The curse of the bull elk antlers

September 8, 2011

As the United States prepares to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this weekend, one of the most striking contrasts is between a country that was united in the face of a foreign enemy a decade ago, and that same nation today, which is so bitterly divided as it confronts domestic challenges of equal, if not greater, magnitude.

Most Americans do agree on one thing — the polarization and paralysis are the fault of failed politicians and a flawed political system. As a unifying rallying cry, this pox-on-all-their-houses approach has much to recommend it.

But what if the problem goes deeper than politics and politicos? Maybe America’s national discord is rooted in structural factors that even the most talented leader and effective political system would struggle to fix.

That is one of the arguments in a provocative book by Cornell economist Robert H. Frank, published this month. Frank is an economist for the rest of us — his métier is to write about big ideas for a broad audience — and he is often ahead of the curve: he was an early enthusiast of the now trendy behavioral economics and he began writing about the winner-take-all economy long before the idea became conventional wisdom.

His new work, The Darwin Economy, builds on those interests to focus on one paradox of economic life: behavior which makes sense for a particular individual can harm the community as a whole. Frank’s favorite example is from the natural world — the massive antlers of bull elks.

For the individual bull, engaging in the antler arms race is smart — the bull with the biggest antlers is most likely to win fights with other bulls and thus mate with the most cows. But for bull elks as a group, the antler wars are destructive, making it easier for wolves to trap bulls in the forest.

Frank doesn’t claim to have discovered this problem of collective action — indeed, as the book’s title indicates, his intellectual inspiration is Charles Darwin — but he believes it has become particularly acute in globalized, high-tech, twenty-first century capitalism. America’s bull elk are the winners in that capitalist contest and their antlers — so useful to themselves, but harmful, Frank argues, to the community at large — are their very large incomes.

The problem, he believes is that like the bull elks, the rest of us are driven to compete with the super-elite, spending more than we can afford on our equivalent of antlers — homes, schools, and status symbols like the suits we wear to job interviews. Just as the bull elks, as a community, “would be better off if each animal’s antlers were much smaller,” our economy would function more effectively overall if the super-elite, who set the frame of reference for everyone else, consumed less.

But even if you buy Frank’s argument — and he sets himself the ambitious task of winning over libertarians, his toughest potential audience — getting to that collectively better equilibrium could be very hard to do.

To understand why, read a 2009 paper by Raghuram Rajan, the former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund who is now a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Rajan’s subject is political paralysis in developing countries: why, he asks, is economic reform so difficult to achieve in poor countries, even when they are democratic? After all, if reform would make the country as a whole richer, surely a majority of voters should support it.

But just as Frank argues that the self-interest of individuals can be at odds with an outcome which would benefit the group as a whole (including those individuals), Rajan finds that the interests of different economic constituencies may clash and thus make it hard to build a political consensus for reform. As each group seeks to preserve its meager advantages in an underdeveloped economy, “the collective choice is poverty.”

I asked Rajan, who earned his first two academic degrees in his native India, how his arguments about “paralysis” in developing countries could be applied to the politics of the country where he now makes his home.

“Where you stand effects what you see and what you believe,” Rajan said. “Take the working rich. A fair number will say, ‘you don’t need to spend more, you just need to spend more effectively.’ They have somehow convinced themselves that, yes, we need to improve education, but no, we don’t need to spend more money. That is very convenient.”

Constituencies — Rajan prefers the term to interest groups — on the left make the same sort of self-interested arguments: “The flip side is the liberal who says all we need is more taxes and just to protect good union jobs. That is refusing to see the reality that those good union jobs are history and trying to protect them means you will just continue to fall behind.”

The point, as with the bull elks, is that collectively harmful policies can make sense for you and your community. Which is why cookie-cutter appeals to the common good and to common sense — and disparagement of bad politicians — don’t capture the scale of the problem in countries which are democratic, but deeply economically divided.

