On ‘The Dawn of Everything’ and the Future.

On ‘The Dawn of Everything’ and the Future.

Farmers conquered the world.

Not that many of us farm. Modern technologies allow us all to be fed even though less than 1% of the population still does the actual work of farming. But the food we eat comes from farms. Without farms, we couldn’t live as we do.

Indeed, the material luxuries of the modern world would make this place seem like a paradise to our ancestors. So much food, so easily procured! Soft warm clothes – you can buy great digs at Goodwill for a few dollars. Oracular pocket computers – my telephone can prophesize way better than ancient gods. I know when it’s going to rain. I know if the rain will be stopping in 35 minutes.

We have indoor plumbing, hot showers, scented candles – that’s awesome! Think about it: Victorian cities smelled so bad!

I mean, sure – with climate change and rising sea levels, sewers in places like New York City will back up more frequently, and I’ll get to that. But first, let’s take a moment to be grateful: the stuff we have access to is pretty incredible. All our technologies and toys.

Wow.

Farmers really nailed it, didn’t they?

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But before we reached our fabulous present (please continue to suspend your disbelief for a little longer; I understand that the present moment in history feels decidedly less than fabulous for many people), something strange had to happen.

Hunter-gatherers lived pretty well. They ate good food. They spent ample time socializing and relaxing. As best we can tell, their lives had a lot of potential for happiness.

By way of contrast, it was the pits to be an early farmer! You’d work all day; eat crummy food that left you gassy and bloated; die young. Also, you’d feel small – instead of believing that you were probably just as good as anyone else, you’d know that there were kings and such who lived way better than you.

Every now and then, their ruffians might come calling and haul away your food.

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Just like the recently deposed leader of the United States, ancient kings were big on building walls. But there’s a difference. Because it was so miserable to be an early farmer – a cog in the gearworks of a glorious civilization! – early walls may have been built to keep people in.

In Against the Grain, James Scott writes of early states that, “Do what they might to discourage and punish flight – and the earliest legal codes are filled with such injunctions – archaic states lacked the means to prevent a certain degree of [population loss] under normal circumstances. For China’s Mongol frontier, Owen Lattimore has made the case most forcefully that the purpose of the Great Wall(s) was as much to keep the Chinese taxpayers inside as to block barbarian incursions. … Precisely because this practice of going over to the barbarians flies directly in the face of civilization’s “just so” story, it is not a story one will find in the court chronicles and official histories. It is subversive in the most profound sense.

The hunter gatherers had been happy, though! So how did we get from there to here? If early farming was so miserable, why did people do it?

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In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that a select few prehistoric farming communities were less miserable than the rest. Their arguments are based on sparse archaeological data – in the essay “Digging for Utopia,” Kwame Anthony Appiah presents several examples in which Graeber & Wengrow’s interpretations extend beyond the evidence – and yet, their central conclusion is almost certainly correct.

Many, many groups of humans formed distinct communities over the past ten thousand years. That’s a long time. These people didn’t have access to all the historical knowledge that we have, but they were no less intelligent or imaginative than we are. It would be naive to imagine that every single community followed the exact same political system.

Although Appiah’s review ends with a great line – “Never mind the dawn, Rousseau was urging: we will not find our future in our past” – I agree with Graeber & Wengrow that there’s benefit from showing that cooperation and mutual aid were the underpinnings of successful civilizations in the past. We needn’t be shackled by the choices of our ancestors, but it’s still nice to feel inspired by them. Even one single example of a stable ancient civilization organized around mutual aid would give credence to the idea that a radical reworking of contemporary civilization isn’t doomed to failure.

If prehistoric people did have a variety of political systems, though – some happy, some oppressive – why did we end up with a bad version?

Graeber & Wengrow write:

When people talk about ‘early civilizations’ they are mostly referring to [societies like] Pharaonic Egypt, Inca Peru, Aztec Mexico, Han China, Imperial Rome, ancient Greece, or others of a certain scale and monumentality.

All these were deeply stratified societies, held together mostly by authoritarian government, violence, and the radical subordination of women. Sacrifice, as we’ve seen, is the shadow lurking behind this concept of civilization: the sacrifice of our three basic freedoms, and of life itself, for the sake of something always out of reach – whether that be an ideal or world order, the Mandate of Heaven or blessings from insatiable gods.

Is it any wonder that in some circles the very idea of ‘civilization’ has fallen into disrepute? Something very basic has gone wrong here.

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Presumably, some ancient cultures prioritized happiness (cooperation, sharing, art), while others prioritized growth (acquisition, extraction, war, and work).

I would rather live in the former sort; I assume most people, if given the chance to experience both, would make a similar choice. (Graeber & Wengrow include several examples of well-educated people who experienced both self-interested European-style capitalism and cooperative “savagery” preferring the latter. “By far the most common reasonshad to do with the intensity of social bonds they experienced in Native American communities: qualities of mutual care, love and above all happiness, which they found impossible to replicate once back in European settings. ‘Security’ takes many forms. There is the security of knowing one has a statistically smaller chance of getting shot with an arrow. And then there’s the security of knowing that there are people in the world who will care deeply if one is.”)

But the borders of a political system that prioritizes growth will steadily expand if able. Whenever there’s a meeting between a growth-valuing and a happiness-valuing society, the former is likely to attempt to commandeer the land and resources that had been used to support the latter.

North America was populated before Europeans arrived. The land was intensely managed: Graeber and Wengrow write that “What to a settler’s eye seemed savage, untouched wilderness usually turns out to be landscapes actively managed by indigenous populations for thousands of years through controlled burning, weeding, coppicing, fertilizing and pruning, terracing estuarine plots to extend the habitat of particular wild flora, building clam gardens in intertidal zones to enhance the reproduction of shellfish, creating weirs to catch salmon, bass and sturgeon, and so on. Such procedures were often labour-intensive, and regulated by indigenous laws governing who could access groves, swamps, root beds, grasslands and fishing grounds, and who was entitled to exploit what species at any given time of year.

But the land was being managed according to ideals other than maximum short-term agricultural extraction and population growth. The original human inhabitants of this continent believed that it would be both morally and ethically wrong to extract everything possible from their surroundings – future generations and other animals also held valid claims to the land – and so their civilizations sought to thrive sustainably amid natural abundance.

When Europeans first arrived in North America, as Matt Siegel relates in The Secret History of Food, people “described great migrations of birds so numerous they were forced to roost on top of each other, downing giant oaks from their weight and covering the forest in four inches of droppings. John Audubon later described flocks so dense they eclipsed the sun, and estimated seeing more than a billion pigeons in a three-hour span.

Despite this well-managed abundance, many Europeans still starved to death when they first arrived on this continent. They starved “not because of a lack of food, but because of a lack of skill and acquiring it. In unwillingness to heed the advice of the Natives, whom they saw as ‘uncivilized savages.’ Pilgrim John Smith recounts, for example, coming across waters so thick with fish that their heads stuck out above the water, but being unable to catch any for want of nets. ‘We attempted to catch them with a frying pan,’ he writes, ‘but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with.’ ”

This sort of extravagant abundance is now gone, because the encroaching civilization prioritized extraction. Enough of the Europeans survived to gain a foothold on this continent, after which natural resources would not be managed, but consumed.

The rivers were sullied; the great flocks of birds were killed.

(The other day, my family was driving near a highway where a flock of perhaps a thousand starlings swelled and tumbled through the air – it looked magical. I cannot imagine what a flock of a billion birds would be like.)

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The standard measure of our economy – the single magical number cited by politicians and talking heads to let us regular TV-watching folks know how our country is doing – is “growth.”

This magic number doesn’t assess how much we have – although politicians occasionally mention “per capita income” or “per capita output,” which could be rough proxies for that, as long as you neglect our slight (ha!) disparities in distribution – nor how happy we are. Instead, we boast or fret over the rate of increase.

But there’s a limit to growth. I loved the game Universal Paperclip, which I’ve discussed previously, because it elegantly depicts what goes wrong when we attempt ceaseless expansion.

We could prioritize something else – happiness, perhaps – but that would require a massive cultural shift. The ideals of growth are ingrained on both sides of our current political spectrum.

In On Freedom, Maggie Nelson discusses climate change and the conflict it presents: the freedom to do what we want now (chop down forests; extract & burn fossil fuels) versus our descendants having the freedom to do what they want later (visit old-growth forests; encounter wild animals; have a stable climate; survive). We now know that we can’t both have these untrammeled freedoms. Someone – either us or our descendants – has to make sacrifices.

Nelson discusses Naomi Klein’s interactions with people who are unwilling to change their current lifestyle: those who demand the freedom to eat lots of meat, crank their air conditioning, purchase & dispose of whatever plastic products they want.

