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Who will govern?

June 12, 2013

Risk is a board game I played regularly many moons ago. The objective of the game, in short, is world domination. It's a game of probability, governed largely by the roll of the dice. Without government, few rules exist, making play quite fluid and open to alliances, betrayal, and ruthless destruction. Good fortune, well exploited, can turn the game completely on its ear. While weak players can be marginalized and swept easily out of the game, the dominant force can also be brought down in a flash. It's a game of trust, and at the same time, very much of deceit. As you might imagine, emotions can run quite high. It's not a game I'd play with small children.

Until the inevitable steamrolling endgame, Risk is characterized by a constantly equilibrating dynamic among players. By this, I mean a rolling battle of King of the Hill. As one player threatens to become dominant, others quickly create alliances in hopes of reducing the threat. Power shifts back and forth, and alliances collapse and reconfigure accordingly. Of course, the dominant force will do everything possible to restrict access for other players. Access to participation is pivotal to survival. If you hold no influence over other players, it's time to say 'goodnight'.

When you find yourself locked in a corner, unable to enjoy the spoils of the game, your reactions can range anywhere from methodically considered strategic joint venture deals all the way to hopeless suicide bomber missions.

Without regulatory oversight, this can be an interesting game when mixed with alcohol. You can stay sober, though, calculate all the odds correctly, and still get clobbered. It's not always what you know that counts, but what club you belong to from turn to turn.


If this sounds a lot like the real world… in many ways, it is. My assignment for the day, though, is not to display a board game as analogous to the real world, but rather to study how it is not a match with our reality. More importantly, I'd like to understand the framework for what must happen to prevent the world we live in from devolving into a primitive game of 'winner takes all.'

The real world, admittedly, is well populated with people playing King of the Hill. "What's mine is mine… and what's yours is also (about to be) mine." No qualms and no hesitation. Might is right. At the heart of the inquiry, of course, stands the question: Is this what we're all about? I think not. I hope not.

In Risk, the best way to pursue the zero-sum outcome is to control and restrict your opponent's access to participation, structurally if you can, brutally if you cannot.

Just as early American slaves were restricted (in just about every way), entire classes of people today are restricted against achieving their potential to participate… and make a valued contribution… to society at large.

Let me pause there for a moment to acknowledge that this statement marks the great divide in most public policy debate today. One side says, 'help the underclass'. The other side says, 'help yourselves.'


Lately, I've been labouring through a book called Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. Written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, this new book makes a compelling case for Darwin. In short, he says, let things take care of themselves. While individuals in the species may die off, the species, as a whole, will be sustained and strengthened both through survival of the fittest and through a vaccination-like experience. If it doesn't kill you, it will make you stronger. If it kills you… well, you are not among the chosen. The math works fine and his argument from a conceptual viewpoint presents soundly enough. Where it leaves me uncomfortable, though, is in the application of mathematical models to values-based scenarios. Taleb takes regular swings at interventionists, contending that laissez-faire is the better path in the long term. I wonder if his position would be different if it were his own child who could be saved by access to medicine he couldn't afford.

Math is one thing, and has much to offer. It does not, however, relieve us of what we are. We are social creatures. We look out for each other. This is a good, in and of itself. It's also a good for the whole, creating, promoting, supporting, and sustaining community. We are defined in the end by how we've touched others, not by whether our survival or our demise has contributed to the process of natural selection. I don't buy that argument. It's a faulty framework, as are many, created on a solid factual foundation that makes irrelevant assumptions. A very useful debating technique, but often one that leads away from the truth, not closer to it.

The 'free market' proponents, or at least those who claim that territory, are staunch individualists, dedicated in battle against the collective. They put forth the argument that, left alone, and free from government intervention, a market will find its own rightful equilibrium. There's truth in this, but only some.

If only the world were this simple. Left to its own resources and without appropriate regulation and oversight, the so-called free market inevitably devolves into an oligarchy. Power and wealth are increasingly concentrated, and the whole thing begins to look like the conclusion of a game of Risk. Is Risk what we're all about? I think not. I hope not.

The free market is a myth. Flag waving free market apologists equate the concept with democracy. Anything other than complete freedom is the all-evil socialism, our sworn enemy. Hogwash, I say. Complete hogwash.

The select few at the top of this food chain are not, as they claim, against regulation. They're all for regulation… as long as that regulation forms a barrier to participation in their game by others. They've created a complex and burdensome labyrinth, restricting access to a few select members of a club. Insofar as they succeed in this, the market becomes anything but free. The game is rigged. In this model, you and I are like sheep, fed only so as to be fleeced.

In the case of Tea Party followers, the well-fed Thanksgiving turkey may offer an even better metaphor. Don't believe for a minute that this is a grass-roots movement, the voice of an oppressed people. This is no more than the political arm of those who would retain control, rather than cede it to the people. The founding funders of this movement understand well the power of masses and are eager to cattle prod those at the bottom of the chain into service of their own objectives. Their followers are the unwitting means to an end – and their end will be mean, indeed.

