breaking habits

Reading this post by Jonathan V. Last, I find myself meditating on the role that habit plays in our choices of activity, in small things and large. Last looks at two elements of our current economy — the conglomeration of entertainment options that we call “Las Vegas” and the movie-theater industry — and asks how they can possibly survive the current economic crisis in anything like their current form.

I’ve also been reading many reflections on the future of higher education in America, most of which acknowledge that the current situation is simply accelerating the arrival of a crisis we have long known is coming: fewer American young people. “Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College in Minnesota, predicts that the college-going population will drop by 15 percent between 2025 and 2029 and continue to decline by another percentage point or two thereafter.”

All of this has me wondering about the future, of course, but it also has me thinking about the role of habit in our voluntary pursuits. The biggest concern for the movie-theater companies ought to be this: What happens when people get out of the habit of going out to see first-run movies and instead develop the habit of seeing first-run movies at home? What happens when streaming a new release on your TV is the normal thing to do? My guess is that for many people going out to the movies will eventually feel like a chore, and the movie industry will need to adapt to new preferences. It seems likely to me that the theaters that will survive into the new era will be places like Alamo Drafthouse, oriented towards foodie-cinephiles. And I sure hope Alamo survives, because man do I love going there.

I tend to think that Las Vegas will bounce back, because going to Vegas is, for most people anyway, not a regular habit but an occasional festivity. But a lot will depend on how people feel, long-term, about getting on airplanes. And this is one of Last’s points: so many of our industries are entangled with other industries that it’s impossible to calculate how all the dominoes will fall. (Which isn’t stopping journalists from making confident predictions.)

But about higher education … obviously the stakes are much higher there: the choice of what university to attend is widely believed to be one of the most important a person will make in his or her life. But that assumes that you will choose one, and I find myself wondering whether attending a university at all is a practice that is subject to change in our new circumstances. That is, for many millions of American high-graduates, and for several generations now, going to college has not been perceived as a choice but rather as an inevitability. Nor “whether” but only “where.” It’s hard for me to imagine that in the coming years it won’t also become a “whether.”

Everyone assumes that this fall there will be a significant rise in high-school graduates deferring their college enrollment and taking a gap year. It is easy to imagine circumstances in which this becomes more commonplace, not just for the next year or two, but permanently. And, further, it is easy to imagine a significant number of those gap-year students finding jobs that they are not eager to give up in order to go to college. Further still, one can conceive of circumstances in which certain industries that flourish in an altered environment, industries that had previously chiefly hired people with college degrees, realize that their employees don’t really need college degrees. That is to say, it’s not hard to envision a future in which young people and employers alike realize that higher education has become a habit, and a habit one can break.

A big part of me doesn’t want to see this happen, because I have been involved in higher education since I started college at age 16, and I love this little world. Plus, I have many, many friends who are professors, or who work in other capacities in colleges and universities, and I worry about their future. But if I could set all that aside — which I can’t, quite — I believe I would think that, over the long haul, a significant lowering of the number of young Americans who attend university would be a social good. And I hope it will be, because I think that’s what’s coming.

I would love to live in a world in which higher education continues to flourish and the charms of Las Vegas wane. I think I’m living in the opposite of that world.

 

unsure

I don’t often on this blog write from a position of professional expertise. Mainly I’m writing about things I’m not expert in, but am interested in, and am trying to think through. I post these thoughts here not because I have anything to teach anyone but because posting them to the interwebs requires me to form my thoughts with a at least a little more care and precision than they would have if they were rattling around in my brain pan. And maybe they’ll help a handful of people who, like me, are trying to figure a few things out. Which leads me to….

A great many people think they’re interested in politics when they’re only interested in news. I have in recent years grown more and more interested in politics and economics, which is to say, the whole long history of all the ways in which we human beings have tried to live together without killing one another but instead, perhaps, finding some arena of mutual benefit. I think our current obsession with news makes it far harder for us to think about politics, so I have stepped away from the daily grind of “And Now This!” to try to inquire into the principles of political economy, and politics more generally.

I don’t see any of these matters as First Things. For some people they are. For some people the ownership of firearms is not a good that may be weighed against other goods, and in that weighing perhaps found wanting, but a primal indicator of Freedom — not to be negotiated away at any price. For others inequality is not one factor among many in political economy but rather the Original Sin of our common life, and as such must be eradicated no matter how high the price. There is no political or economic consideration that rises to that level, for me. I try, instead, to think empirically about what conduces to our common welfare, and what does not. If I thought that communism did that better than other systems of political economy, I’d be a communist.

The big problem for people like me who want to look at these matters empirically is this: almost everyone who writes with expertise about political economy is a True Believer in something, and that often determines how the stories get told. For instance, Thomas Piketty’s famous book is called Capital in the Twenty-First Century, but right from the first paragraph of the book he explains that what he’s concerned with is “the distribution of wealth” and more specifically the unjust distribution of wealth. But that is only part of the story of capital and capitalism. As I commented in that post I link to above, Deirdre McCloskey thinks that wealth creation is the fundamental problem of economics and the history of economics. Piketty shows no interest in that. It’s hard for me not to think that Piketty ignores wealth creation because that would disrupt the clean lines of his story, while McCloskey largely dismisses the agitations created by inequality because that would disrupt the clean lines of her story. Though at least McCloskey has responded to Piketty’s argument, in an essay that strikes me as generous and charitable even though severely critical.

But here’s what bugs me: Can you imagine McCloskey saying, “Having read Piketty’s book, I now see that the argument I made in the two thousand pages of my Bourgeois Trilogy is fundamentally flawed, and I need quite thoroughly to reconsider my position”? I can’t. Can you imagine Piketty saying, “Now that I’ve read McCloskey’s trilogy I see that the Euro-neoliberalism that I’ve been committed to my whole career is fundamentally flawed, and I need to learn to embrace the creative powers of the free market”? Me neither. You’re not even going to hear a scholar say, “The evidence cuts both ways, but I think the preponderance of evidence is on my side.” That’s not how academic life works. That’s not how human life works, generally.

So the experts stake out their positions and defend them to the death, leaving the rest of us to try to sort out the evidence. But that sorting is hard work, and not many will willingly take it on, when it’s so much easier to pick a side and stick with it. Evan Davis of the Spectator thinks that maybe 1% of us will be willing to be confused about Piketty v. McCloskey. That estimate might be on the high side.

inequality

If you listen to politicians on the left, and especially those who call themselves socialists, describe what’s wrong with our country, the word that comes most frequently to their lips is inequality. “The Top 1 Percent’s Share of Income from Wealth Has Been Rising for Decades,”, we learn, and this, surely, is a prime driver of the recent increase in support for socialism.

But Deirdre McCloskey claims in her book The Bourgeois Virtues that

The amount of goods and services produced and consumed by the average person on the planet has risen since 1800 by a factor of about eight and a half. I say “about.” If the factor were four or five, or ten or twelve, the conclusion would be the same: liberal capitalism has succeeded. And like liberal democracy, its success continues. In these latter days the fact should delight and amaze us. Never had such a thing happened. Count it in your head: eight and a half times more actual food and clothing and housing and education and travel and books for the average human being – even though there were six times more of them [than there were 200 years ago].

And in the third volume of her trilogy, she provides even better news:

Hear again that last, astonishing fact, discovered by economic historians over the past few decades. It is: in the two centuries after 1800 the trade-tested goods and services available to the average person in Sweden or Taiwan rose by a factor of 30 or 100. Not 100 percent, understand — a mere doubling — but in its highest estimate a factor of 100, nearly 10,000 percent, and at least a factor of 30, or 2,900 percent. The Great Enrichment of the past two centuries has dwarfed any of the previous and temporary enrichments. Explaining it is the central scientific task of economics and economic history, and it matters for any other sort of social science or recent history.

One could argue that the data McCloskey cites ought to settle the question of whether capitalism is preferable to socialism. Obviously capitalism — or what she prefers to call “technological and institutional betterment at a frenetic pace, tested by unforced exchange among all the parties involved” — has worked wonders. If I am, say, ten times better off than my ancestors were, why should I care if there are other people who are a thousand times better off?

But the fact of the matter is that people do care. Human beings are exceptionally sensitive to such differentials — but not skilled at knowing what they are. In general, people think that they occupy a lower place on the economic ladder than they actually do, estimate their country’s unemployment rate as much higher than it is, and believe inequality to be greater than it is. And these perceptions matter politically, even when they’re wrong, or based on very partial evidence, because of the passion that inequality prompts in people.

Scott Alexander summarizes part of the argument of a recent book by Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov called Secular Cycles:

One thing that strikes me about T&N’s cycles is the ideological component. They describe how, during a growth phase, everyone is optimistic and patriotic, secure in the knowledge that there is enough for everybody. During the stagflation phase, inequality increases, but concern about inequality increases even more, zero-sum thinking predominates, and social trust craters (both because people are actually defecting, and because it’s in lots of people’s interest to play up the degree to which people are defecting). By the crisis phase, partisanship is much stronger than patriotism and radicals are talking openly about how violence is ethically obligatory.

I’m inclined to believe that there’s something to this “secular cycles” theory, largely because it so nicely rhymes with Anthony Burgess’s Pelphase/Interphase/Gusphase model of history, and because there’s a lot of evidence that having money as such doesn’t make people happier but having more than our neighbors does. I don’t know precisely what weight we should give to inequality when we’re thinking about political arrangements, but it seems that a great many people rate it exceptionally highly and would prefer to reduce the gap that separates them from richer people, even at the cost of lowering their absolute standard of living.

So what counts as political wisdom in that situation? Beats me.

compromises

In yesterday’s post I quoted from Deirdre McCloskey’s work on bourgeois life, and I want now to return briefly to that. Late in the first volume of her trilogy she refers to a 1945 book called The Economic Order and Religion:

It develops that Knight and Merriam are arguing that social life in a large group with thoroughgoing ownership in common is impossible. That is what they believe Christian love entails. Their source is always the gospels, never the elaborate compromises with economic reality of other Christian writers, such as Paul or Aquinas or Luther, or the thirty-eighth article of the Anglicans: “The riches and goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast.”

What, the Gospels aren’t supposed to count? Methinks they count indeed. But I can understand why someone looking at Luke 12:33 and Luke 14:33 might want to quickly turn aside. In any case, it’s not just the Gospels that tell this story: we also have (and Hart cites) the book of Acts and the letter of James. If McCloskey is going to argue that we should imitate “the elaborate compromises with economic reality of other Christian writers,” then she really needs to say why we should follow those “other writers” when they disagree, or at least certainly seem to disagree, with the Gospels, Acts, and James.

And as we think about all these matters we should surely remember Kierkegaard’s comment that most Christians think that the commandments are intentionally over-severe, like setting our clocks ahead half-an-hour to make sure we get up in the morning. (He can’t mean what he says.)

As always: the evidence all seems to point in one direction when you ignore or suppress all the evidence that points in the other direction.

debt and forgiveness

For me, the obvious question about the proposal to forgive student loans — as made, for instance, by Astra Taylor here — is this: Why only student loans? Millions of Americans who have never attended college are being crushed by debt. Why shouldn’t something be done for them? 

Imagine how this looks to all those working-class people who aren’t sure how they’re going to pay their rent next month, who have made far too many visits to payday lenders. “We’re going to have everything we own taken away while all you super-woke people campaign to have the government pay for your MFA in set design. And you call that being progressive.”

UPDATE: Freddie’s position is the right one to take about these matters. If people who are currently focused obsessively on getting their own loans canceled took their bearings from what he says here, this conversation would be a more productive once.

Reading this Vulture piece, I took a while to grasp that, for the musicians interviewed, touring — which used to be what bands had to do to make money their records didn’t make — is a net loser. These people are basically paying to go on tour. 

Kathryn Tanner’s altar call

Consider this a follow-up to my recent posts on metaphysical capitalism and some stories about the commodification of emotion and connection — and also a kind of pendant to Derek Thompson’s story in the Atlantic on the religion of workism. This one’s gonna have some long quotations.

Here’s how Kathryn Tanner describes her task in her new book Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism:

Whether amenable to capitalism at its start or not, my own Christian commitments as I hope to show are inimical to the demands of capitalism now. I am critical of the present spirit of capitalism because I believe my own, quite specific Christian commitments require it. But I also suggest over the course of the chapters to come that the present-day organization of capitalism is deserving of such criticism whatever one’s religious commitments, because of its untoward effects on persons and populations, its deforming effects on the way people understand themselves and their relations with others. Every way of organizing economic life is flawed. Besides having especially egregious faults (relative to other ways that capitalism has been organized, this one foments, for example, extreme income/wealth inequality, structural under- and unemployment, and regularly recurring boom/bust cycles in asset values), what is unusual about the present system is the way its spirit hampers recognition of those faults. The present-day spirit of capitalism needs to be undermined, therefore, in order for the current system to be problematized — seen as a problem amenable to solution, an object of possible criticism requiring redress. And in order for that to happen, in order for the spirit of present-day capitalism to be effectively undermined, it needs to be met, I suggest, by a counter-spirit of similar power. Without the need any longer of religious backing, capitalism may now have the power itself to shape people in its own image; its conduct-forming spirit may now be its own production, in other words. But as one of the few alternative outlooks on life with a capacity to shape life conduct to a comparable degree, religion might remain a critical force against it.

That bolded sentence is a reminder that, as I often say, “the liberal order catechizes,” and that it will catechize us right out of Christianity altogether if we don’t provide what I call a “counter-catechesis,” a radically different “conduct-forming spirit.” Tanner makes a very similar argument at length.

In so doing, she repeatedly reminds us that Christianity is, among other things, a counter-economics. Everyone knows how thoroughly economic language is woven into the fabric of the Christian story: we are bought with a price (agorazo); we are bought out of slavery (exagorazo). Though Tanner doesn’t do exegesis in her book, it’s clear that she wants her readers to understand how completely the biblical picture reorients, or ought to reorient, our self-understanding. In a capitalist order it becomes easy, even natural, to think of God as a metaphysical banker, keeping our moral accounts as thoroughly as the hidden gods of capitalism track our FICO scores. But if we can escape that tendency, if we can understand God as the one who has delivered us from bondage, then “rather than being tallied against one’s account, one can be assured one’s sins are forgiven, their burden erased, when casting them upon Christ’s mercy in confession. One can honestly admit faults without fear, assured of God’s mercy in Christ. It is not the lapse that threatens to separate one from Christ but the refusal to confess it, out of fear and a lack of trust in God’s graciousness.”

But if we cannot manage this reorientation of our understanding, then we can come to be terrified of the future and at the same time confined to an understanding of the future as a mere continuation of what now exists:

In order to profit from the difference between present and future, or at least to prevent it from doing any harm, one employs financial instruments that collapse the future present — that is, what the future will turn out to be — into the present future — that is, into the present view of the future…. By virtue of such a collapse of future into present, the future one anticipates loses its capacity to surprise; the future to come simply reduces to the future it makes sense to expect given present circumstances. Those circumstances themselves become a kind of self-enclosed world, as one learns to hope for nothing more from the future than what the given world’s present limits allow, what it is reasonable to expect from within them, assuming their continuance.

To live within these constraints — constraints which our capitalist order teaches us we must think about constantly if we are to be rational actors and responsible citizens — is to be deprived of both imagination and hope. What is required, for those of us so bound, is to be redeemed from this bondage, to be bought ought of slavery to it, and that requires conversion.

So I was delighted to find, at one important juncture in this book, this liberal Episcopalian giving her readers what amounts to an altar call. I’ll close with that call:

The present does not, however, become urgent here due to scarcity. One has everything one needs — more than one needs — to turn one’s life around: the grace provided in Christ. In marked contrast to the efficiency-inducing scarcities of finance-dominated capitalism, it is the very fulsomeness of the provisions for conversion that makes the present an urgent matter, an opportunity to be seized with alacrity and put to good use. There is no point in looking longingly to any past or future with the capacity to make things easier: the time is ripe for action right now and never has been or will be any better. Delaying a present decision to turn one’s life around, and neglecting to make the best of what is currently on offer out of a distracted sense of what was or might be, suggest one is simply never likely to turn one’s life around, no matter how many times one is offered the opportunity to do so in the future. Any such distraction from the present moment is always available as an excuse in the future, so as to produce thereby a never-ending deferral of decision. The present is urgent here not because the opportunities of the moment might be lost but because they are just so good, so perfectly suited to the predicament one is in and the needs one has, because of their not-to-be-passed-up character, so to speak. Instead of being here today and gone tomorrow, what allows one to turn one’s life around in the present — the grace of Christ — is permanently on offer. It has no fleeting character. What prompts one to seize it right away is not the fear of missed opportunity, then, but the immediate, overwhelming attractiveness of the offer…. No failings in the past or present can disrupt the efficacy of a grace designed specifically to save sinners…. There is thus no point in harping on the past or worrying about the future — the present is one’s only concern. Not because one cannot do anything about past mistakes or about an uncertain future — because neither is under one’s control — but because one can let go of the past without consequence — one’s sins are forgiven — and because the future will never be any more threatening than the present is. Contrary to the Stoic-inflected temporal sensibility of financial players, the present is no more under one’s control than the past was or the future will be: at every moment in time, one is enabled to turn oneself to God only by God’s grace and not by one’s own power.

Preach it, sister!

when they find a leader

We have a new bourgeoisie, but because they are very cool and progressive, it creates the impression that there is no class conflict anymore. It is really difficult to oppose the hipsters when they say they care about the poor and about minorities.

But actually, they are very much complicit in relegating the working classes to the sidelines. Not only do they benefit enormously from the globalised economy, but they have also produced a dominant cultural discourse which ostracises working-class people. Think of the ‘deplorables’ evoked by Hillary Clinton. There is a similar view of the working class in France and Britain. They are looked upon as if they are some kind of Amazonian tribe. The problem for the elites is that it is a very big tribe. 

— Christophe Guilluy. This seems exactly right to me. The “cool and progressive” left has chosen sexual self-definition as its only real cause, its version of the Civil Rights movement, and has less than zero interest in the economically marginal. Indeed, it maintains its own character as cool and progressive by creating an ecology of consumption that depends on the economically marginal remaining that way. Social justice warriors not only aren’t interested in but are positively appalled by the specter of economic justice. For our elites — nominally Left, nominally Right, nominally Centrist, it’s crony capitalism all the way down. 

The abandoned working-classes-and-below have responded to this state of affairs by saying, in effect, “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down.” (“You think you got it all set up / You think you got the perfect plan.”) That takes different forms: marching on Paris, say; or electing a blustering ignoramus President of the United States. Some of these are better than others, but none of them is genuinely constructive, none of them stands a real chance of altering the neoliberal social order. And that’s because nowhere has a leader emerged who possesses the combination of charisma and shrewdness to channel the frustrations of the economically marginalized into a meaningful program of reform — or revolution. 

Such leaders also take different forms: Nelson Mandela was one, and so was César Chávez, and so was Lenin. It is possible that the union of the global neoliberal order and the big media companies — which serve as the Ministry of Amnesia for that order — will be able to prevent the emergence of such a leader. But I don’t think so. I believe that eventually and somewhere such a leader will arise. And when that happens the cool and progressive Left will be so, so screwed. 

However, I suspect that if it happens here so will I. 

