Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Ability to Plan Ahead

The ability to plan ahead has always been an immense benefit to our species. Our mental capacity allows us to decide where to go, and to prepare for seasonal changes, even to prepare for disasters which, while individually unpredictable, are nearly certain to occur at some time. Other species, with less mental capacity, have other ways of preparing for the future. Trees lose their leaves in the autumn because phytochrome in the leaves measures the length of the night, and long nights triggers the onset of leaf senescence. But for humans, individual and collective intelligence allows detailed and flexible advance planning.

In most cases, the people who are best at planning ahead were also those who rose within the ranks of society. Their plans allowed their villages, and later their nations, to be successful, and they were rewarded by having positions of leadership. This is individual, not group, selection. Individual selection has also rewarded leaders who have been disastrously deluded about the future, but only temporarily. For example, Napoleon had stunning individual successes (and a little bit of fitness, mostly through illegitimate children) but his ill-planned invasion of Russia was not one of them.

Everyone knows that, except for rich brats, the most successful people are those who manage their financial affairs most carefully. One of the greatest tragedies of the 2008 recession (which is supposedly officially over; have you noticed?) is that it consumed the wealth even of people who did plan ahead. Many homebuyers thought they were being responsible when their agents told them that the house was affordable and the banks offered them enticing loans. One could say that the homebuyers should have been suspicious of a loan with payments in excess of their income, but the experts (the agents and the bankers) told them it was OK. And even as corporations collapsed, the CEOs made off like bandits, at the expense of hard-working and carefully-planning employees. Under such circumstances, planning ahead seems like an almost useless thing to do.

And as of this year, there is another reason why planning ahead might be almost useless. The House of Representatives sent our nation over the “fiscal cliff.” This “cliff” was not averted at the last minute; it was averted after the last minute. Congressmen, especially right-wing Republicans, were willing to allow possible financial collapse of the nation in order to enlarge their own power within the artificial world inside the Beltway. Their individual fitness may have been enhanced by their power struggles; and if they own stock in the banks that might have charged the federal government a higher interest rate on loans, these Congressmen might have even made a profit from the country going over the cliff. We will never know. And they threaten to send the federal government into default if they do not get their way.

But what the fiscal cliff meant for Americans was that we cannot plan ahead. People planned their 2012 budget on the assumption that their mortgage interest was deductible. Then the fiscal cliff would have eliminated this deduction for their 2012 taxes. Had this deduction been eliminated for 2013 taxes, we may not have liked it but we could have planned ahead. But Congress is so chaotic that we can never know if their decisions can retroactively make our previous year’s plans to have been worthless. Our dysfunctional government has created a situation in which individual responsibility no longer carries the benefits that it once did.

We need leaders who can plan ahead. At least in Congress, we do not have them. They may be enhancing their fitness by carving out their own political empires, but they are plundering our individual fitness. At the moment at least, we have the ability to send them packing, though not until 2014. Meanwhile, as even the new 113th Congress is likely to be dysfunctional, what can we do?

I will continue to plan my finances. Debt reduction is always a good thing, because it liberates me from the power of the banks. But I absolutely will not count on Social Security or even my own savings for my future. My wife and I chuckle at the little Social Security mailouts that tell us how much money we will get when we retire. The principal component of my financial plan is to spend as little as possible and save a little. Investments? To trust investments is like trusting group selection. You are trusting that the powerful corporations will relinquish their individual plunder and, instead, keep their word to you for the good of society.

So what can we trust? Nothing deserves absolute trust. But there is an investment that has proven successful for a hundred thousand years, and that is the investment in altruism. When bad luck is forced upon you by incompetent leaders or greedy corporations, what do you do? You just might know someone who has somehow temporarily escaped bad luck, and they might help you out. But they will not do so if you have ill-treated them in the past (thus messing up your direct reciprocity with them) or if you have a bad reputation (thus messing up your indirect reciprocity with them). And since you never know who might help you, you need to live a life in which you are altruistic toward everyone around you—not so much financially (although that is a part of it) as just in the way you act. You should spend your life sowing the seeds of goodwill around you. This is the way I try to live, and I succeed more often than not. It is the right way to live. And it just might save me if governments and corporations make my careful planning useless. Of course, I might have to help to save other people, for altruism is a two-way street. We cannot trust governments or corporations; we middle-class people have to create our own network of altruism. We already know that, even under the best of circumstances, a good reputation is worth more than money in the bank. In our upcoming chaotic future, the value of a good reputation can only increase.

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