Archive for December 26, 2009

Thoughts on Zero Sum Behavior- Part I

December 26, 2009 3 comments

In a previous post I had said the following:

One of the hallmarks of a secular religion is that it requires followers to make sacrifices for concepts such as ‘common good’, ‘future’, ‘upholding ideals’ and ‘no pain no gain’ etc. It is noteworthy that secular religions from capitalism, socialism, nationalism to environmentalism require self-sacrifice from a large number of believers for the common good, but which (in reality) ‘benefit’ only a few.

One of the unstated assumption of that paragraph was that traditional and secular religions are manifestations of zero sum behavior. They are in essence scams perpetrated by a few, on the many, to convince them to act against their best interests.

Scams that convince people to support a certain idea, school of thought, behavior or zeitgeist that are not in their best interests will either fail or create a dysfunctional society. This phase of disenchantment and failure typically occurs over one or two generations after the median person stops seeing any benefit from playing by the rules. The real question then is whether complex societies will suffer more from such scams than simpler and poorer societies. Another way of looking at it is, do complex societies need more trust, altruism and justice against parasites than simpler societies.

While paid sophists may quibble about the precise definition of ‘best interests’, I prefer to use the following definition:

The ‘best interest’ of a person is an optimal direction of actions such that he/ she can enjoy his/her life in a manner they see fit, with the caveat that the person display the same attitude towards others.

It is important to understand what my definition of ‘best interest’ does not imply:

1. Maximal short-term gain based on actions that will hurt any longer-term gains.
2. Trying to out compete, and antagonize, others in a manner that will hurt your future prospects.
3. Accumulating money for the sake of accumulating it.
4. Willingly participating in systems, where your only reward is that the system oppresses others more than it oppresses you.
5. Any other type of behavior based on a zero sum view of the world.

I should reiterate that humans as a species, do not adopt more cooperative behaviors unless circumstances force them to. The median human mind is still somewhere between an ape and a creature of reason. Nietzsche it right on this one.

While such zero sum behavior has dominated our history, supported by various scams such as traditional and secular religions, it is becoming obvious that the ‘old ways’ cannot work. To understand why the ‘old ways’ cannot keep on working, consider the following:

a. We live in a world where productivity is very high and is increasing, negating the very reason behind zero sum based behavior. Indeed, quite the opposite is now true in that it is more desirable for the ‘others’ to have a good life so that you can have a bigger ‘market’.

The corollary is that many traditional concepts such as saving money, living with your ‘means’, following traditional authority, believing in traditional tribalism, using history to plot your next steps are increasingly counterproductive.

b. The diffusion of technology and productivity beyond the west, combined with the demographic profiles (and their timings) make any unilateral actions by the west to preserve its past glories suicidal. The west still believes that they are british officers with machineguns facing spear wielding Zulus, when the reality is much more unfavorable than what western powers faced in Vietnam.

There may not be any winners in a widespread conflict, but countries with overtly complex infrastructures, systems and adverse demography may fare far more poorly than those who can suffer more. Conflicts of attrition favor those who can take more of it, as long as the technology gap is not too large. The emergence of large non-west european based players with very substantive capabilities makes the situation particularly interesting.

Moreover, any such conflict would expose the ‘ponzi’ nature of our current socio-economic system in a manner that the powers to be (PTB) would find unacceptable. Therefore they will choose a path of inaction and compromise over any decisive actions. They want to preserve their relative position in the hierarchy of their home countries.

c. The ‘traditional’ west is increasingly facing a few problems, that were ‘unanticipated’ in their decision making process:

1. A working age population that is increasingly non-white, and unhappy with second class status. Many of the younger non-whites are fairly secular in outlook, and could be easily integrated in the system, if ego of “has beens” was not a consideration. While most may not actively sabotage the system, almost all of them will act in bad faith.

2. Complex systems require active good faith from the vast majority of its participants. One has to only look at the complexity of supply chains for products, services, rules, regulations, standards and shared belief systems necessary to make the world work well. If a significant minority of the working age population did not participate in this system with good faith, it would become unstable and collapse and evolve into something that we cannot predict.

3. It all boils down to the one question that most sophists try not to answer:

What is in if for ME?

Any system that acts in bad faith towards a substantial minority of its participants is unstable. While previous systems and empires could rely on low human productivity and the general lack of options to maintain semi-stable states of organization, we cannot.

Can a system and ideology be still stable, if the basic assumptions upon which the system evolved are taken away in the blink of an eye?

I will write more about this concept, with specific examples in upcoming posts in this series.

The next part has now been posted: Thoughts on Zero Sum Behavior- Part II