Transcript of Currents 003: Joe Norman on Localism & Scales of Cooperation

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Joe Norman. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Today’s guest on this Currents episode is Joe Norman. Joe is a complexity science researcher, a data scientist, and a homesteader in Western Massachusetts. Is that right? Or is it New Hampshire?

Joe: I’m in Southwestern New Hampshire, very close to Western Mass.

Jim: Okay, at southwestern New Hampshire. I’ve been there probably… Is it near Mount Monadnock by any chance?

Joe: We’re in the Monadnock region. That’s exactly right.

Jim: When I was in college and then we lived in Massachusetts, again in the ’80s, we used to go out there. Beautiful area, I can tell you.

Joe: Absolutely.

Jim: Anyway, as we usually do on these Currents episodes, we’re going to start with a single bit, in this case, a tweet by Joe, which caught my eye, and you can probably imagine why, my people who listen to the show regularly. This is what Joe had to say. “With no community, we lack both a unit to sacrifice for and a unit to keep assholes in check.” What did you mean by that, Joe?

Joe: What did I mean by that? Well, let’s see. First, I’ll say that I don’t vet my own tweets very strongly. I’m kind of a off-the-cuff tweeter. I like to just get my thoughts out there. They’re not meant to be refined, but I agree, in this case, that was, in my opinion, a good tweet. And so what did I mean by that? So, so much of the reflections and thinking and doing that I’ve been involved in in the past few years has revolved around this idea of localism. And we can go into what do I mean by that, what others mean by that? But the essential idea of the tweet is that biological systems are naturally structured into units at multiple levels, right? Like, so we have multicellular organisms that are composed of cells. So cells are in some sense, their own [inaudible 00:02:25]. They’re bounded, they interact with the cells around them, but there’s clearly another unit of organization overlaying the cells that is the organism that the cells compose.

Joe: Similarly, when you let humans do their natural thing, we compose into multiple layers of units. A person can be like a cell in an organism. I say “can be” because it’s not necessarily the case. When we look at what’s happened over the last, where to demarcate? I don’t know. Let’s just say last 70 years. What’s happened specifically in the U.S., but I think globally, but I can speak more directly to the U.S. We’ve had this kind of disappearance of what I’m referring to as community in that tweet, which is, would I take the sort of next layer on top of maybe not individuals, maybe families too, to be? So there’s sort of individuals, there’s families, and then there’s a community that’s composed of families.

Joe: I believe that we are in a widespread way, not universally, some people still have it, we have the Amish and whatnot, but in general, we are lacking that community layer of organization of humans. And some of the consequences of that are that when it comes time to make tough decisions, for instance sacrifices that an individual might make, we’re lacking actually a certain, not abstract, but concrete unit where we might make some sacrifices on the individual or even family level in the interest of that larger unit. And when I say larger, I’m really thinking of something not much bigger than maybe a couple thousand people. Maybe it’s even smaller. Maybe it’s more of a Dunbar’s number or something like that, 150, I don’t know and I don’t claim to know. But I do know that in the world we exist in right now, the sort of next level up from family to the extent that we have family as a unit is the abstract state, often even conceived of as the national government or maybe even the global state systems.

Joe: So we have this huge gap between very small scale local structures involving individuals and groups of individuals and very large scale abstract bureaucratic systems that there’s no in between. And then the assholes in check part, keeping assholes in check, because those other organizational units are so far above in scale of the local group, when an asshole knows how to game those bureaucracies say, navigate them in a savvy way that might not be ethical but jives with the rules of the system as they stand, there’s no function, there’s no mechanism that can spot that and root it out or damping it. That’s other than the bureaucracy itself, which is simply not close enough, not personal enough, not sensitive enough, et cetera, to actually put individual bad action into place.

Jim: Very good. I like that a lot, actually. It ties into some things I’ve written, an essay I wrote on Medium called A Journey To GameB. I laid out the thesis that one of the chronic problems of our time is that what used to be handled in extended families… And that’s interesting. I have about 65 first cousins, and so if you throw in spouses and a few kids, you’re around Dunbar’s number, right?

