On gene duplication and oppression, a reprise.

On gene duplication and oppression, a reprise.

Evolution depends upon the unnecessary.

Evolution is a process in which those organisms best suited to their environments – either because they persist longer than others or produce more progeny – become more abundant.  For a lineage to become better suited to an environment over time, the organisms have to change in a heritable way.

DNA polymerases aren’t perfect.  Whenever enzymes copy our genetic material, they make mistakes.  To be honest, these mistakes are rarely beneficial.  Sometimes they cause other enzymes to stop working.  Sometimes they turn a cell into cancer.  But that same imperfection – which changes genetic information from one generation to the next – gives rise to evolution.

The evolution of a particular species of bacteria has been carefully documented in biologist Richard Lenski’s laboratory.  These were allowed to compete inside a precisely-controlled environment over hundreds of thousands of generations, and some of the bacteria were frozen after every few hundred generations to keep track of all the genetic changes.

Zachary_Blount_and_Richard_Lenski
Zachary Blount and Richard Lenski horsing around with some of the Petri dishes from Blount’s work on the evolution of citrate utilization in one . Image from Wikimedia.

In this experiment, a single subpopulation gained the ability to metabolize a new nutrient, which gave it a huge competitive advantage and allowed it to conquer its tiny world.  But how?  After all, most of a bacteria’s genes are already important for something, and, when mutations occur, the most common outcome is for functions to be lost.  If you give a radio and a screwdriver to a toddler, you probably shouldn’t expect crisper reception come evening.  Chances are that your radio won’t work at all.

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Gene duplication, as depicted by the National Human Genome Research Institute on Wikimedia Commons.

As it happens, a very rare event happened before this bacterial subpopulation “learned” to use the new energy source.  When the experiment was re-started with various frozen samples, most lineages never acquired this ability.  But in one set, there had been a “gene duplication event.”  During cell division, the enzyme that copies DNA had stuttered and accidentally included two copies of a gene that bacteria only need one copy of.  And these bacteria, recipients of that unnecessary second copy, would almost always gain the new metabolic function and swamp out the others.

Once there were two copies of the gene, the second copy was free to change.  A mutation in that copy wouldn’t cause the bacteria to grow weak or die, because they still had a fully-functional copy of the enzyme.  And eventually, through the rare happenstance of random error, bacteria would accumulate enough mutations in that second copy that it gained a new function.

In the beginning, this new function was pretty weak.  But once there was a faint glimmer, natural selection could refine it.  Without an unnecessary second copy of that gene, though, the bacteria never would’ve gained the new metabolic pathway.

You can look at human culture in a similar way.  Which isn’t to say that one culture is intrinsically better than another, and certainly doesn’t imply that we’re progressing toward some teleological goal.  Evolution is just a matter of statistics, after all.  The things that are, now, were probably descended from things that were good at being and producing.

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An image from a 1902 engineering textbook from Wikimedia Commons.

For instance, cars make human life easier.  And so the traits that allow a culture to have cars, like a basic understanding of mathematics and a willingness to follow rules on roadways, seem to spread pretty easily.  Car cultures have swamped out non-car cultures all over the planet.  Walking is pretty great, and so are bikes, but any culture that has access to mechanical engineering textbooks seems to have a pretty huge advantage over those that don’t.

But if you’d dropped a mechanical engineering textbook into the lap of a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer, it’d seem pretty useless.

It took a lot of waste to reach a state when the textbook could matter.  Over many generations, there was excess and dead weight.  Many centuries of an oppressor class stealing from the mouths of the poor, really.

Somebody who is struggling every day to procure food doesn’t have the luxury to fiddle with mathematics.  That’s why so many of the early European scientists were members of the aristocracy.  They didn’t need to work to eat because they had serfs to steal food from, levying taxes for the use of land that was “theirs” because their ancestors had done a bang-up job of murdering other people’s ancestors.

In the generations after humans developed agriculture, the average quality of life plummeted.  If you were told to pick any year and your soul would be suddenly re-incarnated (pre-incarnated?) into a randomly-chosen Homo sapiens alive at that time, you’d probably be happier 20,000 years ago than at most times during the last few millennia.  20,000 years ago, nobody lived terribly well – there was scant medicine and a constant risk of famine – but the suffering and servitude experienced by the majority of humans later on was worse.

