Spiders and bees

A blogpost by our Business Director Roel van den Berg
Spider surrounded by bees

One of our aims as an Erasmus Initiative is to create societal impact based on the knowledge we possess and develop. One way to do that is by winning the hearts and minds of politicians, who are in a much better position to effectuate tangible change for many than we are in academia. In this respect I have a confession to make. It concerns my personal connections to political movers and shakers in the world, some of whom may be considered controversial by others.

Given my responsibilities within DoIP, more or less acting as the consiglieri of the initiative, me hanging out with controversial types in politics or elsewhere may not come as a great surprise to some of you, but until recently I would have pleaded innocence about that in clear terms. However, when recently I went through the vitae of the men who had at least initially chosen to support the presidency of Donald Trump, I found I had a connection with one of them. A long time ago, in 1992, I attended the graduation of a student in economics and political science, who would eventually become the 54th Speaker of the US House of Representatives and also, among other things, the architect of the 2017 US Tax and Jobs Act, which caused quite a stir.

Some may know that I am referring to Paul Ryan, but others may think: “Who is that?”. Paul Ryan stepped down as Speaker in 2018 and is now considered “a former politician”, but he is still a very prominent member of the Republican Party. In recent weeks he has been in the news even more prominently because he will “definitely not” run for president in 2024, if you know what I mean and that’s why I would like to draw your attention to him here. Following the midterm elections in November, he had already identified himself as a “Never Again Trumper”, which in itself is an encouraging label. Who is not a “Never Again Trumper” these days? But would that mean we will be able to inspire Paul Ryan’s future political program with insights from (“socialist”) Europe? Judge for yourself.  

Like me, Paul Ryan went to university in 1988, the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and to this date his public statements still reveal a longing for the Reagan years. His alma mater played a decisive role in creating this personality trait. More precisely, his economics professor Dr. Richard Hart, a macro economist who professed to be “to the right of Attila the Hun” has been instrumental. Dr. Hart spoke very fast in class and gave difficult exams about the shortcomings of Keynesian economics, but he was also willing to engage in long conversations with students, to discuss political philosophy at least as often as macroeconomics per se. With Ryan especially he had long conversations about the type of authors that self-made man Attila would have cherished, such as Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. It left a lasting impression on his student, in line with Reagan famous words: “The 9 most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’”, which are really 11 words but that only makes the words (or the quote or both) even more terrifying, I guess. Occasionally they talked about the poor too. Equipped with such laissez faire and trickle down convictions, after graduation Ryan first became a political speech writer in Washington D.C. and then, at 28, a Republican Congressman for Wisconsin, which he remained for 20 years. He quickly made a name as a promising young gun within the party and with his economic policy expertise and a reputation of being a budget hawk he became the chair of the House Budget Committee at 41. At 45 he also became the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, which is the chief tax-writing committee in the House. Along the way, he had been Mitt Romney’s running mate, in their 2012 unsuccessful contest for the presidency against Barack Obama and Joe Biden. In 2015 Ryan was elected as Speaker of the House of Representatives, much more easily than his fellow young gun Kevin McCarthy recently, and in that role, he chose to support Trump, after some initial hesitation. Trump’s presidency enabled Ryan to engineer the 2017 Tax and Jobs Act, which consisted of a $1.500.000.000.000 tax reduction. To put the amount in perspective: it is almost 50% higher than Dutch GDP. It thus represented quite a gift to a nation even if that nation is substantially larger than the Netherlands. More precisely, if you consider that the US has a civilian labor force of around 160 million people, a tax discount of that magnitude should on average provide everyone working citizen with a benefit of over $9000. In reality half of it ended up with the richest 5% of the population. Not exactly an inclusive intervention. Hence the controversy. Lots of controversy. Raise your hand if you think Paul Ryan does not go to sleep before checking the DoIP website. But I still have a glimmer of hope, exactly based on the afternoon of his commencement that we shared, together with approximately 8.000 students and their families and friends. The hope is derived from the speech that was held towards the end of the event. In 2009, Paul Ryan himself would address that year’s class at his alma mater before receiving an honorary degree, but in 1992 the commencement speech was given by Harvard zoologist Stephen Jay Gould. Gould, who would feature prominently in a series of interviews on Dutch TV the following year, founded the theory of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ (or ‘evolution by jerks’), that stands in contrast to the more continuous phyletic gradualism (or ‘evolution by creeps’). University administrators are advised to study his work as a metaphor for the macro change that occurs in our own line of business. In 1992, Prof. Gould had already received more than 30 honorary doctorates for his research, but during that particular ceremony he would still receive another one before starting his talk. Completely fitting a biologist, it centered around the “Fable of the Spider and the Bee”, originally published by Jonathan Swift in 1704, as part of his “The Battle of the Books”. Swift made it in response to what Dijksterhuis would later label ‘the mechanization of our world view’ and the growing tension between the ‘ancient’ tradition of the humanities and the ‘modern’ tradition of the sciences and engineering.

The fable concerns a bee inside the Royal Library in London which at midflight gets caught in a spider’s web. The bee manages to escape, destroys the web in doing so, and then, from a safe distance, engages in an angry debate with the equally chagrined spider about their respective utility. The spider starts by emphasizing how the careless bee has destroyed his web, carefully woven with mathematical precision; an engineering miracle. So unfair! And what was the bee doing anyway? Building anything? No! Making an original contribution? No! It produces nothing new, it just takes what is already available, while flying leisurely from flower to flower, inspecting this and that but not adding anything that you can drop on your foot. The bee retorts by questioning the purpose of the spider’s artefact. Behind the façade of the architectural appeal it is undeniable that the web will only cause premature death. The spider only feeds on the rest of creation, it has negative added value. The bee on the other hand, while it does not build anything, still adds value by enabling the production of honey, which is appreciated by all. In Swift’s tale, the bee wins. Victory for the humanities!

Not surprisingly, biologist Gould, begged to disagree. But instead of trying to build a better case for the spider, he made a more original twist in his attempt to provide the graduates and all others in the audience with some advice for the rest of their lives. He opposed the notion of a battle and the idea of having only one winner. Progress does not result from battles between moderns against ancients, sciences against humanities, science against religion or Republicans against Democrats. Instead, it rests on reconciliation and, based on the expertise that is available around the table, trying to create a whole that is more than its parts. He argued against narrowness, both temporal and disciplinary, and for respect and willingness to see the bigger picture in order to move ahead together. In a sense he argued for an interdisciplinary approach and in another sense, he argued to be inclusive In the many statements that Paul Ryan made in relation to his university education he has never mentioned the final lecture that he received there before he graduated. But he still may one day, when he seriously tries to reach out to voters across the country and come up with more inclusive proposals than he has produced thus far. And he knows how important they can be.

When Paul Ryan was 16, his father died. While going through a difficult period in high school, he saved Social Security Survivor benefits to still pay his way through college. Atilla would have disapproved of the social security: No father, no money. No money, no college. Bad luck. But the social security made a life changing difference for Ryan, exactly in the same year that Reagan spoke about the most terrifying words in English. Paul Ryan does not need evidence of the value of inclusive policies; he is part of the evidence. I have not given up hope that even politicians like him (I’m sorry, former politicians who will definitely not run for president) will consider insights like ours about designing more inclusive systems if they are really serious about making sure that certain things will never happen again. And then, we are here to help. And we are not from the government.

(Well, not really government government. We are a specific type of public entity really, that has a statutory basis and more than 80% of our budget is federal money, but government nooooh. Yes collective labour agreements, that’s right. No yes students pay tuition but …. Well, we’re from Europe you see. ….Hello?)          


Roel van den Berg

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