Those people “are right, Klein says, when they say that climate change isn’t really an ‘issue.’ Rather, she says, ‘climate change is a message, one that is telling us that many of our culture’s most cherished ideals are no longer viable.’

These ideals – shared by people on both the right and left, Klein explains – involve a paradigm of civilization based on progress and expansion rather than one based on an apprehension of and respect for natural limits, including the limits of human intelligence, and the material, planetary parameters that make human life possible.

But it does no good for you to personally refrain from extracting & burning fossil fuels if someone else goes ahead and does it. Our planet is interconnected: the politics of Brazil will affect us all. Clever people are prioritizing growth and expansion.

In The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch argues that the Earth was already a poor habitat for humanity; if climate change makes our planet less habitable, so be it. He believes that there’s no limit to the growth of knowledge – or, therefore, to the economic growth possible for a knowledge-bearing civilization – so why should we slow down now?

(Despite his background in physics, Deutsch ignores the hard limit imposed by entropy – all processes in our universe consume order and excrete chaos, There will be no possibility for further action – not even thought – once the initial order has been consumed. Believe me, I’m all for scientific research: if the lifespan of our sun is compressed into a twenty-four hour day, the current time is about 10:58 a.m., humans have been around since about 10:57 a.m., and the sun will become too hot and evaporate all our water by 7:36 p.m. For humanity to carry on, our descendants will have to find a way to leave this planet by then – but humanity won’t carry on infinitely. And we’ll be unlikely to carry on at all if we recklessly wreck the planet before 11 a.m. instead of giving ourselves the full day to work on solutions!)

If a subset of our population agrees with Nelson & Klein, and another subset agrees with Deutsch, those who agree with Deutsch will win – win, that is, in the sense of having done what they want to the world. Sprinting ahead during the first minute of what’s likely to be an eight-hour long marathon, overheating, and expiring at the side of the road.

As a running coach, that’s something I generally counsel people not to do.

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Europeans arrived on North America. They prioritized growth. They took land from the previous inhabitants.

The vast flocks of pigeons are gone.

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In The Dawn of Everything, Graeber & Wengrow make a persuasive case that many cultures intentionally avoided the emergence of severe inequality or permanent bureaucracy. “Sometimes indigenous property systems formed the basis for differential access to resources, with the result that something like social classes emerged. Usually, though, this did not happen, because people made sure that it didn’t, much as they made sure chiefs did not develop coercive power.”

Mutual aid and cooperation were intentional goals around which societies were structured.

Unfortunately, although this sort of political structure might be good at producing happiness, it’s inefficient. I volunteer with several organizations that operate on the principle of consensus decision-making; these deliberations can be quite arduous!

Over time, the cultures with more efficient political systems are likely to grow faster – even if they’re less happy – and gradually displace the others. This is the same logic of invasive species: the plants labeled as “invasive” in any habitat tend to begin their growing season earlier and spread more easily, allowing them to replace whatever had been there before.

Capitalism has a lot of flaws, and unfettered capitalism can certainly get stuck with massive inefficiencies through monopoly power or the like, but capitalism is typically more efficient than mutual aid.

Graeber and Wengrow write that:

Both money and administration are based on similar principles of interpersonal equivalence. What we wish to emphasize is how frequently the most violent inequalities seem to arise from such fictions of legal equality.

This equality could be viewed as making people (as well as things) interchangeable, which in turn allowed rulers to make impersonal demands that took no consideration of their subjects’ unique situations.

As anyone knows who has spent time in a rural community, or serving on a municipal or parish council, resolving inequities might require many hours, possibly days of tedious discussion, but almost always a solution will be arrived at that no one finds entirely unfair.

It’s the addition of sovereign power, and the resulting ability of the local enforcer to say, ‘Rules are rules; I don’t want to hear about it’ that allows bureaucratic mechanisms to become genuinely monstrous.

As money is to promises, we might say, state bureaucracy is to the principle of care: in each case we find one of the most fundamental building blocks of social life corrupted by a confluence of maths and violence.

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I would have preferred for Graeber and Wengrow to continue this discussion of efficiency, which helps explain why we inherited a political system that produces less happiness than the cultures of many of our ancestors.

Hunting and gathering yielded ample calories for ancient humans to build stable, complex societies. But in these societies, little would have been interchangeable; people might engage in different activities each day, each season, each year. The food they ate might vary considerably from one day to the next.

(In Against the Grain, Scott writes “Evidence for the relative restriction and impoverishment of early farmers’ diets comes largely from comparisons of skeletal remains of farmers with those of hunter-gatherers living nearby at the same time. The hunter-gatherers were several inches taller on average. This presumably reflected their more varied and abundant diet. It would be hard to exaggerate that variety. Not only might it span several food webs – marine, wetland, forest, savanna, arid – each with its seasonal variation, but even when it came to plant foods, the diversity was, by agricultural standards, staggering. The archaeological site of Abu Hureyra, for example, in its hunter-gatherer phase, yielded remains from 192 different plants, of which 142 could be identified, and of which 118 are known to be consumed by contemporary hunter-gatherers.”)

Farming produces equivalence. A farmer can specialize in a small set of actions, raising a small set of plants and animals. Bushels of wheat can be easily measured. There are definite losses in terms of health, happiness, and leisure time, but farming makes political organization more efficient.

Indiana’s forests are filling up with garlic mustard, not because it’s the best plant, but because it grows efficiently.

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Among the superpowers of the modern world, some have vaguely democratic political systems (although perhaps it’s foolish to lump plutocratic representational systems like the U.S. into this category), and some use dictatorship (like China).

I’ve read a lot of opinion pieces suggesting that the Chinese political system can’t succeed over the long run because it stifles creativity; for instance, an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Why China Can’t Innovate” claims that Ph.D. students in China receive an inadequate training because “the governance structures of China’s state-owned universities still leaves too many decisions to too few people.”

In the long-run, yes, free societies can produce more creative solutions to their problems. Graeber and Wengrow present compelling evidence that the indigenous free peoples of North America created a much greater variety of political systems than the oppressed peoples of Europe.

In the short run, however, dictatorships can be more efficient. (With the obvious possibility that a dictator might decide to do something counterproductive, as Vladimir Putin is demonstrating.)

Civilizations collapse – or devour each other – in the short run.

On work.

On work.

If you’re living in a capitalist society, having money is great! Money gets you space to live! Money gets you food to eat! And if you ever think of something else you want, money lets you buy it! Right now! Wham!

Hooray for money!

Except that the actual process of getting money can be pretty miserable.

Most people get money by finding a job. At the job, somebody will tell them what to do. They do it, they get paid.

The pay, in the United States, tends to be quite low. Working forty hours a week for fifty two weeks a year, the US minimum wage would net you less than twenty thousand dollars. Even if the US minimum wage were lavishly raised to $15 an hour, you’d still only get about thirty thousand dollars a year.

To keep the US economy going, we’ve relied on desperation. If people had other options, they wouldn’t do dangerous, difficult, or demeaning work for so little pay.

Until recently, though, most people felt like they didn’t have other options. And so they took terrible jobs, hoping to scrape by.

Now, things are looking different.

In the US, lots of people chose not to re-enter the post-pandemic labor force. Among people who did return to work, huge numbers have been quitting.

In China, many young people are advocating for cheaper ways of living. Instead of working long hours at an odious job in order to have enough money to buy fancy things, maybe it’d be better to work less and take joy in simpler pleasures. Of course, this is a rather anti-progress sentiment, so references to the “tang ping” or “lie flat” movement have been deleted from the Chinese internet to quell the ideology.

Even among people who are lucky enough to be paid for doing something fun – and, honestly, among the professional classes, a lot of work is fun, lots of tricksy little puzzles to solve – there’s often an imbalance between how much time we spend working and how much time we spend on family or other sources of lasting joy. This is, roughly, the main argument in the essay by New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo, “Even With a Dream Job, You Can Still Be Anti-Work.

There are lots of ways to find fulfillment in life. And, yes, work can definitely provide that satisfying sensation of having done something worthwhile with your time! Especially if you’re lucky enough to be paid for doing something you love. My spouse loves to teach. Manjoo loves to research big ideas. I love to write!

But the work that many people find themselves doing – trading away their time so that they’ll have enough money to meet their needs – doesn’t feel rewarding. And even a good job can suck up too much time. Caretaking, conversation, art, travel, philosophy, religious practice – these are also excellent avenues to a fulfilling life, except that they don’t draw a salary. Most people aren’t lucky enough to be able to use their time in those ways.

So: work can feel lousy for the people doing the work.

Boo!

And it gets worse. Because there’s another big problem with work: in a capitalist society, much work makes the world worse.

