A Conspiracy Theory You Can Believe In

by JM

Pimp My Conspiracy Theory

Evidence suggests that there never was a ruling class in England.

How can one know?  Well, every society has a sort of “Who’s who” list, created for tax purposes or to establish ownership transfer rights (through birth and death) over time, or to signal that a family had arrived on the scene.  Such lists are preserved going all the way to the 11th century in England.  There is wild volatility in the names that appear on them.  Within a few generations, these lists pretty much reset with a whole new set of names.

Further, tracking the fortunes of surnames over time also shows that the richest Brits throughout the centuries overwhelmingly descended from poor or immigrant families, not the elites of just three generations prior.  The ruling class concept is a fiction statistically speaking:  persons with incomes in England’s top 10th wealth percentile seldom trace their origins to some ruling class of England.

Conversely, surnames show that most persons with incomes in the bottom 10th percentile did not trace their origins to extremely poor families three generations before, much less the landless serfs of a medieval manor.  The poorest families don’t stay that way forever.  This seems to say that only a small part of wealth is an inheritance; the rest is hard work and fate.  It is difficult to determine whether effort or luck dominates.  Being wrong in all the right ways or providence, however you choose to look at it, luck plays its role in every life.

Sure, there was and always will be genetic and inheritance dis/advantages. But elite society was and is not closed to new entrants.  Certainly the underclass isn’t either.  Of course there are exceptions:  but the story is clear:  this is just how it is.  But there are also mechanisms that reinforce social mobility beyond blind luck.

Economic success (measured as wealth) has three components:

  • Genetically transmitted talent which always involves regression to the mean.  The genius blond is attracted to the dumb redhead.  Happy ever after in the marketplace.  One of their twins running in the yard is bright, but the other rather dull.
  • Parents expend effort to make a better life for their kids, precisely so that their income (among other things) doesn’t revert to the mean.  The educated can ensure that their children have just as much, or more, experiential opportunities that they have.  This is a persistence factor, but the data says it fades in time.
  • There is chance.  Chance makes kings of slaves and slaves of kings.

Can there be an underclass?  Sure, but its permanence lasts only as far as transfer payments create perverse incentives to not work.  I suppose that this creates effects that work in the other direction too:  the richest stay that way, because they make others sated enough to stay underneath them.  This hints at a type of social immobility fostered by democratic, freedom-loving global culture.

There is something more fundamental than low taxes and gold standards and minimum wages and healthcare for all of few.  What makes societies work is the eradication of all privilege and entitlement from the top to the bottom.  Social mobility makes possible the rise of talent at the expense of the incompetent.  Suppressing it ensures the crash of the dead society run by rubes.

A Conspiracy Theory You Can Believe In

About the time that the Federal Reserve was created, H.G. Wells proposed a conspiracy theory.   It wasn’t a cabal of small and secretive group of people. His goal was to drive the progress of mankind:  the Open Conspiracy.  Anyone could join, in the words of Nancy Zimmerman, if they:

  • Endorse the aim of the Open Conspiracy—the betterment of the human race.
  • Strive to understand the world, to determine the institutions and practices that work and those that don’t—what things contribute to human progress, and what things did not.
  • Communicate what they learn to others.
  • Listen to what others have to say independent of who they are:  “no one has a monopoly on truth or on insight, and good judgments can only be arrived at by close and open-minded scrutiny of evidence and opinions.”

The point of this Open Conspiracy is to understand and maybe domesticate risk; to turn the future into something we don’t fear.  The very attempt is itself the stuff that contests all the change and adversity that feed fear and insecurity.

Even in an unpredictable, always morphing universe there is value in problem solving.  And one can find the human instinct for problem solving in virtually all institutions, even the dreaded credit default swap.

Open conspiracies are nothing new.  Truly international research communities exist for virtually all scientific fields.  Useful ideas are taken wherever they are found:  Teichmuller may have been a Nazi, but the spaces that bear his name are accepted without reservation.  It’s not about control:  no one knows the future with certainty and one must just go along for the ride.  Call it domesticating risk, problem solving, whatever.  The point is overcoming challenges.

We are good at it.  The history of ideas shows this.  But overcoming is a slow process of incremental clarification punctuated by revolutions.  Here’s an example with the main points are italicized bullets so one doesn’t have to churn through the whole thing if it is painful.

