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 self-importance.

On self-importance.

We only have one life to live. We only have so much time.

How will we use it?

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There’s a trade-off that many privileged people face – should we focus on family or our career? This choice is especially stark for women, who are often expected to be the primary caretakers for their families, no matter how stellar their career prospects.

Everyone has different priorities, and nearly everyone will end up feeling a wistful sense of regret someday.

Would we be happier if we’d chosen differently? If we’d had children younger? Or if we’d postponed children, spent a few more years building a name for ourselves?

We’ll never know for sure.

In Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, though, the protagonist finds his answer.

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NOTE: Dark Matter is a scary science fiction thriller. I enjoyed reading it. Crouch is an excellent storyteller, and he handles almost all the science really well. If you like thrillers, you’d probably enjoy it.

If you’re thinking about reading it, you might not want to read the rest of this essay now, because it’ll spoil some of the plot for you.

Maybe you should navigate away from this page to check the catalog at your local library! Don’t worry – this essay will still be here next month, after you’ve finished the book.

Or maybe you feel like you can’t handle scary thrillers right now, what with regular life being so inordinately stressful. In which case you’re welcome to carry on reading this essay.

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The protagonist of Dark Matter, Jason, is a brilliant scientist who chose to put his family first – his career has floundered, but his home life is content.

Jason wonders what might have been. A friend from graduate school is winning accolades — fancy grants, publications, and awards.

I could’ve had all that, he thinks wistfully.

In Joseph Heller’s Good As Gold, professor Bruce Gold thinks, “There is no disappointment so numbing as someone no better than you achieving more.” After helping his friend celebrate yet another award, Jason trudges home feeling a similar sentiment.

But then he meets another Jason – a version of himself who, years ago, chose to prioritize his career instead. That Jason has no family. That Jason invented a machine to jump between realities, to enter timelines in which different choices had been made.

That Jason – who chose personal glory over caretaking – is even less happy. And so he kidnaps the initial protagonist, stealing his family and launching him through the machine back into a world where everyone adores his utter brilliance.

And that’s when the first Jason, who’s had a chance to experience both worlds, realizes: love matters more. Money, sex, adulation – none of it can replace his family. He wants to be back with his spouse and child. He’s willing to do anything to get there.

Even murder the myriad copies of himself who all want the same thing.

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Despite the horrific violence, it’s actually a beautiful way to depict priorities – Crouch shows the value of caretaking by giving his protagonist a choice. Suddenly, Jason is freed from his past. He could be anywhere. He could live in a world where he’d used his earlier time in any possible way.

He wants to be in the place where he chose to love.

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A strange quirk of storytelling is the ease with which we, the audience, transfer our empathy and compassion to a protagonist. Even a wretched protagonist – if Bojack Horseman were a peripheral character in someone else’s show, he’d obviously be a villain. And yet, in his own show, I cared about him. I wanted him to succeed, even though he’d done nothing to deserve it.

Quentin Tarantino toys with this idea in Pulp Fiction – when John Travolta is the protagonist, sipping an expensive milkshake or reviving his boss’s spouse, I felt deeply invested. But when Bruce Willis is the protagonist and kills Travolta, I don’t care at all – at that moment, I’m only interested in Willis’s experience.

Than Travolta comes back – and behaves horribly – and, somehow, I find myself caring about him again. His impending pointless death is suddenly irrelevant. He jokes that Samuel Jackson wants to be a bum and I laugh along.

We make the same mistake in our own lives – we see ourselves as more important than we really are.

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A friend’s daughter recently landed in jail, busted over heroin and Xanax. My friend feels conflicted about her daughter’s arrest – being in jail is awful, “But the way she was going, she would’ve died if she didn’t end up there.”

“The problem is, she worries too much. Worries so much about what other people think of her.”

“But she’s starting to get it now. To realize that she doesn’t have to worry, because other people aren’t thinking of her at all.”

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In Dark Matter – as in Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics – with every decoherence, the universe splits. Every outcome is real and propagates through time.

(If you like stories set within this framework, I highly recommend Ted Chiang’s “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom,” published in the collection Exhalation.)

And so there are infinitely many copies of Jason who all want to return to his family – every choice that he’s made since the kidnapping has created another world, another Jason hoping to return.

They will all stop at nothing to rescue their spouse and child. And so they begin to kill each other. Infinitely many Jasons are converging on the world they left.

This convergence seems almost plausible while reading, based on the physics of Dark Matter. The problem being, of course, our lapse into self-importance. Our quirk of prioritizing the experiences of a central character.

Within that world, there would be infinitely many Jasons … but there would also be infinitely many copies of the “stolen” spouse and child. Just as many quantum decoherence events would have occurred in their lives as in his.

Comparing the magnitude of infinite numbers can feel puzzling. For example, it might seem like there should be twice as many numbers as there are even numbers … only every other number is even, after all!

But these infinite quantities are the same. If you write every number on a ball, and then you write even numbers on buckets, there are no balls that can’t be put into a bucket. Each ball labeled “N” goes into a bucket labeled “2 * N”.

Infinitely many balls, infinitely many buckets, and the infinities match.

In Dark Matter, there would be infinitely many Jasons, but also infinitely many worlds that he had left behind, so the likelihood of reaching a world with more than two of himself – the protagonist and the original villain – would be vanishingly small.

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In World of Wonders, Aimee Nezhukumatathil describes a vacation to Kerela, India, with her new spouse. They were eating dinner on a houseboat when they heard noises from the roof.

A troop of macaques were up there eating fruit. Then a wildcat came and chased the macaques off the roof, but the macaques still stayed nearby, watching.

Nezhukumathil and her spouse felt worried – would the macaques attack? Steal their food? They tried to convey their worries to a local resident, who laughed at them. And the monkeys seemed to laugh at them, too.

Nezhukumathil and her spouse finished their dinner quickly and then went inside the houseboat. That night, for the first time that trip, they locked the door to their cabin – “as if these macaques would know how to turn a doorknob and latch.”

“The last thing I remember hearing that night was a distant meowing and chatter-like laughter, and I swear, somewhere in the back waters of Kerala, those bonnet macaques are still having a good laugh over us.”

It’s an easy fallacy to slip into. An experience that’s rare for me – taking a vacation, visiting a doctor, buying a wedding ring – takes on outsize importance precisely for its rarity.

But the salesperson at Goldcasters helps giddy young couples every day. I have a clear memory of the E.R. nurse who gave me a rabies vaccine at 3 a.m., but there’s almost no chance she remembers me – she’s been doing that sort of thing for years.

The macaques spook tourists – and perhaps steal their food, purses, or loose necklaces – every day.

Macaques have their own conscious experience of the world. In their stories, they’re the protagonists. We humans merely dot the periphery. Nameless and forgettable, we fade into the background.

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As we choose how to live, it helps to maintain a sense of humility about our importance to the greater world.

In time, our money will be gone. Our personal glory, too.

Helping others – choosing caretaking over our careers, at times – can connect our stories to something bigger than an individual.

Of course, eventually all of that will disappear, too. The whole world is terminal – our sun will fade, our species will go extinct, our universe’s entropy will increase until there’s no more heat, no more warmth for anything to happen.

So we also need to prioritize personal happiness while we’re here.

Luckily, loving others tends to make us happy.

On gambling.

On gambling.

At about eleven a.m. on my birthday, I buckled the kids into the car to drive to our local print shop. Taking the kids with me for a fifteen minute errand seemed like a good gift for my spouse: she’d have some time in our house alone, which is rare to come by right now.

The print shop is just across the street from the (currently closed) services center for people experiencing homelessness, just down the street from the services center for people recently released from incarceration, a few blocks from the hospital. There’s a popular bus stop on the sidewalk out front. Across the street, a truck rental company has a large, mostly empty parking lot.

Large crowds of people have been hanging out near the print shop. Day and night.

I pulled into a shaded parking spot. We had the windows down. “I’ll just be a minute, can you sit in the car?” I asked.

The kids nodded, not looking up. A friend recently gave us a stack of Ranger Rick magazines, and we’ve been doling them out gradually for car rides.

I had my wallet in my pocket with a twenty and a ten, and we’d already been sent the bill for our print order. $20.49 for a stack of postcards to send to my spouse’s future AP biology students, explaining their summer assignment.

Normally she’d give kids a slip of paper with their assignment sometime during finals week, but this year had no finals. For many kids, no school.

But don’t worry. The assignment isn’t too bad. Students choose from a set of things like “fill an old sock with trash, bury it, then dig it up six weeks later” or “take a walk and look for things that match each of these different colors.”