In the US, for instance, our recent economic miracles are advertising companies: Google and Facebook. Their founders have become absurdly rich; a huge number of people have found well-paying, intellectually-stimulating jobs working for these companies. But their money comes from hurting people! Our world would be better off if all those people’s work wasn’t being done.

Very occasionally, advertising benefits a person. An ad might make you aware of something that improves your life! Maybe you’ve always wanted a little automated rake that cleans your cat’s litter box. (I saw an ad for one of those on the YMCA television while I was lifting weights.)

Or maybe you’d like to go out for Indian food, but hadn’t realized there was an Indian restaurant in your home town. Good thing you saw their ad!

But more often, advertising harms us. An effective advertisement instills a sense of absence that some company’s product can supposedly fill. Huge amounts of money are spent creating and distributing ads for beer, for cruise ships, for fast food.

Which people, exactly, do we suppose are unaware of the existence of beer? And would the newfound knowledge help them?

Especially in the face of climate change, our society will have to change. In some fields – manufacturing, advertising, drilling – we need for people to work less. We need for less stuff to be made, used briefly, and shunted off to landfills. The work makes our planet less hospitable.

I used to do biomedical research. I stopped; it seemed that if I did my job well, I too would help wreck our planet. New discoveries are much more likely to yield slight, expensive extensions to the ends of wealthy people’s lives, rather than any additional happiness for the majority of our population.

We already spend inordinate amounts of money on frantic efforts to extend the end of life, even though studies have shown that “the less money spent in this time period, the better the death experience is for the patient.

This sort of work is good for the economy. But it’s bad for people. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where everyone thought that the latter mattered more?

On Gamestop and counterfeiting.

On Gamestop and counterfeiting.

In high school economics, you may have learned that the Federal Reserve controls the money supply.

When inflation is low, the Fed prints money. They unleash this money by purchasing bonds. When people have more money, they’ll spend it, so inflation rises.

When inflation is too low, the Fed contracts the money supply. They sell bonds. Cash leaves circulation. With fewer dollars in hand, it’s more difficult for people to buy things, and inflation slows.

This is a nice theory. It’s logical and the math works well.

The only flaw is that it isn’t true.

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The Federal Reserve doesn’t control the money supply – banks do.

If you walk into a bank and apply for a loan, you might expect for them to check how much money they’re holding in deposits, how much money they’ve lent already, whether there’s any more on hand for you to borrow.

That won’t happen. They’ll investigate you, certainly, to assess whether you’re likely to default. But if they like the look of you, you can walk out of there with money.

The bank creates this money. They claim that it exists, and then it does.

I first learned about the distinction between who theoretically controls the money supply (the Federal Reserve!) and who actually controls it (banks!) from economic historian Robert Skidelsky in his book Money and Government.

Skidelsky includes an instructive quote from the investigative report Where Does Money Come From? by Josh Ryan-Collins, Tony Greenham, Richard Werner, and Andrew Jackson:

The theoretical support for deregulation was based on the unrealistic assumptions of neoclassical economics, in which banks are mere intermediaries.

This does not recognize their pivotal role as creators of the money supply.

Since the 1980s, bank credit creation has expanded at a considerably faster rate than GDP, with an increasing amount of bank credit creation channeled into financial transactions. This is unsustainable and costly to society.

As we were taught in high school, increases to the money supply accelerate economic activity.

And our economy is booming. But you might not have noticed. See, banks have been greatly expanding the money supply, but they’ve been injecting all that cash directly into the financial sector.

Investment banks, hedge funds, and the like have been blessed with easy money, and there’s been dramatic inflation in this segment of our economy.

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Brokerages lend stocks.

This is another way to create money – brokerages might lend more stocks than actually exist. At times, this may be inadvertent – if I own a stock, my brokerage can lend it to someone who’d like to short sell it.

When the short seller puts the stock up for sale – hoping to profit if the stock falls before they’re obliged to return it – someone who uses a different brokerage might buy it.

And then that brokerage might also lend it to a short seller – they have no way of knowing that this particular share has already been lent.

All this lending creates money – with each additional sale, the short seller is pulling the stock’s share price out of thin air, subject only to the contract with the brokerage that a share must be returned later – without anyone necessarily intending to break the law.

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When I read poetry with guys in jail, they’ll sometimes mention what they’re in for. Not everyone is telling the truth – according to police reports, somewhere near half are there on domestic assault charges, but out of some thousand men I’ve worked with, only three have said they were in on a domestic, and they all told elaborate stories to explain away the charges.

A guy said that his wife was all bruised because he had to resuscitate her from a medical emergency. Another guy told me that he and his girlfriend were “talking loudly,” some neighbor called the cops, and they saw him throw a towel at her. A third said they busted him for domestic violence after all he’d done was chuck a television at the wall (although this guy had been telling me for weeks that he was in on possession of marijuana).

My point being that I’m never quite sure how much credence to give these stories.

Still, I’ve worked with several guys who said they were doing time for increasing the money supply. In practical effect, what they’d done was the same as a bank lending money it doesn’t have – the money supply increases.

Here’s some money that previously didn’t exist, and there will be repercussions if an investigator can prove that it happened.

A guy was printing bills in his basement. Another passed bad checks. Somebody claimed he was there for credit fraud, but I doubt he was busted for the sort of thing the Russian hackers were doing, trawling the internet for unsecured connections – more likely, he’d lifted somebody’s wallet and got nabbed using their cards.

When individuals get caught at this, we bring the hammer down. Bad check guy caught four years (and the prosecutor was originally trying to get him to plea for twelve, he told me).

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The stock for Gamestop, in and of itself, is worth very little.

The company doesn’t pay a dividend. And the company is failing. They have to pay rent, they have to pay the salaries of living, breathing human employees. They have to maintain an inventory.

They depend on consumers’ willingness to get in the car, drive somewhere, and make eye contact with a living, breathing cashier in order to buy a thing.

But game systems can be bought online. The games themselves can be downloaded. The stylish figurines of people’s favorite characters are cool, and can presumably be sold at a markup in shops since they look more enticing in person than they would as tiny pixelated photos on a telephone screen, but these are heavy and bulky and awkward to ship to the store and keep on the shelves.

I agree with the hedge fund guys who think there’s a high probability that Gamestop was going out of business. That Gamestop might’ve gone under even without the Covid-19 pandemic, and that things look even worse now – the new Gamestop executive’s plans for bringing in money all relied on turning the shops into social spaces, but now nobody’s socializing, and certainly not inside small, poorly ventilated strip mall outlets.

Several hedge funds borrowed lots of shares of Gamestop and sold them, hoping that the price would fall before they were required to return them.

Their positions – short tens of millions of shares of Gamestop – were known. And so people intentionally raised the price of the stock.

The hedge funds were (and possibly still are) contractually obligated to return those shares to the brokerages that they were borrowed from. They’d have to buy shares even if the price became absurd.

So lots of regular people realized they could make a quick buck by buying the shares and then selling them to the hedge fund at a ransom price whenever their loans were up.

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And, yes, when people drove up the price of Gamestop to grift money out of the short-selling hedge funds, that was collusion. Which would be illegal if done in private, but I don’t think there’s any problem when it’s been done entirely on a public forum.

What the banks and brokerages have been doing – creating money by lending things that don’t exist – isn’t illegal. Perhaps it should be – the practical effect is the same as when somebody starts printing money in their basement – but it isn’t.

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If the hedge funds are contractually obligated to buy shares of Gamestop, then is this a good bet?

Should you jump in, too?

I don’t think so.

Please note that I’m not a particularly savvy investor – I’ve put my family’s money in Canadian agriculture, air conditioners, coolants, all sorts of things that will presumably accrue value if the planet Earth becomes less hospitable – nor have I studied contract law. I’m a trained economist and reasonably logical thinker, but not an expert.

I do own a single share of Gamestop – I bought it because I appreciated that people wanted to flip off the hedge funds – but, honestly, I don’t have much personal stake in this.

I do think that the financial sector has been creating large, needless drag on our economy. I’m vaguely anti-capitalist. I believe strongly in a global wealth tax and guaranteed basic income. So I’d like for the hedge funds to go bankrupt.

But I don’t think they will.

The hedge funds have contracts, but their contracts aren’t with me – even if they’ve borrowed my share of Gamestop, they didn’t borrow it from me, they borrowed it from my brokerage.

And my brokerage is run by some reasonable people wearing business suits. They know that the Gamestop company itself is troubled. They would probably rather have money than shares of GME.

I think it’s very risky to gamble on a contract between people who aren’t you. The signing parties of the contract could renegotiate it – as a bystander, I can’t influence their negotiations at all.

Still, there’s a chance that some of the short sellers will tank. So although I wouldn’t recommend buying a bunch of shares of GME, it seems prudent to convert some of your retirement savings to cash, just in case the short sellers have to unload a few of their long positions to cover and the prices of those shares fall. You might have a chance to buy other stocks at a discount soon.

