Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Bees and Politicians

This past weekend marked the first Saturday and Sunday that I didn't have to awaken at 3:00 AM since last July.  I must say it was nice to sleep until light, and to find a newspaper delivered to my doorstep by someone else.  Unfortunately, I was still not able to post at all last week as I worked on my day off and a did a double shift to cover for a sick fellow assistant manager.  Perhaps this week will afford me some more time.

In my last post, I reported on the major bills voted upon by the House and Senate.  This past week, 3 bills were detailed in the Inquirer, two in the House and one in the Senate.

The House voted 303-114 to repeal new Department of Education rules for for-profit colleges and universities.  Among others, these rules would have required these for-profit education providers to meet accreditation requirements in each state in which they have a presence, established state-by-state processes for handling student complaints, and would have set a uniform definition for a "credit hour" for purpose of allocating federal financial aid.  These rules were set to go into effect in July 2014 but now they will not.  All local Republican reps voted in favor, and half of local Democrats.  The 2nd bill overrides or weakens existing California and federal laws and compacts related to the allocation of San Joaquin River water in the Central Valley and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.  The bill directs more water to agriculture users in the Central Valley and less to the benefit of farming in the delta and less to fishing, environmental and recreational interests in other parts of California and Oregon.  This bill passed along party lines; all local Republican members voted yes, all local Democratic reps voted no.

In the Senate, by a vote of 51-48, an amendment was tabled (killed) which would enabled insurers and employers to refuse to insure any medical procedure, item or device that conflicts with their "religious beliefs or moral convictions".   Both Pennsylvania senators, one of each party, voted in favor of the amendment while both senators from NJ and DE (all Democratic) voted against the amendment. 

Yesterday, I read an interesting article in the Smithsonian Magazine (March 2012 edition, "Hive Mind") about bees and how they make collective decisions.  In essence, a bee swarm makes its big decisions in a "democratic" fashion.  For instance, scout bees bring information about moving to a new location, and communicate this info to the hive via length and intensity of their dance.  The more positive a scout bee feels about the new home it has scouted, the longer and more frenetic its dance to its fellow bees.  This encourages other bees to "check out" the scout bees research, and as they return to communicate their agreement, again, their dance indicates the intensity of their feelings.  Once enough bees become of similar mind, the hive departs for its new home.  Of course, there is more to it than this simplified summary.  Other scout bees also may be bringing info about a new home, dancing as long or as passionately, thereby inspiring other bees to check out their findings.  In the end though, the decision to move to a particular home is made by a quorum of bees who have been exposed to a number of different locations but have decided, as a group, to which home to move.  (The decision is not the queen's, by the way).
What seems striking to me is how this behavior compares and contrasts with our democratic process.  One could consider our elected officials as our scout bees, in charge of plotting out the future of our human hive.  We listen to their speeches, feel their passion, sometimes we even check out the facts for ourselves.  Of course, the scout bees of a hive seem to be operating under the guidelines of "what is best for the hive" whereas there seems to be many politicians who pretend to vote and govern for the betterment of the people but who sometimes seem only concerned for their particular group of constituents (or worse, themselves) rather than the country as a whole.  And, once the hive makes its decisions, all the bees work together to make the decision work.  It seems that  in this time of political partisanship, we are in a pattern where those whose "dance" is not chosen, work to inhibit the success of the winning dance, regardless of whether it is in the best interest of the hive or not.  We seem to believe in a democratic process to decide but only when that decision agrees with our own.  I imagine this "my-way-or-the-highway" approach would devastate a bee swarm. 

Nature, whether by its examples of the collective behavior of bees or birds, ants or whales, repeatedly demonstates the power of the group to achieve more than what can be accomplished by its individual members.  Clearly, humankind has evolved beyond the instincts that enable bees to individually find a new home then collectively decide which home is best.  Like bees, we allow the majority to rule in most decisions, yet we also maintain a respect for the individual and a voice (and limited) power for the minority. 

Imagine then, how amazing the accomplishments of men will be when we can combine both the individual power of our best with the collective power of the whole.



  1. Joe - I am a frequent reader of your blog, and although I often find myself in disagreement with your opinions, I have to say that I completely agree with the theme of this column. Perhaps it's human nature to form "swarms" or "us vs. them" clubs (which political parties see, increasingly, to be). One can only imagine how much improved our government would be without the pressures, cliques and group-think of political parties. As you say, maybe some day we'll move beyond all that. One can only hope!

  2. Anonymous,

    Thanks for your continued interest in my blog. If you would ever want to email me directly to discuss at length a column or topic of the day;