I looked in the center console of the car for a pair of quarter. We keep them in a little pouch, ready to pay for parking. Haven’t been using them recently – the meters are still on, but there’d be nowhere to go after parking the car.

I thought it would be a nice gesture to pay in cash with exact change. The credit card company wouldn’t be taking a cut of the profits, and exact change would minimize the length of our transaction.

As I was zipping the pouch closed, a man ambled over. I’d guess he was a little over six feet tall, a little over two hundred pounds, with light brown skin, a buzzed head, and a bristly beard. He leaned down to the open passenger-side window and said something to me, but I couldn’t parse it – his words sounded mushy, thick with saliva.

“Hang on,” I said, “I’m hopping out of the car, let me come around.”

I walked around the back of the car, stopping a few feet away from him. He said the same thing again. I shrugged and shook my head. My brain takes a while to process spoken words, even under the best of circumstances. I can’t listen to audiobooks – whole chapters wash over me without any understanding. I can’t listen to podcasts – when people recommend them, I’ll search for a transcript, then read it and pretend that I too listened while riding an exercise bike or something.

By the fourth time he repeated himself, I understood him better. I think part of the problem was that he was speaking too quickly – almost everybody gets nervous when approaching a stranger.

I can relate. I doubt I’d ever be able to flirt with strangers in a bar.

“I like your hair,” he said. “I grew up in Gary, came down fifteen years ago for Indiana University, but I caught that bipolar. Just got out of the hospital, today’s my birthday, five twenty-six, and I just got out.

He still had a white plastic bracelet on his arm, which seemed to be printed with his name and age. He didn’t gesture to it or anything, which felt nice. As though the two of us would need no evidence to trust each other.

“Your birthday? How old are you?”

“Thirty-seven,” he said, without hesitation.

Indeed, the bracelet was printed with the number 37 in a fairly large font. But it seemed like this was a nice thing to ask.

“No shit,” I said, “thirty-seven. Same as me. Today’s my birthday, I just turned thirty-seven.”

“Naw, man, you’re shitting me.”

“It’s true.” I turned to the car, shouted to the kids, “Whose birthday is it today?”

The kids said something, but neither the man nor I could hear them. The crowd across the street was loud.

The man reached into his pocket, pulled out a jumble of stuff. Dice, some black beaded necklaces, a keychain, a tiny flashlight, nail clippers, a tube of toothpaste. He put the toothpaste back into his pocket.

“Don’t need this yet,” he mumbled.

“You got a toothbrush?” I asked. We actually have some spare ones in the car to give to people.

“Yeah,” he said, pulling out the green plastic handle of a toothbrush, “but I used that already. See these, my teeth so fucking white.”

He smiled for me and I nodded approvingly, murmuring that his teeth were indeed very white. A full smile. Several teeth were stained dark near the edges, but I’ve met lots of men with worse teeth than that.

“Hey, you paint your nails, too,” he said, noticing. “See this, look at this.” He reached out, his hands still full of stuff, to show me his fingers. They had tiny remnants of polish, pink on several but a pointer finger with a mix of red and black, just like I use on mine. My nails were barely even chipped, because I’d painted them the week before. I usually do them about once a month these days. Hard to find time for the little things since having kids.

“I got … here, how about this,” he said, handing me the nail clippers. “They good, they good ones, I haven’t even used them yet, they’re clean.”

As he spoke, spittle flew from his mouth. Luckily, I’m not much of a germophobe. Luckier still, I think I already had the disease that’s going around right now. Between a pair of kids in preschool, a spouse at the high school, and me teaching in jail, I catch most of the viruses that come through town.

I turned the clippers over in my hand. A large pair, space-age iridescent top glimmering in loops of purple and blue, big letters “Made in China” etched into the metal.

“They’re beautiful,” I said. “I like the look of that metal. But we’ve got so much stuff already. Meeting you, that’s present enough today.”

I handed the clippers back. As he took them, one of his dice tumbled from his hand. I bent down to pick it up, gave that back to him, too.

“You play craps?” he asked.

“Never have.”

“Hey, I’ll teach you. Come on, here, you gotta get a seven, eleven, don’t want snake eyes.” He bent down, blew on the dice, and rolled. A five and a six.

“Eleven, hey, that’s good,” he said. Then picked up the dice, blew on them again, and rolled. A two and a six.

“Eight. Now I got to roll an eight before I get a seven, see, that’s crap out.” And he rolled about four more times before he hit his seven.

“Now it’s your turn,” he said, and handed them to me.

I rolled, got a two and a four.

“That’s a six, that’s a hard one, got to roll a six again before you crap out.”

I rolled again, same two and a four. Maybe I didn’t shake the dice enough – they didn’t really tumble on the ground, they just sort of plopped down on the asphalt in front of me.

And I found myself thinking how strange it is that dice are a big thing for both the toughest and the wimpiest groups of people in town. Street people and folks in jail gamble with dice, and then there’s Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy buffs rolling 2d6 as they tell stories.

I’ve heard that Dungeons & Dragons is pretty big in some prisons, too. A few prisons have banned D&D or roleplaying books from being sent in – reputedly, people got killed over developments in their games. Somebody’s elf cleric was betrayed and a few days later guards found a body in the showers.

I don’t know how much truth there is to that. But, when people at those prisons ask for D&D books, I have to write an apology and send some fantasy novels instead.

I tried to give the dice back after rolling my second six, but he said I had to keep playing. “I got two, hey, you got to see where you go on this next roll.”

“Okay,” I said, “but then I got to pick up, my spouse is a high school teacher, she has this print order, some post cards to send to her students.” I gestured with my head toward the shop. And then I rolled.

An eight. Followed by a seven. I was done.

“Thanks for teaching me,” I said.

“And, hey, hey, I was thinking, for my birthday, you help me get something at Rally’s. I’m trying to get a pair of ice cones, for me and my girl.”

I gave a wan smile. Normally I don’t give money to people. It’s a tricky situation – people have things they need to buy, and even the chemical escape can seem necessary. My life is really good, and even I struggle with the sense of being trapped inside my head sometimes. And yet, I don’t really like the thought of my money being part of the whole cycle, keeping drugs in town. I’m even pro-drug, mostly, but meth and heroin typically do bad things to people’s lives.

A few days earlier, when I crossed paths with a friend from jail while my dog and I were out running, I’d asked if my friend was eating enough. He laughed at me and said, “Fuck, no!”

It’s true, I’m pretty bad at looking at people’s faces when I talk to them. When my friend started laughing, I finally met his eyes and realized how gaunt he looked.

“Is it a money problem, or …?”

“Oh, dude, don’t give me any money. I could eat, I think I can eat, I just don’t. You give me anything, I’d just spend it on meth.”

Instead of handing money to people on the street, we buy paper and pencils for folks in jail; we support our local food bank; we give time. Building human connection takes time, and there’s no shortcut.

Still, on my birthday, I was standing there in the print shop parking lot next to a man who’d just given me a present – nice nail clippers, even if I didn’t keep them. And we’d played craps. Maybe he’d won – I’m not sure what the rules are about draws. And I had a pair of quarters in my hand.

I’d hoped to have exact change. But I shrugged and gave him the quarters.

“Thanks, man,” he said, and I told him “Thanks for the game,” and walked over to ring the doorbell at the print shop, ready to pick up my order. The kids had been doing a great job of waiting patiently in the car.

On currency, again

On currency, again

At the beginning of our poetry class in jail, I walked around the room to give the printed poems to people.  I noticed that somebody was working on an elaborate Valentine’s Day card.  (The date was February 28th.)

“Oh, cool,” I said, “did you draw that?”

“Naw,” he said.  “I commissioned it and all, though.  Designed it.  Cost me two Honey Buns.  Check it out.”

He waved me in to see the card up close.  The front had a red rose with marijuana leaves sprouting from its stem.  The poem he’d written inside began:

Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

If you were a blunt

I’d smoke you too …  

“Cost me two Honey Buns each time,” he said.  “They shredded my first.  I mailed it out, but they said I addressed it wrong, said I wasn’t, what’s that thing, no money on your books … ?”

“Indigent mail,” somebody told him.

“Yeah, said I wasn’t indigent, so they shredded it.  Now I’ve gotta send another one.”

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Another time, somebody explained the booms and busts of the economy in jail. 

In the world at large, the business cycle typically lasts about five to seven years – the economy will rhythmically surge and then contract.  This is bad news for the unlucky cohorts who begin their careers during the cyclical recessions – these people typically have lower earnings over their entire lifetimes – but because the cycles are so predictable, central banks are supposed mitigate the downswings.

The Forces of the Business Cycle. From _Some problems in current economics_ by Malcolm Churchill Rorty, AW Shaw Company, 1922.

