On Wealth

For the last post of June, and the beginning of the new semi-official post every once in a while policy, let’s talk wealth. Not willing to devote the time needed to find the articles among the 1500+ posts here on this blog, but I have long pointed out that the one thing without which the current insanity could not function is sheer, massive, overflowing wealth. Plenty. Stuff.

Public domain. Darn birds! Nice illustration of medieval technology: the heavy wheeled plow pulled by a haltered team of horses, which would require a lot of high-tech blacksmithing – e.g., horseshoes and iron plow blades. Pigs in the woods, a church in the background – and a road, which is required to get that ‘surplus’ food into nearby towns, to keep the 5%-20% of the population that wasn’t farming alive.

Being shot at without effect is not the only thing that focuses the mind wonderfully – the real threat of starvation and death seems to have a similar effect. We can get all technical about how time preferences are honed to a dangerous point in farmers, especially farmers in areas with a strongly defined growing season, such that European, Chinese, and Japanese cultures, for example, all traditionally value the willingness to delay gratification. The farmer knows with painful certainty that eating the seed corn or the breeding stock is near certainly a fatal move, even if it isn’t immediately fatal right now. A certain sanity, of the horse sense variety, was enforced by Reality.

Being a single mom, non-widow division, for example, was not looked down upon because – or just because – the woman likely had had a moment or two of moral failing. Rather, the careful social structure, built in the face of a frequently fragile prosperity, simply had few places for single moms. Put in brutal economic terms, there wasn’t enough consistent excess capacity to keep very many single moms and their kids alive. A Heloise, orphan daughter raised by a rich uncle, didn’t die as a result of conceiving Abelard’s baby outside of marriage. But she was now unmarriageable – who, among her social class, would want her, given her history? So the child is given up, Abelard is castrated, and Heloise consigned to a convent – and that’s a GOOD outcome, available only to the rich! A poorer woman would have abandoned her child, been forced into something like prostitution, and would be looking at a life expectancy in low single digit years.

Of course there were exceptions. But the number of exceptions could not stand in the face of the number of cautionary tales. Not so, in the modern world. Outside of war zones and targeted political actions (insofar as those two things are distinguishable in practice), it’s been half a century since any very large number of people have starved anywhere in the world. Cultures don’t change that fast, but in America, where we reached the nobody needs to starve level of food production a century or more ago, not only is mere survival all but guaranteed no matter how little one contributes to the upkeep and passing on of the culture, but the sorts of behaviors that would have placed you under dire threat of starvation are enshrined and protected. It’s unheard of to criticize an unwed mother or caddish Don Juan; the feces-enriched camps of the homeless are welcomed and protected in most major cities.

I’ve written all this before. The basic lack of any time preferences that favor long-term survival is a feature, not a bug, of modern culture. You be you, after all, and right now! If you are an obnoxious, mindless blight on society, so what? What is that compared to the Sacred You? We are so insulated from the consequences of real failure that many people who would have straved or died of exposure not that long ago can live quite comfortably within a complete fantasy world contained in their own heads…

… but they are far from the only people fully insulated from their own bad decisions. See here. The time preferences of the very rich run, perhaps, somewhat longer than your homeless person or gender studies grad, but not very much longer, and not for more than a generation or two. Typically, the grandchildren of the very rich are spending the fumes of the family fortune. It takes three generations, in other words, for Reality to catch up with the fantasy worlds of the very rich.

Aaaand – then there’s us. Let’s say you, a member of the middle class as traditionally understood, make a mistake, and wrap your $40K automobile around a tree. You escape serious injury, but now – oh, the horror! – need to deal with the insurance companies and shopping for a new car – oh, bother!

That’s not insulated from reality? In a dozen little ways, even we who choose to work and save and spend time with our loved ones are thus insulated. I’m reminded of the term ‘grillers’ – people who don’t want to hear about the problems in the world, they just want to grill. So long as they can grill, everything is OK enough. Well? How long can that attitude – and I admit I’ve not been far from it most of my life – survive?

As of right now, a preference for reality in the Aristotelian/Thomistic sense of an objective world accessible to the mind through the senses, a world within which we live but that doesn’t care what we think, with rules we can’t will away, is just that – a preference. There are few if any short-term costs to simply living in our own fantasy worlds. The gods of the copy book headings are on vacation, and will remain so for as long as the general level of Stuff/Wealth/Plenty remains anywhere near as absurdly high as it is now, AND Our Self-Appointed Betters decide to keep using some of that wealth on bread and circuses. Already, Sri Lanka and Ecuador have sunk into chaos, with real famine rearing its head (but caused by war/political acts, not weather or blight as in the old days). Other states are sure to follow.

The world can only play act for so long.

