The Genetics of Inflation

A rise in inflation is expected… Though it may seem old news, like “Snow is expected this weekend,” or “Communism is on the way this winter,” (as in the discourse of the cold war political leaders who wanted to intimidate people) most people are not surprised. Having lived and grown in the embrace of inflation for forty years, our society seems to think “We’re used to inflation,” as much as “It was obviously going to be that way.”

So what does it mean to be used to inflation?

While seeking an answer to this question something occurred to me which evaporated in the jovial bickering between Asaf Savaş and Deniz Gökçe on the Ecodialogue program a few weeks ago. The fact that Professor Asaf’s comment about “inflation genes” coincided with the end of the program may have finished the debate before it began. Or can it be that Professor Asaf, who despite all my efforts at brainwashing him remains unconvinced that subjects current in fields like neuroscience and psychology can influence macro-economic conditions, is changing his opinion?

First, the question of inflation and genes. Do genes cause inflation, or is it inflation which alters genes? The rough answer is that theoretically, it is possible for either one to be a cause. Now for a little genetics, superficial though this may be: Genes code the proteins which determine the structure of the brain (and of course the other organs of the body) and its operation. Experience can determine whether or not genes will be active, and if they are, the degree to which they will be operative.

What is inflation behavior?

We can speak of the basic outlines of such behavior, of its slogans. Anything can happen at any moment, for example. Or a situation can worsen from day to day. And, the best thing is to seize opportunities when they arise. Because time waits for no one. Life is slipping by. Time is passing faster than ever before. We may die at any moment. To put this in the language the brain understands: If there is inflation, there is no tomorrow. There is only the moment (this takes us back to the momentary realism predisposition we all share). It is inevitable that this intense uncertainty will cause life to be perceived as a threat (something does not have to be lethal, only behave as if it is!) and set all bodily survival mechanisms in motion. Corticosteroids and all kinds of stress hormones make the circulatory system virtually heel to leeward. The constant presence of stress hormones in the blood swiftly damages various sectors of the body, including the memory cells of the brain. And while doing so, upsets the activation sequences and processes of both the genes which ensure the regulation of stress hormones and those which play a role in brain structures involved in memory and judgment. Although inflation does not outright kill us, the feeling that we may die at any moment and the ensuing fight or flight response caused by the uncertainty to which it leads upsets the operation of our brains. Not only upsets it but ruins it, and has ruined it. Most obvious in today’s behavioral patterns that have been in nurtured in 1980s and 1990s, obviously not by the inflation itself alone, but rather by the surrounding economic understanding and its thought system.

The operation of genes is altered. Inflation can lead to genetic alterations at the operating level. So, Professor Asaf was right… But is the genetic alteration of a type to be passed down to later generations? Is it inheritable? Can the ‘novelty seeking’ genes I keep talking about, for example, emerge at such times and remain effective for generations to come? Is it like the “amorality” our Prime Minister (2002- ) aaid we had acquired from the West? Once acquired, how does behavior achieve the cross-generational permanence which can be understood from its ubiquity in those circles where people are quite content with it? The scientific field called epigenetics may shed light on the subject. If a glance at the text and graphics of the footnote on pages 23-24 of my book Hearts Beat is not enough, it gives an idea. I will move on here, asking you to accept a footnote explaining the biology of how and why genes and genes, and genes and the environment, mutually affect one another.* In fact, an alteration at the genetic level is not required in order for behavior peculiar to the inflation generation to be passed on to later generations. “Memes,” the cultural analogues of genes, may take on this role as forms of behavior which are passed on from generation to generation.

Destruction of the future. Can we attribute to “inflation” all undesirable conditions, from social decay to lack of faith in the future to the mentality and politics of short-term gain? I don’t know. In an environment where everything has lost value, the majority of people restrict their view of the future to their own existence, to their ability to survive. They don’t care about the continuation of their family line or their species. They are liable to attack ruthlessly whatever gets in the way of their immediate wants. Their destructiveness spreads to all individuals and creatures in nature. That which is not here-right-now does not exist anyway. And destruction is acceptable. You might say that inflation has long since arrived, or never left. I would find you justified in saying so. If I were to put the psychological reality of inflation in the form of a song, I’d declare: “It’s now or never.” I may not be able to find inflation genes, but I can find their song. And if you say, “But this is not the product of inflation, it’s just human nature,” I will stand at attention. They used to say you get to know a person during a trip. We can say you get to know him in times of inflation. A rise in inflation is expected. Important news in terms of economic data, no doubt. But in terms of how we live, has inflation ever not been on the rise?

* A technical note for the interested reader. The existing genomic information we bring with us into the world may be defined as the totality of mechanisms which make possible different interpretation of genomic information in different bodily tissues and therefore the acquisition of an identity special to that bodily tissue. DNA methylation is one of the fundamental mechanisms which ensure that experience may effect change in genetic structure and operation. Why? When methyl groups are joined to the cytosine nucleotides in the “promoter” regions of genes (when methylation occurs), chromatin takes on a dense, closed, or untranscriptable form. While some genes go quiet as a result of methylation, demethylation is connected with the activation of quiet genes and the increase in the amount of products they code. One may mention, for example, the hypermethylation (quieting, de-activation) of the genes which suppress tumors in the formation of cancers, genes which repair DNA, and the hypomethylation (and thus activation) of proto-oncogenes which make the formation of tumors easier. “Stress” is considered one of many factors which can trigger methylation or demethylation. How does stress do this? As a result of stress, the over-excretion of glucocorticoids may have direct additive effects on gene transcription (their reading and therefore protein production). It is thought that methylation or demethylation plays a role in the lives of people whose biological experience changes due to nutrition (as in mice whose fur color changes according to what they eat), life style (the possible correlation between tobacco consumption and the demethylation of genes governing susceptibility to cancer), or adverse life events (those who are homozygous for short alleles of serotonin transporters become depressive more easily). Can we view inflation as a factor of life style also? Can we say that it is an adverse life event (except for those who love inflation’s foggy climate) which shapes our behavior, making it difficult to think about tomorrow?


*translated by Victoria Hollbrooke