Our Symbiotic Economy

In biology there are several kinds of relationships between animals where one or both benefit from the interactions. This obviously happens in economic relationships as well.

Something I have wondered about for some time is the size of what we might call the “commensalist” economy. Commensalism is the relationship between organisms where one supports the other without benefit to the host. Unlike a parasite, the commensalist character does no harm to the host, but also doesn’t bring anything to the table.

In defining the symbiotics in human economics we find many economic interactions where the benefits are so disproportionate or negative they would not be commensalist.  Some would be called parasitic such as scams like the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme.

Many (probably most) economic relationships are mutually beneficial such as me buying a pizza and a Coke at the local restaurant. Here, they get my money and I get the pizza and Coke – the end products of hundreds of generally mutually beneficial economic relationships between farmers, bottlers, distributors, truckers, packagers, banks, research chemists working in the food industry, and more.

Yet I’m starting to think that the economy where one party gets a lot more than the other may be much larger than generally thought. This is very relevant as we begin to spend trillions on infrastructure and other Government projects. Will this money go for mutually beneficial projects or get sucked up into commensalist nonsense or low ROI things?

Some examples of the commensalist economy? Parents sell their house to their kids for less than a market rate, stock broker churns the account for commissions, CNBC reporters entertain but do not inform their viewers, “get rich quick” schemes in general (news flash – these do not work. Stop looking for the one that does and do some real work!), good salespeople upsell unneeded and overpriced services. In fact this last one is probably the key to my question – how much of our economy is built on “upsold” products and services and the commissions.

My hunch is that this type of economic relationship is simply huge – perhaps even 20% or more of the “truly productive” and mutually beneficial parts of our massive global economy when you factor in the massive commissions on sales which often simply reflect competition between large firms for massive private or government projects of dubious value to society.    Pork barrel military contracts, for example, offer some of the lowest ROI of any human activity in history yet they represent a significant percentage of USA GDP.

… more after some research ….