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How you see where you are depends on how you got there.

It’s Wednesday. And that means, at least for most of us, that yesterday was Tuesday. Mundane, right? Obvious, right? 


But suppose that it’s Wednesday for you but that yesterday was Thursday! 

Oh, my! You would be in quite a different “Wednesday” than the rest of us would. How could this happen? 

Many ways. You could be a character in a Sci-Fi movie. Maybe you were in a coma for six days. Or, you could have retrograde amnesia from a blow to the head. Or, maybe you have some weird form of temporal lobe epilepsy. No matter how you got from Thursday to Wednesday, you will treat the day quite differently from those of use who experienced yesterday as Tuesday. 

And this is generally true of human beings. 

How you experience your current reality depends a lot on how you got there. 


It so happens that my dissertation studied human problem solving. I used a problem called the “Hobbits and Orcs problem.” You may have heard of it.

There are three Hobbits and three Orcs on one side of a river and you have to get them all over to the other side. The only way to cross the river is by use of a small boat. (No flying, swimming, catapulting, disapparating, etc. allowed). For the boat to operate and not simply float off downstream, it must have at least one creature in it. But the boat can only hold one or two creatures. It cannot hold more. Orcs, as you probably already know, are suspected of eating Hobbits. You cannot ever let more Orcs than Hobbits on either side of the river, even briefly. You can try the problem for yourself.  Remember though…you cannot let there be more Orcs than Hobbits on either side of the river — not even briefly. 


I compared how people solved this problem to an early AI system modestly called, “The General Problem Solver.” As you might expect, even though both humans and the AI system (GPS) can solve the problem, they behave quite differently. For instance, the places where humans have trouble (take more time; make more mistakes) are quite different from the places where GPS slows down. 

Start – HHHOOO (boat) {river}

Goal –                             {river} (boat) HHHOOO

Spoiler alert — now, I have to talk about the solution.

At one point, you will feel as though you’ve been making good progress and you have two hobbits and two orcs on the far side of the river along with the boat. Now, comes the sticking point (for humans). If an Orc brings back the boat, you’ll have two Orcs and one Hobbit on the near side. The two Orcs will gang up on the Hobbit and eat it. Fail! But if the Hobbit brings back the boat, the far side of the river will have two Orcs and one Hobbit so that Hobbit will get eaten. 

Here is the situation: 

HO {river} (boat) HHOO 

The “trick” is to use one Hobbit and one Orc to bring the boat back. Now, you use two Hobbits to take the boat to the far side, and it’s pretty easy to solve from there. The “trick” is only “tricky” because it feels as though you are undoing the progress you’ve already made! You took two over and you need to bring two back. In fact, many subjects wanted to “give up” rather than bring two creatures back over. They claimed it was “insoluble.” 

But wait. 

It gets even stranger. 

Half of my subjects began with a “half problem.” They started in this position. 

Start: HO {river} (boat) HHOO 

Goal:        {river} (boat) HHHOOO

These subjects had very little trouble solving the problem. They began by taking the boat to the left side by using one Hobbit and one Orc. They quickly solved the rest of the problem. 

Then I gave those same people, the entire problem again, but starting here: 

Start – HHHOOO (boat) {river}

Goal –                             {river} (boat) HHHOOO

They had little problem at the beginning. 

But when they got to the position shown below, many wanted to quit. Many said the problem was “impossible” once they got to this position: 

Now: HO {river} (boat) HHOO 

Goal:        {river} (boat) HHHOOO

Does that pattern look familiar to you? It should! 

This is exactly the problem that they themselves had just solved a few minutes earlier! When they started there, it was easy. But when they got there by arriving at it through their own effort, that same position was now daunting. They didn’t even recognize or realize that they had just been there. (None of this behavior was like that of the General Problem Solver, by the way). 


A number of economists were interested in this result. Why? Because “classic” economics operates like GPS. It looks at the Starting Point. It looks at the Goal. It looks at various possible moves. It doesn’t “care” how it got there. According to classical economics, if you buy IBM stock at $50 and I buy it at $150 and now it’s at $100, if we have the same knowledge, then we should make the same decision about whether to buy or sell. In reality, people do not. If you bought it at $50, you’ve made a huge profit and are happy to sell it. If I bought it at $150, I’m going to suffer a loss. How people view a situation is heavily dependent on how they got there. 

Now, let’s play another little “what if” game. 

What if you were an extremely rich person who also happened to be extremely selfish. In America, for instance, worker productivity has increased decade after decade. This meant that the wealthiest people in the country kept getting wealthier and wealthier. But the workers, who made a lot less than the owners, also benefited by getting wealthier. 

