On a warm spring afternoon I am sitting outside with an adult beverage watching the carpenter bees eat my house. Its not as bad as it sounds. After years of trying to discourage them we have come to an understanding - they confine their drilling and burrowing to a couple of large fascia boards and I leave them alone. Since they reuse the same nests and areas each year the damage is somewhat limited and I accept this as the price for all the good they do.
The males swarm around by the dozens trying to get a date. They come and buzz around me but the males don't sting so it just provides an opportunity to watch close up the "impossible" i.e. the flight of creatures that some have claimed should not be able to fly. When not on the dating scene the bees work the flowers and bushes in our yard. Its a perfect symbiotic relationship, the bees get nectar for food and we get flowers pollinated.
Carpenter bees are classically "busy as a bee," in constant motion as long as the weather is warm enough. Still I can't help but wonder if there are any lazy ones. Are there a couple of males (I'm sure it would be the guys) hanging out in the nest sucking down mugs of fermented nectar and watching the Three Stooges on TV? Well, probably not.
So where does it start? If bees are hardwired to be busy, to work, to do their part for the social order and not be slackers, where does the tendency to be lazy, to get a unfair advantage, to take advantage of others, to be greedy, start? Is it something that happens mostly among "higher" order creatures?
A few years ago we volunteered to work at Okonjima Nature Reserve, a cheetah wildlife preserve in Namibia. This preserve rescues and rehabilitates cheetahs and where possible returns them to the "wild". I put wild in quotes because released cheetahs are confined to a preserve that is fenced to keep them in so they don't eat farmers livestock and to keep poachers out. Still at 55,000 acres (about 4 times the land mass of Albany, NY or 3 times Las Cruces NM) it is both large and wild. What they have found after releasing dozens of cheetahs into the preserve over the years is that after having been in rehab where they are fed and cared for until ready to be released, a few of the cheetahs will not hunt for themselves. They are dubbed "welfare" cheetahs and live out their days in 5-8 acre enclosures eating donkey meat delivered to them.
It is impossible to know if their condition results from never having learned to hunt (many of the animals at the preserve because their mothers were killed when they were kittens) or if they just were addicted to the free food. Perhaps they are the cheetah equivalent of Ronald Reagan's "welfare queens". As we consider primates it seems more evident that some individuals are looking for a free ride when they can get it. It is interesting to consider that the more intelligent a species is, the more likely there are to be individuals who want to beat the system, live off the work of others or gain an unfair advantage, often by hook or by crook.
These elements of greed, deception and entitlement are evident in what economists call rent seeking. No, rent seeking does not mean renting out your spare room via Airbnb. Investopedia defines rent-seeking "as efforts to obtain economic gain from others without reciprocating any benefits to society," i.e. getting something for nothing or freeloading. This often involves lobbying and campaign contributions designed to obtain subsidies, grants or tariff protection from governments. These activities don't create any benefit for society; they just redistribute resources from the taxpayers and consumers to the company or individual.
A good example of rent seeking is sugar, that stuff we tend to eat too much of and which is difficult to avoid since it is added to nearly every packaged or processed food we buy, from cereal to soda, sport drinks to apple sauce. The sugar industry has been very effective in lobbying for tariffs on sugar imported to the US. As a result, the price of raw sugar is about 6 cents a pound higher in the US than the world average. Six cents? A pittance you say right? Well, Ben Franklin admonished us to be "penny wise" and in this case it means that US consumers paid about $1.4 billion more in just one year (2013) than they should have. That is money that the sugar industry took from your pocket and put in theirs (source: Heritage Foundation report). Their only added expense was the money spent on campaign contributions and lobbying. Nice work if you can get it.
A second example is the way a very well know billionaire got rich. The New York Times reported that this individual received at least $885 million in tax breaks, subsidies, and grants for his apartment, hotel, and office developments in New York City. That is nearly a billion dollars that City, state and federal taxpayers had to pay because an already rich person did not. And that was just the properties in New Your City. He became a billionaire by taking money from you and me. And he is one of many, the takers, the greedy, the ones who live off other people's labor.
Rent seeking behavior is characterized by greed, deception, deceit and a strong sense by the perpetrators of entitlement and often superiority. This requires an advanced brain and apparently it is a successful strategy for reproductive success since it seems to have thrived through homo sapiens' evolution. So should this behavior be vilified or celebrated? Should we all be bees or welfare cheetahs? That in effect is one ingredient in the political divide on the country.
One Small Voice
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