Wasps do it, but why should we?
Unlike animals, humans have the choice to abandon counterproductive behavior — such as continuing to allow just anyone to buy any firearm. And that’s just one example. So what’s our excuse?
But Jacob sometimes gets stuck when we play this game at my in-laws’ pool. This is because of two fixed, internal rules he has. The first rule is that he must stay on land until he is as close as possible to the ball and then swim the rest of the way. The second rule is that he must enter the water gradually. He won’t jump in from the side. This makes playing in the Pacific Ocean easy, but the pool presents a problem. If the ball is closer to one of the edges of the pool than it is to the steps, all he can do is run to the closest edge, look at the ball with trembling excitement and bark.
It’s fun to observe sphexishness in animals. The trick, of course, is to be able to recognize it in ourselves. What behaviors do we humans senselessly repeat over and over because of some unquestioned internal rule? What entirely avoidable loop of stupidity are we stuck in? Here are a few candidates:
We continue to think that Americans, no matter how crazy, should be able to buy guns, no matter how lethal. Columbine had no effect. Virginia Tech, no effect. Lunatic after lunatic, senseless murder after murder, nothing changes. Somebody like Jared Loughner, who doesn’t appear to know whether he’s afoot or on horseback, can wander into a sporting-goods store and stumble out with a semiautomatic weapon almost as easily as he can buy a sleeve of golf balls.
We continue to believe that business can regulate itself. Wall Street greedheads nearly blow up the world economy with their pointless, synthetic financial instruments, and we continue to believe that government regulation of financial markets would stifle innovation. We spend hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money to try to fix the consequences of their most recent innovations, and yet we persist in the belief that regulating the industry would be un-American. We can’t even summon the political will to pressure companies to reduce the salaries and bonuses of the most egregious malefactors.
We persist in throwing endless blood and treasure into the endless, pointless war on drugs. After 40 years, untold billions of dollars and countless lives wasted in prison, it’s still easier for a teenager in Detroit to buy a bag of cocaine than a six-pack of beer. How much richer is organized crime as a result of the fact that drugs are illegal? How many children have been killed in this war?
We continue to believe — against all logic, all evidence and all experience — that giving money to the for-profit insurance industry is the way to provide healthcare for the poor and sick. There isn’t enough money in healthcare for not-for-profit institutions to make a go of it, but adding a layer of investors to skim off the top will make it work.
We continue to believe in the fantasies of smart bombs, surgical strikes and limited wars.
And we continue to imagine that a government funded by corporate lobbyists and dedicated to no higher principle than lower taxes is going to be a guardian of the public interest.
These ideas are not working this time. They didn’t work last time or the time before that. We have no idea why. And we all just stand here barking.
Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator and the author of “The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators.”