Dissing Hunter-Gatherers

January 20, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was listening to the podcast “Think Like an Economist” this morning, the episode called “Economic Growth — Improving Our Lives.” About two minutes in, I nearly choked on my coffee when I heard Betsey Stevenson say this.  

For pretty much the last million years, people were hunter-gatherers living a hand-to-mouth existence. The main focus of life was finding enough food to eat.

Now Betsey Stevenson and her partner in podcasting and life Justin Wolfers are widely respected economists. But what they say here about hunter gatherers is flat out wrong.

Of course, we can’t be certain how foragers of 100,000 years ago actually lived. But the accounts that we do have of contemporary foraging societies paint a picture far different from the image of grim hunter gatherers toiling unhappily for long hours to avoid starvation. Foragers spend far less time working than do people in agricultural or industrial societies. In fact, they don’t really have the concept of “work” since they do not separate work and the rest of life. And the basis of that life is involvement with other people, often in a manner we would call playful.

Immediately after the statement about foragers, Stevenson and Wolfers tell us what happened next.

Things got a little better when people started farming about 12,000 years ago. People went from spending most of their time finding food to growing food to stay alive. Unfortunately though, starvation was still common. There were innovations, but they rarely led to sustained economic change because political systems were designed to keep any extras in the hands of an elite few.

No, things didn’t get better, they got worse. Wolfers implies as much in the next sentences. Agricultural wiped out the freedom and equality that foragers take for granted. And yes, it did bring starvation. Even when people in agrarian societies weren’t starving, they had a much poorer diet than that of foragers, who ate a wide variety of plants and animals.

Little wonder then that foragers are also happier than people in more “advanced” societies. They are happy, but, as James Suzman (here) says of the Bushmen, they don’t have a word or concept for “happiness.”

Bushmen have words for their current feelings, like joy or sadness. But not this word for this idea of “being happy” long term, like if I do something, then I'll be “happy” with my life long term.

Perhaps Stevenson and Wolfers have this incorrect picture of life before the agricultural revolution because they are economists, and economics is about scarcity. In fact, one definition of economics is that it is the study of the allocation of scarce resources. But foragers like the Bushmen live in a world of abundance relative to their wants and needs. Scarcity was something imposed by economic growth.

As the title of the podcast episode implies, economists take it for granted that economic growth improves our lives. But does it? I think we need to ask two other questions first: “Compared to what?” And “How do we measure how ‘good’ our lives are?” Economists are not comparing us to the Bushmen, nor is the economists’ idea of a “good” life one that foragers would have. In other words, the economists’ vigorous cheerleading for economic growth requires that we ignore the evidence from most of the history of our species.*

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* Given that for more than 90% of our history on the planet  we humans were hunter gatherers, you’d think that social scientists would not base their ideas about “human nature” on only the most recent sliver of that history. But they do. See these posts from a decade or so ago — one about virginity, the other about private property.

Like a Virgin — Whatever That Was

Sandbox Sociology — Sharing and Human Nature


Grow Up

January 19, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ever since I watched the events at the Capitol on January 6, I have been trying to pin down just why it all seemed so childish. Childish with serious consequences — people were injured and killed — but childish nevertheless. Trump’s childishness is easy to see. His name calling and trash talking; his casting of everything in absolute terms — things are a “disgrace” or a “disaster” if Obama did them, “fantastic,” if he did them; his sense that he is the victim of unfair treatment; his refusal to do anything that might benefit others but not himself; his petulance (his refusal to attend the inauguration being the latest and most obvious example)

His supporters too often seem childish. I’m not talking about those who are motivated by real issues — rich people who want a huge tax cut, businesses that wish to avoid environmental regulation, people who think that abortion is murder. I’m talking about those whose support for Trump less a matter of issues and more a matter of identity. I’m talking about the insurrections at the Capitol. Maybe what seems child-like is their refusal to separate play and “reality.”

They had a specific real-world purpose – “stop the steal.” Maybe they had managed, with Trump’s help, to convince themselves that this was possible. But by breaking into the halls of Congress? Get real.

But the insurrectionists were not about getting real. They were playing — playing at being 1776 patriots, playing at being soldiers and commandos with their camos, their climbing gear, and their zip-tie handcuffs. It was like playing some combination of paintball and capture the flag.  As in play, there was no real external goal. The goal was to capture the Capitol. Once they had succeeded in breaking into the building, they were like the dog that catches the car he’s been chasing.  Videos show them uncertain of what to do, wandering around like tourists, taking selfies, making videos. Sometimes they remember to chant their slogans (“USA,” “America First,” “Trump”), like fans at a football game. A video shows a group in the Senate chamber using their smartphones to photograph documents lying on desks. But it’s clear the men have no idea what they are photographing or why.

Yes there was real violence. But that too seems to have had the same purpose — getting in.  And a small number may have had actual plans to kidnap members of Congress. But I wonder what they would have done if they had managed to find any. As Fabio Rojas tweeted, “A bunch of cosplaying MAGA nerds won't topple the Federal government.”

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“It’s time to grow up, “ said president-elect Biden. His remarks were occasioned by the refusal of Republicans in Congress to wear masks even when they were confined in close quarters during the insurrection, even when a Congresswoman repeatedly offered them masks, and even though a House rule requires them to wear masks.

As I was listening, I thought: what a change this is — to have an actual grown-up in the White House asking that elected officials, and by implication, the nation, act like grown-ups.

