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I wanted to share with you a glimpse back into history to one of the most peculiar and specialized cities of western history.  During the middle ages, monasticism was a vast and powerful cultural force.  Indeed, in certain times and places, it may have been the principal cultural force in a world which was painfully transforming from the slave society of classical antiquity into the modern kingdom states of Europe.

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West of the Alps, the great monastic order was the Benedictine order, founded by Saint Benedict of Nursia, a Roman nobleman who lived during the middle of the 6th century. “The Rule of Saint Benedict” weds classical Roman ideals of reason, order, balance, and moderation, with Judeo-Christian ideals of devotion, piety, and transcendence.   The Benedictine Order kept art, literature, philosophy, and science (such as it was) alive during the upheavals of Late Antiquity and the “Dark Ages”–the brothers (and sisters) were the keepers of the knowledge gleaned by Rome and Greece.  The monks also amassed enormous, wealth and power in Feudal European society.  The greatest abbots were equivalent to feudal lords and princes commanding enormous tracts of land and great estates of serfs.

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Nowhere was this more true than in Cluny, in east central France (near the Swiss Alps), where Duke William I of Aquitaine founded a monastic order with such extensive lands and such a generous charter that it grew beyond the scope of all other such communities in France, Germany, northern Europe, and the British Isles.  The Duke stipulated that the abbot of the monastery was beholden to no earthly authority save for that of the pope (and there were even rules concerning the extent of papal authority over the abbey), so the monks were free to choose their own leader instead of having crooked 2nd sons of noblemen fobbed off on them.

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Additionally, the monastery created a system of “franchise monasteries” called priories which reported to the authority of the main abbot and paid tithes to Cluny.   This wealth allowed Cluny to become a veritable city of prayer.  The building, farming, and lay work was completed by serfs and retainers, while the brothers devoted themselves to prayer, art, scholarship, and otherworldly pursuits…and also to politics, statecraft, administration, feasting, and very worldly pursuits (since the community became incredibly ric)h.  The chandeliers, sacred chalices, and monstrances were made of gold and jewels, and the brothers wore habits of finest cloth (and even silk).

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The main tower of the Basilica towered to an amazing 200 meters (656 feet of height) and the abbey was the largest building in Europe until the enlargement of St. Peter’s Basilica in the 17th century.  At its zenith in the 11th and 12th century, the monastery was home to 10,000 monks. The abbots of Cluny were as powerful as kings (they kept a great townhouse in Paris), and four abbots later became popes.  At the top of the page I have included a magnificent painting by the great urban reconstruction artist, Jean-Claude Golvin, who painstakingly reconstructs vanished and destroyed cities of the past as computer models and then as sumptuous paintings.  Just look at the scope of the (3rd and greatest) monastery and the buildings around it.

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Such wealth also engendered decadence and corruption.  Later abbots were greedy and incompetent.  They oppressed the farmers and craftspeople who worked for them and tried to cheat the merchants and bankers they did business with.  The monastery fell into a long period of decline which ended (along with the ancien regime, about which similar things could be said) during the French Revolution.  Most of the monastery was burnt to the ground and only a secondary bell tower and hall remain.  Fortunately the greatest treasures of Cluny, the manuscripts of the ancient and the medieval world, were copied and disseminated.  The most precious became the centerpiece of the Bibliothèque nationale de France at Paris, and the British Museum also holds 60 or so ancient charters (because they are good at getting their hands on stuff like that).

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We can still imagine what it must have been like to live in the complex during the high middle ages, though, as part of a huge university-like community of prayer, thought, and beauty.  it was a world of profound lonely discipline tempered with fine dining, art, and general good living–an vanished yet eternal city of French Monastic life.

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From afar, Dubai has always struck me as disgusting (indeed the Gulf States as a whole raise my hackles).  It is a society where the super-rich who can purchase the good graces of the Sultan (or whatever rinky-dink title their life autocrat styles for himself) can literally do anything to anybody without any consequences.  It is a slave state built on the suffering of others–mostly Indian and Pakistani workers who are bamboozled to come over and then worked to death in the oppressive heat or robbed by goons working for the aristocracy.  It is a petro-state in which the oceans of wealth come from one and only one industry (a dangerous and supremely problematic industry at that). The flagrant & ostentatious Muslim extremism which is such a feature of life in the Middle East is much on display, but naturally the opprobrious strictures of the faith do not apply to the wealthy, and Mohammed’s lessons of compassion, self-discipline, and striving seem to be lost on his most outspoken followers in the middle and lower tiers of society (who read the divine poetry of the Koran and find only reasons that they are better than everybody else and excuses to abuse outsiders at their will).  Also, the whole place is in a sweltering desert.  It is what the United States aspires to be in the era of Donald Trump: a fundamentalist kleptocracy with lots of ugly towers where the sordid pleasures of the few eclipse the suffering of the many.

