One of the first blogs I wrote concerned a philosophical conundrum that is also a political conundrum: The Trolley Problem and the Winter of our Discontent. The problem addressed is simple in theory but oh so difficult in practice. How should we deal with a policy that benefits society as a whole but disproportionately injures some or many individuals? In theory the winners (society as a whole) can compensate the losers (those who are disproportionately injured). Society as a whole will benefit and both the costs and benefits will be more equally distributed. If you read that early blog, you will see how this problem was exploited by Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
Here we go again.
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic many Americans are sheltering in place and practicing social distancing. For good reasons, as the virus is no “walk in the park” and were it to get out of hand the results could be disastrous.
Recently there have been protests in favor of unwinding the rules and returning to “normal” as if that is possible. It isn’t. Not until a majority of people feel safe. That will require a vaccine and treatment and tests. All of this has been thoroughly discussed in the news. There are also a few counter protests. I suspect the protests, condoned and encouraged by the President, will grow in this election atmosphere. We saw the same in 2016. As I pointed out then, immigration and trade were the issues that divided Americans because of the unequal distribution of the benefits and costs. Today the issue is the economic pain caused by the lockdown.
We should take these protests seriously and not dismiss them as the product of alt-right extremists. No doubt extremists are goading some of the protestors but that does not invalidate the legitimate concerns of those who have seen their income disappear and businesses fail. The Nobel economist Paul Krugman recently sent out his opinion column with the title (playing on the famous line by John Paul Jones) Give Me Liberty And Give Me Death. Why are the protests taking place he asks?
The answer, I’d suggest, is that the Trump administration and its Senate allies are botching pandemic economics — and at some level they know that. So they’re desperate to wish the problem away before the failure of their response becomes too obvious. [Krugman]
I am a bit more cynical. I suspect the Trump administration knows exactly what it is doing—rallying the base using the split between the winners and losers of a rational policy that should be benefiting everyone.
Krugman goes on to say:… both logic and other countries’ experiences have given us a pretty good idea of what we should be doing right now. First, lock down high-contact economic activities, to slow the viral spread. Second, provide generous disaster relief to those whose incomes have been cut off by the lockdown. Third, rapidly ramp up testing and tracking, so that when we (cautiously) restart normal life we can quickly identify and neutralize any emergent hot spots. The trouble is that we’re falling down badly on (2) and (3). [Krugman]
That the administration has failed on (2) and (3) could be simple incompetence. Or, it could be a planned approach to keep America divided along class, racial, and cultural lines for political benefit. Either way, we ignore the failures to address the trolley problem (how to equalize the costs and benefits of a good policy across the population) at our peril.
Politicians can divide us into tribes so easily because we have evolved like ants according to biologist E. O. Wilson.
Our bloody nature, it can now be argued in the context of modern biology, is ingrained because group-versus-group was a principal driving force that made us what we are. In prehistory, group selection lifted the hominids to heights of solidarity, to genius, to enterprise. And to fear. Each tribe knew with justification that if it was not armed and ready, its very existence was imperiled. Throughout history, the escalation of a large part of technology has had combat as its central purpose. Today, public support is best fired up by appeal to the emotions of deadly combat, over which the amygdala is grandmaster. We find ourselves in the battle to stem an oil spill, the fight to tame inflation, the war against cancer. Wherever there is an enemy, animate or inanimate, there must be a victory.
Any excuse for a real war will do, so long as it is seen as necessary to protect the tribe. The remembrance of past horrors has no effect. It should not be thought that war, often accompanied by genocide, is a cultural artifact of a few societies. Nor has it been an aberration of history, a result of the growing pains of our species’ maturation. Wars and genocide have been universal and eternal, respecting no particular time or culture. Overall, big wars have been replaced around the world by small wars of the kind and magnitude more typical of hunter-gatherer and primitively agricultural societies. Civilized societies have tried to eliminate torture, execution, and the murder of civilians, but those fighting little wars do not comply.
Civilization appears to be the ultimate redeeming product of competition between groups. Because of it, we struggle on behalf of good and against evil, and reward generosity, compassion, and altruism while punishing or downplaying selfishness. But if group conflict created the best in us, it also created the deadliest. As humans, this is our greatest, and worst, genetic inheritance.
While we can be divided, we can also be encouraged to cooperate and Wilson finds some hope in the evidence that “we evolved because of qualities we consider unifying and propitious for the future.”
While our dual instincts toward tribalism and cooperation battle it out, we can improve the situation by solving the trolley problem as I recommended in my earlier blog. As I said then and reiterate now:
There is nothing naïve or new here. The winter of our discontent has been with us for a long time. It will take work and time to change the negative trends. And it will take money. The obvious and proper way to pay for these suggestions is to invoke the compensation principal, a crucial but too often neglected requirement to make a Pareto Optimality optimal. Those who benefit from the changes capitalism brings should share the benefits with those who lose through no fault of their own. They should compensate them for their losses. And, if that can’t be done, then we don’t have a Pareto Optimal situation. We have exploitation, we have deception and we have hornswoggling. And that won’t do.
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