Joe: Yeah, seriously

Jim: And so an extended family used to take care of business. Somebody went nuts, became a dipsomaniac, a good old fashion name for drunk, the extended family took care of them. One of my uncles had a problem with the bottle and he lived in my grandmother’s attic for many years. And he wasn’t on the street and he wasn’t a nuisance, and he was good old uncle Paul. And then the other one was the extended face-to-face community. And I think you’re about right, at couple of thousand, two or 3,000. It’s interesting, the county I live in, Highland County, Virginia is reputed to be the lowest population density east of the Mississippi River.

Jim: We have about, as a County, about 450 square miles, pretty good sized county, 2,200 people.

Joe: Yep, yep. There’s a thousand people in my town so I also know how that feels. Yeah, sure.

Jim: And I don’t know everybody of the 2,200, but I know people that know everybody, so at nodal distance too, I’m connected to everybody in the county, essentially, and pulled out the face-to-face county, a community. So that used to be what took care of us, our extended family around the Dunbar number plus or minus, and then our face-to-face community of a thousand to 5,000 probably. But over time, the extended communities have dissipated. My brothers live various places, my cousins are here, they’re in Yon, right? One lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, another one lives in Utah. Some of them, I have no idea where they live. And the face-to-face community has, as you pointed out, has seeded more and more of its responsibility to other domains.

Jim: And the two domains strike me as having fill that gap is first, the government. And as you say, some people just think of the federal government, but even if it’s not the federal government, it’s the county government or the state government who are by design as value free as we can make them in many ways. At least in the United States and in the enlightenment model, they should not try to put strong points of view on things, and their definitions of assholeishness have to be essentially operational and formal as opposed to the local extended family and the face-to-face community. It’s like good old Potter Stewart’s definition of a pornography, “I know it when I see it.” Right?

Joe: Exactly right.

Jim: And so we have government, very formal, and that we have the market, which is much more flexible and accommodating to human nature. But on the other hand, it’s by definition anonymous and transactional. Nobody cares about your reputation when you go in to buy a loaf of bread when it’s money for the dollar. And so the things that used to be handled closer at hand are almost all now handled either by the government or the market. I’ve had my choice between the two. I choose the market more often than not, but there are some social things that need to be done, which are just not being done, and I think you hit on two of them. One is sacrifice. How many of us are prepared to sacrifice for the federal government? Not too many people. State of Virginia, maybe a little better. Highland County, for the people of Highland County, yes, by face-to-face community, but for the three members of the board of supervisors, not really.

Jim: And how many of us are prepared to sacrifice for the market? Not at all. In fact, that’s not what markets are for. Markets are not for sacrifice, therefore, anonymous transactions that are mutually beneficial. And that’s good. That’s very important, but it doesn’t serve either of your two things. The other one that I thought was interesting that you hit on, but I’m going to expand and move it on a little bit, are assholes. And then the premium grade assholes, which are sociopaths, right? When you have anonymous situations like markets and when you have formal systems of levers of power like government, guess who flies to both of those, like flies to shit? Sociopaths, right.

Joe: Of course.

Jim: And to my mind, one of the biggest problems of our society and something that we don’t fix is literally going to kill us is the very high overrepresentation of sociopaths in systems of power. I have much more experience on the business side than I do on the governance side, but I say that at the C level of real companies, probably 10% of the C level executives are sociopaths, up from about 1% in the general population. And if you go into finance, it’s probably 30%, which is a crazy and scary thought. And that comes from, frankly, the transactional nature of markets. Shareholders say, “Hey, get the stock price up. I don’t care if you rape and pillage them, fucking sociopath,” right? At least since 1975. Prior to that, business actually had included some community of ethics. But I would say, increasingly since 1975, and particularly for publicly traded companies, but also for larger public companies, strictly those caught in the vortex of venture capital, sociopathy actually works. What the fuck? Right? And there’s something wrong with that.

Jim: And so moving more of our life back to scales where we actually are prepared to sacrifice and where there is some mechanism for keeping assholes in check, strikes me is damn close to of the essence of how we solve the metacrisis that our society is in.