Again, I’m not an expert, nor a savvy investor. That’s just what I’m doing.

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Usually, nobody notices when banks or brokerages create money. We simply assume that they have sufficient holdings to cover whatever they’re lending out.

They often create phantom shares of stocks, and then, when the short sellers resolve their contracts, the phantom shares blip back out of existence, leaving behind only some money – not coins or bills, mind you, but an increased number on a ledger – to indicate that they ever existed.

Account values are like the contrails in a bubble chamber that tell us whether elementary particles briefly existed after a high-energy collision between nuclei.

But Reddit readers’ collusion is causing the contrails to ossify. I don’t have a sell limit set for my single share of Gamestop. Millions of shares are held by people who think short selling ought to be illegal and are planning to let mounting interest payments undermine the hedge funds that were doing it.

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The turbulence here is obviously unrelated to Gamestop.

The issue isn’t even short sellers – financial markets are obviously irrational, but short selling does push stock prices toward fair valuations for their underlying companies. Which isn’t necessarily helpful, or sufficiently important that we, as a people, should reward the people who do it will millions of dollars.

And the issue isn’t hedge funds.

Rather, it’s whether we want a world that conforms to the fictions we teach in high school economics – the Federal Reserve controls the money supply! – or if we want the world we have now, where guys in my poetry class landed in jail for printing money in their basements but bankers and brokers are rewarded lavishly for printing money in their offices.

I’ve written about this previously, here and here, but the ramifications are much more visible now.

And I should mention that, although I think these behaviors ought to be illegal, I’m not saying that bankers have necessarily done anything wrong.

Brokerages, in this whole mess, presumably weren’t trying to break the law. Each brokerage may have thought they had real shares in hand when they lent them.

But they didn’t.

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As it happens, we could easily prevent situations like this from arising again.

I have a rather dour view of Bitcoins – they’ve not as anonymous as people think, and the system is incredibly wasteful, creating more greenhouse gases by design than other forms of currency – but blockchain technology would make the stock market less awful.

A blockchain is like a bunch of stickers plastered to the side of a suitcase – it’s an ordered list of where something has been. You could use blockchains to prevent food-borne illness – for each tomato used for ketchup, you could track its journey from fields to processing plants to restaurants. A blockchain is simply a long list of prior addresses.

With shares of stock, you could track whether that share has previously been lent to a short seller, preventing a single share to be lent twice – which is how brokerages inadvertently counterfeit shares – before the first contract has been resolved.

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The problem, of course, is that people who are currently wealthy benefit from being allowed to create money.

It’s convenient to own a money printer – you get to buy what you want and donate to charities and feel good about yourself.

And it’ll take a bit of work – not much work, as I described above – to shut the money printers down. Still, any effort at all is hard to muster when the people who currently have power would like to keep things as they are.

On currency

On currency

The value of money is a useful fiction.

As with most fictions, the story that we tell about money helps some people more than others. 

Money, in and of itself, is useless.  Gold, cowry shells, slips of paper with pictures of dead presidents.  The story makes us want these things.  We tell ourselves that these items can “hold value.”  Instead of lumbering about with all the goods we want to barter, we can carry a small purse of coins.  As long as everyone believes the same fiction, we can trade our apples for some coins, then later use those coins to pay someone to help us dig a well.

The story that money has value is most helpful for the people who already have money.

If everyone suddenly woke up from the story, and decided that coins were worthless, the people who grow apples would be okay.  In some ways, it’s less practical to pay people with apples – coins don’t bruise or rot – but it can be done.  Similarly, the people who dig wells would be okay. 

But the people who owned coins would be worse off – previously, the things they owned could be traded for other, inherently useful goods.  And people who had made loans would be much worse off – they would have given away money at a time when it could be used to buy things, and when they receive the coins back, they’ll be worthless.  No recompense for past sacrifice – only loss.

So people with current wealth benefit most from the fiction that money has value.

This is, as far as I can tell, the only real virtue of Bitcoins.  This form of currency is not anonymous – indeed, it works through the use of “blockchains,” a permanent ledger that records everyone who has ever owned a particular piece of money.  Bitcoins are a little like dollar bills where you have to sign your name on it in order to spend it.  And they’re excruciatingly bad for the environment – it takes energy to mint a real-world, metal coin, but nothing like the amount of energy that’s constantly wasted in order to verify the ledgers of who owns which Bitcoin.  Ownership is determined by vote, and the system was designed to be intentionally inefficient so that it’s difficult for one person to overwhelm the system and claim ownership of everybody’s coins.  And it’s unstable – it’s difficult for someone to outvote the system and take control, but not impossible.

Those all seem like bad features.  But Bitcoins are now incredibly valuable – in the years since I explained all these flaws to a high school runner who’d begun investing in Bitcoins, his $500 investment has burgeoned to be worth $24,000.

The only “good” feature of Bitcoins is that the system is designed to reward past wealth.  The total money supply approaches an asymptote – new Bitcoins are added to the system more slowly over time.  If the currency is successful, this will impose a deflationary pressure on prices.  Today, a certain amount of heroin might cost 0.1 Bitcoin – in the future, that same amount of heroin might cost 0.01 Bitcoin.

This deflationary pressure would cause the value of current holdings to increase.  By simply buying Bitcoins and hoarding them, you’d gain wealth! 

But this only works for as long as people keep believing the fiction that Bitcoins have value.  And the more people who buy and hold Bitcoins, as opposed to actively using them as currency, the less believable the story will be.  Anyone who “invests” in Bitcoins is wagering that other people will behave in a way that maintains the fiction, even though the person who is making the wager is actively undermining the story.

When we immerse ourselves in stories, we often need to temporarily suspend our disbelieve, but that particular set of mental gymnastics is too twisty for my mind.

Modern money barely exists.  Before, we spun stories about the value of coins – now, the fiction lends value to certain strings of numbers.  In addition to the Federal Reserve, any bank can create money by making a loan and claiming that a certain amount of currency has been added to one account or another.

This has allowed our fictions to become more intricate.  In 2008, the banking crisis threatened to make wealthy people much less wealthy – they had purchased certain financial assets that seemed valuable, and then these assets turned out to be worthless. 

It’s as though there was a certain new Magic card that everyone assumed was great, and a few rich kids bought all the copies of it, but then people finally read the card and realized it was terrible.  Now these rich kids are holding hundreds of copies of a worthless piece of cardboard.

This would be sad for those rich kids.  But, lo and behold, it was fixable!  If everyone can be forced to believe, again, that the item has value, then it will.  The story needs to be chanted more loudly.  If I paid $50 for this card last week, then it’s still worth at least $50!

That’s what “quantitative easing” was – governments around the world agreed to buy worthless items in order to convince everyone that these items had value.  This way, the wealthy people who had initially bought them wouldn’t have to suffer.

In the years since I’ve been teaching in our local county jail, I’ve struggled to comprehend the disparities between the way we treat poor people and wealthy people who made mistakes.

For instance, stock traders stole $60 billion from state governments across Europe – the trick was to have two people both temporarily own the stock around tax time, then they lie to the government and claim that they both had to pay taxes on it.  Only one set of taxes were actually paid, but they lie and claim two rebates.  Money from nothing!

From David Segal’s New York Times article:

A lawyer who worked at the firm Dr. Berger founded in 2010, and who under German law can’t be identified by the news media, described for the Bonn court a memorable meeting at the office.

Sensitive types, Dr. Berger told his underlings that day, should find other jobs.

“Whoever has a problem with the fact that because of our work there are fewer kindergartens being built,” Dr. Berger reportedly said, “here’s the door.”

They stole billions of dollars, and the question at stake isn’t whether they will be punished, but whether they can be forced to return any of the money. 

By way of contrast, many of the guys in jail are there for stealing $10 or so.  A guy did five months for attempting to use my HSA card to buy two sandwiches and a pack of cigarettes.  Another violated probation when he stole a lemonade – “In my defense,” he told me, “I didn’t even mean to steal it, I was just really fucking high at the time.

Two weeks ago, a dentist visited the jail during my class.  I go in from 4:00 p.m. to 5:30 – at about 4:15, a guard came to the door and barked somebody’s name.

“Med call?” somebody asked.

“Shakedown?” asked another.

The guard looked at the sheet of paper in his hand, then said “Dentist.”  And suddenly six guys started clamoring, “You got time for extras?  I gotta get on that list!” 

The man whose name had been called jumped out of his chair and sauntered to the door.

After he’d left, the guys explained the system.  “You can get dental, like real dental, but you have to put your name on the list and they only come like every five, six months.  So there’s no hope unless you’re gonna be here for a while.  And it’s kinda expensive, you pay like fifty for the visit and another ten for each tooth they pull.”

