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I enjoy putting up pictures of amazing historical crowns glittering in heavily guarded vaults in countries which are now democracies, yet the crowns which have disappeared are often more interesting even to the point of being allegorical. An example of this is the crown of George XII of Georgia. His highly traditional arched crown of red velvet, gold, and jewels looked like the crown from a high school play or on a corporate logo. It was manufactured by were promptly manufactured by the artist Pierre Etienne Theremin and the goldsmith Nathanael Gottlob Licht in St. Petersburg. The crown was made in 1798 and, when George XII died in 1800 the crown (and Georgia) were duly annexed by Paul I and Alexander I. The crown was kept in the Kremlin until the communist revolution. After the communists took full control of the country, the crown was returned to Georgia in 1923. Unfortunately, it was an age of exigency, and the communist leaders of Georgia decided to “use” the crown in 1930 (whereupon it disappears entirely from history). The two equally likely fates of the crown are both interesting in a choose-your-own adventure sort of approach to political hegemony. In one scenario, the crown was broken up by the Georgian communists and the constituent gold and jewels were sold (or purloined). In an equally plausible fate for the crown, it was sold to super-rich oil titan Henri Deterding, the erstwhile head of Royal Dutch Shell. If this latter case is true, the crown could still be in the private collection of some super-rich collector, who has no need to advertise the fact he has the crown (or possibly doesn’t even know what it is). I wonder which of these possible fates befell the crown…or did something altogether different happen? Anyway, if you happen to have it in a box in your attic, you should call somebody, it may be worth something and I bet the Georgians would love to have it back.

A Chalet in Davos

A Chalet in Davos

The World Economic Forum at Davos (where the planet’s richest and most powerful people meet to hobnob about the affairs of humankind) has come and gone.  Somehow Ferrebeekeeper’s invitation got lost in the mail–so I missed this year’s conference, but all of the talking heads from the media seem to agree that the event was notable for its extremely dramatic and noticeable LACK of new ideas.  Let’s take a page from upper management and “bulletpoint” the important structural analytics coming out of this year’s Davos Forum:  then we can see if we can take these broad trends and come up with some actual ideas to move humankind forward from the great recession and the vast economic hollowing out which followed.

Um...looks fun?

Um…looks fun?

OK, so according to “The Economist”, the watchwords of the conference were “economic inequality”.  The world economy as a whole actually seems to be growing quite nicely, but generally speaking, only the people in charge are realizing these gains while the vast majority of humankind is unemployed or stuck with stagnant wages.  It is ironic that the political and financial elites are worried about this, since they are the ones making it happen (and are reaping the direct benefits) but large scale changes are sometimes hard to perceive—and even harder to affect.   The answers as to why the world is splitting into a hyper-wealthy elite and a poor…um…everyone else seem to boil down to:

  • Computers and automation are becoming exponentially more powerful and useful
  • Technology is also becoming cheaper
  • A second wave of industrialization is seeing middle class jobs replaced by robots and software (working class manufacturing jobs are already largely gone and only the most servile “entry-level” jobs remain)
  • Capital is becoming even more important—labor is becoming even more irrelevant
  • People with capital own the newly efficient means of production with which they make even more capital. Repeat the cycle….

The elites at Davos noted these changes, but had only superficial answers (like slightly raising the minimum wage).  Privately, economists and bankers worried that regulatory backlash might threaten some of the gross economic gains, but since, the political elite are allied with the interests of the so-called 1% this is a limited problem.  That seems to be about as far as anyone got in analyzing the world’s economy.


OK, we have summarized the conclusions coming out of Davos, what now?  Frankly, I tend to think the rich/powerful people are kidding themselves if they think they are immune to the true impact of these sweeping changes.  Assembling spreadsheets, crunching numbers, and issuing inhuman orders are things which I am extremely, extremely bad at…so maybe I am in no position to talk…but it seems like computers would be even better than Russian oligarchs, government bureaucrats, or Wall Street titans at managing the world.  During the first wave of industrialization, the landed aristocracy looked down their lorgnettes at factories, joint-stock companies, and the changing social dynamic. Anyone watching Downton Abbey knows how this worked out (spoiler: only the very savviest and luckiest aristocrats could stay important and solvent for long during the tumultuous market and political changes).  Today Carlos Slim may own everyone in Mexico, but his great granddaughters might well be humble dental hygenists like everyone else.  Indeed, some people are already talking about creating computer software to run companies with true efficiency.  These deathless hyper-effective algorithms would initially serve the elite, but I suspect that we would all quickly become their servants (assuming that we are not already).

