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As we lurch from one high-stakes political drama to another, it is natural to wonder why societies aren’t better at avoiding self-inflicted crises. Here in the U.S. earlier this month, the government barely dodged default, even though economists reached consensus months ago on when the debt limit would need to be raised.
Meanwhile in Europe, one inadequate government response after another has all but assured that anxiety over the solvency of Greeceand the creditworthiness of Italy and Spain will continue to fester, roiling global markets and pushing the European Union to the brink of ruin.
Pundits have been referring to these spectacles as “train wrecks,” as if they happen at high speed. Hardly. These trains are moving at inches an hour; for years, we’ve seen the potential accident ahead. So why do we end up with the tangled mess?
It’s an important question because, looking down the track, it’s easy to spot other big trains on collision courses. In the U.S., our deeply flawed health-care system long ago lost its brakeman, and the Affordable Care Act, enacted last year, failed to fix the major causes of runaway costs. To the contrary, many argue that it exacerbated some of them. The problem of providing health care in the U.S. is not solved; we’re going to have to wait for some future crisis before it gets more attention.
The current funding structure for Social Security is going to run headlong into the demographic shift of aging baby boomers, bankrupting the program and perhaps the country along with it. Economists know this, but the political reality is that we cannot fix the system in advance; we have to wait for the crisis to occur. Europe and Japan face even worse trouble with their state pensions.
We have yet to develop the technology that will be needed to meet the world’s fast-growing demand for energy. And although climate scientists are almost apoplectic about the economic and ecological risks created by global warming, no efforts to combat it have been even remotely commensurate to the challenge. Global levels of carbon dioxide continue to climb unabated.
Politicians don’t like to face unpleasant realities. In truth, nobody does, but as individuals, we have no choice; if we neglect to plan ahead, we are held accountable. Fail to meet your responsibilities at work, and you get fired. Ignore your car’s gas gauge, and you get stranded.
So why do we have trouble avoiding catastrophes as a society? The answer may lie in the biology of colonial organisms. Society, it turns out, behaves a lot like a slime mold.
A slime mold is a colony-forming creature that occupies the evolutionary middle ground between single-celled microorganisms such as bacteria, which generally fend for themselves, and truly multicellular animals such as humans, in which trillions of highly specialized cells organize themselves into the heart, eyes, brain and so on. Heart cells aren’t out for themselves -- they dutifully perform their very specific job of pumping blood to the rest of the cells in the body.
Colonial organisms, in contrast, are creatures that can live by themselves, but instead frequently band together in macroscopic collections. Sometimes -- as in ant hills and bee hives -- the members of the colony specialize to a modest degree, but they are still full-fledged individuals. Yet the colony as a whole acts like a larger organism. Certain slime molds, for example, can move, reproduce and exhibit other simple animal-like properties.
But a slime mold doesn’t have eyes or a brain -- or any other organ, for that matter. Creating an organ requires a deep subjugation of interests. The heart has to trust that the brain will run things and that the reproductive system will look after its long-term interests.
Although it may be tempting to think of social institutions as functioning like organs, human societies behave, in practice, much more like slime molds. They don’t have eyes or brains that are anything like human eyes and brains. So although any one of us can learn from our mistakes, foresee problems and act reasonably to solve them, collectively we don’t do a very good job of this.
Granted, our species is very intelligent and has developed exquisite communication across the world and through the centuries. But while people are smart enough to anticipate problems, they are also smart enough to make counterarguments. Every good idea in history has had to fight against many bad ideas before winning broad acceptance.
Like the individual mold cells in a slime colony, most people mainly pursue their self-interest, influenced only partially by a concern for the common good. And our individual agendas often conflict. You can’t balance the federal budget, for example, without goring somebody’s ox. Do we raise taxes, cut spending, eliminate subsidies? Every option is resisted by some people.
What’s more, society as a whole isn’t rational. In politics, religion and other areas of culture, people disagree on the worth of competing ideas. There is no equivalent to the scientific method that can determine in a robust way which ideas match the real world, and which ones can be ruled out. So conflicting ideologies persist indefinitely.
Economics suffers from this problem, too. Economists want their discipline to be a science, and they have nailed down a few precepts, but many of their debates are still clouded by ideology.
Absent a political counterpart to the scientific method, democracies rely on an error-correction system that is based partly on checks and balances and partly on elections. Checks and balances slow decision-making by giving rise to horse trading: Rather than block your tendency to overspend, I agree to fund your project, so long as you agree to fund mine.
Popular Policy Makers
Elections, for their part, are typically popularity contests rather than measures of candidates’ relative competency or effectiveness. Imagine if scientific truth were determined according to which scientist was most popular. To be successful, scientists would have to be charismatic and attractive -- and human knowledge would suffer terribly. It’s easy to blame politicians for their many faults, but ultimately we have the politicians we insist on having.
The net result of these limitations is that even advanced democracies are functionally blind, so they deal with problems only when they bump into them and perceive a “sudden” crisis. Americans put up with increasing air pollution for decades before the situation got so intolerable that Congress passed the Clean Air Act. Hundreds of species went extinct before systematic action was taken to save endangered plants and animals.
Unfortunately, this way of responding to problems runs the risk of being too little, too late. Not all problems can be fixed after they have become severe. If we wait until all the cheap oil is gone before developing alternatives, the resulting economic disruption will be traumatic. And if we wait until global warming is intolerable before making serious cutbacks in emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases, the physics of the atmosphere virtually guarantees that all our efforts will then be too late. To head off these problems, this slime mold needs to grow eyes and a brain.
(Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief strategist and chief technology officer at Microsoft and the founder and chief executive officer of Intellectual Ventures, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this article: Nathan Myhrvold at firstname.lastname@example.org