In jail, the business cycle lasts a week.

“We get commissary on Friday, so every Friday, people have coffee again, we all drink too much.  People pay off their debts … or you get an asshole who racked up a bunch of debt then goes to seg on Thursday, tells the guards he’s hearing voices.”

“But near the end of the week, Wednesday or something, people are running out, so coffee gets more expensive.  You got to pay a bunch of interest if you’re trying to get coffee from somebody.”

“Worst is you get here near the end of a week.  Cause even if somebody puts money on your books, it’ll take a while before they add your name to the list and you can get commissary.  So you’re getting everything on credit, people bleed you dry.”

#

In Money and Government, Robert Skidelisky addresses common misconceptions about the economy.

Many people are aware that the central bank has a mandate to “control inflation.”  This is very important to political donors – low inflation benefits people who already have wealth, at the expense of current workers.

But most people – including professional economists – think that the central bank controls inflation by manipulating the money supply.  This misconception might be a holdover from ancient history.  Long ago, only sovereigns could create money.  Kings and pretenders would mint coins as a way to flaunt their power.  And they’d unleash their full wrath upon interlopers.

The central bank is a little different.

If there’s too much money, which would cause prices to rise, the central bank is supposed to yank money out of the economy by selling bonds.  If there is too little money, the central bank is supposed to print more.

The central bank attempts to control the money supply this way.

At the same time, other banks are lending money.  If you decide to buy a house, you won’t call up the federal reserve – you’ll probably visit a few banks around town and apply for a mortgage.

Because most money doesn’t exist – it’s just a tally of credits and debits maintained on a server somewhere – a bank that gives you a loan is creating money. Modern banks don’t actually check whether they have money before they lend it to you.

Skidelsky includes a quote from Where Does Money Come From? by Ryan-Collins et al.:

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.

Inflation has stayed low, because the amount of money available for purchasing real things hasn’t grown much.  Low inflation means that if people took on debt to go to college, that debt is often still hanging over them years later – inflation would make it easier to clear debt, because employers would respond to inflation by raising salaries.  The amount of debt relative to a week’s pay would fall.

Instead, the money supply in only one corner of our economy has ballooned, producing a flurry of destructive activity in the financial sector.

This has been lucrative for people willing to work in finance, though.

Skidelsky explains that:

The economic collapse of 2008-2009 showed that monetary policy directed to the single aim of price stability was not enough either to maintain economic stability or to restore it.  The economy collapsed, though the price level was stable.

Preventing a collapse in the money supply was to be achieved by what was euphemistically called ‘unconventional’ monetary policy: pump enough cash into the economy and the extra spending it produced would soon lift it out of the doldrums.

As it happens, the method that the central bank chose to inject money into the economy was perversely ineffectual.  The central bank gave money to wealthy people.

One strategy was “quantitative easing.”  The central bank paid people above-market-rate for low-quality financial assets. 

This helped the people who owned these particular low-quality financial assets – typically foolish wealthy people.  They should’ve lost a bunch of money.  They’d bought junk! But they didn’t, because the central bank stepped in to save the day.

Our central bank also fulfilled a small set of private companies’ insurance policies.  The corporations who bought absurd insurance from AIG should have lost all their money when AIG, unsurprisingly, was unable to fulfill their policies. 

If you’re in a high school cafeteria and somebody says, “I bet you a million dollars that …”, you shouldn’t expect the kid to pay up for losing the bet.  But our central bank intervened, giving huge amounts of money to destructive corporations like Goldman Sachs, because it wouldn’t be fair for them to win a bet and then not get the money (even though they’d been betting with a kid who obviously didn’t have a million dollars to pay). 

CODEPINK protests the AIG bailout bonuses in Los Angeles, 2009.

And yet, these tactics didn’t stave off financial recession.  Since the central bank only gave money to wealthy people, these recipients of our government’s largess had no incentive to actually spend the money. 

The main effect of the central bank’s reliance on “portfolio rebalancing” to boost output was to boost the portfolios of the wealthy, with minimal effects on output.  One doesn’t need headwinds to explain why.

#

“There’s a lot you can get in jail.  There were a couple years when people had all this spice, but they cracked down on that.  Still, you can get a blowjob for a couple Honey Buns, some guys will give you a stick for a soup … “

“What’s a stick?” I asked.  My initial assumptions were that it was either something sexual or drug-related, both of which turned out to be wrong.  A single soup would be pretty low to pay for drugs – soups are worth less than Honey Buns.

“Hey, ________, show him.”

A guy pulled down the front of his orange jumpsuit.  In gothic letters arcing across his chest, he had the words “WHITE TRASH.”  The skin around the letters was an agitated red.

“People think you need pens and ink for tats,” somebody said, “but most guys just use a staple and some burnt hair grease … “

The most popular black pigment for oil paints and acrylics is made of charred animal bones.  The calcium phosphate from bones is pale – the deep black color comes from carbon.  When you burn organic material, you’ll make buckyballs – small spheres of carbon like hollow soccer balls – as well as tubes of graphite.  And these molecules have high absorption across the visible spectrum.

Image of carbon allotropes by Michael Ströck.

Whenever a photon of visible light hits one of these molecules, the light is absorbed.  This causes an electronic transition.  But then the physical shape of the molecule doesn’t match its electronic structure, so the molecule begins to vibrate. 

By the time the molecule collapses back to its initial electronic structure – which ejects a photon – some of the energy that the molecule absorbed has been used up by vibrations.  So the outgoing photon will have lower energy.  It’ll be “infrared radiation,” which we can’t see.  So, colored light goes in, and then invisible light comes out – to us, it looks black.

Still, I hadn’t considered that you could burn the gunk that gathers on unwashed hair in order to make tattoo ink. Despite the brutal efforts of our government, people find ways to live even while incarcerated.

As in the world at large, many transactions in jail are made with hard currency.  If something costs a Honey Bun and two soups, you might be expected to hand over the food.  Sometimes, currency actually exists.

But people can create money, too. 

“Thanks, I owe you one.”

With those words, we gain the power of medieval kings.

.

Featured image by Andrew Magill on Flickr.

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 birds watching.

On birds watching.

In jail recently, we were talking about birds.

“Yeah, my grandfather had something like a thousand chickens, had them running all through the yard,” somebody said.  “And there was this one chicken, he was a mean one.  I was kind of afraid of it, strutting around like he owned the place.  So my grandfather, he told me to kick it.”

“Well, I did, but that only made things worse.  I didn’t make him scared, I just made that chicken hate me.  So after that, anytime we went to visit my grandfather’s place, that chicken would be there, waiting for me.”

“My parents, my brothers and sisters, everybody would get out of the car, but the chicken wouldn’t bother them.  He’d be sitting there, staring, just waiting for me.  And when I finally got out I had to run, every time, sprinting to my grandfather’s front door before that chicken got me.”

“They live a long time, too!  I had, like, five or six years of that!  And still to this day, anytime my mom sees a video or a picture of somebody running from a chicken on Facebook, she’ll tag me in it.  Like, ha ha ha, remember that?”

#

“Maybe you didn’t kick him hard enough,” somebody suggested.  “Cause we used to have chickens, and I had to go into the coop sometimes, and the roof of it was real low to the ground, so I had to crouch in there like this, and one chicken would always strut up to me like it was going to start something.”

“Well, it did that every time for a few months, till one day it got in my face and I just went BOOM, and I wrestled that little fucker to the ground.  And that chicken never messed with me again.”

#

Birds can recognize individual humans. 

Biologist John Marzluff noticed that crows became wary of particular researchers after the crows had been captured and tagged.  In an experiment where researchers captured a half dozen crows while wearing a caveman mask, they found that the whole flock learned to respond to that mask as a threat.  Several years later, even crows who hadn’t seen the caveman’s initial misbehavior would shriek a warning when they saw that mask.  They’d been trained by their flockmates.

The caveman mask is on the left. On the right: a control mask.

#

Between their intelligence and acute eyesight, birds can serve as passable oncologists.  Pigeons were trained with a set of slides from biopsies – a pigeon had to inspect each image and then choose a button for “cancer” or “not cancer”.  If the pigeon chose correctly, the computer would dispense a pellet of food.

(Human medical students are often mistreated during their training, forced to work grueling hours with few breaks.  The pigeon trainees were also mistreated – to ensure that they valued each food pellet, the pigeons were starved during the experiment.  I’m 6 feet tall and about 150 pounds, but if I were participating in this study, I’d be kept at 127 pounds – eighty-five percent of my “free feeding” weight.)