Apparently that’s the only service – pulling teeth.

“They do good work,” said the older man next to me, “I got these bottom two done here.”  And he tilted his head back and opened his mouth.  But I grew up wealthy – it’s hard for me to assess quality by eyeballing the blank gap between somebody’s teeth.

About twenty minutes later, the guy came back.

“Which ones you have them do?” somebody asked him.

“I had ‘em get these bottom three,” he said, although his voice was slurry because they’d loaded his mouth with novacaine.

“You idiot!  You didn’t have them get the top one?”

“No, man, that’s my smile!  Gonna find a way to save that tooth.”

“Man, see, how come I couldn’t be on that list?  I would’ve had ‘em pull a whole bunch of ‘em out.  Wouldn’t give ‘em no that’s my smile bullshit.”

As it happens, I’d gone in for a cleaning at my dentist just the day before.  And I’ve had braces.  Invisalign.  I suddenly felt rather self-conscious about my own perfectly clean, perfectly straight, perfectly intact teeth.

“So who was it, that lady doctor?”

“Naw, was the Black guy.”

“What?  Fuck’s it matter that he’s Black?”

“Nobody said it matters, it’s just, there’s three dentists, there’s the lady doctor, the Black guy, and then that other guy.  There’s just three, is all.”

“Oh.”

Our man was out eighty dollars after the visit.  Could’ve spent ninety, but he was holding out hope for that last one.  And they didn’t let him keep the teeth. 

I’m not sure the tooth fairy ever visits the county jail, anyway.

On suboptimal optimization.

On suboptimal optimization.

I’ve been helping a friend learn the math behind optimization so that she can pass a graduation-requirement course in linear algebra. 

Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool.  Biochemists love it – progression toward an energy minimum directs protein folding, among other physical phenomena.  Economists love it – whenever you’re trying to make money, you’re solving for a constrained maximum.  Philosophers love it – how can we provide the most happiness for a population?  Computer scientists love it – self-taught translation algorithms use this same methodology (I still believe that you could mostly replace Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations with this New York Times Magazine article on machine learning and a primer on principal component analysis).

But, even though optimization problems are useful, the math behind them can be tricky.  I’m skeptical that this mathematical technique is essential for everyone who wants a B.A. to grasp – my friend, for example, is a wonderful preschool teacher who hopes to finally finish a degree in child psychology.  She would have graduated two years ago except that she’s failed this math class three times.

I could understand if the university wanted her to take statistics, as that would help her understand psychology research papers … and the science underlying contemporary political debates … and value-added models for education … and more.  A basic understanding of statistics might make people better citizens.

Whereas … linear algebra?  This is a beautiful but counterintuitive field of mathematics.  If you’re interested in certain subjects – if you want to become a physicist, for example – you really should learn this math.  A deep understanding of linear algebra can enliven your study of quantum mechanics.

The summary of quantum mechanics: animation by Templaton.

Then again, Werner Heisenberg, who was a brilliant physicist, had a limited grasp on linear algebra.  He made huge contributions to our understanding of quantum mechanics, but his lack of mathematical expertise occasionally held him back.  He never quite understood the implications of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and he failed to provide Adolph Hitler with an atomic bomb.

In retrospect, maybe it’s good that Heisenberg didn’t know more linear algebra.

While I doubt that Heisenberg would have made a great preschool teacher, I don’t think that deficits in linear algebra were deterring him from that profession.  After each evening that I spend working with my friend, I do feel that she understands matrices a little better … but her ability to nurture children isn’t improving.

And yet.  Somebody in an office decided that all university students here need to pass this class.  I don’t think this rule optimizes the educational outcomes for their students, but perhaps they are maximizing something else, like the registration fees that can be extracted.

Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool, but it’s easy to misuse.  Numbers will always do what they’re supposed to, but each such problem begins with a choice.  What exactly do you hope to optimize?

Choose the wrong thing and you’ll make the world worse.

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Figure 1 from Eykholt et al., 2018.

Most automobile companies are researching self-driving cars.  They’re the way of the future!  In a previous essay, I included links to studies showing that unremarkable-looking graffiti could confound self-driving cars … but the issue I want to discuss today is both more mundane and more perfidious.

After all, using graffiti to make a self-driving car interpret a stop sign as “Speed Limit 45” is a design flaw.  A car that accelerates instead of braking in that situation is not operating as intended.

But passenger-less self-driving cars that roam the city all day, intentionally creating as many traffic jams as possible?  That’s a feature.  That’s what self-driving cars are designed to do.

A machine designed to create traffic jams?

Despite my wariness about automation and algorithms run amok, I hadn’t considered this problem until I read Adam Millard-Ball’s recent research paper, “The Autonomous Vehicle Parking Problem.” Millard-Ball begins with a simple assumption: what if a self-driving car is designed to maximize utility for its owner?

This assumption seems reasonable.  After all, the AI piloting a self-driving car must include an explicit response to the trolley problem.  Should the car intentionally crash and kill its passenger in order to save the lives of a group of pedestrians?  This ethical quandary is notoriously tricky to answer … but a computer scientist designing a self-driving car will probably answer, “no.” 

Otherwise, the manufacturers won’t sell cars.  Would you ride in a vehicle that was programmed to sacrifice you?

Luckily, the AI will not have to make that sort of life and death decision often.  But here’s a question that will arise daily: if you commute in a self-driving car, what should the car do while you’re working?

If the car was designed to maximize public utility, perhaps it would spend those hours serving as a low-cost taxi.  If demand for transportation happened to be lower than the quantity of available, unoccupied self-driving cars, it might use its elaborate array of sensors to squeeze into as small a space as possible inside a parking garage.

But what if the car is designed to benefit its owner?

Perhaps the owner would still want for the car to work as a taxi, just as an extra source of income.  But some people – especially the people wealthy enough to afford to purchase the first wave of self-driving cars – don’t like the idea of strangers mucking around in their vehicles.  Some self-driving cars would spend those hours unoccupied.

But they won’t park.  In most cities, parking costs between $2 and $10 per hour, depending on whether it’s street or garage parking, whether you purchase a long-term contract, etc. 

The cost to just keep driving is generally going to be lower than $2 per hour.  Worse, this cost is a function of the car’s speed.  If the car is idling at a dead stop, it will use approximately 0.1 gallon per hour, costing 25 cents per hour at today’s prices.  If the car is traveling at 30 mph without breaks, it will use approximately 1 gallon per hour, costing $2.50 per hour.

To save money, the car wants to stay on the road … but it wants for traffic to be as close to a standstill as possible.

Luckily for the car, this is an easy optimization problem.  It can consult its onboard GPS to find nearby areas where traffic is slow, then drive over there.  As more and more self-driving cars converge on the same jammed streets, they’ll slow traffic more and more, allowing them to consume the workday with as little motion as possible.

Photo by walidhassanein on Flickr.

Pity the person sitting behind the wheel of an occupied car on those streets.  All the self-driving cars will be having a great time stuck in that traffic jam: we’re saving money!, they get to think.  Meanwhile the human is stuck swearing at empty shells, cursing a bevy of computer programmers who made their choices months or years ago.

And all those idling engines exhale carbon dioxide.  But it doesn’t cost money to pollute, because one political party’s worth of politicians willfully ignore the fact that capitalism, by philosophical design, requires we set prices for scarce resources … like clean air, or habitable planets.

On alternate truths.

On alternate truths.

Sometimes the alternatives are jarring – you look and count a certain number, another person proffers a radically different amount.

Surely one of you is mistaken.

In the United States, there’s a rift between those who overestimate certain values (size of inauguration crowds, number of crimes committed by immigrants, votes cast by non-citizens, rates of economic growth) and their fellows.

Henri_Tajfel.jpgIn the 1960s and 70s, psychologist Henri Tajfel designed experiments because he was curious: how is genocide possible?  What could sap people’s empathy so severely that they’d murder their thinking, perceiving, communicating neighbors?

Tajfel began with a seemingly irrelevant classification.  In the outside world, people have different concentrations of epidermal melanin, they worship different deities, they ascribe to different political philosophies.  But rather than investigate the gulf separating U.S. Democrats from Republicans, Tajfel recruited a homogeneous set of teenage schoolboys to participate in an experiment.

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 2.38.26 PMOne by one, the kids were shown a bunch of dots on a screen and asked to guess how many dots were there.  Entirely at random, the kids were told they’d consistently overestimated or underestimated the number of dots.  The numbers each kid guessed were not used for this classification.

Then the kids participated in a pretty standard psychology experiment – they had various amounts of money to split between other study subjects.  In each case, the kids were told that one of the recipients would be a fellow over-estimator (not themselves, though), and the other recipient would be an under-estimator.

