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King of the Hill

October 2, 2012

For me as a Canadian kid, one of the few redeeming elements of Winter was the gigantic hill of snow created at our school by snow plows. That this was so speaks to the very heart of human experience. Presented with the opportunity, we climb… well, some of us climb. Of relevance, this climbing game was of limited appeal, with most kids sitting the game out as passive spectators. Of course, Darwin was watching closely as others challenged both our skill in climbing and our capacity to hold the summit, once attained. Whenever one of us neared the peak, or held it, everyone else became as one in the task of bringing us down again. We called it King of the Hill. What can I say? Life is tough… and what better way to learn this lesson than on the rough and tumble slopes of a soft, forgiving hill of snow? Nowadays, most schools won't allow such a game. Fear of litigation prevents it.


In graduate school, I was introduced by my six-person study group to another game – the board game of Risk. The object is to take over and dominate the world by way of calculated probabilities, attack strategy, trade deals, and carefully crafted alliances. Deals and alliances didn't often come early in the game, but whenever one player showed signs of becoming too powerful, the dynamic of our childhood 'King of the Hill' game was immediately invoked. Former enemies became allies. Deals were made and near winners were hauled down before they could reach the summit and declare victory. New powers arose and old alliances were abandoned in favor of new… for a time. It was a fluid display of migrating loyalties. To a group of ambitious young MBA students, the embedded lesson was not lost. Whereas 60% of our classmates crashed and burned before graduation, we six remained intact to the end. You are only as strong as those who surround you.


I would argue that King of the Hill battles represent just one subset among power struggles. King of the Hill battles reflect what might even be termed a healthy tension of Darwinian survival. Let the fit lead. They have earned it.

Our world is a collection of nested and overlapping King of the Hill battles… dynamics among siblings, families, neighborhoods, schoolyards… all the way through to military conflicts and international finance and trade.

Conceptually, consider the structure of any one system as a pyramid. At the bottom are those people who either don't care or don't know enough to participate in struggles for power. These are the followers, doomed to accept whatever cards are dealt to them. This is by far the largest group, without whom nothing above can survive. It is critical for the system's survival that this class remain intact and mute.

One step up are the lower level strugglers, not passive, but also not strong enough to play pivotal roles at the table where decisions are made. They'd like to play, and may fool themselves into thinking that they are in the game. As long as the large group of followers, one level down, remains passive, these strugglers can only hope to position themselves favorably by guessing which way the game will turn next.

Up one level more, we find the real struggle, between those who rule and those who would rule. The battle is intense and brutal. Many cries in the name of the greater good, and justice, and empowering the middle class mask the true nature of the thing. This is about power and only about power. Understand me when I say, this is not about politicians. I've long ago concluded that, while they may think that they are key players in this struggle, most politicians (hopefully, not all) are no more than puppets… pawns in a much larger battle among titans. In a corrupted system, and that's where we live, folks, most politicians hold little power. They are mere tools of the trade.

I describe the system in this way because I think it important to my understanding of what comes next. In this hierarchical pyramid, what comes next hinges on how many levels are actively engaged in the struggle. If we're looking only at the traditional setting, nothing will change. The King of the Hill struggle remains akin to a game of musical chairs, with a select few players trading in and out of positions of control. If lower levels become motivated to participate… critically, the large and otherwise passive follower group… the entire power structure is at risk. Much energy and many resources are dedicated to maintain a dumbed-down sedated group of apathetic followers. So far, this effort appears to enjoy great success.

Any study of power struggle is incomplete without reference to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 by King John of England. With this decree, the King was pulled down from 'the Hill' by a group of feudal barons. While the Magna Carta ceded power only one level down from the King, it launched the development of what would centuries later become known as modern representative democracy. The central notion of no taxation without representation (at least, for the barons) was the very spark of  a revolution against the British Empire 560 years later. That spark provided the impetus that eventually led the world of western democracy to recognize and include new layers of people in the represented hierarchy.

Women gained full rights to vote in Canada in 1919 (excepting in Quebec, where it took until 1940 – ouch!) and in the United States in 1920. Whereas the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave blacks the right to vote in 1870, it took another 95 years before the Voting Rights Act made it true. Signed by President Johnson in 1965, this one prevented states from invoking any qualification test for voters, ending nearly a century of discrimination, post 15th Amendment. Hmmm… perhaps someone should show that Voting Rights Act to those now on a campaign to suppress the minority vote next month.