Pigeons learned to diagnose biopsies with 80% accuracy.  A team of eight pigeons voting together could diagnose biopsies with 99% accuracy

The team of pigeons was just as good as a human oncologist, and far better than computerized image analysis.

You can buy 50 pounds of pigeon pellets for under $10.  That’d give you enough rewards for a flock of half-starved pigeons to diagnose thousands of patients.

#

We used to think that an entire class of vertebrates had gone extinct – the dinosaurs.  But we now know that birds are dinosaurs. 

Several species of dinosaurs/birds are gone – millions of years have passed since tyrannosaurs or velociraptors roamed the earth.  But their lineage has continued.

When I was growing up, people often remarked that dinosaurs were clearly dim-witted creatures because they have such small cranial cavities.  There was not much room for brains in their skulls! 

But contemporary dinosaurs/birds have small brains, too, and many are extremely intelligent.  They can chase kids who’ve crossed them.  They can diagnose cancer.  They can make tools, solve logic puzzles, and guess what other animals are thinking.

All with minuscule brains!

When biologist Suzana Herculano-Houzel investigated the brains of various species, she found that the number of neurons in a brain typically correlates with cognitive capacity.  More neurons makes for a smarter critter!

The physical size of a brain doesn’t tell you how many neurons will be in a brain, though.  A bigger brain might just have bigger neurons

As it happens, birds’ brains are constructed better than our own.  Crows and parrots pack neurons into a brain more densely than we do, like the difference between old IBM mainframes and modern telephones.  Pigeon brains are better than ours at parallel computing, like the difference between a hypothetical quantum computer and your current laptop.

We can outsmart crows, parrots, and pigeons, but only because our raw neuron counts are so high that we’ve not been surpassed by their superior designs.

We don’t know when dinosaurs/birds evolved their high neuron densities – well-designed brains might be recent innovations, or they might be millions of years old.  Ancient dinosaurs may have been far more intelligent than we thought.

Yes, they still went extinct, but you can’t blame them for succumbing to climate change.  And it’s not like they caused the climate change that killed them.

Future archaeologists might judge humans to be more foolish than any stegosaurus.

#

We humans have huge numbers of neurons in our cerebral cortex.  We are blisteringly clever.  We’ve made all variety of tools, languages, and complex social structures.  Yes, crows also have tools, language, and complex social structures, but in each category, human achievements are even more complex.

A crow tool is typically a hooked piece of stick.  We built telephones.

Well, humans collectively built telephones.  I couldn’t sit down and build one from scratch.  If I were to make a tool while out hiking, it’d probably be a hooked piece of stick.

Still, our best achievements are pretty incredible. 

But we’ve also brought our species to the brink of extinction.  Through overpopulation and excessive exploitation of the planet’s trapped resources, we’re making our world less habitable. 

Tyrannosaurus ruled this planet for a few million years.  Humans have been a dominant species for only a hundred thousand years – a few percent of T-Rex’s reign.  With the current pace of climate change, scientists soberly discuss the possibility that we’ll reap apocalypse within a hundred more years.

Measured by reign, we might prove 20-fold less successful than those giant birds.

On the sacred.

On the sacred.

In jail, we were discussing isolation when somebody mentioned the plummeting price of marijuana.  We’d read a quote from quantum physicist Richard Feynman about sensory deprivation:

I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that.  Ordinarily it would take me about fifteen minutes to get a hallucination going, but on a few occasions, when I smoked some marijuana beforehand, it came very quickly.  But fifteen minutes was fast enough for me.

The guys asked me when these experiments had happened. 

“Late 1950s, early 60s,” I told them.

“Man, marijuana must have been so expensive then!  Just in the last few years, the prices fell so hard.  Like now you can get five pounds for fifteen hundred bucks.”

I was shaking my head.  “Five pounds?  The most I ever bought at once was half an ounce, back when I lived in California.  Even then, I think I paid two hundred for it.”

“Two hundred dollars?  You got ripped off!”

I laughed.  “Yeah, but I probably deserved it.”

“Let me tell you,” the guy sitting next to me said, “next time you see me on the streets, I could hook you up with some good stuff.”

I demurred.  “I haven’t smoked in so long, you could probably sell me a baggie of oregano, I’d hardly know the difference.”

The guy’s face fell.  The room grew silent.  Until somebody shouted, “Oregano?  He just called you a major asshole!”

I felt pretty bad.  I’d really hurt his feelings.

#

As it happens, this guy – the one whose feelings I’d hurt – is in jail for robbing me.

Unsuccessfully.  Possibly by accident.  But still.

There was a dropped wallet.  His attempt to use my family’s Health Savings Account debit card to buy two sandwiches and a pack of cigarettes.  Some yelling at whomever was working the counter at Village Pantry when the card wouldn’t go through.  Then an arrest.

That whole episode transpired almost three years ago.  But I didn’t learn who it was until last month, when the prosecutor sent a letter to us asking for a victim statement.

The guy has been in my class several times before.  I like him – he reminds me of an old friend of mine, enthusiastically participates in our classes, and always bikes over to say “hi” when I see him on the street.  Apparently they’d put him on probation after the debit card incident, but now, after another slip up, they’re trying to slap him with all his backup time.

#

Everybody in class laughed when I told him he was there for robbing me.  He said he hadn’t known whose card it was.  I shrugged and asked him to write an apology to my spouse.  Then we sent letters to his prosecutor and the judge, asking for leniency.

Money isn’t sacred.

Photo by Todd Huffman on Flickr.

I’ve heard guys tell stories about taking money from each other.  The story might end with somebody getting punched in the face, but there aren’t hard feelings.  Money comes and money goes.  It’s just paper.  Or less: numbers inside a machine.

That HSA account only has money in it through a fiction agreed upon by my family, the pharmacy, and the bank.  We scan a card and the value of our account goes down.  Nothing physically happens.

Financial trickery seems so hollow compared to sandwiches or cigarettes.

#

But passing off drugs as something they’re not?  That violates something sacred.  Inside the jail, people’s possessions are stripped away – all they have left are their reputations.

You don’t have to be honest all the time.  You can embellish stories about cops you’ve evaded, people you’ve slept with, money that’s slipped through your fingers.  That’s all harmless talk.  Passing the time, shooting the shit.

If you’re there for hitting a girlfriend, you can say you failed a drug test.  Or admit you’re in for domestic, but say that you didn’t do it.  For the sake of your future, maybe it’s best you tell an alternate story often to believe it.

When you’re talking about drugs, though, people can get hurt.  If you say it’s dope, it’d better be dope.  Not pot dipped in embalming fluid.  Not heroin spiked with fentanyl.

I won’t tell another joke about oregano.

Indeed, the guy who’s in jail for trying to use our HSA card isn’t too upset about most of his charges.  But one really rankles him:

“Do you remember that time, summer of that ‘Occupy Bloomington’ thing, when all those people kept going to the hospital cause they were ODing on bad spice?  The cops tried to pin that whole thing on me!  They put my picture on Fox News.  I was so fucking pissed!  I’ve done some stuff, but I didn’t do none of that.”

On white supremacist vegetables and watchful eyes.

On white supremacist vegetables and watchful eyes.

Recently, my hometown of Bloomington’s farmers market has been covered Fox News and The New York Times.  Not because the vegetables sold here are particularly deserving of national attention.  The market was deemed newsworthy because one of the farm stands is run by outspoken white supremacists.

Although Bloomington is a fairly liberal college town, this region has a sordid history of hate.  The national Klan headquarters is less than 30 minutes away – when I was in college, the campus diversity coordinators warned students not to stop in that town, not even to buy gas.  Even right here in Bloomington, there was a fracas at the local high school recently because some students decided to honor a friend who’d died by using cremation ashes to print bumper stickers – but they printed stickers of the Confederate flag.

Teaching poetry in the local jail has made me much better at recognizing supremacist imagery.  Most people know that the Confederate flag is bad news, but I’ve gotten to see a wider range of hateful symbols tattooed onto people’s flesh. 

COs bring twelve people to each week’s class – often two to four will be Black (in a town where the total population is approximately 4% Black or African-American), and the rest are usually white guys.  It’s pretty common for one or two of the white guys to have visible supremacist tattoos.  Which doesn’t even include questionable stuff like the dude who got an poke and stick of the words “White Trash” in elaborate two-in-tall cursive letters during his time there.  Tattooing runs afoul of the jail’s “no self mutilation” policy, but most COs studiously overlook the guys’ rashy red skin and burgeoning designs.

When I’m there, we often read poetry that directly addresses racial injustice.  I’ve brought stuff by Reginald Dwayne Betts, Ross Gay, Terrance Hayes, Adrian Matejka, and Tracy Smith.  Sometimes these lead to good discussions.  Sometimes our class gets totally derailed.

In one of the poems titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” Hayes pulls off a stunning trick.  The same line is included twice, but the word “haunted” changes from a verb into an adjective after the language slides into a less formal diction.  It’s a beautiful moment.  The first time I brought this poem, we talked about the clinginess of the past, the way not only our own histories but also the histories of our forebears can stalk us through time.

The next time I brought this poem, several guys reacted by saying that Black people don’t talk right.  Then they went off about sagging pants.  All this from southern-accented white guys whose missing-toothed, meth-mouthed mumbles and guffaws I could barely comprehend.

We had to quickly move on.

Or there was the time when we read Betts’ “Elegy with a City in It,” a fantastic poem that uses a spare, stark set of words and sounds to simultaneously evoke both the deprivations of the inner city and the epic grandeur of The Iliad, which uses a similarly constrained lexicon.

Many gone to the grave: men awed

by blood, lost in the black

of all that is awful:

think crack and aluminum.  Odd

what time steals,

or steals time: black robes, awful

nights when men offed in the streets awed

us.

If you read the poem aloud, you’re chanting the same phonemes over and over, but their meanings twist and turn as they spill from your tongue.  That’s what I wanted to discuss.

Instead, a few guys latched onto lines like

                                                Black,

Mario, Charles, they all blackened

the inside of a coffin

and this offended them because “white people have it bad, too!”  As though Betts could not describe Black pain without trivializing their own.  Soon somebody was saying “All lives matter” and that he’d voted for our current president.  This guy was in jail because he’d been caught selling heroin to support his own habit.  The president he’d voted for had recently recommended executing drug dealers.

Somebody else shook his head and muttered, “y’all are fucking [stupid].”

We moved on.

In my classes, I work with a wide range of ages – sometimes guys as young as seventeen, sometimes men in their sixties.  My spouse, as a high school teacher, works with younger people – anywhere from fourteen to eighteen years old.  But ideology can set in early.  My spouse has had students whose families were prominent in the Klan.

At the beginning of the year, she asks each student to fill in the paper silhouette of a head with words and pictures of what inspires them to succeed.  She then posts these along the ceiling of her classroom.  Several times, she’s had to ask kids to erase supremacist imagery.

So it isn’t terribly surprising that some farmers at our local market have hateful beliefs.  Right-wing supremacist movements are major terrorist organizations in this country, and they do a lot of recruiting.  As our nation has become slightly less horrible, though, many of these people learned to be circumspect.  They maintain a divide between their private and public language.

People who rely upon public, liberal venues like our farmers market can’t be too outspoken with their hate.

Indeed, the white supremacist farmers who were recently outed tried to be circumspect.  But they must have felt lonely, and they grew too careless.  Under a pseudonym, they posted on the Identity Evropa message board.  This is a website devoted to the ideologies that have inspired the vast majority of terrorism in the United States.  Theoretically, this is a venue where people get to cultivate their hatred anonymously.  But one of their compatriots was caught painting swastikas on a synagogue (see image below) and blew their cover.  Sort of.  The vandal was interrogated by the FBI, and his remark unveiling the farmers’ pseudonym was buried deep in a 200-page sentencing document. 

Through assiduous work, a team of activists was able to prove that these farmers were white supremacists.

The activists who had worked so hard to gather evidence were obviously against hate.  They wanted to take action.  But the plan they favored wasn’t very flashy.  They would organize a boycott of that farm stand.  They also proposed that the city use the sellers’ farmers market fees to fund grants for people of color, with the understanding that our nation’s long history of racism has inequitably skewed the demographics of agricultural land holdings.

To stay at the farmers market, the supremacists would have had to support a cause they loathed … and they were making less and less money here.  I was told that, during the boycott, the farmers had begun padding their bins, bringing fewer vegetables each week so that they could still appear to be selling out their stock.

Unfortunately, the tropes of social media have changed public discourse in our country.  I assume it’s relatively uncontroversial to claim that social media prizes style over substance.  Quiet, careful plans are at a disadvantage in the attention economy.

As word spread that these farmers were white supremacists, patrons demanded that they be banned from our market.  People of color now felt unsafe in that space, for obvious reasons.  There’s a difference between the perceived threat level felt by a pale-skinned activist and by somebody who is recognizably a member of a racial minority.

The mayor, whose spouse is a constitutional law professor, rightly argued that the farmers would be able to sue the city on a First Amendment case. 

Still, people felt that we had to do something more visible.  Passively allowing outspoken white supremacists to hawk their tomatoes at our market would seem to be tacitly endorsing their political stance.

Everybody has a right to believe whatever garbage they want.  Do you sincerely believe that people of northern European descent have a genetic inclination toward greater intelligence?  You’re wrong, and you’re a jerk, but you’re allowed to believe that.

The problem is that white supremacist organizations like Identity Evropa use terrorism to back their asinine beliefs.  Implicit threats of violence, delivered by people known to stockpile military-grade weaponry, are different from “mere” hate.

If these farmers couldn’t be banned, then we’d hold signs in front of their booth.  Eventually, a protester was arrested – the police had asked her to stand in a designated “announcements” area instead of in the middle of the market – and, as always happens following an arrest, her home address was published online. 

She was soon inundated with death threats.

As coverage of the dispute increased, right-wing militia types were also drawn to our town.  Three percenters, unaffiliated gun nuts, other supremacists – they began to support that farm, undermining the boycott.  And these radical Protestant faux-constitutional terrorists made sufficiently credible threats of mass violence that our mayor had to shut down the entire market for two weeks at the height of the growing season.  Other farmers were suffering.

Image from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Calm, careful behavior from the original activists – assiduously combing through those lengthy, dull documents, not to mention their efforts to infiltrate local supremacists’ in-person social circles – had undoubtably helped.  Hateful ideologies were exposed, and efforts were made to impose consequences.

But then our visible protests made matters worse.  We’ve helped the proponents of hate to make more money.

And, now that we’ve drawn attention to them, we’ve inadvertently connected these white supremacists with their allies.  They will no longer need to post on public forums, which was the only reason that activists were able to prove that they supported these ideologies in the first place. Now these supremacist farmers are invited speakers at right-wing events.

As this whole struggle was unfolding, my spouse and I participated in a poetry reading.  We shared poems written by people in our local jail.  We were joined by one of the authors, a man who had just been released after five months inside.  He described what it was like to write while he was there – breathing fresh air in the outdoor rec courtyard only nine times in five months, having access to a pencil sharpener only once each week, and feeling forced to confess to a crime that he swears he hadn’t committed because they promised to release him for time served.

Our audience clapped for the poems and stared aghast during our banter, which is probably as it should be.

We closed our set with a piece from M.G.  This poem was written in February, before the public turmoil regarding our farmers market began.  At a moment when so many of us were warily watching that space, it seemed important to remind people that there have always been watchful eyes gazing at the market.

The farmers market is just down the street from our five-story county jail.

MARKET

M.G.

As I look out this window of bars

There’s a farmer’s market.

People coming and going.

I wonder if I have any friends over there.

The sun is warm and bright.

One day soon I will be at

That farmer’s market.

I hope to see my friends again.

On the evolution of skin color.

On the evolution of skin color.

Our criminal justice system ensnares people from all walks of life.  Occasionally we’ll hear about the arrest of a wealthy sociopath with a penchant for child abuse, like Jared Fogel or Jeffrey Epstein.

But, let’s face it.  Justice in this country isn’t applied fairly.  If you’re wealthy, your behavior has to be a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a poor person.  If you look white, your behavior has to a lot more egregious for you to reap the same punishments as a black person.

There’s abundant statistical evidence to back up these claims.  But the Supreme Court won’t allow any particular individual to petition for reduced punishment based on the statistical evidence.  After all, prosecutors, judges, and juries ostensibly came to their decisions based on the unique details of each individual case.  Just because people who resemble you are often treated unfairly doesn’t mean that you were treated unfairly, too. 

Or so ruled our Supreme Court.

Because we apply punishment so inequitably, our jails and prisons are full of people who’ve been treated poorly by the world.  Compared to the average citizen, people in prison grew up with less money, received less education, experienced more trauma.  And, no matter what people’s earlier lives were like, if they’re in prison, they’re not being treated well now.

So they have a lot of justifiable grievances against the dominant political, cultural, and religious beliefs of our country.  Punished unfairly by their fellow Christians, people sour on Christianity.  Inside walls where the demographics make it blatantly obvious that our laws are enforced in a malignantly racist way, racial tensions boil.

At Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people inside, we get requests for stuff about Norse mythology, Odinism, and Asatru.  Lots of folks ask for material to learn foreign languages – people want to feel like they’ve accomplished something during their time in prison – but I always feel skeptical when somebody wants help learning Icelandic.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Icelandic.  And Norse mythology is cool!  Unfortunately, a gaggle of violent white supremacists decided that Norse mythology should be the basis for their religion.  Starting in the 1970s, a right-wing racist from Florida began sending “Odinist” publications into prisons.

A photograph showing a book page in Icelandic.

During the thirteenth century, Christian scholars transcribed many of the old Norse myths so that they could better understand the literary allusions of old Icelandic poetry.  But they didn’t record anything about ancient religious practice.  We barely have any information about most ancient pagan beliefs.  Anyone who wants to adopt a pre-Christian European religion now – whether it’s Wicca, Druidism, Odinism, or Celtic polytheism – is basically forced to make things up.

I have nothing against religious invention.  All religions were made by human beings – there’s no a priori reason why a religion created long ago, by people who understood much less about the world than we do now, would be better than something you invent today.  Sure, ancient religions have been tested by time, suggesting that they possess virtues that their practitioners found helpful over the years, but most ancient religions have their problems, too.  Inaccurate cosmologies, scattered hateful passages in their texts, that sort of thing.

So I like the idea of neo-paganism.  You want to find a clearing in the woods and do some moonlit dancing?  You’d rather worship a feminine generative force than a norm-enforcing patriarchal deity?  You want to exalt nature as a hearth to be protected rather than a resource to be exploited?  Go right ahead!  All of that sounds pretty great to me.

A Wiccan-style gathering of artifacts including a statue of a seated green goddess, her pregnant belly painted as the earth; mums; a chalice; a string of green beads; a stoppered rectangular prism bottle; and a candleholder appearing to be carved of wood, again of a pregnant woman with hands holding her belly.

Unfortunately, neo-paganism as it’s currently practiced in prison tends to be pretty hateful.

That’s why I’ve been working on a set of anti-racist pamphlets about Norse mythology.  Currently, when people ask for The Poetic Edda or whatever, we send a friendly letter saying that we don’t have it, and also that we generally don’t stock that sort of thing because it runs afoul of our anti-hate policy. 

But the Norse myths are certainly no more hateful than Biblical myths, and we send plenty of those.  The main difference is that centuries of continued Christian practice have created a scaffolding of gentler beliefs around the stories in the Bible. 

The text of Psalm 137 states that “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”  But the text is a tool, not the entirety of the religion.  The practice of Christianity frowns upon the murder of any human infant.  Whether you like the kid’s parents or not.

A sun-dappled photograph of a page of the Bible.

We’d be better off if Pages to Prisoners could send warm-hearted material about Norse mythology to people.  Sure, you can interpret the Norse myths as endorsing a war-mongering death cult.  You can interpret the Old Testament that way, too.  But you can also interpret the Norse myths as environmentalist.  Feminist.  Supporting the pursuit of knowledge.  Judging strangers based upon their merits, not their appearance.

Because contemporary Odinism is so entangled with white supremacy, though, our pamphlet will have to address skin color and genetic heritage directly.  It’s a fraught topic.  Lots of people in the U.S. don’t like any discussion of evolution.  Some people feel squigged out when they learn that contemporary birds evolved from the same set of common ancestors as the dinosaurs.  And that’s far less emotionally charged than a description of human evolution. 

A photograph of a model dinosaur, complete with feathers.

Plus, skin color still has huge implications for how people are treated in the United States.  Consider, um, those prison demographics I cited above. And so discussions about the evolution of epidermal melanin concentrations are especially tense.  Although the underlying biology is simple – some places have more sunlight than others! – because people think it matters, it does.

I’ve found that these conversations are actually a decent way to get people interested in the study of archeology and biology, though.  After we’ve discussed this in jail, people have asked me to bring research papers and textbooks so that they could learn more.

Whenever two groups of an organism stop mating with each other, they’ll slowly drift apart.  This rift might occur because the groups became physically separated from each other.  Maybe one group migrated to an island.  In contemporary times, maybe the groups were separated when humans built a new highway bisecting a habitat. Maybe two sets of similar-looking insects mate apart because they’re eating fruits that ripen at different times.

Or the groups might stop mating with each other because a chance mutation caused members of one group to want their sexual partners to smell a certain way.  Various species of stickleback are able to interbreed – they identify other members of their kind based on smell.  But water pollution has overwhelmed the fishes’s senses, leading the fish to mate indiscriminately.

A photograph of a three-spined stickleback fish.

If humans hadn’t polluted their waters, though, these sticklebacks would have drifted farther and farther apart until it became impossible for them to interbreed.  No matter how many sense-suppressing chemicals we dumped.

We don’t know what caused the initial rift between our ancestors and the ancestors of contemporary chimpanzees.  About 4 million years ago, though, these groups stopped having children together.  By 2 millions years ago (at least 100,000 generations later), these groups looked quite different from each other.  Although it’s possible that these organisms could have still mated with each other and raised viable progeny, they rarely did.

One group of these creatures, which included our ancestors, had a tucked pelvis and mostly upright posture.  This allowed for a good vantage while scavenging and, eventually, hunting.  The other group, which includes chimpanzees’ ancestors, mostly moved on all fours.  This body plan results in fewer mothers dying during childbirth.  As ever, there are trade-offs to be made.

Image shows the upright skeletal postures of gibbons, humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans.

Up until about 2 million years ago, all our ancestors lived in Africa.  But then they began to migrate.  Over the next million years, they explored much of the globe.  By about 500,000 years ago, half a dozen different types of humans lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia.  The difference between one population to the next was not like the racial differences among contemporary humans, but more like the difference between lions and tigers, or between polar bears and brown bears.  Scientists describe them as distinct species.  Although they were similar enough that they could have sex and raise children together, they rarely did – they lived in distinct parts of the world and had begun to evolve adaptations to their specific environments.

Evolution isn’t easy.  Nor is it quick.  Just because a certain trait would be advantageous doesn’t mean that creatures will acquire it.  In the desert, it would help to have adaptations for water retention like camels, or long ears like jackrabbits to cool the blood.  But a trait can only spread after a random mutation creates it.  And, even if a trait is very helpful, if only one individual is born with the adaptation, there’s no guarantee that it will have enough children for the benefit to spread through the population. 

Once a beneficial trait has a good toe-hold – present in perhaps 1% to 10% of the population – then we can expect it to flourish.  But below that amount, even great adaptations might die off due to bad luck.  That’s why it takes so many generations – tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands – before you see organisms become drastically better suited for the environment.  Even when scientists do directed evolution experiments in the lab, it takes about this many generations for a population of bacteria to evolve ways to consume a new food source, for instance.

By 500,000 years ago, the various species of humans were recognizably different.  Denisovans lived in the mountains, and their hemoglobin genes allowed them to avoid altitude sickness.  Their blood was less likely to clot and cause strokes, and they could extract more oxygen from the thin air.  These are incredibly beneficial traits.  Even though the Denisovans went extinct about 40,000 years ago, about 40% of people currently living in Tibet have copies of the Denisovan hemoglobin gene.

Our ancestors migrated east to the Denisovans’ homeland just before the Denisovans went extinct.  To be perfectly honest, we probably killed them.  But before or during this genocide, a few of our ancestors must have had sex with the locals.  And then the bi-racial children of these Homo sapiens / Denisovan couplings must have been significantly better off for the gene to spread so widely.

The Neanderthal lived at high latitude.  Over many generations, their average skin color became paler.  In part, this was probably due to the lack of selective pressure.  Think about a dodo – there was no advantage for these birds to lose their fear of humans.  But, because the dodos were living on an island that no humans traveled to, there was also no harm in the birds becoming fearless.

A sculpture of a dodo.

Dodos lost a beneficial trait – fear – because their fear wasn’t actively needed.  It’s kind of like the airbags in an old car.  If your car’s engine goes bad, you’ll notice right away.  Turn the key, hear it sputter.  You use the engine every time you drive.  But your airbags could get worse without you noticing … and then, in the moment when they’re needed, they won’t deploy.

Humans living near the equator need epidermal melanin.  If you don’t have enough melanin, you’ll get sunburns, which exacerbate the risk of infection and dehydration; you’ll suffer radiation-induced DNA damage, which leads to skin cancer; and you’ll lose folate, which means that pregnant women will have more birth defects.

The most recent ancestors that humans and chimpanzees shared in common had pale skin.  Contemporary chimpanzees are still pale.  They can afford to be – their fur protects them from the sun.  But our ancestors lost their fur, probably so that they didn’t overheat while running, and this led to the evolution of dark skin.