An intuitive sense of “us vs. them” would pit study subjects against the researchers – kids should assign payoffs to siphon as much money as possible away from the university.  When every option has an equivalent total payoff, you might expect a fair distribution between the two recipients.  After all, the categorization was totally random, and the kids never had a chance to meet the other people in either their own or the other group.

Instead, over-estimators favored other over-estimators, even at the cost of lowering the total payout that the kids would receive from the researchers.  Oops.

We should expect our current over-estimators to favor each other irrationally, too.  These groups aren’t even randomly assigned.  And many of the alternate truths must seem reasonable.  Who among us doesn’t buy in to the occasional fiction?

For instance, there’s the idea of “free market capitalism.”  This is fictitious.  In the absence of a governing body that threatens violence against those who flaunt the rules, there can’t be a market.

Sometimes anarchists argue that you could have community members enforce cultural norms – but that is a government (albeit a more capricious one, since the “cultural norms” might not be written down and shared policing introduces a wide range of interpretations).  Sometimes libertarians argue that a government should only enforce property rights, but they purposefully misunderstand what property rights consist of.

garden-gardening-growth-2259If you paint a picture, then I spray it with a hose, you won’t have a picture anymore.  If you have a farm, then I buy the adjacent property and start dumping salt on my land, you won’t have a farm anymore.  I don’t have the physically take things out of your hands to eliminate their value.

If you own a house, then I buy the adjacent property and build a concentrated animal feeding operation, the value of your house will plummet.  You won’t have fresh air to breathe.

Or maybe I want to pump fracking chemicals into your aquifer.  You turn on your tap and poison spills out.

We have rules for which of these actions are acceptable and which are not.  The justifications are capricious and arbitrary – honestly, they have to be.  The world is complex, and there’s no pithy summary that solves all our quandaries.  Right to swing my arm, your nose, pffft, nonsense.  Why’d you put your nose there, anyway?

And our government enforces those rules.  The market is not free.  Corporations that denounce government intervention (e.g. dairy-industry-opposing tariffs, carbon tax, etc.) seek government interventions (now the dairy industry hopes that producers of soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, etc., will be forced to rename their products).

But this probably doesn’t feel like hypocrisy.  We humans are good at believing in alternate truths.

On Tao Lin’s ‘Trip,’ targeted advertising, and finding scraps of life in books.

On Tao Lin’s ‘Trip,’ targeted advertising, and finding scraps of life in books.

Featured image: artwork by Tao Lin on Flickr.

trip

I recently borrowed my local library’s copy of Tao Lin’s Trip.  I read ten pages before a business card fell out.  I didn’t find the other until about a hundred pages later.  The cards were really crammed in there – I often read at nap- and bedtime, lying on my back, with little feet kicking my books, belly, neck, etc.  I’m surprised the second card wasn’t ejected earlier.

In Trip, Lin writes about drugs and some of the people who frequently ingest them.  For instance, Lin spent several months reading the oeuvre of Terrance McKenna, a passionate advocate for the legalization of psychedelic drugs (which I support) who argued that his chemical-induced visions (language elves, fractal time) represent tangible features of our universe (which I think is asinine).  At other times, McKenna self-described as a “psychonaut,” which I think is a better term – compounds that perturb the workings of a mind do reveal truths about that mind.

That’s the essence of the scientific method, after all.  First, formulate a predictive model about how something works.  Then, perturb your system.  If your prediction holds up, try to think of a different test you could make to try to prove yourself wrong.  If your prediction is off, try to think of a new model.  Repeat ad infinitum (physicus usque ad mortem).

In an undergrad-designed psychology experiment, the perturbation might be to compel a study subject to think about death by mixing a lot of photographs of car wrecks into a slide show.  Does a person exposed to these images seem more inclined to spend time with close family members (based on the results of a 30-question survey) than equivalent study subjects who were instead shown photographs of puppies?

Maybe you’d learn something from that.  But, honestly, 0.5 mgs per kg of psilocybin is a more powerful perturbation.

(A man who has been attending my poetry class for the past few months also self-describes as a Buddhist psychonaut – his favorite psychedelic is LSD, but he also struggles with a nagging impulse to shoot heroin.  He’s a vegetarian and has been writing poetry for twenty years, ever since his first friend died of overdose.  The only way for him to avoid prison time is to enroll at a court-mandated Christian-faith-based rehabilitation clinic where everyone works daily at the Perdue Meats slaughterhouse.  He’s just waiting on a bed before they ship him out there.  Personally, I think that having a recovering addict decapitate hundreds of turkeys daily would be an unhealthy perturbation of the mind.)

As Lin researched pharmacology, he realized that he’d made the same error in thinking about his body that our society has made in thinking about our environment, especially the oceans.  He’d assumed that his body was so large, and each drug molecule so small, that he’d be relatively unchanged as the pills he swallowed were metabolized away.  But he was wrong.  He’d turned his own body into a degraded environment that felt terrible to live inside.

He realized that corporations shouldn’t have free license to destroy the world that we all share.  And he realized that he needed to practice better stewardship of his body, his own personal environs.  He changed his diet and his lifestyle and no longer felt like garbage all the time.

good dayLin also provides some useful information about this country’s War on Drugs.  If someone was looking for an accessible way to learn more about this, I can see myself recommending either Trip (for the dudes in jail) or Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day (for the harried parents working alongside me in the YMCA snack room).

And those business cards?  They made convenient bookmarks.  Verdant green, the front advertised a local hydroponics supply store, the back listed the store manager’s name and telephone number.

This seemed like a great advertising strategy.  Much more precise (and less evil) than Facebook’s targeted ads.

I won’t be buying any hydroponics supplies, but I’ll probably put those business cards back before I return the book.

Most of what I’ve found in books has been less directly relevant to the subject matter.  I felt dismayed to find a business card for a local artist / writer / model / actor – the front showed her in pinup-style undergarments with the cord for a video game controller entwining one stockinged leg – inside a library copy of Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller.

When I flipped through one of Deepak Chopra’s new-age self-help books (that I pulled off the secondhand inventory shelf at Pages to Prisoners to mail to someone who’d requested stuff about UFOs, Wicca, and conspiracies), I found a Valentine’s Day note (written by a small child in crayon) and a polaroid of a tired-looking bare-breasted woman staring  at the camera from atop a camper’s bed.  MWPP totally would’ve gotten dinged if I’d mailed the book with that picture still inside.

And I’ve written previously about the time I found an acceptance letter from Best of Photojournalism inside a previous year’s edition of the book as I selected books to mail to a prisoner interested in photography.

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But I didn’t mention that I visited the university library to find the accepted photograph (of a stretch of highway closed for the emergency landing of a small plane in distress) …

P8011599.JPG

… or that I then put together a package of books to send to that photographer, because it turned out that he was also in prison after murdering his son-in-law.

The impression I got from news reports was that this man had a daughter whom he’d raised alone.  When his daughter was 13 years old, she fell in love with an abusive, oft-unemployed 19-year-old.  She soon became pregnant.  As it happens, this boyfriend took too many drugs.  I’ve met many men in jail who are totally charming while sober but (“allegedly!”) wail on women when they’re not.  Some are quite frequently not sober.

During this man’s trial, several witnesses testified to the violent physical abuse his daughter was subject to.  His daughter’s boyfriend “would grab ____, jerk her by the face, force her to go places, cuss her out if she didn’t do the right thing … “

Not that this is a reason to shoot somebody.

Still, I wondered how a book from the man’s personal library had wound up in the inventory of the Pages to Prisoners bookstore.  The murder occurred in August of 2012.  Mid-autumn, 2015, his book was on our shelves.

I like to imagine that his daughter made the donation.  That perhaps, by then, she’d forgiven her father.  That she’d realized how miserable U.S. incarceration can be and wanted to do a little something to make it better.

I certainly hope that his book helped people at the prison where I sent it.

 

On automation, William Gaddis, and addiction.

On automation, William Gaddis, and addiction.

I’ve never bought meth or heroin, but apparently it’s easier now than ever.  Prices dropped over the last decade, drugs became easier to find, and more people, from broader swaths of society, began using.  Or so I’ve been told by several long-term users.

This is capitalism working the way it’s supposed to.  People want something, others make money by providing it.

And the reason why demand for drugs has increased over the past decade can also be attributed to capitalism working the way it’s supposed to.  It takes a combination of capital (stuff) and labor (people) to provide any service, but the ratio of these isn’t fixed.  If you want to sell cans of soda, you could hire a human to stand behind a counter and hand sodas to customers, or you could install a vending machine.

