Eagles Don't Flock, Elephants Don't Dance
At a recent meeting in San Francisco, with a bunch of professional idea peddler types who, like me, often work closely with rich people trying sincerely to do "good" things, the topic of getting them to work together came up. We arrived at the consensus that this is really hard to do, even when it is obvious that there is strong alignment among their efforts and a big upside to pooling resources and influence. A phrase (which I later learned is due to either Ross Perot or Stewart Brand) came up to describe this limit to the power of wealth: eagles don't flock. It is analogous to the phrase used to describe the limit to the power of bureaucratic institutions: elephants don't dance. Let's talk eagles first.
The phrase stuck in my head and reminded me of a fascinating spectacle I'd witnessed a couple of months earlier during a weekend getaway to Cannon Beach in Oregon, famous for Haystack Rock, a tall rock very close to shore that is packed with seabirds. If you visit at the right time, you can see nesting puffins.
The spectacle I witnessed was this. On our second day, a pair of bald eagles arrived (they may not flock, but they do pair-bond). I first noticed them simply perched on Haystack Rock. The other birds didn't seem to be bothered (see my photo collage below). A little later, there was a huge commotion, as hundreds of birds exploded off the rock and into the sky, squawking and screeching loudly, and flying around chaotically. A quick scan revealed the cause: one of the eagles had taken flight.
What does this incident reveal about the challenge of getting the wealthy to work together? (on things that are good for the Rest of Us™ that is; they need no help collaborating on sociopathic exploitation schemes; the rich-to-rich networking protocol works fine for that).
A pair of eagles and a bunch of random seabirds at Haystack Rock
n1/ As pure predators of small critters (including smaller birds), there is not much upside to eagles from flocking. They don't need either the collective security or the collaborative hunting.
2/ Predators that feed on much smaller prey (like dolphins) or much larger (like lions, orcas, or wild dogs), can increase their efficiency through collective action (herding prey into a killbox for example)
3/ But arguably, flocking would make things worse for eagles, by spooking prey populations so much that they disperse entirely.
4/ If, as the Haystack Rock episode shows, an eagle can causes birdquakes simply by taking flight. A flock of eagles might entirely disperse a prey population.
5/ What might happen though, if smaller prey suddenly vanished, and eagles were forced to hunt much larger or much smaller prey? An upside to flocking might emerge.
6/ Rich people, unlike eagles, aren't pure predators. Occasionally, they sincerely attempt to do good. Shockingly, the rich aren't always out to destroy rainforests and appropriate societal wealth.
7/ Why then, when they take on broader societal missions that they have the resources to pursue, do they fail so often, and come off as somewhere between tone-deaf and naively hubristic?
8/ One reason is that the complexity and wealth of post-industrial world makes most worthwhile societal "good things" out of the reach of even the richest individuals to take on individually.
9/ In 1907, when the United States was still an emerging economy, John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan between them saved the economy from a crisis. Two eagles doing good together.
10/ This would be impossible today. The moving-and-shaking abilities of the Koch Brothers, George Soros, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett, pales in comparison to the Robber Barons.
11/ In terms of our eagle metaphor, and substituting "opportunities to do either good or bad" for "prey populations", the opportunities have gotten too big.
13/ I'll go on record right now and tag these well-intentioned efforts as doomed from the start, based purely on the structure and the impedance mismatch between effort and desired impact.
14/ Efforts like these strike me as solitary or pairs of eagles reacting to the vanishing of small prey by trying to take on buffalo-size prey without a change in tactics.
15/ Actually, it's worse. This isn't even solitary or pairs of eagles trying to hunt individual sick or baby buffalos. They are trying to cure entire sick herds of buffalo.
16/ Large acts of predation, such as an oligarch cabal taking over and harvesting a dying industry without regard to the concerns of the Rest of Us,™ are still possible. Destruction scales better than creation.