High concentrations of epidermal melanin distinguished humans from the other apes.

As humans migrated to higher latitudes, though, they gradually lost this indicator of their humanity.  Because the sunlight was less intense, there was less selective pressure.  Humans could lose their epidermal melanin in the same way that dodos lost their fear – not because it was helpful to go without it, but because the trait went untested in their day to day lives.  They had no way to “realize” how important it was. 

Your airbags aren’t helpful until you crash.  And then they’ll either deploy and save you, or they won’t.

Now, it’s possible that the Neanderthal also experienced some positive selective pressure on their skin color as they migrated north.  Over thousands of generations, the Neanderthals may have benefited from paler skin because it increased their production of vitamin D.  We don’t know for certain that the Neanderthal felt any evolutionary pressure to have more vitamin D – after all, contemporary Inuit people live at very high latitudes but still have a lot of epidermal melanin – but it’s true that vitamin D deficiency is a big risk among people with crummy diets.

In the past, hunter / gatherers typically ate much healthier, more varied diets than farmers.  When humans began to farm, they would mostly eat the one type of plant that they cultivated, rather than the wide mix of plants that could be found growing wild.  And when Homo sapiens farmers migrated to northern Europe, their diets were so poor that they even developed loss-of-function mutations in a cholesterol synthesis gene, probably so that they’d have higher concentrations of vitamin D precursors.  Among these people, pale skin was probably a big advantage.  They’d be ready for the cloudless days when their homeland’s feeble sunlight was enough to make some vitamin D.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters.

Around 40,000 years ago, our planet’s most recent ice age ended.  The world began to warm, and glaciers retreated from Europe.  By then, a group of humans living in Africa were recognizably Homo sapiens.  These were our ancestors.  Every human alive today – no matter what you look like or where your family is from – is descended from this group of people from Africa.  They lived in tribes of twenty to a hundred people, had darkly pigmented skin, made art, and spoke complex languages.

As the world warmed, some of these Homo sapiens began to migrate.  These journeys occurred over many generations.  Some tribes stayed in Africa; some tribes ventured north into Europe; others moved east toward Asia.  As they traveled, they encountered the humans who already lived in those places.  As I’ve mentioned, the newcomers occasionally had sex and raised children with the natives.  They probably also killed a lot of them.  Unfortunately, we Homo sapiens don’t have the best reputation for treating strangers well. 

Interbreeding happened rarely enough that most people living today have about 99% Homo sapiens DNA.  Some people, especially if their families are from Africa, have essentially 100% Homo sapiens DNA.  At other extreme, even people whose families are from Europe have 96% or more Homo sapiens DNA.

Among people living in Tibet, the Denisovan hemoglobin gene is common, but most other Denisovan genes are gone.

Everyone living today is human.  We are all Homo sapiens, all the same species.  But some of us do carry vestiges of the other human populations whom our ancestors killed.

Like the Neanderthal before them, the Homo sapiens who ventured north into Europe began to lose their epidermal melanin.  People who hunted and fished probably became paler simply because there was less risk of sun damage.  Remember, this didn’t happen all at once.  Average skin color would change only over the course of hundreds or even thousands of generations, not during the course of a single journeying Homo sapiens’s lifetime. 

Our ancestors spent almost all their time outdoors, which is why even dark-skinned people could probably synthesize plenty of vitamin D.  Among contemporary humans, vitamin D deficiency is such a big problem because we spend too much time inside.  As I type this, I’m sitting at a table in the YMCA snack room, lit up by flickering fluorescent bulbs.  This low-quality light won’t help me make vitamin D.

Instead, I take a daily supplement.  But that doesn’t come near matching the health and psychological benefits of time outdoors.

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that people in jail – places not known for providing a rich, high-quality, varied diet – typically get to go outside no more often than once a week.  At our local jail, their hour of “outdoor rec” occurs in a little courtyard at the top of the jail, a cement space covered with a chain-linked fence.  Outdoor rec often happened at night – a friend who was recently released told me that “This was still nice.  You could see some stars.  And there’s that restaurant, Little Zagrib, down the street?  Sometimes we’d smell foods from their kitchen.”

Treating people that way is unlikely to help them get better.

Blue sky and white cirrus clouds as viewed through coiled razor wire atop a barbed-wire fence.

But back to our migrants!  Descendants of these pale-skinned Homo sapiens continued to explore new territories.  Some reached North America about 12,000 years ago, and some of their descendants continued farther, all the way to South America. 

As people traveled – journeys that lasted many generations – they continued to evolve.  Indeed, skin color was a trait that came repeatedly under selective pressure.  As people migrated south into the Americas, they were living progressively closer and closer to the equator.  Compared to their grandparents, they were bombarded by more intense sunlight.  They needed more epidermal melanin.

This is a process that takes a long time.  A family might have six kids; maybe the two palest kids get sunburned, which makes it more likely that they’ll develop skin infections and die before they have children of their own.  If this happens again and again, among many different families, then eventually the whole population will wind up with slightly darker skin.

A prediction for the distribution of human skin colors based on the intensity of ultraviolet light present at each latitude. Figure from Nina Jablonski & George Chaplin, “The Evolution of Human Skin Color,” in Journal of Human Evolution, 2000.
This figure depicts the (limited) data we have on the distribution of human skin colors before the modern era’s horrific set of forced migrations. In this image, white-colored regions indicate an absence of data, not low concentrations of epidermal melanin among a region’s prehistoric population. Figure from Nina Jablonski & George Chaplin, “The Evolution of Human Skin Color,” in Journal of Human Evolution, 2000.

Because human skin color has changed during each of the many prehistoric migrations, it isn’t correlated with other traits.  As we entered the modern era, people’s skin color was lighter or darker based on how close to the equator their recent ancestors lived.  But human populations migrated so often that there were many different groups, each with unique cultural and genetic heritages, living at every latitude.  Because skin color is so closely linked to latitude, this means many different groups shared similar concentrations of epidermal melanin.  And there’s no evolutionary pressure linking a trait that protects skin to brain size or intelligence.

As it happens, there are major events known to have caused a decrease in human brain size (and probably intelligence).  After all, human brains are costly.  Even though there’s a benefit to being clever, there’s also been constant evolutionary pressure against large brains.

Large brains kill mothers.  Because humans walk upright, childbirth is riskier for human mothers than for other primates.  Our posture constrains the width of our hips – both male and female – but a baby’s whole head has to pass through that narrow passageway.

Having children is so risky that we evolved to give birth about 3 months prematurely.  Human gestation takes about a year, but most mothers give birth after only 9 months.  This allows a baby’s head to continue to grow outside the mother’s body, but human babies are totally helpless at birth.  We have to be very devoted parents to keep them alive.

Also, our brains require a lot of fuel.  Human evolution occurred over such a long, long time that our ancestors lived through many droughts and calamities.  During the hard years, our ancestors would struggle to get enough to eat, and a large brain makes that struggle harder. 

A person with a smaller brain requires fewer calories, making that person less likely to starve in lean times.  And, again, it’s worth remembering that evolution happens over so many generations, among so many families, that even small changes can add up.  If mothers who have small-headed children can survive a dozen pregnancies, but mothers with large-headed children die after only a few, then the trend will be to have people with smaller brains.  Intelligence has to be extremely beneficial to overcome this sort of evolutionary pressure.

Similarly, if people with small brains are more likely to survive and raise children during droughts, then, after hundreds of generations of people who have survived dozens of extended droughts, you’d expect to see more people with small brains.

Many of us have the bad habit of reflexively thinking about evolution as the gradual development of more and more complexity.  But that’s not what it is.  Evolution is the process by which things that are better suited for their environment become more abundant.  If the environment is a hard place to live in, then evolution tends to push for more and more simplicity.  When it’s hard to get enough calories, why waste calories on anything that you don’t really need?

Starfish are descended from organisms that had brains.  But starfish are brainless.  The ancestral starfish that weren’t wasting energy thinking were more likely to survive.

Which should make you feel pretty good about your own brain, actually.  Your ability to think is so fabulous that your ancestors evolved larger and larger brains … even though these brains were sometimes causing us to starve to death, or kill our mothers.

That’s a valuable thing you’ve got inside your skull.  It cost our ancestors so much for you to be able to have it.

But, right.  Because the cost was so high, human brains did shrink sometimes.  Like when we first domesticated dogs.  Our ancestors began living with dogs about 30,000 years ago.  Dogs were willing to do some thinking for us – they’d sniff out prey and listen for predators at night.  Based on the behavior of my family’s dogs, I bet that they licked the faces of screaming children.  Maybe that doesn’t seem essential for survival, but I certainly appreciate every time our dogs calm the kids down.

Because we could slough off a few mental tasks – I don’t need to be so observant if the dog will help me hunt – our brains could shrink, making childbirth less deadly and reducing the caloric cost of maintaining our minds each day.

Pottery shard depicting a boar hunt in ancient Greece.

When humans switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, our brains shrunk further.  A hunter / gatherer has to know so much about every plant and animal living nearby; the work asks more of a person’s brain than farming.  This evolutionary trend was exacerbated by the fact that people’s diets became way worse when they began to farm.  Instead of getting nutrition from a wide variety of different plants and animals, a farmer might eat meals consisting mostly of a single type of grain. 

There’s nothing we can do now about these evolutionary trends.  Dogs and farming swayed our ancestors’ evolution toward smaller brains, but it’s not as though you can get those neurons back by deciding to take up hunting, or never living with a pet.

But, honestly, our brains are so plastic that our genetic heritage matters less than how we choose to spend our time.  By nature, neither gorillas nor parrots will speak human language.  But individuals from both these species have been able to learn to communicate with us after we taught them.

Nobody is born with an innate understanding of mythology, religion, science, or mathematics.  None of that can be encoded in your genes.  If you want to understand this stuff, you’ll have to make an effort to learn it.

Neuron count only suggests a brain’s potential.  You could do incredible things with a low number – consider, by ways of analogy, the feats that 1960s NASA accomplished using computers much smaller than a contemporary telephone.  And, conversely, sensory deprivation will make it much harder to get things done, no matter what your innate potential.

That’s why I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners.  Our brains are capable of wonders.  At any age, we can learn and grow.  And yet, we lock people into prisons that seem designed to make them worse.

On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

We recently read Donika Kelly’s “Bower” in jail. 

I love this poem.  There’s a undercurrent of darkness as the bird constructs his pleasure dome. “Here, the iron smell of blood.”  But he is undeterred.  “And there, the bowerbird.  Watch as he manicures his lawn.”

This bowerbird has themed his edifice around sparkling bits of blue.  Bower birds incorporate all manner of found objects: berries, beetles (which must be repeatedly returned to their places as they attempt to crawl away), plastic scraps.  A bowerbird has a clear vision, a dream of which colors will go where, and scours the forest to find the treasures he needs.

Will high-contrast white in front of the brown bower bedazzle guests? Our artist can only hope. Image by davidfntau on Flickr.

Female bowerbirds raise children alone, so she doesn’t need a helpful partner..  Instead, she’ll choose someone who can show her a good time.  And her pleasure will be enhanced by a beautiful dome, a splendid arch beneath which several seconds of intercourse can transpire.

A mother-to-be typically visits several bowers before choosing her favorite.  During each inspection, the male will hop and flutter during her evaluation … and then slump, dejected, if she flies away.

Kelly closes her poem with the experience of a crestfallen artist: “And then, / how the female finds him, / lacking.  All that blue for nothing.

I especially love the wry irony of that final sentence.  We create art hoping to be fawned over; it’d feel nice to know that readers enjoyed a poem so much that they responded with a flush of desire for the author. 

But this is rare.  No piece of writing will appeal to all readers; an author is lucky if it appeals to any.  The same holds true for painting, music, and bowers.  A bowerbird hopes that his magnificent edifice will soon be the site of his acrobatic, if brief, bouts of copulation.  But his life will miserable if he can’t also take pleasure in the sheer act of creation. 

Female tropical birds are free to select whichever male they want.  Their flirtations are unlikely to be turned down.  And because each intimate encounter is vanishingly brief, a single male might service every female in an area.  The other males, having assembled less glorious bowers, will die without ever experiencing erotic delights.

And so a bowerbird needs to enjoy his own arch.  To endure, to thole, even if no one wants to fool around with him.  Even if no one looks.  He needs to feel pleasure as he assembles those beautiful hues.  Every visiting female might quickly fly away, but all that blue will have served a purpose.

I love the poem “Bower,” but I also hope that Kelly enjoyed writing her poem enough that my opinion doesn’t matter.

After reading “Bower,” our class got sidetracked into a wide-ranging conversation about birds.  At first, we did talk about bowerbirds.  Most of the guys had no idea that birds like that existed – that an animal might make art – but one guy had seen a television show about them years ago, and the program made such a deep impression on him that he still remembered much of it.  “They really do,” he said.  “I’ve seen it.  And they showed the people nearby, somebody who was eating breakfast cereal with like a plastic spoon, and this bird flew right over and took it.  Later they found bits of it all broken up, in this weird ring around the bird’s nest.”

And then this man started talking about crows.

He gesticulated profusely as he talked, which was rather distracting.  One of his hands had about 1.3 fingers; his ring finger was missing entirely, and the others, including his thumb, ended after the first knuckle.  I wouldn’t have felt so puzzled – stuff happens, after all – except that one of his stories involved chasing somebody with a steak knife, and this was the hand he brandished.

Many of the people in jail have suffered severe physical injuries.  When we were discussing personality manipulation and mind control, someone told me that he’d been hit by a truck and that everything in his life had felt flat and emotionless ever since.  He showed me the thick scar at the top of his head: “When it happened, I guess I was out for almost a week, and it took another month before I really remembered my name.  Even then, for that first year I felt like I was back in eighth grade again.”  He was twenty-something when it happened.

Another time, I asked a man if he wanted to read the next poem and he said he couldn’t, that he was disabled, then thumped his leg onto the table.  He had a rounded stump where most people’s foot would be.  I didn’t quite see the connection between his injury and the poem, and it’s not as though we ever force people to read.  We have a lot of guys with dyslexia, and I go in with the goal of making their Fridays a little more pleasant; no reason for somebody to suffer unnecessarily.

“I was working in a saw mill,” he said.  “Planer caught me and, zzooomp.  Didn’t even feel anything, at first.”

He got a legal settlement – a few guys muttered that they’d trade a foot for that kind of money – but his pain script led to more opiates and eventually the money was gone and he was in jail and the only help he was getting was from a PD.

But, right, back to the man gesticulating wildly as he talked about birds.  “Real smart animals,” he said.  “Especially crows.”

I nodded.  Crows can use tools – they’ll craft hooks out of wire, cut twigs into the length they need for various tasks.  Their brains are structured differently from primates’, which lets them cram just as many neurons into a much smaller volume

Photo by Natalie Uomini on Flickr.

The guy went on: “See, I was living in a tent, and cops kept coming by, harassing me.  Cause there’d always be all this trash on the ground.  They’d say, ‘look, we know that you’re sleeping here, but you can’t just leave all this shit everywhere.’  And they’d make me clean it up.  I’d do it, but then a day or two later, there’d be trash scattered everywhere again.  I thought it must be some homeless guys or something that was doing it.”

“But it turned out these crows – they knew I was drinking, that I’d never be up before about noon – and they were raiding the dumpster out behind McDonalds.  I only found out because I actually woke up one morning to piss.  And I looked up and these crows in the tree above me, they carried tied-off garbage bags way up into that tree and were tearing them apart, looking for things to eat.  And that’s how all that trash was getting everywhere.  I’d thought it was homeless guys, and it was crows!”

Male bowerbirds can afford to be such terrible parents because they live in tropical forests where there’s an abundance of food to eat.  Crows, though, need ingenuity to survive.  Sometimes they pick apart the leavings of hairless apes below.

Because crows raise their young in much harsher environs than bowerbirds, males contribute more than just DNA.  While a mother roosts, the father will gather food.  And so he’ll try to impress a potential mate, beforehand, with his gathering prowess.  He won’t build, paint, or compose poetry, but he’ll scour the land below for tasty treats and shiny things, then leave these gifts at his beloved’s feet.

As with bowerbirds, some crows are helpful without reaping the benefits of a dalliance.  When a female crow begins to build a nest, five other crows might bring sticks and twigs.  These five won’t all be rewarded with the chance to sire her young.

With luck, the crows enjoy the sheer act of helping. 

Neither birds nor humans will be lauded for everything we do.  If we measure success based solely upon the rewards we reap, many of our lives will feel bleak.  In a world full of pyramids – bowerbird mating, corporate finance, the attention economy of social media – not everyone can be at the top.

No matter the outcome, we can all feel fulfilled if we focus on the process of what we’re doing. 

Admittedly, it’s hard to find the zen in a lot of the shitty jobs out there in the world.  But I did enjoy typing this essay.  And I will try to enjoy the irritating parts of parenting today.  Someday, my children will learn to ask for cereal politely.