The Science Behind “We’re-in-This-Together”

March 11th, 2012 at 12:34 am

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.


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23 comments in reply to "The Science Behind “We’re-in-This-Together”"

  1. Jean says:

    Very interesting. If a sense of relatedness is required for increased altruism, then not only is the right’s attempt to brand Obama as “other” feeding into selfishness, but also possibly driving it.

    Maybe that explains the coming together that happened briefly after 9/11. There was a real “other” that had attacked us.

    But for some people, there is no way that we will be able to convince them that anybody that does not resemble them is the same as they are, because that would require empathy.

    So … maybe, as Rachel Maddow was describing on her show the other night, becoming good at wedge issues would help to lessen the number of people who identify with the far right. Maybe only by chipping away at it can we begin to create a clear majority that is willing to see all Americans as in the same boat.

    This was a great post, thanks.

  2. Dan Helphrey says:

    I believe it ultimately comes down to long-term vs. short-term advantages.

    As I try to explain to my libertarian friends, I am being perfectly selfish when I want my doctor or my plumber to be the best possible individuals for the job, not just the best who happened to be born to those castes. Now, if the 1% only look out for “their own,” they can use their vast surplus of money to bid for the best plumbers (to use just one example), leaving those of us in the middle class with, at most, the second-best (an effect we’re already seeing in, for instance, restaurant service), but their ability to do this won’t last indefinitely. Eventually (and it may take several generations), by providing resources for their own kids to be whatever they want to be, with the predictable result that few will choose plumbing, and not providing any resources for the children of the working class to become skilled plumbers, they will be left with no skilled plumbers at all, no matter how much they’re willing to bid.

    So, unless their self-interest is so complete that it excludes even their own descendants, supporting a society that provides a floor under poverty and opportunity (supported by both education and things like physical infrastructure) for all is not incosistent with rational self-interest, even for the 1%.

  3. Rima Regas says:

    It’s a rare few who can so simply explain complex issues. It’s an even rarer few who can intuitively distinguish right from wrong in complex situations. You and Paul Krugman have both uncanny abilities. I hope you both are called upon to serve in the next Obama administration. We need you.

  4. David Carlton says:

    “Henry Ford’s insight–pay your workers enough so that they can buy your stuff”: I thought this had been debunked some time back. Ford didn’t need to market to his workers; he could have made more money by paying them less and selling to that huge market in which he was the undisputed low-cost producer. He *had* to go to the $5 day because the assembly line was taking an enormous toll on his work force and he needed to combat high turnover and absenteeism. “Fordism” as an influential labor policy was always far less than met the eye; then as now, employers do what they can get away with.

  5. Tom in MN says:


    United we stand, divided we fall

    which apparently goes back to Aesop. If you think your group is your neighbors in your gated community and you never interact with or care about the rest of the country/world, you are setting yourself up to be overrun by the “barbarians” at the gate.

    None of this is new, but is seems the lessons keep getting lost. Selfishness is seen as beneficial by any child; altruism takes an understanding and compassion that is much harder to sell politically.

  6. jhm says:

    One might want to examine the benefits accrued from the selfish behavior of, e.g., Ceauşescu [șescu#Death ]. In other words, any statements of the benefits within groups must assume continued inclusion in the group.

    For what it’s worth, here is a critique of the New Yorker article:

  7. den says:

    If evolution by natural selection is indeed a factor in economics, then don’t we need to determine what attributes make a difference in producing more surviving offspring like oneself…or even more “fit” ones for the given environment? We can be opinionated and just assert what those attributes are or we can observe that the members of the population can be grouped into differing arbitrary classes that have significant members. My observation is that the middle class has the winning attributes because there are more of them. This is about survival of ones offspring, our posterity, and not necessarily about life satisfaction.

  8. Ian in FL says:

    Interesting. Thanks. If this is part of a worldview you have been exploring, I would direct you to “The Empathic Civilization,” by Jeremy Rifkin – he explores a considerable amount of the science behind human empathy and sets that against entropy & a global resource perspective.

  9. Mike the Mad Biologist says:

    Actually, the habitat viscosity is important, and strengthens the argument for non-libertarian policies. Basically, the easier it is for non-altruists to up and leave a local population, the more kin relatedness is required (i.e., altruism is ‘harder’ to evolve). If we make the environment ‘sludgier’ (and people can affect economies), then we have an easier time of being altruistic. Probably also bears on trade policy (as you pointed out, corporations can sell abroad).

    (and the Coyne post jhm links to is worth reading)

    • Jared Bernstein says:

      Fascinating–so in this context globalization can make a domestic economy less viscous–less sludgy and less altruistic?? Though in does create wider economic dependencies…

      • Steve Osborne says:

        Putting together what Mike and Jared are saying above, I would say that globalization creates more economic dependencies maybe, but especially more economic vulnerability. Fierce competition and diminishing standards of life have the effect of turning things around and encouraging close (viscous) communities.

      • Jean says:

        That a global economy creates a market in which American consumers are expendable, is something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

        What a cool way of looking at this.

  10. Wonko The Sane says:

    re: ” 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 ..”