17/ But reinventing the university system, developing global clean-energy systems, reforming highly distorted markets, corrupt political establishments, or cronyist industries is far harder.
18/ Which means the eagles must learn to flock. This is not just about pooling large amounts of money. It is also about pooling influence, and crafting larger shared narratives rather than individual hero's journeys.
19/ What's more, they must learn to flock in ways that go beyond market-based mechanisms. The libertarian-rich mantra of "let the market do everything" is a cop-out.
20/ Between the non-market nature of the most pressing challenges, and the deep subversion of actual markets being one of the big problems that needs solving, we can't rely on markets to get eagles to flock.
21/ Let's put a pin in that thought and turn to how the wealthy currently operate when trying to do large-scale things. The wealthy class can be understood as a particular kind of problem-solving institution.
22/ The rich-to-rich (R2R) networking protocol is built largely around a single big element: gatekeeping around an aggressively closed social graph maintained through extreme vetting.
23/ A small fraction of the R2R economy is based on rare personal loyalties, such as between Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, historically often cemented by marriage/kinship.
24/ The rest is a based on the fiercely loyal inner circles of individual wealthy people running a marketplace of mutual influence. The "my people will call your people" economy.
25/ This backroom economy -- of fixers, bagmen, handlers, spin doctors, lawyers -- manages the risk associated with high-stakes dealings that visible rich society is too polite to handle openly.
26/ Wealthy society is a fragmented, persistent, polyglot confederacy of individual manorial economies designed to operationalize mutual intra-wealthy suspicions and keep out the unwashed masses.
27/ What can this system, call it R2R 1.0, achieve? It can certainly coordinate to attack large-scale opportunities to profiteer, exploit, and manipulate markets. Progressives get this part right.
28/ R2R 1.0 also effectively run a hedonistic economy of partying, wealth-signaling, celebrity hobnobbing, and exclusive leisure/lifestyles. Buying pleasure for money isn't rocket science.
29/ Whether you ignore, admire, get mad about, envy or pity this frenetic festival of sociopathy and void-fleeing is up to you. The point is, it cannot do much good for the Rest of Us.™
30/ And finally R2R 1.0 can also pretend to run the world (just as conspiracy theorists think it actually does) through high-visibility posturing in the Davos/charity-ball economy.
31/ This last class of economic activity is a sort of cargo-cult of old-school monarchic world-running. The world is too complex to "run" in such a command-and-control way today.
32/ This last activity feeds on ideas. In an article that did the rounds recently, David Sessions argued that the wealthy have created a class of craven intellectuals beholden to them for this purpose.
33/ This class of intellectuals does exist, and does do precisely what you might think: run a cynical "idea" economy delivering what the wealthy we-run-the-world cargo cult wants to hear.
34/ The three R2R economic sectors (personal high-trust dealings, bagman low-trust dealings, and cargo-cult world-running) together constitute what political scientists call a neopatrimonial polity.
35/ What the Sessions critique gets wrong is implying that impersonal public-mission institutions such as universities, a free press, and "non-partisan" government bodies produce "better" intellectual output.
36/ Even if they do in theory, we are very far from theoretically ideal institutional landscapes today. The impersonal public-mission world is as much a we-run-the-world cargo cult as R2R 1.0.
37/ While it gets less attention than wealth inequality, an equally stark feature of the post-industrial world is that public-mission stewardship is monopolized by sclerotic institutions that aren't mission-driven at all.
38/ If the wealthy constitute a neopatrimonial polity that can't undertake big missions, public-mission institutions constitute a bureaucrat polity governed by Pournelle's Law that doesn't want to.
39/ By Pournelle's law, mature bureaucratic organizations operate to perpetuate themselves, not serve any mission. To this end, they create strong ideological boundaries around themselves.
40/ These boundaries are policed by... you guessed it: gatekeeping around an aggressively closed social graph maintained through extreme vetting.
