I once wrote a model. Back in the days where I was paid by banks to do proper mathematics rather than the broader mandate I have now. It was what’s known as an agent based model in which you run simulations wherein agents (small algorithms) make ‘choices’ based upon a series of preferences. There are some very famous ones out there examining all sorts of issues from White Flight from mixed neighbourhoods to how crowds move through auditoriums when there’s a fire. Agent based models are extremely powerful for doing two things – allowing us to see how crowds behave and generating what we call ’emergent behaviour’ or complex outcomes arising from simple rules we can’t predict until we see them actually happening.

This isn’t a post about how clever I am or even the intricacies of agent based modelling.

It’s about interruption and how they derail our lives.

The point of the model was to look at the impact of crowd mentality on financial markets (we call it sentiment in the industry). I ran hundreds of agents and they related to one another based on what others were doing. They each had goals they were making choices to try and achieve but their performance was impacted by their own prejudices and how well those around them were doing.

Added to that I dosed the methodology with the real issue for all of us – luck. In each stage the agents were the recipients of some luck. Randomly assigned, for some it would be good luck and for others it was bad luck.

I wanted to see how people ended up making bad investment decisions because others were doing the same. I also wanted to see how one decision in the system can create a cascade of disaster without the original decision taker even knowing the impact they’d had on the world. Both were evident in clear fashion.

However, what was most interesting to me was how interruptions impacted agents trying to achieve their goals.

There were three key results from this initial model.

  1. Everyone survived a single interruption. Even the most resource constrained could survive.
  2. Two interruptions in close succession would derail (in this case bankrupt) the majority of agents.
  3. Three interruptions in close succession kills everyone.

I went back and examined why this was so. Frankly I was alarmed at how easy it was to destroy everything. Then I remembered suvivor’s bias and realised, no, this is how it is. So I also adjusted the model not to be too realistic – this allowed me to keep agents alive for longer and see just what it was which caused them to spin out.

From this I got a couple of further insights (beyond the one of everyone dies in the end).

  1. Everyone’s rational, but rationality isn’t one thing. Your rational decision might be to send your kids to school and miss your evening meals to afford that. Another person’s rationality might be to switch from high risk to low risk investments. The two agents are both making rational decisions but they can only be seen as such be viewing them int he context in which they are made. Too often classical economics assumes people only have one rationality – which is to make as much money as possible from the resources they have.
  2. Interruptions can and will entirely derail us and it’s the amount of bandwidth (read: savings, spare time, social support networks) which will indicate how quickly we’ll spin out.

Although point one above is ABSOLUTELY THE MOST IMPORTANT THING for people in power to dwell upon until they understand that just because people aren’t like them it doesn’t mean they’re fools, inferior or need more ‘education’ to make them ‘right’ or ‘fit’.

Really it’s point two which I want to talk about.

We all have trajectories in life. We move on through time from one thing to the next. We build – friendships, lives, homes, relationships and stuff like savings if we’re fortunate.

Interruptions set us back, send us in different directions (occasionally good ones). Often interruptions damage us because they stall, slow or halt our trajectories, stopping us from reaching the place we were aiming for.

Imagine wanting to buy a house. You’re educated, hard working, conscientious with your money but, because of external factors you keep getting made redundant. These interruptions will destroy the chance of reaching your goal.

Or imagine you went to university but the bank fucked you over and the university kicked you out and neither would take responsibility for something entirely out of your control. The interruption destroys the chance of reaching your goal.

Worse still, without what economists call ‘social capital’ which is short hand for savings, time, emotional space and support, we end up picking up these pieces on our own time when we would, if they hadn’t hit us, been building towards the thing we wanted.

You might say this is just the way it is, these examples showed people who bad luck. Sure, says I, but that just reveals two truths about interruptions.

  1. They happen to us whether we work hard or are good people. They take from us when we’ve done nothing wrong. Thanks for proving my point
  2. Rich people discover they are insulated from these interruptions much better than poor people.

The latter of these is crucial because it gives the lie to both the idea of social mobility and meritocracy when a society has a high degree of inequality.

Where there is low inequality, we all have a better chance of acting in such a way that those around us can recover from interruptions better, because any kind of interruption will impact us all equally. We’re motivated to create recovery programs, safety nets because it could be any of us.

Where there’s inequality, well the rich tend to believe in meritocracy and use it as a shield to be blind to their own privilege which insulates them from interruptions.

Worse still, they can end up believing they worked just as hard, if not harder than those who got interrupted and somehow it’s the fault of those who got interrupted because the same interruptions didn’t impact the rich people the same way. Inequality is insidious because it breeds attitudes that justify its presence by blaming those who have less for their own failures. It also makes it harder for those who have wealth to empathise with those for whom interruptions could be a matter of life and death.

We are lucky that illness in the UK won’t bankrupt us when we’re patients but if you want to see the real deleterious impact of inequality and interruptions, look at societies where healthcare is means based and watch how the poor, if they get sick, are utterly screwed.

Interruptions can ruin our lives. yet in equal societies they do so less because we’re properly in it together and will generate systems to help one another. In my models, where agents could share risk collectively they stayed alive longer (on average). Where they didn’t, then more people died more often and those few who survived did so not by their own skill but PURELY by chance.

When we talk about White privilege there are some powerful arguments running alongside it about White poverty. Especially in English speaking countries like the US and the UK where lassiez faire economic policies have created a de-facto underclass with no savings, little education and no prospects. Poor people should be basic allies against inequality but too often they are not just indifferent to one another, but openly antagonistic.

I think this comes from the basic fact that for all poor people, interruptions can eat you alive – taking your ability to properly examine what might to blame because you’re too busy simply trying to stay alive.

Dare I say it, if liberals want to build an anti-fascist coalition? One that sees rampant unchecked free market (an important distinction) capitalism as the sponsor of fascism it really is, recognising the dignity of those with no social capital is the first step, the second being committed and consistent work to unweave a society built increasingly on the premise of ‘what can you do for me?’ There are forms of capitalism that don’t eat us alive by the way but that’s a different conversation.

Inequality is bad folks because luck makes fools of us all.