“This notion that if only our politicians in Washington could behave and act like adults, I find very naive,” Rajan said. “Don’t blame Washington or the system, blame the divided constituencies that sent people there.”


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Old news — E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology came out over 30 years ago

Posted by vinlander | Report as abusive

The article may confuse the reader about what is economics and what is politics. It starts out saying it is about economics and suggesting that conventional capitalism won’t work in our environment. But it tries to prove that thesis by discussing political conflicts. I agree, it is a common failing of democracies that voters vote for their own narrow interests, causing the broader interest, which if given effect, would serve that voter and others even better.

But to say that is true of politics says nothing about what is true of economics. Please, readers, do not allow yourselves to become confused by the article.

Posted by 21st_Century | Report as abusive

It seems like both liberals and conservatives have good points and bad (wrong) points, and all we need to do is pick the good (correct) points from each side, mix them together, and move forward. One correct point that both sides miss is the main cause of the health care problem. This problem has a very simple solution, but nobody sees it because of money: Our current system is set up not to prevent illness but to deal with its symptoms once they become apparent. Changes in #1 DIET and #2 Exercise, could reduce health care costs by 70%. The USDA, FDA, Agricultural Industry, Hospitals, doctors, and all government have become corrupted because they can’t bill for healthy patients, only sick ones.

Posted by possibilianP | Report as abusive

What difference does it make if a write few people have heard about tries to claim he got there first. Big deal he was the Shaman on the shore few of the tribesmen noticed.

There was an old fart up here who worked for a town paper and was very fond of claiming “you heard it here first”. I couldn’t have cared less what he thought he heard first because most it didn’t seem worth hearing at any time. He noticed only the little things. He was a political gossip columnist.

I like the analogy of the Elk but mankind is not a single species of animal life. It is more as Hamlet defined it. No one analogy ever works.

Thanks for the review. He should give away his ideas Shaker style. They firmly believed in the common good regardless of political or religious affiliation. That’s if he wants to be a not-for-profit prophet. I don’t think we’re going to see many of those do you? Does anyone dare?

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive


What are you talking about? 2% of the population controls 80% of the nation’s wealth. The next 10% control the next 10% of the nations wealth for a grand total of 12-15% controlling 90% of the nations wealth.

What constituencies? What’s the remaining 80-85% to do?

Oh I know, be gerrymandered; Be lied to; Be indoctrinated (FEAR THE: Muslims, Gays, Blacks, Commies – they want to take your daughters, your meager savings and your apple pie!).

(LOVE THE: Bomb, Rugged-Individualism (you know the marlboro cowboy), Jesus and apple pie).

This is the matrix, that keeps the rabble slaves to the hyper-predatorial-elite.

There was a brief time in this nation’s history (perhaps world history) where the Rich feared Soviet Empire and perhaps Facism that forced them to treat the rabble reasonably – anything to avoid unrest to win the world wars and defeat communism such as agreeing to union demands.

But that time is past. This is the uber-rich “happy time.” Time to run-amok. Time to re-establish the monarchy or old with the new aristocracy.

Constituencies? What makes you think there are any constituencies other than the Rich and the Poor.

Constituencies? more like…”I can hire one half of the working class (poor) to kill the other half.”

Constituencies… pa-lease.

Posted by FoxxDrake | Report as abusive

The question that few dare to ask: “Maybe America’s national discord is rooted in structural factors that even the most talented leader and effective political system would struggle to fix.”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, as I watch people on both side of the political spectrum blame Obama for the problem du jour. The president is powerful, but not omnipotent. In a way, you can’t really blame him for much, nor can he take credit for much. He inherited the biggest mess than any President has ever seen.

Another issue is that some are starting to say that capitalist democracy has run its course. Those structural problems may not become apparent overnight – or even in the timeframe of multiple decades or centuries. Consider the concept of carrying capacity. If every civilization on the planet lived like the West… well, they couldn’t. There aren’t enough natural resources to go around, starting with limited arable land and ending with energy generation and transmission.