Vending_machines_at_hospitalThe vending machine requires labor, too.  Somebody has to fill it when it’s empty.  Someone has to fix it when it breaks.  But the total time that humans spend working per soda is lower.  In theory, the humans working with the vending machine are paid higher wages.  After all, it’s more difficult to repair a machine than to hand somebody a soda.

As our world’s stuff became more productive, fewer people were needed.  Among ancient hunter gatherers, the effort of one person was needed to feed one person.  Everyone had to find food.  Among early farmers, the effort of one person could feed barely more than one person.  To attain a life of leisure, a ruler would have to tax many, many peasants.

By the twentieth century, the effort of one person could feed four.  Now, the effort of one person can feed well over a hundred.

With tractors, reapers, refrigerators, etc., one human can accomplish more.  Which is good – it can provide a higher standard of living for all.  But it also means that not everyone’s effort is needed.

At the extreme, not anyone’s effort is needed.

1024px-Sophia_(robot)_2There’s no type of human work that a robot with sufficiently advanced AI couldn’t do.  Our brains and bodies are the product of haphazard evolution.  We could design something better, like a humanoid creature whose eyes registered more the electromagnetic spectrum and had no blind spots (due to an octopus-like optic nerve).

If one person patented all the necessary technologies to build an army of robots that could feed the world, then we’d have a future where the effort of one could feed many billions.  Robots can write newspaper articles, they can do legal work, they’ll be able to perform surgery and medical diagnosis.  Theoretically, they could design robots.

Among those billions of unnecessary humans, many would likely develop addictions to stupefying drugs.  It’s easier lapse into despair when you’re idle or feel no a sense of purpose.

glasshouseIn Glass House, Brian Alexander writes about a Midwestern town that fell into ruin.  It was once a relatively prosperous place; cheap energy led to a major glass company that provided many jobs.  But then came “a thirty-five-year program of exploitation and value destruction in the service of ‘returns.’ “  Wall street executives purchased the glass company and ran it into the ground to boost short-term gains, which let them re-sell the leached husk at a profit.

Instead of working at the glass company, many young people moved away.  Those who stayed often slid into drug use.

In Alexander’s words:

Even Judge David Trimmer, an adherent of a strict interpretation of the personal-responsibility gospel, had to acknowledge that having no job, or a lousy job, was not going to give a thirty-five-year-old man much purpose in life.  So many times, people wandered through his courtroom like nomads.  “I always tell them, ‘You’re like a leaf blowing from a tree.  Which direction do you go?  It depends on where the wind is going.’  That’s how most of them live their lives.  I ask them, ‘What’s your purpose in life?’  And they say, ‘I don’t know.’  ‘You don’t even love yourself, do you?’  ‘No.’ “

Trimmer and the doctor still believed in a world with an intact social contract.  But the social contract was shattered long ago.  They wanted Lancaster to uphold its end of a bargain that had been made obsolete by over three decades of greed.

Monomoy Capital Partners, Carl Icahn, Cerberus Capital Management, Newell, Wexford, Barington, Clinton [all Wall Street corporations that bought Lancaster’s glass company, sold off equipment or delayed repairs to funnel money toward management salaries, then passed it along to the next set of speculative owners] – none of them bore any personal responsibility. 

A & M and $1,200-per-hour lawyers didn’t bear any personal responsibility.  They didn’t get a lecture or a jail sentence: They got rich.  The politicians – from both parties – who enabled their behavior and that of the payday- and car-title-loan vultures, and the voters of Lancaster who refused to invest in the future of their town as previous generations had done (even as they cheered Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, who took $6.1 million per year in public money), didn’t bear any personal responsibility.

With the fracturing of the social contract, trust and social cohesion fractured, too.  Even Brad Hutchinson, a man who had millions of reasons to believe in The System [he grew up poor, started a business, became rich], had no faith in politicians or big business. 

I think that most politicians, if not all politicians, are crooked as they day is long,” Hutchinson said.  “They don’t have on their minds what’s best for the people.”  Business leaders had no ethics, either.  “There’s disconnect everywhere.  On every level of society.  Everybody’s out for number one.  Take care of yourself.  Zero respect for anybody else.”

So it wasn’t just the poor or the working class who felt disaffected, and it wasn’t just about money or income inequality.  The whole culture had changed.

America had fetishized cash until it became synonymous with virtue.

Instead of treating people as stakeholders – employees and neighbors worthy of moral concern – the distant owners considered them to be simply sources of revenue.  Many once-successful businesses were restructured this way.  Soon, schools will be too.  In “The Michigan Experiment,” Mark Binelli writes that:

In theory, at least, public-school districts have superintendents tasked with evaluating teachers and facilities.  Carver [a charter school in Highland Park, a sovereign municipality in the center of Detroit], on the other hand, is accountable to more ambiguous entities – like, for example, Oak Ridge Financial, the Minnesota-based financial-services firm that sent a team of former educators to visit the school.  They had come not in service of the children but on behalf of shareholders expecting a thorough vetting of a long-term investment.

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This is all legal, of course.  This is capitalism working as intended.  Those who have wealth, no matter what historical violence might have produced it, have power of those without.

This is explained succinctly by a child in William Gaddis’s novel J R:

I mean why should somebody go steal and break the law to get all they can when there’s always some law where you can be legal and get it all anyway!”

220px-JRnovel.JPGFor many years, Gaddis pondered the ways that automation was destroying our world.  In J R (which is written in a style similar to the recent film Birdman, the focus moving fluidly from character to character without breaks), a middle schooler becomes a Wall Street tycoon.  Because the limited moral compass of a middle schooler is a virtue in this world, he’s wildly successful, with his misspelling of the name Alaska (“Alsaka project”) discussed in full seriousness by adults.

Meanwhile, a failed writer obsesses over player pianos.  This narrative is continued in Agape Agape, with a terminal cancer patient rooting through his notes on player pianos, certain that these pianos explain the devastation of the world.

You can play better by roll than many who play by hand.”

220px-AgapeAgape.jpgThe characters in J R and Agape Agape think it’s clear that someone playing by roll isn’t playing the piano.  And yet, ironically, the player piano shows a way for increasing automation to not destroy the world.

A good robot works efficiently.  But a player piano is intentionally inefficient.  Even though it could produce music on its own, it requires someone to sit in front of it and work the foot pumps.  The design creates a need for human labor.

There’s still room for pessimism here – Gaddis is right to feel aggrieved that the player piano devalues skilled human labor – but a world with someone working the foot pumps seems less bad than one where idle people watch the skies for Jeff Bezos’s delivery drones.

By now, a lot of work can be done cheaply by machines.  But if we want to keep our world livable, it’s worth paying more for things made by human hands.

On Finn Murphy’s “The Long Haul” and our dying towns

On Finn Murphy’s “The Long Haul” and our dying towns

In Jason Shiga’s Empire State, the protagonist decides he will “see America” by traveling from Oakland, CA to New York City on a bus.  Everyone derides the plan as foolish – he’ll see only the great big slab of I-80 and some gas stations – but, because he’d kept his plan secret to surprise a friend, nobody warns him until it’s too late.

Professional movers, however, take occasional breaks from the highway to navigate their trucks down treacherous suburban streets.  It’s those excursions into the world where people actually live that lets movers understand America.  Crisp descriptions of those excursions make Finn Murphy’s The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road a charming read.

Murphy’s experience criss-crossing the United States has also give him a sharp perspective on our economy.  His political analysis is both more accurate and more concise than what’s been written by most academic researchers:

9780393608717_p0_v2_s192x300.jpgThe next day I picked up I-94 west and stopped for the night in Ann Arbor.  In college towns – like Chapel Hill, Boulder, Iowa City, Missoula, Austin, Madison, and Oxford, Mississippi, to name a few – all of a sudden, instead of unemployment, meth labs, and poverty, there are real jobs. As far as I can figure, the only places left in America that can boast of vibrant downtowns are college towns and high-end tourist towns.  In the rest of the country the downtowns were hollowed out when nobody was looking.  You might think it’s only your town that’s been ruined by sprawl, but it’s happened everywhere.  You’ve got the new CVS, the Walmart, the Home Depot on the fringes, while the old downtown is either empty or the buildings have a Goodwill store, an immigration law office, and an “antiques” store, meaning junk.  The chains on the outskirts provide the nine-dollar-an-hour jobs and wire the day’s receipts to Bentonville or New York every night.

I hate it personally, but we deserved what we got.  We wanted the eight-dollar sneakers and the forty-five-cent tube socks.  We didn’t consider that maybe it’d be a better bargain to pay twenty dollars for sneakers and buy them from the neighbor who owns the shoe store downtown and stocks sneakers made in Maine.

It’s too late now.  The game’s been won by companies who don’t give two shits about community character or decent jobs.  Congratufuckinglations, America!  We did the deal.  Now we’ve got an unlimited supply of cheap commodities and unhealthy food and crumbling downtowns, no sense of place, and a permanent underclass.