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But what pleasures they are! Today’s essay is a work of bemused praise for Dubai (sorry if that purpose got a bit, um, muddled in the first paragraph up there).  The crazed rulers of the place have built one of the world’s most lavish pleasure gardens:  the Dubai Miracle Garden.  The garden is indeed a miracle, since it is built on a reclaimed desert.  It is also a miracle of gardening artifice so formal, disciplined, and rigid, that it almost looks synthetic. Indeed it looks very synthetic: as though Mickey Mouse ate a lot of cheap candy and barfed on the set of Blade Runner.

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Opened on Valentine’s Day in 2013 the Dubai Miracle Garden is allegedly the world’s largest flower garden (as opposed to larger less densely planted parks, or the flower fields of Holland or Africa). With over 109 million blooming plants covering 72,000 square meters (about 18 acres), it certainly sounds like the most densely planted garden.  The flowers are built into pavilions, buildings, and colossal sculptures like some nightmare from Jeff Koontz.

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To my eye, the plants of the Dubai pleasure garden mostly look like flashy annuals.  That would be highly appropriate since it is a disposable venue.  Every year the gardeners tear everything out and build a whole new world out of flowers.  The greatest highlight seems to have been the flower version of the Emirates Airbus A380 (pictures of which are heavily featured in this post).  However certain features, like the flower clock and the 850,000 sq ft multistory garage seem to be perennial (I could not tell if the garage was made of flowers too, or of some more prosaic material).

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Although I have poked fun at it, I really would like to see the Dubai Pleasure Garden.  It is an astonishing accomplishment and the sheer excess gives it a Baroque beauty. Indeed my appetite for extremes makes me want to see all of Dubai (which exemplifies the same excessive style), but I feel like I might have burned some bridges in that respect with this selfsame blog post.  Fortunately, if I wait around, Brooklyn will probably look the same in 20 years.  Since I doubt I am going to become an oligarch, I might even get the opportunity to build the Brooklyn Miracle Garden with my own two hands as Jared Kushner or some such cruel overseer master gardener directs with the whip long flower pointer.

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Here is the Crown of Kazan.  It belonged to Ediger Mahmet, the last ruler of the Tartar state of Kazan.  The Khanate of Kazan encompassed parts of modern Tatarstan, Udmurtia, Bashkortostan, Mari El, Chuvashia, and Mordovia—rich forested lands at the extreme eastern edge of Europe which abutted the great Central Asian steppe (indeed Kazan was one of the last pieces of the Mongol Empire which had briefly ruled most of Eurasia). After the death of Genghis Khan, the empire shattered into successor states such as the Khanate of the Golden Horde.  Kazan emerged from the turmoil as a powerful state between the early 15th and mid 16th centuries AD.

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Although it had a strong beginning, Kazan’s later years were a sad story of Russian meddling, interference, and outright assault.  The noble houses of Kazan were more interested in fighting each other for control of the kingdom–which grew more ossified and derelict as the Turkic nobles fought one another and ignored the needs of their oppressed peasantry. Their stupidity, weakness, and ridiculous inability to understand the profound threat from Moscow strikes one as hard to believe. Initially, a Russian puppet, Shahghali, was placed on the throne, but, as civil wars broke out, he proved unable to keep the population subdued under the yoke of Moscow as civil war. In August 1552, forces of Ivan the Terrible invaded and annexed the kingdom outright.

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(The Kazans Genuflect Before the Tsar)

After Ivan the Terrible took over Kazan, Russian forces slaughtered more than 110,000 of the nobles, soldiers, and peasants.  Pro-Russian traitors who had worked insidiously to ensure the defeat of their country were rewarded by being allowed to keep their lands and towers (and, of course, the gold which Ivan had used to buy them off).

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Today the Crown of Kazan is found inside the Kremlin armory with early Russian crowns like the Cap of Monomakh as well as crowns from other kingdoms swallowed whole by the insatiable Russian Empire. Here is a picture of Gerhard Schroeder looking bored/horrified (borified?) as Vladimir Putin explains this history to him and tells how Russia weakened and annexed its competitors during the Middle Ages.

