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 ….

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About JoeDuck

Internet Travel Guy, Father of 2, small town Oregon life. BS Botany from UW Madison Wisconsin, MS Social Sciences from Southern Oregon. Top interests outside of my family's well being are: Internet Technology, Online Travel, Globalization, China, Table Tennis, Real Estate, The Singularity.
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2 Responses to Our Symbiotic Economy

  1. horatiox says:

    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.

    In theory, that’s how something like equilibrium should work, yet corporate power, location and other factors need to be accounted for. Is the pizza shop a franchise, or small-town restaurant? The Ma n Pa places don’t make it, generally unless they’ve been around for years in a cute college town (and even then not a guarantee). Most of the sales of pizza, soft drinks and so forth pay the lease, the employees, the vendors, etc. Yes some trickles down to workers in the meat-processing plants or los migros who picked the onions and peppers, etc–but I wager most goes to management and banks, or in case of franchise, execs of some type.

    Alas, Walmarts, fast food, Dominos and Co, malls, big retail pretty much ended the small-town merchants sometime back in the 90s, or at least that’s how it is in SoCal (though a few swank eateries westside do very well, especially when the latest bimbo decides to eat brunch there with her latest beau, and so forth).

    Division of labor is an interesting thing.

    • JoeDuck says:

      I wager most goes to management and banks, or in case of franchise, execs of some type.

      This is a very interesting topic to me and I’d like to understand better how economists model the way pay and benefits are allocated among all the parties involved. It’s not a simple equation and therefore advocates of various ideologies abuse the data. Coffee might be an interesting one to study because much of the money flow is well documented and there are many alternative approaches to growing/processing/marketing/consuming. I’ve been critical of “fair trade” movement because it seems to inject first world middlemen into the equation who are well intentioned but seem to suck up the resources that they want to be going to the farmers.

      I’m sure a Folger’s executive makes a lot but probably also represents a huge amount of coffee moving around. As with the CEO pay discussion you have to be careful not to fret over a million here or there when billionsare lost from inefficient allocations elsewhere.

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