Joe: It’s actually interesting that you define markets as transactional, I definitely agree with, but anonymous, that seems to be to me a consequence of this spreading and scaling up. When you repeatedly went to the same butcher down the street for 50 years in a row, and not only that, but that guy also lives down the other street just up the road from you, and so you know him also outside of that transactional relationship, you have markets that are no longer decoupled from that community soil, that community ground. And so it’s not merely the transactions that are actually allowing the markets to… The goods capital to flow through the market. It’s also the relationships that are layered behind those transactions. So it’s not anonymous.

Joe: And I think that’s part of the problem, is that anonymity, where we’re looking for these kind of trustless exchanges and maybe even one-off exchanges. Whereas in a local setting, you get repetitive exchanges, you get different qualities of exchanges. I mean, there’s obviously currency exchange, there’s bartering, that becomes more available because there’s not all this distance friction. It’s very easy to trade some eggs for a loaf of bread with your neighbor. It’s not a difficult transaction to facilitate. So, I do think that markets in a local context become non-anonymous. So I’m not sure if that’s a definitional aspect of markets or if it’s an incidental one from the current situation we have.

Jim: I think that’s great. I love that distinction, because let’s think about what we do business locally. Famously, in a small town, including this area, if you are really in a bad way, they’ll extend your credit. And that’s just part of their social obligation, even though they know from an economic perspective it makes no sense to lend you money at zero interest that you may default on. Right? And then of course the flip side of that is you better not default if you want your standing in the community to remain good. And so there are non-economic forces as opposed to I’m buying something fucking Amazon. The only recourse Amazon has is to sprinkle some shit powder on my Experian credit record, right? Yeah, two anonymous transactions that are not normal, not what humans are really all about.

Jim: And then the second one is that when we act locally in the face-to-face community, we make some interesting qualitative choices. For instance, let’s say there’s two plumbers in our town, right? Both of them have similar skill and similar price, but one’s an asshole and the other is a charming person who you enjoy chatting with and you enjoy having in your home. If you make principal choice… And let’s even say the asshole is slightly cheaper. When you make the principal choice that, “I’m going to give my business to the good person,” that is a non-economic, non-anonymous kind of way of doing business, as opposed to who you’re going to buy a can of Spam from on Amazon as you build up your larder for the zombie apocalypse. It doesn’t enter in at all.

Jim: And so that comes to your other point, which is the broader and extended point, which is the idea around localism as a perhaps better and more humane way to organize human life. I know you’ve thought, and actually you’ve written quite a bit about localism. Could you maybe expand on the theme of localism and what that means to you and why you think it’s an improvement over what we have today?

Joe: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, so much we’re talking about is in that direction. And I don’t think of localism as a system. I think of it as a metasystem. It’s a structure that allows multiple systems to emerge, similar to the way you can think of capitalism that way too, right? The market is not so much a system as it is an ecosystem through which various things evolve and co-evolve and whatnot. So I think of localism in a similar way, it’s about setting up the conditions for development and evolution of particular systems rather than an imposition of particular systems. With that kind of preamble out of the way, I think what is crucial about local interaction is what we’re talking about. There’s necessarily in local interactions, a bundling together of all of these different flows, of flows of information, currency, goods and services, and all of the subtle exchanges that we have as humans that are not easy to articulate, not easy to formalize, maybe impossible in many cases to formalize.

Joe: So you do. You have an interaction with somebody that maybe is going to do some plumbing work for you or something, and that’s either an enjoyable interaction or it’s not, and that’s not something that can be captured in a dollar value necessarily. So there’s a density of interaction that we see in the natural world. Things that are close together in space tend to have a high occurrence of interactions with one another by virtue of their closeness to one another. But it’s the consequences of that density of interaction, you get things like emerging like cycles in the system, so you’re having loops in the system. You know, I’m paying the farmer down the street for one of his hogs, he’s paying the electrician up the road for their electric work, and that electrician is coming to me and say, buying some eggs off of me.

