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In Parts 2 and 1 of this series I wrote about the cultural and possibly even genetic basis for cooperation among non-related individuals and how this phenomenon, obvious in so much of our lives (think of sports teams or companies), is dismissed as irrelevant or ephemeral by the Chicago School-Milton Friedman crowd who contend that self-interest is the one and only drive in our economic and social worlds. I referenced Peter Turchin's excellent book War and Peace and War and the work of economists using games such as The Public Goods Game and The Ultimatum Game to demonstrate the conditions under which people in groups or in tandem cooperate, cheat or withdraw support from exchange. There is one very clear indicator in the historical of a society's "cooperation quotient". Taking a page from Fox News's playbook (and Al Franken's mockery of it), let me say that "you'll be amazed at what was found!!"

Before getting to the historical record, the question may arise as to how useful the findings from such games are when referencing "real life", as it were. That's a great question. Exposing the existence of such dynamics is all well and good, but how do these dynamics actually play out in the world?

Fortunately, there are detailed historical records of economies that chart centuries worth of behavior (the equivalent of the 10 rounds of play imposed in The Public Goods Game, and then some!), notably Chrisopher Dyer's Making a Living in the Middle Ages, which gives an overview of the work of those many historians researching that topic.

Have you ever heard of "The Matthew Principle"? Neither had I until recently. The Matthew Principle per se was coined by the sociologist Robert K. Merton and takes its name from the following passage in the Gospel of Matthew: "For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath." You might say that this has been the guiding principle of the Bush Administration: Give to those who have, and take away from those who have not." Turchin writes that "in the language of dynamical sciences, this is called a positive feedback loop - the rich get richer and the poor get poorer." (Turchin himself is theoretical biologist steeped in statistical analysis, according to his books dust jacket, so he has a background in dynamical sciences and mathematical modeling.)

Turchin ran a lot of models to explore the process of how agrarian societies come to distribute wealth and income, which in those societies amounted to how much land a person owned. What his models described was a process in which those below a certain threshold of ownership - the poor - gradually lose whatever land they had owned and ownership of land becomes concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority. Sound familiar? Seems like some of that is going on right now throughout our society. But Turchin was not content to rely on modeling as evidence. He wanted to study the historical records and, most importantly, understand the interactions between wealth distribution and civil society. That's where Dyer's book and other documentation come into the story.

The record shows waves or oscillations as you might expect. In the early 1200s the rich in England were decidedly richer than the poor, but not conspicuously so. By 1300, 3% of the population was "wealthy" 20% had surplus, 30% were substistence farmers and 47% had nothing at all. Wealth inequality was conspicuous. David Hackett Fischer's The Great Wave goes into detail about the cycles and is an incredible resource on this subject.

The cycles go on, though not in a uniform manner. What remains consistent, however, is the degree of social strife that exists whenever there is conspicuous inequality of wealth. As you might imagine, as the rich accumlate more and more of the wealth in the society, the capacity of the various classes and members of the society for cooperation decreases. This decrease in the "Cooperation Quotient" undermines the vigor of that society and leaves it vulnerable to collapse. Hence Turchin's title, War and Peace and War.

The damage done by "Trickle Down" economics can be seen by anyone with eyes today. There's also a clear historical record of how deadly to a society such inequality actually is. Some contend that there is a natural distribution, the so-called 80-20 Principle, that shows up in many different phenomena, not just economics alone. I'm not equipped to discuss that. What seems clear from Turchin's excellent work and from the historical record is that the US is on a collision course with history and that the gross inequality in the distribution of wealth in our society is a major factor in the coming reckoning. The Democrats newly elected to the majority have the chance to hold accountable those "freeriders" who have abused the cooperative spirit of our culture for their own benefit. By assuming the position of the "punishing moralist" with respect to the "evil doers" among us (transnational corporations, etc.), the Democratic Party will serve us all by preserving the very capacity for cooperation. Without such accountability, the slide toward increased conflict among us is, by the lights of the historical record, inevitable.

Originally posted to lepermessiah on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 09:51 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Wealth distribution in 1300.. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    GreyHawk, Unduna

    and then came the great plague which raised the renumeration of labor, which in turn destroyed feudalism and allowed a middle-class to develop. This also was largely responsible for the Rennaisance.

    fact does not require fiction for balance

    by mollyd on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 10:36:51 AM PST

    •  So, we're plagued by the rich until they (0+ / 0-)

      themselves are plagued, then we'll prosper anew?

      Sounds Phoenix-ian.


      (Nicely written, and interesting thoughts -- thank you.)

      Never, never brave me, nor my fury tempt:
        Downy wings, but wroth they beat;
      Tempest even in reason's seat.

      by GreyHawk on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 11:45:24 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Exactly right (0+ / 0-)

      One thing I neglected to highlight in the series was that population and wages have a very strong correlation. The lower the population (working population) the higher the wages. The Black Death that decimated European population was a clear cause of increased wages for those that survived and did, as you say, set the stage for the rise of a "middle class" and the Renaissance that was its fruit. Great point, Mollyd.

      The Moe Sizlak Experience, featuring Homer Simpson.

      by lepermessiah on Sat Dec 30, 2006 at 10:55:53 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  high wages and the Rennasaince (0+ / 0-)

        is an important point seldom made. The most productive societies are those with a large active middle-class that has enough surplus to engage in activies beyond immediate family survival. The upper classes are rent seekers. It is from the middle and working classes that you get the scientists, artists, and others who innovate.

        fact does not require fiction for balance

        by mollyd on Sat Dec 30, 2006 at 12:01:02 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Whoops -- the "thanks" for the diary is meant (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    for lepermessiah, and a thanks to MollyD for her comment re: Rennaissance, too.

    I'll go fix my clickin' finger now...

    Never, never brave me, nor my fury tempt:
      Downy wings, but wroth they beat;
    Tempest even in reason's seat.

    by GreyHawk on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 11:46:34 AM PST

  •  Incredible (0+ / 0-)

    When I read the second one yesterday I was amazed that I could "see" how it worked in the different societies.

    Having lived through so many different societal changes in my lifetime, knowing which ones felt "wrong" (segregation) to watching the pendulum swing to the opposite directions a few times, seeing how "right" Clinton's method of ending the cycle of welfare worked.
    Now that those who resented the ending of having a pool of ready "lower class" labor at hand to make themselves "better" have taken charge again, the very things they had to claim wrong in society no longer existed, so they are bumbling along with red herrings and phony "societal crisis" (it was real convenient for the 2004 election that Gay Marriage was suddenly a Hot Topic).
    The 2006 election was flashback from the unquestioned legislation that was ruining so many lives, too many to expect anyone to be untouched by one or more.
    With such things as retirement and medical coverage ripped away from people who had worked for them for decades, the overwhelmingly destructive actions of this Bush administration and their two houses of congress have managed to expedite the death of the GOP and Conservative party.

    It is nice to know that seeing, yet not knowing if the things I saw were based on any sort of logic, is based on actual cause and effect that has been studied and can be logically understood.

  •  Excellent series. (0+ / 0-)

    Thanks so much, and keep it coming!

    (And this time I caught it soon enough to recommend it. Yea.)

    "In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder, a secret order." Carl Jung

    by Unduna on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 01:11:23 PM PST

  •  Really great stuff LM. All three of 'em. [n/t] (0+ / 0-)

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