What is wealth?

Branko Milanovic over at his website:

It seems obvious. Let me start with the definitions that economists who work on inequality use. It is the sum total of all assets that you own (cash, house, car, furniture, paintings, money in the bank, value of shares, bonds etc.) plus what is called  “the surrender value” of life insurance and similar plans minus the amount of your debts. In other words, this is the amount of money that you would get if you had to liquidate today all your possessions and repay all your debts. (The amount can clearly be negative too.) The definition can get further complicated as some economists insist that we should also add the capitalized value of future (certain?) streams of income. That leads to the problems that I explained here—but be this as it may, in this post I would like to take a more historical view of wealth.

I did that too in my “The Haves and the Have-nots” when I discussed who might have been the richest person in history. If you want to compare people from different epochs you cannot just simply try to calculate their total wealth. That is impossible because of what is known as the “index number problem”: there is no way to compare the bundle of goods and services which are hugely dissimilar. If I can listen to a million songs and  read the whole night using a very good light, and if I put a high value on that, I may be thought to be wealthier than any king who lived 1000 years ago. Tocqueville noticed that too when he wrote that ancient kings lived lives of luxury but not comfort.

This is why we should  use Adam Smith’s definition of wealth: “[A person] must be rich or poor according to the quantity of labor which he can command”.

More here.

Sex and Self-Knowledge: Beyond Consent

Katherine Angel over at the Verso Blog:

In recent years, two requirements for good sex have emerged: consent, and self-knowledge. Consent, in Joseph Fischel’s words, gives ‘moral magic to sex.’ Self-knowledge too, is paramount. ‘Know what you want and learn what your partner wants’, urged a New York Times article in July 2018; ‘good sex happens where those two agendas meet.’ ‘Have the conversation’, a sex educator exhorted on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The New Age of Consent’ in September 2018—the direct, honest conversation about sex, about whether you want it, and exactly what you want. Have it before you are in the bedroom; have it in the bar, have it in the cab home—any awkwardness will be worth it later. This rhetoric is not entirely new; Rachel Bussell Kramer wrote in 2008 that ‘as women, it’s our duty to ourselves and our partners to get more vocal about asking for what we want in bed, as well as sharing what we don’t. Neither partner can afford to be passive and just wait to see how far the other person will go.’ Women are urged to know their desires, and be clear and confident about expressing them. Simple, right?

These principles are framed as common-sense, and easy enough. They are also framed as inherently liberatory, since they emphasise women’s capacity for—and right to—sexual desire and pleasure. But in urging women to be confident and clear about their sexual desires, the consent discourse risks denying the fact that women are often punished for precisely the sexually confident and assertive positions they are being asked to cultivate. What’s more, the exhortations to confidence and positivity—the insistence on defiant affirmation—have an underbelly: they render lack of confidence, insecurity, or not-knowing as ugly, abject, and shameful. They brook little vulnerability or ambivalence. And they make inadmissible the experience of not knowing what one wants in the first place.

More here.

Education and Property for All: Thomas Piketty on Capital and Ideology

Danielle Charette talks to Thomas Piketty in Tocqueville 21:

Danielle Charette: Capital and Ideology is clearly an ambitious book. It undertakes a history of what you call “inequality regimes” across many eras and in many different regions of the world. To tell the story you go well beyond traditional economics and venture into the fields of political science, history, sociology, and sometimes even literature and film. Of course, any interdisciplinary project comes with risks, since it requires commenting on fields in which you yourself may not be an expert. Can you say a bit why, as an economist, you organized Capital and Ideology in this interdisciplinary way?

Thomas Piketty: First of all, let me make clear that I don’t have a strong identity as an economist. I view my work more as the work of a social scientist, at the frontier between economic history, social history, historical economics, and political economy, or however you want to phrase it. I have written three books: Top Incomes in France in the Twentieth Century in 2001, then Capital in the Twenty-First Century in 2013, and now Capital and Ideology in 2019. Basically everything I have done over these past twenty years has been about the history of inequality. No book is exclusively about economics.

