Saturday, January 12, 2013

How Not to be an Alpha Male (or Female)

As several recent books have shown, humans have behavior patterns similar to those of other apes, although we dress it up and use the power and complexity of language to perpetuate them. These patterns can be good (as described in de Waal’s Age of Empathy) or bad (see parts of Conniff’s Ape in the Corner Office). There are two ways in which alpha males get to the top of their societies, and in nearly all cases the alpha males use a combination of the two. The first is sheer bluster and violence. The second is altruism (in this case, acquiring the friendship of supporters). Gorillas use more of the former, chimps more of the latter. Different human societies throughout history have used more of one or more of the other. The spread of freedom and democracy supposedly entails the growth of the latter and diminishment of the former.

Democracy is the formalized requirement that leaders attain power by the consent of the governed. This would make it appear that our leaders would want to do things that would make us support, or at least approve of, them. Why is it, then, that our leaders do things that make themselves objects of ridicule? In sociobiological terms, the behavior of America’s leaders is dysfunctional.

So it is not surprising that Congress has, as of this past week, an approval rating of 9 percent. This is the first time that Congress has had a single-digit rating since approval ratings began to be monitored decades ago. UPI listed ten things that have been more popular than Congress now is:

• President Obama has a 46% approval rating.
• The Internal Revenue Service has a 40% approval rating.
• Lawyers have a 29% approval rating.
• The airline industry has a 29% approval rating.
• At the nadir of his scandals, Richard Nixon still had a 24% approval rating.
• Banks, even at the worst of the financial scandals, had a 23% approval rating.
• The oil and gas industry has a 20% approval rating.
• Even during the Deepwater Horizon blowout, BP had a 16% approval rating.
• Paris Hilton has a 15% approval rating.
• Even the idea that America should become a communist nation has an 11% approval rating.

Other sources report that colonoscopies have a higher approval rating than Congress, although gonorrhea is still less popular. That is, the antics of Congress (which columnist Jack Anderson used to call the Washington Merry-Go-Round) are obliterating the one and only thing from which they can obtain their social power: the goodwill of the citizens.

As a progressive, I attribute most of this to the Repuglicans. They could defend a truly conservative viewpoint, but instead they are just the Party of No. They will oppose anything Democrats want. The worst example of this was when Senator McConnell filibustered his own bill. It was the Repuglicans who took us not just up to but over the fiscal cliff. And now they promise to do so again, with the debt ceiling argument scheduled for a few weeks hence. They took the federal government to the brink of default before, in the summer of 2011, by refusing to allow payment for projects they had already approved. This is the exact equivalent of refusing to pay bills for items you have already purchased and used. To do this would cause the credit rating of the federal government to decline, perhaps causing the government to have to pay millions of dollars more on debt interest. It is principally because of the Repuglicans that America sneers its own Congress.

But the solution is not to give our allegiance to the Dismal-crats. For it is from their Treasury Department that a breathtakingly stupid idea has come. Or, it would be stupid if they actually intended to do it. But if they think it is a funny joke, they might want to reconsider. I refer to the idea of the trillion-dollar platinum coin. Apparently it is entirely legal for the Treasury Department to mint a commemorative coin of whatever denomination they choose. They would then deposit such a coin (or two of them) and use that “money” to pay bills, even if Congress votes to authorize no payment on programs they have already approved.

Inside the Beltway is a world that is total fantasy, as far as most Americans are concerned. Washington does not have the power to force us to be their friends, as an alpha male gorilla might, nor have they any inclination to earn our approval, as an alpha chimp might. Even Genghis Khan tried to gain some measure of approval among his victims. He allowed a measure of autonomous rule and religious and cultural freedom to conquered territories, so long as they paid their ransom. If our romper-room Congrass (oops) is the flower of democracy, then what faith can we have in the future? There is no species of animal that has this dysfunctional kind of social leadership. And if there ever was such a species, it is now extinct.

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