So yes, I agree that there are structural problems. Cracks in the foundation that have taken centuries to develop. What American will look like in another century is impossible to predict.

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive

In a word … Bull.

Posted by NewsLady | Report as abusive

The bull elk are running out of suitable grazing areas.

Some think the crusades were fought by some, to have been conceived by Popes and Kings who needed lebensraum and a way to dispose of surplus Knights and lesser bull Elk. Maybe the whole crusade, or any mobilized society is a glimpse of the profit hungry lemming? Or the army ant?

The Bull Elk are their own wolves. No one metaphor works – in fact it invites the game of fun with metaphors.

Does anyone really believe that the Sun ever noticed the innumerable hearts that have been offered to it? Was it the thought that counts?

When something dies it becomes livid. The blood settles to the lowest parts of the body. Recessions are a kind of dying or at least a sickness. I think of depressions as a kind of stroke. In the human body, wealth in crisis seems to go to the head. Mr Rajan would recognize that as a feature of the old caste system where villagers would starve but insure that the Brahmans were fed.

I saw it mentioned in a movie, I hope it was an accurate story.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

I botched the last comment in spell check and this is a better paragraph. My eyes are crap.

Some think the crusades were conceived by Popes and Kings who needed lebensraum and a way to dispose of surplus Knights and lesser “bull Elk” They tended to fight with one another.

Maybe the crusade, or any mobilized society is a glimpse of the profit hungry lemming (some of the m lemmings know when not to jump and hold back at the last second. Or the automated and remote control army ant? The genetic or Darwinian motivation may actually need the controlled murder rate to dispose of surplus and aggressive elements in the society and a whole lot of disposable citizens on the other side. They didn’t have large enough economies to keep them all alive anyway? It makes it easier to dominate and control. In gives the human bull Elks the easier excuse to dominate in ways the Elk cannot comprehend. The Romans knew just what they were doing with the Arenas.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

I may be a little behind on zoology, but can’t Bull Elks use their antlers to fight off wolves?

And if the point of the antler wars is to prove which elk is the strongest, that means, under Darwin’s theory, that the best genes are passed on through their offspring. This keeps the line of bull elks able to compete with the wolves for survival. Are some bull elks going to go off the path and get trapped by a wolf? Yes, but that doesn’t mean that wolves have the upper hand.

Posted by lunar15 | Report as abusive

The essence of Darwin’s theory is competition.

If the collective of society is failing due to a few powerful individuals, it is because the society has failed to collectively organize to challenge and defeat those powerful aristocrats.

Posted by rtgunlimited | Report as abusive

All this to attempt to explain why so many Americans vote against their own self interest? Joe the Plumber – Mr Everyman – who pushed for lower taxation for the rich (then defined as over $250K/year) – turned out to be two years late on paying his taxes and made less than $50K/year.

The question is: Why do millions of Average Joes and Josephines keep voting to support the other end in this class warfare? Have they been so distracted by non-pertinent issues that they are blinded to the truth?

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

“But for bull elks as a group….”

This phrase seems to sum up all that is wrong with economics and economists in general, and behavioural economists in particular.

Bull elks aren’t a group to anyone except a human who’s got a book to write. Bull elks can’t survive on their own, and their function is merely to help cow elks reproduce without having to resort to parthenogenesis. For which they only need one bull, as long as it’s strong enough.

The group to consider, if you have to consider one at all, is elks. And antler wars are definitely beneficial to elks. It is true that antler wars aren’t helpful to weak bull elks, but then weak bull elks aren’t helpful to elks! If elks had a welfare state, things might be different, but they don’t, so they aren’t.

The error, o course, is to draw the boundaries around the “system” under consideration in the wrong place. Either through misunderstanding, or far too frequently, deliberately and because it helps you make a neat point and sell a book. Before theorising, you need to always make sure that what you’re analysing is actually a system like “elks”, and not half a system, like “bull elks”.