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Happy Fourth of July!  The United States of America turns 242 years old this year (2018).  People always talk about how new our nation is, but 242 is pretty venerable by any reasonable standard.  When the founding fathers declared independence, France was under the Ancien Régime, China was ruled by the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and the Ottoman Sultanate was a great world power.  Russia was expanding under the enlightened reign of…Catherine the Great!  The nascent United States had the idealistic strength of purpose to break from the forms of monarchy and autocracy which held sway around the world and to revisit the ancient, dangerous ideal of democracy–rule by the people for the people (although, admittedly, it was a pretty limited and flawed democracy in those early days…and maybe in these days too).  Democracies have always turned upon themselves and blown apart, so the founders were brave/brash to mint a new one in the era of absolutism, but it succeeded beyond their wildest dreams (except maybe for Alexander Hamilton…that guy was a maniac).

I love my country for its dangerous democracy and vibrant idealism, although weighing everyone’s opinions and forging them into a consensus can sometimes be a slow and painful process.   I also love America’s enlightened rule of law, its technological savvy, and, above all, its diverse population of people from all sorts of different backgrounds united by shared ideals.  Lately though, we have reached a sort of crossroads where the population is fundamentally at odds over two different divergent views of America’s strength, ideals, and purpose.  For the present, we are the Divided States of America: a recherche red nation of obedience, hierarchy, bravery, loyalty, & honor; and a libertine blue nation of shifting identities and ideas, ceaseless change, and unnerving new possibilities. Until one nation gains political ascendancy so overwhelming that the other side acknowledges it, the whole nation stumbles along deadlocked, incapacitated, and unable to adapt to a world where our adversaries and competitors are refining seductive new forms of autocracy (and goodness knows what else).

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After World War II, the world lay in shattered ruins.  The United States was at an apogee of power, victory and success.  Yet America rebuilt our adversaries in the belief that prosperous powerful, happy nations would be better allies and would become amazing friends.  We chose to remake the world not only with our vast power (not that we have been altogether reticent about wielding that double-edged sword) but with concepts, contracts, commerce, and compassion.  Germany, Japan, and Italy are our dearest friends—esteemed equals in the great work of civilization and progress. The Pax Americana has not been a perfect success, but it has been very good to the world and very good to us.  Turning our back on the world we built (and all of the advantages we built into the system for ourselves and our point of view) is rank folly.  When we had everything and were the only super power, we failed to reach out to the former Soviet Union with the same big-hearted elan…and look where that got us.

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We have made terrible mistakes in the past and we are making a lot of new ones lately (and revisiting some of the golden oldies which have plagued us and destroyed other great nations).  Everyone talks about the “shattering of norms” (which makes me think of the drunken everyman from “Cheers” falling from his barstool and exploding into shards like peanut brittle).   Reforms are inevitable and necessary if a nation wishes to stay dynamic and powerful.  Some norms will have to be shattered so that these much-needed reforms can take place.  The dance of reaction versus progress is so much harder in the real world than it looks on the pages of the history books though, and for the first time since the Cold War ended, I am truly afraid for America’s future.  If we cannot control ourselves, our bright dreams of space colonies, next generation biotech, super AIs, and enlightened ecological conservation will vanish… so will a lot of other things we esteem and so will some very fundamental things we have always taken for granted.

I live in bluest Brooklyn, and I don’t suppose it is a mystery where my political sympathies lie.  But it wasn’t always so.  I am a West Virginian too, with a red heart and a (perhaps overweening?) sense of our special place in the world.  This is a holiday and it isn’t time for more rancor right now, but I am going to write more about politics as the elections come up.  We need to look back 242 years and forwards 242 years too (like the founders did) if we hope to get out of this serious crisis of our democracy.

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The greatest Chinese political epic begins with the lines “Nations long divided must unite; nations long united must divide.”  We are being tested by that adage and so far, we are failing the test.  Have a happy Fourth of July!  But stay ever-mindful that we have serious painful work due on our representative government. This time the heavy lifting won’t be done by heroic half-imagined people of long ago with funny clothes, muskets, fifes, paddlewheels, and telegraphs.  It is up to us…you and me and all the people we care about with all of our dumb phones, anxieties, loudmouth ideas, and hare-brained schemes. We need to respect one another and strike new compromises, or government by the people for the people will perish here and the world will have to look to South Korea, Switzerland, Belgium, and India to find its paragons of liberty.

