At the heart of modern political, economic and social thinking there is a belief in the purity of numbers. This notion has, in times of economic stability, been presented as an example of the triumph of rational thought over the chaos bubbling beneath the surface of our society. However, this presumption has been the driving force behind some of the worst decisions made since the end of the 1970s, and has provided justification for a selfish, dispassionate attitude which has eroded the moral heart of government, business and society.
The popularity of this ideology has its origins in the Cold War. John Williams, founder of the RAND Corporation, began using game theory in order to predict what the Russians would do during a nuclear conflict. It wasn’t long, though, before they began applying game theory to every facet of society. Soon, the RAND Corporation began to hire mathematicians and game theorists such as John von Neumann and John Nash to work for their policy think tank.
Our approach to think tanks is especially important to understanding how this ideology became popular. Generally speaking, it is assumed that think tanks are bodies created to perform research that will inform policy decisions. Although this may be the case in some instances, a typical think tank will often be a lobbying group set up to promote special interests. They start with an answer, and then find people to tell them that answer, thus lending it greater validity.
The RAND Corporation had a serious problem. They were using game theory to reduce individuals to a numerical value. People were expected to behave in a dispassionate, rational way because the numbers said that it was the only logical way to reach a beneficial outcome. In reality, people did not behave the way that the numbers dictated.
For example, in one of Nash’s experiments, “So Long Sucker” (also known as, “Fuck You, Buddy”), the only way to win is to betray your partner. In another, two criminals are being interviewed by the police about where they stashed their loot. If they confess, they will get a reduced sentence. However, if they don’t confess, there isn’t enough evidence to convict them. The only way to win is for neither to confess.
The mindset that these experiments promote has more in common with Factor 1 of Hare’s psychopath checklist than with the way that most people behave. This includes, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning or manipulative behaviour, lack of remorse or guilt, lack of empathy, and a failure to accept responsibility for your own actions.
In fact, when Nash ran his experiment, they found that people did not behave in the way that the numbers said that they would. This should be a relief as it suggests that most people are not psychopaths. Yet, what was cause for celebration then, may now be cause for concern.
As mentioned earlier, think tanks tend to promote their ideas, rather than researching a concept and then publishing the findings. This meant that those who bought into the RAND Corporation’s intoxicating beliefs saw flaws not in the pure mathematics or game theory, but in the imperfect world around them, and sought to change it.
It is no coincidence that most people refer to the decade that followed as the era of “greed is good.” Like the theoretical people in the games mentioned above, normal people were led to believe that the social conscience of post-war Britain should be relegated to the past in favour of rampant, grab-what-you-can individualism.
The media popularised these attitudes through television shows like ‘Dallas’, and catchphrases like, “This time next year, we’ll be millionaires.” The obsession with numbers and being the alpha male of the pack had found its natural play-mate at this point in the world of finance. After all, if you become obsessed with numbers, the numbers most people deal with every day are the numbers on coins and paper-money. It wasn’t much of an extension for game theory to find its way into the world of business.
We’ll jump ahead, now, to recent history, and the story of David Li. David Li was a mathematician hired to come up with an equation that would reduce the risk for investment bankers. The formula he came up with, the Gaussian copula function, essentially allowed you to make a profit on every investment. As a result, everyone started using it.
As anyone with a bit of sense would be able to tell you, you cannot have everyone profiting every time. Eventually, someone is going to realise that there is a finite amount of wealth in the world, and it is going to be revealed that the equation doesn’t work.
Which is what happened when they put their money into the American housing market, and then they found out that people couldn’t afford to pay back the loans which would have guaranteed them massive profits.
However, so limiting is the ideological belief in the purity of numbers that those in power, seduced to this way of thinking, have next to no idea how to rectify the situation aside from doing the exact same thing all over again.
The best way in which this can be highlighted is by the term, “jobless recovery.” In terms of the ideology we are looking at here, a recovery is when the numbers are balanced. The numbers being balanced does not mean that anyone will have a job, just that the numbers say what they need to say. In the real world, however, a jobless recovery would be devastating because it wouldn’t solve any of the multitude of social problems that have been caused by the recession.
The most worrying trend, though, lies with the effect that this ideology has had on society. The recent riots caused by the shooting of an unarmed man have been written off as the opportunistic looting by a criminal underclass in a staggering example of connective bias carried out by a government that coined the term, “broken Britain.”
Indeed, this political narrative makes sense when you consider that politicians have reduced the rioters to crude numbers of youths behaving in much the way that the RAND Corporation claimed that rational people should behave if given the opportunity.
There were two other worrying trends at work during the riots which really show the problems with this dominant ideology. Firstly, the coverage was quick to acquiesce to the official political line that this was an inevitable bubbling over of the darker forces of our nature, given expression by those in our society who cannot control themselves because they lack a proper upbringing. Meanwhile, in order to put this across, those people rioting and looting were reduced to a “number of masked youths”, and given no real voice to actually explain the reason for what they were doing. There was, of course, no need for an explanation. The ideology explained it for us: people should be expected to behave in this way.
Secondly, amongst this dehumanised number of youths there was enough behaviour to justify reporting the story in this way. But what is most interesting is not that they were stealing, but that the same ideology that damned them is also what seems to have motivated them. After all, what was this but rampant, grab-what-you-can individualism?
When we reduce people, groups or institutions to numbers we do so by removing everything that makes them who they are and turning them into a parody of themselves. The only thing worse than this is when we reduce them to numbers so often they begin to think of themselves as being nothing more than a parody of the person they are. In dealing with this ideology, we need to learn to treat it with the contempt it deserves. We should not look to the politicians and businessmen for an answer, but instead we should start with Patrick McGoohan: “I am not a number! I am a free man!”