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

This is a copy from a concept shown in the move A Beautiful Mind when John Nash says the group can benefit if they work together versus going it on their own. I don’t know if this actually fits Nash’s work on economics but this idea isn’t new. At the very least the screenwriter knew about it.

Posted by insano70 | Report as abusive

Perhaps the biggest mistake made regarding the theory of evolution is that many hear it and think they can do it themselves or that their societies can build the tendency in. The struggle for survival within a species can be rendered null and void if the entire species is no longer fit for much larger challenges. There is nothing to promise the species that it will master every challenge either. Mankind thinks it can but it has to decide on the challenges first.

It may be as dgunlimited suggests that “it is because the society has failed to collectively organize to challenge and defeat those powerful aristocrats.” but that is also like saying it was the fault of all those Africans that they weren’t strong and organized enough to resist being kidnapped by and then dominated for generations by their slave masters. It was all their fault for being treated like cargo, and if not fit to survive the voyage, or the criminal who caught and transported them was in danger of storms or arrest himself, it was their fault for being thrown overboard and drowning at sea.

Was China a society that practiced social Darwinism before Mao, during Mao or is it doing so now? If they are doing it now, how much domination do you think their new big Elks should be allowed to get away with? Their big Elks don’t seem to have the right to dominate the gene pool as far as I can tell. It’s one little elk for every two adults still, no matter how well endowed. What does the modern bull Elk get that isn’t the legal right of every other Elk? It’s still a bad analogy – Elks and men.

Do the big Elk have the right to wield social control tactics that permit easier domination of the mass of the population by the few? The constitution didn’t think so.

Even the developed countries have become accustomed to tame populations with big flocks of sheep ripe for the shearing. And the guys on Wall Street and in the largest corporations and in government seem to have the most strategically placed sheers too.

No one ever seems to get around to asking this question, but is the Islamic practice of polygamy one of the issues the west would like to see abolished? I’m single and never think to talk about it myself.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Adaptability is what Darwin identified as the driver.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

rtgunlimited argument can be restated: The community has failed to adapt to the challenges posed by aristocrats, the parasite.

FoxxDrake argues the uber-rich have essentially adapted to the availability of a host, constructing The Matrix as a means of camouflaging purpose.

Since the relationship between community and uber-rich is parasitic it will lead to collapse, as Jarred Diamond suggests.

The prospect of collapse is what makes the theatre of current affairs (political-economy) tragically pathetic.

BTW, did anyone else notice Chrystia waving Ranjan’s antlers around?

Posted by frogonahill | Report as abusive

Adaptability is what Darwin identified as the driver.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

rtgunlimited argument can be restated: The community has failed to adapt to the challenges posed by aristocrats, the parasite.

FoxxDrake argues the uber-rich have essentially adapted to the availability of a host, constructing The Matrix as a means of camouflaging purpose.

Since the relationship between community and uber-rich is parasitic it will lead to collapse, as Jarred Diamond suggests.

The prospect of collapse is what makes the theatre of current affairs (political-economy) tragically pathetic.

BTW, did anyone else notice Chrystia waving Ranjan’s antlers around?

Posted by frogonahill | Report as abusive


Posted by socioplastic | Report as abusive

Right on, nullcorp. It is time for us to think and, most importantly, speak outside the box when it comes to the underlying issues concerning social and economic malaise. The ‘elephant in the room’ is sustainability. Smart, aware individuals from all walks of life now know that business as usual is unsustainable for our planet. However,the truth of this is so utterly inconvenient to our current way of doing business that it induces willful blindness. Many of us cling to the belief that technology will save us from the pitfalls of over-consuming our planet’s renewable and non-renewable resources. This is just another way of saying we need to save us from ourselves. The bottom line is,free market capitalism needs a new business model, one that makes so much common sense that it is voluntarily adapted by business’ the world over. It needs to be profitable, it needs to encourage entrepeneurism and it needs to be environmentally sustainable. Easy…right?

