Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The rampage of the top predators.

I tend to think that much of what's happening around us nowadays can be explained if you see the social system as an ecosystem. We known that ecosystems have "food chains" or "trophic cascades". In a previous post, I argued that governments are behaving as top predators in the socio-economic system.

A problem with top predators is that - by definition - they have no mechanism to limit their numbers other than the availability of food. Since biological predators (and governments, as well) are not normally able to plan for the future, they tend to destroy their own source of food by excessive predation: it is called "overshoot". This phenomenon was studied already about one century ago by Lotka and Volterra who created the model that, today, is known with their names ("LV model" or, sometimes, as the "foxes and rabbits model"). Here is a typical run of the model:

You see oscillations due to predators going periodically in overshoot, that is killing too many preys and running out of food themselves. It is an oversimplification; of course. Real ecosystems are much more complex than a simple two-species system and do not normally show such regular oscillations. But the model still gives us some ideas of the forces at play and of how the behavior of predators may go out of control. Below, you see a run of the LV model (done using Vensim) where I've assumed that the prey does not reproduce; an assumption close to reality in an economic system based on non renewable resources. In the graph, I also show the predation rate. Note how this rate reaches a maximum when about half of the prey has been killed (in other contexts, this is called the "Hubbert law"). The point is that predators go on killing off of large numbers of prey without realizing that they are destroying their own source of subsistence.

It is, of course, a qualitative interpretation, but it seems to be telling us something when we realize that the top predator in our socio-economic system is the government in the form of one of its many agencies (the police, the judiciary, the internal revenue service, etc.). Take a look at the article below, from the New Yorker, and tell me if you don't get the impression of a predator gone on a rampage.


Under civil forfeiture, Americans who haven’t been charged with wrongdoing can be stripped of their cash, cars, and even homes. Is that all we’re losing?

by August 12, 2013

On a bright Thursday afternoon in 2007, Jennifer Boatright, a waitress at a Houston bar-and-grill, drove with her two young sons and her boyfriend, Ron Henderson, on U.S. 59 toward Linden, Henderson’s home town, near the Texas-Louisiana border. They made the trip every April, at the first signs of spring, to walk the local wildflower trails and spend time with Henderson’s father. This year, they’d decided to buy a used car in Linden, which had plenty for sale, and so they bundled their cash savings in their car’s center console. Just after dusk, they passed a sign that read “Welcome to Tenaha: A little town with BIG Potential!”

They pulled into a mini-mart for snacks. When they returned to the highway ten minutes later, Boatright, a honey-blond “Texas redneck from Lubbock,” by her own reckoning, and Henderson, who is Latino, noticed something strange. The same police car that their eleven-year-old had admired in the mini-mart parking lot was trailing them. Near the city limits, a tall, bull-shouldered officer named Barry Washington pulled them over.

He asked if Henderson knew that he’d been driving in the left lane for more than half a mile without passing.

No, Henderson replied. He said he’d moved into the left lane so that the police car could make its way onto the highway.

Were there any drugs in the car? When Henderson and Boatright said no, the officer asked if he and his partner could search the car.

The officers found the couple’s cash and a marbled-glass pipe that Boatright said was a gift for her sister-in-law, and escorted them across town to the police station. In a corner there, two tables were heaped with jewelry, DVD players, cell phones, and the like. According to the police report, Boatright and Henderson fit the profile of drug couriers: they were driving from Houston, “a known point for distribution of illegal narcotics,” to Linden, “a known place to receive illegal narcotics.”

The report describes their children as possible decoys, meant to distract police as the couple breezed down the road, smoking marijuana. (None was found in the car, although Washington claimed to have smelled it.)

The county’s district attorney, a fifty-seven-year-old woman with feathered Charlie’s Angels hair named Lynda K. Russell, arrived an hour later. Russell, who moonlighted locally as a country singer, told Henderson and Boatright that they had two options. They could face felony charges for “money laundering” and “child endangerment,” in which case they would go to jail and their children would be handed over to foster care. Or they could sign over their cash to the city of Tenaha, and get back on the road. “No criminal charges shall be filed,” a waiver she drafted read, “and our children shall not be turned over to CPS,” or Child Protective Services.
“Where are we?” Boatright remembers thinking. “Is this some kind of foreign country, where they’re selling people’s kids off?” Holding her sixteen-month-old on her hip, she broke down in tears.
Later, she learned that cash-for-freedom deals had become a point of pride for Tenaha, and that versions of the tactic were used across the country. “Be safe and keep up the good work,” the city marshal wrote to Washington, following a raft of complaints from out-of-town drivers who claimed that they had been stopped in Tenaha and stripped of cash, valuables, and, in at least one case, an infant child, without clear evidence of contraband.

Click here to read the whole article on the "New Yorker"


  1. Another interpretation of the 'top predator' might be those who lend money to those with little potential to pay the money back. Eventually, there are no borrowers left, and the lenders implode.

    Don Stewart

  2. My guess is that a healthy fully adult male or group of female Triceratops would face down a T-Rex, who would find the cost benefit equation rather fraught. More likely the Triceratops would just keep consuming, and breeding, until the habitat broke down and chaos ensued, leading to an unpredictable cascade of predator/scavnger boom bust cycles. Rather more like the cycles of habitat destruction wrought by lephants in Africa.

    1. That's the strategy against predators!

    2. If any healthy adult herbivore[primary consumer] population could not dissuade the predator population by bluff and bluster they would soon be wiped out, as would their dependant predators. My point being that what looks predatory is merely confident bluster, easy pickings, and these goons are making a wasteland of their own environment, soon to change!
      Of course above I meant 'scavenger and elephant' so much for a light touch.

  3. The "War on Drugs" became a war on minorities many decades ago. As long as it happens to "them" the xenophobic locals pride themselves on putting it to the ---- (fill in the blanks). The problem for many only becomes evident when members of the dominant group are targeted.
    As a landlord I'm always in danger of losing my property should I inadvertently rent to someone who is targeted & may be charged with using the house for illicit purposes. Staying away from investments in less desirable neighborhoods can reduce the odds of having a home appropriated, but AFAIK there is no form of insurance that covers such a situation
    There was a locally infamous case a few years back where the DEA snatched a business jet from a Henderson Nevada owner/pilot, used the plane for a few years without performing any of the required maintenance, then returned it to it's owner without ever filing any charges. The bankruptcy of his start up courier service outraged some, but the Law & Order contingent saw it as collateral damage in the battle to save the children from the scourge of addiction.
    Is there a solution when the costs of drug enforcement out way the costs of addiction?

  4. I don't disagree with your thesis, but I think it should be broadened to consider the work of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (e.g., Why Nations Fail). Your line of thought is very similar to their concept of an "extractive society", in which the government is co-opted into the service of the economic elite and then used to extract the country's wealth for the benefit of the elite. The events of the recent past in the U.S. seem to reveal a range of such behaviors. The net result of the sub-prime crisis was a mind-boggling transfer of wealth from the middle class (via taxpayer funded bailouts and direct transfer of houses via foreclosure) to the TBTF financial institutions and their executives - the very group whose criminal fraud had perpetrated the fraud and who had relied on regulatory capture to silence the agencies nominally in charge of overseeing their behavior. Unlike the preceding "savings and loan crisis" of the 1980's - in which hundreds of financial executives were charged and convicted of federal crimes - in the sub-prime crisis not one major executive has gone to jail as a direct result of the crisis (leaving aside several large but garden variety insider trading cases). There are numerous other examples. I don't think the argument should be framed as "gubberment" spontaneously becoming extractive - there is clearly a process going on that is driving the predation (virtually all of which "remarkably" now seems to benefit the economic elite in the U.S., and Europe).

    1. Yes, of course lumping together everything as "gubberment" is an approximation. The government is a vague entity that aggregates a lot of personal and group interests. Many people depend on the government for their monthly salary but, correctly, there are elites who can pump out much more from what the government can steal from ordinary people. So, my opinion is that the process will go on as long as there is something to steal, then it will fade out. And with it, the government.

    2. Ugo, I agree that it's an approximation. But in this case, the separation of concepts is really important. If the problem is that "government" per se is inherently confiscatory and by its very nature will confiscate wealth until it's no longer able to, then what's the point in even bothering with democracy, bothering to vote, bothering to impose laws and restrictions, etc.? In that formulation, the answer would appear to be that THERE IS NO POINT, and it would seem to be sensible to simply do away with government, period. However, if the problem is that predatory economic elites can sometimes exercise their economic power and political influence to hijack governmental institutions and turn these institutions into tools allowing the elites to extract unmerited wealth from the system - in that case, there is a cure: use countervailing political power and rule of law to prevent the elites from seizing control of the institutions of power for their own ends. I grew up in a period (roughly 1960-1980) in which the elites in the U.S. had NOT (generally speaking) captured government as an extractive tool, and government actually did a lot of good (there's no way on earth that I could afford today to get a B.A. and two professional degrees - but "gubberment" aid made that possible in the '70's and as a result I've paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes due to my vastly increased earning potential).

    3. Yes - absolutely. Personally, I have a debt with the US government which I don't think I will be able to repay in full. In the 1970s, I was postdoc at the State University at Stony Brook where my career of researcher started. Hadn't the US government paid for the grant that supported me in that period, I would be.... well, I don't know - surely not what I am now.

      So, governments are not bad in themselves, not at all. They should be - and they can be - necessary counterweights to the predatory behavior of the elites by maintaining the rule of the law. The problem is that we are now paying the price of decades of unrestrained growth that has made governments too big for the capability of society to support them and they are becoming predatory entities - hence good bye to the rule of the law, good bye to due process, good bye to democracy, etc..

      What you learn from these models is that ecosystems tend to stabilize - oscillations never disappear, but become less intense. In stable societies, governments have no interest in beggaring their citizens (because citizens provide the resources for governments to function) and citizens have no interest in fighting governments (because governments protect them from predation from other entities). Alas, this is theory.........

    4. Ugo, I forgot all about this 2009 book by James Galbraith, but I think it's highly relevant to your point - "The Predator State".

  5. I don't mean to undermine your metaphor or your good thesis but top predators can also be taken out by a virus or meteor.

    1. Yes, a virus is the ultimate top predator. Unfortunately much less spectacular than a T-rex!

  6. Glass pipe, lots of cash ... my guess is that the police interpreted this situation correctly. While a good attempt was made to paint them as wronged innocents, it fell short.

  7. Under U.S. jurisprudence, the normal rule is that some sort of formal finding of fact by an independent tribunal is required before a person is deprived of life, liberty or property - that's the issue here. It should not be "good enough" that a couple of cops and a prosecutor decide "you're kinda suspicious" and then use their office to take your car, cash, kids, etc. without any sort of independent formal finding that a crime has in fact been committed. The point is that it doesn't matter whether the folks in the story are "innocents" OR NOT - the point is that under any customary concept of "rule of law", the unilateral confiscation authority discussed in the story has not place. (Remember, we are NOT talking about criminal forfeiture, where a court has actually found someone guilty of criminal activity - we're talking about administrative seizure of property by people who directly benefit from the seizure.)