Capitol Losses

January 10, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

A friend asked on Facebook, “There is something that is kind of mystifying me. Trump clearly crossed some kind of line with the Capitol riot, but what line was it exactly, and why wasn't it crossed before?”

We don’t really know yet how Trump’s supporters and other Republicans reacted. The surveys currently available give different estimates. Generally, Republicans did not think highly of the rioters. Their views of Trump, however, were more charitable. Most thought he was not at all to blame for what the mob did. Go figure.

In contrast to the street Trumpists, Republican officials — legislators, White House staff — are now criticizing Trump. But why? Why is this outrage different from Charlottesville, the Ukraine shakedown, the pardons to Manafort and Roger Stone, or any of the Trump’s other breaches of norms and laws?

At times like this, I turn to religion — or rather to Durkheim’s ideas about religion. In Durkheim’s view, religion is all about the group. Whatever benefit the individual may draw from it, religion, including American “civil religion,” is of the group, by the group, and for the group. Its symbols— a cross, a flag — are symbols of the group, the entire group. The Stars and Stripes represents the US as a whole, and Americans get very upset by someone setting one of these flags on fire

The Capitol is the same kind of symbol. The word included in so many of the public statements — by  Congress people, in news editorials —  was sacred. “Sacred things,” says Durkheim, “are simply collective ideals that have fixed themselves on material objects.” [emphasis added] So on Wednesday, when Trump’s army was desecrating the Capitol, it was hard for most Americans to see him as a patriot, as someone who loved America and revered its symbols. (It was especially hard for those who were hiding inside, fearful that the mob Trump had sent after them might do them real harm.)  Trump was symbolically attacking our country.

So were his supporters. They called themselves patriots, and they carried American flags. But some of the mob carried the flag of the Confederacy, a country that fought a war against the United States of America. And many of the flags had no America symbolism at all; they were purely Trump banners, suggesting that the mob’s loyalty was not to the country but to a single man.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Durkheim would have a similar take on Trump’s refusal to attend the inauguration. The inauguration is a ritual, and for Durkheim, rituals are the most important element of religion. If sacred symbols embody the group in an object, then rituals embody it in the behavior of the members.

Rituals mark the group’s boundaries. They tell you who is in the group and who is not. By attending, you identify yourself as a member. By not participating, by not joining the group, you define yourself as not a member, as not one of “us.” So the answer to “Why do I have to go to mass?” is not any utilitarian one, but rather one of defining group membership: “Because you’re a Catholic.” When someone says, “Because you're a . . . .” that last word that completes the sentence (a Catholic, an American, a member of this family, etc.) tells you which group the ritual is defining, and it implies a commonality with everyone else who participates in that ritual and is therefore a member of that group.

Ex-presidents come to the inauguration. They are living symbols of the continuous line of American history from 1781 to the present. By absenting himself, Trump is saying that he is not part of this history and not part of the group whose history it is. If Trump goes to Scotland, as is rumored, if he leaves the country, he only adds to this image that he stands outside of American history and outside of America.

The attack on the Capitol too was a ritual — that’s obvious — and like other rituals, it drew a boundary between “us” and “them.” But in this case, the Trumpists — and by implication Trump himself — were drawing a line between themselves and  the nation as a whole.

I expect that Trump base will remain loyal.  Whether he shoots someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue or pushes a mob  to attack the Capitol, he’s got them. But people who do not share that deep and emotional attachment to Trump may move farther away. The line that Trump crossed is the boundary of the nation.  National unity is a myth of course, not part of our everyday reality. It is a “collective ideal” that we bring out for ceremonies of our civil religion. In attacking his enemies, Trump also attacked symbols of the nation as a whole.


Ring in the New — With a Bit of the Old

January 5, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last week, I learned a new word, skeuomorphism — a elements of a new technology that look like those of the old technology, elements that are now unnecessary. Virtual sticky notes for your computer screen or a push-button phone that looks like a rotary phone. The examples I found were all in design. But maybe skeuomorphism can apply to language as well.

Many of the stories about Trump’s recent phone call to Georgia referred to “tape.”

But there was no actual tape.

The call was recorded on some sort of electronic drive.

Radio journalists too use this term. They talk about “getting good tape” — audio quotes that will sound good. A 2019 Columbia Journalism Review article had the title “For the record: 18 journalists on how—or whether—they use tape recorders.” Some of those journalists refer to “recording” on a “device” or iPhone. But some use “tape” to mean 21st-century recording.

Is there a different word for this — using a word from an old technology even though that bit is no longer in use? And are there any other examples? I can think of only one. Musicians still sometimes talk about making “a record.” Not a recording, not an album, but a record.

Does  “cc” qualify? People still say, “I’ll cc you on that memo,” knowing full well that “cc” is an abbreviation for “carbon copy” and that there is no carbon paper involved. But “cc” has become a stand-alone term, now free of its finger-smudging origins. Nobody says, “Send me a carbon copy.”

The YouTube logo is an example of skeuomorphism in both design and language.


The image is shaped like the screen of an old television set, not a modern flat-screen. Those old TVs also used cathode-ray tubes. By the time YouTube came along (2005), nearly all TVs were flat-screens with square corners. And gone were the days when you might hear someone refer to “the tube” (or “the boob tube”)? Yet YouTube chose to retain both the word and the image of the old technology.