The History of an Idea: A Three Century+ Quest

In 1607 Petrus Roth in Arithmetica Philosophica asserted that “a polynomial equation of degree n (with real coefficients) may have n solutions.”  Gauss took Roth’s assertion in 1815 and generalized it in the following way:  “A polynomial of degree n has n complex roots.” Then he more or less proved it.  This statement is the fundamental theorem of algebra (FTA).  A few years later, Niels Abel proved that polynomials of order five or higher have no general method of solution.  A result:

  • It may take longer than a lifetime just to find out that sought-for answers are there, but then those answers cannot always be found.

Even if one has not all the answers, it is immensely valuable to expand the class of problems that can be answered.  Intensive effort can then be invested in those special cases where a solution can be found.  This approach resulted in a mental shift away from determining the existence of roots into investigating the computation of solutions:  “Given a monic polynomial with integer coefficients, there is a valid way to compute with its roots.”  Note the restatement of the formal theorem to make work on a special case easier (equations with integer coefficients).  This is an important human strategy for ascending intellectual mountaintops:

  • If one can’t get to the top of a mountain, climb nearby peaks.

It was nearly 300 years before a constructive proof of the FTA was given by Herman Weyl (some say it was Hellmuth Kneser).  It took 300 years, but this slow-fast dynamic in human problem-solving is the way.

Progress or Regress is Unclear

“I promised Hermite I would not bring up again the circumstance that made me so angry last year. … I have newly worked out a great deal of the material, and beyond this I have put the foundations of algebra in an entirely new form.”
–Leopold Kronecker, correspondence to Mittag-Leffler, 1886

Kronecker was a big-time adventurer in ideas, and was by many accounts a stubborn little jerk.  But his persistence reshaped algebra in an original way.  His idea remained focusing on the system of root computation and not on the roots per se.  But the machinery he developed for this system is given substance by his constructive version of the FTA:

“Given a monic polynomial f(x) with coefficients in the ring Z[c1, c2, … , cn], a monic irreducible polynomial construction g(y) with coefficients in the same ring such that adjunction of one root of g to the field of rational functions in c1, c2, … , cn gives a field over which f(x) factors into linear factors.”

In one sense, this formulation trail-blazes terrain that even today has far-reaching implications.  Kronecker’s ideas led him to recommend limiting the scope of mathematical inquiry to a subject of the concrete: only numbers that are either reducible to products of arithmetic operations on integers.  Numbers that do not resolve into a finite combination of these operations are approximate values that evolve.  The limit is an approximation method built as infinite sequences of approximations, and infinite things are always in a state of becoming, not of being.  Kronecker’s extreme view calls into question the concept of the limit, frankly one of the most useful mathematical constructions ever devised.  Ideas sometimes serve the purpose of regression and not progression.

  • It is sometimes unclear whether revolutionary “progress” is a leap forward or a jump off of a cliff.  The future is driven by the balance between choosing a break with established ways and making small incremental advance with well-worn tools that stand the test of time.

The Problems Never End

Kronecker’s “different” foundation for algebra was in a sense nothing especially new.  Folks followed a path of this sort this path in Ur thousands of years ago by developing a number system of base 60 (as opposed to our base 10).  It reduced the incidences of irrational numbers in their arithmetic, but it was inadequate to do so from the beginning.  Increasing societal complexity necessarily incorporated irrational numbers.

However, times are different now.  Fembots handle computational complexity in ways that the brain can’t.  Mankind mitigated his computational limitations by creating algebraic irrationals and limiting arguments of all stripes, on and on.  Given a master programmer and machine adequate to the problems posed, robots have less need for such mitigation.

  • Ideas can come back into favor because the times are favorable.  The future is driven by the balance of choosing a break with established ways against making small incremental advance with well-worn tools that stand the test of time.

This is just one example among hundreds, thousands even.  Even if all the creations of man are just termite mounds on a grander, more imaginary scale, the failure of these creations is nothing but an opening of interesting problems to solve.  Failure is an integral part of a universe that makes most look in turn like fools and then heroes.  Given the epic fails of today, an Open Conspiracy has never been needed more.