Joe: And now we’re actually having these circular kinds of flows within the system that are in essence nourishing the system, and we’re all actually benefiting, not only from the direct transaction, the sort of pairwise transaction that we participated in, but all of the positive externalities that come out of that nourishment being local. So my friend’s farm down the street is doing really good business. Guess what? His property is kept up real nice, the value of the neighborhood is going up. So now his neighbor is also doing better as his house home value goes up, and et cetera, et cetera. So this density of interactions has all of these emerging effects. You can think of them as side effects, but the important part is that it’s not in any one reducible interaction that the benefit is. It’s in the collective aggregation of all these actions existing in a dense spot where even without any planning or explicit coordination, things end up interacting with one another with a high density and circling around the system and recycling around the system.

Joe: In principle, you can imagine this happens at the global scale with global trade and thing, but there’s nowhere to be to get a handle on it, to get a sense of it. Things dissipate more readily in wider systems. They don’t necessarily come back around in any timescale that’s meaningful. I think that the things coming back around in a short timescale, a relatively short timescale, relative to human action, human behavior is a big part of what the essence of localism offers.

Jim: And again, as we talked about, one of the beauties is, while the economic signal is still there, whether it’s currency or barter, both are economic, both are there, they’re wrapped in a broader container of ethics, right? Ethics, and frankly, just social ability, a conformance with a decent behavior. And you wonder why, it actually explains why the quality of human behavior seems to have been going down for the last 80 years or thereabouts, because hell, most of our relationships are transactional or with mandated entities like the government, which are supposed to be gray and bland and not respond differently whether you’re an asshole or a good person. And so of course, you do less punishment and less punishment of assholes and less nourishment of good people, what do you expect to get over time? Right? Unfortunately. So I think that’s a very important part of localism.

Jim: On the other hand, let me throw out the other. Here I am in my very remote mountain farm and population density is low, as I mentioned, so we could easily support the population of the county with our local agriculture and be able to export quite a bit. And that is a very good feeling, particular during the mini zombie apocalypse, right? We know we’re not going to starve here under most circumstances, but there was a case back in, I think it was in the late ’30s where this local, small County was hit by a devastating drought, not just a normal drought, but a drought that literally killed everything. And except for one little corner of the county, which now has the name of Little Egypt, because most of the people from the central valley had to literally migrate down to Little Egypt with their cattle, pigs, chickens, and everything else to just survive that horrendous summer.

Jim: Now, I don’t think it hit our valley so bad, but over the next valley over, literally they had to go to Little Egypt. And so there is some benefit from local clusters that trade with each other, right. So, if we had… And this was when this county, I mean, we didn’t have electricity here at this farm till 1962, right? So this was a very remote place in that day. But to a degree, it was coupled to the next valley over and up the river to the next county and down and over, say a four or five county area, you’re big enough that you have differentiated your risks, at least with respect to drought, most of the time, and also things like insect pests and things of that sort.

Jim: So, as we know, in investing, the only free lunch is diversification. There’s some of that true also with respect to trade. The idea of becoming ultralocalist, autarkic at the level of the county is probably a dangerous idea because it’s less robust in some sense than is a more differentiated portfolio. On the other hand, when we get to a very complicated system like today’s world trade, we can see instantly what happens. “Oh, fuck. All the masks are made in China. The Chinese are holding onto their masks, we’re fucked,” right? All the nose swabs in the world are made outside of Milan, Italy, or almost all of them. Who got hit first by the virus? Milan, Italy. Ups, those swabs, if we’d had a much more distributed system, the opportunity for robustness in that system would have been increased.

Jim: You have to think of as robustness against various ensembles of risks and what is the right level of localism versus essentially a diversified portfolio. So it certainly feels to me that when you add it all up, we’re way too long range in our relationships today than would be optimal, and that moving these relationships in so that they’re richer in the face-to-face community and more personal, even the next county over there’s lots of intermarriages, people know each other, there’s opportunities for longterm reciprocity, I think would be a good thing. But how to do that is a damn hard question.

Joe: So, I mean, I agree with you on everything you just said. And a lot of times I’ve received the feedback on quite a few occasions where it’s sort of, “Hey, Joe, but you can’t just decentralize everything to whatever, down to Adam’s and everything’s going to work.” Of course not, of course not. But the take-home message is that, exactly what you said. We’ve gone so far in the other direction of centralization, of distance specialization, of things like that that the movement clearly needs to be in the local direction. And the ideal is… And when I say ideal, I don’t mean the best state. I mean, the thing that you might aim for as local as possible. But to your point, to mitigate against certain risks, to get other kinds of benefits, as local as possible can sometimes mean the level of the region, the level of the nation. So, local is in essence, a relational concept. There’s no one local. What it means to be local depends on the context, depends on what you’re talking about.

