The Roll of the Dice: What Egalitarian Hunter-Gatherers Know About Luck (And We’ve Forgotten)

 

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This picture might be overly bucolic, but there is no Fox News

 

In this week’s New Yorker, John Lanchester has a really interesting, humbling, and depressing read about how civilization turned out to be really bad for people in general. It made us unhealthier, more stressed, and, though he didn’t say it, downright meaner.

He says outright that the Neolithic Revolution is the worst thing that’s ever happened to humans, and that if we had slowed our roll a few hundred thou after harnessing fire, we’d be much happier.

That isn’t to say we’d be stupid. As Lanchester points out, there were literally thousands of years after the dawn of agriculture but before the rise of city-states. This was a time where there was art and some religion, mythologies, and knowledge about how the world worked. People, it seemed, didn’t resist collecting into civilization because they didn’t know how, but because it didn’t seem to make sense.

The whole article is really interesting, and points to some fascinating-sounding scholarship, but this might have been my favorite part.

The study of hunter-gatherers, who live for the day and do not accumulate surpluses, shows that humanity can live more or less as Keynes suggests. (Affluence without abundance- ed) It’s just that we’re choosing not to. A key to that lost or forsworn ability, Suzman suggests, lies in the ferocious egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers. For example, the most valuable thing a hunter can do is come back with meat. Unlike gathered plants, whose proceeds are “not subject to any strict conventions on sharing,” hunted meat is very carefully distributed according to protocol, and the people who eat the meat that is given to them go to great trouble to be rude about it. This ritual is called “insulting the meat,” and it is designed to make sure the hunter doesn’t get above himself and start thinking that he’s better than anyone else. “When a young man kills much meat,” a Bushman told the anthropologist Richard B. Lee, “he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. . . . We can’t accept this.” The insults are designed to “cool his heart and make him gentle.” For these hunter-gatherers, Suzman writes, “the sum of individual self-interest and the jealousy that policed it was a fiercely egalitarian society where profitable exchange, hierarchy, and significant material inequality were not tolerated.”

This egalitarian impulse, Suzman suggests, is central to the hunter-gatherer’s ability to live a life that is, on its own terms, affluent, but without abundance, without excess, and without competitive acquisition.

What really strikes me about this is how hunter-gatherer societies embrace and understand the role of luck in life. Think about it. You could be an amazing hunter, but if something else spooked the animals, they’re off and running before you unleash and arrow. You could throw a spear perfectly, but if the gazelle zigs left instead of right, it falls clattering to the earth, pointedly and pointlessly.

So much in life is about luck, chance, and circumstance. You could stumble into some sweet hunting grounds or be born rich. You could watch the prey you’ve been stalking get freaked by a bird and run off, or you could grow up in the shadow of industry that’s poisoning your water and putting lead in your brain, limiting opportunities in life.

Things happen. As we’ve grown as a species, we’ve invented new ways to heighten the role of luck, the roll of the dice. Capitalism exacerbates this, with all its talk of meritocracy. Racism, prejudice, and borders make it stronger. Where you are born and to whom you are born make more a difference than who you are.

Hell, luck can extend to the random sequencing of a genetic code, a little glitch that makes you sicker or weaker or less able to rise up. That’s luck.

Paul Newman, in talking about his camp for sick children, had one of my favorite quotes about luck in life.

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No! You’re not allowed to be this handsome and wise!

 

I wanted, I think, to acknowledge Luck: the chance of it, the benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others; made especially savage for children because they may not be allowed the good fortune of a lifetime to correct it.

And we’ve set up a society that refuses to recognize that. We’ve set up a society where the national myths are that you deserve your fate, and that there are many people who deserve to suffer. If they are suffering, ipso facto, they must deserve it. And they should suffer more, so that the luckier, who never consider their fortune anything just the justifications of virtue, can have more.

You may have recognized this as a summation of the Republican platform. It’s made crystal clear in their multiple attempts to repeal the ACA (and how goddamn happy Paul Ryan was when he thought he did).

Because that’s what repeal really is. It is saying that if you work three jobs, none of which have health care, you don’t deserve it. If you have a pre-existing condition, that’s too bad. If you live in a state with a Republican governor, too bad. If your cancer becomes metatastic and you can’t afford care, well, them’s the breaks.