The Future?

The Future?

Some people believe that we will soon move toward a world where individual and obviously human-crafted objects will take on a new importance: the future will all be about personalized nannies and Etsy (a website where you can buy exquisitely hand-crafted objects).  I’m extremely good at making things, and I don’t think this will happen at all.  The majority of people are worse than ever at ascertaining what is beautiful and worthwhile (just look at the abominable derivative garbage which makes up the fine art market).  Plus do we really want supecomputers to run the world while we make quilts, fancy cakes, wooden gnomes, and lovely saltshakers for each other?  I don’t even want that and I can make amazing cakes, gnomes, and saltshakers….

The Future?

The Future?

My answer, as always, lies above.  Earth seems like everything to us, but it is microscopic in the vastness of space.  Only beyond our atmosphere can humankind find the necessary raw materials, the boundless wells of energy, and, well, the space to spread our wings (not to mention the fact that, if we stay here, we will kill ourselves with our collective appetite—assuming the bozos at Davos don’t kill us all off first).

The Future!

The Future!

In conclusion we should be working much harder at aerospace, nuclear engineering, materials, and bio-innovation. What our leaders and betters should be working on is a way to make the wealth of all the world useful for discovering effective new atomic energy sources, building new materials necessary for space elevators and space habitats (like my cherished Venus colony). New incentives and new regulations will be necessary.  It worries me that none of the talk from Davos centers on how technology can truly help humankind (instead it seemed like rich people were worried about the envy of the poor). Maybe somebody can help me write a computer algorithm about space pioneering?

I have lots of jobs and do lots of things, but my main source of income is working as an administrative drudge for the development office of a prestigious private university.  Development is a euphemism for asking people for money—particularly rich people (who are more generous than you might think—as evinced by the sorts of large charitable gifts they give major universities). One of my occasional duties is to help staff special events.  In such a capacity (i.e. as a footman/attendant who handed out brochures and nametags), I attended a financial math event about a month ago. Almost everyone in the room was a successful Wall Street financial employee with a comprehensive background in liberal arts as well as a high powered math degree.

The keynote speaker was a young financier who became vastly wealthy in the hedge fund world. He gave a conscientious lecture about his qualms concerning his industry. Basically, according to the speaker, most (or all) hedge fund managers suggest to potential clients that a 15% return per year is the likely upshot of investing in their hedge funds—even though, if such a thing were possible, the money created by hedge funds would quickly surpass all of the riches created by the remainder of all other enterprises (it’s amazing how a few extra points add up).  The speaker then explained the basic tenets of the industry (sadly I was too busy pillaging the immense cheese platter to listen attentively) and presented his conclusion:  the hedge fund industry does not add 15% per year every year and it is unable to do so.  Not even close. Many of its supposed gains are illusory.

"Maybe just a few slices...wait, what was that about how to get rich?"

The room erupted in angry muttering.  The richest and most generous financier (who was not the keynote speaker but many, many times wealthier) leaped up and began to assail the underlying assertions of the speaker.  In addition to his wealth, this particular financier also had a…forceful personality.  He reputedly owns a giant baronial estate in Connecticut where he emulates the lifestyle of an Edwardian grandee—complete with a downstairs staff that is not the supposed to look him in the eye!   He launched into a tirade which included the following metaphor for the financial industry.

Finance, said the wealthiest financier in the room, is a means by which society apportions resources to the sectors most in need of them.  It is like the blood.  The blood carries oxygen away from the lungs and carries waste products to the kidneys. When a person eats a meal, the blood rushes to the stomach and then subsequently rushes digested nutrients away from the intestines.  When a person runs, the blood rushes oxygen to the legs and carries off the bi-products of muscle labor.  When a person is about to make love the blood rushes to the… and there the great financier trailed off, while everyone in the room started tittering or furiously gesturing for the microphone (which I, in my tattered jacket, dutifully rushed over to them).

