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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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It is March 14th—“Pi Day” (since the date is 3/14).  Today mathematicians celebrate the famous irrational number, while everyone celebrates delicious pie.  I am certainly no math person, so I am going to give you my favorite pie recipe.  There was a year when I made a lot of pies and I feel like I still owe a sort of debt to the beloved desserts.  Here is the story: I quit drinking and I made a pie every time I really wanted a drink, which was frequently.  I must have made a hundred pies that year (I should probably stretch this story out with some comic anecdotes and use it to get a book deal and become a celebrity chef). Anyway, this is a pistachio pie which I “invented” during that time—by modifying a very fine pudding recipe which I found on the internet.

This is a really easy pie which is incredibly delicious, but it requires good ingredients.  It goes in a graham cracker crust which you can make yourself—however since all the recipes for graham cracker crust start with graham crackers (a store bought cookie) I always just buy a premade crust.

1 premade store-bought graham cracker crust

OK so you have a graham cracker crust.  Now obtain a blender, a saucepan and these following ingredients for the pudding filling.

1 cup salted shelled pistachio nuts

1/3 cup white grain sugar

2 tablespoons water

Another different 1/3 cup white sugar (I know that sounds weird, but bear with me)

2 cups whole milk

2 large egg yolks

2 tablespoons cornstarch

pinch of salt

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

First put half the nuts in a blender with 1/3 cup sugar and the 2 tablespoons of water. Obliterate them until they are a dense swamp-green paste.  Then throw the remaining nuts in on top of the paste and chop them up fine with the blender.

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“Yum?”

Put the blended nuts in your saucepan with the 2 cups of milk, the sugar, the cornstarch, and the salt.  Getting the pistachio paste out of the blender is the hardest part (it is a dense sticky sludge which adheres to the blade apparatus). Maybe use the milk to wash out every bit of this disgusting yet heavenly paste?

Heat the ingredients on medium low heat until they begin to thicken, but DO NOT BURN THE PUDDING!  You will need to hover over it constantly stirring it with a big wooden spoon and muttering oaths which sound like they are from the old country.  Once the mixture thickens you should hastily whip the egg yolks in a little ceramic bowl with a whisk.  Grab a big metal spoon and pour some of the hot nut milk (?) mixture into the egg yolks and whip it together into a satisfying hot yellow viscous gel. Immediately pour this gel into the saucepan while it is hot and hastily whip it into the pudding in such a way that the eggs do not cook but rather integrate as a custard. Whip this on the stovetop with a whisk for a minute or two then remove the sauce pan and add the butter and vanilla.  Stir them into the hot pudding until they are fully integrated.

You will now have a greenish brown pudding which you should pour into the pie shell. Put the pudding pie in the fridge for a couple of hours until it is set.  Now make the whipped cream topping (which sounds inconsequential but is nearly as important as the pudding for the pie to taste right). The ingredients for this are:

1 pint of heavy cream

A few tablespoons of sugar

½ teaspoon of real almond extract

Mix a pint the cold heavy cream with a handful of sugar in a frozen metal bowl with a hand mixer.  Once the whipped cream starts to form peaks add the almond extract to the whipped scream and finish whipping the topping into stiff peaks.  Spread it on the pie with a rubber spatula/scraper thing.

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You now have a cream pie which looks like an abomination from the three stooges (except with pudding the color of a pneumonia victim’s coughing).  But pay no attention to the pie’s crude appearance.  It tastes as though it was stolen from the table of the gods themselves. It is one of the best pies ever! Enjoy (and be sure to tell everyone where you got the recipe).

