A number of things I’ve read lately, along with some comments both here at OTE and from folks on the road, have led me to think about linkages between evolutionary biology, specifically altruistic behavior, and political economy.
As described in this recent New Yorker article, the fact that members of a species behave altruistically—e.g., they put themselves in danger to protect the larger group, or they raise young that are not their direct offspring—was seen by Darwin himself as a major challenge to the theory of evolution. However, beginning with the master, biologists have long recognized that social cooperation and, at times, altruism, can promote reproduction more effectively than selfishness.
The New Yorker piece takes you through current arguments in the field, but here’s where E.O. Wilson, noted social biologist, ends up: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.”
Meanwhile, I’ve been stressing a model that links increased inequality to diminished opportunity, less mobility, and a political concentration of power that reinforces that cycle. In that context, a number of folks have asked me, “don’t people realize that it would be better for them if they weren’t the only beneficiaries of growth?”
But is that true? In a global economy, does Henry Ford’s insight—pay your workers enough so that they can buy the stuff you’re selling—hold anymore? What about public education of the future workforce and public infrastructure–things the Republican field has tended to inveigh against of late? Do they still matter enough to bind the economic interests of the very wealthy and the rest?
I think so, but I’m not so sure. The income share of the top 1% grew about as much on an annual basis in the 1990s recovery, when the middle class did quite well and poverty rates declined, as in the 2000s expansion, when middle and low incomes were stagnant. Moreover, as the current recovery reveals, the corporate sector can achieve high profitability by selling into foreign markets (see figure).
Still, exports are only 13% of GDP, and when domestic demand is widespread, recoveries are longer and more robust (that was one difference between the 90s and 2000’s expansions). I’d also hypothesize that one reason recent recoveries have been so sluggish—the term “jobless recovery” came into vogue after the 1991 recession, and the last three recoveries began this way—is due to structural changes, including globalization, diminished domestic manufacturing, and footloose global capital–developments that channel growth away from middle and low-income households as recoveries get underway.
And it’s not just broad-based consumption that links fortunes across income classes. Education matters a lot too, as in a capable workforce. So do all sorts of other public goods, like infrastructure from roads to the internet, that are crucial productivity enhancers for those in business.
So, yeah, I think there’s an argument here for economic “altruism” by which I mean we all ultimately do better when we engage in social and political behavior that looks beyond short-term, narrowly concentrated profit maximization based on supply-side tax cuts, offshoring, deregulating markets, hacking away at gov’t spending, public goods, the safety net.
Whether or not this argument is correct comes down to how economically related we are. I stumbled on the figure below in a sociobiology article from Nature, showing the positive correlation between relatedness and altruism (and ftr, I don’t claim to understand the stuff in the figure note about “habitat viscosity,” etc…I’m just riffing off of what I get out of this stuff).
Source: Nature, see link above.
If we truly are economically interdependent—if we score high on the X-axis-relatedness measure in the above figure—then it makes as much sense for a denizen of the top 1% to support progressive taxation to educate our workforce and provide competitive infrastructure, and broadly shared growth to support robust consumption, as it does for a prairie dog to risk death by warning her herd of a nearby predator.
In this sense, our current political dysfunction, which I view as intimately connected to a divisive and selfish, in the sense of uncompromising, mindset, is systemically threatening. A system that cannot self-correct cannot survive and I have to imagine that’s as bad for the top 1% as for everyone else.
I’ve often espoused WITT over YOYO. Now, perhaps, I’ve even got a little science at my back.