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After the launch of my website at Brooklyn’s annual mermaid parade, I can’t seem to quite escape the theme of mermaids.  Of course, this is arguably the symbolic point of mermaids, which represent the intensity of an impossible longing which can never be escaped.  Most of the mermaid pictures from the 19th century show sailors leaping to their doom in the watery depths, unable to resist the siren song or the beautiful & unreal people who live in a different realm.  The besotted swains die in beautiful pale arms which may not even exist…watery arms which may represent strange ideas, inimical to the patterns of life.  Like the tale of Apollo and Marsyas, it is a theme which artists come back to again and again.  Painters know what it means to embrace self-annihilation following an impossibly gorgeous song which nobody else can seem to hear…

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To illustrate this aspect of the mermaid theme…and of art itself–I am returning to Franz Von Stuck, the cofounder of the Munich Succession.  Stuck’s mythological themed art transcended the chocolate-box aesthetics of turgid 19th century academic art.  It spoke directly to the doom and sadness and impossible dreamlike beauty of life.  The mermaids in his art seem to have a carnal energy & bestial strength which is taken directly from human struggle.  They embody the wild energy of symbolism and the avant garde as art broke from the glacial forms of 19th century realism. Yet, like the mermaid, which is half one thing and half another, Stuck’s art directly partakes of 19th century realism too.  It is superb figurative art and the 20th century would embrace a much different form.  Stuck was a transitional artist, and when he was old, his work was regarded as old-fashioned and irrelevant to a generation of artists who witnessed the horrors of industrial warfare in the trenches of the Somme and Verdun.

Most of the successful artists of the 19th century were disgusted by the raw broken forms of early 20th century art, but Stuck, to his enormous credit, recognized that success means being left behind.  He taught the next generation of artists the forms he knew so that they could break them to pieces.  He used his connections to uplift the careers of his students Hans Purrmann, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, and Paul Klee.  It is ironic that the figurative painter taught a generation of rebels who fractured art and brought it to strange abstruse realms.

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There is a dark shadow cast by Stuck’s art as well.  The art professor who was married to an American divorcee and taught diverse students from across Eastern Europe had a shadow disciple he never knew about. Stuck was Hitler’s favorite artist from childhood onwards.  How different the mermaid’s song sounds in different ears!  Did Hitler look at these same sea maidens and see Teutonic beauty? Was Hitler angry that the nostalgic art of the German Empire was debased by 20th century abstraction? It must have been so.

This brings us to a large question which I wish to address more frequently: what is the point of art?  People who dislike art will say “there is none” and people who love art will be speechless at the temerity of the question. Yet it is a question which must be asked every generation. Indeed the answers vary from generation to generation, just as the art varies (although I suspect the ultimate answers are of a similar transcendent nature).

When I was younger I imagined that art was like homework…perhaps like an essay.  You went home and created the best work which you could in solitude.  If you crafted a sufficiently dense tapestry of artistic, literary, and scientific allusions with appropriate bravura and craftsmanship, the world would take note of your ideas.  It is a Disney princess view of art, where the pure spirit disdains the ghastly politics of the world until a prince swoops in and takes her to the apex of society… but life has taught me otherwise.  Art is like politics…it might BE politics.  It is about finding an effective way to share ideas and meaning with a group of people.  It is about organizing social networks in order to do so.  Perhaps that involves painting mythological allusions from Greco-Roman society or perhaps it involves dance or performance or the internet or even more experimental and unexplored forms.

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Art is the mermaid’s song.  It is where our ideas of beauty and meaning come from.  It is how we conceptualize the world as it is and as it should be.  I am unhappy with the world.  It seems to be drifting along the way Stuck’s world was when he died (in Munich in 1928 amidst a time of political rancor and a hollow economic boom which was followed by a crippling depression).  His true students were busy representing these problems in abstract forms which nobody understood.  His shadow student found a more direct way to move people by standing up in Munich and saying “Germany First!”  So what is the good of art?  How can we stop the would-be-Hitlers.  How can we save the fish of the ocean from going extinct?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I am working on it and thinking about it.  You should be too.

Artists need to stop navel gazing and concentrating on social problems solved back in the sixties. and look at our real global-sized problems of the Anthropocene.  The environmental and economic problems of the world are leaving the corporate and identity art which fills up Chelsea’s galleries far behind. In a hundred years nobody will care about who Tracey Emin slept with, but they might well wonder why the oceans have no fish or how America became a imperial principate.  I don’t know if art can help solve these problems, but maybe talking about them can help.  In the meantime don’t listen to the corporate siren song of infinite growth and absolute greed which says sit at your cubical 15 hours a day and do what you are told and you might have leather bucket seats.  Listen to the artist’s siren song which says “Why? Why? Why?  Oh can’t we do better?  Oh can’t we come up with new things?”