The financial mathematicians talked angrily for a while about how critical their industry is to making civilization run and then the last speaker angrily added that people who do not like banks, brokerages, or financial companies are free not to use them.  Then they left (leaving the cheese and cured meats almost untouched by anyone save me).  I noticed the keynote speaker’s scruples did not keep him from jumping into a chauffeured midnight blue Maybach limousine (the cheapest model of which has a base price of $344,000.00) which had been idling by the curb.

This car is stupid. Why not buy weird art?

In this age of anti-Wall Street protests, I have been thinking about the wealthy financier’s metaphor and I feel that it was apt. The financial markets are indeed supposed to deliver capital to medical research, nanotechnology firms, or to the construction industry–just as blood is meant to rush nutrients to the pancreas or to the biceps when needed.  Blood however is not supposed to build a 50 room mansion on Long Island and then buy a private jet and a dozen cigarette boats. Society’s resources are being misallocated. Our blood is bad! When I related the whole metaphor to a clever friend he likened the current state of investment banking to leukemia or some sort of esoteric metastasizing blood-borne cancer that takes over the resources of an entire body to build a useless self-sustaining tumor that then destroys the body.

So, what do we do about this cancer?

I don’t like regulations.  I feel that America has too many already.  People who are rich and powerful can afford to follow asinine bureaucratic rules by means of large teams of experts (or they can subvert or change the rules with help from their politician buddies). The same friend who likened investment banking to a cancer is a securities lawyer!  He described just a handful of the astringent requirements already laid upon the industry and they were profoundly onerous. If complex regulation were a solution to Wall Street’s excesses, it already would have kicked in.

In a certain sense it may be that the snide Wall Street guy at my event who closed the evening by telling the protesters not to use banks or corporations was right. Such a thing is already happening.  Investors are waking up to the illusory nature of the wares hawked by investment banks and huge financial firms.  I was at a development event for the business school of the university earlier this week.  The dean privately confided (to a room with 700 people) that his most talented graduates were heading towards smaller private equity firms rather than the overexposed and hated bulge bracket investment banks. In an ecosystem where the wolves are too much stronger than the sheep, they eat all of the sheep and then starve.  Newer smaller predators take their place.  This is beginning to happen. And so a new cycle begins.

But I’m not sure that just talking about the finance sector is satisfactory after the havoc that sector has caused.

Our representative democracy may have been subverted by wealthy and powerful clicks, but it is still a democracy.  Be sure to vote against any incumbents even if you are voting against your interests.  And last of all, to you protesters out there:  I’m not sure I like your drum circles or the way you dress.  Your point is ill-defined and badly articulated…but it is still a good point.  I believe you are gradually having an effect on public opinion and public discourse (even if media companies owned by billionaires say otherwise). The blood is bad! Keep on telling everyone! Such is your right in the land of the free.  But while you are doing so please be careful and be safe.  Keep your heads un-truncheoned. These bad times pass away and society will need you all to run the next generation of companies that private equity is only just starting to finance.

The Sugarloaf Folly in East Sussex (early 1820s)

Yesterday, in reaction to the many follies in the world news, I decided to write a post about architectural follies–remarkable ornamental buildings commissioned by nobles to add beauty and interest to their estates.

the Forever Incomplete Temple of Philosophy at Ermenonville (1760s-1770s)

Many follies were towers, fake ruins, or ersatz foreign structures (pagodas, minarets, wigwams and so forth) however some follies were heavy-handed allegories about the nature of life.  Nick Ford, an architectural blogger describes two famous allegorical follies in England writing, “The temple of philosophy at Ermenonville was not completed–to symbolize that knowledge would never be complete, while the temple of modern virtues at Stowe was deliberately ruined, to show the decay of contemporary morals.”

The Temple of Modern Virtue at Stowe (built as a ruin)

Other follies actually had a practical purpose.  Connolly’s Folly in Ireland was created to provide gainful employment for the vast numbers of unemployed workers during the Famine of 1740-1741 (unlike the potato famine a century later, the famine of 1740-1741 was caused by a dreadfully cold two year period in Ireland—one of the last severe cold snaps which marked the end of the Little Ice Age).  Other philanthropists in 18th century Ireland commissioned similar projects such as roads to nowhere and great piers built in swamps. In a way follies were the economic stimulus package of the 18th century.  After the workers were paid, the lordly benefactor at least had a pretty building to show for their charity.

