You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘status’ tag.

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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.

Here are 2 troubling stories from opposite corners of the internet…and they are related in a way which is worth addressing.

The first concerns the new addition to the Federal Reserve Board, Marvin Goodfriend.  Goodfriend is a famous hyperinflation phobic.  He believes that quantitative easing (or any sort of monetary stimulus) in the American economy will cause the worth of money to deteriorate in one of those nightmarish economic breakdowns familiar to residents of Zimbabwe or the Weimar Republic.  This concept has been substantially debunked both by economic theorists with slide-rulers and by the real-world example of Japan which stagnated for decades thanks to thinkers like Dr. Goodfriend.  Yet Goodfriend obdurately refuses to admit any error in his models.

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“I solemnly swear I am up to no good”

Of course, it is possible that Goodfriend is a bad person who wishes for society to fail (his surname is suspiciously similar to what some shapeshifting demon might choose to best beguile foolish mortals), but the point of this post is not to castigate this one reactionary central banker.  We are using him as an example of a bigger problem which humans have.

The second story involves the horrifying story of the crazy Turpin parents who had 13 children whom they shackled, abused, and tortured for decades in private. The younger cohort of these pitiable children were “home schooled”, but the eldest child did attend public school where her classmates recall her as a sad awkward child who smelled funny, was smaller than everyone, and always wore the same threadbare purple outfit.  As you might imagine, if you ever were a child, these haunting peculiarities did not cause her classmates to ask what was wrong (indeed all of society failed to ask that germane question for 20 years), instead she was mercilessly picked on, taunted, and abused. Although the run-of-the-mill sadists of grade school probably didn’t register compared to the world class sadists who were her birth parents.  We know this about the little girl’s childhood because one of her classmates remembered her–and remembered picking on her and taunting her and wrote a heartfelt essay about it.  The internet has mercilessly jumped on this guy with wild abandon.  He has made himself a target of all sorts of anger and attacks.  It seems unlikely that a third-grader could have changed much: his admissions were brave and have aided the public discourse about what is clearly a deeper problem.  Yet in zeal to express their righteous anger over a social failing people have piled onto him.

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Primates have a weakness.  If any individual backs down they lose their status.  In the human world this means that those who admit failure or wrongdoing, are shunned and detested. This would seem to have a certain cruel logic, and yet the world is bewilderingly complex.  As one tries to impress one’s fellow primates, it is easy to make mistakes (like picking on a classmate or choosing an economic model which inflicts maximum damage to workers). If a person admits they are wrong, they give up much of their social status–the real cheese at the heart of our rat’s maze society.  But if we can’t admit to these mistakes and learn from them and change then all society worsens.

I picked on Goodfriend because he is in the news and because he will undoubtedly deepen the next economic crisis, which could be right around the corner (and because picking on people is a cheap way to gain status) but I could have chosen unrepentant & willfully ignorant characters much closer to the top of society. A certain president, for example, has never admitted he was/is/will continue to be wrong.  His ironclad refusal to ever admit mistakes in any realm seems to be one of the chief sources of his power–although punitive/ reactionary economic models and ruthlessly picking on the weak seem to help him too. There is a reason I chose these examples!

But we don’t want to get off track. We want to compare the person who was heckled by the entire internet for thoughtfully admitting a mistake made as a child versus a retrogressive hack who has ascended to craft world monetary policy precisely because he never addressed well-known problems with his worldview.  There is clearly every reason to never admit you are wrong!

If we can’t figure out what is wrong, we can’t fix things without solving a baffling puzzle, and then facing off in the court of public opinion against all of the people who obdurately refuse to admit or even see the truth because it would diminish their cachet.

That situation seems to in fact be where we all are. It is a paradox that those who never admit mistakes are given precedence over those who learn from their errors.  It is a mistake we are all making and we need to rectify it.  Except for me of course…I am a cunning essayist above such things.

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It’s Earth Day, the arbitrary day in April which we have chosen represent the splendor of the biosphere. More accurately the day is a PR soapbox, which environmentalists use to harangue everyone about the truly disastrous job humankind is doing in our self-appointed role as stewards of life on the planet.  I agree with the environmentalists—I guess I am an environmentalist! Humankind is using up too much of the biosphere for ignominiously stupid things.  We have Problems (with a capital “P”) yet we spend most of our time worrying about Justin Bieberlake and whether the consumer goods we purchase properly reflect our status. For Earth Day, instead of writing about fracking, drought, or overfishing, I am going to write about chickens and status. Status is what social animals crave more than anything.  It is the crux of our life. Yet the mad quest for status causes us to make awful decisions for ourselves and for the world.