Now, that being said, you’re right that this new book is even more a book of social sciences than the previous two. My study of ideology sometimes takes the direction of anthropology or political science. I felt that this was necessary in order to better understand the evolution of inequality regimes. In the end, my main takeaway—as I say in the introduction of the book—is that the origins of inequality are more political and ideological than economic, technological, or even cultural.

More here.

How Europe became so rich

Joel Mokyr in Aeon:

How and why did the modern world and its unprecedented prosperity begin? Learned tomes by historians, economists, political scientists and other scholars fill many bookshelves with explanations of how and why the process of modern economic growth or ‘the Great Enrichment’ exploded in western Europe in the 18th century. One of the oldest and most persuasive explanations is the long political fragmentation of Europe. For centuries, no ruler had ever been able to unite Europe the way the Mongols and the Mings had united China.

It should be emphasised that Europe’s success was not the result of any inherent superiority of European (much less Christian) culture. It was rather what is known as a classical emergent property, a complex and unintended outcome of simpler interactions on the whole. The modern European economic miracle was the result of contingent institutional outcomes. It was neither designed nor planned. But it happened, and once it began, it generated a self-reinforcing dynamic of economic progress that made knowledge-driven growth both possible and sustainable.

More here.

Who Is the Dalai Lama?

Donald S. Lopez at the NYT:

“Dalai Lama” is a foreign title. Tibetans refer to him with names like “Precious Protector,” “Wish-Fulfilling Jewel” and “the Presence.” The divide between the Tibetan Buddhist world — which often has included China and Mongolia — and the world beyond has rarely been of particular consequence to the Dalai Lamas, until this one, the 14th, who is the first to spend most of his life in exile; he fled to India in 1959 and has not returned. His biographer, facing the usual problems of recounting the life of a figure still living (the Dalai Lama will be 85 this year), is also faced with the dilemma of describing his life on the world stage (which has been fairly well documented) and his life inside the world of Tibetan Buddhism (which has not). This is the challenge that Alexander Norman, a longtime associate of the Dalai Lama, takes up in his new biography.

more here.


Karl Whitney at The Guardian:

Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter once told a journalist that his group’s 23-minute-long song about car travel “Autobahn” was an attempt to answer the question: “What is the sound of the German Bundesrepublik?” The autobahn system is, Uwe Schütte writes in this engaging critical introduction to the band, a “deeply ambivalent German monument” because it was a pet project of Adolf Hitler.

Schütte sees Kraftwerk’s music as “a contribution to the political, cultural and moral rebuilding of Germany” after the second world war. Their records obliquely approach history, and the process of constructing a future-oriented nation, by focusing on the material aspects of its everyday life: roads, nuclear power, trains, computers.

more here.

Kathleen Collins’s Ecstatic Self-Discovery

Yasmina Price at the NYRB:

Black women filmmakers—not invented yesterday and invented by no one but themselves—have persistently been making imaginative work in spite of the many obstacles and restrictions they’ve faced. The sixty plus films included in a recent series at Film Forum, “Black Women: Trailblazing African American Actresses & Images, 1920–2001,” exemplify their innovative and lasting legacies. One of these, Losing Ground (1982), by the filmmaker, playwright, and novelist Kathleen Collins, is a particularly incandescent example of filmmaking as a process of defiant self-creation.

The series, curated by black film historian Donald Bogle and artist and archivist Ina Archer for Film Forum, favored the catalog of 1920s to 1960s “classical Hollywood,” featuring Hattie McDaniel, Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, and many others.

more here.

Highways Through Hell

Bridgett M. Davis in The New York Times:

Viewers of the Oscar-winning film “Green Book” might assume they have a sense of what it was like to travel as an African-American in this country during the many decades that Jim Crow laws and racist practices flourished. Like the main character in the movie, a classical pianist on tour in the South, black travelers couldn’t have a meal, get a good night’s sleep or fill up their gas tank at most white-owned businesses. But two new books, “Overground Railroad,” by Candacy Taylor, and “Driving While Black,” by Gretchen Sorin, make powerfully clear the magnitude of the injustices and harrowing encounters endured by African-Americans traveling by “open” road, as well as of their quiet acts of rebellion and protest, which went far beyond having to find alternative places to eat, sleep and buy gas.

