Monday, February 15, 2010

Tournament of...

 I originally wrote this on 12 May 2009 at 7:51PM.  I'm not sure why I didn't post it aside from my lack of a conclusion.  So I added a conclusion, and a jump because the post is long.
People, many of them quite smart and well informed, keep using the phrase "the gap between rich and poor" and saying that it is bad. This phrase bothers me a lot because I find it useless at best and misleading at worst. People are pack oriented mammals. There are always alphas, betas, all the the way to omegas. There will always be people who outrank, outpower, and outperform others. To suggest that all people are gammas is to dismiss the inherent hierarchical structure of community.

Within that community however, we can find that having more gammas than omegas is heathier for us overall. (For those unfamiliar with greek think A(1st place),B (2),G (7),Z (last) where Z is Omega. For those horrified by me using these the way I want to and not according to previous conventions other than order which I warn is the case, stop reading or get over it.)

I watched a documentary once about a wolf pack that was under observation by humans. (They kind of tolerated the researchers.) The researchers explained the ranking system and the pack definitely had its alpha, betas, gammas and omegas. The pack omega was a weaker female and whenever the pack ate they would deliberately keep her from the carcass until last, going so far as to shoo her out of the area completely. I kept thinking "what's the harm in letting her hang around the edges? She always did get some scraps at the end, it's not like she's going to bite you in the butt." And one time when they chased her out of the area while the big dogs were eating, she was killed by a stronger predator. The really striking thing was that the pack went into a severe depression with the omegas death. It turned out that she was an empathetic influence who calmed the pack when they were inappropriately riled and offered comedic relief when they were tense or sad. Without her, the pack really fell apart. Not just for days. They mourned her absence for months and months. Pack function failed in a major way.

As a human watching the interaction, I had several reactions. I was actually pretty stunned by how important the Omega was to pack function. I felt the obvious sadness at the wasteful death (although cougars need to eat too, she didn't need to be out unprotected). Starting from how they treated her, I noticed opportunities where they could have been less harsh without disordering the ranking. Make her a pi or something - the status is still low but not as "untouchable". Let her stick close when eating, even if she's still last. To me, that's not a huge accommodation, but then I'm not a wolf. And by keeping the pack together at mealtimes, they would have prevented damage to the pack. Maybe less rookie alphas do this, but since most of it is instinctive, I can't know.

But I do know how humans work and it's not too far off from the wolf pack, except we're less likely to acknowledge how much influence our omegas have on our lives. Some people know and they work to keep them at least near pack during feeding rather than alone in the woods with no support. But funding and policy for these things is often hard to come by.

So why did I start with "income gap" then talk about Alpha-Omega? I'm not really sure if it proves my point when I argue that the distance between alpha and omega should be reduced. But even in a wolf pack, there's one omega for one alpha and the rest of the pack is distributed between them. Its center heavy. The alpha doesn't continually demote pack until it's alpha, his trusted betas, and a slew of omegas.

What I don't know is whether failed alphas leave the pack or just accept not being alpha.

In reading "Freakonomics" in the chapter on "Why do drug dealers live with their moms?" the authors bring up an interesting point. Drug dealing is a tournament contest where the top dog is rewarded heavily and disproportionately to the remaining contenders. This same kind of contest plays out in professional sports and is most striking with the olympics. Even pro football benchwarmers earn a decent take home salary, and most of them had college paid for. For more obscure elite athetes, your parents fund it, the state funds it, or you get an angel investor or you have no hope. And even if you go to the olympics, NBC will only show your face if you're a medal contender (I'm still irked about Silver winner Natalie), and you probably only get decent later funding for a gold medal. The people in 4th place have worked 10, 12 or 20 years to become one of the very best of the very best in the whole world and they don't get squat for it. It's why even young girls know that a great Olympic vault on a broken leg is worth the pain. It doesn't matter if her leg never works properly again; she can afford the rehab if she wins and can't if she doesn't.

It's ok to have tournament winner-take-all structures for some aspects of our lives but we cannot structure our average economy that way. Tournaments must needs be a thing apart from average. For places where a tournament never occurs, we cannot use the same structure. We need support structures, and we need those support structures to be sustainable. We can handle more than one "winner", and more, we can have many definitions of "winner". What we need for a democracy to function is for the vast, overwhelming majority of people to be educated and earn a living wage.

Added 2010:
While I guesss I have to admit that the gap between Alpha and Omega, or rich and poor, is something, it matters less if the resources of the poor/omega actual reach a certain threshold.  An omega who is shunned is worse off than an omega who isn't shunned but is still the lowest ranking person or wolf in the pack, for instance.  But a society such as the one I've grown up in and hope to keep living in, prospers only when the majority of citizens have good resources and aren't completely overwhelmed by the forces of the rich.  Societies with elites and peasants might make for good novels, but it means the vast majority of people are being prevented from living up to their potential.  We need a healthy, educated, and very large middle class.  We can support some of the super rich, but not when they bleed off the resources of the middle class to such a degree that maintaining a middle class is an enormous struggle - it should just take average work to maintain.

(Ok, so that's not a brilliant conclusion, but it's what I have in me right now.)

1 comment:

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