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Today’s post takes a closer look at a troubling tale from Canada.  During the period between 2001 and 2008, as American investors were bilked out of money by Bernie Madoff, a similar Ponzi scheme was taking place in the north.  However, in the northern version, the McGuffin at the heart of the grift wasn’t finance/investing…it was pigeons.  The man behind the scam, the pigeon king himself, was Arlan Galbraith (his business was even named “Pigeon King International”).  In seven years he sold $42 million worth of pigeons and, when his empire collapsed, he was on the hook to buy $356 million worth of breeding pairs of pigeons.  Aside from Mike Tyson’s prize roller pigeons or suchlike fancy birds, pigeons are not really expensive creatures.  The mind shrinks back from imagining how many pigeons one could buy for $356 million dollars.

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The pigeon Ponzi scheme didn’t really make any sense as a business or as a scam. Galbraith sold breeding pigeons to small farmers with a promise to buy back the offspring.  He would then sell the resulting pigeons to other farmers with the same promise.  Since he paid for the fowl (and since farmers are competent at poultry husbandry), the pigeons produced by this scheme burgeoned in population.  Galbraith enticed investors with talk of breeding fancy pigeons to sell to foreign pigeon fanciers, poultry, magnates and Arab sheiks.  He also claimed his program was producing a new sort of meat bird to bring squab to the dinner table everywhere in lieu of chicken and turkey.  Yet the birds in the “program” were just normal garden-variety pigeons. It was a recipe for limitless growth to nowhere.  Hundreds and hundreds of farmers joined Pigeon King International as suppliers/marks.

Except, of course, there is no such thing as limitless growth.  As soon as Galbraith ran out of new investors, he could not pay for all of the pigeons being produced (it is a miracle he dealt with the logistics of this crazy idea for as long as he did).  The end was profoundly sad.  Small farmers across Canada were left with whole barns and aviaries filled with unsaleable mongrel pigeons.  There were no Arab sheiks.  There was no market for squab.   There was nothing but the pigeon king dashing around the country buying pigeons and immediately selling them to others.

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The authorities were left with a situation where broke farmers had hundreds of thousands of worthless pigeons eating them out of house and home.  Releasing the birds into the wild would have been cruel to the pigeons (and dangerous to public health) so the authorities visited the largest barns with carbon monoxide rigs to gas the pigeons. Smaller operations were left euthanizing their stock on their own. Galbraith was arrested and conducted his own defense (in a manner as earnest, incompetent, and peculiar as his business).  He is now in jail and, since he is not young, that is probably the last act of his tale. Innumerable farmers were ruined by this saga.  Hundreds of thousands of pigeons died.  The pigeon king is spending his dotage in prison, and for what?

I have been staring at this story in puzzled wonder trying to determine the lesson (as more than a general cautionary tale against pyramid schemes). Aside from pyramid schemes, there is no precise analogy for the pigeon king’s business plan which leaps to mind…save one. The pigeon scheme required infinite growth to work (and more and more energy to maintain) even though there was no final payoff plan or escape hatch. It reminds me a bit of, well, everything.

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Society requires everyone to buy plastic junk that nobody will want in a year.  The garment industry churns out shirts that disintegrate after we wear them a few times.  The internet mostly consists of website after website of the same listicles and idiotic celebrity folderol.  If we stopped making this stuff and did better things with our time, everyone would go broke and the world economy would break. There are worthwhile things going on and goods and services which people truly need (or really want badly enough to be worthwhile), but beneath it all there is the same impossible promise of endless growth.  If that growth sputters out in any big way, the great international machine which we are all part of breaks.  Even if (human) populations decline, the capitalist system enters a dark feedback loop of too few consumers which is hard to escape.

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Conmen call their targets “pigeons.”  The story has me concerned that we are all pigeons in both a figurative and a literal way.  We are all busy producing pigeons of one sort or another for the Galbraiths of the world and praying that we can keep juggling everything before the Earth’s climate breaks, or we run out of oil, or there are too many bankrupt people to keep the system afloat.  Last week I wrote a post excoriating economists for not understanding primate behavior.  In this post I am begging them to go back into the library and come up with a system that does not rely so utterly on impossible growth targets.  If you walk through my beloved home of New York and look at all the people strutting bipedally in their drab business casual garb I feel like you might be reminded of certain avian colonies.  Take a look at Japan’s demographics, or the projected population of the United States…or the world, then compare those graphs with what companies say they will sell.  Spare a moment of panicky prayer for all the pigeons…and for the pigeon king too.

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There is a fundamental problem with economics.  Well, actually I am sure there are many, many problems with this pseudo-scientific discipline of resource management (which is fetishistically concerned with money instead of value).  However, this particular problem lies at the crux of the discipline’s inability to predict human behavior or bring about valuable outcomes.   We will briefly explore why we should care about economics at the end of the post, but let’s get right to the thesis and baldly state the problem which economics does not appropriately address: humans are more concerned with status than with substance at least when they are not under mortal duress (and if they are in fear of their lives, their behavior will be irrational anyway).

The usual metaphor for rational economic thought involves pie (probably because the round pastry is irresistible and because it resembles pie charts, which economists love).  According to conventional economic theory: if you get an allotted slice of pie, what matters is how big your slice is, not who gets the rest of the pie.  If an economically rational being is faced with a scenario where he gets pie for some reason, he will happily take his pie and worry about how to make the pie bigger (even if a grotesque bully hogs the majority of the pie and then doesn’t even eat it).   From this reductionist fable we can then move on to other scenarios like increasing the participant’s slice relative to other participants (zero-sum pie?), contractual niceties of pie eating, seasonally adjusted pie indexes, or twisted game theory dilemmas…or whatever.

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Yet any parent can tell you that if one sibling gets one small slice of the pie and the other sibling eats the rest, it is going to be a problem.  Children understand that pie allotment is a proxy for social worth (which is worth more than the pie).  Economists get twisted up in unnecessarily complicated numeric models (or in facile metaphors of resource allocation) and tend to overlook the real thing people are after.

Kids innately understand that money is a red herring for status, and status is true currency.  A Hollywood A-lister can wander into a bar and never pay for anything and leave in a limousine with the best-looking person present.  Their status stands above money. Likewise, the pope or some slimy cult leader or the “communist” prime minister of a failed state does not really need to truck in naked dollars and cents.

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I was arguing about the affairs of the world with one of my college friends (he has an honors degree in economics from the University of Chicago and was managing George Soros’ fortune at the time).  He was worried that populism would vitiate the rewards of globalism.  “People will vote to get a bigger slice of a smaller pie rather than a smaller slice of a bigger pie (even if the latter is a much larger relative slice)!” he exclaimed angrily.

As moneyed interests capture all available levers of power in our troubled democracy and economic productivity drops, his words seem prescient.   I assumed then that he was talking about silly plebs, but I now wonder whether he was really talking about rapacious financiers. I guess it doesn’t matter: both these factions are now backing the current leadership’s agenda of corporate amalgamation, tax-giveaways to the super rich, isolationism, and protectionism—things which ultimately decrease the pie, but make it seem larger for the moment.

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Oligarchs and reactionaries both would prefer a smaller pie—so long as they have a bigger slice for themselves.  The pie doesn’t matter—it is not a metaphor for goods and services, like economists think, instead it is a metaphor for pecking order.  If someone tells you that you are ranked 300th among the 300 people who matter to you, what does it matter what is happening in China or whether tariffs will undo national prosperity? The fundamental metaphor is not apt, and thus economists are misunderstanding why people make the choices they do. Our fundamental problems: stagnant productivity, inequality, and political deadlock come from the fact that power brokers are busy making castes and setting them in stone…not baking pies.

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Human societies have always been hierarchical and probably always will be, so why should we care if the economists get this metaphor wrong? It matters because the pie actually should matter! The fact that everyone is jockeying for status by betting on short-term stock gains (or even scammier things) is impairing our ability to do important things. We are baking the wrong sort of pies   Our system is not producing medicines it is churning out drugs.  We are not researching, we are marketing.  The “makers” are busy making monopolies and cartels rather than space robots and immortality serums.  We really would be better with a small delicious pie made of summer fruit and real butter than with the monstrosity made of saccharine, corn starch, and cellulose.  This monstrous confection is the result of the fact that our system is some weird & debased celebrity contest (our leader is a conman and a reality tv star!). Economists need to wake up to the fact that we aren’t even baking pies…we are all in a bad reality tv show or a nightmarishly catty high-school clique.

