A cave painting from the early Holocene in Spain shows ten figures with bows in their hands and a lone figure prone on the ground with what appear to be ten arrows sticking out of him. The configuration strongly suggests an execution rather than death in combat. Boehm points out that among current-day foraging groups, group execution is one of the most common ways of punishing males who try to claim a disproportionate amount of the groups resources. “Given enough time,” Boehm writes, “any band society is likely to experience a problem with a homicide-prone severely unbalanced individual. And predictably band members will have to solve the problem by means of execution”
Boehm’s research has led him to believe that much of the evolutionary basis for moral behavior stems from group pressure. Not only are bad actions punished, but good actions are rewarded. When a person does something good for another person – a prosocial act, as it is called – they are rewarded not only by group approval but also by an increase of dopamine and other pleasurable hormones in their blood. Group cooperation triggers higher levels of oxytocin, for example, which promotes everything from breast feeding in women to higher levels of trust and group bonding among men. Both reactions impart a powerful sensation of well-being. Oxytocin creates a feedback loop of good-feeling and group loyalty that ultimately leads members to “self-sacrifice to promote group welfare,” in the words of one study. Hominids that cooperated with one another – and punished those who didn’t – must have outfought, outhunted and outbred everyone else. For over a million years this genetically evolved and biochemically selected approach, perhaps prominent at the exit of Homo sapiens out of Africa 70,000 years ago, lead to the dominance of this human species and the extinction of others. These are the hominids that modern humans are descended from.
It’s revealing, then, to look at modern society through the prism of more than a million years of human cooperation and resource sharing. Subsistence-level hunters aren’t necessarily more moral than other people; they just can’t get away with selfish behavior because they live in small groups where almost everything is open to scrutiny. Modern society on the other is a sprawling and anonymous mess where people can get away with incredible levels of dishonesty without getting caught. What tribal people would consider a profound betrayal of the group, modern society simply dismisses as fraud. Around 3% of people on unemployment assistance intentionally cheat the system, for example, which costs the United States more than $2 billion a year. Such abuse would be immediately punished in tribal society. Fraud in welfare and other entitlements programs is estimated to be roughly the same rate, which adds another $1.5 billion in annual losses. That figure, however, is eclipsed by Medicare and Medicaid fraud, which conservatively estimated at 10% of total payments – or $100 billion a year. Some estimates run two or three times that figure.
Fraud in the insurance industry is calculated to be $100 to $300 billion a year, a cost that gets passed directly to consumers in the form of higher premiums. All told, combined public and private sector fraud costs every household in the US probably around $5000 a year – or roughly 4 months at a minimum wage job. A hunter gatherer community that lost 4 month’s worth of food would face a serious threat to its survival, and its retribution against the people who caused that hardship would be immediate and probably very violent.
Westerners live in a complex society, and opportunity for scamming relatively small amounts of money off the bottom are almost endless – and very hard to catch. But scamming large amounts of money off the top seems even harder to catch. Fraud by American defense contractors is estimated at around $100 billion per year, and they are relatively well behaved compared to the financial industry. The FBI reports that since the economic recession of 2008, securities and commodities fraud in the US has gone up by more than 50%. The recession, which was triggered by illegal and unwise banking practices, cost American shareholders several trillion dollars in stock value losses and is thought to have set the American economy back by a decade and a half. Total costs for the recession have been estimated at $14 trillion, or about $45,000 per citizen.
Most tribal subsistence level societies would inflict severe punishments on anyone who caused that kid of damage. Cowardice is another form of community betrayal, and most tribes punish it with immediate death. If that seems harsh, consider that the British military took “cowards” off the battlefield and executed them by firing squad as late as WWI. It can be assumed that hunter-gatherers would treat their version of a welfare cheat or dishonest banker as decisively as they would a coward. They may not kill him, but he certainly would be banished from the community. The fact that a group of people can cost American society several trillion dollars in losses – roughly one quarter of that year’s domestic product – and not be tried for high crimes shows how completely detribalized this country has become.
During the 1960s senior executives in America typically made around twenty dollars for every dollar earned by a rank and file worker. Since then, that figure has climbed to 300 to 1 among S&P 500 companies, and in some cases it goes higher than that. The US chamber of Commerce managed to block all attempts to force disclosure of corporate pay ratios until 2015, when a weakened version of the rule was finally passed by the SEC in a strict party line vote of 3 democrats in favor and 2 republicans opposed.