    Relatedness is not economic interdependence. The sense of the word relatedness that those authors are using is genetic relatedness. See . For a concept more like economic interdependence look at Robert Trivers work on “reciprocal altruism”.

    I point this out only because if we had a high relatedness score it wouldn’t mean anything about how closely we work together (economic interdependence); it would mean that we are genetically homogeneous. This is the kind of thing that predicts more altruistic behavior within families than outside of them.

    The difficult part of your argument is going from kin altruism to the kind of civic altruism that involves progressive taxes and infrastructure spending. It might be the case that ethnically homogeneous countries will be more likely to exhibit a stronger social welfare state (for example), but because ethnic groups are social constructs that have more to do with politics than genetics* this could just be a unified political culture pushing along a sensible plan of governing.

    I think that with a country the size of the US, the relatedness argument matters but less than how we imagine we are related.

    • Benjamin Landy says:

      @Wonko The Sane

      Interesting point re ethnically homogeneous countries and their likelihood to form stronger social welfare states. Real world examples (Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden; Germany and Japan) seem to support that theory.

      It also, unfortunately, helps to explain the racialized rhetoric surrounding welfare in the US, and why Republicans are so effective at directing middle class resentment at the poor, rather than the one percent.

      • Wonko The Sane says:

        Just to make clear, I suggested that it MIGHT be the case that ethnically homogeneous countries are more likely to get to that strong social welfare state point.

        However – and I didn’t say this clearly in the first post – it really does matter how we imagine we are related.

        Point being; Bernstein’s economics argument (about the lack of economic interdependence) is a separate topic from the relatedness argument that the sociobiology paper is discussing.

  11. Michael says:

    I DREAM of a world in which conservatives are merely selfish. In fact, conservatism is primarily motivated by sadism, a situation where conservatives are willing to make extensive sacrifices to cause categories of Americans harm.

  12. Kaleberg says:

    There may be something to the idea of a genetic link. The “pro-business” agenda that started in the Reagan years and continues to this day guarantees jobless recoveries and flat or falling living standards for most Americans, but it is largely a result of the civil rights movement which cut in “the wrong sort of people” for a share of the goodies. In other words, lack of perceived relatedness has resulted in Americans willing to keep the pie small, rather than cutting “certain people” a slice. LBJ put it more crudely and used the N-word, but the idea is the same.

  13. Steve Osborne says:

    I like the expression “productivity enhancers” to remind free-market fundmentalists that there is a need for governments to organize the space in which we move people and merchandise.

    Today, I wrote this post about the need to build strong local communities to survive in the global economy

  14. greg says:

    Can we all be in it together? The ratio in incomes between, say, Charles Koch (~$33 Billion) and a median US wage earner (say ~$33 Thousand) is a million to one. That’s about the ratio in weight between a human being and a largish ant. Is there room for a lot of empathy?

    Of course, even self interest shows that, rather than exploiting a market to the max and cutting it off at the feet, you have to let your market retain enough resources to grow. But even if our oligarchs are so inclined, can they allow the domestic market to grow, or do the demands of their power, particularly in Washington, and of competition force them to squeeze the last bit of blood from the American economy.

    If you sell to ants, you do well to let your ant farm prosper and grow.

    • greg says:

      Oops. Conflated incomes ($33,000) and assets ($33 Billion.) My very bad. Oh well, the asset comparison is almost as bad, since the median asset households US is less than about $60,000 so that, a mere difference of 500,000 times. The income comparison median US wage at $26,000, say income of 6% on say $33 Billion about $2 Billion is about 80,000 times. Still very small. Much smaller than a frog.

      Ah, the hazards when you have a cause…Have to be more careful. My very sincere apologies.

  15. EdH says:

    I’ve been slowly reading through The Evolution of Cooperation and it would tie in nicely with this thread. One thing I remember from the book is that a ‘tit for tat’ strategy is very effective at promoting cooperation. It’s one reason I wonder why things like Bank Transfer Day haven’t taken off.

    • Michael says:

      This is a big deal — Americans remain deeply committed to institutions which are both highly optional and which have proven to be extractive.

      It must be that those institutions reflect the values of their customers closely.

  16. gluon1 says:

    A quote that has long been a favorite of mine, from Ben Franklin:
    “…I thought often of the happiness of New England, where every man is a freeholder, has a vote in public affairs, lives in a tidy, warm house, has plenty of good food and fuel, with whole clothes from head to foot, the manufacture perhaps of his own family. Long may they continue in that situation! But if they should ever envy the trade of these countries I can put them in a way to obtain a share of it. Let them with three-fourths of the people of Ireland live the year round on potatoes and buttermilk, without shirts; then may their merchants export beef, butter, and linen. Let them, with the generality of the common people of Scotland , go barefoot; then they may make large exports in shoes and stockings. And if they will be content to wear rags, like the spinners and weavers of England, they may make cloths and stuffs for all parts of the world.
    “Farther, if my countrymen should ever wish for the honour of having among them a gentry enormously wealthy, let them sell their farms and pay racked rents; the scale of the landlords will rise as that of the tenants is depressed, who will soon become poor, tattered, dirty, and abject in spirit.”