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Today, through the magic of the internet, Ferrebeekeeper is visiting a graveyard halfway around the world in Armenia (alas, I am visiting through words and images only; as always, my body remains stubbornly in New York City shackled to an office chair and a bunch of elusive dreams).  This exquisite spot is Noratus Cemetery, beside Lake Sevan, in eastern Armenia, not far from the Azerbaijan border.  This region has been a crossroads for people for millennia.  Although Noratus is today a small village, during the Middle Ages it was a large prosperous town.  A bronze-aged hillfort stands nearby. Prehistoric travelers passed through this region on humankind’s great migrations, and the region is not far from the first palace civilizations of the ancient world. Persians, Greeks, Romans, mysterious steppe peoples of all sorts, Turks, Mongols, Russians, caravan folk from east and west, Chinese, Soviets, and contemporary world travelers have all passed through the region.  However, this post is not a history of Armenia (thank goodness: I could never begin to explain the beautiful tangled chronicle of that crossroad nation): we are talking about Noratus Cemetery.  The oldest stones in the complex date back to the 10th century, but the cemetery has been utilized off-and-on right up to the present.

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The most famous stones of Noratus are the khachkars—the cross stones.  These are intricately carved stele with Christian crosses carved upon them in syncretic Asian styles.   Once upon a time (by which I mean, in the nineteen nineties), the greatest concentration of ancient khachkars was in the Armenian cemetery in Julfa (in Azerbaijan), but the Azerbaijan government destroyed these beautiful ancient works in order to further some self-aggrandizing lie or another, so today, the largest concentration of medieval khachkars is in…Noratus cemetery.

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You can see here how the maelstrom of cultures has influenced khachkar makers from over the centuries.  The mysterious gravestones look, by turns, Scythian, Romanesque, Persian, Indian, and even Jewish: yet they are none of these styles (although they are influenced by each)—they are Armenian.  But beyond the ancient exquisite graves, and the Romanesque chapels, look at the mountains and the lake beyond.  I have stolen these pictures from around the internet so I don’t really know what is in each (apparently the cemetery is easy to visit (if you are in the hinterlands of eastern Armenia) but badly labeled so it might take some specialists in Eastern medieval art to unravel the meanings and eras of these stones anyway, but their artistic excellence and spiritual splendor is readily evident.

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I really miss Sir Terry Pratchett. Looking at the news (and the comments to the news) makes me wonder if this be-hatted weirdo who wrote about witches, imps, and golems was actually the last great humanist…

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Today, let’s talk about a concept from one of Pratchett’s later books “Making Money”.  Halfway through the novel, two of the characters are trying to unravel a deepening financial mystery which is threatening to derail the economy of the fantasy microcosm which the novels are set inside.  The fictional sleuths investigate the late Chairman of the Royal Bank and find that his wardrobe is filled with very specific boudouir costumes. Staring at this excess and pondering the depths of the human psyche, one of the characters forms a social hypothesis which is outlined below (I copied the following verbatim from a Pratchett wiki):

The Horseradish Sauce Hypothesis runs thusly.

Everyone likes a beef sandwich, right?

But just to vary the flavour one day, you put a little horseradish sauce on it.

You discover you like horseradish sauce, so the next time you do a beef sandwich you put a little more sauce on it.

Then a little bit more.

Then a little bit more.

Until one day, you put so much horseradish sauce on the sandwich that the beef falls out.

And you don’t even notice.

I am going to say nothing of truly addictive things like fentanyl, nicotine, lechery, or alcohol (which everyone already knows are habit-forming), and instead write about how society is being conquered by dangerous, low-grade flavors of horseradish.  This sounds harmless enough (after all, everyone has to get through their meaningless day jobs), yet, as in the sandwich example above, you don’t notice when the meat falls out.   One goes from “reading the news” to internet troll without recognizing it, and it’s happening to all of us.

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The internet is the all-time expert on horseradish.  It knows the specific variety that everyone likes: Facebook likes, shopping, gambling, esoteric adult material, cat photos, Farmville, getting angry about ANTIFA, reading diatribes about how the earth is flat, or whatever. It’s all there.  The special sauce which makes the internet so addictive is that it knows what rewards give your brain a little jolt of dopamine and it can administer these little jolts every 5-12 minutes all day.  Most people spend all day in semi-isolation in beige cubicles doing meaningless & stressful tasks for distant masters.  The internet is to such people what cocaine-laced water bottles are to depressed and lonely laboratory rats.  The little razor-hooks can find the cracks in everyone’s façade because they dangerously mimic life’s true sources of meaning and joy.  If you squint cross-eyed at the list in the second sentence of this paragraph you can imagine how these things are sad substitutes for friends, romance, knowledge, status, and a sense of belonging.

