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Bill Gates and Dunbar’s Number

March 30, 2013

“The 147 People Destroying the Economy” a recent post on Common Dreams by Rickard Eskow, advanced the theory that 147 individuals constitute a de facto interlocking directorate of idea-mongers who effectively hijacked public opinion when it comes to defining economic issues. He contends that our opinions are molded by these decision makers and that the mainstream media unquestioningly echoes and recycles their austerity-based opinions on matters like the euro, the need for a balanced budget in our country, the fact that we cannot regulate banks that are too big to fail (TBTF) nor can we prosecute TBTF bankers. Where does the number 147 come from?

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar tried to find out how many people the typical person “really knows.” He compared primate brains to social groups and published his findings in papers with titles like “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.”

Dunbar concluded that the optimum number for a network of human acquaintances was 147.5, a figure which was then rounded up to 150 and became known as “Dunbar’s Number.” He found groups of 150-200 in all sorts of places: Hutterite settlements. Roman army units. Academic sub-specialties. Dunbar concluded that “there is a cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships.”

That means that 147 people can change the course of history. Not necessarily the same 147 people, of course. But the small social groups which surround our world’s leaders have extraordinary power.

Eskow’s essay proposes that our economic policies are failing because of the very same 147 people who advise Obama are the 147 people listened to by the mainstream Republican leaders and the 147 people listened to by the mainstream media.

The “147″ run companies. They also hold fundraisers for politicians – in both parties.

When Senator Obama became President Obama, during the gravest unemployment crisis since the Great Depression, one of his first acts was to create a “Deficit Commission” instead of a “Jobs Commission.” Why? Because “147 people” thought that was the right priority….

Then there are the news anchors and journalists who say things like this: Everybody knows that we need to cut Social Security. Everybody knows the deficit is our most urgent problem.

This resonated with me because in education I have a sense there are 147 people who have decided that school reform means accountability based on standardized test results  and schools that “fail” based on these test results should be closed and replaced with private for-profit schools. Reform also means “choice”, because parents should be afforded the opportunity to enroll their children in for-profit charter schools or sectarian private schools if their “government controlled” public schools are “failing”. Everyone knows that standardized tests are the best way to measure school performance… and everyone knows that “choice” is beneficial.

And who are the 147? Well, Diane Ravitch has some ideas on that issue. In a post yesterday she suggested her readers look again at an article published in the NYimes in May, 2011, entitled “Behind Grass Roots Advocacy: Bill Gates”. The article describes several organizations Gates founded that advance his ideas on school reform… which are the ideas “EVERYONE” knows are true. The article included this prescient quote:

“It’s Orwellian in the sense that through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who said he received no financing from the foundation.

The ideas one the economy that “everyone” agrees with now seem similar to the ideas that emerged from think tanks like the Heritage Foundation…. and the ideas “everyone agrees today with seem similar to those advocated by Bill Gates. The only saving grace: the blogosphere is making it clearer to people that the conventional wisdom on austerity and the conventional wisdom on “reform” is not getting the desired results and MAYBE it’s becoming clear that what “everyone” knows is wrong.

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  1. March 30, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    How sad. Obama put billions into saving jobs – for example, giving enormous sums to help school districts employ educators. But hey, let’s ignore that because we’re following the lockstep “oppose Obama” faction.
    Obama pulled off the first major expansion of health care in generations. He was bitterly opposed by right wing billionaires. But we’ll ignore that too.
    Obama has pushed hard (and somewhat successfully) to raise taxes on the wealthiest (again, opposed by right wing billionaires). But the quasi left Oppose Obama faction does not want to talk about that.

    There are huge differences between Obama and the right wing billionaires… but we’ll ignore that cause we’re part of the oppose Obama faction.

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