41/ In both cases, the gatekeeping is based on demanding extreme proofs of loyalty. Personal loyalty in the case of R2R 1.0, and ideological loyalty/purity in the case of sclerotic institutions.
42/ If you imagine progressive taxation along with higher funding for public institutions will solve big problems that R2R 1.0 cannot, you will be disappointed. That's just another party line.
43/ Pournelle's Law ensures that trying to get these institutions to solve big problems is like trying to teach elephants to dance (or getting the King's horses to put Humpty-Dumpty together again).
44/ If you've ever seen a performing circus elephant, you'll know that they can kinda sway a little to music (like institutions sway Left/Right in response to political mood swings), but don't waltz.
45/ So what are the Rest of Us™ to do? The eagles can't flock, and the elephants can't dance, and meanwhile, big problems get bigger.
46/ We live in a high-inequality economy where the 1% hold much of the financial leverage, and sclerotic institutions obsessed with self-perpetuation embody much of the power to do anything with it.
47/ Worse, taking on and solving big problems -- what I like to call Great Works in this newsletter -- requires ideas, and ideas themselves are a big problem in their own right.
48/ We are in an age of what Peter Turchin diplomatically calls elite overproduction: roughly, too many over-educated people producing a glut of idea-economy products that require education to produce,
49/ Elite overproduction comprises such things as too many lawsuits, artworks, blog posts, architectural plans for nice buildings, save-the-world manifestos, artisan shops, analyst reports and kickstarters.
50/ Unfortunately for the Rest of Us,™ elite overproduction also includes far too many ideas for Great Works trying to get resources from eagles that won't flock and elephants that can't dance.
51/ At the heart of this is the phenomenon that is shared by both R2R 1.0 wealth-power networks and sclerotic institutions: loyalty-based extreme vetting and gatekeeping.
52/ One of my favorite John Boyd quotes is "If your boss demands loyalty, give him integrity. But if he demands integrity, then give him loyalty." Therein lies the key to flocking eagles and dancing elephants.
53/ Today even in the best case, your "boss" is likely to be either a sclerotic institution trying to preserve itself in the face of severe existential pressures or a rich person taking on too big a challenge with some mix of hubris and naïveté.
53/ Both enjoy a buyer's market when it comes to ideas and other "elite overproduction" products, required to fuel their respective run-the-world cargo cults. Save-the-world plans are cheap if they don't actually have to work.
54/ Both typically tend to demand loyalty rather than integrity, which means they get exactly what they ask for, with truth being the casualty every time.
55/ Those who, when asked for loyalty, offer only integrity, are generally out of luck. As for those who demand integrity first, they are rather thin on the ground.
56/ In an elite overproduction society, there is only a market for loyalty. If you're willing to offer personal loyalty to a wealthy individual, or ideological loyalty to a sclerotic institution, you can stay secure in the creative class.
57/ A sign that you're being asked to demonstrate loyalty is arbitrariness. When you are asked to do seemingly senseless things, and earning trust depends on doing them without question, it's a loyalty economy.
57/ In the case of sclerotic institutions, you need to demonstrate ever-increasing fealty to a rigid and purity-obsessed ideological party lines, often enforced through abuse of language.
58/ An example of sclerotic institutions demanding loyalty is the global authoritarian left, for whom language policing has been turned into a means to control key public institutions.
59/ You demonstrate ideological purity by being willing to talk in pitch-perfect ideologically pure language, even if it is irrationally expensive and counterproductive to do so.
60/ Take the issue du jour, policing language around gender and diversity. The question here isn't causing actual harm or offense, that is just a convenient provocation.
61/ Language naturally evolves to take care of such concerns when genuine. As new political actors get activated, they naturally demand recognition and language evolves to reflect that.
62/ But small, authoritarian groups turning such natural language evolution (around say, correct gender pronoun use) into ideological loyalty tests in battles for control of institutions are a different matter.
63/ The right has its own institutions with ideological boundaries enforced through loyalty tests. Willingness to publicly signal anti-semitic views is a loyalty/purity test imposed by right-wing institutions.