This 'pressing down' (perhaps better put, 'pulling down') of access to democracy through hierarchical layers is an important process in consideration of the struggle for power. Once enfranchised, the populace is not fond of being disenfranchised, however limited that power may be.


Beyond current efforts to suppress the vote of minorities, we are witness to other efforts in the arena of disenfranchisement. Wall Street, for one, no longer represents (if it ever did) a level playing field. Those who have climbed that hill are loathe to give an inch. Their strategy and tactics have allowed lay investors in the door only so long as it takes for the shearing. Thank you very much. Come back when you've refilled and ripened your pockets for the picking. Power in that system is becoming even more concentrated. This increasing concentration of power is the first sign of a crack that will ultimately bring the system down.


Since the end of World War II, the United States has been the most powerful nation in the world… King of the Hill. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union some twenty years ago, there has been no strong counterparty to this game. As China continues to gather steam, we've seen many smaller players joining together in a chant against the King. From the analogy of this child's game, such a response should surprise no one. It's no more than a natural cry against concentrated power. Already, we have begun to hear similar cries to the East.


"Let them eat cake," though wrongfully attributed to Marie-Antoinette, provided a fitting historical explanation of a spark that led to the French Revolution. Look to the level of the pushback against power. Think of our pyramid. When protest comes only from those near the top, it does not speak to a coming revolution. It reflects no more than a natural tension between those who have power and those who crave it. In the presence of competing interests and an unengaged follower-constituency, no structural change will come. It remains a struggle among oligarchs and their agents (politicians). If protest comes from the otherwise apathetic lower level, however, and can be organized, mobilized, and well led, it can become a game changer.


An interesting book I've been reading (free download) is called Political Parties by Robert Michels. Written in 1911, its central thesis is that democracy is structurally paradoxical, leading inevitably to oligarchy. Increasing complexity in any organization leads to specialization, technical expertise, and isolation of decision making to a self-contained and elite group of people. If you don't have the time, energy, or inclination to read the book, just Google the Iron Law of Oligarchy.

Michels called it spot on a full century ago. In the absence of corrective action, representative democracy is on a very slippery slope. Wealthy lobby interests are buying (influence in) Congress, and the power of the people is migrating back upward again, into the hands of a concentrated few… what we are seeing right before our eyes is the predictable reversal of democratization into oligarchy.


In the absence of engagement by the governed, money will fight with money both for power and for more money. When money fights with money, of course, those without money will lose. The rest of us remain spectators on the sidelines. Be it Washington or Wall Street, don't expect the intertwined titans to send an invitation to the table… but don't let that stop you. Become part of the conversation, I say… be a maker, rather than a taker, of your outcome. An ambitious undertaking, in view of the rather depressing description here, but to remain unengaged is to cede full control of one's life over to someone else.


Are all systems necessarily doomed to collapse? I've wondered long and hard on this one. My conclusion? I think not. At the same time, I believe that systems failing: in complacency (the greatest enemy); in circumspection; in character and values; and in self-regulation are, in fact, doomed to collapse. In contrast, systems committed to education and self-study and re-examination, systems that work to protect themselves against structural attack and corruption, can adjust where appropriate and migrate to safer ground.


Markets do not self-regulate. The notion that they do is naïve and flawed in every respect. Supply and demand, ceteris paribus, self-regulate, but that's another story altogether. Ceteris paribus does not exist. It's a myth. Proponents of deregulation commit a huge mistake (or falsehood) when they equate the supply and demand dynamic to how systems actually function. Structure dictates markets. There is no such thing as a free market. Those who control the structure control the system… as a result, they also control supply and demand.

When we tell ourselves that we've created something perfect, we're mistakenly convinced that it needs no attention. No system is perfect. No system is static. Threats, both internal and external, are always ready to leap out from behind the trees.

Systems, as described by Michels, tend toward concentration of power. This progression toward concentration of power, in the absence of safeguards, is the dynamic, the mechanism, the inevitable preamble to structural collapse.

King of the Hill is at play wherever we turn in the world today. It's still on the playground in children's games. It's in the streets in the form of gang wars. It's in the markets and it's in the backrooms of government. The most powerful on Wall Street will do everything they can to hold on to their power. Who, if anyone, will challenge them? The most powerful in Washington (not the politicians, I say again) will do everything they can to hold on to their power. Who, if anyone, will challenge them?

As always, time alone will judge.

Honey! Where'd you put my snow pants?

With respect,

Kevin Graham

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