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This is not how I would build a society.  It is sad that people have gambling problems instead of fulfilling life quests, or naked pictures of women instead of girlfriends, but I guess it moves stocks, diet pills, and plastic novelty hats well enough to keep the world economy chugging along.  The real problem is that the internet has moved beyond being a private venue for embarrassing vices to being the main venue for news and political discourse. It is where society collects and dissemination  information and opinions.  The internet is now where we self-select into groups.  This is not resulting in a golden age of clubs and volunteering, instead it is transforming the country into a boiling cauldron of tribal anger.    It feels good to be furious…or maybe not good, but at least it feels like something and one seeks it out every day until the beef in the sandwich is gone and all that is left is the empty calories of spicy sauce.

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I try not to write about our déclassé president, because I regard him as a symptom of this problem rather than the problem itself (and also because granting him attention makes him stronger).  Yet he is apparently a near-univeral flavor of internet horseradish.  People back home in West Virginia can feel the righteous joy of punishing smug coastal elitists by joyously watching that fellow destroy the whole country and rob us all blind. People in Brooklyn can feel the righteous joy of being angry about this mendacious hustler. Getting worked up by the news becomes a dollop of horseradish and we all need more each day.  I know I now check to see what grotesque enormity the president has committed before I check anything else.  If child poverty in Central Asia dipped four fold or the UN seriously curtailed human trafficking or something I would probably not notice, but I moronically know every dumb thing the President tweeted.

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There has always been a degree of degraded spectale to American politics–it’s part of democracy…part of humankind!–but it these piquant empty calories are taking the place of vital nutrients for the body politic.  As we stare in horror or glee at the political theater, our problems are not getting solved.  New discoveries are not being made. Compromise and reform are not being achieved.  When Trump is gone in 2020 or 2024 (assuming the republic survives), we are still going to have this dangerous fascination with outrage.

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Making the news into addictive “infotainment” is dangerous.  It is less an inquiry into truth and more like the ill-concealed traps and lures within infomercials aimed at the elderly or the ignorant.

There is a quote from Anais Nin which succinctly and poetically summarizes the horseradish hypothesis: “Abnormal pleasures kill the taste for normal ones.” It seems deceptively straightforward until you think about it, and then its tragic power becomes evident.  Really think about how you look at the news lately…are you trying to determine the truth of what goes on or are you looking for a dollop of outrage to push you foward to the next sensational click?

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The beef is falling out of society’s sandwich in a lot of ways right now. I concentrated on political problems becaue they are top-tier troubles, but the other ignoble horseradish is part of this too.  Everybody needs some special zest, but if the banquet is nothing but novel jallop, we all begin to starve!

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Regular visitors know that my alter-ego/spirit animal is the flounder (or, at any rate, the flatfish is definitely the leitmotif of this period of my ecology/history themed art).  During lunchbreak or on the train I work on little “lesser” flounder drawings.  In the near future I plan to put them all on a little internet store…along with some of the prints of the intricate flounder I have been drawing.  Also there will be an interactive online flounder…it will all be the glorious artistic unveiling I have been hinting at for a while.  You are going to love it!…erm…hopefully. In the mean time though, here are three of the most recent small flounder drawings I do during my busy Midtown days to keep from going crazy.  The one at the top is some sort or oracle emerging from the underworld depths of the flounder itself.  I don’t know what secrets this augur has…or even what gender they are, but they have brought unfathomable mysteries to light from the cave depths. A vile chef-beast lurks to the right roaring of appetites which can never be sated, while, at left a young mother nurses an infant: the next generation arises to take a place within the great weal, yet always there is appetite.

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Speaking of which, this second flounder is meant to evoke the ifrits which always pop out of of ancient middle eastern oil lamps. A mysterious world of gauzy spirits, mystery beasts, and apparitions swirl around the lit lamp, but whether any of these blue spirits offer helpful advice or magical munificence is unclear.

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Finally, I made a flounder which represents the bloodstream (my very first readers will recall that I had a childhood epiphany about the nature of living things based on blood).  The cells stream forth to build the organism and carry out needed maintenance, but strange viruses swirl within the plasma.  most ominously a parasitic tapeworm stares in hunger at the feast of little lives.  It is unclear whether the aristocratic woman is a parasite or whether she is the host.  This is a whole little ecosystem with the long-suffering flounder in the middle.

I will add all of these flounder to my Instagram feed (which you should follow), but you can see them here first, and read the perplexing explanations I have offered.

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