, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner, in A Failure of Capitalism, pointed out that the crash of 2008 was brought about by individual actions that were actually quite rational: bankers and investors pursuing their own interests.  Reckless behavior was quite consistent, he said, with being well informed about the risks involved in the context of an economic bubble, and so a great many money managers took those risks.  The problem is that what was rational on the individual level was irrational on the collective level, thus leading to a systemic collapse.

We are thus led, quite naturally, from a consideration of optima vs. maxima to the question of individual vs. collective behavior.  Which brings me to one of the twentieth century’s most intelligent frogs, the biologist Garrett Hardin, who posed the dilemma in a famous essay entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968).  Consider, said Hardin, the example of a pasture shared by local herders.  They all understand that the commons belongs to no one in particular, but supports the well-being of all and is the responsibility of all.  One day, however, one of the herders puts an additional animal out to graze, with the result that he increases his yield.  As a result, the pasture is slightly degraded.  Meanwhile, other herders come to the same conclusion, and as each makes the rational decision to take advantage of the situation for personal gain, the net result is the overgrazing, and ultimately the destruction, of the common area.  In a word, the system favors selfish individuals over those with greater foresight and restraint.  Or as Hardin put it, “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”  Frogs, in a word, are not to be trusted.

How, then, can excess be curbed in a free democratic system?  For we can be sure that the intelligent frogs, who are really quite exceptional, are not going to be listened to, and certainly have no power to enforce their insights.  True, there are certain countries–the Scandanavian nations come to mind–where for some reason the concentration of intelligent frogs is unusually high, resulting in decisions designed to protect the commons.  But on a world scale, this is not very typical.  More typical, and (sad to say) a model for many other countries, is the United States, where proposed “changes” are in fact cosmetic, and where the reality is business as usual.  In the context of 315 million highly addicted frogs, the voices of the smart ones–Bateson, Frank, Posner, Hardin, et al.–aren’t going to have much impact or, truth be told, even get heard.

Of course, authoritarian systems don’t have these problems, which is a good indicator of how things will probably develop.  Under the name of “harmony,” for example, China regulates its citizens for what it perceives to be the common good.  Hence the famous one-child policy, introduced in 1979, supposedly prevented more than 300 million births over the next twenty-nine years in a country that was threatened by its own population density.  In the case of the United States, the imposition of rules and limits on individual behavior to protect the commons is not, at present, a realistic prospect; the population is simply not having it.  But how much longer before this freedom of choice is regarded as an impossible luxury?  In fact, no crystal ball is required to predict the future here.  The tragedy of the commons–what Hardin called “the remorseless working of things”–is that a society such as that of the United States won’t undertake serious changes even when it is sitting on the edge of an abyss.  It has to actually be in the abyss before it will entertain such changes; i.e., it has to be faced with no choice at all.  It seems unlikely now, but things are probably moving faster than we realize.  In terms of population, energy, food, resources, water, social inequality, public health, and environmental degradation, a crunch of the type I am referring to may be only twenty years away.

In Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, the character Valentine is confronted by an outlaw, who asks him if he is content “To make a virtue of necessity/And live, as we do, in this wilderness?”  That may prove to be the only “choice” we have.  As Thomas Hobbes put it a few decades after Shakespeare, “Hell is truth seen too late.”

*These data are easily manipulated by the government to make things look better than they actually are.  For example, individuals collecting unemployment insurance for a few months are officially unemployed, but once that support dries up they are no longer among the statistics of the unemployed even though they are still out of work.  In addition, the millions of Americans who are underemployed, who work only a few hours per week, are included in the ranks of the employed.  Between 2006 and 2009, 20% of American workers were laid off; 50 million live in real poverty, and many more in a category called “near poverty.” Joseph Stiglitz has a good discussion of this in Freefall (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010).

Morris Berman’s latest book is Why America Failed.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Paul Street
The Roots are in the System: Charlotte and Beyond
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
James McEnteer
Eugene, Oregon and the Rising Cost of Cool
Norman Pollack
The Great Debate: Proto-Fascism vs. the Real Thing
Michael Winship
The Tracks of John Boehner’s Tears
John Steppling
Fear Level Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Where Is That Wasteful Government Spending?
James Russell
Beyond Debate: Interview Styles of the Rich and Famous
September 26, 2016
Diana Johnstone
The Hillary Clinton Presidency has Already Begun as Lame Ducks Promote Her War
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Against Russia
Dave Lindorff
Parking While Black: When Police Shoot as First Resort
Robert Crawford
The Political Rhetoric of Perpetual War
Howard Lisnoff
The Case of One Homeless Person
Michael Howard
The New York Times Endorses Hillary, Scorns the World
Russell Mokhiber
Wells Fargo and the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival
Chad Nelson
The Crime of Going Vegan: the Latest Attack on Angela Davis
Colin Todhunter
A System of Food Production for Human Need, Not Corporate Greed
Brian Cloughley
The United States Wants to Put Russia in a Corner
Guillermo R. Gil
The Clevenger Effect: Exposing Racism in Pro Sports
David Swanson
Turn the Pentagon into a Hospital
Ralph Nader
Are You Ready for Democracy?
Chris Martenson
Hell to Pay
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Debate Night: Undecided is Everything, Advantage Trump
Frank X Murphy
Power & Struggle: the Detroit Literacy Case
Chris Knight
The Tom and Noam Show: a Review of Tom Wolfe’s “The Kingdom of Speech”
Weekend Edition
September 23, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
The Meaning of the Trump Surge
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: More Pricks Than Kicks
Mike Whitney
Oh, Say Can You See the Carnage? Why Stand for a Country That Can Gun You Down in Cold Blood?
Chris Welzenbach
The Diminution of Chris Hayes
Vincent Emanuele
The Riots Will Continue
Rob Urie
A Scam Too Far
Pepe Escobar
Les Deplorables
Patrick Cockburn
Airstrikes, Obfuscation and Propaganda in Syria
Timothy Braatz
The Quarterback and the Propaganda
Sheldon Richman
Obama Rewards Israel’s Bad Behavior
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail