Useful And Fantastic: Co-operation And Competition
"Competition has caused more disasters in the world than it has stimulated progress,'' declares Val Yule.
Only a few red robins learned how to pierce aluminium caps to get the cream at the tops of milk bottles, but once one British titmouse learned how do it, soon they could all do it. The explanation is that the titmice are social birds, communicating in small flocks, but robins are territorial.
On a raft at sea after a wreck it is understandable that there may be terminal competition for who will eat who. But cooperation is needed to prevent shipwrecks that are foreseeable ahead.
Competition has caused more disasters in the world than it has stimulated progress. This is contrary to present ideology and beliefs. Civilization, science, technology and quality of life have improved mainly by cooperation. Individuals motivated by personal incentives of intrinsic absorption in their work, curiosity, mental energy, honor and status have achieved more for the world than greed.
Honour and prizes for reaching a standard and pleasure in personal progress are more effective incentives in schoolwork than competition that few can enter and fewer are rewarded. Testosterone can drive ambition to strive to excel, not to beat the other feller. Competition is most valuable as a sauce to life, in games and other leisure activities, and as a way for males to demonstrate their virility in sports.
Co-operation Policy is needed in public affairs. Any government agency that is concerned with Competition should have Co-operation also within its mandate to enforce. Like Market Forces, Growth and similar religious dogma, Competition should be merely a means to an end, or it will devour that end.
A history of transport in the United States, for example, shows how much was achieved by the ruthless competition of the railway moguls, but also too much needless waste, and later the destruction of the same railways against the public interest, by the competition of the oil moguls.
The aim of Competition Policy is understood to be a prosperous society, which will not lie stagnant or at the mercy of lazy and greedy monopolies. But competition is an inferior strategy to make up for mediocre leadership. Public services as well as businesses need leaders of vision, dedication and ability, and strict public and politicians’ monitoring or they can clog up as empire-building bureaucracies, without the penalty that is risked by private enterprise of collapsing in bankruptcy and lost jobs.
Disadvantages of competition in public infrastructure and business,
The main business of government monopolies has been in essential industries and infrastructure. They are tempting to private business to take over and operate, since governments cannot allow them to go broke, and they are guaranteed profits and assured against loss. "Competition" is a major argument put forward to get a slice of such a pie.
But when it comes to practice, while privatisation may be introduced on theoretically ideological grounds, the 'competing' businesses operate cartels, mergers and takeovers as soon as they can. There are many examples of this.
• Services are split up which should be integrated - for example the disastrous disintegration of UK public transport, especially rail, and a ridiculous splitting for Melbourne's tramways in Australia, which soon had to be reversed. Telecommunications have been tempting, and splitting it further will ‘make more jobs’.
• In official assessments of the value of competition, short-term shareholders' profit are made a priority at the expense of longterm planning and vision. This is very serious in a country like Australia with so many environmental problems ahead. 'Competition' in water is likely to end up with the well-off drinking bottled water that is imported or bottled from local water supplied almost free by the government to mostly international companies. The rest of us are to be persuaded that recycled sewage is not a second-best to what we have had. There is no great government insistence for everyone to have their own water tanks if this may reduce profits for water companies.
• Competition is one reason why banks increase the wealth of the rich at the expense of the poor. It is, ironically, a major reason why they rip off smaller depositors with minimal interest rates. Competition from Aussie Home Loans temporarily forced the big Australian banks to reduce home loan interest rates, but it is the competition which each other which prevents any of them offering fair interest rates to small savers. Poor people once might seek to raise themselves out of poverty by saving, supported by the Commonwealth and State savings banks. Now they may get 0.1% interest plus government and bank charges if their pitiful savings are under $4999. So Tattslotto and pokies seem more attractive hopes and are most popular in the poorest districts. Rich people so awash with money they hardly know what to do with it except make more, get many more times that minimal interest on their accumulations of over $100,000. If any private bank tried to make the system more equitable by adjusting upwards the interest rates for small accounts, its millions of profits would be less; it if tried to even out by lowering the rates for large accounts, the large accounts would flee to the other banks that are in competition with it.
• 'Commercial Confidentiality' in government business is against the public good. He who pays the piper should know the tunes being played. Commercial Confidentiality in private business, driven by competition, is also against the public good, and it wastes a fearful amount of money, time, law suits and lost progress. Contrast the enormous progress on the Internet that is made by cooperation – where there is the most advanced operating system, Linux, free share-ware, the thrill of the adventurers who join together in intellectual excitement, and the 'community of scholars' as the ideal climate for progress. Suppose drug and agribusiness companies could share in their research and development, rather than sharing in cartels to keep up monopolies and prices.
