Dec 092008

I try to stay out of politics, especially forgein ones, however my hero, Jordan Peterson, recently did a wonderful interview about American politics. He highlighted what he believed to be the source of the problems, which is a fundamental lack of trust in the reigning politicians. He also suggested that modern day politics includes too much marketing and too much spin, and it’s hard to trust. I agree with that. His talk reminded me of a social trap, or the tragedy of the commons where the individual actors working for their own self-interest has a negative effect on a social resource, leading to overexploitation and eventually the destruction of this resource.

Here’s an example of a recent social trap in one of my classes, Learning and Plasticity. The heating is busted so its always way too hot in the winter. This problem is made worse by the 35 or so computers in the room every class, which generate a lot of heat and ruin the social resource of a comfortable temperature for all. Therein lies the problem: the advantages of bringing a laptop to class is borne by the one person, while the costs of bringing a laptop to class is borne by everyone. While it is in the interest of those people who bring laptops to not bring it or use it less, they have no garuntees that others will refrain from bringing their laptops, and you need there to be about a maximum of ten laptops in the room every class. Classic tragedy of the commons situation.

The social capital, in the case of American politics, is trust in the politicians, and this has been declining since the Nixon years. There is this deep-seated distrust and skepticism about the government that comes into the media after Nixon, which has extended itself to Canada, too, even though our government is maybe half as corrupt (though still corrupt!). And while it may be favourable for an individual politician to use spin and marketing for their own gain, this further erodes the social capital of trust in the system and in politicians in general.

I dunno what good way there is out of this, and I’m not really interested in finding one. I just wanted to point out some interesting parralells between my class and the American political system, and also that working solely for individual self-interest fails. There has be an eye towards working for both self-interest and the interest of others involved to create Win/Win situations. Else worse things happen.

Further reading if you’re interested:

Wikipedia – Social Trap

Wikipedia – Tragedy of the Commons

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