If a tourist poster of America were made with some verisimilitude, it would show a Subway franchise inside a convenience-store gas station with an underpaid immigrant mopping the floor and a street person at the traffic light holding a cardboard sign that reads ANYTHING HELPS.

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Most of The Long Haul is more chipper than the passage I’ve excerpted above – Murphy discusses how he chose his career, the basic principles of long-haul driving and packing other people’s belongings, the zen of hard manual labor, and what it meant to finally let go of his own anger and enjoy his time on this planet.  Both K and I loved the book.

But I wanted to share the passage above.  I’ve written previously about common misconceptions regarding “free-market capitalism” – a quick summary being that although the phrase “free-market capitalism” is used so commonly that most people sense intuitively what it means, it doesn’t actually mean anything.  To have a market, it cannot be free.  (This idea is explained succinctly in the beginning of Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism – you can read an excerpt in the essay linked above.)

As a handful of business owners and CEO destroy the social fabric of the United States, they depend upon government intervention to help them do it.  They need the government to enforce payment on certain types of contracts, but not others.  They need the government to prevent certain actions that lower others’ property values – I’ll be punished if I set fire to your building – but not others – I won’t be punished if I dump so much poison that your neighboring property becomes un-usable.

Our country’s particular set of rules & regulations have allowed a small number of people to accomplish what used to be the work of many.  Instead of a factory with 100 human workers, a foreman oversees 10 robots.  The foreman gets paid more than the prior workers, but most of their salary now goes to the factory owner.  And those 100 people who would have worked in the factory are mired in despair.  Some get service jobs.  Others take drugs.  We get the “unemployment, meth labs, and poverty” that Murphy described.

And even the relative prosperity of the main street in college towns is fragile.  In Bloomington we have several blocks with bookstores, comic shops, restaurants, bars, a public library, banks, clothing boutiques and smokeshops and the like.  But in the past few weeks, an escalating conflict between the police and people without houses has kept shoppers away from the downtown.

Herald Times front page
A recent front page from the local newspaper.

Indiana is in many ways a heartless state, so our little town is one of the few places where people in need can receive services.  Bloomington always has more poverty than you might expect for a city of just 100,000.  Of late, Bloomington is also a destination city for drug use: between the heroin cut with fentanyl and the wide variety of supposed THC analogs sold as “spice,” the ambulances have been responding to upwards of ten overdoses per day.

In jail the other day, T. told me,

“It’s getting to the point where heroin and meth are easier to find than pot.  When I got out of prison, I was three years clean, and I thought I was gonna make it … but I was walking by the Taco Bell and somebody handed me a rig, all loaded up and ready to go.”

G. said,

“It’s really hard to avoid it now.  It’s spread to places you really wouldn’t expect.  Like I remember ten years ago, the whole middle class crowd was doing the usual, some pot, some psychedelics, you know.  But now people from those circles, they’re shooting meth, they’re using H.”

T. said,

“You talk to somebody, they’re like, yeah, I got it all, what you need, what you need.  But you ask for pot, they’re like, naw, I don’t know where to get that.”

J. said,

“Okay, okay, these overdoses, you know?  Trust me, I’m a real spice-head, I smoke a lot of that shit, and these overdoses, they’re all just people, they don’t know how to handle it.  You can’t just jump in, you know, and smoke like I smoke.”

I asked him, “If pot were legal, would you smoke it.”

“Hell yeah I’d smoke pot.”

“No no, sorry, I mean, if pot were legal, would you smoke spice?”

The guys all laughed.  “Nobody would touch that shit.”

And yet.  In our town, now, people with all their belongings line main street.  The hospital spends some thirty thousand dollars a day sending the ambulance there for overdoses.  The cops hold their roll call several times a day in the public park where unhoused people used to sleep.  Occasionally a dozen or so people will be hauled into jail: they lose all their possessions.

And people who had been spending money at the little shops feel afraid to go downtown.  The places are all losing money … and when the money goes, compassion starts fading too.

It doesn’t take much for even a college town to become the post-apocalyptic husk that Murphy has seen spread all over our country.  Which is sad, especially since it wouldn’t take that much to help people – our most dire need is a guaranteed basic income, probably coupled to a public works program.  Instead we’ve settled for rampant inequality.  But harms that start elsewhere won’t stay elsewhere.

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post-script: in the time between when this essay was written & when it was posted, the crowds of unhoused people have disappeared from Bloomington’s main street.  And, two blocks away, the 280-bed county jail has had over 320 people locked inside for weeks.  Somehow, this doesn’t seem like a long-term solution.

On wasted ingenuity.

On wasted ingenuity.

You should read Demetrius Cunningham’s essay about learning to play the piano in prison.  He describes taping together flaps of cardboard trash and training his fingers by pressing the places where a piano’s keys would be.  It’s a beautiful piece of writing.

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And it hurts to consider what Cunningham might accomplish if he had access to more resources.

He’s not alone in striving to apply his intellect within a situation where most of his effort is – from the perspective of our modern world – simply wasted.  It’s incredible that he devised a system for learning to play piano with only cardboard at his disposal.  But we live in a world with such cheap plastics and electronics that perfectly functional keyboards can be purchased for three dollars or less at most pawn shops and thrift stores.

But Cunningham, in prison, is not allowed a three-dollar children’s toy.  He studies with cardboard.

Which is not to say that our world should be without punishment.  Those who murder need time away from society.  People should be kept safe from harm.  But I find it inconceivable that the best way to help someone who has murdered become a kinder, gentler, wiser human would be to lock him inside a world of violence, mistrust, and cement.

K’s mother, too, was murdered recently.  In her case, the man who murdered her had previously been held in New York prisons for some nine years on nonviolent drug charges.  The time he served in prison surely affected him.  Based on what little I know about life inside, that time probably affected him adversely.

So I’d argue that the state of New York’s efforts at “correction” contributed to K’s mother’s murder.  Would that man have killed her had we not shunted him into prison for nine years?  And, what of the childhood that led to his drug convictions in the first place?  Did we devote the resources necessary to ensure that he felt safe and loved as a child?  Did he have the opportunity to build a life around respected, well-compensated work?

Did Cunningham?

In my poetry classes, only one participant (that I know of) has served time for murder – in his case, 20 years thus far of a 50-year sentence.  He is an excellent writer, and very well-read, but, until our class, every time he wrote a poem or story he would crumple the pages and throw them away.

Why keep them?  The world had made very clear that no one cared what he might have to say.

Inventions are made over and over again inside: using only those spare materials allotted inside prison, how might men mimic some of the conveniences of the modern world?  In Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, a clear-eyed description of the 1971 Attica prison riot and its aftermath, she describes the jury-rigged water heaters many inmates built for their cells.

Or there’s her passage on the amenities:

bloodinthewaterThe men needed money at Attica because the state offered them only a few items gratis.  These included a thin gray coat, two gray work shirts, three pairs of gray pants, one pair of shoes, three pairs of underwear, six pairs of socks, and one comb.  Then, every month, prisoners would receive one bar of soap and one roll of toilet paper, which meant that men were forced to limit themselves “to one sheet per day.”  The state’s food budget allotment was also meager.  At a mere 63 cents per prisoner per day, it was insufficient to meet the minimum dietary standards as determined by federal guidelines.  The reality was that many men at Attica went to bed hungry.  For this reason jobs in the kitchen or the mess hall, while more arduous than others given their seven-day-a-week schedule, were some of the most coveted.  At least on those jobs a man could eat leftovers.

To get anything beyond the supplies given them – warmer clothes, more food, toiletries like toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, razors, and extra toilet paper – prisoners needed money.  Being able to buy deodorant was no luxury since these men were allowed only one shower a week and were given only two quarts of water a day.  With this water prisoners were expected to wash their socks and underwear, shave, brush their teeth, and clean the cell to a correction officer’s exacting standards.

Prisoners had to be clever to endure such conditions.  Likewise, it takes more cleverness to survive childhood poverty than is needed for a privileged middle class existence of soccer leagues at birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese and A’s stamped on the state achievement tests.

But our world doesn’t celebrate the former type of cleverness.  We prize instead earned wealth and good grades.  And yet, think: what if all that ingenuity weren’t wasted?  What if more of our nation’s childhood survivalists and prisonyard Edisons had been given a fair opportunity?

I love capitalism and the chance for people to profit from their discoveries.  But capitalism crumbles without opportunity.  Especially now, with automation at the forefront of technology, a system rewarding past capital ownership will waste more and more human ingenuity.  The class of those born into opportunity will keep shrinking.

Of course, those privileged few – armed with their intentional misunderstandings of economics and technology – will argue otherwise.  That’s how we got here in the first place.