Monday, 31 July 2017


When I talk to people about inter-party hatred in the western English-speaking world the idea of tribalism comes up a lot. People are easily persuaded to act in favour of an in-group and against an out-group. It is very, very easy to get people to distinguish those things. Take a room full of people, give half of them blue shirts and half green shirts and you'll immediately see divisions.

When we talk about tribalism we are always invoking images of inter-tribal warfare and slaughter. People from one tribe hate other tribe. People from one clan hate the other clan. People from one racial group hate the other racial group. But, of course, there's another side of tribalism.

I think it's fairly safe to say that for most of human history tribes have coexisted peacefully and gotten along just fine. There always seems to be a war going on somewhere, but most of the world is not in a state of war most of the time. Neighbouring tribes fought. They also cooperated. They also intermarried. Tribes behave in self-interested ways but also in altruistic ways. I'm not going to say that tribes are no more or less evil than the people who compose them, but they aren't orders of magnitude off in either direction.

So I don't think the "tribalism" explanation is much of an explanation at all. It doesn't say why these two tribes are at war right now. I'm instead thinking about why it makes sense for people to act the way they act instead of relying on a model of human behaviour that predicts what we already know to be going on and fails to explain what is or was happening in other places or times.

"Tribalism" strikes me as an extension of "self-interest".
It's the guiding principle of what has gone wrong. Whether I call it neo-liberalism, neo-conservativism, Thatcherism, Reaganism, or whatever else, the world has been riding a big wave since the late 70s or early 80s. What I'm going to call it is technocracy. It's the idea that the system can run itself without political wrangling - without people getting in the way.

Built around the incoherent assertions of an 18th century philosopher, the idea is that the world is too complex to understand or control, and the best results arise from allowing each person to act according to their own interests. From that interaction we generate the best way to organize things, without having anyone in power planning them.

The hypocrisy of this idea would be transparent if we weren't living inside it. That people self-organize according to their own chosen behaviours is a bland and unavoidable fact that is true in every system of government. The rise of the idea that we should dismantle a democratic consensus in order to replace political decision-making with economist decision-making is exactly the kind of radical take over that a real "things can run themselves" philosophy ought to be against. "Small government" parties are bent on radical social restructuring.

But the big wave caught us all, not just the "small government" proponents. When financial crises hit, everyone from "right wing" and "left wing" political parties are turning to the same experts for advice: economists from a very specific school, legal experts who act like the powers of corporations are immutable, bankers, CEOs of successful companies. When people say this is terrible, what they hear back is that the experts know better than they do.

This is all very appealing. Science tells us how to make things better for everyone, and we smugly tell people who don't understand science that how great everything is and that they don't know what they are talking about. But that smugness is justified by the idea that the experts who run everything do know what they are talking about, and it turns out they don't.

The big experiment is a failure. The more a country adheres to the technocracy, the more median wages stagnate, the slower infant mortality falls, the slower life expectancy rises. In America indicators of well-being have actually started to reverse themselves and get worse instead of just getting better more slowly.

So the trouble became increasingly hard to ignore, but the experts kept saying that things were actually going well. The governments listened to those experts to figure out how to run things regardless of the political stripe of the governments.

So maybe there is an alternate explanation for our hyper-partisan politics. It's not that tribalism is inherently baked into human nature, it's that in reality politics has been largely just sport for a few decades now. You weren't going to get much of a different result if you voted for one person or another, so it's just the green shirts against the blue shirts.

I want to stop to say there have been huge differences between the green shirts and the blue shirts. But what we've chosen has basically been a choice between the pet projects of the leaders. If one leader has a pet project of saving the environment and another has a pet project of protecting human rights and another has a pet project of starting a foreign war, then that is a choice that matters.

But the overall way that society was structured and the way the government evaluated which laws to make and which programs to implement wasn't going to change by voting Republican vs. Democrat, Liberal vs. Conservative, Labour vs. Conservative. Technocracy is antithetical to democracy, and democracy has been greatly diminished.

We feel like we want to cheer this on precisely because we think people are stupid, tribal, selfish things. But we are stupid, tribal, selfish things that largely cooperate with other people and other tribes to generate incredible outcomes. We ought to stop being so dismissive of one another.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017


I don't know how to interact with people soliciting donations in public spaces. It's not so hard with the professionals who are looking for donations to some organization that is paying them to be there. I don't mind simply walking past those people and refusing to engage with them. It's much more difficult when people are looking for donations to support their own sustenance.

I don't want my ability to sustain my life to dependent on going into a job and filling time sitting at a cubicle, but I'm pretty resigned to it now. Other people may not have the luxury of resigning themselves to my fate. Yet others may have simply chosen not to resign themselves to this, but there is no point in me being resentful of them for that.

But I rely very heavily on social customs to get by in my interactions with people. I mimic socially acceptable behaviour and have no idea what to do if I am to genuinely interact with someone. Sure, I can interact with some people on a genuine level, but the thought of being exposed to a stranger's actual emotions and thoughts is bone chilling. I'd really rather they just shut up. This kind of personal soliciting makes me uncomfortable because it it outside those social norms so I have to default to reacting by being honest, which is paralyzing.

Someone was standing outside the Tim Horton's where I often go to get tea during the day, asking people to buy them a coffee. At some point in my life I would have thought that I really shouldn't buy them a coffee because it's undesirable to have him standing there and I am rewarding that - I'm being part of a system that reinforces having people stand outside Tim Horton's to ask other people to buy them coffee.

But I'm already part of that system, and I participate in it every day. People aren't asking for donations on the street because they have been positively reinforced to do so, they are asking for those donations because they need to eat and here we are in a system that takes enough-for-everyone and turns it into starving people.

I want to qualify "need to eat" because I think a lot of people would respond to that by saying that there are places people can go to get food if they can't afford it, but here's the thing: I don't have to go to those places. I get to walk into Tim Horton's and get what I want. Do I get to start putting conditions on how someone else lives their life because I make money and they don't?

The answer is yes. That's what money is. But if I have the capacity to do that then I also have the capacity to decide not to do that.

So I asked them what they took in their coffee. Five creams and four sugars. Sadly I exercised the power of my money and ordered only a triple-triple because I just couldn't bring myself to order so much cream and sugar. That wasn't a judgement on them, it was just that it was too uncomfortable for me to actually place the order, I felt nervous. Some of that came from me thinking that the person at the counter might recognize the mismatched and tremendous quantities and might realize I was helping the crowd-funded person at the door, some of it came from my internalization of the idea that anything over double-double is sickeningly too much. I have to imagine that the person would rather get the triple triple from me than not, so I don't feel too badly about it.

But what a luxury my wealth affords me: The luxury to avoid associating myself with that person, the luxury to avoid feeling uncomfortable ordering a coffee for that person, the luxury to assume they are happy that I got it for them even though I didn't actually get them what they wanted.

None of this seems right to me.