Capitalism and Social Metrics:
On a recent paragliding trip to Mexico, I watched the social interactions of boys who follow pilots to help carry and pack-up equipment. In terms of an after school job, they have it better than I ever did: The pilots land in their back yard, and pay them between $1.50 and $3 for about 10 minutes of easy work. They don’t have to keep, maintain, or clean anything, and the money literally drops-in from the sky. Beats the hell out of mowing yards, I tell you…
On a long glide, I landed in an out-of-the-way place, in a weedy, muddy area. And, before I could gather my gear, four boys appeared to help. I’ll guess the oldest at 12 and youngest at maybe 8.
The obvious leader gestured to himself and proudly said “professional” (one of his few English words). He then demonstrated a professional level of skill at folding a paraglider.
He had one main helper, but three others were also very helpful, including one who mopped some mud from my wing using the bandana I loaned him.
I handed out some candy to the group, and then asked the leader “qantas?” – (one of my few Spanish words) – how much he’d like to be paid. He confidently said “viente!” – or 20 Pesos. Although more than the going rate of 15, it was fair considering the 150 yards of head-high (to me) weeds he’d helped carry my gear through. I paid he and his main helper 20 pesos each.
So far, a fun but unremarkable story…
Here’s where it gets interesting:
I looked around at the other three, younger kids who had worked very hard trying to help and who were now looking at me expectantly for something more than a hard candy.
Respecting the leader’s authority, I looked at him and asked “how about them?”
Confidently, without hesitation, and in all seriousness, he answered “nothing”.
Let that sink in…
He’s the 12-year-old “professional”, and doesn’t want the lower-skilled youngsters getting *anything* for having done their best to help – and learn.
They were obviously disappointed. So, I negotiated on their behalf – downward from 10 pesos. Even half-scale it seemed wouldn’t fully acknowledge the superior status of the leader. However, 5 pesos was OK. He felt that sufficient difference to keep the social order clear. I paid the youngsters 5 pesos each.
There are three points, here:
- Social status is something we understand intuitively.
- Status is perceived RELATIVE to others.
- Social status is more easily maintained through subtraction than through addition.
If you want to see this principle in action on larger scales, and in “adults”, log on to your favorite social media. You’ll easily find memes and comments comparing the freedoms or perks of one group to another:
“I had to take a drug test for my job, so welfare recipients should have to take one.”
Someone feels this is “unfair” (doesn’t acknowledge their status). They’re asking for an adjustment to achieve balance the situation – and in the relevant commodity of AUTONOMY.
In the comments following “drug test for welfare” memes, you’ll always find something like this:
“They can sit around and watch television all day while I’m working”.
That’s a very specific reference to “unfairness” in autonomy.
And, here’s where THAT gets interesting:
Like the children in Mexico, these people aren’t managing status by asking more for themselves, but by demanding less for others.
Those insecure of their status seldom ask their social/economic superiors for more. Instead, they demand the scales be balanced by taking freedoms from others.
In the “drug testing for welfare” example, blue collar workers won’t try to escape the yoke of sexually degrading humiliation by their superiors. Instead, they seek “fairness” through the forced degradation of others.
Those “others” are consistently selected from the social/economic subordinates of the people whose status is insecure.
This is just competition over a social commodity – in the most efficient way possible.
Just like the children in Mexico, the easy path is asking a more powerful authority to enforce the relative status. The leap from Mexican children demanding lower pay for their subordinates – to American blue-collar workers demanding “equality through degradation” of welfare recipients is only in scale.
The structure is identical. And, as far as I can tell, it is evolutionary, running across time, culture, and even species.
From these studies and observations, we get two terms in Motivational Literacy™:
- Subtractive Strategy: trying to balance a perceived social inequality by asking authority to take from them.
- Additive Strategy: trying to improve social strategy by increasing contribution or appealing to authority for a promotion.
The less secure a person is in their position or relationship, the more likely they are to use or depend on subtractive strategy. This is an intuitive response to the fact that additive strategies take more time and more resources, while subtractive ones are relatively quick, and don’t require anything but stirring-up some prejudice.
And, that’s a problem because it creates a feed-forward loop – with each class continually accepting the step down so long as they can push on someone beneath them to maintain their relative position. Competition to stay out of last place becomes ever more urgent – and brutal. And, at some point, the natural (biology-based) response to pressure from above will navigate to either surrender or anger – resulting in exactly what we’re seeing in American society right now – depression and suicide – as well as acting-out and violence.
What’s this got to do with teenagers at the mall?
The title of this post refers to this article about corporations continuing to model – and propagate – social despotism in America. And, how that’s bad for our “culture of bullying”.
Conditions that make any commodity more scarce will create more competition for that commodity.
Autonomy is a social commodity: We perceive people with more freedom of choice to be more fortunate, and we pursue and protect our own freedoms of choice and personal agency with fervor. Freedom is a cornerstone of the philosophy in the founding of our Republic.
Like any other commodity, people perceive autonomy in relative terms – who has more, or how much someone has relative to ourselves.
Autonomy is a social commodity that CAN NOT be removed from our psyche.
Reductions in supply of a commodity will manufacture greater competition for it.
That means an increase in the need to demonstrate who has more – and the intensity of that need will be reflected in the means used to do that.
Give them less freedom – and force them into venues away from lights, cameras, adults, and … help.
This is the opposite of what our society should be doing.
WHAT YOU CAN AND SHOULD DO:
Get the principles from the above, and be on the lookout for how they’re playing – from social media to your own backyard.
Realize that “good” pro-social behavior does not develop from despotic examples and stifling of social commodities.
To get “good” pro-social behavior from young people, we must model security in our own social status – and refrain from “balancing the social books” through subtraction. Instead, we must demonstrate any balancing we feel necessary through addition – negotiation for our own elevation. Sure, it’s more work, but aren’t “work ethic” and “self-improvement” part of the ideals we identify as “good”?
Provide MORE pathways and opportunities for achievement and self-expression. Take notice when these things are being stifled at any level, from public schools’ removal of elective courses to the closing of otherwise-public venues to people on the basis of ageism.
Model MORE and unique pathways to achievement and expression. Demonstrate creative pathways to help young people escape the cattle-chutes of industrialized and fearful society. Demonstrate that a person may experience autonomy and expression on other ways and other venues so they may follow that example.
Know that without opportunities and models for autonomy and express, many youth will sink into the depression of learned helplessness. I think suicide statistics reflect this. Know that many may turn to substance-based escapism. And, others may use aggression and violence in a desperate attempt to “balance” their place in the world. When we see those things happen, you will not be among those surprised and puzzled. And, you will be taking useful action to improve the situation.