John Robb: Understanding Pathogenic Behavior

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John Robb


Within human social and economic systems, pathogenic behavior is spreading.  This is particularly true among powerful, successful, and wealthy people (finance, economics, politics, etc.) in the developed world.  What specifically do I mean by pathogenic?  An ever greater number of these people are adopting behaviors that are actively hostile to the human systems we rely upon.  They actually think it is OK to put these systems at risk for personal benefit.  This is very dangerous.  Given the massive amounts of network, technological, and financial leverage that’s currently available to these people, even a single bad actor can wreak global havoc like never before (as in, they could cause an economic collapse that’s so severe that it could kill more people than every war we’ve ever had to date, combined).

So, why is this happening and how can we prevent it?  This has been a tough section of the book I’m currently writing.  Fortunately, I think I’m starting to unravel it.   Here we go.  In order to understand why some bad actors are willing to do grievous harm to the complex systems they rely upon, we need to visit the cutting edge of microbiology.  Let’s start that exploration with a look at an amazing article by Brett Finlay in the Scientific American called, “Stopping Infections: The Art of Bacteriological Warfare.”

Good, Neutral, and Bad Bacteria

First, it’s important to understand that our bodies are filled with bacteria.  There are 10 bacteria for every cell in our body.  This horde of bacteria in our bodies falls into three camps:

  • commensals (they benefit from being there but no harm comes to us)
  • symbiotes (we both benefit) or
  • parasites/pathogens (they benefit and do harm to us).

Fortunately, the vast majority of bacteria in our bodies are commensals and symbiotes. Only a small number of the bacteria in healthy bodies are actual parasites.  In fact,

of all the tens of thousands of known bacterial species,only about 100 are renegades that break the rules of peaceful coexistence and make us sick.

It should be pretty easy to see the parallels between human society and the bacteriological ecosystem described here.  So, let’s press forward with something more interesting:   new insight into bacteriological warfare.

Pathogenic Warfare

By looking at the bacteria as a system, we’ve found that there is a continuous struggle for dominance between bacterial factions over the available resources.  In most cases, that struggle is a productive competition between benign bacteria (sounds like what global economics is supposed to be).  However, in competition between pathogenic bacteria and benign bacteria, it amounts to all out warfare.  Here’s Brett Finlay again:

To thrive in a body, pathogens need to do more than manipulate cell signaling and outwit immune defenses. They also have to out-compete the body’s hordes of normal, friendly bacteria…  One of the most obvious ways to eliminate competition is to cause diarrhea and thereby flush one’s opponents out of the body, at least temporarily. 

So, let’s understand this clearly.  Pathogens release bio-toxins to kill the benign bacteria that are currently dominant in that resource niche and flush them out of the system.  They are doing this to remove the local competition and win a local contest for resources.  Without any competition for the available food, they can then multiply quickly to dominate it.  The fact that these bio-toxins can damage and potential kill the host is merely incidental.  It’s merely collateral damage.

What this Means

There are lots of different ways to apply this insight to human social interaction.  One obvious way is to apply it to terrorists and global guerrillas.  I’ve already gone into depth on that in this blog and in my last book.  What’s more interesting is in how can be used to analyze or recent near death experiences of our global financial markets.  As we began to unravel these events, it became increasingly obvious that most of the shocks were caused by financial parasites flooding the system with toxins (bankruptcy, uncertainty, etc.).

Parasitic pathogens, like the owners of the hedge fund Magnetar Capital, who are willing to severely damage the host system in order to either best the competition (a big boy’s version of capture of the flag, but with money).  What’s worse is that this wasn’t an isolated incident.  It’s becoming more common.  From the collapse of Long Term Capital Management to the bankruptcy of Greece, these toxin floods are proliferating.  Why?

Perhaps the best explanation is that these pathogens have flooded the financial system with so many toxins (moral hazard, adverse incentives, moral depravity, regulatory capture, corruption, greed, etc.) that in sector after sector of our global economy, nothing but pathogens can proliferate.  I mean the people willing to take the fraudulent shortcut to wealth.  People willing to sink the company in the medium term in order to make the bonus today.  People willing to make a global crisis much worse in order to make a couple of bucks on their own account.  Even worse, it appears that our immune system has been completely compromised (inverted).

All that’s left to say is that when the pathogens become numerous, the host’s future isn’t too pretty.

NOTE: I’ll have much more detail on this method of warfare and how it is countered in my book.  Making lots of progress on it.  Hope to have it out early next soonest.

See Also by John Robb:

Q: How Will Plutocrats Dominate a World? A: Bots

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