The American public will probably continue to refrain from broadly challenging corporate leaders who compensate themselves far in excess of their value to society. That is ironic because the political origins of the US lay in confronting precisely this kind of resource seizure by people in power. King Georg III of England caused the English colonies in America to rebel by trying to tax them without a voice in the government. In this sense, democratic revolutions are just a formalized version of the sort of group action that coalitions of senior males have used throughout the ages to confront greed and abuse. Thomas Paine, one of the principle architects of American democracy, wrote a formal denunciation of civilization in a tract called Agrarian Justice: “Whether civilization has most promoted or most injured the general happiness of man is a question that may be strongly contested,” he wrote in 1795. “Both the most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized.”
When Paine wrote his tract, Shawnee and Delaware warriors were still attacking settlements just a few hundred miles from downtown Philadelphia. They held scores of white captives, many of whom had been adopted into the tribe and had no desire to return to colonial society. There is no way to know the effect on Paine’s thought process of living next door to a communal Stone Age society, bit it might have been crucial. Paine acknowledged that these tribes lacked advantages of the arts and science and manufacturing, yet lived in a society where personal poverty was unknown and the natural rights of man actively promoted. In that sense, Paine proclaimed, the American Indian should serve as a model for how to eradicate poverty and bring natural rights back into civilized life.
In 2009, an American soldier named Bowe Bergdahl slipped through a gap in the concertina wire at his combat outpost in southern Afghanistan and walked off into the night. He was quickly captured by a Taliban patrol, and his absence triggered a massive search by the US military that put thousands of his fellow soldiers at risk. The level of betrayal felt by soldiers was so extreme that many called for Bergdahl to be tried for treason when he was repatriated five years later. Technically his crime was not treason, so the US military charged him with desertion of his post—a violation that still carries a maximum penalty of death.
The collective outrage at Sergeant Bergdahl was based on very limited knowledge but provides a perfect example of the kind of tribal ethos that every group—or country—deploys in order to remain unified and committed to itself. If anything, though, the outrage in the United States may not be broad enough. Bergdahl put a huge number of people at risk and may have caused the deaths of up to six soldiers. But in purely objective terms, he caused his country far less harm than the financial collapse of 2008, when bankers gambled trillions of dollars of taxpayer money on blatantly fraudulent mortgages. These crimes were committed while hundreds of thousands of Americans were fighting and dying in wars overseas. Almost 9 million people lost their jobs during the financial crisis, 5 million families lost their homes, and the unemployment rate doubled to around 10 percent.
For nearly a century, the national suicide rate has almost exactly mirrored the unemployment rate, and after the financial collapse, America’s suicide rate increased by nearly 5 percent. In an article published in 2012 in The Lancet, epidemiologists who study suicide estimated that the recession cost almost 5,000 additional American lives during the first two years—disproportionately among middle-aged white men. That is close to the nation’s losses in the Iraq and Afghan wars combined. If Sergeant Bergdahl betrayed his country—and that’s not a hard case to make—surely the bankers and traders who caused the financial collapse did as well. And yet they didn’t provoke nearly the kind of outcry that Bergdahl did. Not a single high-level CEO has even been charged in connection with the financial collapse, much less been convicted and sent to prison, and most of them went on to receive huge year-end bonuses. Joseph Cassano of AIG Financial Products—known as “Mr. Credit-Default Swap”—led a unit that required a $99 billion bailout while simultaneously distributing $1.5 billion in year-end bonuses to his employees—including $34 million to himself. Robert Rubin of Citibank received a $10 million bonus in 2008 while serving on the board of directors of a company that required $63 billion in federal funds to keep from failing. Lower down the pay scale, more than 5,000 Wall Street traders received bonuses of $1 million or more despite working for nine of the financial firms that received the most bailout money from the US government.
As stated earlier on page 30, the fact that a group of people can cost American society several trillion dollars in losses – roughly one quarter of that year’s domestic product – and not be tried for high crimes shows how completely detribalized this country has become.
What about modern crises and the tribal instinct? Read Chapter 12.