Friday, April 26, 2013

Rat Finks - or - How the West Was Really Won

In a game of repeated Prisoner's Dilemma, you will find that the best strategy is called "Win-Stay, Lose-Shift". Oh, you are familiar with the Prisoner's Dilemma game, correct? It's a non-zero sum game. You and your partner in crime are being separately interrogated by the cops. You have two options: keep quiet, or rat out your partner. Your partner has the same options. If both keep quiet, you might do some time, or the charges might be dropped. If you rat your partner, and she keeps quiet, you walk and she rots in jail. If you keep quiet and your partner rats, she walks and you rot. If you both rat, you both rot. Simple, huh?

What gets interesting is when you repeat the play, in which case four strategies are evident.
1) Always cooperate (keep quiet)
2) Always defect (rat fink)
3) Tit for tat (Do unto your partner what they last done to you)
4) Win-stay, Lose-shift (cooperate when not ratted out, rat fink when ratted).

All very rational, correct? (Well, actually, there is one other strategy called Generous Tit for Tat, but that's not rational). Now expand it to a general population, and you end up with an interesting game in evolution. And what you find is there is, over time, no one good static solution. The population dynamics will shift from mostly cooperators, to mostly rat finks, and back and forth, but with an interesting overall Pareto distribution over time of a population of around 80% normal people and 20% assholes. I suppose, out in the real world, the temptation would be to just eliminate the assholes.

Problem is, the assholes are not the problem. It's the evolutionary niche that favors assholes that is the problem. So, how to minimize the size of that particular basin of attraction in this game of chaos theory? Well, borrowing from Sherlock Holmes, you have three avenues of attack: motive, means, and opportunity. Traditionally, government is used to limit opportunity and means. Situational parameters tend to randomize the motive, although I suppose there is some segment of the population who are just always going to be psychotic pricks about things. Which leads me to my review of Anne F. Hyde's book "Empires, Nations, and Families".

Short review? I liked it. Longer review? I believe she provides insights on two levels. One is, well, fairly obvious to anyone who can get past Piaget's Concrete Operations Stage (which pretty much rules out Conservatives and Libertarians), which is, that there's a very special place in Hell waiting for the United States of America. Anne is a bit more generous, merely qualifying certain decades as times when citizens of the United States can be portrayed as "particularly nasty".

The second level of the book is to stake down and skin that old bullshit myth about how the west was won by white people entering an empty landscape and claiming it as their own by dint of hard work and strong character. (Yeah, and lots of government assistance). She does a very good job of populating the West (from 1800 to 1860) with the people that actually lived there, a mixed bag of characters, families plying ancient trade networks. We tend to forget that the whole point of business was the fur trade, a huge money maker at the time.

Let me digress for a brief moment to talk about one major delusion on the part of libertarians, that limited government and a free market would create paradise on earth for all involved. Witness the Pacific Northwest.

In 1818 the United States and Great Britain agreed to a “joint occupancy” of the Pacific Northwest between the 42nd and 54th parallels. Joint occupancy meant that neither nation would have a government presence there, but that “the vessels, citizens, and subjects” from both nations could do business and settle there. The British took the first gamble in occupying the region, establishing Fort Vancouver north of the Columbia River. Governor George Simpson, of the Hudson’s Bay Company, good capitalist that he was, decided to strip the region of furs. The Hudson’s Bay Company quickly created a “fur desert” all the way back east to the Rockies to discourage American fur trappers.

Eventually, American settlers moved into the Oregon Territory, often, due to poor planning and lack of foresight, starving, and destitute. John Mcloughlin chief factor of Fort Vancouver, offered the American settlers food and supplies on credit.
“This policy, overly generous as it was from the perspective of the Hudson’s Bay Company, still created resentment among the immigrants. Many of the arrivals had been saved from starvation by free supplies given to them by the U.S. Army  at various forts along the Oregon Trail, and now they couldn’t understand why the Hudson’s Bay Company posts, which was, of course, British and private, would ask them to pay money for food in their time of need. Even the policy of extending credit led to the reputation of the Hudson’s Bay Company as being anti-American and tight-fisted, although the Company wasn’t doing anything that American merchants wouldn’t have done, or did do, to their own countrymen in Oregon”. p.141 Empires, Nations, and Families by Anne F. Hyde.
The point here? Mostly irony heaped upon irony. But onward...

In 1783, with the Treaty of Paris, Britain ceded all claims as far west as the Mississippi River. Why such a generous concession was made is still something of a mystery to me, and I need to look into that. 

