Saturday, March 17, 2007

How the world works

Philosophies of Traffic and World Politics

The other day as I sat in traffic I Figured Out How the World Works.
It came to me as I lingered in another pocket of classic Silicon Valley congestion. I realized that I knew a better way. Pulling to the right, I rode an almost empty lane to next off-ramp and proceeded along various side streets until I had passed the majority of the slowdown. I came out with an extra ten minutes and an inflated sense of self-esteem.
However, the important thing is that I had become a long-term actor. By this I mean a few things:
  • I knew where to get current information and how long it would stay relevant. Before leaving work I had checked a traffic site, I knew where the slowdowns had been half an hour ago and could approximate from experience where they might be now. Also I had another backup source of information, a rival site
  • I knew what the options were. Having been traveling to the same location everyday for months now, I had investigated side streets around places where traffic backed up, using both maps and trial and error.
  • I had detailed knowledge of my options such as their risks, rewards and chances of success. I knew where the lanes often slowed down, which lights were long and what time the traffic got heavy.
  • I was able to synthesize the information rapidly by recognizing patterns I had observed before and remembering successful or failed responses. Taking into account the newest information, this allowed me to take an informed risk and change course.
Why does all this matter? Because people by nature are long-term actors.
This may seem obvious to those of you who are already long-term actors yourselves, but I think many young people do not yet understand it. Yet it is critically important because it determines how the majority of the decisions in the world are made.

The characteristics of long-term actors show up perhaps the most in the realm of politics. This makes sense because politics is, at its essence, the process of allocating resources.
Any organization, be it a nation, state or even a local club has a certain amount of resources at its disposal. (Time and money are the primary ones. We can ignore knowledge because we assume that long-term actors have it.) Furthermore, the larger an organization is, the more slowly its set of resources will change. A club might double in size overnight, but the same magnitude of change in an entire nation takes decades. Therefore politics has inherent potential for conflict because today's resources are finite and their uses are not.

The goal in politics, business and most other facets in life is generally to do a little better today than you did yesterday. More importantly, you want to be doing as well (or better) next week as you were today. Leaving aside discussion on whether or not this is a good goal, it is indeed how most people operate.

Coming back around, a fresh-faced youngster will not immediately understand the current state of things, i.e. how the world works today because they do not have knowledge of how things
used to be. All the people making decisions today view their choices through the lens of their own unique past. Experience forms opinion and opinion forms action. People seek to protect what they have. The only real incentive to change falls on those who have nothing and those who are losing what they do have. More than anything, this explains why young people are known for idealism and old people are known for conservatism.

So, next time you are baffled by how the world works just remember that everyone else has already done this before. Your job is to learn the rules of the game. Do that first, and then we can talk about how to change them.