10 March 2010

Greeks, monkeys and the value of a good fist sized rock

I see in response to proposed austerity measure designed to cut conditions and services to the low and middle class and save the Greek economy, the good folk of Athens have got a little het up.

On the flip side, our cousins in the US haven’t got their riot faces on at home since about the time four police offices helped a confused Mr King relax on the road in 1992.

Interestingly the divide between rich and poor is much wider in the US than Greece and getting worse.

I think the two issues are connected and it comes down to why we treat others fairly.

The concepts of equity and co-operation seem hard coded into our DNA. They were evolved so early on they are shared by apes and even monkeys.

Even a relatively primitive monkey like the capuchin understands that if its doing the same work (collecting rocks) it deserves the same payout in terms of food. If monkey A is getting nothing but cucumber slices for his rock collecting while monkey B is getting juicy grapes, A feels entitled to throw a tantrum.

More evolved apes like the bonobo can take the game to another level. Not only does the ape getting shafted feel resentment, the ape getting the sweet deal becomes agitated about the inequity and demands justice for all.

In my view, what the guys conducting the study might have overlooked is that fairness only works where the screwed over party gets a shot at retaliation.

I’m pretty sure the other apes were looking at the one getting the food and muttering “So Mrs Bonobo, I see you are getting all the milk and raisins. Well wait until the research scientists are gone. Then we’ll have a group meeting to air our grievances about the fairness issues. My representative, Mr Fists, will be attending”.

Clever Mrs Bonobo knew to play fair and avoid the discussion that would surely follow.

However, if the screwed over party doesn’t have the power to retaliate, fairness goes out the window.

The Mongols, sitting atop their war ponies with their powerful recurve bows, scarcely wondered about the equity of the situation as they were busy piling up the heads of their adversaries. Why should they? The opposition wasn’t in a position to deliver even a forcefully worded letter of demand about the burning, looting and head piling activities.

Same same with modern transactions:

“The banks sold us some weird derivative products that seem to have bankrupted the national economy. We kinda need to close schools and cut pensions. All for the best you understand?”; or

“Hmmm, can’t pay off the loan I see…well I guess we’re going to have to sell your family farm to the large agro business down the road. Nothing personal just business”; or

“So…worked here for 25 years. Sadly we’ll we need to cut you wages to ensure a bit of a bonus for the execs this year. Nothing personal you understand?”

To my mind, retaliation and revenge are as much a part of a fair society as trust and co-operation. Lose them and the party with the whip starts using it.

So go the Greek workers! If the powers that be really want to reduce the national debt by cutting benefits from the poor and middle class, there should at least be a few rocks through government windows and burning cars in the streets. It keeps the flame of fairness alive.

…I wonder what it would take for retrenched Americans to pick up a few nice fist sized rocks…

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