It turns out, the answer was staring me in the face as I sat down with my 20-something son for a birds-and-bees chat about his financial future. With no assets to speak of, he’s strapped with a student loan that may dog him until he retires. He has years of payments remaining on his car, and if financial institutions keep bombarding him with “free” credit cards at 29 percent annual interest rates — well, you can see where all of this is heading and why a parent might worry.
Yet, when I tallied up all the risks of living on borrowed money, my son didn’t seem bothered. Maybe I didn’t make the consequences clear enough. Maybe the “cliff” needs to be taller, more frightening, more something.
So I tried again, conjuring up former Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill’s warning a decade ago that if the George W. Bush administration stuck to its plan to extend its tax cuts, the nation’s annual deficit would climb to $500 billion ($1 trillion wasn’t on the radar then), and every American would face the equivalent of a 66 percent income tax increase to close the budget gap.
What did O’Neill’s report get him? An invitation from Bush and Vice President Cheney to step down.
I’m a sociobiologist, so whenever I see irrational behavior, I reflexively look to our prehistoric history for an explanation. And when it comes to the fiscal cliff and other cliffs like it, I don’t have to look far.
We are, by virtue of nature’s roll of the dice, an organism at war with itself. The vestiges of ancient genetic imperatives — territoriality, dominance, hoarding, fight and flight — clash with our ability to look ahead and take action to avert calamity. What? You thought our problems were political? Rooted in economics? Caused by inept leadership?
Welcome to the club.
Somewhere along the line, talking heads, politicians and experts decided that every problem we face is caused by politics and economics. So the only solutions we hear about are along these lines. In other words, a kind of narrowing has taken place: We blame our government, we blame the economy, we blame foreign competition, we blame Wall Street and big business.
But consider this: Every country in the world is struggling with a similar list of problems — job creation, wild fluctuations in financial markets, climate change, clean water, terrorism and so on. And yet, they each have their own political and economic systems, as well as vastly different cultures. At some point, a light bulb ought to go off. The reason the cliffs keep looming, one after the other, isn’t just politics or economics. What we have is a species-wide problem.
So, for the sake of science, let’s put what we know on the table.
Long before we developed a frontal cortex — the CEO of our brain, which enables us to generate accurate scenarios, prioritize them in order of likelihood and circumvent dangerous long-term outcomes — we, like other creatures, survived by relying on embedded instincts, such as fight or flight.
As best we can tell, our frontal cortex began expanding 3 to 4 million years ago, around the time we became bipedal. It grew so fast that it now occupies about a third of our gray matter, equipping us with foresight and ingenuity that no other species on Earth comes close to. And it is this remarkable asset — the ability to preempt danger — that has been largely responsible for catapulting humans to the top of the living world.
Yet, time and time again, we surrender to the lowest instruments of our genetic inheritance. Instead of applying rational thinking, which has been millions of years in the making, we surrender to bickering, blaming and boasting as we sail toward the edge of this, or some other, cliff. In the words of famed sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, “We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and God-like technology.” He concluded his 2009 Harvard lecture by remarking: “And it is terrifically dangerous.”
Wilson is right.
Based on this simple biological truth, we can predict with some certainty that our leaders will follow the example of the Mayan, Roman and Khmer civilizations, and more recently, Greece and Spain: They will run the clock out. When the cliff is upon us, and our hearts pound and our bodies fill with ancient chemicals, we will spring into action with the same urgency we have when encountering a snake in our path.
It’s a story as old as humankind itself.
As the nation braces for yet another heroic ninth-inning save, perhaps it’s time to examine our precarious predicament from 30,000 feet. Perhaps if we stopped making heroes out of those who reach out and snatch us from the jaws of disaster, we wouldn’t need quite so many last-minute rescues. Perhaps one day our leaders will set aside their primitive instincts in favor of leveraging our greatest evolutionary advantage. Perhaps they will choose preemption over panic. Perhaps.
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