The Evolutionary Roots of Autocracy

We humans have two equally close primate cousins: chimpanzees and bonobos. Both of these great apes share 98.7% of their DNA with human beings. The two species look similar to the untrained eye but are very different in terms of lifestyles. Along with other primates, both can tell us much about our own values and those of our politicians. I think they’re especially instructive in helping us understand the evolutionary roots of autocracy, which seems to be proliferating both within and outside the United States.

Chimp and Bonobo Politics

Despite the fact they are often mistaken for one another, the chimp and the bonobo species have very different characters and politics. Ethologist Frans de Waal writes, “We are blessed with two close primate relatives to study, and they are as different as night and day. One is a gruff looking, ambitious character with anger management issues, the other is an egalitarian proponent of a free spirited lifestyle.”

Male-dominated and Forceful

Chimp societies tend to be male-dominated and hierarchical. They deal with politics largely through force and aggression.

But that doesn’t mean that one lone, strong and assertive chimp can lead by shear force. He needs allies to overcome potential threats from enemy groups who wish to overthrow him. As de Waal writes,  “Staying on top is a balancing act between between forcefully asserting dominance, keeping supporters happy and avoiding mass revolt.  If this sounds familiar, it’s because human politics works exactly the same.”

de Waal goes on to explain, “Power is the prime mover of the male chimpanzee. It’s a constant obsession, offering great benefits if obtained and intense bitterness if lost.”

Female-dominated and More Peaceful

Bonobo politics are starkly different. They are based less on aggression and more on relationships in which sexual behaviors play a key role in conflict resolution, bonding, and social interaction.

Compared to chimps, bonobos have a more egalitarian social structure, though one in which females take leadership roles. Bonobo relationships tend to be cooperative and empathic. Force and aggression do occur but they are much less common than among chimps.

Some of the sex among bonobos would be labeled as “homosexual” among humans but the term has less relevance among bonobos because sex is the common coinage among all relationships. Same-sex activities are especially common among females.

“Perhaps the bonobos most typical sexual pattern, undocumented in any other primate, is genito-genital rubbing (or GG rubbing) between adult females,” reports Scientific American. “One female facing another clings with arms and legs to a partner that, standing on both hands and feet, lifts her off the ground. The two females then rub their genital swellings laterally together, emitting grins and squeals that probably reflect orgasmic experiences.”

Sexual behavior has become a mechanism for overcoming aggression: “[T]he art of sexual reconciliation may well have reached its evolutionary peak in the bonobo. For these animals, sexual behavior is indistinguishable from social behavior. Given its peacemaking and appeasement functions, it is not surprising that sex among bonobos occurs in so many different partner combinations…”

Embracing Chimp Politics

Today we humans have a growing slate of politicians who are autocratic and power-focused. Their advocates would call them “strong leaders” and their critics would call some of them autocrats, tyrants or sometimes even (depending on their brand of autocracy) fascists. They are eager to use the sanctioned force of government to achieve their ends, rewarding allies and punishing political enemies.

When their authority is challenged, their first impulse is to strike out rather than try to find common ground. They much prefer political battle to forging peace, even when waging that battle clearly goes against democratic values.

What they want above all is power and control, including the power to ban speech with which they disagree. Sometimes they use violent rhetoric that’s designed to be divisive and threatening. Other times, they just use violence itself.

They especially embrace the art of scapegoating. Referring to primates, de Waal writes, “What makes scapegoating so effective is that it’s a double-edged sword. First, it releases tension among the dominants. Attacking an innocent harmless bystander is obviously less risky than attacking each other. Second, it rallies the higher-ups around a common cause. While threatening the scapegoat, they bond with each other, sometimes mounting and embracing, indicate they stand united…. Humanity’s most horrific scapegoating was the Holocaust…”

In the case of many of today’s leaders, they target politically much weaker and far smaller outgroups. In the U.S., this often include members of the LGBTQ+, ethnic minorities, and immigrants. That is, they picks on groups who are already discriminated against and then intensify that discrimination to create a sense of grievance and solidarity among the majority of their supporters. It’s a dynamic that has played out throughout human history again and again.

We All Share Primate Values

When I argue that such leaders share specific primate values and behaviors, this is not to imply that the rest of humanity does not. Human beings are in the scientific family classification Hominidae, which include chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutangs. We all share commonalities with our Hominidae cousins. But the behaviors of such leaders tend to bear the closest resemblance to those of our chimpanzee cousins.

My guess is that the ability to be aggressive continues to be important to human survival, but that trait must be tempered as never before. After all, the growing power of our weapons means aggression can have species-ending consequences. Therefore, we increasingly need to temper those traits with more relationship-oriented values and behaviors.

Such autocrats might make for good chimpanzee alphas in a world of small communities wielding sticks, stones and fangs. In a complex, global world with proliferating nuclear stockpiles, powerful biotechnologies, and technology-enabled police states, they are exactly the wrong types of leaders.

We don’t all need to adopt the sexualized behaviors of bonobos (not that there’s anything wrong with that among consenting adults), but their example does point us to social models of more give-and-take, more relationship-building, and more empathy with one other.

We have a choice. All primate behaviors are part of our genetic repertoire. The question is which ones we need to leverage if we’re going to survive the 21st century.

My Father on Memorial Day

This is a short post both about and, in large part, by my father on Memorial Day. My father was a doctor during World War II and kept a diary during the months of the Battle of the Bulge. The following is a description of one of the more harrowing nights he and his fellow medical practitioners spent while operating on the wounded.

I’m very proud that my father served as a medical officer in what some still refer to “the good war.” During this Memorial Day, we should remember how many Americans died and were badly wounded defending the world from fascism. Fascism is rearing its horrific head again both globally and, some would argue, within the United States itself. I worry that many Americans can no longer recognize it for what it is, that we have forgotten one of the most critical lessons in all of history.

Here’s just one scene from the world’s war against fascism.

An Entry from the World War II Diary of Capt. William H. Vickers

That night of the 27th of February 1945 is one I’ll never forget. For 12 hours without a break we worked on the most badly wounded cases I have yet seen. These men were shot in the worst possible places and were in the foulest shock I have ever seen.

This was not enough. For three of the 12 hours the Krauts shelled us, throwing stuff, heavy stuff, at the bridge right below us. How I hated that house then, how I wanted to crawl into that cellar where all the rest of the company who weren’t working in the Clr. Sta. was safely stashed away. (The T.D. aid station moved out at 1800).

Our treatment room was the dining room with 2 exposures and 2 large, tremendous, gaping, horrible windows covered only by blankets. They looked like a perfect set up for shrapnel to ease through. We were working there with drawn taut faces, everyone carrying on as if nothing was happening, while the shrill whine of the incoming shells and then the sudden, terminating crack of the explosion filling the room. They were coming in at the rate of 1-2 every minute with the closest hitting 30 feet from our station but every one filling the room with the whine and crack.

While the whine was in the room everyone stopped for the second or second and half and were breathless waiting for the explosion. When it came some would flinch a trifle and then we’d all go back to work. The wounded were amazed that this haven of the Medical Corps was undergoing a pretty fancy shelling.

No officer and not many men got sleep that night. As the work slacked off in the early morning hours of 0800-0900 we took stock. Our A&D sheet showed 158 patients in 16 hours, a new record for our company and battalion, but it is difficult to judge the work by the number of patients for their condition has a great deal to do with the amount of work necessary. And these lads were ahurting and ableeding badly. We all aged 10 years that night.

Featured image is a picture of graves decorated with flags at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day 2008:

Illustrated Version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”

The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door,
Only this, and nothing more.”

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow, vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow, sorrow for the lost Lenore,
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore,
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me, filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
“‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door,
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;-
This it is, and nothing more.”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”, here I opened wide the door;-
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore!”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”,
Merely this, and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice:
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore,
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;,
‘Tis the wind and nothing more.”

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door,
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door,
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore,
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

Much I marveled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning, little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blest with seeing bird above his chamber door,
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered, not a feather then he fluttered,
Till I scarcely more than muttered, “other friends have flown before,
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said, “Nevermore.”

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore,
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never, nevermore’.”

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore,
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore

Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o’er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee, by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite, respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!, prophet still, if bird or devil!,
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted,
On this home by horror haunted, tell me truly, I implore,
Is there, is there balm in Gilead?, tell me, tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil, prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us, by that God we both adore,
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore,
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

“Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend,” I shrieked, upstarting,
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!, quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted, nevermore!


As an exercise, I created this illustrated version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” using generative AI tools from Microsoft and Stability AI. None of these images is copyrighted. For a couple of other posts that include corvids in literature, see The Municipality and Huginn and Muninn as Space Ravens.

Magnolia Bloom

Magnolia Bloom

We climb the park’s tower,
my eldest brother and I.
He points out a lovely
white blossom in a tree
I identify as magnolia,
its thick green leaves shiny
with Florida sunshine.

Nearby are other blooms,
older ones, bent on decay,
white tepals yellowing,
sliding, one by one
to the forest floor,

and I think of you, mother,
who were once so splendid,
blooming and bearing the fruit of us,
ourselves now slowly wilting,
the frost of age tinging
our skin, old men maintaining

the illusion of youth only
so long as you yet lived,
a bloom we mistook
for steel, a proof against
our own mortality until the day
you dropped entirely
to the forest floor, fading
into dusk, then darkness,

leaving us shocked, aggrieved,
and afraid, knowing our own
time comes soon now.

Just as you knew me, seeing
through fading eyes, as
a callous fool saying
I’d see you anon, you
ill and angry, me
wasting precious time
on denial and work,
and doctor calls

rather than staying, your
hand in mine, waiting
with you for the fleshy parts
of your life and my fear
to fail and fall away,
and I’m sorry, Mom, sorry,
eternally, unquenchably sorry.

The old magnolia turns malignant
as my brother walks away,
whispers closely so only I can hear
that it knows I am. It knows.


For other poems, see Fiction/Poetry

A Niagara River Story

The river. Lord, I’ve done some traveling but there’s nothing that quite compares to it. To give you an idea, let me tell you a Niagara River story.

A Mostly Forgotten, Gorgeous Day

A friend sent me a photo of the two of us posing after finishing a tube run down the river. Old black tractor tubes are half deflated at our feet. She’s looking sassy in her cutoffs and I’m shirtless and smirking amid a head full of wavy brown hair. How old? I’m not sure. Somewhere in that range of newly minted adulthood.

I have zero recollection of anyone taking that photo and barely remember the day at all. Yet there we were, radiating that glow of exuberant youthfulness of which the young themselves tend to be so unconscious. It’s both beautiful and, these days, a tad painful to see.

They say that “youth is wasted on the young” and that may have been truer for me than many, though I loved most of my college days.

I’ve lately read various articles and studies on how dismal so many of kids feel today. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among people age 15 to 24 in the U.S. This breaks my heart because it’s so unnecessary. We live in one of the richest societies on Earth and in the history of the world, but so many of our kids are sunk into despair.

Our culture is broken. We need to fix it, yet argue about the stupidest political issues every day instead of collectively focusing on the critical stuff like our kids, communities, and the planet.

A Winter Day by the River

A Dream of Trees

But back to the river, which still haunts my dreams. Some years ago, before she moved back to Florida, my mother lived in the village of Lewiston, NY on 2nd Street. We were visiting on Christmas vacation, but I was deluged with work and feeling glum.

Just before I woke up one morning, I had a dream of climbing these tall and bendy spruce (or maybe they were fir) trees along the river banks. Hanging onto the crown of one tree, I jump off and drop before the bending tree springs me back up and up, flung joyfully into the air above the line of trees.

Then, falling again, I grab hold of the crown of another tree and start over. At some point, I use a tree to spring myself up and over the middle of the river before diving down into it.

I forget most of my dreams, but that one has stuck with me.

The Snow

When I woke, no one else was up. It was snowing and just starting to get light. You know those huge, puffy snowflakes? The kind that float and spin and seem more like the fluffy milkweed seeds than regular snow? The kind that just stick on your hat and gloves without melting?

Yeah, those. So, I went for a walk. I walked down the road and over to the notoriously steep “Suicide Hill,” intent on seeing the river in the snowfall. I was only wearing sneakers and soon discovered there was a layer of ice just beneath the thickening snow. I wound up virtually (and involuntarily) skiing down part of the hill, wind-milling my arms and somehow managing to lurch into the deep snow to the side of the road.

From there, I carefully sidestepped down the rest of the hill, the snow covering socks and sneakers, inching up my calves beneath my jeans. The icy feeling was unpleasant yet somehow a price I was eager to pay.

The Sand Docks

Eventually I made it down to the Lewiston Sand Docks, which is a kind of concrete landing on which huge piles of sand were traditionally dumped by a dredger.

On that winter day, though, there were no sand piles. Nor were there any of the fisherman who frequent the Sand Docks all through the summer. It was just me and the snow and that astonishing morning river.

Strangely, on the Internet I can’t easily find a good photo of ice flowing down the lower Niagara River, though it used to be (and maybe still is) a common sight in those parts. What one typically sees are semi-transparent blue-green slates of ice made visible by thin layerings of snow. Or sometimes sporadic, misshapen bulges of hard-packed ice recently broken apart at the falls.

The Procession

But that morning was a sight I’d never seen before and will probably never see again. A procession of hundreds of sheets of ice flowing downriver, solemn yet bedecked with fluffy mounds of light, feathery snow.  A rich, white pageantry, the air around festooned by thick flakes falling slowly like God’s own confetti. A strange fairy tale mix of Pope’s funeral and Macy’s parade.

I thought of going back and awakening my wife, who is a fine, award-winning photographer, but knew she wouldn’t appreciate being awakened on an early winter morning. And the scene might have dissipated by then. She’d be grumpy and the spell would be broken.

So I stood on the edge of the Sand Docks alone and tried to take it all in. The snow seemed to merge us, the river and sky and me. In the water below was deep slushy ice pushing up against the stone of the docks. One slip of my slick sneakers and under I’d go. I’m a strong swimmer but I wouldn’t last long in those waters.

Given the snowfall even my footprints would soon be gone. If I were to slide beneath the ice, perhaps no one would even know. Truly merged, I’d disappear from the face of the world, a mystery never solved.


I stood there a little longer before taking a step back. More family would be arriving soon. There were presents yet to be wrapped and opened. Celebrations and a poorly written report to edit. Then flights to catch.

So I trudged back up the hill to my mother’s place. My lovely, funny mother who was recently carried away during the pandemic.

I no longer remember much of that holiday. Not the gifts given or received. Not the subject of the research report that was weighing me down. Neither the conversations nor the convivialities.

Most of that time is gone, only stray pieces of flotsam and jetsam washed up on the shores of my memory. Still, however, I can now see in my mind’s eye myself and my friend — smiling and sassy in her cutoff shorts — floating downriver in a bubble of western New York summer sunshine, yet somehow surrounded by a pageant of ice sheets adorned in fresh new snow.

The scene makes no sense, no more than my dream of aerial acrobatics amid firs and spruce, but there it is. Another vision born of blue skies and wintry storms, dreams as well as memories, passing inexorably by as do all things in life, everything caught in the vast, lovely, terrible stream of the great Niagara.

We Just Don’t Know the Impact AI Will Have on Jobs

I like to think I know HR and workforce issues pretty well. I’ve spent a large part of my life researching them. But the more I read about these new technologies, the more I think we just don’t know the impact AI will have on jobs. We’re going to have to learn as we go.

Driverless Cars Are Coming, Till They’re Not, Or Are They?

Just a few years ago, the standard thinking was that a lot of blue-collar jobs would soon disappear due to the advent of driverless vehicles. But it turns out that driving is a lot harder than it looks and AIs just can’t handle the “edge cases” well. Sure, they can handle 98% of driving, but they can’t cope with the unexpected. For example, there’s the case of the self-driving car in San Francisco that didn’t obey an officer’s command to halt when it was in an area where firefighters were working. The cop smashed in the car’s windshield to stop it. That’s the kind of edge case that goes viral.

So, all those ride-sharing and taxi jobs are safe, right? That’s become the new conventional wisdom. For now.

“The white-collar employee’s future is more threatened than the Uber driver, because we still don’t have self-driving cars, but AI can certainly write reports,” Martin Ford, author of Rule of the Robots: How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything, told the BBC.

Well, pardon my skepticism ,Mr. Ford, but I doubt you really know. Right now, there are hundreds of driverless cars in California, many in San Francisco. In fact, there are over 1,400 such vehicles registered in that state, up from just 900 last November, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. In some parts of San Francisco, these vehicles have become a pretty common sight.

Now, maybe this surge is temporary. Maybe the public will turn against these cars, especially if there’s some well-publicized gruesome accident costing multiple lives. Or, maybe these cars will start appearing in city centers all over California and then beyond. If someone can pay a fraction of a price of an Uber for a ride in a driverless car, you can bet a lot of people will be willing to give them a try.

The point is, we just don’t know for sure. Mr. Ford is wrong in that we do have self-driving cars, we just don’t have a lot of them yet. The future is, as they say, already here but still unevenly distributed. Things could change…quickly….or not.

Now White-Collar Jobs Are Expected to Evaporate, But Will They?

The new conventional wisdom is that blue-collar jobs are safe while white-collar jobs are on the chopping block. Are all those software development jobs, for example, going out the window because the new generative AIs are pretty good at writing computer code?

Maybe. There are stories of programmers who are able to boost their coding productivity by three times or more as they leverage ChatGPT or other AIs. Let’s assume for a minute that the productivity claim is true. Does it mean that 2 out of 3 programming jobs are now expendable?

Could be. Or, it may be there’s a whole lot of development work out there that companies couldn’t get to because they just couldn’t afford to hire enough developers. If these professionals are three times more productive, then companies stand to earn more money per worker more quickly and can afford to hire more programmers.

Consider the Case of the ATM

Consider the case of the bank teller. For a while, the conventional wisdom was that automated teller machines, or ATMs, would cast bank teller jobs into the dustbin of history. But that’s not what happened. Since 2000, in fact, teller jobs have grown a little faster than the the labor force as a whole. The impact of the ATM machine was not to destroy teller jobs but to increase them.

James Pethokoukis writes, “What happened? Well, the average bank branch in an urban area required about 21 tellers. That was cut because of the ATM machine to about 13 tellers. But that meant it was cheaper to operate a branch. Well, banks wanted, in part because of deregulation [but also] for basic marketing reasons, to increase the number of branch offices. And when it became cheaper to do so, demand for branch offices increased. And as a result, demand for bank tellers increased.”

Tech Wiped Out Most Farm Jobs, Right?

Now let’s consider the job of the agricultural worker. Farming jobs have become so technologically productive that they are practically the poster child for productive-tech-kills-jobs idea. And, it’s true. We do have many fewer farmers per capita today than we did before the industrial revolution.


Guess what the top role is expected to be over the next five years in terms of net job growth?

If you’re sensing a theme here, then you’ve probably guessed it: agricultural equipment operators. The World Economic Forum states, “Surveys conducted for the Future of Jobs Report suggest that the highest job growth in 2023-2027 will be for agricultural equipment operators, for drivers of heavy trucks and buses, and for vocational education teachers. Mechanics and machinery repairers follow in fourth place.”

But Surely the Writers Are Doomed!

Now let’s talk about the most obvious victims of large language model AIs: journalists and other writers. Why should anyone hire a writer when they can get generative AI to write virtually for free?

Good question. Maybe there will be a vast reduction in such jobs. Why not? After all, journalism jobs have been on the decline for decades. The Center on Education and the Workforce reports, “Projected job losses for journalists are primarily due to newspaper downsizing and closures….[O]nly about 15% of journalism majors become editors or news analysts, reporters, and correspondents early in their careers.”

Now ChatGPT et al. will finish the job of killing off journalism jobs for good. Right?

It could happen. On the other hand, what if all these small-town newspapers that have closed over the years because the Internet nuked their business models suddenly become modestly profitable again because the AIs can inexpensively produce copy for online (or even print!) editions? If that happens, those papers will still need some actual journalists to attend the townhall meetings, investigate important local stories via interviews, track down leads, etc.

It’s possible–though I don’t know how possible–that these new technologies will actually lead to more journalism jobs in the same way that more ATMs were correlated with more bank teller jobs. High productivity is like that. It can be stochastic in its effect, so you can’t always anticipate the economic outcomes of rising productivity rates.

Don’t Pretend You’re Certain About Anything

Look, I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to forecast the future or that all predictions are doomed to be wrong. But, as Niels Bohr reportedly said to the legendary Yogi Berra, “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” 

Sometimes predictions that seem obvious today can prove to be dead wrong, and there will always be some future events capable of surprising us.

So, stay humble, you futurists, forecasters and would-be guru types. None of us really knows how any of this is going to turn out. And that’s okay. We’ll make our best guesses and then figure it out as we go.

Talk to the Animals

I want to talk to the animals and understand when they talk back. I especially want to speak to the local fish crows in my area, though I’d also be fine chatting with blue jays or grackles, mockingbirds or cardinals. And, although I know this all sounds like fanciful Dr. Doolittle nonsense, I think that we are getting a lot closer to this ideal than most people imagine.

Chatty Chimps

Consider a new study with the not-so-sexy title “Call combinations and compositional processing in wild chimpanzees.” The authors write that the groups of chimps they studied use combinations of calls when they see snakes. When the researchers play those sounds back on devices, the chimps react more strongly to the combined calls than they do single, independent calls.

The chimps seem to be using a “compositional syntactic-like structure, where the meaning of the call combination is derived from the meaning of its parts.” In other words, they’re stringing together various sounds to communicate to each other about things happening in their neighborhood.

This means, of course, our ancestors might have been stringing together a combination of calls well before they evolved into modern human beings. That is, “cognitive building-blocks facilitating syntax may have been present in our last common ancestor with chimpanzees.”

We not only see signs of abstract vocal communication among chimps, we also see signs of syntax, which is the arrangement of words to create meaning. Dare we call this language?

I’m betting linguistics legend Noam Chomsky is not pleased by such claims. He has long asserted that humans are the only animals with true language. (He’s not too fond of the new AIs, either.)

Maybe Chomsky will ultimately be proven correct, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. These days, humanity is learning more and more about how sophisticated animal communications are. Whether we can call these “languages” or not is debatable, but let’s have a look at some other specific examples.

Waggling Bees

We’re learning that even some insects have sophisticated abilities to communicate abstract knowledge, with perhaps the most famous example being honeybees. NOVA reports, “Honeybees have evolved an extraordinary form of communication known as the ‘waggle’ dance. It is highly symbolic, separated as it is in both time and space from the activity it grew out of (discovering a nectar source) and the activity it will spur on (getting other bees to go to that nectar source). A bee performs the waggle dance when she wants to inform other bees of a nectar source she has found.”

Deep and Digital Listening

Karen Bakker, a professor at the University of British Columbia and a fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, states, “[I]f we combine digital listening—which is opening up vast new worlds of nonhuman sound and decoding that sound with artificial intelligence—with deep listening [which means listening carefully to natural sounds], I believe that we are on the brink of two important discoveries. The first is language in nonhumans…. The second is: I believe we’re at the brink of interspecies communication.”

A Combination of Light-weight Recorders and Deep Learning

Two things are happening. First, scientists are collecting vast amounts of animal sound and video via small, light-weight recording devices. Second, they are running all that sound through deep-learning-based algorithms that correlate specific sounds with specific social interactions.

Babbling Bats

Bakker points to the example of bats. Using the combination of recording devices and deep learning, a group of researchers “were able to classify the majority of bats’ sounds.” They found that the bats have much more complex communications than anyone previously thought. She states:

Bats argue over food; they distinguish between genders when they communicate with one another; they have individual names, or “signature calls.” Mother bats speak to their babies in an equivalent of “motherese.” But whereas human mothers raise the pitch of their voices when talking to babies, mother bats lower the pitch—which elicits a babble response in the babies that learn to “speak” specific words or referential signals as they grow up. So bats engage in vocal learning.

All that is cool beyond, well, words. But it gets even better because we can use computers to talk back to the bats. Once we understand how the bats are communicating and what they’re “saying,” we can send them messages using their own sounds and frequencies.

Lovesongs from Planet Earth

Bakker believes we’re developing something like “a planetary-scale hearing aid that enables us to listen anew with both our prosthetically enhanced ears and our imagination.” So, it’s not just a matter of opening our ears but our minds. We’re increasingly able to bridge the communication gaps between humans and nonhumans. She concludes, “It’s also opening up new ways to think about conservation and our relationship to the planet. It’s pretty profound.”

Profound indeed. I’m a sucker for a good lovesong. Now we can finally hear and begin to understand as mother bats teach their children to vocalize, as honeybees send their sisters nectar-laden messages, and as chimp families strive to protect one another from dangers lurking in the forest. These are lovesongs from the planet. Maybe one day they’ll be enough to drown out the cacophonies of culture war clatter and outrage coming from the homo sapiens crowd. I like to think so.

Featured image by Johannes Siberechts (1627–circa 1703), Saint Francis Preaching to the Animals

Three Competing AI Definitions of Strategic and Transactional HR Issues

We’ve been researching how HR contributes to organizational success. One of the key issues to consider is the division between strategic and transactional HR issues.

To get an idea of how much consensus there is on that topic, I asked an identical question of three of today’s most widely discussed generative artificial intelligences: “What kinds of HR issues are strategic and what kinds are transactional?” Here’s how they responded. The only change I made was to bold a few words.

ChatGPT 3.5

In general, HR (Human Resources) issues can be classified as either strategic or transactional based on their nature and impact on the organization. Here’s a breakdown of each category:

Strategic HR Issues:

  1. Workforce Planning: Developing long-term strategies to ensure the organization has the right people with the right skills in the right positions to achieve its goals.
  2. Talent Acquisition and Retention: Attracting and retaining top talent by implementing effective recruitment strategies, employer branding, competitive compensation packages, and employee development programs.
  3. Succession Planning: Identifying and developing potential leaders within the organization to ensure a smooth transition in key positions.
  4. Performance Management: Establishing performance standards, providing feedback, and implementing performance improvement plans to align individual and team goals with organizational objectives.
  5. Learning and Development: Identifying skill gaps, designing training programs, and implementing initiatives to enhance the knowledge and capabilities of employees.
  6. Organizational Culture and Change Management: Shaping the desired culture and managing change processes to facilitate organizational effectiveness, employee engagement, and adaptability.
  7. Employee Engagement and Satisfaction: Developing strategies to enhance employee morale, satisfaction, and motivation, leading to improved productivity and retention.
  8. Diversity and Inclusion: Promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion within the workplace through initiatives such as diverse hiring practices, creating an inclusive environment, and addressing unconscious biases.