Joe: And to your point about one county or one area had a drought, a neighboring region didn’t, and that’s the savior of the neighboring region with the drought, if in that circumstance, all of the agriculture had been concentrated in the area that happened to receive the drought, everyone would have been screwed. So actually it was on a week or so ago, Joel Salitan was on The Joe Rogan Podcast. And he articulated very well… Joe Rogan asked him, “How can this scale? Can it scale?” And his answer was, “Of course it can, but it’s a scaling in duplication. It’s not a…-

Jim: Horizontal scale.

Joe: Yeah, horizontal scale. Yeah, exactly. Not this sort of vertical integrative growing monstrosity that people often naively expect to behave the same, only bigger. Whereas from system science, we know very well more is different. I’m sort of adopting “bigger is different” language for that because I think that gets more at the kinds of things we’re experiencing directly. Bigger is different. So in that duplicative type of growth, that horizontal growth, that’s where you get that robustness and that redundancy that allows you to mitigate against uncorrelated crises. So, for each kind of possible, as you said, so ensembles of risk factors, there’s a scale at which these things correlate and then there’s a larger scale at which they don’t. So yes, absolutely. From a risk perspective especially, we need to be open to the fact that when for some scale for some area correlated, harmful event occurs, disruption occur, there needs to be support and ability to exchange with the next local scale, whatever the neighbors of that unit happens to be.

Joe: And so when we talk about localism, I often throw off any qualifier and just talk about localism, but really, I’m talking about multi-scale localism. So, the home is a unit, the home and family, the town is another unit, the county is another unit, the state is another unit. So it’s this layering of units. It’s not that one needs to take precedence against all others. It’s in fact a distribution across scales.

Jim: And thinking about that intelligently is what nobody in power is doing. Right? It’s scandalous that if you were to ask the president of the United States to contemplate the idea of fractal, hierarchical localism, he’d look at you like, “Who the fuck are you, dude?” Right? He’d have not a clue, one. And how can that be here in 2020 when most of our problems going forward are essentially complex systems problems?

Joe: That’s right. That’s right. So I’ve seen, strangely when I’ve seen localism, the term pop up in a couple places I haven’t been expecting it, there does seem to be from this coronavirus crisis a bit of… People’s ears are getting hot when they hear that because they know they haven’t heard it and it rings true to a lot of people, that there’s something about this that’s about right. And you’re exactly right, and it’s not just the politicians, it’s our public discourse is mired in this sort of system verse system, communism verse capitalism, left verse right. These kinds of… Is that the right way to administer the system or is that? And all of these conversations are missing the crucial factor of scale. And for many systems, that’s going to determine more of the way the system behaves than the nominal, the label of the system that you’re trying to implement. So probably a commune of a thousand people looks more similar to a small market of a thousand people than either of those look to a market of a billion people or a communism of a billion people.

Jim: Yep. I think that’s exactly right. And I do think it’s important for those of us who do see this to keep the discourse going. In fact, I’m actually working on an essay right now. I hope to get it out in a week or two, called It’s a Call For a Federal Department of Wicked Risks, that would essentially inform the federal government and have a group of people who are scanning and listening and planning and modeling, et cetera, and doing mock decision-making to get leaders psychologically prepared to make decisions under stress in complex situations. And this recent COVID thing is a classic example. Across the West, every government essentially failed. A couple of exceptions, Denmark and Austria, maybe New Zealand, and also-

Joe: New Zealand [crosstalk 00:29:22].