Posted by changeling | Report as abusive

Ms. Freeland: You seem takes a too active hand in editing comment posts and you are perhaps the only one who does it so heavy handedly and arbitrarily. You can do it to flatter yourself and insure that you look better than you really. Few other Reuters are as defensive.

Your article sounds very like a puff piece for an author. If you’re being paid to review and publicize his book you should be honest about it and say you have an interest in the issue and admit that your site may be a paid announcement. There are too many people on the take in the media who do not want to mention that fact. They know it harms their credibility no matter how they may rationalize it to themselves.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Darwin’s theory of evolution describes the evolution of species – plants and animals – and it applies well to plants and animals. It applies to human only if we want ourselves to evolve like them too. Using Darwin’s theory to formulate economic and political policies locked us in to this animal mentality of survival of the fittest, and kills our spirituality and values of equality, compassion and love. In doing so, America and the rest of the world has lost its spirituality, and we can all see the results – the worship of greed and opulence, and the eventual chaos that must follow.

Posted by ongtim | Report as abusive

Interesting article, but how about a little information about how John Maynard Keynes marred into the Darwin family and was an ardent fan of evolution and his theories and actions were based on that. Also – don’t you think it odd that economists who believe in the survival of the fittest can also claim that some corporations are too big to fail? It’s like saying the brontosaurus was too big to fail – kill all the little dinosaurs.

Posted by Bagwa | Report as abusive

Rajan is a profound man, his theories on the economics of developing nations are noteworthy, met him in Chicago.

Posted by Shukla | Report as abusive

“blame the divided constituencies that sent people there.” Is he suggesting that constituencies should first merge and then “send people there”? Wouldn’t that be a politicians job ? Who’s naive here ?

Posted by hansrudolf | Report as abusive

Darwin’s theory recognizes 2 types of selection: ecological selection (survival of the “toughest”) and sexual selection (reproduction of the most “attractive”). Attractive doesn’t equate to toughest. Reproduction is more important for evolution than survival. If someone dies at 20, but manages to have 3 kids before, his evolutionary success is greater than of person who dies at 90, but has 1 kid, and his genes will dominate in future generations. I think many people misinterpret evolution by focusing on survival rather than reproduction.

Posted by DrOffsuit | Report as abusive

We have to go deeper into the reasons that divide the people in a society. They range from social, economical, emotional.

Posted by BSRK | Report as abusive

For a more persuasive argument, and one based on humans, not bull elk, see “The Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin. Science, December 1968. 59/1243.full

For the core argument skip down to heading, “The Tragedy of Freedom in the Commons”.

Posted by MarciaofMadison | Report as abusive

Dear lunar15, You completely missed the point of overly large racks on bull elks. The point is that elks live in forests, not in open fields, and if the racks become too large, the bull is unable to maneuver due to interference with the surrounding trees and limbs. This lack of maneuverability makes the bull more vulnerable to wolf pack attacks. So, essentially, one of two things must happen for elks to survive. One, the density of the forrest self-limits the maximum size of racks for a given community of elks or two, elks would have to re-adapt to habitation in grasslands. It could be argued that the latter would only put off the inevitable as there would be no limit to rack size due to tree interference but there would be a limit to the rack weight the bull could carry. And, moreover, the elk would catastrophically fall prey to innumerable predators on the plains for which they have no defenses. So, we’re back to option one. Bulls are stuck with growing bigger racks to get laid but the bigger racks lead to their demise.

Presently, it could be argued that our human bull politic has been thinning the woods – legislative and regulatory defoliation through tax breaks, etc., if you will. Thus, making it easier for our human bulls to grow bigger and get more of what they desire the most. But will this be a statically or dynamically stable condition? When will the human bulls grow too big? When will the thinning of the legislative and regulatory woods become too great? When and how will these human bulls fall prey? What will it look like? A slow corrective retreat in numbers in a still existent forrest or a large catastrophic demise on the plain?

