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"


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)