That comes from the inability to understand that life is about luck. It’s about the driver looking up just in time to slam on her brakes before she t-bones you. Another second, another half-second, and you face a lifetime of therapy and mounting bills. There’s no virtue there. That’s only chance. The same as if you had entered the intersection a half-second earlier and were in her way.

Our system shouldn’t be about ignoring luck. It shouldn’t imagine that the person who happens to have the most meat at any given moment is the bravest, the best, and the most worthy. Our adherence to that superstition puts us far behind hunter-gatherer socieites. We’re less wise, less moral, and less knowledgeable about the world. We’re just less.

(h/t to Allison, Dee, and Bill Breeding for the breakfast conversation about this piece that made me think about luck and who we are. Always my favorite people to talk to.)

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Equifax Data Breach Demonstrates Everything Wrong With Modern Capitalism

 

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“Poverty and Misfortune Only Happen to Those That Deserve It”- Equifax Slogan

 

You ever fall behind on your credit card? Miss a car payment? Juggle some bills and end up paying your cable late, since their late fee was more affordable? Ever send in a rent check that ended up getting there a day or two after the 5th? If not, that’s legitimately great. You’ve done well. But for most people in America, the answer is “yes”.

And if that answer is yes, chances are that Equifax knows about it. They have that information. And now, thanks to a breach, hackers have the private information of 143 million Americans.

Equifax, one of the three major consumer credit reporting agencies, said on Thursday that hackers had gained access to company data that potentially compromised sensitive information for 143 million American consumers, including Social Security numbers and driver’s license numbers.

The attack on the company represents one of the largest risks to personally sensitive information in recent years, and is the third major cybersecurity threat for the agency since 2015.

One question you might ask yourself is: why does Equifax even have Social Security numbers, man? After all, eligibility for Social Security is about the only thing in American life that isn’t based upon your credit score. That’s a good question, and the answer is because they want it, and we’ve become conditioned to giving away our Social Security number to any corporation that asks.

We put it on job applications for background checks, and one of the places that they check is with these credit reporting companies. I spent a few years working at a large background check company, checking criminal records, but we also did credit checks. It was a horrible, soul-crushing job, where you could check a box and deny someone employment because they boosted a candy bar once, or because they fell behind on their bills.

Think about the power that these companies have over you. Your whole life is wrapped up in credit scores, a history of your solvency, which impacts every opportunity moving forward. Companies like Equifax exist to make sure that you can never outrace your past.

Yes, it is good that people who didn’t make mistakes, who saved and were thrifty, are rewarded. It is also true that everything you do has consequences, and we shouldn’t set up society to reward grasshoppers who fail to prepare for the winter. Life has consequences, right? Equifax just tallies them up.

Except we all know that isn’t true. If you have money, then dumb decisions don’t have any consequences. If you don’t, making the same mistakes reverberates throughout your entire life. If you have money, you don’t have to make a decision on which bill to pay. If you work full-time and are still below the poverty level (as is the case with ten million workers) then you are going to end up with a bad score from Equifax.

That’s the life we have set up. Even if you work full time, have multiple jobs, you can be poor and struggling to get by. You’ll juggle bills, and your score will be bad. That can hurt future employment. It can make getting a house impossible. If you made mistakes when you were younger, and didn’t have the grace of wealth to bury those errors, you could be screwed for decades. The bosses have the power, and their spies are the credit reporting agencies, to whom we give over our lives. It’s no wonder so many people are on anti-depressants.

Want more proof that this is the perfect American scandal? The company knew about the breach for months before reporting it, obviously, because who cares about the affected consumers when stock prices might be affected. And that’s right: stock in Equifax has dropped. But don’t worry!

Three Equifax Inc. senior executives sold shares worth almost $1.8 million in the days after the company discovered a security breach that may have compromised information on about 143 million U.S. consumers.

Now, the company says the executives weren’t aware of the breach when they sold, but come on. These aren’t exactly credible sources.

This is it in a nutshell. Consequences for thee, but not for me. Our screwups end in golden parachutes and stock selloffs, yours end in zeroed-out opportunities. The grasshoppers are the winners here. We’ve sold our soul to the boss class, and to them its pocket change.