Both of these deeply researched books detail the potentially dangerous ordeals African-Americans faced just to see relatives down South, travel for work or take a family vacation. Black drivers had to worry about traffic stops that could turn violent or deadly (they still do), and avoid getting lost lest they find themselves in “sundown” towns, all-white communities from which blacks were banned after dark and where those who did enter risked confrontations with angry mobs.

Blacks often drove through the night both out of necessity (since few hotels would take them in) and to keep under cover, a practice that caused fatigue, which increased the possibility of accidents. Prompt medical care was rare, and collisions with white motorists were particularly perilous. Cars had better not break down or run out of gas too far from a black neighborhood. And even when a drive transpired without incident, African-American travelers faced intimidating and demeaning billboards and road signs. (The banner across the main street in Greenville, Texas, read, “The blackest land, the whitest people.”) Yet despite the threats that lay ahead every time African-Americans got into their cars, despite the stress and its psychological toll, they kept hitting the road, moving forward, questing for freedom.

More here. (Note: Throughout February, at least one post honored The Black History Month. I end this last post with a quote from the great James Baldwin. I had the honor of meeting him many times. The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which one is being educated. Until next February, Black History, Zindabad! )

This ragged claw

Ellen Wayland-Smith in Aeon:

Cancer has always been imagined as a biting, grasping, greedy beast. Hippocrates (or one of his students) is thought to be the first to name the disease karkinos, or crab, as ‘its veins are filled and stretched around like the feet of the animal called crab’. It was an image that would stick, embellished by physicians more deeply and vividly ever after. Like the crab, cancer was tenacious. ‘It is very hardly pulled away from those members, which it doth lay hold on, as the sea crab doth,’ remarked one 16th-century physician. There was no use in cutting away the tumour, just as there was no forcing a ‘Crab to quit what he has grasped betwixt his griping Claws,’ despaired another observer. Cancer the disease was as sneaky as its namesake. ‘It creeps little and little,’ noted one medieval commentator, ‘gnawing and fretting flesh and sinews slowish to the sight as it were a crab.’

Cancer’s gnawing behaviour led early physicians to compare it to a worm as well as to a crab. The medieval name for the plant-devouring green caterpillar, canker worm, derived from one such metaphorical leap from biology to botany: as cankers on the skin, so cankers in the bud. And just as malignant larvae in plants had to be destroyed before they blighted the flower, so one had to ‘sley the worm’ of cancer when it chanced to rear its head in human flesh. This worm could be quite literal; the 17th-century surgeon Pierre Dionis surmised that cancer was nothing more than a ‘prodigious Multitude of small worms’ infesting its host. A common medieval remedy, the so-called ‘meat cure’, involved laying slabs of fresh chicken or veal on the ulcer, by which to lure the creature out. Could the canker worm be convinced to ingest the decoy flesh, the patient might be spared.

More here.

Saturday Poem

What You Need to be Warm

A baked potato of a winter’s night to wrap your hands around
…….. or burn your mouth.
A blanket knitted by your mother’s cunning fingers.
…..… Or your grandmother’s.
A smile, a touch, trust, as you walk in from the snow
or return to it, the tips of your ears pricked pink and frozen.

The tink tink tink of iron radiators waking in an old house.
To surface from dreams in a bed, burrowed beneath blankets
…..… and comforters,
the change of state from cold to warm is all that matters,
…..… and you think
just one more minute snuggled here before you face the chill.
…..… Just one.

Places we slept as children: they warm us in the memory.
We travel to an inside from the outside. To the orange flames
…..… of the fireplace
or the wood burning in the stove. Breath-ice on the inside
…..… of windows,
to be scratched off with a fingernail, melted with a whole hand.

Frost on the ground that stays in the shadows, waiting for us.
Wear a scarf. Wear a coat. Wear a sweater. Wear socks.
…..… Wear thick gloves.
An infant as she sleeps between us. A tumble of dogs,
a kindle of cats and kittens. Come inside. You’re safe now.