Transactional HR Issues:

  1. Payroll and Benefits Administration: Managing payroll processing, tax deductions, and administering employee benefits programs, such as health insurance, retirement plans, and vacation accruals.
  2. Employee Onboarding and Offboarding: Handling the paperwork and processes associated with bringing new employees into the organization and managing employee departures.
  3. HR Policies and Compliance: Developing and communicating HR policies, ensuring compliance with labor laws, and managing employee records and documentation.
  4. Time and Attendance Management: Tracking employee attendance, leave requests, and managing time-tracking systems.
  5. Employee Relations and Conflict Resolution: Addressing employee grievances, managing disciplinary actions, and facilitating conflict resolution within the workplace.
  6. HR Data Management: Maintaining accurate and up-to-date employee information, managing HR databases, and generating reports related to workforce analytics.
  7. HR Technology and Systems: Managing HR information systems, implementing technology solutions, and ensuring data security and privacy.

It’s important to note that some HR issues may have elements of both strategic and transactional aspects, and the categorization can vary depending on the organization and its priorities. Additionally, the strategic and transactional aspects of HR are interrelated and require collaboration to ensure the overall effectiveness of HR functions.


Transactional HR is the day-to-day work of HR, such as:

  • Hiring and onboarding new employees
  • Managing employee benefits
  • Enforcing company policies
  • Resolving employee conflicts
  • Complying with employment laws

Strategic HR is the work of HR that is aligned with the organization’s overall goals and objectives, such as:

  • Developing a talent strategy
  • Creating a culture of engagement
  • Measuring employee performance
  • Driving innovation
  • Reducing turnover

Here is a table that summarizes the key differences between transactional and strategic HR:

CharacteristicTransactional HRStrategic HR
FocusDay-to-day operationsAlignment with organizational goals
Time horizonShort-termLong-term
Role of HRSupportiveStrategic partner

Transactional HR is essential for the smooth functioning of an organization, but strategic HR is what can help an organization achieve its long-term goals. The best HR departments are able to balance both transactional and strategic work, and they use their knowledge of both to help the organization succeed.

Here are some examples of how transactional and strategic HR can work together to achieve organizational goals:

  • Transactional HR can help to identify and recruit the best talent for the organization. Strategic HR can then work with the organization to develop a talent management plan that will help to retain and develop that talent.
  • Transactional HR can help to ensure that employees are compliant with company policies. Strategic HR can then work with the organization to develop policies that are aligned with its values and that will help to create a positive work environment.
  • Transactional HR can help to resolve employee conflicts. Strategic HR can then work with the organization to create a culture of respect and inclusion that will help to prevent conflicts from happening in the first place.

By working together, transactional and strategic HR can help organizations to achieve their goals and objectives.


According to some sources ² ⁴, strategic HR issues are those that are value- and future-focused, such as culture and retention strategies, recruitment and selection programs, developing onboarding programs, increasing value out of employees through training programs, developing outreach programs for recruitment sources, developing best practice guides or assistance, etc. Strategic HR helps implement strategies that help focus on an organization’s goals and address the challenges that need to be met by the human resources.

Transactional HR issues are those that are routine and administrative, such as payroll, workers compensation, benefits management, compliance with employment laws, etc. Transactional HR encompasses everything that makes hiring, training, paying, and managing your employees. Transactional HR is necessary but not sufficient for achieving organizational success.

For example¹, a transactional approach to hiring new employees is to write 10 job descriptions, post them, interview candidates and fill the positions. A strategic approach means partnering with the manager to understand the challenge that needs to be addressed, developing a long-term plan for a talent pipeline and networking to uncover the best passive candidates.

Source: Conversation with Bing, 5/15/2023
(1) Transactional and Strategic HR: What is the Difference, and … – SolveHR.
(2) Separating transactional from strategic HR not cut and dry.
(3) HR Strategy: Stop Being Transactional and Start Being Strategic.
(4) Traditional vs. Strategic HR: How to Guide Your Business into the ….

Who Has the Best Response to the Question?

I wish I could say there’s a clear winner here, but the truth is that they gave similar answers but in a form that complements the strengths of each one. ChatGPT gave a very straightforward and well-numbered response, demonstrating why it became the most widely adopted software tool in the history of the Internet.

Bard‘s response went to the trouble of creating a table that abstracts the characteristics of strategic and transactional in an interesting way, and it took the extra step of showing how the concepts are complementary. It’s interesting to note that the AIs don’t entirely agree on whether talent acquisition is strategic or transactional.

Meanwhile, Bing did what Bing tends to do best, which is provide a relatively succinct answer but one that provides links to original sources that supposedly support its arguments. I say “supposedly” because I’ve found that sometimes the sources it provides do not really support the assertions it makes in its summaries. Bing also wrote one incomplete sentence.

I found them all useful. In practice, I tend to use Bing a lot because it gives me sources I use to verify (or not) its assertions. This is very useful to a researcher, and I think Bing is underutilized for that reason.

That said, I’m impressed by Bard’s advances in recent weeks and will probably use it more than I have been. But ChatGPT3.5 is still a very impressive and intuitive tool, and it provided, in my eyes, the most straightforward answer.

Vive la différence! There’s room in the world for more than one scary-smart-but-annoyingly-hallucinogenic AI, it seems. May we (including us human intelligences) all learn to get along in a civil manner. That would the hallmark of a rich and interestingly complex intelligence ecosystem.

Note: The image featured is from Microsoft Bing Image Creator, in which the prompt was “In the style of Utagawa Kuniteru, show three sumo wrestlers wrestling one another”. Please note that there’s no implication that today’s AIs are somehow Japanese. I just wanted an image of three powerful wrestlers illustrated in the style of an excellent artist who has long since passed on and would have no concerns about copyright issues.

