I came across a real gem recently; an old essay from historian Carlo M. Cipolla (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlo_M._Cipolla ) called the “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity” (http://harmful.cat-v.org/people/basic-laws-of-human-stupidity/). I’m not necessarily accepting the essay as the definitive truth on the subject, but I do find most of it rather compelling and worth pondering. The laws of stupidity he outlines are as follows:
We always underestimate the number of stupid people.
Not as obvious as it sounds, because:
1.people we had thought to be rational and intelligent suddenly turn out to be unquestionably stupid;
2.day after day we are hampered in whatever we do by stupid people who invariably turn up in the least appropriate places, and
3.the underestimation is after the first law itself is already accounted for.
The probability of a person being stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
Third (and Golden) Law
A stupid person is someone who causes damage to another person, or a group of people, without any advantage accruing to himself (or herself) — or even with some resultant self-damage.
Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid people. They constantly forget that at any moment, and in any circumstance, associating with stupid people invariably constitutes an expensive mistake.
A stupid person is the most dangerous person in existence.
The essay also breaks people into 4 general categories (to help define the differences, he gives the case where one person conducts a transaction with another person):
1) the ‘helpless’ – a person who ends up suffering a loss while producing the gain to the other.
2) the ‘intelligent’ - a person who can make a gain at the same time while yielding a gain to the other.
3) the ‘bandits’ – a person who makes a gain while causing a loss to the other.
4) the ‘stupid’ - a person who, like the third law states, causes losses to others while deriving no gain and sometimes even incurring losses himself.
It further breaks the helpless and the bandits each into two subcategories: those that tend towards intelligence, and those that tend towards stupidity. For example, the ‘bandits’ who tend towards stupidity tend to realize gains less than the losses they incur on the others (i.e. the thug who smashes your car window and ruins your dash to steal your car stereo), whereas the ‘bandits’ who tend towards intelligence tend to realize gains greater than the losses they incur on another (i.e. an embezzler whose day-to-day job performance still manages to provide some benefit to the company). The ‘helpless’ who tend towards intelligence would be those who tend to incur some minor losses, though still do well enough that they manage to get by throughout life without too much discomfort (i.e. the average joe that obediently accepts what his government, political party, mainstream media, etc., tells him while they manipulate and steal from him in myriad small ways). Lastly, the ‘helpless’ who tend towards stupidity would be best classified as useful idiots, those who get fleeced and manipulated on a regular basis by everyone from salespeople to their elected officials. Like the fast food worker who gets a subprime auto loan to buy an expensive new truck at an absurd interest rate (or, on the flip side, the clueless investor who blindly invests in securitized products based on said subprime loans).
He goes on to say that the fraction of stupid people remains constant despite the culture, race, class, or time period, and that prospering societies have the same proportion of stupid people as declining societies. But he does state that the balance of the ‘helpless’ and ‘bandits’ towards intelligence or stupidity IS variable, and that a society’s fortunes are determined in part by which way the balance leans. He further goes on to state that poorly functioning societies also tend to be those where the ‘stupid’ are allowed by others to be more active in society. Supporting this is Mr. Cippola’s assumption that the ‘intelligent’ and the intelligent end of the ‘helpless’ and ‘bandits’ are net contributors to society, whereas the ‘stupid’ and the stupid end of the ‘helpless’ and ‘bandits’ are net takers or drags on society.
So then…. let us indulge ourselves with a thought experiment and for the moment assume this is all true. How does American society fit into this scheme?
Well I would certainly classify America as it exists today as a declining society. The economic, political, and cultural spheres of the US all show varying signs of distress or dysfunction. One of the few bright spots left is that we are still progressing technologically, though I’d argue the rate of this progress is slowing and the effective returns of the new technology are shrinking.
Economically and financially, I’d say there would have to be relatively few ‘stupid’ and ‘helpless’ people of any stripe amongst the power players and people of influence in that sphere (plenty of ‘helpless’ types in the rank-and-file though… after all SOMEBODY has to be the ‘dumb money’ as some might put it). I would expect the majority to be in the ‘intelligent’ and ‘bandit’ categories, as those would be the types most likely to flourish in that area. What I think has changed in the past 20-30 years is that the proportion of ‘stupid bandits’ to ‘intelligent bandits’ has increased steadily, with more and more of the decision-makers, policy-makers, and business leaders focused more on accumulating wealth with hardly any thought of long-term economic and financial stability. The increase in collaterized debt obligations, subprime and NINJA loans, quantitative easing, and co-opted regulatory bodies are just some of the signs of this trend. This growing percentage of ‘stupid bandits’ are like locusts, eating up everything in sight without no thought to the long-term other than their intent to move to greener pastures once they’ve exhausted everything here.
