I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux.
–Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
At the five year anniversary mark for the 2008 financial collapse, the bright side is it created an incentive for the general public to take more of an interest in how high finance operates. What for many is tedious subject matter—debating economic statistics, papers, and such—took on tremendous excitement once it became apparent one’s personal financial survival depended on understanding the business comings and goings of Wall Street. It was a call for the amateur to spend more time reading the business section, buying books focused on the economy, pondering math, and attempting to bring down the data of publicized charts and graphs to the lay reader level. If even just one out of eight citizens heard the call and read three articles per week, or one book a month, focused on subjects like currency trade, microfinance, campaign reform or Obamacare, for example, imagine the positive reverberation effect this would have on national policy debate.
Put all the efforts together, community members would begin to envision the infrastructures required to bridge the work of the elite class with the skills, talents and resources of their middle and lower income neighborhood. There are certainly any number of people qualified for this amateur undertaking—small business owners, stay at home parents, entrepreneurs to name a few. Finance and administration professionals who support the program staff of nonprofit organizations are trained in business practices to further a social mission. Retail employees, support staffers in corporations, and restaurant workers are more examples of creative types capable of sending out to the cosmos a desire for modern day New Deals to materialize in a grassroots effort. According to statistics, we have too many lawyers, but with so many of our social ills tied to the legislative process, lawyers are ideal to brainstorm with. Hosting a Sunday barbeque promoting music and conversation is festive, but it just takes one friend, or potential friend, and time for an occasional get together, to create a mini think tank.
In the book The Man Who Loved Only Numbers about the life and work of the great mathematician Paul Erdős, its author, Paul Hoffman, explains that one of Erdős’ specialties was graph theory: “By graph, mathematicians don’t mean the kind of chart Ross Perot waved at the TV cameras. They mean any group of points (“vertices” is the lingo) connected by lines (“edges”). So a triangle, for example, is a graph with three vertices and three edges. Now take Erdős’ 485 collaborators and represent them by 485 points on a sheet of paper. Draw an edge between any two points whenever the corresponding mathematicians published together. The resulting graph, which at last count had 1,381 edges, is the Collaboration Graph.” Prominent mathematicians, colleagues of Erdős, went on to study the Collaboration Graph as if it were a real mathematical graph. One can learn more about the ongoing research by visiting Oakland University’s Erdős Number Project website.
An informed public could start its own Collaboration Graph and let the “points and lines” over many planes of newfound affiliations lead us to stable economic solutions. We continue to get depressing news about financial fraud at the top levels of Wall Street, as demonstrated by recent lawsuits by the San Diego-based law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, (see Mark Taibbi’s article The Last Mystery of the Financial Crisis in Rolling Stone magazine). When powerful individuals with knowhow pocket money based on fake financial reporting to inflate their monetary advantage over others, they dishonor the beauty and randomness of mathematics to refresh and enliven the unwieldy whole. And this is not even addressing the legal ramifications of such actions.
Along with traditional leadership we need a new idea about where leadership comes from–perhaps all over the globe. Nafeez Ahmed’s article in the Guardian, Pentagon Bracing for Public Dissent over Climate and Energy Shocks, seemed cynical beyond belief that the American government would be more focused on uncovering through surveillance what group or groups would be in a position to take power if an environmental disaster led to street chaos than creating the measures necessary to prevent the environmental crisis from happening at all.
While today it may seem we have not progressed as a country in the five years since the collapse, if we view the recovery as a 10 year project, as it probably always has been, in spite of collective impatience, then we can accept we have hit rock bottom, as far as a broken community is concerned, and our country has no place to go but up from here. This is, of course, not really true. We could down as well, but Americans have learned a lot these five years, and we had good knowledge before that too–present but under-utilized. If we view our predicament that Planet Earth is in collusion with the Universe to test our resolve, and de-emphasize the power of human evil doers, while being mindful of justice, then we should be able to muster up the calm and retain the optimism that America, as an agent of world peace, is worth fighting for, and proceed to turn a nasty historical turn of events into a slow moving, well-researched tectonic shift driven by practicality.
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Bertrand Russell quote (intro):
Russell, Brand (2010), The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell. New York, NY: Routledge Classics, New York, NY.
The Collaboration Graph (paragraph 4):
Hoffman, Paul (1998), The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth. New York, NY: Hyperion.