A main aim of private business is understandably to get rid of the competition.
• Nations lower company tax rates in order to attract foreign investors, so even compete in this to be more attractive, so that there is less revenue to operate the country.
In the name of competition, the taxpayer pays more for services than is needed. This is particularly so when a 'level playing field' is claimed as a right private competitors entering what was previously an integrated publicly-owned service.
Telecommunications are a clear example. In 2006 in Australia, Mr Graham Samuel of ACCC asserted that the prime consideration regarding the sale of the government monopoly Telstra was to promote competition. But the prime consideration should be serving the people and the nation and this could be set in law, like a preamble to the constitution - as it has not unfortunately been set for the banks.
If it were not for the government’s need for big quick bucks by selling off Telstra, the question could have been be how to improve and sustain improvement of the management of this natural monopoly. Australia is not that wealthy or enough of a mass-market to afford the duplication and the dismembered operations that have taken place and the further disintegration under discussion. The duplications often require subsidies and dismemberments require more bodies to organize their necessary linkages.
The Prime Minister of the day stated, following announcements of the second tranche of Telstra sell-offs that the government would not interfere in what Telstra may do. Telstra has since been adventuring in the land of savvy Chinese rather than focussing on improving Australian telecommunications. But the ACCC is not an appropriate regulator of our telecommunications; The ACCC charge to ensure a 'level playing field' to competitors using Telstra's infrastructure has meant much wasteful duplication of cable infrastructure and services, and a single goal of maximizing shareholder profits.
Where Telstra has built and developed the infrastructure with public money and loans paid by the taxpayer, private companies entering in claim the right to use that
infrastructure, and skim off their own profits in 'surface' operations to distribute services using that infrastructure. It would be better if it were possible simply to force a government-owned Telstra to reduce its charges in line with overseas levels. At present its supposed 'competition' with its competitors consists mainly in expensive production and advertising 'special rates' of a complex nature that penalise the ordinary and low-income consumer who cannot make head or tail of all these 'special offers'.
Competition has not prevented incompetent management of Telstra. Financial boys at the top, ignorant and uninterested in the country; middle management responds to competition with advertising, surveys and silly pricing structures. The workforce to do the actual work is cut and cut.
What do competitors do beyond sending out bills and producing and selling consumables? When service is needed, their customers are sent back to Telstra. If competition was left to the consumables area, not requiring cheap access to Telstra's infrastructure, what would happen? Could the enterprise and duplications of rivals operate more to the national interest by cooperation than competition? Having tried both Telstra and a competitor, I am shocked by the amount of waste they achieve in common.
A ridiculous example of how competition can be a disadvantage was giving in to the demand by private operators that the government-owned private insurance Medibank must not cut its costs by using the same premises as Medicare, as this reduces the 'level playing field'. As a result, Medicare cost more for the government (taxpayer) to run, and customers faced more inconvenience in tripping from one government office to another, where once all business could be conducted from the one queue.
Competition, with the ironically named 'quality control' can prevent an essential service providing what is really needed. For example, about 50% of Pakistan's 130 million people risk suffering the effects of iodine deficiency, which even in its mildest form can seriously reduce IQ. Iodising table salt is a cheap and simple solution, but 60% of domestic salt remains uniodised, despite some provincial legislation and UN aid. Competition is one reason, as well as fear of the unknown. The 600 small salt companies are basically motivated by profit, which prevents innovation and any extra cost which could let custom go to the competitors.
The homeostasis of planet earth could be described as an intricate dance of competition and cooperation - the predatory competition of the food-chain,with nature 'red in tooth and claw' and the struggle for survival of the fittest to survive, with the cooperative life of a balanced ecosystem, where the existence of each variety of organism contributes to the continuation of other varieties of life. Symbiosis occurs at every level, and biodiversity is more about cooperation than competition to the death.
Nature does operates in part on competition, but I don not think we should consider that civilisation must emulate the cruelties in the natural food chain. Sure, there are 300 million spermatozoa in a tablespoon of fluid and rarely does even one makes it to the egg. But a good deal of ‘human progress’ has been dedicated to reducing the odds for the ‘lesser fit’ human organisms to survive, and to make other contributions than mere physical existence.