Jim: … and Australia. A few, but most failed, right? And so you can’t point to one cloud of misery. They all are clowns of misery. And if you look back at who did a better job, it was mostly places that had a dry run with SARS, right? And so if you could simulate that in the department of wicked risks, say, “Hey, you know what, we’re going to have pandemics, they got knobs of their contagion or lethalities [inaudible 00:29:44]. Here’s is it not too implausible,” and it turned out to be sort of like COVID-19. “Let’s run this scenario through and get the people to think in terms of coupled complex systems.” Because the thing that this pandemic has made so clear is that major shocks to the system aren’t just one system. This is not just a health problem, right? It’s an educational problem, kids are going to school, it’s an economic problem at a massive scale. It’s a mental health problem, right?

Jim: If you read some of the statistics, mental health problems are up by a factor of four or five, perhaps. Who knows? Might be horseshit, but we’ll soon find out. And so yeah, the need for the public sphere more broadly, and not just government business as well, needs to learn how to take a multi-system coupled system, multi-scale complex systems’ view of reality and start thinking accordingly. And if we don’t, most of the big problems we have confronting us, climate change being a classic one, but many others, I don’t know how we’re going to solve them.

Joe: Well, it’s interesting. I think that’s a necessary idea to have. If we’re going to use these governing bodies as decision-making bodies as we are, then setting up a way of not waiting until the crisis is in motion to think about, “How would we react to this,” is very important. It’s not just the decision-making in the ongoing crisis though. It’s also how we structure our systems. And that’s, for these systemic risks, what makes something a systemic risk is that there is that possibility of propagation either through a single kind of system like the pandemic has on health. You know, I get sick, I get you sick, it’s moving through individuals. And these coupled heterogeneous cascades, all of a sudden schools are closed, stores are closing down, meat packing facilities aren’t working.

Joe: So, so much of that needs to be not just the decisions made in the crisis, but the ongoing decisions we make to structure the system so that when these things start to unfold, there’s boundaries in the system and circuit breakers. And, back in January… I have a lot of, as many people do, criticisms about how Trump has handled this. One criticism I don’t have is his closing of flights from China in January. That was a good decision, and the reason it was such a politically difficult decision was because we’re not thinking enough in terms of the structure of the system and the cascades it opens us up to. It should be obvious that if there’s a pandemic risk unfolding somewhere in the world that’s highly connected like China, that it’s going to cost us a lot less to pause flights for a little while than it is to wait to pause flights, pause them later, and also have a massive pandemic on our hands.

Joe: So these things need to become more obvious to decision makers and to how we govern things. It needs to not be just some esoteric knowledge of some smart guys in academia or something like that. The other thing about coronavirus that’s interesting, connecting back to the tweet that we grounded the show on, I’m pretty sure what I was thinking about when I wrote that tweet was the resistance to wearing masks that we’re seeing. It has become a political polarization that determines whether you’re for or against wearing masks to buffer the spread of a respiratory disease. And it struck me that that’s a small sacrifice, throwing a mask to go into the store. That’s not a very big sacrifice at all. I’m not saying your livelihood, your this, your that. This is like put on a freaking mask and save someone some real heartache. Maybe someone older, maybe one of your relatives, maybe one of your friends’ relatives, if you want to kind of dice it out into these age groups as people are doing.

Joe: If we didn’t lack that layer of community, I think for most people, regardless of political disposition, that would be a very easy decision, because a community isn’t horizontally partitioned by age groups or something like that. That’s a complete artificiality that we’ve imposed. And we would see the effects. We would say, “I don’t want to lose these people in my community. If this is what I need to do, small sacrifice, put on a mask,” maybe someone likes it, but I think it’s pretty agreed upon, it’s annoying. You don’t want to wear it. But you do it because it’s a small sacrifice that serves the larger good. So I think that was actually the source of the tweet. It was both the fact that there’s the lack of that individual incentive structure to, “You know what, I’m going to put this on because I see how it will affect my community and I want to help my community,” and the assholes that refuse to do it. There’s no community to say, “Hey, asshole, put on a fucking mask.”

Jim: That’s great. Why don’t we wrap it up there? That’s the alpha and Omega. This has been a wonderful conversation, Joe, just what I was hoping. I figured we’d start with one place and go every which way, which we did. And I think we highlighted a whole bunch of things that’s worthwhile for people to think about. So, thanks for being here.

Joe: Absolutely, Jim. Anytime.

Jim: All right, very good.

Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller