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'Collapse' in Congress: Lawmakers should learn from tribal elders

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UCLA Professor Jared Diamond has studied traditional cultures for decades, laying out his findings in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Guns, Germs and Steel" as well as "Collapse" and his just-published volume, "The World Until Yesterday."

In the wake of a high-wire "fiscal cliff" performance that wasn't exactly their finest hour, members of Congress would do well to learn a lesson from the tribes of New Guinea and the Amazon: Listen to your elders. At least that's the lesson passed along by UCLA Professor Jared Diamond, the author of "The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?"

Diamond documented the reasons why European invaders overwhelmed less technologically advanced cultures in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies." He laid out cautionary tales of social breakdown in the follow-up book, "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." In his newly published book, Diamond draws upon his decades of research in far-flung locales to lay out lessons for us less traditional types.

"Tribes constitute thousands of natural experiments in how to run a human society," he told a capacity crowd Thursday night during the kickoff of his international book tour at Town Hall Seattle.

Diamond says the useful findings from those experiments run a wide gamut, from the benefits of multilingualism to the right way to carry a baby ("vertically upright, facing forward"). But one of his biggest themes has to do with the way older people are treated, or mistreated. He noted that a Fijian friend was shocked to see how often America's senior citizens are shunted aside by the younger generation. And although some traditional societies have their own quirks about dealing with the aged — for example, strangling them when they become a liability — Diamond agrees that American attitudes need an adjustment.


"The World Until Yesterday" is the latest book from Jared Diamond, a geography professor at UCLA.

"The lives of the elderly constitute a disaster area of modern American society," the 75-year-old Diamond said in Seattle. "We can do better."

He'd like to see senior citizens restored to the roles they have always held in traditional societies, but in a modern-day context: for example, as baby-sitters in a world where both parents work, or as fonts for the kind of wisdom you can't get through a Web search. He'd even like to see age given more respect on Capitol Hill, where the median age is 57 in the House and 62 in the Senate. That was the theme of my interview with Diamond on Thursday. Here's an edited version of the Q&A:

Cosmic Log: How would traditional societies deal with something like the fiscal cliff? What advice can you give to Congress for dealing with the kind of gridlock that we've seen?

Diamond: "The unrealistic answer is to say that the only senators and House members who are permitted to vote on fiscal-cliff issues are those who are over the age of 70. That's not realistic. But the realistic idea is to say that we should give disproportionate weight to the opinions of older politicians who have experienced a much wider range of financial conditions than have the young members of Congress. That is to say, we should listen to people who have gone through the Great Depression, the bubbles of the '80s, the soaring interest rates of the '70s. They've seen a variety of conditions, whereas younger people have seen only recent conditions, and they don't realize that things can be different. That's what comes out of traditional societies. 

"Most traditional peoples talk about 'tribal elders.' The reality is that the leaders of traditional peoples are always the older people. And the reason is, it's good. They have lots of lifetime experience under very different conditions.

"The same also applies to modern societies: Sometimes I'm asked to talk to hedge-fund groups. I'm struck by the fact that most of the people are in their 20s or 30s. There may be a few people in their 40s, and maybe a couple in their 50s. When you look at the statistics, about half of all hedge funds fail within the first five years, although many of them do spectacularly well for a couple of years. The reason is, the whiz kids are very good at algorithms that make money under good conditions. But they don't realize that conditions can be very different, that there are tough conditions — soaring interest rates, financial setbacks. So they don't have the long perspective. That's an example of how a long perspective is necessary for financial policy, just as it is for governing, for deciding about war and peace."

Q: Is there any institutional reform that can do that, or is it beyond modern society to get back to those ways?

A: "It's not beyond modern society, because if you look around at different modern societies — and I'm talking about rich industrial societies — some of them give a lot more deference and weight to older people than do others. The United States is an extreme in this respect. We are perhaps the modern rich society that has the biggest cult of youth. For example, when was the last time you saw a commercial with an 83-year-old raising a bottle of Coca-Cola? The Coke ads are all about 25-year-olds. That's our cult of youth. But in Europe, there is much more deference given to older people. In China, even more. In Japan, too, and in Mexico and Italy. So there's an area where the United States, in its own self-interest, can learn from the experience of its older people."

Q: I'm struck by one of the comments that a House Republican made during the fiscal-cliff deliberations, complaining about the "sleep-deprived octogenarians" in the Senate. ...

A: "Sure, but the octogenarians have had 80 years to see the advantages of taxes. Taxes are an investment, they're not money taken away from you. They're your own money that's being used for long-term purposes. Our taxes are paying for roads, they're paying for schools, they're paying for armed forces, they're paying for inspectors, they're paying for regulators. The more we put in, the more we get out. Now, this is not to deny that every government wastes some tax money. Nobody has figured out how to spend taxes in a way that there's no waste. But the basic mindset is that taxes bring benefits. The longer you live, the more you see those benefits."

Q: Is there an analog to taxation that has worked for traditional societies?

A: "There is, but it's not until you get to medium-to-large societies. Small traditional societies of a few dozen to a few hundred people really don't have anything like taxation. Once you get to a society of a few thousand people, where there's a chief — big enough that you can't have a face-to-face discussion, but you've got to have a chief — chiefs practice an early form of taxation. They require that the commoners turn over a fraction of their agricultural products to the chief. Part of that is used to support their own lifestyle, and part of that is also held in reserve to redistribute to the commoners in a time of famine. One could say that that's a precursor to state government taxation."

Q: Are there other things on your short list of lessons that could help break the societal gridlock we see today?

A: "Another whole area that's open for discussion is the area of conflict resolution. The American system of conflict resolution in the courts is a system of determining right and wrong, with winners and losers. But in traditional societies, conflict resolution has a different goal. The goal is to achieve and maintain peace between people who are going to have to deal with each other for the rest of their lives. The society is small, so you know everybody. In the United States, a big society, if you have a traffic accident, the other person is likely to be someone you never saw before and will never see again. So who cares whether they're unhappy with the result? But the reality is that anybody who's been involved with the American civil or criminal justice system knows that its goal is not to achieve reconciliation. And the result is emotional agony, often for the rest of one's life.

"It's particularly sad when that agony involves divorcing spouses, or so often it involves brothers and sisters, or parents and children who end up suing each other in inheritance disputes. That's because when you use courts and lawyers, the goal is not to achieve emotional clearance, but the goal is to decide right and wrong. That is another big subject area we could happily talk about for a few hours."

Q: Another big subject area would be how to deal with the emotional scars left by the string of mass shootings we've seen lately. Are there any lessons that can be drawn from traditional societies addressing that issue?

A: "My one-liner there would be the balance between individual interests and communal interests. The United States' laws provide that if an individual wants a gun, that individual is going to have a gun, even if that is bad for society as a whole. Today I'm talking from Seattle, which is 100 miles from the Canadian border. Here we have a neighbor that is as affluent as the United States, but has a different balance — with much more emphasis on communal interests and much less interest on individual rights. Among other things, Canadians do not feel that everybody should exercise their God-given right to carry a gun."

Think there's enough in what Diamond says to get a discussion going? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

More from Jared Diamond:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.