Which, frankly, is too bad. I’m very fond of indoor plumbing, electricity delivered right to your wall outlets, and gas stove cooking at the turn of a nob. I hope we can work this all out without destroying all the wonderful infrastructure our ancestors built over the last 250 years. I hope and pray that the gods of the copybook heading are not loosed, but especially that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will remember His promise of mercy. Wealth in itself isn’t evil, but we’re seeing that, like power in any form, it is easily used for evil. I’d like to see the miracle where the evil is destroyed without the destruction of all the wealth. But Thy Will be Done.

Too funny to omit: Looking for a picture to illustrate the realities of pre-modern agriculture, and came across this gem, explaining the history and science of the picture of a medieval couple harvesting grain. A tidy summary of the modern view, even if a hopelessly useless description of medieval farm economy:

Farming was the most popular occupation of the Medieval Ages as it was an essential element to survival. A local lord or master would grant portions of his land to commoners and serfs and in exchange the people would till, cultivate and maintain the property to produce crops. What was grown was eventually sold at local markets at which the peasants were allowed to keep a share. Most revenue went to the local lord however through taxes and levies. In the society of the Middle Ages, a man’s status was based on how much land and livestock he owned. As both of these elements were critical for revenue, a private farmer who owned his own land could become quite rich. Crops were varied and depended greatly on how fertile the plot of farmed land was.

Yep – not starving, always a “popular occupation.” I can just see the youngsters, at Career Day at their medieval high school, talking to the guy at the Careers in Peasant Farming booth, and thinking: “farming sounds OK. I was thinking about that crusader gig – sounds sweet! – except I need to go ask the guy at the Squires and Baggage Train booth how it is that so few of them ever come back home. Monk and priest – nice stable careers, but I want a family, and that’s only an option for the Lay Investiture rich boys. The dude at the Blacksmithing booth made it sound like getting an apprenticeship is a trick – you got to know the right people. Scholars? No money or respect. Besides, all my friends are going into serfdom – it a popular occupation. I guess peasant farmer it is. Hope mom and dad are OK with me going vo-tech.”

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

9 thoughts on “On Wealth”

  1. “Yep – not starving, always a “popular occupation.””

    I’m glad I didn’t have a mouth full of beer when I read this.

  2. Small quibble: I think you’ve mixed up your quotations there.
    “Being shot at without result” is more exhilarating than anything else, according to Sir Winston, while it’s knowing you’ll be hanged in the morning that “focuses the mind wonderfully,” in the view of Dr. Johnson.

    1. I used to think along those lines, but have since reconsidered. For every resource consumed, new ones are created. It’s important to recognize, I think, that resources are as much created as discovered. Oil was not a resource until people figured out how to use it; same with coal, and even the same with trees, crops, and so on. There were points all through history when people lived surrounded by what would become essential resources, but didn’t recognize them or lacked the tools and ingenuity to use them. Horse began as big scary animals, then became something you could eat, then something you could ride, then something that could pull your plow, then a source of baseball covers, then a high-class hobby. Right now, there are enough uranium resource identified to power the current needs of civilization for centuries. Uranium wasn’t a resource until, what, 80 years ago? Who knows what will turn out to be the key resource in the future.

      1. I think that’s an unjustifiable logical leap. First, new resources aren’t created. They’re either there or they aren’t. Maybe we find out how to use something that already exists. Maybe we don’t. The fact that it’s happened that way in the past is no guarantee that it will continue to happen out into eternity.

        Plus, each new wave of resource extraction comes with its own ugly externalities. Have we found a magical way of disposing of nuclear byproducts recently? I don’t see shoving those large costs onto future generations who’ll be unable to enjoy the benefits of the technology as a very appealing solution.

      2. Silicon – sand. Helium – byproduct of petroleum extraction. Hey, where are all those tires we were being buried under 30 years ago? Remember those huge mountains of tires that sometimes caught fire?

        And on and on. Now, of course there are limits. Are we near any of them? The sun consumes the earth in around a billion years – that’s a hard limit. Commodity prices keep going down in real terms, which means that they are getting more plentiful, demand for them is being redirected, or both.

        Evidence – not feelings, not suspicions, but evidence – suggests we are nowhere near consuming the resources of this planet. We should keep things tidy and not unnecessarily waste stuff, but that’s about it. Anything else than that is just panic generated by crazy people.

  3. Ha! You can’t resist. Suggestion: Maybe blog pseudonymously and clue in your most loyal and trustworthy (i.e. tightlipped) followers of the new blog address.

  4. In the 19th century rural America, the single mother would drift to the city and become a prostitute in tales. In reality, she would go to distant relatives and claim to be a widow.

    Which entirely turns on the possibility of distant relatives.

  5. Sharing this widely today.

    And a comment:
    A song I love to sing : “Though the seas be calm and bright / sparkling with the stars of night/ And my ship’s path is ablaze with the light of halcyon days / still I know my need of These / Jesus Savior pilot me.

    Wealth hides the rocks and treacherous shoals of our self-destructive errors, and ever-lurking dangers of the evil Powers of the world and an entropic universe.

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