Mighty Ron, Strong Ron

Mighty Ron, Strong Ron

Ron likes to brand things,
to hear the sizzle of his power
singeing then searing
the hides of others,
scenting the smoke
sweetly suffused with the suffering
of those daring to defy him.

He especially loves leaving his black
mark on wobbly-kneed youngsters
before they learn to resist
and are lost. Before
they seek solace and strength
in books or bodies, ideas or selves
that disturb Ron. Disgust him, really.

Ron brands them for their own good
(and for his, of course),
a great circle of lookers-on cheering
as Ron lifts his bony knee,
releasing the calves that dart away,
in pain, afraid, into the corral
of Ron’s staunch ranch,
his control unquestioned,
a strong and mighty man;
“Just see how strong,” they whisper.

Ron brands the old ones as well,
brands them with an ancient acid,
two parts fear, three parts rage,
five parts blinding bigotry.
Ancient, yes, but still so vividly effective;
They all receive, in fact, their branding
like a benediction.
“This will keep you safe,” he says,
“And free.” Though maimed, they cheer,
happy to now be captives
in Ron’s mighty corral.
“Ron loves liberty!” they sing,
and Ron winks, thrilled by their bleating,
despising their stink.

In the dead of night, though, mighty Ron
is fearful and frail within,
dreaming of a brimming poisonous puss
that threatens to pop off his head
as his face turns red, witnessing
a nightmare rush of crazed calves grown
and vicious, nipping, half-blind sheep
busting down Ron’s mighty corral,
turning the ranch to splinters,
masses yearning to be free,
a disastrous stampede.

Ron reels and shouts and brandishes
his once red iron, now black as death.
Stubbornly, stupidly trampled,
he explodes like a lanced boil,
spewing a noxious white goo
that cascades like slick sleet
over Ron’s once staunch ranch,
to forge an infected wasteland,
a lasting legacy of mighty Ron, strong Ron.

Featured image: Colorado. Branding calves, a photochrom print by the Detroit Photographic Co.

Who Cashed Our Productivity Paychecks?

Does more labor productivity raise people’s living standards? The conventional wisdom is still “What’re you kidding? Of course it does!” But the evidence on that is pretty sketchy and has been for a while now. So, let’s do a little myth-busting as we explore the so-called productivity-pay gap.

Investopedia nicely sums up the standard line on productivity: “The level of productivity is the most fundamental and important factor determining the standard of living. Raising it allows people to get what they want faster or get more in the same amount of time. Supply rises with productivity, which decreases real prices and increases real wages.”

You can find the same basic claim all over the place, from the The Library of Economics and Liberty to McKinsey to Forbes.

Just one little problem, of course. The data indicates it’s not true, at least not in the ways it has usually been explained.

We’re A Lot More Productive, But Not Much Richer

In the U.S., productivity has been going up for many years. In fact, it rose a little faster between 2019 and 2022 than it did the previous 12 years. Have a look at this data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

Productivity Change in the Nonfarm Business Sector, 1947-2022

Productivity hasn’t grown as quickly over the last 15 years as it had the previous 17. But from 2019 to 2022, it was still growing at a similar rate as it did from 1973 to 1990. Overall, despite an occasional dip here and there, there’s been steady growth.

Sure, there’s plenty of room for economists to complain, but consider the fact that labor productivity more than doubled between 1979 and 2022!

So, if it’s true that “productivity is the most fundamental and important factor determining the standard of living,” then surely our standard of living also doubled in that same time period, right?

The Productivity-Pay Gap

Well, no, not by a long shot. But the answer requires more nuance than that. After all, there’s no clear definition of “standard of living” and productivity itself comes in various flavors. Let’s stick with labor productivity, which compares growth in output to the growth in hours worked, and let’s use inflation-controlled compensation as a more measurable version of standard of living.

Here’s what we get, according to the Economic Policy Institute:

The idea, of course, is that productivity and compensation rose pretty much in parallel up until the early 1980s and then split off from one another. In fact, productivity rose 3.7 times faster!

Which suggests that something’s wrong with the whole conceit and with the fact that so many trusted sources keep claiming they rise in virtual tandem despite solid evidence to the contrary.

How Do We Explain What Happened?

So, how can we explain the productivity-pay gap? There are various theories, but here are three that, while not necessarily contradictory, stress different facets of the gap.

Theory 1: Policymakers Tore Out the Coupling

The EPI itself, which has a somewhat left-leaning orientation, explains it like this: “Starting in the late 1970s policymakers began dismantling all the policy bulwarks helping to ensure that typical workers’ wages grew with productivity. Excess unemployment was tolerated to keep any chance of inflation in check. Raises in the federal minimum wage became smaller and rarer. Labor law failed to keep pace with growing employer hostility toward unions. Tax rates on top incomes were lowered. And anti-worker deregulatory pushes—from the deregulation of the trucking and airline industries to the retreat of anti-trust policy to the dismantling of financial regulations and more—succeeded again and again.”

In other words, the government allowed the system to get misaligned. Let’s use the metaphor of a coupling. In machinery, a coupling is a device for joining two rotating shafts at their ends so as to transmit torque from one to the other. The goal, of course, is to transmit power fairly evenly. In the coupling of productivity and compensation, however, things fell badly out of whack. One shaft kept spinning like a champ while the other started moving in slow-mo. If the economy were a machine, we’d send it to the shop.

Theory 2: We’re Not Measuring It Right

Another theory is that the pay-compensation gap is real but maybe not quite as large as the consumer-price-indexed compensation rates suggest. The BLS provides the following chart.

In this graph, the bottom dotted line is compensation adjusted using the consumer price index, but the light blue line above that is compensation that’s adjusted using something called the output price index, which is arguably more accurate. The authors of the article “Understanding the labor productivity and compensation gap” explain:

Workers are compensated based on the value of goods and services produced, not on what they consume. Using an output price deflator, a measure of changes in prices for producers, instead of the CPI is an alternative that better aligns what is produced to the compensation that workers receive. Each industry has its own unique output deflator that matches the goods and services that are produced in that industry.

By using these “deflators” for a variety of industries, they find that the size of the productivity-compensation gap “decreased in 87% of industries that previously showed productivity rising faster than compensation.”

To be clear, the gap isn’t going away if you use this technique, but it does typically shrink in most industries.

Theory 3: The Rich Got Most of the Pay Raise

The third and, to me, most convincing theory is that average folk had their productivity lunch eaten by their better off brethren.

This is clear when you look at the work by economists such as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT. In their book Race Against the Machine, they comment on a graph that shows the amazing and growing disparity between real median household income and real GDP per capita (which is one measure of productivity). Below is a more up-to-date version of the one they point to in their book:

They call it “striking” and then make this observation:

There have been trillions of dollars of wealth created in recent decades, but most of it went to a relatively small share of the population. In fact, economist Ed Wolff found that over 100% of all the wealth increase in America between 1983 and 2009 accrued to the top 20% of households.  The other four-fifths of the population saw a net decrease in wealth over nearly 30 years.

Ouch. So, yes, the productivity paychecks are real. And they do raise the standard of living — but not for everybody. Or even most people.

Were Gains by the Rich Earned or Stolen?

Of course, this raises another question: “Did those folks at the top earn that paycheck, or steal it?”

If that’s incendiary phrasing, don’t blame me. Blame the purveyors of conventional wisdom mentioned above. The implication has always been that we all benefit from productivity increases, but, in practice, as Brynjolfsson and McAfee say, “There is no economic law that says that everyone, or even most people, automatically benefit from technological progress.”

Maybe that makes sense? Let’s say a bunch of tycoon types invest in robotics to boost the productivity of the average worker on the line of some manufacturing plant. After the inevitable layoffs of many workers, do the rest of those surviving employees divvy up the compensation of the people who were laid off minus the cost of the machines? 

Probably not. Instead, the benefits accrue to the investors and the senior managers (especially CEOs) who made the decision to invest in the robots. That is, the rich get considerably richer while the surviving workers only get a modest increase. And the folks who were laid off? How much of a cut do you think they’re getting?

Yeah, bubkis. Or, in many cases, they actually lose economic ground.

Multiply this dynamic many times over the course of decades, and median incomes stay flat while GDP per person (which is an average rather than a median) goes up.

So, to answer our question, “They earned it, kind of, sort of, in a way, if you squint hard enough and quash any human instinct for justice and fairness.”

But at least we now have a clue about where benefits of the productivity increases go. That is the beginning of wisdom — and a fine antidote to fiscal fairy tales.

Productivity Chickens Coming Home to Roost

Recently, there has been a decline in U.S. productivity. In fact, some analysts claim that the U.S. has now seen five consecutive quarters of year-over-year declines.

The big question is why. There’s lots of finger-pointing. Some high-profile CEOs blame lazy work-at-home employees for the decline. Others argue, to the contrary, that it is the return-to-work policies that are most strongly linked to productivity declines.

There are plenty of other suspects as well. For example, many people switched jobs during the “great resignation” and so stepped into roles where they had to learn the ropes to become more productive again. Or there’s the rapid return of many employees back into the workforce, a dynamic often associated with temporary reductions of productivity.

There’s also the possibility that higher inflation — combined with pay increases that are insufficient to keep up with it — are simply demoralizing workers. Why should they worker harder for smaller paychecks?

And, of course, there’s the idea that younger generations just aren’t as eager as their older baby boomer counterparts to keep their proverbial noses to the grindstone. It’s less that they’re “lazy” and more that they just aren’t as willing to put up with bossism and toxic workplaces.

CEOs Venting Their Spleen

Meanwhile, CEOs have been venting their spleen about declining productivity, so much so that it feels as if there’s a new “leaked video of a CEO having a meltdown each week,” writes AJ Hess in Fast Company.

On one hand, I get their frustration. Their jobs are, of course, to boost the performance levels of their organizations.

On the other hand, what make these meltdowns both funny and sad is the extraordinary pay gaps between typical employees and their bosses. For example, recent figures indicate that S&P 500 CEOs averaged $18.3 million in compensation in 2021. That’s a whopping 324 times the median worker’s pay!

How did their pay get so exorbitant? Well, one answer is, of course, productivity. That is, they (and other upper-class Americans) have enjoyed the fruits of the productivity bumps of workers whose wages have largely stagnated over the last 40 years.

Which makes you wonder: If the typical worker had been receiving their full share of the benefits of productivity increases since the early 1980s, would we be in a position where “quiet quitting” was even a thing?

Maybe not. What we could be seeing is the productivity chickens come home to roost. If the rich get most of the monetary benefits of productivity increases, then let them do most of the work.

Or, at the very least, they — in partnership with the government — should stop whining and figure out a way to make productivity increases benefit everyone in their organizations, not just the investors and executives at the top.