Connolly's Folly (1740)

It will be obvious to the practical reader that I have somehow come full circle.  Yesterday to escape the grim news of economic mismanagement and greedy grandstanding elites, I escaped into the fantasy world of eighteenth century gardens.  Today I am writing about how the opulent structures within those pleasure gardens were the attempts of eighteenth century leaders to aggrandize their status while ensuring an economic “trickle-down” would benefit the struggling workers at the bottom of society (who were starting to feel the first pinches from globalism and industrialization—while simultaneously groaning beneath of the ancient regime).  The little historical digression leads to an uncomfortable truth about the economy of the rich world–much of what we do and strive for is really only status ornamentation.

Burj Khalifa (2010)

Walk around today and you will start seeing garden follies a thousand feet tall built of steel (especially if you in Dubai or Shanghai or Manhattan) but with purposes as murky as those of the temple of modern virtues.  You might be reading this as you pretend to work in one!

A few weeks ago, during Holi, I dedicated a week to blogging about color.  The subject was so vivid and enjoyable that ferrebeekeeper is now adding a color category.

I’ll begin today’s color post with a myth about Hercules (or Heracles), the quintessential Greek hero, whose name appeared again and again when discussing the monsters born of Echidna.  But how is it that the warrior and strongman belongs in a discussion concerning color?  A myth attributes the founding of one of the classical world’s largest chemical industries to Hercules—or at least to his dog.  According to Julius Pollux, Hercules was walking on the shore near the Phoenician city Tyre and paying court to a comely nymph.  While he was thus distracted, his dog ran out and started consuming a rotten murex which was lying on the beach (a tale which will sound familiar to any dog owner). The mutt’s ghastly repast caused his muzzle to be stained a beautiful crimson purple, and the nymph promptly demanded a robe of the same color as a lover’s present from Hercules.

La Découverte de la Pourpre (Peter Paul Ruben, ca. 1636, oil sketch)

Rubens painted a sketch of this vivid scene on wood but, unfamiliar with marine biology, he drew some sort of gastropod other than a murex. The gist of the scene however is comprehensible and correct.  Tyrean purple, the most expensive and sought after dye of classical antiquity was a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of one of several predatory gastropods from the Murex family.   Haustellum brandaris, Hexaplex trunculus, and Stramonita haemastoma seem to be the murexes which were most used for this purpose in the Mediterranean dye industry but many other murexes around the world produce the purple discharge when perturbed. Archaeological evidence suggests that the dye was being harvested from shellfish as early as 1600 BC on Crete as a luxury for the Minoan world.

The mucous secretion of a murex: the snail s use the discharge for hunting and to protect their eggs from microbes

Since more than ten thousand murexes were needed to dye a single garment, the color remained one of the ultimate luxuries of the classical world for millennia to come. Tyrian purple was the color of aristocracy and the super elite.  To produce the richest tyrian purple dye, manufacturers captured and crushed innumerable murexes, the remains of which were left to rot. The precious purple mucous oozed out of the corpses and was collected by unfortunate workers until enough was produced to dye a garment.  Since this process was malodorous (at best), whole sections of coast were given over to the industry.

Only a handful of individuals could afford the immense costs for this material and sumptuary laws were passed proscribing the extent of to which it could be used.  In later eras it was reserved for the exclusive use of emperors and senators.  By Byzantine times, purple had become synonymous with imperial privilege. Emperors were born in porphyry rooms and swathed for life in crimson-purple robes.

Mosaic of Emperor Justinian the Great

The actual color is not what we would now consider purple, but rather a glorious rich burgundy with purple undertones. The industry was destroyed when French aristocrats of the misbegotten fourth crusade invaded and conquered Constantinople at the beginning of the 13th century.  The brilliant scarlet/purple hue was still in demand for the regalia of European kings and queens (a recreation of the characteristic hue should be familiar to readers as the velvet used in many crowns). But these scarlet and purple dyes lacked the glorious richness and the famous colorfastness of tyrian purple. During the middle ages, after the fall of Constantinople, royal crimson was obtained from insects and lichen. It was not until the great chemical revolution of the 19th century that purple clothing became available to everyone.

Tyrian Purple

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August 2020