Amazon’s exploitative lust

Alana Semuels writes,

If nothing else, Amazon’s HQ2 decisions may accelerate America’s great divergence, where highly educated urbanites are doing better and better, and everyone else is doing worse. Amazon has jobs outside of cities too, of course, but those are often low-paying and grueling jobs that don’t have much room for upward mobility. “If you project forward to the dismal geography of a future in which Amazon utterly dominates, you have a handful of places that are doing well, where there are high-paid tech jobs,” Stacy Mitchell, the co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told me. “Then you have a bunch of cities and neighborhoods, that if they’re lucky, will maybe they get some warehouse jobs at $15 an hour and nothing else.”

Yep. I used to be suspicious of the phrase “costal elites,” but it seems more apt every day. And as those elites congregate with one another, and concentrate their wealth in ever-smaller enclaves, and increasingly see the 95% of the American landmass between the coasts as material (human and natural) to be exploited for their economic purposes, they also complain ever more vociferously that the American political system — with its “undemocratic” institutions like the Senate — prevent them from exercising even more complete domination over places they will never see and people they will never know.

that’s what I want

Our love is all of God’s money

What is money? Hard to say, really. It’s easier to document what it does, as Dana Gioia has shown:

It greases the palm, feathers a nest,

holds heads above water,
makes both ends meet.

Money breeds money.

Gathering interest, compounding daily.

Always in circulation.

“Circulation” is the key term here: money is always on the move, is always sliding from one location to another and then back to the first and then on to a third. People who work with money prize fluidity, because fluidity promotes circulation. And every development in computerized trading increases the speed of that circulation, so that now money moves faster than the human eye can see.

But the flow isn’t random, indeed is anything but random. Powerful gravity drags money towards other money. Think of how our solar system formed: the molecules that formed vast clouds of gas and dust drifted towards one another, forming clumps that attracted still more molecules, until eventually there condensed a star. That’s how money works. “Gathering interest, compounding daily.”

But, of course, as what is saved gathers interest, so too does what is owed. Money breeds money; debt breeds debt. And if not for debt, would money exist? “The first thing that happened in human history,” thinks a character in a new novel, “was not money, but debt – obligations and promises and duties incurred. Money arose only as a way of tabulating such owings.”

Most utopias and dystopias are concerned with money, and usually want to show the absurdity of it. This can be done whether a writer lives in an age of “Commodity Money” or “Representative Money” (to borrow terms from John Maynard Keynes). In Thomas More’s Utopia the shackles of prisoners are made from gold, so that that metal may be deposed; in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon the “Musical Banks” enact abstract rituals of circulation that are meant to remind us that the economy is a kind of religion and religion a kind of economy. In the most acute and insightful fictional exploration I know of these matters, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, subtitled in some editions “An Ambiguous Utopia,” the culture of a capitalist planet is contrasted in vivid detail with that of an anarchist planet which has tried to eliminate money as best it can — but is left with other, less clearly defined, structures of circulation, ways for power and control to flow towards those who already have power and control.

But LeGuin did not imagine a world in which near-instantaneous and near-universal digital communication enables money to do what it always wants to do. And here we turn to the novel I just quoted, Adam Roberts’s By the Pricking of Her Thumb.

Adam Roberts is a novelist of ideas, and I want to put equal stress on both of those terms: novelist, ideas. His books tend to be deeply reflective, serious and detailed and nuanced in their conceptual explorations, but those explorations are always embedded in really good stories — and cannot be simply extracted from those stories. That creates problems for someone who wants to write about his books without spoiling them for other readers. So if the discussion that follows is somewhat elliptical, that’s because I want you to read the book.

In this novel, four persons of great wealth have entered into an uneasy alliance in the hopes of achieving absolute wealth: to control nothing less than all the money in the world. The alliance is uneasy because the ultimate goal of each is to take everything from the others: to be the one rich person in a world of paupers, or at best dependents. The question is this: by what means might absolute wealth be acquired. The Fab Four have different ideas about that, and interestingly different ideas, but what they all come down to is this: seeking for ways to make every human relationship, every human desire, fungible — translatable into currency. One character here asks another, “You’re on the money can buy you love side of the debate?” And the other character answers: “I think love is the only thing money is any good for.”

But these Four are not the central figures in Roberts’s story, because the view from above does not interest him as much as the view from below. The protagonist of the book, a private investigator named Alma — she was also the protagonist of an earlier book, The Real-Town Murders — meets some of the Four, but her world could scarcely be more different from theirs. The flip side of absolute wealth is absolute precarity, and Alma is asymptotically approaching that even as the Four draw closer to their great goal. Increasingly Alma understands her life, and every aspect of her life, as shaped and formed by unpayable debts. Which means that the whole of her experience becomes a meditation on money — and its lack.

Grief, she saw now, was a mode of money. Death was a mode of money. Not, of course, the positive, cash-in-the-bank, the active fiction of money that the economic system painted so faux-optimistically. But that had never been the truth about money, had it? Money, by population mass, was debt, and debt was the key trope of negativity, and absence, and lack. Lack drove the economy, compelled people into work and ensured their persistence, lubricated the flow of capital and investment and liquidity. The whole system was a spider’s web stitched together, with a kind of tender fragility, over the empty mouth of debt, down which the wind was sucked.

All this is reminiscent of David Graeber’s 2012 book Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, and in that wide-ranging and fascinating book Graeber cites an anthropologist and former economist named Philippe Rospabé who makes the provocative comment that money arises “as a substitute for life.” If you give me life, if you sustain my life, if you save my life, I cannot replay you directly — cannot repay you in, as it were, the currency of the benefit you provided. Money, then, as Graeber puts the key point, “is first and foremost an acknowledgment that one owes something much more valuable than money.” John Ruskin famously wrote — a line cited in Roberts’s new novel — “There is no wealth but life,” which may well be true, but would equally be true to say that there is no debt but life.

In this morally fraught context, the very thing that makes money useful — its fungibility, its ability to be converted — abstracts it to some degree from our lifeworld. As our currency moves from (say) chickens to cowrie shells to gold coins to paper bills to binary digits readable on our smartphones, money extracts itself from its human context — it becomes in an eerily powerful sense autonomous.

In Charles Williams’s strange poetic sequence based on Arthurian legend, Taliessen through Logres, one poem describes King Arthur’s building of a mint and issuing of coins. “Kay, the king’s steward, wise in economics,” is pleased:

Traffic can hold now and treasure be held,
streams are bridged and mountains of ridged space
tunnelled; gold dances deftly across frontiers.
The poor have choice of purchase, the rich of rents,
and events move now in a smoother control
than the swords of lords or the orisons of nuns.
Money is the medium of exchange.

But Taliessen the poet is horrified: “I am afraid of the little loosed dragons” — the dragons, representing King Arthur Pendragon, stamped on the coins — because “When the means are autonomous, they are deadly.” The coins both represent the King and substitute for him: an abstract fungibility is meant to extend but ultimately threatens to replace the personal presence and authority of the monarch.

The Archbishop of Canterbury steps in and tries to pour oil on the troubled waters by demoting money, as it were: to Kay’s claim that “money is the medium of exchange” the Archbishop replies that “money is a medium of exchange.” The greater and more necessary currency is that of the circulation of gifts in Christian community, what Williams in his theological writings called the Way of Exchange: “dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.” The Archbishop’s speech is a nice little exercise in peacemaking, as perhaps is fitting the episcopal role, and it clearly attempts to incorporate Jesus’s bizarre commandment to his disciples to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes”; but such splitting-the-difference is perhaps too easy. It assumes that money can be constrained to accept its place as a secondary medium of exchange, subservient to the greater authority of charity. But Taliessen’s fear of what happens when the means become autonomous seems to me a well-warranted fear.

Which brings us back to By the Pricking of Her Thumb. The book concerns itself with many things — love and loss; the difference between “real life”and an increasingly compelling online world; the films of Stanley Kubrick — but the central and compelling concept is this: what if the long-promised Singularity comes, or something rather like it, and what has become self-aware is simply … money itself? What if our future is a future of, in the strongest sense possible, Smart Money?

It really and truly doesn’t bear thinking of. After all, money is powerful enough, influential enough, near-sentient enough, as it is already. As Gioia writes,

Money. You don’t know where it’s been,

but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.

“money is a medium of exchange”

The king has set up his mint by Thames.
He has struck coins; his dragon’s loins
germinate a crowded creaturely brood
to scuttle and scurry between towns and towns,
to furnish dishes and flagons with change of food;
small crowns, small dragons, hurry to the markets
under the king’s smile, or flat in houses squat.
The long file of their snouts crosses the empire,
and the other themes acknowledge our king’s head.
They carry on their backs little packs of value,
caravans; but I dreamed the head of a dead king
was carried on all, that they teemed on house-roofs
where men stared and studied them as I your thumbs’ epigrams,
hearing the City say Feed my lambs
to you and the king; the king can tame dragons to carriers,
but I came through the night, and saw the dragonlets’ eyes
leer and peer, and the house-roofs under their weight
creak and break; shadows of great forms
halloed them on, and followed over falling towns.
I saw that this was the true end of our making;
mother of children, redeem the new law.

They laid the coins before the council.
Kay, the king’s steward, wise in economics, said:
Good; these cover the years and the miles
and talk one style’s dialects to London and Omsk.
Traffic can hold now and treasure be held,
streams are bridged and mountains of ridged space
tunnelled; gold dances deftly across frontiers.
The poor have choice of purchase, the rich of rents,
and events move now in a smoother control
than the swords of lords or the orisons of nuns.
Money is the medium of exchange.’

Taliessin’s look darkened; his hand shook
while he touched the dragons; he said ‘We had a good thought.
Sir, if you made verse you would doubt symbols.
I am afraid of the little loosed dragons.
When the means are autonomous, they are deadly; when words
escape from verse they hurry to rape souls;
when sensation slips from intellect, expect the tyrant;
the brood of carriers levels the good they carry.
We have taught our images to be free; are we glad?
are we glad to have brought convenient heresy to Logres?’

The Archbishop answered the lords;
his words went up through a slope of calm air:
‘Might may take symbols and folly make treasure,
and greed bid God, who hides himself for man’s pleasure
by occasion, hide himself essentially: this abides —
that the everlasting house the soul discovers
is always another’s; we must lose our own ends;
we must always live in the habitation of our lovers,
my friend’s shelter for me, mine for him.
This is the way of this world in the day of that other’s;
make yourselves friends by means of the riches of iniquity,
for the wealth of the self is the health of the self exchanged.
What saith Heracleitus? — and what is the City’s breath? —
dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.
Money is a medium of exchange.’

— Charles Williams, from Taliessen through Logres

the point of the sword

Sarah Smarsh:

What my father seeks is not a return to times that were worse for women and people of color but progress toward a society in which everyone can get by, including his white, college-educated son who graduated into the Great Recession and for 10 years sold his own plasma for gas money. After being laid off during that recession in 2008, my dad had to cash in his retirement to make ends meet while looking for another job. He has labored nearly every day of his life and has no savings beyond Social Security.

Yes, my father is angry at someone. But it is not his co-worker Gem, a Filipino immigrant with whom he has split a room to pocket some of the per diem from their employer, or Francisco, a Hispanic crew member with whom he recently built a Wendy’s north of Memphis. His anger, rather, is directed at bosses who exploit labor and governments that punish the working poor — two sides of a capitalist democracy that bleeds people like him dry.

“Corporations,” Dad said. “That’s it. That’s the point of the sword that’s killing us.”

the Ministry of Amnesia

I’ve just read, with great interest, John Lanchester’s latest essay on the global financial situation, and as always, Lanchester is informative, precise, lucid, and compelling — though maybe not wholly compelling. At one point he writes,

Remember that remark made by Robert Lucas, the macroeconomist, that the central problem of depression prevention had been solved? How’s that been working out? How it’s been working out here in the UK is the longest period of declining real incomes in recorded economic history. ‘Recorded economic history’ means as far back as current techniques can reach, which is back to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Worse than the decades that followed the Napoleonic Wars, worse than the crises that followed them, worse than the financial crises that inspired Marx, worse than the Depression, worse than both world wars. That is a truly stupendous statistic and if you knew nothing about the economy, sociology or politics of a country, and were told that single fact about it – that real incomes had been falling for the longest period ever – you would expect serious convulsions in its national life.

Right — and yet — there aren’t any “serious convulsions” in the UK, or the USA for that matter, are there? Lanchester also writes, “In the US there is enormous anger at oblivious, entitled, seemingly invulnerable financial and technological elites getting ever richer as ordinary living standards stay flat in absolute terms, and in relative terms, dramatically decline.” But is the anger really so enormous? I’d say there’s not nearly as much as there ought to be, or that one would (as Lanchester suggests) expect there to be.

And many of the people who have been hit hardest by an economic system in which, Lanchester rightly says, the rich in pursuing with laser-focus their own further enrichment “have seceded from the rest of humanity,” say almost nothing about that situation but wax eloquent and wroth about the supposedly imminent danger of their being murdered by vast roaming gangs of illegal immigrants. Brexit and Trump are not about fixing economic inequality — which is why Trump’s version of populism has almost nothing to do with the “Share Our Wealth” vision of Huey Long, back in the day, but rather focuses with a passionate intensity on stoking fear of anyone and everything not-American.

So why is that? Why, though certainly there is some anger at the global-capitalist system, is there, relative to reasonable expectations, so little? Why don’t people care that, since the massively reckless incompetencies of 2008, almost nothing has changed? (Lanchester documents the insignificance of the changes very thoroughly.)

The first answer is that almost nobody — almost nobody — remembers what happened in 2008. And why don’t they remember? Because of social media and smartphones.

I cannot, of course, provide documentary proof for that claim. But as the Marxists used to say I believe it is no accident that the shaking of the foundations of the global economy and “the longest period of declining real incomes in recorded economic history” happened just as the iPhone was taking serious hold on the imagination of the developed world, and Facebook and Twitter were becoming key components of everyday life in that world. On your smartphones you can get (a) a stream of prompts for visceral wrath and fear and then (b) games and distractions that accomplish the suddenly-necessary self-soothing. Between the wrath and fear and the subsequent soothing, who can remember what happened last week, much less ten years ago? Silicon Valley serves the global capitalist order as its Ministry of Amnesia. “What is it I was so concerned about?”

credit and debt

David Bentley Hart:

The Law not only prohibited interest on loans, but mandated that every seventh year should be a Sabbatical, a shmita, a fallow year, during which debts between Israelites were to be remitted; and then went even further in imposing the Sabbath of Sabbath-Years, the Year of Jubilee, in which all debts were excused and all slaves granted their liberty, so that everyone might begin again, as it were, with a clear ledger. In this way, the difference between creditors and debtors could be (at least, for a time) erased, and a kind of equitable balance restored. At the same time, needless to say, the unremitting denunciation of those who exploit the poor or ignore their plight is a radiant leitmotif running through the proclamations of the prophets of Israel (Isa 3:13-15; 5:8; 10:1-2; Jer 5:27-28: Amos 4:1; etc.).

So it should be unsurprising to learn that a very great many of Christ’s teachings concerned debtors and creditors, and the legal coercion of the former by the latter, and the need for debt relief; but somehow we do find it surprising—when, of course, we notice. As a rule, however, it is rare that we do notice, in part because we often fail to recognize the social and legal practices to which his parables and moral exhortations so often referred, and in part because our traditions have so successfully “spiritualized” the texts—both through translation and through habits of interpretation—that the economic and political provocations they contain are scarcely imaginable to us at all.

a Communist and a Tory

Clive Wilmer on Ruskin:

This Toryism, comparable to that of Swift and Johnson and Coleridge, is based on a belief in hierarchy, established order and obedience to inherited authority. He detested both liberty and equality, blaming them, more than privilege, for the injustices he condemned. Only those who held power by right, as he saw it, could be moved by a sense of duty to serve and protect the weak. This is a side of Ruskin that is likely to confuse and even repel the modern reader, in particular the radical who finds his apparent socialism attractive. But in the nineteenth century political attitudes were not so neatly shared out between left and right as they are — or seem to be — today. Modern capitalist economics were then thought progressive, being associated with the expansion of personal liberty. A radical liberal like John Stuart Mill, who championed democracy and the extension of personal rights and liberties, was also an advocate of doctrines which can be blamed for the degradations of the workhouse (Utilitarianism) and the extremes of Victorian poverty (laissez-faire). By contrast, Shaftesbury and Wilberforce, famous respectively for the Factory Acts and the abolition of slavery, were high Tories. State intervention in the economy and social welfare policies belonged to the right, for the right believed in the duty of government to govern — to secure social order and administer justice impartially.

No political label quite fits Ruskin’s politics. Though he detested the Liberals, he was far from being a supporter of the Conservatives. His ‘Toryism’ was such that it could, in his own lifetime, inspire the socialism of William Morris and the founders of the Labour Party; and when he called himself a ‘conservative’, he usually meant a preserver of the environment — what we should call a ‘conservationist’. The truth is that, despite an exceptional consistency of view, throughout his life, on most matters of principle, his specific opinions changed and developed as he grew older. His attitudes to war and imperialism and the rights of women, for instance, oscillate wildly between reaction and radicalism; and he in effect concedes the ambiguity of his position when, in Fors Clavigera, he calls himself, with conscious irony, both a Communist and a Tory.

hurt the people first

Among the many takes I’ve read on yesterday’s ESPN layoffs, the most incisive, I think, is this one from Tom Ley:

And so today’s layoffs seem to follow a kind of logic: If ESPN is bleeding money from subscriber losses, they need to offset the damage by making cuts elsewhere in the company. That doesn’t, though, really follow, mathematically. Look at the people who have been laid off today. Sure, it’s possible that veterans like McManus and Stark and Ed Werder were carrying hefty salaries, but no amount of fired reporters and columnists is going to put even the tiniest dent in ESPN’s rights fees. Add up all the salaries of the people who lost their jobs today, and how much of a single Monday Night Football broadcast does it buy? Ten minutes? Fifteen?

So, then, what was the point? The memo released this morning by ESPN president John Skipper is instructive. It was hollow and buzzword-laden in the precise way that is meant to speak to Disney investors who want to be assured that ESPN is still capable of “navigating changes in technology and fan behavior in order to continue to deliver quality, breakthrough content.” That’s what today appears to have been really about—assuring Disney stakeholders that ESPN is taking things very seriously and is prepared to keep itself lean and competitive. Don’t think too much about how we’re going to continue to pay rights fees with sustained subscriber loss! We’re making cuts! We have a handle on things!

I was still thinking about that post when, this morning, I read Annalee Newitz’s report on the people employed by Google and Leapforce to rate Google’s algorithms. I say “employed by Google and Leapforce,” but the situation is actually more complicated than that: all of the work the raters do is for Google, but they are officially employees only of Leapforce — which has just cut all of the raters working full-time back to 26 hours per week max, in order to avoid having to meet certain expensive conditions laid down by Federal law. Though it’s Google who benefits — and openly admits to benefitting — from these people’s work, Google won’t take them on as employees, even though paying them directly for their work, even at full-time salaries with full benefits, would be less than a drop taken from Google’s fiscal bucket.

Thus we see ESPN/Disney and Leapforce/Google operating on what has become one of the most fundamental rules of our current economic system: When things go badly, hurt the people first.