I think it helps to look at a map of the North American continent in 1783. The Tsar of all the Russias claims Alaska and the Pacific Coast as far south as Vancouver Island. The Pacific Northwest and Canada as far east as the current province of Alberta is up for grabs. South of this, the Empire of Spain lays claim to all lands of the current lower 48 east to the Mississippi. Britain holds Canada, and a pipsqueak upstart of a nation called the United States clings to the Atlantic coast. Five million Anglo-Americans operate under a soon-to-fail-miserably-Libertarian experiment called the Articles of Confederation. In control of the interior continent are nations such as the Iroquois, Ottawa, Fox, Delaware, Miami, Shawnee, Cherokee, Chikasaw, Wichita, Comanche, Apache, Sioux, Cheyenne, Blackfoot, and Ute. 

 Anyone who wishes to engage in the highly lucrative fur trade within the continent would best serve themselves to look at the existing trade relations of Spanish and French traders - who have been metabolized by the Indians through intermarriage, family, mixed-blood relatives, networks of long established mutual trust and good fellowship. Some few Anglo-Americans understand this, and join this centuries old system. The problem is the new version of capitalism that has recently emerged with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and the modifications of moral and ethical systems this entails. 
"native nations faced their biggest challenges in the border zones where trade brought people together and where Anglo-American settlement happened most quickly. The U. S. government, such as it was, had no control over the process of settlement or the operation of trade. The problem of white squatters and their conception of ownership of land led to chaos - chaos that government agents chose to ignore, because, in the end, the most human bureaucracies of the United States believed in white settlement at any cost." 
In short, in an unregulated business environment, business regulates government. Anyone who chooses to see this as a good thing clearly has not paid any attention whatsoever to world history. I would identify these types of people as either willfully ignorant or dangerously stupid, but entirely able to brush aside the empirical evidence of human history.

Anyone who has spent any time looking at trade recognizes that it is always subject to boundary conditions. Trade exists at the frontiers of established regions - not just geographic, but informational, cultural, what have you, as well. And where boundaries exist, boundary conditions can fluctuate, and thus all the more reason to regulate those conditions to avoid catastrophe. 

Case in point: With the Trade and Intercourse Acts of 1822, Congress gets government out of the fur trade. Congress abolished the factor system of trading posts, and instead instituted local agents to deal with individual tribes and regions. The logic in abolishing the “factory” system was to open up the fur trade to more people, allowing market competition to regulate prices for furs and Indian trade goods. The results proved disastrous for everyone involved. Congress assumed that frontier regions had a much larger governmental presence than existed, and that all participants would practice under a rule of law. This policy of self-policing worked about as well as you would expect. Well-regulated and established flows of prohibited goods, such as liquor and guns, soon became chaotic with a larger number of players increasing tensions. In addition, Natives used to receiving quality goods from Europe (such as Italian glass trade beads, Chinese silk, British tower muskets, soft, strong wool yarn and vermillion from England) were now offered shoddy American goods. Natives had no reason to trade furs, which irritated some Anglo-American traders, resulting in increase in theft and trade by force. Centuries of trade was replaced by decades of war. 

Now, a fair question to ask is, was this a result of lack of regulation or the recent arrival of the Anglo-American version of capitalism? Or was this merely a reflection of the fundamental viciousness hard-eyed business pragmatism of the collective American character? Regardless, we are aware of the consequences - whether it’s through the stain of chattel slavery imposed upon our African cousins (and some few indentured Europeans), or the genocide and ethnic cleansing carried out upon the indigenous populations, we as a nation, like Marley’s ghost, have forged a very long chain of sin indeed. 

If we are to blame the American character, we must look to Britain. But that can’t be it, because they drink tea and watch Dr. Who. 

So it must then it must be the industrial version of capitalism. Anne F. Hyde places the sea change at 1864. I can understand why. That’s the year the United States turned pro, with a modern system of governance, and an established official plan of Manifest Destiny.

I say it was 1857 when things shifted. The natives still had fighting chance up until then, but afterwards they didn't stand a chance. There were two competing two visions back East that played out on the Kansas plains: the slave empire versus the machines subsidized land and cheap imported people to work them. Underneath all that was :
“hunter versus settler, trade and negotiation versus cash on the barrelhead, shared space versus exclusive rights, racial mixing and family formation versus white supremacy”. 
We all know how that turned out. 

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