Until around 1974. Then, a strange thing happened. The productivity of American workers continued to grow. However, the increased wealth that accrued from all those people learning new technology, learning new methods, using the suggestion box, etc. — none of that increased wealth went to the workers. All of it went to the richest people in the country.  


There had been a kind of partnership between owners and workers. The owners of large companies said, in effect: “if you keep being more productive by working harder, smarter, and faster, we will all benefit. We’ll have more profits and you’ll have higher wages.”

Then, the owners stopped living up to that implicit agreement. They took all the increased profits for themselves. Basically, that’s what happened in 1974. And it also happened in 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018. It varied, of course, somewhat from industry to industry, and month to month, and company to company but that is the big picture. 

People who had organized their lives and the lives of their families around their jobs found that they had no job. Their jobs were shipped overseas or given over to automation. They were pissed off. As they should have been. Notice that this trend continued unabated under both Republican administrations and under Democratic administrations. It’s hard to even see a difference in the divergence that occurred between the ever-increasing wealth that workers contributed through their increased productivity and the stagnation in their real wages. 

Then, we come to 2016 and someone said, “You can’t trust these politicians. They’re all the same. They are in cahoots with their rich donors. You know who you can trust? ME!” 


The very worst fear of many of the wealthiest .001% of the country is that all workers will get together and demand their fair share! The workers are at least as responsible for the increased overall wealth as the owners. But while real wages for workers has been basically unchanged for decades, the compensation for owners has skyrocketed. Of course, they know it’s unfair! They don’t care if it is unfair. But they do care greatly that the yacht party of caviar and champagne continues unabated. 

How to deal with this? What can you do if you’re wealthy because of other people’s work and this becomes common knowledge? You divide and conquer. You shout long enough and hard enough in every possible medium of communication that it isn’t the greed of the wealthy that has kept your wages from going up. Oh, no, not at all. It’s the foreign competition. It’s the people of color. It’s the gays. It’s the Muslims. It’s the Jews. It’s the uppity women. It’s the video games. It’s violence on TV. It’s sunspots. It’s aliens from other planets hidden in area 51. It’s lack of ambition on your part. It’s because you haven’t taken responsibility. It’s because of liberals who want to take all your guns away and make you eat quiche or salad. 


Those that want it all for themselves are terrified that you’ll catch on to their game. And, if you do catch on, you may just choose not to play any longer. So, they buy politicians. They buy air time for commercials. They indoctrinate you to hate workers that look different; that speak differently; that eat different foods; that wear different clothes; that worship in buildings with a different shape. They plant lies about all of these “other” people so that you will hate those “other” people — meanwhile trying to convince you that they are on your side; that they are just like you really. After all, you’re both “white” or “straight” or “Christian” or “Midwestern” or whatever. But the truth is — the lives they live are quite different. Despite being extremely wealthy, many of them pay far less tax than you do. If their kids goof off in high school or aren’t very bright — no problem! They’ll just bribe the way for their kids to get into a top university.  

So far, their little game has worked. By using the same methods that get you to buy skin products you don’t really need; the same methods that get you to buy sugared water at a high price; the same methods that get you hooked on sugar; the same methods that make you feel guilty about being overweight; the same methods that induce you to buy products and systems to help you lose weight; the same methods that fool you in a thousand ways — they get you to hate other people — people who are superficially different are “sold” as being fundamentally different. While the people whose lives really are fundamentally different from yours are being touted as living lives that are very similar to yours.  


Once you begin voting for the folks who are paid for by these very wealthy people, you will tend to listen to them. You will tend to believe them. Not because you are stupid or gullible. You will do it because that’s what you’ve done in the past. The more you vote for them, the more you want to believe them. And, here’s the kicker: if they are outrageous  in behavior and speech, you will want to believe them even more. After a few years, it doesn’t matter how absurd or ridiculous what they say is. You’ll still believe them. It’s not your fault, really. But it does keep you, and all the rest of us, trapped in a vicious circle. 

You got to this Wednesday from yesterday. But your yesterday was Thursday. It’s comforting to know that there are millions of others who also got here from Thursday. 

You don’t have to keep choosing this way. But many of you will. And, that’s precisely the way that the wealthiest .001% like it. They don’t want to share with you the wealth that you created. They’d much rather keep things the way they are. They’d much rather keep that wealth for themselves. After all, caviar, champagne, yachts, and beautiful teen-agers are expensive. 

There is, of course, a much easier solution to the Hobbits and Orcs problem. Hobbits and Orcs could stop hating and mistrusting and killing each other. Then, crossing the river to the other side is easy. And that benefits everyone. 

Everyone, that is, except the .001%. 


Author Page on Amazon. 

Abstract of article in Cognitive Psychology