Well that was quite the week. Yes, that week of the second Tuesday after the first Monday in November in 2016. I only have so many of these things to compare to in my lifetime, and even fewer that I was legally allowed to participate in, but I have to imagine this was one of the most unique and contentious weeks of the second Tuesday after the first Monday in November that we’ve ever had.
I am not, however, going to provide any opinions about the event of the week. I don’t think I have the headspace – or the heartspace – for that right now, and I sense you may not either. Besides, I’m sure very few people in this world care much at all about my personal views on politics, and I’m quite unqualified to give anything approaching a respectful critique of any of it.
What I wanted to talk about actually starts with an economic theory I remembered from college, one that resurfaced in my consciousness while trying to make sense of it all. It’s a rather pedestrian little theory you can find in any economics textbook. It’s details loom large in my memory, however, given that they were taught to me by such a uniquely passionate and well-respected professor whose brilliance left a magnificent imprint in my mind (and my soul), the remnants of which are still strongly intact to this day. As grandiose as that sounds, you’d understand if you had taken a class with Dr. Stan Ullerich.
The theory is called “deadweight loss.” The idea is that when you interfere with a perfectly competitive market, one where an equilibrium price perfectly satisfies supply and demand, you wind up with a net loss to society as a whole. One party gains at the other’s expense, but they gain less than the other loses. I’ll explain what “interfere” means shortly.
In a perfectly competitive market, consumers get all of a product they want at a fair price, and the suppliers sell all that they want to sell at that price. Consumers are happy, and sellers make just the right amount of money to cover costs and pay a fair wage to employees. In a perfectly competitive market, society as a whole reaches its maximum level of added value.
If we get a market interference, however, perhaps a situation where only one company is able or allowed to produce and sell the product (a monopoly), the total benefit to society is reduced. The monopolist restricts supply and increases price. This allows them to make an economic profit above and beyond what they need to cover costs and fair employee wages, enough to pay shareholder dividends, perhaps even enough for “excessive” CEO bonuses.
The consumers, on the other hand, get hit on both sides. They aren’t able to buy as much as they wanted, and they pay a higher price for it. Clearly the consumer isn’t happy, at least not as happy as they were when they had a perfectly competitive market. Making matters worse is the fact that the monopolist only gained part of what the consumer lost, and society as a whole is worse off than it otherwise would be. Society experiences a “deadweight loss” that is never recovered.
That little triangle on the chart above shows you the deadweight loss, the amount that consumers lose and producers don’t capture, the amount of the overall loss to society. If you aren’t following that or hate charts and graphs, no worries because the concept is more important here than the chart specifics. Also, there’s no test coming.
I think this economics example illustrates something important. Corporations making money isn’t inherently bad or greedy. The system provides jobs to folks who want them and a product to those who wish to buy, and work efforts have to be compensated in some fashion or another. The contention arises, however, when one group gets greedy and takes advantage of the other. The “selfish” interest of the monopoly reduces the overall value to society in order to earn more profit at the expense of the consumer.
Now there are a lot more variables in the real world economy, and true perfect competition may be a bit of a pipe dream. Also, this isn’t a post about economics or Corporate America. It occurred to me, though, that the concept of deadweight loss can also apply to social situations in the context of our most primal emotions, the ones that fuel self-interest over the greater good of society as a whole. Specifically I’m talking about fear and greed and their ability to fuel short-sighted thinking.
Greed and Financial Crisis
If we go back to the mortgage crisis that culminated in 2008, we find one of the most obvious examples of greed motivating short-sighted thinking. Lenders and investors began making extremely risky business decisions in order to pocket as much money as possible in a short timeframe because they either got complacent about the risk, figured they’d “get theirs” for a few years before bailing and leaving others with the mess, or (correctly as we later discovered) assumed that the government would bail them out anyway. Those few who benefited so well from that situation cost the rest of society dearly, a deadweight loss from which we’re still trying to recover.
Fear That Drives Hate
Now our old enemy of fear is front and center again today, fear that is driving us to hate each other as we isolate and protect. After all, if we never feared anyone, would we have any reason to hate? I believe all hate, on some primal level, is driven by an underlying fear, no matter how irrational or subconscious. The target of the hate represents, in a primal sense, a potential threat to our survival. Whether we fear that person will directly and physically harm us, take our food and shelter, or prevent us from doing the things we love doing, the hate is driven from a primal fear of a perceived threat.
Emotions are not always rational, however, thus fears aren’t always rational. We’re biologically programmed for survival, and fear is an instinctive protection mechanism. Sometimes the fear is real; perhaps a thief has a gun to your head demanding your money. Other times, however, we misinterpret a benign input as a threat and wind up with an irrational fear, a fear born of ignorance (despite, perhaps, one’s best intentions).
“The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is fear.” – Gandhi
I believe the hate we see escalating is ultimately driven from fear born of ignorance, a misunderstanding between us as it relates to our beliefs and intentions. Last week’s event was a catalyst that illuminated these fears very clearly. Every person on this earth is a conscious spirit, one with hopes, dreams, and choices to make. Based on our experiences and inputs, we make the best decisions with the information we have, however misguided they seem from the outside perspective. The actions may seem unfathomable to someone who has a key perspective that the other may be lacking.
As an extreme example, consider religious radicals that literally kill other people for the sake of their “god.” Hopefully everyone reading this agrees how terribly wrong that is, but the person who committed the murder did so with complete conviction that it was justified for the cause. They may not have bad intentions – they actually believe they are a vehicle for good in the eyes of their religion – but their perspective is seriously warped from what we would consider morally acceptable. No laws or wars are going to stop such people from doing what they do unless we can tap into their perspective, understand their hopes and fears, and educate them somehow.
We all have an ugly side, a darker potential, because we all have the primal emotion of fear. When that fear is triggered acutely enough, we all act out in ways that detract from the greater good for the sake of defending or bettering ourselves. I’ve done it, and so have you. It’s futile to immediately condemn someone who acted out of fear, for we aren’t above it any more than they are. We simply don’t understand their circumstances or the experiential lens through which they view the perceived threat.
I want to be clear that I certainly don’t think we should condone hateful statements and actions, just that we ought to try to understand and educate rather than retaliate or judge.
Hate feeds upon itself as a vicious cycle. Whether we are the instigator or the retaliator, we both play a role in perpetuating the hate. Each subsequent display of hatefulness continues to subtract from the greater good of society, creating an emotional deadweight loss in our souls in a misguided attempt to improve our own wellbeing at the expense of others (our perceived threats).
There is a reason negative campaign ads are so prevalent, and that’s because they’re downright effective. They play to our fears, sometimes exaggerating them and sometimes creating them out of thin air. Our primal desire to survive prompts us to protect ourselves from fear before we ever consider chasing our hopes and dreams, before we even see that they are possible, in some instances.
It is only when we choose to extricate ourselves from the cycle – and display love, compassion, and understanding – that hate can begin to dissolve and we can reach our fullest potential as a society. But it’s not easy because someone has to go first. Someone has to be brave enough to ignore the fear despite the risk that the others won’t follow suit. Sometimes it’s quite scary to do the right thing.
This is why real community and conversation is so important, especially as technology, for all its promising ability to connect, is currently fostering a phenomenon of ever-increasing pseudo relationships which don’t yet seem to compel us towards the same level of respect and human decency that we were once accustomed to. While technology stretches our relationships horizontally, it seems to reduce them in depth, leaving them standing on shaky foundations that are less likely to hold up under pressure.
It’s so much easier to make a decision that we know might negatively affect someone else when we haven’t physically met and connected with that person. It’s so much easier to flip the bird to someone from the relative safety of our car. And many of us feel completely justified to emotionally disembowel someone over their political views on a Facebook post or in the comment section of a blog or forum.
So much changes, though, when we truly meet and connect. It becomes easier to appreciate and respect each other when we share lunch or our kids go to the same school or we attend a community event together. We start to form deeper relationships, we empathize, we care. Many of us will forgive and defend our friends and family quite readily despite their shortcomings and faults. It’s so much easier to put off a stranger than a friend. We could all do well to turn more strangers into friends.
Feeling the Hurt and Moving Forward
A lot of people are hurting right now, a lot of people experiencing the fear and the hate. We should feel our emotions; I’m feeling them myself right now. But I ask one favor of everyone reading this…once you’ve felt what you feel, once you’ve gone through the processing and made at least some sense of it…try to understand why the other person is holding out hate (or making a choice that you perceive as hateful). Is it because of their own fears? Their own ignorance? Are they missing pieces of the puzzle that are clouding their judgement?
Try to resist the urge to hate back. Be part of those who help break the cycle. If the situation allows for it, try to reach out to that person. Try to understand how they came to their conclusion and then offer to explain yours. We can disagree without hating. We can disagree without being enemies. Be passionate about what you believe, but be courageous enough to do it without hate.
We have a very fluid situation right now, one molten by the heat of extreme, raw emotions. But that fluidity provides opportunity, a mold that has yet to settle. We can choose to shape the mold with compassion and understanding, or we can escalate and legitimize the hate, cementing a more permanent divide between us. The only thing we can control is our own choices. Let’s not allow fear and short-sighted thinking to do it for us. Take the long view. Take the high road.
Some Parting Thoughts
I would normally prefer to write about a topic with a little dash of biting satire, at the very least a modicum of wit. The emotions that I have seen surrounding this past week, however, just won’t allow for it. It’s not something that can be minimized. There are people here feeling tremendous amounts of fear, worry, bitterness, and anger one on side all the way to hope, excitement, and elation on the other. And whether or not you agree with those feelings, or the degree to which they’re felt, they are very real for the people experiencing them.
As we make our way forward from this week, I think we need to dig extra deep into our well of compassion and appreciate what everyone is going through. We all might need a little space here for a while, but we’re going to need to come together and talk through this at some point too. If we let this void remain too long, hate will find a way to fill it in ways we most certainly do not want.
Reach out to each other, whatever party you’re affiliated with (or none), whatever race, whatever gender, whatever beliefs, reach out to your brother. We need each other. Time and time again hate has tried to drive a stake through the core of humanity, and we must consciously seek to remove that stake and put aside differences to forge a better tomorrow.
What if…what if there actually is a positive ending to all this? I’ve been accused of being an eternal optimist, so staying true to myself, here’s that view. Perhaps our president-elect is incredibly humbled by the whole experience, changed by the enormous responsibility of governing a great people. Perhaps he does the job in a way that some disagree with but that we can respect morally. He has a reputation as a cold businessman, and his campaign showed him to be less than respectful, but he’s never been in public office before.
The presidency can change anyone, and he is as human as all of us are. As a betting man, I’ll be honest that I’m not exactly expecting some great shift, but I also didn’t expect him to run for the job, much less win. We can all show the world the good in our people. I think he won in part by playing to our fears, but maybe he governs based on our hopes for a greater good. As a businessman, he thrived on selling what we wanted to buy. He may have as deep a need for approval as anyone else, so let’s demand good and see if he sells it.
We are on the brink of so many promising things as a species, but we also hold freakish amounts of power to tear it all down. This can open the gates to heaven or hell (mostly figuratively speaking). Which gate opens is all up to the collective decisions and actions of us as a people. Please realize we all need one another. Putting others down, despite the attraction of short-term gain, will tear us all down in the end. Building them up will carry us along with them. Thank you for reading.