Nature has cooperation as well – and this is one reason why women like ecology. In many animal species, intraspecies competition is most strongly seen between males in competing for females, and in competing for food or territory when these are short, but cooperation is more often a distinguishing mark in rearing offspring, in hunting and finding food, building homes, in protecting each other, and in social togetherness.
In humans, young males often - but not always - tend to be competitive and females cooperative, but this by no means a universal generalisation, and their cultural environment strongly affects how these tendencies manifest themselves, and are developed, redirected or restrained. Masculine competitiveness manifests itself in teams which cooperate together, as well as in competing for females, personal striving for power and glory, to be top of the heap, or to be suckers for nostrums to ensure that ‘mine is bigger than yours’.
Humans have many other motives to strive and to excel, that are less socially destructive than competition which can mean gain at the expense of others, necessitates losers, and in economies results in enormous waste. The advantages of competition as a stick to discourage laziness and stagnation can be achieved in other ways. Sports and games can direct competitive instincts into socially pleasurable activities - sublimation if you like. Yet even these can be destructive if team spirit splits communities, as when the feuding of Green and Red chariot racing absorbed and inflamed passions in the decaying Byzantine empire, or when soccer fans today riot at home and abroad. Enormous sums and young lives are wasted by governments to promote elite athletics for national glory.
Competition and cooperation in legend and history
Competition as disaster. There are universal legends of gods punishing humans for hubris in presumptuous competition with deities, including the biblical stories of the Fall and the Tower of Babel. The second biblical sin was the murder resulting from brother competing with brother. Competition produces wars and bitter rivalries that have been tribal, national, ethnic, religious, business, gangland, family and personal. Competing for power, including power to oppress, carved up Africa. Resources are wasted when the competition for them is bloody. As peoples and religions compete in encouraging population increase for their numbers games against each other, they dice with catastrophe.
Competition in business encourages cheating, sharp practices, robber take-overs, waste of resources, deleterious forms of cost-cutting, secrecy, and prevents sharing ideas, inventions and procedures that would help everyone. Competition as a form of rat-racing stresses both workers and management. Cut-throat advertising has developed to be wasteful of brains and money, in trying to con the public by psychological means rather than to inform it of the qualities of the products, services or policies. The procedures today for competing for jobs or grants are often as wasteful and stressful as could be imagined. The four banks in our small local shopping centre do not compete to improve services for customers - they compete for profits by cost-cutting that passes costs of inconvenience and time-wasting on to the public when they have nowhere else to turn.
In schools and universities, learning and research flourishes when there is a spirit of sharing in learning and glory for all in the achievements of any of them, rather than vying for scarce prizes and grants on the one hand, or discouraging all personal incentives for honour on the other.
Almost all inventions and discoveries have originated from individual and group desires to create, to improve, to strive for excellence. When there is cooperation, the ideas and discoveries of others are welcomed and shared and improved. Co-operation has meant progress, from the beginning of pre-history with its team food gathering, communal protection, and hunting bands that enabled small weak people to overcome fierce megafauna, to agriculture and the development of specialised skills in production The history of trade is the history of exchanging ideas as well as goods. Childcare has been little problem when the whole village can keep an eye on the playing children.
The great achievements in cities such as Athens, Rome, Bagdad, Florence, Edinburgh, and London, and in the peaks of all great civilisations have been at times when individuals have been enabled to flourish in social 'composts' that welcomed, supported and shared new ideas, arts and science. The European Renaissance was a time of glorious sharing, of the community of scholars and the communities of artists. The devastating Hundred Years War was a time of murderous competition.
The poet Gray contemplated the 'mute inglorious Miltons' who never had a chance in isolated villages. It is not surprising that so many famous British names knew each other in Edinburgh or London or Dublin. The tragic inventor or artist is the isolate.
Modern science and technology more than ever need cooperation and teamwork to encourage and develop discoveries and inventions, without the hampering of competitive practices. Modern societies need cooperation for their sophisticated infrastructure to work. Modern democracies need cooperation of the government with the governed, rather than the barriers of secrecy and the personal competitive infighting of political factions. Modern relationships are happiest with cooperation - they suffer when barbs of competition are accepted as a 'sauce' to prevent dullness, as if relationships in real life must be like those that entertain us on television, where images of happiness sate and bore
Competition can add incentive, but should not be a tin-god monotheism. The prime organizational requirement for the success of a business is not public ownership or private competition, but the excellence of its anagement. ‘Cooperation’ should be part of the name of any CCC.