June 28, 2007


This is a very bad crowd.

As noted in yesterday's post, crowds have a generally bad reputation--one that is not altogether undeserved. But two fairly recent books talk about the good side of groups.

Let's start with the most recent. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed, recently came out with Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy.

Her main thesis is that for most of human history, until the lamentable rise of the Protestant work ethic (from which El Cabrero is striving manfully to free himself) and the subsequent bureaucratization and commodification of the world, people used to get together and get down in group celebrations that often strike modern observers as "savage."

Relics of this tradition still survive in some sports situations, in carnival (as in Mardi Gras) celebrations, and occasionally in other settings. She argues that "we need much more of this on our crowded planet, to acknowledge the miracle of our simultaneous existence with some sort of celebration."

Our old friend Nietzsche, Goat Rope's mascot of the week, pointed out long ago the two poles of human existence and culture: the Apollonian, based on individuation, reason, and moderation (named for the Greek god of music, prophecy, and measure); and the Dionysian (named for the god of the vine), in which people loose their sense of separateness through group revelry.

(While totally appreciative of the gift of the vine, I lean towards the Apollonian.)

The other book on the good side of group behavior is a little older: James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economics, Societies, and Nations, which came out in 2004.

Surowiecki writes the financial column for the "New Yorker" and this book deserves the same wide circulation as those of his fellow writer Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote Blink and The Tipping Point.

I was shocked by the title, since "wisdom" and "crowd" are two words that I rarely associate. His main thesis is that large groups of people--including people who aren't necessarily the "smartest guys in the room"--often arrive at better decisions than experts:

If you put together a big enough and diverse enough group of people and ask them to "make decisions affecting matters of general interest," that group's decisions will, over time, be "intellectually [superior] to the isolated individual," no matter how smart or well-informed he is.

And again:

The argument of this book is that chasing the expert is a mistake, and a costly one at that. We should stop hunting and ask the crowd (which of course, includes geniuses as well as everyone else)instead. Chances are it knows.

But there's a catch: it doesn't work in herds. It seems to work better if you have a diverse group of people (by almost any measure) who arrive at their decisions independently, with the results compiled and aggregated. I'd say that' s aggregated Apollonianism (with no disrespect for Dionysus). There's lots of interesting data from experiments and experience in the book that make it worth a look.

SUSPICIOUS MIDDLE EASTERN CHARACTERS. I'm talking, of course, about cats. This from the NY Times:

Some 10,000 years ago, somewhere in the Near East, an audacious wildcat crept into one of the crude villages of early human settlers, the first to domesticate wheat and barley. There she felt safe from her many predators in the region, such as hyenas and larger cats.

The rodents that infested the settlers’ homes and granaries were sufficient prey. Seeing that she was earning her keep, the settlers tolerated her, and their children greeted her kittens with delight.

That's just how it starts, however. After a few thousand years, they start horfing up hairballs on your rug and waking you up in the middle of the night. It's a conspiracy....

(If you check the picture of the Middle Eastern cat on the link and check the gratuitous animal picture in yesterday's post, you will notice a strong similarity between that cat and Goat Rope Farm's Seamus McGoogle. I'm gonna call Homeland Security...)

WHY IS IT that I'm writing more about animals than economic justice issues these days? I don't even like them all that much. I'm kind of tired of them--they're a pain in the @$$. Maybe it's because justice is elusive but animals are inescapable...at least around here.

MSHA CITES ITS OWN SHORTCOMINGS. This from Ken Ward at the Charleston Gazette:

Federal inspectors and their supervisors displayed an "unacceptable lack of accountability and oversight" prior to three major coal-mining accidents last year, the nation's top mine safety regulator said Thursday.

Inspectors missed or ignored obvious violations, agency managers failed to ensure inspectors did their jobs, and repeated safety problems were not hit with escalating enforcement actions, according to three lengthy internal reviews issued Thursday by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Richard Stickler, assistant labor secretary for MSHA, said such oversights will "not be tolerated" and announced an improvement plan the agency said "ushers in [a] new era of accountability."

Comment: fair is fair. Lots of people, including myself, criticized Stickler when he was nominated for this post by the Bush administration. I apologize: he seems to take safety very seriously and is a welcome change from the past.

Question: do you believe that things like coal mine safety should be left to the "market" or the whim of corporations? Some people do...



Danny Allbritton said...

You surely don't believe that the inspectors "missed" all those violations. Let me enlighten you. In 2001 the industry gave the mine safety agency a new boss, who was one of their own. The new administration gave the labor department, which owns the mine safety agency, a new boss, who is the wife of a senator from Kentucky. Read: mining. Read: campaign donations. Read: huge war chest. Immediately any and all enforcement and regulation was slowed down to a crawl. The agency crucified the inspectors who wanted to inspect, industrial hygienist who wanted to enforce health laws, and engineers who wanted mine owners to set up and work the mines lawfully. The compassionate conservative storm troopers in the agency head's inner circle made quite a name for themselves. The mining news publications and even some of the mainstream news carried stories about the open access that mine owners and superintendents had to the top agency leadership.

Now they are caught with their pants down (while their senator is up for reelection) and they do the spineless, cowardly thing. They write a phony report full of holes, contradictions, and downright lies, and fire some of the inspectors who questioned the cover-ups.

El Cabrero said...

I completely agree with your points. I'm just saying Stickler is doing a better job that I thought he would (of course, with this administration the bar is VERY low).