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Let’s start with chickens. Chickens are social creatures.  They have a very intense “pecking order” of who gets to do what–which is literally based on pecking.  When I was growing up we had a flock of Rhode Island Red chickens.  The rooster was on top of the pecking order and he would eat first and peck any subordinate chicken he liked.  The top hens had bright red feathers and shiny eyes. They pecked subordinate hens, who in turn were cruel to their social inferiors…and so forth. At the bottom of the heap were some sad-looking hens who got pecked by everyone else. They were the dull red color of old bricks and their feathers were falling out. The very bottom hen was a festering mess of sores.  She was almost always eaten by a hawk or a raccoon (if we humans didn’t put her in the pot first).

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It is an exceedingly accurate model of humankind. In each society, the glistening cocks at the apex of society have unlimited access to resources and freely mistreat anyone beneath them.  People at the bottom of society are in real physical danger from their low estate and could easily die from disease, exposure, or crime. However the way we attain this hierarchy is determined by social dynamics much more complicated than those on display in the poultry yard.  After middle school we can’t actually hit each other without involving constables and lawsuits, so we base our status grabbing on a more complicated set of networks and social markers.

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To continue with the theme of chicken, my roommate always aggressively points out that she purchases organic free-range food–unlike certain benighted philistines who just buy the cheapest factory-farm chicken (I guess this is due to my insatiable desire to harm the planet, torture living creatures, and poison myself and everyone else with “toxins”?).  I have seen a “free-range” chicken farm—and it looked like a factory farm with a dinky wired-in aviary appended.  Maybe it would be better to be a chicken living there, but probably not by much—certainly not to me anyway.

My roommate is an exceedingly lovely and gentle person who earnestly doesn’t want chickens to be tortured (but still wants to eat chicken, because, let’s face it, that’s what humans like to eat).  Why am I picking on her?  For status of course!  To push my political agendas and ideologies!

Our pursuit of most things is really a pursuit of status: resources, mates, health, political power, unfettered access to knowledge…all good things come from high-status.

In my book, the people who have the highest status are people who have lavish flower gardens and lots of medieval Chinese porcelain (perhaps this mindset explains why I am a jobless lout writing an eccentric blog). Most Americans would probably dwell on other status criteria—the most injurious automobile, the lowest trousers, or praying loudest in church.  Status-markers comes in so many flavors that it is sometimes difficult to recognize how central it is to who we are.

I am worried that Earth Day has become a part of our ceaseless attempts to one-up each other. It is like my roommate’s “free-range” chicken legs: a foolish status object rather than a way we can legitimately determine how to best preserve the vast fragile web of interlocking ecosystems.

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Mother Nature chose to apportion chickens’ share of resources based on how they peck each other.  Evidently she chose to apportion human agendas by how we choose and display our cars, our meals, our houses, and our gardens.  Our ideas are related to our social position and how we portray ourselves.  Hence our endless jejune jockeying over whose stuff is better, or tastier, or more moral, or greener, or more expensive.  Political consensus is attained by a synthesis of endless small-scale aesthetic and moral choices which add up to large-scale policy choices.

This bothers me because I find many high-status “green” ideas to be bad ideas. If we rely on “organic” produce which requires vastly more land, water, and energy to produce, we will use up all the world’s land without being able to feed everyone.  Likewise many “sustainable” energy sources like ethanol, solar panels, and dams use more energy than they create…or cause waste or environmental degradation. People who oppose nuclear power plants (in favor of fracking I guess?), and embrace resource-devouring, erosion-causing organic farming frustrate me.  But their motives are often noble and praiseworthy.

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“Earth Day” seems like a button or a bumper sticker (and a sanctimonious and unfun one at that). Our true problems…and opportunities…are much greater and more difficult to grasp and popularize.   But a button, a bumper sticker, a sanctimonious “holiday” are a start.  So is a confused and self-contradictory essay about the politics of environmentalism.  Happy Earth Day!  We’ll keep working on this.  There are solutions to our very-real environmental problems, but they are going to require scientific research, hard work, and sacrifice of some cherished sacred cows (or chickens) by everyone.

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In some horrible irony, if I spend hours crafting an elaborate thesis and supporting it with fascinating points then nobody reads it. If instead I just slap down a cheetah cub in a bucket or a cute grinning snake everyone loves it. The amount of attention a post receives is inversely proportional to the amount of effort it takes. Argh!

I reveal this hard truth in order to introduce Ferrebeekeeper’s ninth and tenth most popular posts of all time!

The tenth most popular post was about the visually appealing but otherwise unremarkable green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) of the Indian subcontinent. This inoffensive reptile spends its life pretending to be a vine! Apparently people love it though, because all sorts of visitors came to look at the two beautiful photos of the snake which I found on the internet.