64/ On the eagle side is the trope of wealthy or famous individuals asking members of their personally loyal tribe to do extreme/weird things, like find 100 ostrich eggs in the middle of the night.
65/ In the most famous present case, we have Donald Trump demanding that his loyalists be willing to publicly tell bare-faced lies for him. Your willingness to be publicly complicit in big lies is your visa into Trumpland.
66/ He's not alone in this though. Wealthy individuals are known to make extraordinary demands purely to test loyalty, and willingness to be complicit in inner-circle tribal doings.
67/ Agatha Christie turned this into a trope: clients would routinely ask Hercule Poirot to save somebody accused of murder. He would predictably only commit to discovering the truth.
68/ The key to reversing loyalty trumping truth is to reverse Boyd's aphorism. When institutions and wealthy individuals demand integrity, rather than loyalty, interesting things can happen.
69/ In times of great institutional churn, it takes a long time for sclerotic institutions to shrink and/or die, and a long time for effective new ones to emerge and replace them.
70/ The work of finding new baby elephants, and teaching them to dance while they are young, is a long-term task that will occupy many people for decades. We must turn to eagles in the meantime.
71/ The challenge of interconnecting wealthy people willing to flout the neopatrimonial rules of engagement of R2R 1.0, is perhaps one we can take on now. Some eagles can perhaps learn to flock.
72/ Over the last decade, I have derived perhaps 60% of my income from sclerotic institutions trying to dance, 30% from eagles trying to learn to flock. Neither has been a pretty sight.
73/ I've earned perhaps 10% from the Rest of Us™ economy, through such things as books that earn modest royalties. Unfortunately, this is the income pie chart of the creative class in an elite overproduction world.
74/ Fortunately, much of my work has been funded by institutions and individuals who only demand integrity, rather than loyalty (let alone insane demonstrations thereof).
75/ I count myself lucky in that I have never had to pass an insane loyalty test set by either an institution or an individual. Many of my buddies in the idea-peddler economy haven't been as lucky.
76/ If you're on the Rest of Us™ side of the equation, your problem has a simple answer. Offer only integrity at all times and accept the consequences, good or bad. As Poirot did, offer loyalty only to the truth, whatever that means to you.
77/ In the short term, trafficking in loyalties can be very lucrative. In the long term it is utterly toxic, and the leading cause of burnout among those whose life is built around working with ideas.
78/ The ones with the difficult problem are actually the rich and those with power in institutions. With money and/or power comes the problem of choosing whether to demand loyalty or integrity.
79/ It is easy to demand, and get loyalty. It is easy to make truth the casualty, and pay for what you want to hear, and buy pretty fodder for the specific we-rule-the-world delusion your cargo cult holds dear.
80/ What is hard is demanding integrity. This means asking questions whose answers you might not like to hear, and opinions on grand plans (a la Ozymandias) from people disinclined to flatter you.
81/ There is an upside though. When the rich and powerful ask for integrity, they open up the possibility of eagles flocking. This means bigger things become possible.
82/ Unlike the closed, suspicion-driven economy of bagmen, fixers, and spin artists, an idea economy asking high-integrity questions, which might discover uncomfortable answers, can scale.
83/ The greatest thing money can buy you is a story in which you are the hero, one that opens, "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
84/ Which means, ironically, the way to script the greatest stories might be to give up the idea of being Ozymandias. The greatest dents in the universe might be authored by those least interested in seeing their names attached to them.
85/ This answer "not very much" to the question, "how much do I matter?" might be hard for the rich and powerful to hear, but is ironically the one that enables them to matter a lot.
86/ As Truman famously said, "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit." That sentiment is what allows eagles to flock and do bigger things.
87/ Because whether we're talking eagles or pigeons, the one thing about flocking is this: it's not about any one individual. And you can always find ways to spend billions to avoid figuring that out.
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