A kettle boiling at the stove. Your family or friends are there.
…..… They smile.
Cocoa or chocolate, tea or coffee, soup or toddy,
…..… what you know you need.
A heat exchange, they give it to you, you take the mug
and start to thaw. While outside, for some of us,
…..… the journey began

as we walked away from our grandparents’ houses
away from the places we knew as children: changes of state
…..… and state and state,
to stumble across a stony desert, or to brave the deep waters,
…..… while food and friends, home, a bed, even a blanket become
just memories.

Sometimes it only takes a stranger, in a dark place,
to hold out a badly-knitted scarf, to offer a kind word, to say
we have the right to be here, to make us warm in the coldest season.

You have the right to be here.

by Neil Gaiman
from Brain Pickings


Richard Hughes Gibson at The Hedgehog Review:

I am not the first to propose that Transhumanism channels elements of Christian eschatology. In The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace (1999), the science writer Margaret Wertheim argued that Transhumanists seek to “realize a technological substitute for the Christian afterlife” in “digital domains.” She documents, for example, Transhumanist hopes for “whole brain emulation,” whereby—as its most influential proponent, Hans Moravec, envisions it—a “robot brain surgeon” will download your “mind” tissue-layer by tissue-layer, after which you’ll wake up in a simulation. (The useless “meat” leftovers will be trashed.) One’s new cyber-body will now be “limitless” both in time and space, a hope that bears more than a passing resemblance to the “glorified” bodies promised by St. Paul. Moreover, a self made of bits could be backed up, making it possible for one’s “soul-data” to survive a crash or power outage. “As in the New Jerusalem,” Wertheim writes, “‘death would be no more.’”

more here.

Fascism and Culture

Robert S. C. Gordon at Public Books:

It was Fascism that set image, stage, and performance at the core of an ideology of the state, that merged culture and politics until one was all but indistinguishable from the other, as Walter Benjamin intuited in his much-cited formulation of Fascism as the aestheticization of politics. And as we look on today at the grim return of totalitarian impulses across the globe, we might reflect on how this has been made possible in part by the latent and unresolved question of the relation of politics to culture (and identity) in the modern state.

Among all its other aggressive structural interventions—its militarization, corporatization, and regimentation of an entire state and society—Fascism also created a cultural behemoth.

more here.

Palindromes, Palindromes, Motherfucker, What!

Colin Dickey at The Believer:

Mercer has long since been placed in the upper ranks of the great palindromists. Over the years he submitted hundreds of palindromes to the British periodical Notes and Queries, including “Now, Ned, I am a maiden won,” “Nurse, I spy gypsies—run!,” and “Did Hannah say as Hannah did?” But outside the world of word game enthusiasts (a.k.a. logologists), he is largely unknown. This despite being the author of a seven-word, mostly inaccurate synopsis of a complex engineering feat that became one of the most widely known palindromes in English.

“A man, a plan, a canal, Panama” works well as a palindrome because it’s not only the same letters read backward and forward, but it also makes sense, which is more than many palindromes do. “Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas” is a terrific palindrome, but what does it mean?

more here.

Dear Chairman Xi, It’s Time for You to Go

An Essay by Xu Zhiyong, Translated and Annotated by Geremie R. Barmé in China File:

Translator’s Introduction: Xu Zhiyong is a legal scholar and former university lecturer from central China with a doctorate from Peking University. He co-founded the New Citizens Movement, a group that advocated civil rights and China’s peaceful transition to constitutional rule. Detained in July 2013, he was sentenced to four years’ jail in 2014 for “gathering crowds to disrupt public order.” Following his release, he continued to encourage his supporters through his online writing. He went into hiding in late 2019. The following open letter, which was released on February 4, 2020, was written while he was on the run. On February 15, Xu was detained in the southern city of Guangzhou.

This is the second letter that Xu Zhiyong addressed to Xi Jinping. In the first, published when Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012, the author expressed hope that Xi would not only continue the country’s economic reforms but that he would also guide China towards substantive political change. Seven years later, Xu’s hopes, and his tone, have changed markedly. Now, for the sake of the country, its people, and even history itself, the author appeals to Xi Jinping to step down.

More here.

Will Cultured Meat Soon Be A Common Sight In Supermarkets Across The Globe?

Brian Kateman in Forbes:

Up until now, plant-based food companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and Quorn have almost singlehandedly worked to lessen the impacts of industrial animal agriculture.

Supermarket shelves and fast food restaurants across the US are serving up vegan burgers and meatballs and plant-based chicken nuggets are showing consumers there is an alternative to relying on animal-based protein.

But a quiet revolution is also taking place in labs, where scientists are working to cultivate meat and seafood grown from cells, with the potential to reduce demand for industrial animal agriculture even further.

Here’s how the process works: Stem cells are taken from the muscle of an animal, usually with a small biopsy under anesthesia, then they’re put with nutrients, salts, pH buffers, and growth factor and left to multiply. Finessing the technology and getting the cost to an affordable level is happening at a slower pace than the plant-based industry, but a number of start-ups are nevertheless aiming to get their products on the market soon.

More here.

Why Students Should Think Like Shakespeare

Alexander C. Kafka in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“You’ve been cheated of your birthright: a complete education.”

So Scott Newstok warned the Class of 2020 in a convocation speech four years ago. Newstok, who teaches literature at Rhodes College, where he also directs the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment, urged students to strive for “a level of precision, inventiveness, and empathy worthy to be called Shakespearean.”

That speech led to an essay and now to a book, How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons From a Renaissance Education, which Princeton University Press will publish in April. In it, Newstok considers what the Bard’s copious intellect and imagination might tell us about the potential and failures of our educational system. In doing so, he cites a wide array of thinkers — not just Shakespeare but ancient Greek philosophers, Mary Shelley, Hannah Arendt, Maya Angelou, Bob Dylan, and scores of others. That serves as a written meta-performance that illustrates Newstok’s point: Discovering how others think is the best way to learn how to think for ourselves.

Newstok explained to The Chronicle why he approached the book in that way, how writing it influenced his teaching, and how educational reforms leave every child behind.

More here.

Friday Poem

Map of the New World

1. Archipelagoes

At the end of this sentence, rain will begin.
At the rain’s edge, a sail.

Slowly the sail will lose sight of the islands;
into a mist will go the belief in harbors
of an entire race.

The ten-years war is finished.
Helen’s hair, a grey cloud.
Troy a white ashpit
by the drizzling sea.

The drizzle tightens like the strings of a harp.
A man with clouded eyes picks up the rain
and plucks the first line of the Odyssey.

by Derek Walcott
Collected Poems 1948-1984
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984

Why faces don’t always tell the truth about feelings

Douglas Heaven in Nature:

Human faces pop up on a screen, hundreds of them, one after another. Some have their eyes stretched wide, others show lips clenched. Some have eyes squeezed shut, cheeks lifted and mouths agape. For each one, you must answer this simple question: is this the face of someone having an orgasm or experiencing sudden pain?

Psychologist Rachael Jack and her colleagues recruited 80 people to take this test as part of a study1 in 2018. The team, at the University of Glasgow, UK, enlisted participants from Western and East Asian cultures to explore a long-standing and highly charged question: do facial expressions reliably communicate emotions? Researchers have been asking people what emotions they perceive in faces for decades. They have questioned adults and children in different countries and Indigenous populations in remote parts of the world. Influential observations in the 1960s and 1970s by US psychologist Paul Ekman suggested that, around the world, humans could reliably infer emotional states from expressions on faces — implying that emotional expressions are universal2,3. These ideas stood largely unchallenged for a generation. But a new cohort of psychologists and cognitive scientists has been revisiting those data and questioning the conclusions. Many researchers now think that the picture is a lot more complicated, and that facial expressions vary widely between contexts and cultures. Jack’s study, for instance, found that although Westerners and East Asians had similar concepts of how faces display pain, they had different ideas about expressions of pleasure.

More here.