Posted by GCN | Report as abusive


“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

Yes, that is the essence of Natural Selection. That however, is NOT the case for man and perhaps has not been the case for a long-long-long time; and that’s the rub.

There was a time when man was subjected to nature; the wolf, the lion, the tiger, the next tribe over…all threats that would affect the whole clan equally.

A key element in Natural Selection is that it’s a “species thing” – it’s not concerned with “the individual.”

For example, if the world becomes more radio-active mankind might need to evolve a better thyroid gland to consume the more toxic, food, air and water.

The issue at hand is that “the ELK” represents UN-NATURAL selection. The “artificial” advantage given to the Uber-Rich.

Consider, Paris Hilton (a fictional example); what purpose does she serve? Except, perhaps, to put the species at risk. Here’s why.

If there is a threat to the “species” Paris Hilton (because of her money, family and connections) is better positioned to survive because the culture, society and system is designed that way. Thus advantaging her useless genome as she reproduces and more potentially useful people do not. That’s issue number one.

Simultaneously, she’s also better positioned to ruin the species over-all ability to produce a solution to the threat in the first place. That’s issue number two.

See, with money comes power. Power to have access to goods, services and thus resources that help Paris “artificially” survive the threat.

However, by over consuming now she’s preventing the investment in people that could be useful to solve present and future problems; “useful” insofar as possessing the ability to help “the species” adapt “artificially” to change.

Consider the case of a fiction girl (we’ll call her Alice) who has the talent to build a gene therapy that aids the thyroid with adapting to a more “radioactive planet” – thus giving the rich like Paris Hilton (and thus potentially the rest of the species) the ability to survive.

But this NEVER happens.

Why? Because Paris Hilton over consumes.

With her tax breaks, luxury purchases, general uselessness and the overall mis-direction of resources to her now ultimately prevents Alice (who comes from a working class family) from ever going to college, getting healthcare, or in this horrible economy … getting a job.

Alice dies of the flu in college while her unemployed Dad watches; meanwhile Paris Hilton makes another sex tape, blows more coke and buys more diamonds for her poodle.

Then a “world” tidal wave causes radioactive cesium (from poorly regulated nuclear plants) to spread all over the biosphere.

With Alice dead because resources for healthcare, college and jobs was re-directed from Alice to Paris; everyone else gets sick and dies too. Moreover, with a mortality rate of 98% the human species pretty much gets wiped out.

2% remain. Perhaps it’s the Uber-Rich 2% that survive (being able to afford the few remaining stock-piles of clean Air, Food and Water) but with the “intelligence” of Paris – making up the surviving population they are not long for this world either.

Which might be the “ultimate” justice. They (the 2%-ers) might get to live longer in their Mad-Max created world but after this “Collapse” – there will be a “reset.”

With the species called man (if he does survive) going BACK to nature – and thus the rules of Natural and not Artificial Selection.

And, if he evolves, again, to be smart and able – perhaps create another world where nature is subject to his artificial will; he will also evolve a mind that rationally puts the needs of the group, ahead of the needs (or gluttonous desires) of a the aggressive insane few.

Posted by FoxxDrake | Report as abusive

Current US Economic Condition: Natural selection gives way to selection bias when money is used to select winners from losers.

Weapons-Grade Stupidity: Intelligence that is so low it poses a severe hazard to those who come in contact with it.

Weapons Grade Selection Bias: Selection bias that poses a severe hazard to those that come in contact with it.

Example: US response to Honda Accord in 1980 = K-Car for Quality.

Data: US GDP on downward trend since Reagan Revolution. Opportunity cost $44 Trillion or 1.024% GDP decline for choosing Republican over Democratic President in economic comparison of policy over 30 and 50 year spans.

Posted by economicgps | Report as abusive


That was the most logical, accurate and enjoyable post I’ve read in a month. I’m still grinning.

Here’s my take…

When the uber-rich are finished eating their young (the economically lower and middle classes, et al)they will have no one left to chew on but themselves. Sure would like to see that.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive