On smell (again!).

On smell (again!).

1200px-Concentrated_animal_feeding_operation,_Missouri_(2)If you live next to a concentrated animal feeding operation – facilities that houses thousands of farmed animals in fetid conditions – there’s no point in buying perfume.  The smell of animal excrement overwhelms any scent you could wear.  If you’re interested in a romantic dalliance, you’ll have to woo people with your looks.  Or, sure, conversation.  But a charming scent won’t do it.

In other environs, scent contributes to your allure.  We humans choose our mates based on a huge number of considerations, including the way people smell.  Back in 1995, zoologist Claus Wedekind proposed that human females are most attracted to the scents of men whose immune genes differ from their own.

oldspiceDuring college, a friend tried to convince me that the best route to romantic success was Old Spice aftershave.  “It reminds women of their fathers,” he said.  This is, of course, the opposite theory from Wedekind’s – that females would seek out partners whose scents mirror their own genetic lineage.

But this much is uncontested – by overwhelming our sense of smell, air pollution makes humans less sexy.

Stick_insect_WGWe’re not the only animals who use aroma to identify attractive mates.  Stick insects can have a wide range of physical appearances, and multiple species sometimes live in overlapping areas.  Each subpopulation of stick insects secretes a different mix of oily aromatic chemicals from their skin.  These oils protect them from scrapes and dehydration – and help them find mates of their own kind.

If stick insects couldn’t smell, they might mate wantonly.

That’s what happens with fish.

When we pollute water, fish lose the ability to recognize each other.  In the same way that humans near a CAFO won’t notice each other’s scents because they can only smell ammonia and sulfurous shit, fish living near human dumping grounds – whether it be farm run-off, factory effluents, or untreated sewage – find their sense of smell overwhelmed.

fishMany types of fish behave the way my Old-Spice-sporting friend hoped humans would – they seek mates who smell like their forebears.  Which they can’t necessarily do in polluted waters.  And so fish mate across species.  Their chimeric children dissolve the old boundary lines.

Perhaps you thought this couldn’t happen – the traditional definition of a “species” is a population of organisms that can produce fertile offspring only by mating with each other.  But the traditional definition is wrong; scientists don’t actually know what a species is.  Whatever boundaries exist seem porous.  The Neanderthal genes carried by modern Homo sapiens show that humans also mated with other species, at least until we drove our relatives into extinction.  Chimpanzees are the closest we have left, sharing 98% of our DNA, but now they’re endangered too.

Although – maybe that’s fine.  Not murdering our relations, or endangering the chimps; maybe it’s fine for multiple lineages to merge back into one.  I hate to find any virtue in pollution, but dissolving species boundaries doesn’t sound so bad.

Contemporary biology textbooks claim that species boundaries arise whenever subpopulations cease interbreeding.  For the “Advanced Placement” biology test, students are expected to know that speciation can be triggered by migration, or a geographic impediment like a new highway, or even cultural barriers.

A strong preference for certain types of scent might qualify as a cultural barrier.  Or tropical birds that want their mates to look or dance a certain way.  And so would anti-miscegenation laws in the United States.  Except for the gene flow provided by pale-skinned rapists, those biology textbooks imply that epidermal melanin concentrations marked a species boundary until the 1960s in the United States.

In the contemporary U.S., parental wealth creates a similar mating barrier.  In many parts of the country, children born to rich, well-educated parents rarely even chat with children born to poor people, let alone marry them.  This phenomenon has persisted for only a generation or two, which is certainly too brief to create a species division, but shows no sign of abating.

Marrying somebody who shares your interests seems fine.  My spouse and I seem to be fairly similar people.  And yet – should I be alarmed that my own choice inches us closer toward the world of Metropolis?

 

Feature image: “Character study, strong smell” by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.

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.

carver.JPG

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 apocalypse-preppers, technology, and oppression.

On apocalypse-preppers, technology, and oppression.

33572350._UY700_SS700_In Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling, the protagonist is preparing for apocalypse.  At a parent-teacher conference, her dad rants that our world is falling apart – we’re polluting the oceans, growing monocultures of a select few (vulnerable) food crops across all arable land, disrupting the climate, overpopulating the planet – and that it’s ridiculous for his daughter to take spelling quizzes in the face of such calamity.  At home, he has her cleaning guns instead of studying for school.

It’s an iconic image – the grizzled, isolate, male prepper.

On dating sites specifically catering to preppers and survivalists, men far outnumber women.  On the banner image for the C.U.M.A. Survival School (which teaches combat techniques, animal trapping, how to build fires, and the like), there are three women out of seventeen visible people.

survival school.JPG

Journalist Nicky Woolf interviewed attendees at a 2015 Preppers and Survivalists Expo in Florida.  One of the men Woolf spoke with was sitting beside a handwritten recruitment sign, looking for someone with medical training to join his team.  Woolf asks the man whether his wife came to the Expo.

He suddenly looks tired.  “No.”  I ask if this is a point of contention between the two of them.  “I bought equipment for my son,” he says.  “I bought three of everything, one for me, one for my wife, one for my son.  My son is too possessed, and my wife is totally mind-controlled by the programs on the TV, the fluoride she’s drinking – because fluoride…”  Bingo!  He begins another rant.

I interrupt him to get more details about his wife.  “She won’t look at anything,” he says sadly.  “She won’t look at any of the literature, she won’t look at any of the DVDs.”

For some reason, I find this unbearably sad.

“How does that make you feel?” I ask.

“What can I do about it?” he says.  “I love her.  Been with her 27 years.  But when the shit hits the fan, I’m going.”

#

While I was researching a story about a hands-on retreat teaching the history of technology – under the auspices of recreating our world after a disaster – I realized there was a strong feminist argument for preserving this knowledge.

710v76v5doLLewis Dartnell distills some of this information in The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch.  Dartnell focuses on contemporary technologies, especially methods to jump-start food production and long-distance communication from the detritus of our current civilization.  The book is focused on the future – Dartnell convincingly argues that technological development after our civilization’s collapse would progress very differently than it did in the past, both because contemporary artifacts would remain to be learned from … and because we’ve already depleted the easily-accessible fuel sources that powered our own industrial revolution.

If we were starting again, we would have to make green technologies.

The history of technology still matters, though.  Contemporary gender inequality sprung from that history.

763220016_3ed7cdeb06_bAmong most primate species, gender inequality is correlated with sexual dimorphism – when males are a lot bigger, they behave badly.  In bonobos and chimpanzees, males and females are relatively close in size … and they have relatively equal status.  In gorillas or orangutans, males are much larger than females … and females can have pretty rotten lives.

And humans?  We actually have pretty low sexual dimorphism.  The average male is bigger than the average female, but only by about 15%.  Based on the behaviors of other primates, we ought to be fairly egalitarian.  Through most of our evolutionary history, we probably were … as were many of the hunter-gatherer societies that persisted until recent eras.

But you wouldn’t know it by looking at contemporary U.S. news.  And we’re doing better now than we have been for the past several centuries.

What went wrong?

PSM_V18_D469_Wheeled_plough_from_the_roman_empireIn our current world, being 15% bigger provides very little benefit.  Gasoline-powered machines do our heavy lifting.  But the importance of human sexual dimorphism was accentuated by early technologies. Our size differences mattered more once we developed agriculture … and seemed crucial after the invention of the plow.

Being 15% bigger does matter if you’re plowing a field.  Suddenly, men were more important for food production than women.  The status of women in these cultures plummeted.  And – lucky us – our culture derived from theirs.

sapiens book.jpgIn Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, vegan historian Yuval Noah Harari depicts the development of agriculture as a kind of “original sin.”  After agriculture, the average person experienced a much lower quality of life.  Agriculture made progress possible, but only because it made oppression possible.  Serfs could be taxed to feed the idle rich.  After agriculture, most people worked harder and ate worse.  Inequality soared.

Certain patches of land were better than others before agriculture.  Even among hunter-gatherers, there are skirmishes.  Tribes fight; people die.  But agriculture made war worthwhile.

And agrarians thought it reasonable to spin myths about the weakness of women.  15% more body mass meant the world to them … and we still celebrate their stories.

Let’s hope we never go through that again.

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.

#

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.

*******

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 theft and bullying.

On theft and bullying.

We aren’t born equal.

We never have been, not humans or any other animals.  Among species that birth in litters, the baby that leaves the womb largest has a lifelong advantage.  In the modern world, where a baby happens to be born dictates its future prospects to a huge degree.  Maybe it’ll be born in the United States, instantly reaping the benefits of citizenship.  Or maybe it’ll be born into a war-torn nation, amidst strife caused by climate change… which was itself caused by the creation of wealth and prosperity for all those U.S. babies.

And we use our initial advantages to further tilt the scales.  The largest mammal in a litter pushes the others aside and takes the most milk.  The rich get richer.

The same principal holds true in astrophysics.  The more dense a black hole, the better it will be at grabbing additional matter.  Densely-arrayed galaxies will keep their neighbors longest: because empty space expands, the rate at which stars drift away from each other depends upon their initial separation.  The farther away you are, the faster you will recede.  The lonely become lonelier.

But we are blessed.  Through the vagaries of evolution, humans stumbled into complex language.  We can sit and contemplate the world; we can consciously strive to be better than nature.

We can read Calvin and Hobbes and think, “Hey, that’s not fair!”

calvin 9 - 11.png

It is perfectly natural for Moe to get the truck.  He is bigger, after all.  He is stronger.  In the world’s initial inequalities of distribution, physical prowess determined who would reap plenty and who would starve.  After all, not all territories are equivalently bountiful for hunters or gatherers.  Now we have sheets of paper that ostensibly carve up the world amongst us, but in past eras raw violence would’ve staked claims.  Human mythology brims with accounts of battle to gain access to the best resources… and we humans still slaughter each other whenever insufficient strength seems to back the legitimacy of those papers.

When the threat of contract-enforcing state violence in Syria waned, local murder began.  And we lack an international state threatening violence against individual nations – inspired partly by the desire for resources, George W. Bush initiated a campaign of murder against Iraq.

Except when we’ve banded together to suppress individual violence (the state as Voltron), the strong take from the weak.

At least we know it’s wrong.

We’ve allowed other forms of bullying and theft to slip by.  After all, differing physical prowess is only one of the many ways in which we are born unequal.  If it is wrong for the strongest individual to steal from others, is it also wrong for the most clever to do the same?

weaponsofmathdestructionFrom Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction:

But the real problem came from a nasty feeling I started to have in my stomach.  I had grown accustomed to playing in these oceans of currency, bonds, and equities, the trillions of dollars flowing through international markets.  But unlike the numbers in my academic models, the figures in my models at the hedge fund stood for something.  They were people’s retirement funds and mortgages.  In retrospect, this seems blindingly obvious.  And of course, I knew it all along, but I hadn’t truly appreciated the nature of the nickels, dimes, and quarters that we pried loose with our mathematical tools.  It wasn’t found money, like nuggets from a mine or coins from a sunken Spanish galleon.  This wealth was coming out of people’s pockets.  For hedge funds, the smuggest of the players on Wall Street, this was “dumb money.”

the math was directed against the consumer as a smoke screen.  Its purpose was only to optimize short-term profits for the sellers.  And those sellers trusted that they’d manage to unload the securities before they exploded.  Smart people would win.  And dumber people, the providers of dumb money, would wind up holding billions (or trillions) of unpayable IOUs. … Very few people had the expertise and the information required to know what was actually going on statistically, and most of the people who did lacked the integrity to speak up.

O’Neil was right to feel queasy – after all, she had become Moe.  All the high-frequency traders – who are lauded as brilliant despite often doing no more than intercepting others’ orders, buying desired products a millisecond before anyone else can, and re-selling them at a profit – are simply thieves.  Sometimes they are stealing because they are more clever.  Other times, they are stealing because their pre-existing wealth allows them to buy access to lower-latency computer servers than anyone else.

In any case, Calvin would disapprove.

calvin 9 - 20.png

Thankfully, O’Neil quit stealing (although she doesn’t mention returning her prior spoils).  After all, that is part of our blessing – we cannot change the past, but…

… and here it’s worth mentioning that Ludwig Wittgenstein was clearly incorrect when he wrote that “One can mistrust one’s own senses, but not one’s own belief.  If there were a verb meaning ‘to believe falsely’, it would not have any significant first person present indicative.”  Most physicists believe in free will and the mutability of the future, despite also knowing that, according to the laws of physics, their beliefs should be false…

… we can always fix the future.

(As a special treat – here is one of the most beautiful comic strips about opening your eyes to change.)

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On AIDS and drought in Malawi.

On AIDS and drought in Malawi.

Nobody wants to be bitten by a wild animal.  Even my former housemate, who is exceedingly likely to wrestle raccoons or be chased up a tree by a flock of angry turkeys each time she visits her ancestral home, would prefer not to be bitten.  But let’s say you slip up.  Make a wrong move and let some critter sink its teeth into your wrist.  In the United States, there are limited consequences to your mistake.raccoon.JPG

Maybe you’ve heard that the rabies vaccine is scary, but it’s not so bad.  A series of four; none hurt; none made me feel sore.  It did hurt when the nurse injected human-anti-rabies immune serum directly into my wound.  I began a long, loud diatribe – I know this is for the best, and I know that it hurting is not your fault, but I am decidedly unhappy right now – that went on for the entire twenty minutes it took for the nurse to inject ten milliliters.  All the children screaming in the ER at four a.m. sudden became very quiet; because the hospital was overcrowded that night, I was on a gurney just outside their ward.

Still, I didn’t suffer much.  By five thirty I was home, snoozing contentedly.

I’m not saying that health care in the United States is great.  I was a graduate student at Stanford.  We had fancy coverage.  I could drop by a fantastic hospital for free.  Others are less lucky.  People go broke from medical bills in this country.

I am saying that health care in the United States is pretty great compared to the standard fare on offer in Malawi.

malawiMalawi is a very poor country.  We – meaning not you & I personally, but rather the people who engendered the prosperity of the United States, from whom the contemporary beneficiaries inherited both wealth and blame – are responsible for the poverty of Malawi.  Throughout Africa, resources were plundered.  Europeans brought horrific violence to the continent.  And, because wealth begets wealth, the repercussions of these sins have grown more severe over time.  Unless there is a conscious effort to repair past economic wrongs, they won’t vanish on their own.

This same principle underpins lingering individual inequality in the United States.  Some wounds, time does not heal.  A rising tide only lifts those comfortably ensconced in boats.  The world’s plundered nations are still struggling, sinking farther and farther behind.

In addition to dire economic circumstances, Malawi has been ravaged by an HIV epidemic.  Ten percent of the population, approximately 1 million people, are living with HIV.  30,000 or more die of HIV-related illnesses each year.  This public health crisis is tragically self-perpetuating.  Poverty exacerbates epidemics by reducing access to medication and pushing people toward riskier lifestyles.  And then it’s hard to escape poverty since young people are dying daily and huge numbers of children are orphaned by disease.

In the United States, we often discuss the curtailed economic prospects for children raised in single-parent households.  Those children have it hard.  Now picture all the Malawian children in zero-parent households.

My father, who has worked with sick patients in HIV clinics in the United States for many years, is now practicing medicine in Malawi.  It’s grim.  For instance, the reason I began this piece with a description of rabies vaccination?  Those vaccines are not available in Malawi.  Instead of four relatively painless shots, those who get bit face death.

After four decades of practice as an infectious disease doctor, my father has obviously seen patients die.  But a sign like the one below is new for him.

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“Dying from rabies is a terrifying experience for both the patient and their relatives,” it says, before admonishing, “Don’t forget to ask about spiritual needs!”  Nothing drives home privilege like the thought that someone else’s son would die from the sort of bite that simply sent your own to a hospital for a late night.

It feels even worse knowing that his doctoring – and my sister’s, who will be traveling to Malawi with her newborn child to practice pediatric medicine starting this fall – is a meager staunch against whelming calamity.  People are dying now.  They can’t make effective long-term plans when the short-term outlook is so bleak.

And yet.  Poverty there is so deep, and infrastructure so quickly deteriorating, that many people have been chopping down the country’s few remaining forests to produce charcoal.  For many, charcoal production is the only source of income.  For others, in circumstances only slightly less dire, it’s necessary to buy charcoal to weather the frequent blackouts.  Even those responsible for protecting the forests buy illegal charcoal.  There’s no winning.

Without the forests, there will be drought.  When the drought comes, people will starve.  Climate change – caused primarily by the nations responsible for plundering our world’s currently-impoverished nations, yet which will beleaguer those plundered nations first – will exacerbate this problem.  New tragedies are coming.

I’ve obviously benefited from the prosperity of the United States.  I have a computer.  I have access to the internet.  When I turn the tap, there is clean water.  When I flick a switch, the room is instantly (and always!) illuminated.

But this means that the blame for the current plight of our world’s plundered nations – which brought my prosperity – falls on me, too.  I’m glad that my family members are doing what they can to help.  I wish it were enough.

On citizenship.

On citizenship.

Syrian_refugees_having_rest_at_the_floor_of_Keleti_railway_station._Refugee_crisis._Budapest,_Hungary,_Central_Europe,_5_September_2015Without citizenship — without, as per Hannah Arendt, “the right to have rights” — people are buffeted by the political whims of whatever nation they might find themselves in.  Syrian refugees, for instance, might expect a certain treatment based on their status as humans, but they aren’t officially documented Europeans.  Even when they safely reach a supposed refuge, they’re excluded from finding their own employment or housing, they can’t travel freely, they might be deported at any moment.

Or the “Haitians” in the Dominican Republic who have never seen Haiti.  Or the “Mexican” children in the United States who have never consciously known Mexico.  Their fates seem to be totally out of their hands.

If they’re poor, that is.  A flush bank account would fix things.

Green_Card_nika_volekBefore reading Atossa Araxia Abrahamian’s The Cosmopolites, I already knew that citizenship was for sale.  The United States, for instance, will give green cards to people who make $500,000 investments in our country.  This seems a little unfair — we offer the very wealthy, who rarely need our help, protections that we deny refugees — but more egregious is how cheap this is.  Amidst burgeoning numbers of multimillionaires, $500,000 is not that much.  And this money doesn’t even change hands!  The United States just wants reassurance that somebody is well-off.  A $500,000 investment in real estate can bring high returns, meaning wealthy foreigners can be paid to take a green card.

3458184491_ca07847dab_oGiven that the mighty United States sells green cards, it wasn’t so surprising to learn from Abrahamian’s book that many poor nations are also selling “economic citizenship.”  Wealthy resource-plunderers from beleaguered developing nations can easily purchase a whole portfolio of other countries’ passports, which is very helpful to ease travel restrictions and facilitate money laundering.

Sounds great!

So the horrible abuses documented in The Cosmopolites often did not shock me.  But, given that I was born in the United States, a nation of vast privilege, I realized that I haven’t thought enough about the philosophical implications of citizenship.  As in, the very idea of citizenship.  The rights that (might) be granted to a new human by one nation or another at birth.

The basis for most modern nations is Rousseau’s idea of the social contract.  You, at birth, did not click a box asserting “I have read the terms and conditions and I agree.”  Instead, by remaining inside the borders of a nation, you are considered to be moment by moment assenting to those terms.  If you didn’t agree, you wouldn’t stay!

Once upon a time, this probably seemed sensible.  For those who felt unduly constrained by the laws and regulations of civilization, there were untamed wilds to slip away to.  And survive in.

Thoreaus_quote_near_his_cabin_site,_Walden_PondBy now, violent nations have staked claims everywhere.  Personally, I think Walden was suspect even when it was first written — there are a few quibbles you could make about Thoreau’s integrity  — but imagine how long you’d last if you decided today to waltz out to Walden Pond and build yourself a home.  You’d be forcibly escorted away by the police long before you’d chopped enough tall arrowy white pines (still in their youth) to build anything of merit.

Rousseau’s formulation of the social contract requires there be a viable way to leave.  Without that option, I think his philosophies break down.  Worse — and this is what I was most alarmed to learn from Abrahamian’s book — many people are not awarded citizenship to any nation at birth.  They are not allowed to live anywhere.

Large populations of citizenship-less people live in Kuwait and the U.A.E.  But it seems that these nations are attempting to solve their citizenship crisis, not by documenting all their ancestral inhabitants as Kuwati, for instance, but by purchasing other nations’ citizenship for these people.  Their hope is to staunch international criticism without actually conferring meaningful rights to their ancestral inhabitants.

This is yet another demonstration that the very act of being born is a ridiculously uneven lottery.  I don’t think human life begins at conception, but inequality begins then.  I thought this was well-stated in a passage from Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism:

Reich_SavingCapitalism_Book_v3One of the most broadly held assumptions about the economy is that individuals are rewarded in direct proportion to their efforts and abilities — that our society is a meritocracy.  But a moment’s thought reveals many factors other than individual merit that play a role in determining earnings — financial inheritance, personal connections, discrimination in favor of or against someone because of how they look, luck, marriage, and, perhaps most significantly, the society one inhabits.  “If we are very generous with ourselves,” economist Herbert Simon once said, “I suppose we might claim that we ‘earned’ as much as one fifth of [our income].  The rest is the patrimony associated with being a member of an enormously productive social system.”

I owe a huge amount of my current comfort to the fact that I was conceived to American citizens.

In addition to those born without citizenship, Abrahamian got me thinking more about the plight of those whose citizenship evaporates.  It’s reasonable to include Syrian refugees here.  Climate change led to food & water insecurity, which led to horrific violence, which left these people effectively without a country.  They no longer had a safe place to live.

Others will soon see their home countries simply vanish off the map.  In Abrahamian’s words:

Largo,_FL_street_flooding_during_TS_Debby,_June_2012          Over the next few decades, entire nations will likely be submerged by rising seawater.  The need for binding international cooperation to curb climate change is critical, but on the ground, the question is existential.  Where will Maldivians be “from” if they lose the ground beneath their feet?  Will a new Nansen [ he was a politician who helped provide documents for displaced persons after WW2] step in and create passports for climate refuges?  Or will those displaced by the deluge end up bidding for a new nationality on the open market?

          These are the stakes of citizenship in the twenty-first century.

So I was quite pleased to read The Cosmopolites.  Which made me feel puzzled by Richard Bellamy’s negative review in the New York Times.  His complaints were based on rather illogical reasoning.  He wrote that:

Neither of these types of citizenship [the “unearned windfall of oil and gas revenues” that come with U.A. E. citizenship, and the multiple citizens purchases by ultra-rich robber barons] corresponds to the hard-won forms of citizenship found within democratic states.

          Herein lies the weakness of Abrahamian’s analysis.  The political and social rights of genuine, state-based citizenship derive from the contribution members make to sustaining the public life of the community, …

… which is why he found her idea of global citizenship unworkable.  The problem being that the social rights of genuine, state-based citizenship do not derive from any contribution whatsoever.  I am a citizen of the United States.  I earned this privilege by being born.  I mean, sure, I’m great, maybe angels should’ve flown down and trumpeted my coming, but, really?

I’m not convinced that the contribution I made to this nation by being born is more significant that the contributions of our many undocumented immigrants who pay social security taxes (with no hope of ever receiving benefits), do hard work, live peaceably, spend money here, remit huge portions of their earnings (which keeps neighboring countries more stable, lowering the amount that the federal government would need to spend on humanitarian aid or border control).  And yet, despite the magnitude of their contributions, all those people have “earned” in the eyes of the powers that be is deportation.

To my mind, Bellamy’s claim seems highly reminiscent of that barbecue t-shirt slogan “I didn’t claw my way to the top of the food chain to eat vegetables.”  Because, sure, once upon a time, people in your ancestry might’ve suffered.  Democratic governance was hard-won … many generations ago.  Most modern people didn’t do anything.  They were born.

Indeed, that misconception — mistaking for just deserts all the privileges heaped upon oneself for the significant accomplishment of being born in a particular place, or to particular parents, or with a particular skin color, or a particular set of genitalia — is precisely what both Robert Reich and Atossa Araxia Abrahamian are arguing against in their books.

On productivity, and the risk of accidentally making the world worse when we’re trying to make it better.

On productivity, and the risk of accidentally making the world worse when we’re trying to make it better.

The United States economy has been growing more slowly than it used to. By itself, this wouldn’t be such a big deal — for many decades our economy has been doing well enough that, if we chose to, everybody could be pretty well off.

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Image by Images Money on Flickr.

Unfortunately, we have massive spending obligations from our ill-designed, pyramid-scheme-esque Medicare program (which very clearly cannot be sustainable in a society that keeps investing in costly biomedical innovations — as time goes on we’ll have the ability to keep people alive longer and longer, at higher and higher cost — and refuses to discuss how long people should expect to live). And we have dramatically unequal income distribution, such that many people are struggling to survive amidst abject poverty.

If-us-land-mass-were-distributed-like-us-wealth

My description probably makes clear that I think the underlying problem is philosophical, and that the optimal solution is a change in policy. But, ha, fat chance! It’s hard to make changes if you need a senatorial supermajority for any meaningful decision.

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Read more here.

So economists are betting on technological change to save us. The underlying idea here is sound: new technologies can make the world better. Modern city dwellers would be horrified to wake up to the sights and smells of the 1800s. Particularly relevant to the problems described above is the fact that new technologies often increase productivity. Here’s a passage from Steven Rattner’s article in the New York Times Sunday Book Review:

Without increases in efficiency, workers can’t get paid more and the economy can’t expand. And of late, productivity growth has been woefully light.

But achieving reasonable growth is well within our grasp. Not everything that can be invented has been invented. The countless hours that would be saved by a single, now imaginable idea — driverless cars and trucks — could alone reverse disappointing productivity figures.

VOLVO_TRUCK_AUG_31_2007_WASHINGTON_BLVD_LOS_ANGELES_IMAGE_PATRICE_RAUNET_HOLLYWOOD

In the United States, there are something like 3.5 million truck drivers. Shipping costs are currently higher than they would be if all those truck drivers were replaced by robots. Robots work more cheaply than humans.

In addition to lowering shipping costs, though, a switch from human to robot truck drivers would make the world worse. Maybe this is somewhat counterintuitive. Everyone who buys things on the internet would have to pay less money! How could that possibly be worse??

Consumers would pay slightly less money. But truck drivers would earn much less money, and the owners of shipping companies would earn much more money. Currently the shipping company has to share revenue between its owners and the humans employed to drive trucks, but robots don’t ask for a cut.

Same with many other industries. News organizations will become more productive as more articles are written by algorithms instead of humans. Even an algorithm that can’t pass the Turing test could conduct a reasonable telephone interview. After this shift, consumers will have access to news more cheaply, the owners of major news organizations will earn more money, and journalists will get canned.

Legal work, software development, entry-level bench jobs at pharmaceutical companies — robots can (& soon will) be able to do all of that. Which is great news for potential productivity. Robots, I’ve heard, are hard workers.

KUKA_Industrial_Robots_IR

All those changes will coincide with a shift in earnings away from the people doing that work, toward the people who own robots. An unfortunate consequence of this shift will be to drive net spending down. Capital owners are wealthier than their employees. They spend a smaller fraction of their income.

I do think that a lot of people in the U.S. spend too much money. I think it wouldn’t be so bad if fewer snazzy gadgets were bought and sold. But it’d take a pretty mean-spirited Luddite to think that the best way to accomplish this is for everybody’s income to dry up. I’d much rather see people want to look at & listen to the world around them instead of staring at tiny screens with plastic beads shoved in their ears. Choosing not to buy a gadget is empowering. Being broke feels crummy.

Smartphone_Zombies

Driverless cars & trucks, article-writing algorithms, pipetting robots… all these technologies will increase potential productivity. But by exacerbating the income equality between workers (now unemployed) and capital owners (earning even more money now that they’ve bought a legion of robots), demand will fall. The net outcome of new productivity-enhancing technologies could very well be even slower growth.

Whoops!

On crashing waves of violence and Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘The Wake.’

On crashing waves of violence and Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘The Wake.’

Our world was stolen.  Current wealth, even when no recent crimes transpired to obtain it, flows from a legacy of murder, theft, and oppression.

I’m no communist, mind you.  It’s quite clear the the total wealth available to the world is not a static number.  People’s effort to create more should be rewarded.  The basic principles of capitalism are, to my mind, the best way of doling out those rewards.

For instance, the wealth of many modern nations comes from oil reserves.  But petroleum, for ages, had little value.  It was noxious black muck.  Wasn’t until the invention of machines that use petroleum as fuel that oil became real wealth.

And it’d be ridiculous to claim that the wealth of internet barons was merely appropriated.  They had ideas, and in recognition of the value of those ideas, they were given wealth.  Those inventors did nothing wrong.

The problem is, the wealth they were given is tainted.

This is easiest to see when we consider wealth tied up in land holdings.  Millions of years ago, bands of Homo sapiens ranged over relatively small tracts of land.  Many other species of humans also inhabited the planet, and the land was shared with other animals (although I’ve noticed that when my daughter shares toys with other toddlers, there’s generally less spilt blood, singed fur, and rent flesh than there would’ve been when early humans “shared” territory with wolves, lions, hyenas, elephants, hippopotamuses, etc.).

439px-Homo_neanderthalensis_adult_male_-_head_model_-_Smithsonian_Museum_of_Natural_History_-_2012-05-17
A model of an adult Neanderthal male head and shoulders on display in the Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

As time went on, Homo sapiens spread and killed off all other species of humans, either directly, with spears through the chest and rocks concussed against skulls, or indirectly, by excluding competitors from fertile land and waterholes, letting the conquered tribes fragment and starve and slowly waste away.  The spread of Homo sapiens was a violent apocalypse for all other humans.  There were zero survivors.

Homo sapiens didn’t just kill off their human competitors.  Throughout most of the world, the spread of Homo sapiens coincided with the prompt extinction of all other large animals (Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens has a lovely discussion of the archaeological data supporting this.  You can get a pretty good sense of the impact of Homo sapiens migration by looking at the “Timeline of History” that Harari compiled, with entries like: “45,000 years ago: Sapiens settle Australia.  Extinction of Australian megafauna.”  “16,000 years ago: Sapiens settle America.  Extinction of American megafauna.”).

And then, once the world harbored growing numbers of Homo sapiens, clash after clash occurred as newcomers made forays into already-settled land.  Sometimes the newcomers were repulsed.  It’s unlikely that we preserve a record of many of those instances, because a failed invasion is generally more transient than a successful one, and the archaeological record would show no dramatic changes since the same style of architecture and artifacts will predominate in an area before and after.

At other times, the newcomers were more numerous, or brought more advanced weaponry, or were accompanied by crippling diseases spawned by their cohabitation with swine.  In those instances, the newcomers often expunged the previous inhabitants.  This happened over and over again.  I don’t know much about the history of England, but I know a bit about Stonehenge, and how the people who built Stonehenge suffered a devastating apocalypse when newcomers arrived bearing bronze weaponry  … and then those newcomers, firmly established years later, were in turn conquered during the Norman Invasion.

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Which always seems unfair.  After each wave of violence, a culture becomes established that would like for the cycle to end.  Sure, history up until now has featured wave after wave of newcomers coming and crushing and taking, but now that we are here the killing should stop.

I think this idea is conveyed beautifully by a line from Marcel Proust (trans. CK Scott Moncrieff): “But like those persons recently decorated who, their investiture once accomplished, would like to see the fountain of honor turned off at the main, Mme Bontemps would have preferred that, after herself, no one else in her own circle should be made known to the Princess.”  A gorgeous phrase, “the fountain of honor turned off at the main.”  And quite telling.  It’s incredibly common for people to buck at the idea of losing their status to others who follow their own footsteps.

For a contemporary example, you could read Alec MacGillis’s recent opinion piece.  He provides several examples of past beneficiaries of government aid voting to end that aid for others once they themselves no longer need it.

No matter how our good fortune came about, we don’t want to lose it to others.

So, the world formed.  Then humans spread and claimed certain tracts of land as their own.  Then humans kept migrating and re-claiming land.  Taking it from others.  In relatively modern times, the argument was often put forward that previous inhabitants were not using the land well and so had no real claim to it.  This was the justification given for the slaughter of Native Americans, and the same argument is alluded to in Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake as regards the slaughter of the people who built Stonehenge:

anglisc folc cum here across the sea many years ago. wilde was this land wilde with ingegas with wealsc folc with aelfs and the wulf. cum we did in our scips our great carfan scips with the wyrms heafod and we macd good this land what had been weac and uncept and was thus ours by right

Roughly: English folk came here from across the sea many years ago.  The land was wild with foreigners, natives, elves, and wolves.  Our people came in dragon-prowed ships and then worked the land to make good what had been weak and unkept, so the land was ours by right.

But there are many ways to define what good stewardship means.  Although they did not build fences, by many measures the Native Americans took better care of their land than the European settlers did after stealing it.  And this same argument could be used by any culture with more advanced technology than another.  From the perspective of someone who discovers a more productive farming method, vast tracts of U.S. farmland could be seen as underutilized and therefore free for the taking.

We’ve had many years now of relative stability in ownership of land, but this is due in large part to the knowledge that any unrestrained attempts at conquest could now exterminate the entire species.  Yes, newspapers make the world sound violent.  But compared to the past (and especially if you weight this comparison for population density), the advent of nuclear weapons has slowed the spigot of violence to a trickle.

Still, it’s worth acknowledging that violent conquest set an initial distribution of holdings that our current allotments stem from.  That’s why it’s so valuable to consider what those conquests might have felt like for the losers.  Their tragedies birthed our prosperity.  True gratitude for our lot acknowledges what they lost.

Edwards'_DodoIt’s horrifying to consider what the end times must have felt like for the last of those people who had built Stonehenge.  Did they know that their culture was being obliterated?  Even worse, what did the end times feel like for the last Neanderthals?  The last Homo habilis?  The last Homo floresiensis?  Did they know that their kind were going extinct?  Did an individual Neanderthal know that his language would be lost forever, his myths forgotten, his lineage come to an absolute halt?

In The Wake, Kingsnorth addresses these horrors in a not-too-unfamiliar way by depicting the travails of an Englishman losing his world to the Norman Invasion.  The protagonist is wicked, the owner of large land holdings that he forces servile tenants to work for him, an occasional wife beater, wielder of a sword smithed by a revered figure who raped and murdered the innocent children of his adversaries… but Kingsnorth presents him sympathetically.  The man’s family is killed by the French.  He is driven away from his land.  And his way of life is coming to an end.  In Kingsnorth’s words,

The Norman invasion and occupation of England was probably the most catastrophic single event in this nation’s history.  It brought slaughter, famine, scorched-earth warfare, slavery, and widespread land confiscation to the English population, along with a new ruling class who had, in many cases, little but contempt for their new subjects.

As long as we restrict ourselves to considering events for which we have historical documentation, I’m inclined to agree.  The language I now speak was starkly branded by that occupation.  Some of the most telling relics are our words for meats.  The names of the animals stem from their Old English roots, because the animals continued to be raised by the conquered people.  The names for prepared meats come from French, because French speakers ate the food.  Cows and swine and sheep become beef and pork and mutton once they’re ready to be served.

Kingsnorth’s book begins with the protagonist as a man of appreciable wealth.

9781555977177three oxgangs of good land i had and two geburs to worc for me on it and four oxen of my own for the plough this was mor than any other man in this ham. baerlic i had and rye sceap and hors also i had swine pasture holt my own water aeppels on many good treows

a great man i was in my ham all cnawan me a seat i had on the wapentac and free i was from the worc of other men. this was my land it was my fathers land i will not spec of my father. geld wolde i gif but only to the gyng not to the thegn. sum lytel worc wolde i do for the thegn for this was how things was but no man was ofer me no man will be ofer me

But then he loses his land.  All Englishmen lost their land, because after the invasion it was all claimed by their new king.  Kingsnorth points out that a legacy of that violence is still with us today, because a huge percentage of land in England is owned by just one percent of the population.  Although that concentration of wealth almost certainly would have occurred eventually, Normans or no.  There was nothing particularly special about the culture of that particular set of murderers and thieves that led to the current distribution of English wealth.

Wouldn’t have needed violence, even… although if you’re plotting a massive land grab, history has shown us that violence clearly helps.  But, inequality has been with us forever.  From the beginning of time, not all territory was equally productive.  Some spots were better for fishing or hunting than others, and there’s no reason to suspect that these were equitably shared.  With more advanced technology, the severity of inequality that can be maintained increases.  It’s easier to tax and horde grain than felled elk.  And easier still to horde gold.  Grain rots.  Gold does not.

Plus, as technology advances, the productivity of a worker’s efforts diminish in comparison to the productivity of owned wealth itself.  This is easiest to see if we consider advances in something like shoemaking.  At one point in time, a worker would make an entire shoe.  That worker’s skill and training determined how good the shoe would be, so the worker was highly compensated.  Later, a worker would stitch just one single component in a factory.  The identity of the worker did not matter much; how hard would it be to train someone new to make that stitch?  So compensation decreased.  Later still, the shoe will be made entirely by a machine.  Our worker will do no work, and won’t be compensated at all.  Only the owner of the machine makes money.

It’s pretty clear that the concentration of wealth Kingsnorth writes about would have happened eventually.  But in this world, in England, it happened then.

CaptureI do wish, though, that Kingsnorth had written his book in English.  As you probably noticed from the excerpts I quoted above, it isn’t.  The language he invented is related to modern English, but I found it difficult to read.  Multiple sentence fragments are often conjoined without clarifying punctuation, many words are spelled eccentrically, and archaic words are used in place of their contemporary equivalents.  Kingsnorth explains this choice as a way to emphasize the temporal setting of his work.

The early English created the nation we now live in.  They are, in a very real sense, the ancestors of all of us living in England today, wherever our actual ancestors come from.  Despite this link, though, their world was distant from ours; not only in time but in values, understanding, mythopoesis.  Language seemed the best way to convey this.

Personally I disagree with this reasoning, but I have to admit that my disagreement stems from my own failings.  I speak only English and read many books in translation.  I’d like to think that I can understand Proust even though he saw the world as a French speaker and I’ve read only English translations of his work.  I’d like to think that I can understand the Ramayana even though I can’t read the original Sanskrit.  I’d like to think that I can understand Beowulf, which is set amongst people with beliefs very similar to those that might’ve been held by Kingsnorth’s characters, even though I read Seamus Heaney’s translation into contemporary English.

(Heaney did permit himself a few archaic terms.  I love his explanation for one of these: “Putting a bawn [Irish word for fortification] into Beowulf seems one way for an Irish poet to come to terms with that complex history of conquest and colony, absorption and resistance, integrity and antagonism, a history which has to be clearly acknowledged by all in order to render it ever more ‘willable forward / Again and again and again.’ ”  And it made me smile that the word Kingsnorth used for “foreigner” was translated by Heaney as “stalker.”)

Even though I would’ve rather read Kingsnorth’s book in contemporary English, I should point out an unexpected (for me) virtue of his choice.  The book’s language compels a reader to slow down.  Many passages are difficult to understand without sounding out words.  Parsing sentences without much clarifying punctuation requires careful attention.  And good literature rewards attentive reading.  In our era of glitzy headlines and scrollable text, there’s some merit in forcing people to read assiduously.

All told, I appreciated the chance to read Kingsnorth’s take on the end of a world.  It gave me a lot to think about.  And makes me want to read more about the last Neanderthals.  It’s just brutal, trying to empathize with the magnitude of their loss.  Sure, I know that species go extinct all the time (another species vanishes forever every ten minutes… not that this isn’t tragic), but it hits so much harder knowing they were humans.  People with their own cultures, languages, dreams.

And now?

Gone.

On sex work, reparations, a global wealth tax, and the connection between the three.

On sex work, reparations, a global wealth tax, and the connection between the three.

CaptureMany people are upset that Amnesty International finally came out in favor of decriminalizing sex work.

Not me.  I think decriminalizing sex work is a step in the right direction.  Sex workers’ lives are often miserable.  Their underground status denies them police protection; instead, they are often actively abused by the police.

The philosophical rationale for outlawing sex work is at least more sound than the equivalent rationale for outlawing the drug trade, though.  I’m in favor of decriminalization for both, but in the case of sex work I acknowledge that there are extremely valid reasons to feel squeamish about the tacit approval conferred by decriminalization.

Laws are just only insofar as they protect people.  Driving laws are imminently just — letting people drive however they wanted would endanger the lives of everyone else on or near roadways.  Whereas drug laws appear at first glance to be imminently unjust — if a burnout decides to loaf around his apartment, smoke a jay, watch some television, it would seem that no one else is harmed.

Only two arguments I’ve seen for outlawing drug use have any merit.  One is that a person under the influence of a particular compound cannot be trusted to peacefully loaf in his apartment.  Amphetamine use, for instance, both confers extra energy and impairs judgement (the latter effect is due mostly to lack of sleep, not a pharmacological effect of amphetamines themselves, but I think it’s fair to make this approximation since amphetamines impede sleep.  This is especially true for the methylated analogues because that methylation slows drug metabolism; the half-life is so long that a single dose can prevent someone from sleeping for a day or two).

It’s reasonable to guess that people given free access to amphetamines would become unlawful.

CaptureOf course, we outlawed amphetamines poorly.  They are all scheduled, meaning they are all illegal to purchase or possess without a prescription… but many flavors can be purchased in large quantities with a valid prescription.

In practice, this means that amphetamines are outlawed for poor people.  Wealthy college students and medical doctors and tenure-track professors all have ready access.  So the way amphetamines are outlawed in this country is clearly unjust, and rampant abuse among wealthy populations belies the notion that amphetamines lead to lawless behavior… but as long as you ignore the empirical evidence and just focus on the theory, the philosophical rationale makes sense.

The other argument for outlawing drug use is that compounds are so addictive, and so dangerous, that we should accept some harm to adults (imprisonment, the danger of participating in underground markets) in order to prevent children from ever trying drugs.  Children, knowing that the laws make users’ lives awful, might consider that extra cost and decide that a first taste isn’t worth it.  Additionally, the laws might reduce access, so there’d be less risk that a child ever has an opportunity to choose poorly.

Personally, I think this is a rotten strategy.  There are viable alternatives that allow adult access while still keeping a good or service out of the hands of children.  These strategies also tend to break down in markets for illegal goods or services.  In many regions of our country it is easier for children to buy marijuana than alcohol.  And we now have nearly a half-century’s worth of evidence that harm caused by the War on Drugs outweighs the potential paternalistic protection afforded to children.

The War on Drugs has led to heroin overdoses because illegal goods have limited quality control.  Brutality & murder in impoverished urban areas because people without access to police protection depend upon reprisal to maintain order.  Brutality, murder, rape, kidnapping, terror & more in huge swaths of Mexico, all clearly the result of U.S. drug policy.  And millions of harmless people denied their freedom in U.S. prisons, effectively state-sponsored partial murders because those people forfeit the bulk of their adult lives.

But, again, that’s merely empirical evidence.  None of that contradicts the theoretical justification for outlawing drug use, the idea that some harm to adults is acceptable in order to protect children.  Perhaps our legislators simply care about children’s well-being much more than I do.

(Except, right, they don’t care about children in Mexico.  Or those living in our nation’s dangerous inner cities.  Or those who grow up without access to their incarcerated parents.  But, give our legislators a break!  Empathy fatigue is real!  They can’t be expected to maintain the same degree of concern for everyone.  Shouldn’t they be commended that they at least care deeply about the well-being of privileged suburban children?)

It felt necessary to detail those arguments because they also provide the motivation for outlawing sex work.

The feminist argument resembles the supposition that people allowed to buy drugs will then behave unacceptably.  The idea is that men who are allowed to purchase women’s bodies will devalue women in general.  I’m skeptical, though.  After decriminalization, most bodies will still not be for sale.  No one would be forced to participate in the sex trade.  And just because you can walk into a sparring gym and pay a boxing instructor to let you take some swings at him does not mean that people think it’s fair game to throw down some bills and punch whomever they like.

shutterstock_128676716-800x430It’s true that we live in a very misogynistic culture.  Some misogynists might feel empowered to talk & act even more crudely if they were legally allowed to purchase sex.  But it’s not as though misogynists are currently unable to purchase sex.  And our current system denies sex workers protection against bad actors — decriminalization would confer dignity and allow them to demand more respectful treatment from their clientele.

And there is a serious problem with the “increase the cost of participation in the sex trade to protect people from it” argument.  A major reason why people need to be protected from joining the trade is that it is illegal.  Decriminalization would reduce the dangers.  And even though current laws against sex work increase the cost of participation, there are still many people willing to pay that cost.  There are individuals who want to buy sex.  There are desperate people who need money.  Ironically, the laws against sex work even reduce the amount of money that the latter group can earn.

(Some economics in brief: demand for most goods is based on price.  If price increases, demand goes down.  For purchasers of illegal sex, the risk of being caught is an additional cost.  Which means that in every transaction they are paying in both dollars and risk.  If the legal risk were instead zero, the amount of dollars that buyers would be willing to pay for identical services would increase.)

This is where my personal qualms come in, by the way.  I’m willing to believe that some people are genuinely willing to sell sex.  I’ve spoken with several people who enjoy working as massage therapists, and to my mind some types of sex work differ in degree, not in kind, from massage.  A professional uses practiced touch to confer physiological and psychological wellness.

The problem is that people who did not want to but had no other options might also sell sex.

Lydia_Cacho_en_entrevistaI’m in favor of decriminalizing sex work, but I think that if we do decriminalize sex work but make no other changes to the world, the result will be evil.  Women will continue to be hurt in ways resembling those documented by Lydia Cacho in her book Slavery, Inc.  (The book is great — if you care about these issues, it’s well worth a read.  Also, if somebody ever starts printing heroic human rights worker trading cards, I’d definitely nominate Cacho to appear in the first set.)

Without a concurrent effort to address poverty, decriminalizing sex work could reasonably be construed as coercive.  The impoverished might well feel compelled to participate in order to survive.  If people have extremely limited options, making one option more attractive does funnel people into participation.  It wouldn’t be entirely against their will, but survival impetus means it wouldn’t be entirely voluntary either.  Ironically, their near-forced participation would also reduce the amount that all those desperate people could earn from each unwanted act.

(The other side of price equilibrium is based on supply — if supply of a good is high, like if many hungry people have to sell sex to have enough money to eat, the price has to be lowered to move the whole quantity.  Poverty-impelled participants would undermine each other’s wages.)

Part of why this is so crummy is that we have sufficient resources to fix this.  The productivity gains from modern automation and agriculture mean we could probably provide all people with food, shelter, and basic utilities (water will get trickier as time goes on) for free.  The rudiments of survival don’t cost that much relative to modern production capacity.

And a guarantee of subsistence would make the idea of decriminalized sex work much more palatable.  The idea of sex being traded as commerce isn’t so problematic in and of itself — as I mentioned, I see it as being on the same continuum as legal massage… or mosh pits, which also provide paid access to human contact.  The horrors come from people feeling pressured to sell sex in order to survive.

In my opinion, a guaranteed minimum standard of living is also the most practical form for reparations to take.

320px-Ta-Nehisi_CoatesI really enjoyed Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article about reparations (“The Case for Reparations”).  It wasn’t at all pedantic or abstract — which means that I was clearly not the intended audience — but I enjoyed it all the same.  One of his main aims is to show that people alive today have been victimized by the long legacy of racially-motivated abuse in the United States.  Which means reparations would be not only an acknowledgement of long-past wrongs, but would also serve to ameliorate very recent & ongoing harm.

In his article, however, Coates did not address who would pay or how reparations might be fairly distributed.  To my mind those practical considerations are of utmost importance in deciding whether the idea is at all viable.

I think it is.  I think that a global wealth tax used to fund a minimum standard of living for all people is plausible, philosophically justifiable, and would have meaningful economic & psychological consequences for the decedents of oppressed peoples.

I wrote about some of the underlying principles in my previous post about the creepy parallel between gene duplication and oppression — the idea that our cultural & technological heritage is the product of exploitation because subjugation of the world’s many allowed a free-riding few to pursue goals other than subsistence.  This has rough equivalence to the way advancement comes about in evolution — gene duplication produces free-riding DNA sequences that are allowed to drift because the original copy takes care of required function.

But the basic idea behind using a wealth tax to fund reparations is even simpler: wealth begets wealth.  Initial inequalities in distribution (which probably even existed amongst “egalitarian” hunter gatherers) will, over time, magnify into dramatic unfairness.  Wealthy heirs earn far more by renting their property than our hardest workers possibly could via effort alone.

I’m not sure anyone still thinks that communism is a reasonable fix for this, though.  As much as I dislike Ayn Rand’s writing (although it’s fascinating to me that many feminists and conservative Christians both like her books… this despite repeated depictions of Rand’s ideal men sexually assaulting her ideal women and Rand’s clear disdain for Christianity), I agree with some of her arguments against communism.  Knowing that you can’t profit from your efforts saps motivation.  Absolute equality undermines personal value.  And it seems just plain strange to have your net worth instantly decrease whenever a stranger has a child.

345829246_a7434a76dcMore reasonable, to my mind, is a tax on total wealth.  This would not devalue effort because it ignores income; the tax would be based on current holdings.  Taxation at any amount less than the rental income rate would still leave that maxim “wealth begets wealth” untouched… the only change would be that wealth would beget slightly less wealth.  (A reasonable rate of return on wealth right now, like if you buy some certificates of deposit, is about 3%.  Historically 5% is standard, and the largest property holders are often able to attain rates of 8% – 12%.  If you’d like to read a little more about this, you could check out my previous post on wealth tax, automation, & human trafficking.)

A global wealth tax would be philosophically justifiable as an acknowledgement that all current holdings can be traced back through time to violence and oppression.  For instance, no one created land (this isn’t entirely true — China has been constructing islands, and you could argue that draining the weather-buffering swamps in Florida and Louisiana was akin to creating land — but for most places, though most of history, it’s true enough).

It’s pretty easy to see land entitlement as having resulted from violence.  Humans migrated into new territory, killed off the dangerous animals that were there, then were murdered in turn by a new wave of human migrants, who were then murdered by new migrants, over and over until the conquerors were sufficiently powerful to defend their property and stop the cycle of theft.

Or there’s the case of the United States.  Our current wealth reflects our long history as a global superpower, but that history began somewhere.  First European settlers massacred the Native Americans.  Our meteoric rise was then propelled by cotton.  And how was the United States able to dominate the world’s cotton market?

Oh, right.

353181520_92b6b4a831

Our nation’s rise as an economic superpower was due to the brutal exploitation of black laborers.

Murder of those who resisted their enslavement.  Rape to propagate an imprisoned people.

Because wealth begets wealth, and because economic reparations were never paid, all current wealth in this country can be traced back to that initial evil.  Our nation’s initial prosperity came from sin.  Everyone who enjoys good fortune here today benefits from & is thereby marked by crimes whose reverberations have not ended & will not end on their own.

I’m not saying that no one did honest work later.  Obviously hundreds of millions did.  Your parents presumably did not oppress anyone in order to purchase their house.

But that doesn’t change the legacy.  If they were lucky, your parents received a decent education — their schools’ funding did not materialize wholesale from the aether.  They presumably received a loan to be able to purchase a home (the Coates reparations article has some excellent documentation for historic and contemporary harm perpetuated by both our nation’s banks & federal lending policies).  The original inhabitants of the land on which that home was built were murdered.  The national prosperity that makes that land more valuable than an equivalent parcel elsewhere was bled out of generations of slaves.

It’s too late to seek forgiveness for sins perpetuated against those who are now dead, but economic reparations could serve to make current wealth clean.

There is, of course, the question of who should benefit from reparations.  History is sufficiently tangled that I don’t think any attempt at strict accounting of whose ancestors were harmed & how much would be fruitful.  Nor do I think an accounting of that sort is necessary.  In contemporary times, the most egregious harms result from our failure to provide for the children of the poor — in our country, not only does wealth perpetuate itself, we have policies that go a long way toward guaranteeing that poverty will perpetuate itself as well.

This could be ameliorated by providing all people with a minimum standard of living.  Children can’t learn when they’re hungry. It wouldn’t cost much to offer all students a peanut butter & jelly sandwich (or a calorically-equivalent hypoallergenic meal) at the beginning of each school day.  Instead we let them sit in classrooms with rumbling stomachs & agitated minds and chastise their teachers when they fail.

Children who work long hours to help their parents pay rent (please scroll to the bottom of this article and read the final 10 paragraphs — the rest is good too, but I’ve picked out the most heartbreaking section for you) can’t learn well either.  Even children who simply stay awake worrying what’ll happen to their families are at a major disadvantage.  If you’re worried about having enough money to survive, you can’t really think about anything else (feel free to check out Mani et al.’s “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function” if you haven’t seen it yet, or see this recent post).

If food & shelter & basic utilities were guaranteed, we’d cut down on those worries.  Poor people would be given room to breathe and think and plan.

(Are you one of those people who likes numbers?  Here is a tiny bit of math to support my claim that this is feasible.  I’d say $500 per month per person is reasonable to provide food, shelter, and utilities — honestly, this amount comes close to cutting it in Bloomington IN, and that’s without any dedicated infrastructure for the project.  For most of the globe, $500 might be a vast overestimate.  With a world population of seven billion, that puts us at needing $3.5 trillion per year if all people wanted to take advantage of the crappy minimum offerings.  Under a twentieth of the gross world product.  And, regarding a wealth tax, it would take approximately a 1.5% tax on wealth holdings to fund that full amount.  That’s well below the historical 5% rate of return for capital.)

This implementation wouldn’t explicitly target blacks.  Maybe that’s a bad thing, because it wouldn’t make the apology aspect of reparations explicit.  This nation, as a collective, has done wrong and should atone for it.  But our nation’s blacks do suffer the slings of poverty more severely than other citizens (largely because we still have policies in place that ensure that they will), so a serious program to address poverty would benefit many who’ve inherited that legacy of mistreatment.  And the impoverished masses in other countries generally reside in areas that were once (or are still) exploited by our world’s now-wealthy nations.  Their plight reflects past theft of their resources.

And, getting back to sex work — many of the problems that will come from decriminalized sex work would not arise in a world with guaranteed subsistence.

People might feel compelled to sell sex against their wishes if the practice is decriminalized and they need money to survive but have no other way of obtaining it.  Many of the current ails of sex workers result from their criminal status.  But without addressing poverty, it is likely that sex workers will still be denied police protection because they’ll still be considered criminals.  Instead of being criminals by virtue of being sex workers, they’ll be considered criminals because of immigration status.  Impoverished people have long been trafficked to regions with decriminalized sex work and held hostage by the threat of fines, deportation, and reprisal against their families.

5611594783_8e9a533564_bWhich obviously sounds grim.  But I don’t think those are inherent consequences of decriminalized sex work.  Those are the consequences of impoverished desperation amongst people with few options.  Similar economic motivations underlie participation in unethical organ markets (which I wrote about for my first post to this website).

Still, I’d like to thank Amnesty International.  Their advocacy for decriminalization is sorely needed.  But I expect to hear many more horror stories akin to those documented in Cacho’s book unless we make a sincere effort to combat poverty.  Micro-loans or not-quite-enough-to-live-on food allotments are not going to cut it.  People need to know that they’ll at least survive if something goes wrong.

Also, how did I type up this whole post without including the Balzac epigraph from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather?  I’ll include it here — please pretend you read it earlier, to punctuate any of the above paragraphs where it would’ve been appropriate.

“Behind every great fortune there is a crime.”