Politically, I’d say that while there are some people I’d classify as ‘stupid’ in Congress and perhaps a (very?) small handful that may qualify as being in the ‘intelligent’ category, I think most of them (at least 50%) fit in the ‘bandit’ category. And few of those are in the ‘intelligent bandit’ category either. If you think about it, has Congress (or the President) produced more (in the form of effective laws or effective policies) than they take and consume? Most of them, the President included, or more interested in keeping and adding to their positions of power than doing good things for the country, and this dynamic of taking more than their giving fits the ‘bandit’ profile perfectly. Furthermore, the benefits they receive tend to be less significant than the losses or damage they incur on others (via idiotic tax, business, military, international trade, and social policies), which would square with the ‘stupid bandit’ category. I suppose there are some in the ‘intelligent bandit’ category in Congress and the Executive Branch that know there need to be some changes or the gravy train comes to an end for everybody, but they’re hampered by an inherently flawed political system and outnumbered by the ‘stupid bandit’ majority that is much more short-sighted in their systemic thievery and graft.
Culturally?.... heck, I don’t even know where to begin. There is no shortage of examples of stupidity here, and it is the easiest to see given the 24-hour news cycle and the plethora of shows catering to the lowest common denominator. Ultimately since our culture is largely (though not entirely) representative of the state of the American public, this is basically an assessment of Americans themselves. Since we’re taking the essay’s assumptions at face value here for this thought exercise, we will assume the proportion of stupid people is still the same. They might be getting a disproportionate amount of TV airtime and media coverage than they used to, but the percentage in the population is unchanged. So that leaves the possibility that the percentage of the ‘intelligent’ is shrinking, or the proportion of the stupid range of the ‘helpless’ and/or ‘bandits’ are increasing. I expect it’d be a combination of these, though in my opinion it’d be more heavily weighted towards the ‘helpless’ and the ‘bandits’ moving to the stupid end of their respective groups. For one, the growing realization that the system is rigged and that much of the leadership (in politics and business) is just as greedy and corrupt as any low-rent criminal tends to influence the public towards acceptance of and participation in the ‘bandit’ philosophy. And if we couple that with society’s excessive focus on short-term gain and instant gratification, the stupid end of the ‘bandit’ category is likely to see the largest increase. Second, we look at the government and mainstream media and how they constantly are pushing fear our way. This is by its nature designed to instill feelings of helplessness and a dependency on whoever claims to protect you (the politicians and the government) or whoever tells you what you supposedly need to hear (the media). Such an environment actively discourages intelligent, independent thinking and favors emotional triggers & responses, so it’s reasonable to conclude it would push some of the ‘intelligent’ into the intelligent-leaning ‘helpless’ category, and some of the smarter ‘helpless’ types into the stupid-leaning ‘helpless’ group.
Now bringing this thought exercise to its conclusion, how can these trends be reversed? Well I don’t think they can, at least not right away. As long as life is (relatively) cushy for most Americans, they will remain asleep and not have sufficient incentive to change their ways. I think the only thing that would force a reversal in this trend would be if a majority of us experienced substantial hardship that forces us to improve ourselves out of necessity. And I don’t think we’ll have too long before that happens, within this decade I expect. While I rather enjoyed the film Idiocracy and find it sometimes hits a little too close to our current situation, I never worry that we’ll ever get close to that level because the system as it is just can’t sustain itself that long. This positive feedback loop of increasing stupidity has a short lifespan simply due to the systemic instability of our debt-based economies and the over-reliance of our infrastructure on declining reserves of fossil fuels. I’d much rather we collectively choose to change now and build our economies, cultures, and societies in a wiser fashion, but even if we don’t, one way or the other the universe WILL force change on us and give us the massive bitch-slap needed to shake out the excess stupidity. For many it might be really painful or even lethal, but there’s no avoiding it. Eventually, ignorance will truly become painful. But until then….