The dynamic at play here is a see-sawing battle between those who would enable and those who would impede. As it goes for power brokers in the board game, so too for the free marketeers of our modern world. Structurally, impediments are raised by demonizing the left as socialists, as soft, as naïve, and as fragilistas, to use Taleb's term. There's truth in this, but only some.

At the track, better horses are weighted in a handicapping exercise, making a fairer race possible. Without these added weights, the same horses would win every time. Nobody would place against them and there would, in the end, be no race. For the game to sustain itself, everyone must have a hope for the win.

As the Bard would say, "ay, there's the rub!". Whilst the sheep and the turkey may have a hope for the win, that hope remains no more than an illusion. To the extent that the farmer can make a compelling case for hope, perception of it will sustain the game. Same for the free marketeers.

Free marketeers are not anti-government, despite what they say. Government plays an important role for them in the game. Government, even if only as an empty shell, legitimizes their game. Legitimacy is central to the illusion.

As Mayer Amschel Rothschild declared 150 years ago, "Give me control of a nation's money supply, and I care not who makes its laws."

Fifty years earlier, Thomas Jefferson warned, "If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their Fathers conquered. I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies."

Give me control of public perception, I say, and I care not… about anything.

"Who is Keyser Soze? He is supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was German. Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. And like that, poof. He's gone."

Perception, as always, is reality... until it's not. Now you see a free market… and like that, poof, it's gone.


I've spoken at conferences a number of times over the past fifteen years. My favourite theme? Engagement is everything. Until people are engaged, nothing good can happen. Key to today's ramble is this matter of engagement. What is the character and quality of this engagement? Does it serve a higher purpose? Does it drag us out of ourselves in consideration of something larger? Does it contribute to "the other"? Are we engaged as net contributors to a community? For children at school, for adults in the workplace, for entire classes of people, the nature of this engagement is critical to an understanding of potential for the whole.

We are, as I say, social creatures. Society is well served by enabling full engagement of every member of the community. Equal engagement? No, that's not realistic. Equal opportunity for engagement? Still a reach, but a good objective just the same. Opportunity for improved engagement? That's one that we should be able to claim for every member of society.

I know lots of people who, right about now, are bristling with my words, seething between their teeth with the pejorative of the word, "entitlements". We take money from the 'job-creators' and give it to people unwilling to work. We destroy initiative and penalize those who make a difference. There's truth in this, but only some.

It's a very gray zone, this notion of entitlement… a continuum, not an on-off switch. I'm not a fan of welfare, much preferring workfare. To the extent possible, everyone in receipt of our support should make a contribution. Engagement is everything. For some, I say, don't give money to feed their children. Instead, feed their children.

I am not a fan of government intervention when it destroys initiative and penalizes those who make an active contribution. At the same time, I define entitlement as reasonable to include universal access to health care and education. Beyond that is up for grabs, but universal health care and education are untouchable in my book. These two are the great enablers.

The sick and the uneducated are prevented structurally from reaching their potential to make meaningful contribution. We penalize ourselves as a collective by impeding participation by all who can otherwise make a contribution. We do not live in a zero sum game. We do not live in a board game. We live in a complex world of interdependent relationships. We have not begun to exploit the potential for synergy in society… available only through full engagement by all.

Disparity in health and education leads naturally and inevitably to disparity in the Gini coefficient. Disparity in the Gini coefficient leads to higher costs in carrying the burden. Consider the lost opportunity for economic productivity resulting from lack of participation – a diminished labour force through lack of skill or sickness. Higher crime rates and associated losses in productivity, and costs of the criminal and penal systems. The cost to society of a whole class of dysfunctional members who, for structural reasons, have not found nor forged a productive place for themselves within the community.

Some of my friends will now argue: This is their own fault; let them choose better. Nice to say. Not so nice to contend with, I'm afraid. No matter who created the problem, it's ours to resolve. I would argue that, even if you hate the notion of giving over your hard-earned money to someone not willing to work, efforts to engage these people will act as an insurance policy of sorts. The more we spend in efforts to keep people out of poverty, the less we have to spend on security, policing, and prisons.

Together, we must help to break the cyclic costs to society (monetary and non-monetary) of generational poverty. Failure to do so will bring the ultimate cost – revolution. History is replete with examples of societal collapse in the face of disparity between the haves and the have-nots. This process continues today around the world, and be assured. It will continue to repeat itself, perhaps closer to home during our own lifetime. Only by promoting full engagement across all classes can our society be sustained.

Government is not the enemy in this dynamic. That's the red herring in a very superficial argument. Government, properly employed, could be one key instrument (if only one of many) in aid of preventing societal collapse. Government is an appropriate conduit for the provision of universal health care and universal education. Government is an appropriate conduit for the provision of regulations that protect us from increasingly concentrated power and wealth.

In the absence of government, who will govern? The teeter-totter tyranny of free marketeers? Go ahead, then. Throw the dice.

Sign me today, if you will, but with all respect,


Henny Penny


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