After farming, people worked harder, for more hours a day, to produce a less varied, less healthful diet than the hunter-gatherers had eaten.  They had even less access to medicine, and still endured the constant risk of famine.  Oh, and envy.  Because farmers, who had to live in place, could be conquered.

640px-Maler_der_Grabkammer_des_Sennudem_001Those conquered farmers could be taxed, charged rent, etc., with the proceeds used to feed an idle class.  Most of the idlers produced nothing of value.  They ate others’ food and lived in un-earned luxury (although their “luxury” would seem pretty shabby to us).  But a few of them – a very few – produced the cultural innovations (like mathematics, medicine, poetry, astronomy) that gave us the modern world.

It feels more than a little disconcerting that a gruesome history of violence and oppression allows me to type this essay on a laptop computer.

In the past, though, oppression was the only way for our world to have “excess” people, those who could be free to devote their time and energy toward changing things.  Now, however, food production (and many other things) has been heavily automated.  We could have a much larger excess population, which could increase the rate of cultural evolution.  A luxurious lifestyle could be had by all using the essential (food- and shelter-producing) efforts of a smaller number of people than ever before.

With a guaranteed basic income – which could be funded by taxing wealth at a very low rate, maybe a percent or two – nearly all people could effectively become aristocracy.  People could follow their passions and curiosities.  Most, as ever, wouldn’t change the world. That’s how evolution works.  Chaotic tinkering with things that are pretty good rarely improves things.  But with billions of tinkerers, the odds that something works out are better.

It’s easily within reach.  Instead we’ve stuck with the same system of celebrating historical violence that was used to oppress people before.  Maybe it was necessary, all that cruelty, to get from our past to here.  But it certainly isn’t needed now.

Featured image: DNA duplication diagram by Madeline Price Ball on Wikipedia.

On smell (again!).

On smell (again!).

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what happens with fish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

On automation, William Gaddis, and addiction.

On automation, William Gaddis, and addiction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Alexander’s words:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

America had fetishized cash until it became synonymous with virtue.

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

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

carver.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On idle time, coincidence, and Vivek Shanbhag’s ‘Ghachar Ghochar.’

On idle time, coincidence, and Vivek Shanbhag’s ‘Ghachar Ghochar.’

One night last September, I returned home after teaching in jail and realized that I’d lost my keys.  I’d promised our daughter that I would take her swimming at the YMCA that evening, but K drove by the jail first so that I could dash in, search the waiting room for my keys, and ask the guards to check the lockers (I’m allowed to bring only paper and pencils inside, so anything else I’m carrying has to be crammed into a small metal basket near booking) and the classroom upstairs.

No luck.

Because there’s such a short turnaround between the end of K’s school day and the time my own classes are scheduled to begin at jail, I strap the kids into their car seats each afternoon and drive to the high school, where I slide to the passenger side and K drives me to jail.  I hurry in, often a few minutes late, teach a class, then walk the three miles back to our house.

Which meant there was one more promising place I could check for my keys.  The jail is at the bottom of a hill – the inmates whose work we just published were living in a windowless underground space since the building extends into that hill – but K lets me out of the car at the top of the hill, a block and a half away, before turning toward home on a one-way street.

On that September night I told K, “Can you loop around and pick me up?  I wanna jog up the hill to look one last place.”

Indeed, my keys were there, lying in the grass alongside the curb.  They’d lain unmolested from 4:08 till 7:30, perhaps because they were attached to a camouflage-patterned lanyard.  It was fourteen years old, that lanyard, one of the only two physical objects given to me by the woman I dated through most of our sophomore year of college (the other being a copy of Frankenstein riddled with her previous semester’s marginalia).

I felt triumphant, standing in that patch of grass.  I hoisted my keys toward the sky.  Finding things that were lost outside always seems magical – so much could have happened during the three hours my keys lay there.

I know, of course, that magic isn’t real.  Neither is luck.  But knowing is different from believing.

I continued feeling lucky for almost ten minutes.  That’s when I started to think that K was taking an awfully long time to circle the block and pick me up.  I’d expected to wait a while because this was the first night of Lotus Festival, an international music festival that Bloomington hosts every year, for which many streets are closed downtown and the remaining few stall with crawling traffic.

Standing beside the street, waiting in the waning light, my mind began to wander.  I had nothing to do … nothing in particular to think about … which is dangerous.  Suddenly every coincidence seemed a portent.  Going through my head was the thought: what if luck is finite?  What if I used my up on the keys?  What if I found my keys but lost my family?

I know now that this sounds ridiculous, but at the time I was standing alone in the waning light, rhythmically blinded by the headlights of passing cars – then the speculation felt reasonable.

1024px-Ambulance_Toronto_March_2010Suddenly, after twelve minutes of waiting, I heard an approaching siren.  A fire engine and an ambulance turned toward me, passed, and strobed off in the same direction my wife had driven.  Music festivals are full of drunks … our town is full of drugs … what if they were in a car crash?

I stood, feeling crushed, for a moment more … then started sprinting, chasing the flashing lights.  I followed for half a mile before I lost track of the way they’d gone.

Then, of course, I worried whether my family had driven by the spot where I said I’d be during those minutes I spent chasing the ambulance.  I dashed back.  I waited again.  I grew worried again.  Back and forth I skittered around town, compelled by the vagaries of my unmoored imagination.

By nine o’clock I wound up in a grocery store.  Wild-eyed, I asked if there were pay phones anywhere – no, not anywhere anymore – then asked at the customer service desk if I could make a local call and tried K’s number.

“We thought you were meeting us at the library.  We waited for fifteen minutes but then we had to go home … the kids need to go to bed.”

An idle mind can be a terrifying thing.

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Dollarnote_siegel_hqIn jail, conspiracy theories run rampant.  Everyone’s mind is idle there.  People inside have nothing to do but sit and think and try to make sense of what is happening.  The lights are off for only four hours each night, which exacerbates the problem.  So I’ve heard a lot about assassinations, and faked assassinations, and the secretive groups that plan them.  The conspirators are presumed to be far more competent than I’ve found most government employees to be.  I once nodded sagely for twenty minutes straight while a former construction foreman explained the significance of the prophetic phrase “hewn stone.”

We built a kingdom of brick, but the bricks have fallen.  After the twin towers fell, we had to rebuild.  We’re building a wall.  This time it’ll be hewn stone.

Certain numbers take on inordinate significance.  The people inside search for whatever patterns arose during their own lives.  They draw elaborate historical charts to determine whether the year of jubilee should be the forty-ninth or the fiftieth.

Apparently Yahweh told his people to celebrate jubilee after every seven cycles of seven years, during which festival all slaves shall be freed, all debts forgiven, all prisoners pardoned.  If the people choose not to celebrate jubilee, they will be punished by another curse.  Jubilee has never been celebrated.

The former foreman argued that jubilee should have occurred during 2016, and that the 45th is our curse.  Again I nodded sagely.  What does one say?  People inside wait, and wait, and wait.  Dreadful are the ruts that idle time allows a mind to dig.

Although … in the men’s defense … people are conspiring against them.  Judges and PDs and prosecutors often seem to act in concert, pressuring a dude together to just take the plea, keep it out of court, wrap it up nice and neat with twelve years suspend four for a level three … which gives the men more fodder for their numerology.

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In jail, the mind’s idleness is enforced.  We punish people for poverty: they can do nothing but sit and wait.  When lucky they might be allowed to visit the jail library, but the schizophrenic guy in seg constantly kicking his steel cell door makes it difficult to read.  And the books on hand are those that other men in jail have left behind, about Knights Templar, UFO, ESP, prophecies.

The men sit and wait … sit and think … sit and believe …

Great wealth can accomplish the same.

jacobsenIn Phenomena, Annie Jacobsen discusses the history of research into paranormal activity.  The design flaws in most of the experiments are glaringly obvious.  Some, like the recent efforts to demonstrate precognition, torture data with unnecessary statistical manipulation.  Others simply presume the effects under study to be real, eliminating necessary controls.  Sometimes this was justified by claiming that the presence of nonbelievers would negatively effect psychic ability.  Sometimes psychics would be put into unusual situations, like a Faraday Cage or outer space, to determine which environs best bolster their (nonexistent) powers.

But researchers received steady funding, allowing their ill-conceived experiments to continue.  In some cases the money came from the U.S. government:

One of the CIA’s early programs sought to develop a truth serum, an age-old quest that touched upon ideas of magic potions and sorcerer’s spells.  In consort with U.S. Army scientists at the Army Chemical Center in Edgewood, Maryland, this classified program was first called Bluebird, then Artichoke, and finally MKULTRA.  For these and other programs like them the CIA hired magicians, hypnotists, and even Sybil Leek, Britain’s famous white witch.

At other times, funding came from the idle rich.  The wealthy of southern California have long squandered money on healing crystals, orgone chambers, and the advice of smooth-talking gurus; they also fueled paranormal research.

Among those in attendance who were enchanted by Puharich’s Theory [that brains radiate energy, allowing for telepathy, telekinesis, and more] were two wealthy benefactors, Joyce Borden Balokovic and Zlatko Balokovic.  Joyce was a primary shareholder of the Borden dairy fortune; Zlatko was a world-renowned Yugoslavian-born virtuoso violinist who owned one of the world’s largest collections of Guarnerius and Stradivarius instruments.

[Joyce] suggested Puharich create a research laboratory in Maine dedicated to the study of the Puharich Theory.  She and Zlatko would be happy to donate, she said, and so would many of their friends.  To demonstrate, Joyce introduced Puharich to a friend she was certain would also want to become a benefactor, Alice Astor Bouverie.

Alice Astor Bouverie was an heiress, a philanthropist, and the only daughter of John Jacob Astor IV, of the Astor dynasty.  Alice was just ten years old when her father, one of the richest men in the world, died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  Astor left his daughter $5 million, roughly $120 million in 2017.  Like Joyce Borden, Alice was interested in ESP, and in mental telepathy in particular, a notion she learned about from her father.

A third female patron was introduced to the growing circle: Marcella Miller du Pont, of the chemical and weapons production conglomerate.  Like Joyce Borden and Alice Astor, Marcella du Pont was passionate about ESP and willing to finance Puharich’s research efforts in this area.

While waiting for the next dinner party, or the next trans-Atlantic flight, why not sit and muse over the possibility of bending spoons with thought?

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What does the germination of supernatural belief look like?

Vivek Shanbhag provides a beautiful illustration in his novel Ghachar Ghochar, translated by Srinath Perur.  An industrious uncle launches the narrator’s family into the upper echelons of wealth; with nothing to strive for, the rest of the family slips into decadent sloth.

shanbhagIt’s true what they say – it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us.  When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us.  Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind.

The narrator’s sister marries.  Insufficiently pampered, she returns home.  The uncle sends a set of bodyguards to intimidate the former husband and reclaim her dowry.

The narrator marries, too.  An eligible woman is found, a wedding is arranged, and, during the honeymoon, he feels that happiness is within reach.  But for some reason his new wife expects him to do something with his time:

After speaking about her family’s routine through most of breakfast, she went quiet as we returned to the room.  Perhaps she was thinking of how her day would change after we returned home, how it would have to reshape itself to accommodate my workday.  Then, as I unlocked the door, she asked me how much leave I had taken from work.

We entered the room.  I closed the door and encircled her waist with my arm.

I’d take permanent leave to be with you,” I said, trying to brush the question off.

No, I’m serious.  I really want to know.  Tell me how much leave you have,” she said.

I just told you,” I said.  “It’s the truth.  I’m on endless leave now that you’re here.”

She asked again, but I managed to make light of the matter and leave it at that.

I don’t know all that [my advocate] had said while the marriage talks were on, but I believe she was told I was the director of Sona Masala, [the family’s spice packaging company].  Which was, of course, true.  The fact that I didn’t have anything to do with the running of the business is another matter altogether.

Soon he finds his wife’s presence intolerable.  She is too honest.  She has too much integrity.  She treats the mobster uncle with insufficient deference.  She remarks on the petty misbehavior of everyone in the family.  The narrator’s only refuge is a nearby coffee house, where he convinces himself that a waiter’s trite clichés contain deep insight.

When the narrator’s new wife takes a week-long trip, the family celebrates her absence by discussing local gossip … of a particularly morbid type:

The whole town knows Manjunath killed his wife.”

You’ve got to hand it to Manjunath, though.  He’s managed to get away with it without any consequences …”

There’d been a report in the newspaper about a woman who had died two years ago of burns resulting from a gas leak in the kitchen.  It had been proven that her husband’s family had planned the accident.

But in court they claimed it was all an accident and that the police forced a confession out of them.  They were all released …”

These days murder has become commonplace,” [my uncle] said.  “People go ahead and kill someone, but then they get caught.  Remember that techie who recently killed his wife  He was caught because of his overplanning.”  He laughed.

What are you people saying?” [my father] asked.  He looked upset.  “You’re talking as if it’s all right to kill someone when it suits us.”

[My uncle] sighed.  “Coffee King is living in another age,” he said.  These things are not as big a deal today.  I haven’t brought it up before – but do you know how much I pay as protection money on behalf of Sona Masala?  Everyone else does it, too.  You never know when you might need these people.  It’s practically a collective responsibility of businessmen now to ensure they are looked after …”

Now it’s Tuesday.  Anita hasn’t called since she left.  Going by the ticket I booked for her, she should have been back yesterday afternoon.  I haven’t returned home since I left yesterday morning.  Haven’t been able to summon the courage.

Instead of returning home, he visits his beloved coffee shop:

As Vincent placed my coffee on the table, I said to him distractedly that I hoped his family was well.  He nodded, and with a faint smile said, “Blood is thicker than water, isn’t it, sir?”

I began to shiver at the mention of blood.  Whatever the meaning of the saying, why should he bring up blood at a time like this?  He was at least kind enough to pretend not to notice my discomfort.  He went away without speaking another word.

#

If we assume in advance that each word carries deep meaning – that each happening is a portent – we can always contort our interpretations to make the world’s coincidences fit a prophecy.

I’m sitting here, waiting anxiously.  For what, I don’t know.  The phone rings.  I grab it and look at the screen.  An unknown number.

I answer: “Hello?”

A voice at the other end: “Hello, Gopi, is that you?”

No, it’s not.

Wrong number,” I say, not very politely, and hang up.  My mind is in a whirl.  Why today of all days must I receive these useless calls?  First the insurance agent, now this.  Could it be a sign?

Maybe Anita hasn’t returned from Hyderabad.  Or maybe she’s back and hasn’t called because she’s still mad at me.  Could she have had an accident on her way from the train station?  What if a lorry slammed into her as she got out of the auto-rickshaw outside our house?  Or could something have happened to her after she came home?  What if she’s killed herself?  Everything she might need is there.  A roll of rope, electric current, sleeping pills.  A tall building not too far away.  Two women to goad her – what agent of death is as discreet as words?

Enough of this madness!  Let me go home now.  I reach for the glass of water in front of me.  It shatters in my hand.  Vincent comes running, folds up the tablecloth, making sure none of the water falls on me.  He seats me at the next table and brings another coffee without my having to ask.

I sit there trying to compose myself, sipping the coffee with some determination.

As he’s passing by on his way to another table, Vincent says, “Sir, you may want to wash your hand.  There’s blood on it.”

I freeze.  What is happening?  What have I become entangled in?  There must be some way out of all this.  The words rush into my head of their own accord: ghachar ghochar.

Ghachar ghochar.”  A nonsense phrase invented by his wife’s family, meaning entangled, chaotic, irremediably ruined.  Idle time let his mind roam free; with this freedom, he could imagine only doom.

Although perhaps the narrator is right to worry.  Looming over him, a otherworldly deity – an author – pulls the strings.  Within a novel, no coincidence is innocent.

On bitcoins and privacy.

On bitcoins and privacy.

I’ve never purchased bitcoins.  Which might seem odd.  The motivation for bitcoins dovetails with several of my political beliefs.  But not all.

For instance, I think most chemicals should be legalized.  The U.S. prescription drug system, because it inflates drug prices, arguably makes people less healthy.  Not everyone can afford medication.  Given that the purpose of this system is to keep people healthy — ensuring that those taking prescription drugs are guided by a trained professional — if it’s not working, it ought to be scrapped.

P1-BV613_GLOBAL_9U_20151130185716
Care about drug prices? Check out this piece, in the Wall Street Journal, which accompanied this infographic.

There is, of course, a solid motivation for requiring a prescription for opiates.  Many people have troubles with impulse control.  And for antibiotics: their use, especially incorrect use, makes them work less well for everyone else in the future.  But most of our other restrictions seem unnecessary.  In the realm of recreational drugs, it seems pretty clear that psilocybin mushrooms, and even marijuana, would result in far less harm to non-users than alcohol does.

8419208053_87040ac4a0_oAt the same time, I believe in gun control laws.  Which might seem a little strange — both drug prohibitions and gun control are instances of the government declaring certain possessions to be illegal — except that it’s much easier to hurt somebody else with a gun than a pill.  To my mind, only laws against compounds like GHB — which does have legitimate uses, but is often weaponized against others — are equivalent to gun restrictions.

On the whole, though, I am in favor of a currency that enables drug purchases.  Especially if an inability to regulate consumption caused our government to repeal some of its current slew of minority-cudgeling prohibitions.  It’s a bit tricky, though, to enable one form of civil liberties (buying drugs) from others (buying guns & hiring hit men).

But the main reason why I never purchased bitcoins is that I couldn’t understand them.  I learned enough to be able to describe roughly how I thought they worked, but, based on what other people were doing, it seemed pretty clear that either I or other people were suffering from some fundamental misunderstandings.  Because my education included only the barest smattering of computer science, I assumed it was me who was mistaken.

Well, maybe not.

The first confusing aspect of bitcoins is their meteoric appreciation.  A significant portion of this rise was speculative, the way the price of Beanie Babies skyrocketed despite a lack of intrinsic value.  If you think someone will buy an object from you for twenty dollars next week, why not pay fifteen for it today?  If that person thinks another sucker down the line will pay thirty in two weeks, then of course they’ll pay twenty next week!

The problem being, of course, that eventually the suckers have all the Beanie Babies they need.  Or bitcoins.  Or tulips.  What have you.

Bitcoin_winkdex
And quite an appreciation, too.  Bottom is time, side is dollars per bitcoin.

There is a sensible reason for appreciation.  The current (and eventual) quantity of bitcoins is fixed, which means that, if the currency is working well and many people would like to use it, prices have to become smaller.  If prices (in bitcoins) drop by half, then the supply of bitcoins doubles!  More people can participate in the market.  Of course, since the real-world prices of Canadian medication, or LSD, or murders, or fake i.d.s, will be unchanged, then the conversion rate between bitcoins and dollars has to double.

Because bitcoin transactions can use fractional amounts of money (down to the nearest millionth), then, if the currency survives, I’d expect this sort of change to happen eventually.  This deflation interacts strangely with existing holdings (people who bought in early are suddenly much wealthier), so I’d expect these changes to happen very slowly.  Not to fuel the orders-of-magnitude appreciation we’ve seen.

The other aspect of bitcoins that always confused me is (was?) their supposed anonymity.  Your name is not attached to the account.  But, your ownership is preserved.  I’m out of my depth here, but the way I think the system works is, everyone involved in the system maintains a record of every transaction, and ownership is determined by majority vote.  If most computers involved claim that XXX paid YYY two bitcoins for a service, then those two bitcoins are now owned by YYY.

This transaction log is referred to as a “blockchain.”  Here’s a visual:

Capture
Modified from one of Stefan Loesch’s posts on bitcoins.  His site has many lovely, lucid posts about economics, banking, & monetary policy — including some very accessible explanations of the vices & virtues of bitcoins.  If you’re at all interested in these issues, I’d recommend his description of the problems caused by “ownership by majority vote.”

Which puzzled me.  I simply could not understand how it would be possible to maintain both ownership rights of an ethereal entity like a bitcoin, something you can never see or touch or smell, and also make the system anonymous.  The “blockchains” log everything you’ve ever done with your currency!  To me, that sounded far less anonymous than any physical currency.

So it was with a sense of grim satisfaction that I read John Bohannon’s recent Science news article, “Why criminals can’t hide behind Bitcoin.”  Because, indeed, it is possible to map bitcoin ownership to specific IP addresses (this is akin to a mailing address for any device connected to the internet — not quite the same as knowing a person’s name, but if the feds know a criminal lives at Harbor Hill in East Hills, NY, they’re close to closing in).

Part of the explanation for this seems to be that the people who know about any transaction first are those involved in the transaction.  And part seems to be that, as with any puzzle, solving one section — identifying a few initial addresses — makes it easier to untangle the rest.

If you’re looking for absolute secrecy, bitcoins might not be for you.

Of course, plenty of people are working on other supposedly secretive forms of computer currency.  A developer for the new bitcoin replacement “ShadowCash” (software dudes are not always known for beautiful language, although I’ll admit that “java” is fun to say) is quoted in Bohannon’s article: “I don’t feel people have the right to know, unless disclosed, how much cash is in my wallet, just like I don’t feel anyone should know what conversations I’m having with anyone.”

Now, I’m gung-ho for (nonviolent) civil liberties, but obviously I disagree.  Wealth is not like speech — it is a semi-limited resource that comes from others.  Furthermore, the two fundamental functions of modern governance are protecting property rights (your ownership of a house, for instance, or the money in your wallet) and civil liberties (your getting to be alive).

If I decide to go on the warpath and conquer your home, the government can’t very well intervene unless they have a record that this home is in fact yours and not mine.  Which raises sundry other questions — what chain of events through history led to it being yours? — but unless all these cryptocurrency advocates are as childishly violent as Mr. Ulbricht (creating a platform for U.S. citizens to purchase imported pharmaceuticals seems fine.  Hiring hit men is not), methinks they have a fundamental misunderstanding as to the way ownership works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capture.PNG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now?

Gone.

On deficit spending.

750px-Paul_Krugman_BBF_2010_ShankboneI generally like Paul Krugman’s opinion pieces.  I think he does a good job of explaining economic concepts in terms that the average reader can understand, and I like that his biases — because economics is a sufficiently squishy subject that your preexisting biases could lead you to diametrically opposite conclusions even when analyzing the same set of facts (at least, that is what does happen; maybe the problem is that not everyone is doing the math correctly, but it’s tenured economics professors with all their fancy awards who’re coming to opposite conclusions) — match my own closely enough that he usually comes to the same conclusions I would.

And, sure, I’m never pleased by his recent articles about health care, since I am a huge fan of insurance and I’m sad that the Affordable Care Act basically outlawed insurance.

(That might sound a bit weird, but I don’t think it’d take too many words to explain.  Well, first, here’s why I like insurance: if you look at it as a transaction involving money, it’s a rip-off.  The amount of money you get out in a disaster times the probability of disaster has to be less than the amount of money you put in, or else you’re dealing with a very bad insurance company that’s about to go out of business.  But if you look at it as a transaction involving utility, insurance is great.  The insurance company is relatively unaffected by your personal calamities, so the value of money for them is identical whether you get hurt or not, and so for the company, monetary gains are directly proportional to utility gains.  Happiness gains.  They take your money, so they’re happy.  But for you, the value of a dollar when you’re healthy is lower than the value of a dollar when you’re sick.  If you’re healthy, you could work and earn more dollars.  If you’re sick, you can’t.  So the low monetary pay-off the insurance company gives you actually sums up to a higher utility pay-off than what you paid.  If you bought a good policy, that is.  I hope you did!  Otherwise, you’re squandering both your money and your happiness.

But the problem, in my opinion, is that the ACA outlawed that type of insurance.  A policy that would contribute nothing to your healthcare spending until you hit some enormous deductible, $6000 in my case, after which it would pay all your health costs.  So with routine maladies, it would do nothing.  I had a policy like that for three years, I believe, and so I threw away three years’ premiums and got nothing in return… except the sanctity of knowing that I’d get some high utility dollars back if I ever became too sick to type this sort of essay.  I guess my own case is a touch bizarre since my income has been zero for several years, just draining the savings I built up by eating bread and lentils on my grad school stipend, but once that money runs out I could get a job.  As long as I’m healthy, that is.  But, right, that sort of policy was outlawed; basically, even though the policies are still called “insurance,” that’s not the correct word.  Everyone is now required to buy a health care plan, where you’re pre-paying for certain minimum standard of care in addition to having insurance.

And that’s fine, if you think everyone should receive that minimum standard of care, except the idea of having a private company provide it is bizarre.  Just decide what the bare minimum you want schmucks to have is, tax everyone enough that you can pay for that for everyone, and then anyone who doesn’t want to get their medical care in those bare minimum conditions, or who wants to be healthier than the bare minimum care would make them, can buy their own care, or insurance policies to provide it, above and beyond the government provided allotment.

I guess that was a somewhat long parenthetical aside.  Oops.  Anyway, that’s the only major issue that I’ve disagreed with in Krugman’s previous editorials.)

His recent article on debt and deficits, though, had a concept that seems very off to me.  The main point of the article is fine: governments that can should spend more money so that the economy isn’t a gigantic sinkhole.  Sure.  But he also writes about deficits in a way that seems too generous to me.  From his article:

“You can see that misunderstanding at work every time someone rails against deficits with slogans like ‘Stop stealing from our kids.’  It sounds right, if you don’t think about it: Families who run up debts make themselves poorer, so isn’t that true when we look at overall national debt?

“No, it isn’t.  An indebted family owes money to other people; the world economy as a whole owes money to itself.  And while it’s true that countries can borrow from other countries, America has actually been borrowing less from abroad than it did before, and Europe is a net lender to the rest of the world.”

Piketty_in_Cambridge_3_cropAnd, honestly, I used to blithely think pretty much the same thing.  Because that’s how the numbers work in a macroeconomics course, so it seemed sensible to me.  I’m very appreciative to Thomas Piketty for changing the way I think about this.  His book “Capital in the Twenty-first Century” seemed like it was longer than it needed to be, but I think I understand why he wrote it in a way I disliked: knowing that many people would scoff at his conclusions, he wanted to present his case over and over again with as much data as possible.  Which, yeah, fine.  But it didn’t make for fun reading for me, for a lot of the middle chapters.  And that’s a shame, because I worry that maybe people would stop reading his book during that middle slog, and he has some insightful things to say near the end.  Here’s a quote that appears near the end of his book (oh, and, I just noticed when I went to type this passage – the book was originally in French.  So, thanks Arthur Goldhammer!):

“There are two main ways for a government to finance its expenses: taxes and debt.  In general, taxation is by far preferable to debt in terms of justice and efficiency.  The problem with debt is that it usually has to be repaid, so that debt financing is in the interest of those who have the means to lend to the government.  From the standpoint of the general interest, it is normally preferable to tax the wealthy rather than borrow from them.”

And that’s the point of contention with Krugman’s article.  Deficits aren’t stealing from America or Americans if you average the amount of wealth everyone has… but they are stealing from Americans if you analyze the situation person by person.  The easiest way to see this is simply to imagine that you have progressive taxation, so the wealthier you are the higher your percentage tax burden will be, and costs of living as well as you feel you ought to that rise more shallowly than total wealth, so that the wealthier you are the higher your percentage of investment will be.  Both reasonable assumptions in the United States, even though our tax burdens aren’t very progressive at the moment.  But let’s pretend, shall we?

Then, if you want to have a government service — say a police force to make sure that the impoverished hordes don’t kill the wealthy and take all their money — you can pay for it in one of two ways.  You can pay by taxing the populace, in which case the wealthier you are the more you’re paying for policing, or you can pay by running a deficit, in which case the wealthier you are the more you’re being paid to have police protect your wealth.

The latter seems… not good, right?

Because a deficit means the government is issuing bonds.  Bonds pay interest.  Poor people can’t buy bonds.  Rich people can.  Deficit spending is the government paying wealthy people for the privilege of using their money.  Which is, taking money from the aggregate population, giving it to the rich members of the population, in order to provide services.  Deficit spending is stealing from our kids, unless the “our” in question means the wealthy.

I suppose it’s worth disclosing that I believe both my parents might be millionaires.  So maybe it seems like I would fall into that wealthy people’s “our” category.  But I personally am not monetarily rich — K. and I support our family plus some on a public high school teacher’s salary (hers), and my, uh… I cook well, which cuts down on our food bills, and one time last winter I found a five dollar bill on the ground while I was out jogging — so I’m not sure which side of this divide I fall on.  I’ve definitely enjoyed many perquisites of the wealthy: I studied as an undergraduate at a very fancy university and finished with only five thousand dollars of debt.  Even among people fortunate enough to attend that sort of school, a lot of people graduate with huge amounts of debt, whereas I had so little (because my parents were willing and able to spend so much on me; thank you!) that I was able to zero it out using leftover money from my grad school living stipend.  But that doesn’t change where I stand intellectually.  I definitely agree with Piketty’s call for a global tax on wealth, payable to whatever nation that wealth resides in.  That’s the nation enforcing property rights to allow that wealth to remain privately owned, after all.

More generally, I think that people should pay for governance to degrees that would reflect how much they would lose (or gain) if there were anarchy instead.  For a lot of poor people, the fact that we have a government is a strict detriment to their lives.  They’re harassed by police, they can’t pull a Walden Pond and build homes wherever they’d like, etc.  So those people should pay negative taxes, to compensate them for the harm they’re subject to by consenting to remain governed.  The wealthy, I feel, should pay high tax rates, because it seems unlikely they’d keep their fancy homes, or their whatever else, or even have had the opportunity to make all that money, if we had anarchy.

So, right.  Deficit spending: yes, a better idea than austerity, as pointed out by Krugman’s article.  But still bad.  Still is stealing from our children.  Raising taxes would be better than deficit spending.  And I think those taxes ought to be progressive.