When hard times come, we find out the true ferocity within others and ourselves as we fight for survival and dignity in the realization that what was once taken for granted as being plentiful is now seen as scarce. Cartels and informal alliances that hold when times are good crumble and collapse under pressure when people see who the real aggressors are and who are merely hangers on. This is an unpleasant side to life, but it is a fairly common one. Today I would like to comment a little on three different but simultaneous mainfestations of this phenomenon that are going on right now.
First, let us start with a trivial example. I have been close to a lifelong fan of the University of Pittsburgh, and also a longtime fan of the University of South Florida (full disclosure: I received a Master’s of Science in Engineering Management from USF in 2008), both of whom have, since 2003, been in the Big East Conference. Pitt is an established power who is nonetheless somewhat mediocre in football and annually a premature exit from the NCAA Basketball tournament. USF is a pretty terrible basketball team at present but is considered to be an up-and-comer as a football team, annually winning a non-conference upset, having a mediocre record in conference, and then a pretty reliable winner of lower-tier bowl games in places like St. Petersburg, Charlotte, or Toronto. So, that is the context.
They are conference rivals no longer, though, thanks to the law of the jungle working in American college football. There are (for now) six BCS Conferences, the Bowl Championship Series. These six conferences, the SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big 10 (which, paradoxically, has twelve teams in it), Big 12 (which, paradoxically, has ten teams in it), and Big East (the smallest and weakest of these conferences), along with independent Notre Dame (a perennially overrated team based on its pedigree), have strong guarantees for their own presence in these very lucrative games. Teams from the remaining conferences of Division I-A (officially called the Football Bowl Subdivision), like the Mountain West Conference and the Sun Belt Conference have a far higher hurdle to climb before receiving at-large spots in these bowls, which help keep the richest and most powerful of these conferences far above their competitors.
For whatever reason, the past few years have seen a dramatic rise in larger conferences and a lot of poaching from other conferences. The more powerful a conference is, the more poaching it has done without being poached. The results are somewhat revealing. They reveal that among the Big 6 conferences that four are bigger than the others. The SEC seems to be the most confident, not having any threatened defections itself while swiping both Texas A&M and Missouri from the Big-12 to slightly expand its regional pull and expand to 14 teams. The ACC swiped Pitt and Syracuse from the Big East (just as it had swiped Miami, Boston College, and Virginia Tech before), to also go up to 14 teams. Meanwhile, the Pac-10 took Colorado from the Big 12 and Utah from the Mountain West so as not to be left out itself, even if it did not take the high-profile teams that others did. And the Big 10 took Nebraska from the Big 12 as well to expand its roster to 12 teams. These conferences have clearly been the “winners” in conference realignment.
There have been plenty of losers though. The WAC lost its biggest power, Bosie State, to the Mountain West Conference, which has then lost Utah, Brigham Young University, and Texas Christian (which first bolted to the Big East, then changed its mind when the Big 12 came calling). Between the two “loser” main conferences, the Big 12 appears far better off than the Big East. The Big 12 has swiped both West Virginia and Texas Christian from the Big East without losing any to the Big East itself. The Big East is now scrambling for survival, looking for a couple of big mid-major teams or being faced with possible destruction. Despite the money flying around for television contracts, it appears as if there is a feeling of insecurity and scarcity, and that means the big fish flex their muscles and gobble up as many of the little fish as possible to feel more secure. Who thinks about the long run when a crisis hits?
Let us go to a more serious example, since the fate of sports teams and franchises is of only ephemeral and minor importance in the grand scheme of life. Economics, on the other hand, is a more critical matter. And here too we have the same insecurities. Here too we see mob politics and poor short-term thinking in the face of massive crises, rather than the sort of decisive if painful acts that might resolve the problems altogether. Rather than seeing the sort of cooperative effort at making a bad situation easier for everyone, what we see is rioting and shell games designed at achieving selfish benefit with even greater costs down the line. So long as one has a chair in the game of musical chairs, no one seems to care if the actions are just, just as long as one isn’t left standing when the music stops.
Let us give a few examples. Last year many young people in England rioted about increased government charges for school. There were also riots in Greece about austerity measures given their basketcase economy. In the United States and elsewhere there is at least the pretension of a mass riot, along with the ensuing anarchial behavior, concerning economic problems, such as the crushing burden of student loans (mine are bad enough as a would-be engineer and historian; I imagine it’s even tougher as a Gender Studies major) as well as the feeling that winners and losers are being chosen in a corrupt fashion. Paradoxially, most of these riots have seen the rioters call for more government intervention in problems that have been largely the result of blundering government intervention in the first place (subsidies given to favored companies and unions, subsidies on education, laws that make it impossible to get out of student loans under any circumstances whatsoever, leading predictably to a rise in ersatz universities like the University of Phoenix and a massive rise in tuition costs).
Despite the variety of locations and reasons for this turmoil, they spring from a common sentiment (and, it should be admitted, one I personally share, even if my way of going about the problem is different), namely the feeling that there are too few spots in the lifeboats for the passengers of the Titanic. We seem to be in iceburg-heavy waters and there is a widespread (and I believe accurate) concern that there are not enough places for everyone. So the race is on to make sure that whatever happens, each person gets their own place, forget anyone else. In the same way that colleges are ditching loyalty and jumping ship wherever they can get out, the same is true for people. We might decry the lack of loyalty among ordinary people—but they were taught disloyalty by their families, schools, churches, and employers. The chickens are coming home to roost. The price of widespread disloyalty is that no one can be trusted and everyone is knave looking out for their own selfish benefit, no matter what suffering this forces on other people in the name of ‘responsibility’ and getting one’s fair share.
Sometimes life or death is at stake in these matters. Such is the case, for example, for the people of the Bangkok area of Thailand. As an epic flood approaches a city that is barely above sea level, the very real life or death concern of looking at the tides of a river, making sure that high tides don’t inundate the shaky flood barriers, making sure that one has enough food and water, or a way out of the city, is a very big problem. Of course there are stories of hoarding (for hoarding is one of the behaviors of people during a disaster). Of course there are stories of people pointing fingers—for everyone likes to shift blame to others in the face of a massive crisis to avoid their own (however small or large) share of the fault. This is how humans behave when times are bad. None of it ought to be any surprise at all.
And I cannot say it is a surprise to me. I have known from a lifetime of dealing with scarcity that people do not behave their best in the face of (apparent or real) threats to survival. I can speak from personal experience in the matter. It is somewhat disappointing to look around and see no escape from such problems for myself, but if that is the way life is to be, it must be dealt with manfully. I am sure it must be shocking for people who thought that life would be easy to be faced with diffiuclties they never even imagined, for me it is less of surprise than of frustration. To fight and fight all of one’s life in the hope of better times only to see times get worse and worse is an immensely bothersome thing. I imagine that will make these crises even harsher, should they continue to worsen, as people get more desperate and therefore more brutal. Civilization in all too many cases is merely a mask over the face of the savage beast that lies inside us all.