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This is the perfect time of year for delicious pecan pies! Unfortunately, if I made such a tasty and expensive confection, I would eat four slices and then the rest would sit sadly in the refrigerator (since my roommate wants to live forever and thus fears Crisco and corn syrup). So I will hoard my precious bag of pecans for Thanksgiving and instead blog about the magnificent pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)–an Apollo among trees, which is as beautiful and large as it is beloved and useful! Pecan trees are members of the Hickory genus, Carya, which is named for an archaic Greek tree-nut goddess (whom I need to blog about another day). While there are a few Hickory species in Mexico, Canada, China, and Indochina, the majority are native to the United States (which probably indicates that the trees originated here and spread elsewhere). Pecan trees are native to the southeastern and southcentral United States and spread down into northern Mexico. The word “pecan” is a borrow word from Algonquian (!) and it means “nut so hard it takes a stone to crack it open” (Algonquian, evidently, is masterful at compressing hunter-gatherer concepts into extreme brevity). Pecans have been planted and used as a food source by Native American peoples for a long, long time so it is hard to tell where exactly the tree originated within its range.

Natural range of pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)

Natural range of pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)

Rich in proteins and healthy fats and requiring no preparation to eat, pecans are an almost perfect food for humans (in stark opposition to Crisco and corn syrup). Pecans keep fresh within their shells for an entire growing season or longer. The nuts contain protein, sterols, antioxidants, and omega-6 fatty acids. They provide two-to-five times as much food energy as lean meat. Eating a daily handful of pecans lowers “bad” cholesterol levels in a manner similar to statin drugs, and also, “may delay age-related muscle nerve degeneration.” I should probably just eat my bag of pecans and live eternally, but who really wants to be around for the nightmarish robopocalypse (or forgo pie)? Out of convention, I have been calling pecans “nuts”, but the edible part is technically a drupe—a fruit with a single large pit much like a peach or plum. I won’t even mention the rich buttery flavor which is a perfect complement to sweets such as…well, I said I wouldn’t talk about it. Like walnut and hickory (which are close cousins), pecan also makes a magnificent lumber–although it seems a waste to use such a beautiful & useful tree for furniture and cabinetry.

A Pecan Tree in Texas (from tree-pictures.com). That little brown blob in the lower left is a cow.

A Pecan Tree in Texas (from tree-pictures.com). That little brown blob in the lower left is a cow.

Unlike most familiar fruit and nut trees, pecan trees get big! A mature tree can grow up to 44 meters in height (144 ft) with an equally wide span. Just imagine a living green sphere the size of a 15 story building. The trees live to more than 300 years of age, so there are pecan trees out there older than our republic (and arguably in better shape)!

A pecan tree growing over George Washington's mansion at Mount Vernon

A pecan tree growing over George Washington’s mansion at Mount Vernon

According to my sources, pecans were not domesticated until the 1880s. However, considering how perfect they are for humans, I can’t help wonder if they coevolved with us quite a bit over the last 14,000 years. Or are we more squirrel-like than we wish to admit? At any rate, today the United States accounts for up to 95 percent of the world’s pecan crop which exceeds 200 thousand tons. The crop is harvested in mid to late October (which probably explains why I could even afford my bag of shelled pecans). Pecans are a perfect food, a perfect timber, a perfect tree. I’m not sure if the Algonquians were right to choose such a spare name—perhaps the pecan tree should be named for a goddess after all. Unlike the monstrous Chinese invader, pecan is the true tree of heaven.

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The Sidewalk Beneath the Mulberry Tree on Ditmas Avenue, Brooklyn

Whenever I have walked to or from the subway this last week, a particular patch of pavement stands out because it has been dyed a ghastly blackish purple.  This is where the sidewalk runs beneath a mulberry tree, a medium sized deciduous fruit tree which produces copious quantities of black multiple fruit.  Ten to sixteen species of trees are accepted by botanists as true mulberries. The three most commonly known species are black mulberries (Morus nigra) which were exported in great number from Southwest Asia to Europe, the red mulberries (Morus rubra) which grow wild in Eastern North America, and the white mulberry (Morus alba) which has been domesticated since ancient times in China as food for silkworms. The different species readily hybridize into fertile hybrids so I have no idea which sort I am walking under every day.  The Mulberry trees give their name to the Moraceae, the mulberry family, which includes figs, banyans, breadfruits, and Osage-oranges.

Mulberries

Mulberry foliage is the preferred food for silkworm larvae (although the caterpillars will also tolerate foliage of the Osage-orange and the tree of heaven).  An ancient Chinese legend relates that Lei Zu, the wife of the Yellow Emperor (himself the mythical progenitor of Chinese culture), discovered silkworm cultivation as she was drinking tea beneath a mulberry tree.  A silkworm wrapped up in a cocoon fell into her tea.  She removed the cocoon from her beverage and was amazed at how the fiber unwrapped around her fingers as a lovely thread.

Mulberries on a Tree

Mulberry leaves, sap, and unripe berries contain 1-Deoxynojirimycin, a polyhydroxylated piperidine, which acts an intoxicant and mild hallucinogen (and produces nausea).  However when mulberries ripen they turn black and become edible.  Mura nigra and Mura rubra allegedly have the tastiest fruit which is said to resemble blueberry in taste and appearance when cooked into pies and tarts.  Cooked mulberries are rich in anthocyanins, pigments which are useful as natural food colorings and may have medicinal value.

Mulberry Pie Made By Anita Marks

Mulberry also gives its name to a lovely purple pink which resembles the color of mulberry jams and pies.  The word mulberry has been used to describe that particular shade since the 1770’s.  I remember it fondly as a Crayola crayon which I always used up before the others (although apparently the color was discontinued in 2003–so today’s children will have to make do with less poetic purple pinks).

Still Life with Turkey Pie (Peter Claesz, 1627, oil on panel)

Here is a painting of a turkey pie and oysters created by the Dutch still-life master Pieter Claesz in 1627. The original is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (which provides high quality digital images of the works within its collection—so if you click above, you will be rewarded with a much larger picture).  The painting is small and was painted from a muted palate but Claesz employed a variety of subtle techniques to arrest the viewer’s attention.  The overall meaning of the painting is clear—it highlights the owners’ good taste and wealth.  It also symbolizes the success and growth of the Dutch Republic which were then at an all-time apogee.

This sort of painting is called a “banketgen”—literally a banquet painting. This example is exceptionally realistic.  Notice how the pewter jug reflects the rest of the feast and how the wine in the glass römer throws a yellow shadow over the table.  Protruding from the plane of the table, the lemon plate subconsciously invites the viewer to prevent it from tumbling onto the floor.  With consummate skill, Claesz has put his initials and the painting’s date on the blade of the knife as if they were engraved there.

The individual components of the feast form a picture of seventeenth century globalism.  The still-living oysters may have come from the coast of Holland but the lemons and olives were not native and could not survive the harsh northern winter.  They are the literal fruits of Dutch success at trade as are the Chinese porcelain kraak and the Persian table weave.  The twist of printed paper from the almanac contains salt and pepper, expensive commodities in the early seventeenth century but not as rare as the overseas spices in the pastry which has been broken open with a silver spoon.

New Amsterdam

Towering above the rest of the composition is the remarkable turkey dish, a large meat pie ornamented with the plumage, wings, and head of a wild turkey from the New World.  The exotic nature of the turkey and the rich gold and jewels of the nautilus goblet are the focal point on the composition.  Any Dutchman of the time would have instantly understood the meaning.  Manhattan had been purchased by Peter Minuit in 1626, only a year before this painting was finished.  New Amsterdam was growing across the Atlantic.  The maritime merchants of the Dutch republic were setting their table to gobble up the world itself. It is almost a shame that Claesz did not include a bowl of Indonesian sugar or a tank of Shell petroleum to perfect the picture.

Although we don't know what is in the shell goblet...

Of course there is a final element to this painting.  Tiny black spots of rot are forming on the apples inside the Chinese bowl. Did the artist foresee the ruinous colonial wars with France, Spain, and England?  Did he notice the growing tension between Royalists and Republicans or the schism between Dutch churches? Could he see that the banquet was about to be spoiled by events of the wider world or were the first touches of rot merely a visual flourish to convey a lesson about the limits of our little lives?

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