Green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) Photo by National Geographic

Green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) Photo by National Geographic

Ninth most popular was a post about adorable baby cheetahs playing in and around hats. Of course the post was really about more than how cute cheetahs are (and they are very cute indeed) but how they survive in a habitat which has moved away from their blazing fast skill set.  I love cheetahs, so this was a special post to me too.

I said Cheetah with a hat not cheetah in a hat...oh, just go look at the post

I said Cheetah with a hat not cheetah in a hat…oh, just go look at the post

So far, of the top ten posts on Ferrebeekeeper, the tenth most popular was about serpents– which is the best that serpents have managed to do thus far. The ninth most popular is about mammals, but (spoiler) there are more mammals as we get farther up the list. People really love those furry rascals (and ARE those furry rascals)!

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Ferrebeekeeper is quickly coming up on its 1000th post (this one, which you are reading is the 990th). Before we get to the thousandth post, we’re going to have a special top ten countdown to look back at some of the highlights of all the topics we have covered so far. Then I’ll write something really super special for the millennial post! After that, it will be Halloween-time, which always features some of our best material…so it’s going to be a great autumn! However, before we get to these thrilling special events and celebrations, I wanted to address some of the issues raised by this blog and also ask the readers a few questions.

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Most importantly, what is the purpose of this blog…or any blog? I actually started writing Ferrebeekeeper merely because a friend set it up for me. Also my blog-hero Andreas Kluth (who has seemingly stopped writing his blog, now that his book is published) recommended blogging as a way to organize one’s thoughts, feelings, and creative impulses. Ferrebeekeeper has 29 topics (you can see them right there to the left) and I try to write about one of them each day. Sometimes I can combine several—like when I write about Chinese snake art, or Ancient Egyptian bee-crowns. Those are happy days! Other days I can’t think of anything that fits any of the listed topics—so I write something random and chuck it under “uncategorized.”

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So I started this blog to share interesting and meaningful things with you–and that is still my wish. I want to use it to push forward my ideas about art, science, and human progress. I also want to keep this blog exciting and relevant—and growing. Yet now I am also stumbling about accidentally on the threshold of a career in journalism. Writing articles a certain way in exchange for money is causing me to reassess the purpose and future directions of Ferrebeekeeper. The media world has been changing with vertiginous rapidity. Sadly, for someone who is a technophile with dreams of space colonization, I have minimal web-savvy—so I didn’t get into the blogging game until the golden age of blogs had passed. Yet the idea of blogs is uniquely powerful and democratic. Ferrebeekeeper is a sort of one-person magazine about life, art, science, and history. Yet when one compares it to a real magazine, the differences become abundantly clear. Magazines are made to make money. They are large corporate entities with marketers, logisticians, and advertisers (in addition to all of the artists, writers, and editors who make the content).

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Instead of a whole team of highly paid artists, illustrators, writers, editors, marketers, and photographers working together to churn out exciting highly produced content, there is just me in my pajamas trying to create a daily post [editor’s note; he doesn’t actually have pajamas…or, for that matter, an editor]. I do the best I can, but some days the research does not pan out and the topic ends up a bit flat (like, erm, cough, this bland post about the color viridian).

Of course a few blogs (or tumblers or twitter accounts or whatever) are making it big. If you specialize, you can sell to special advertisers. My friend always tells the story of his cousin the Korean food blogger who was able to retire from her day job of being trapped in a beige cubicle. All she does now is write about delicious Korean food every day as sponsors fight each other to giver her money! Can you imagine?

 

Argh! Why didn't I write about Korean food?

Argh! Why didn’t I write about Korean food?

But I suppose the point of writing a blog isn’t to seek out wealth and fame (which is what twitter and reality TV are for). Instead I write this blog to explore the world (the universe?) in two ways. The first and most obvious is that I have to find out something every workday and write about it. Some posts, like the ones about parthenogenesis, brown dwarf stars, or alternation of generations are especially interesting and challenging. I am forced to learn all sorts of new things to write effectively about science, history, and geography. However, even the rapidly slapped together “list” posts of mollusk mascots or gothic clocks offer precious and unexpected insights into what is beautiful, intriguing, and meaningful. There have been points where I felt like everything was going to come together in some amazing epiphany–Chinese painting, turkeys, invaders, art, astronomy, and history would all become the same thing and I would understand the world. That larger understanding of how everything fits together always ends up eluding me, yet writing helps me try to weave wildly disparate threads of knowledge into a coherent weltanschauung.

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The second way that this blog allows me to explore the world is through the readers who are always making unexpected connections, or asking questions. Since I can not travel the globe in person, I do so through this blog. Intelligent people from all sorts of different countries have written comments to me (and, according to the analytics tool, even more of you are reading). I am poor at quickly responding to people’s submissions, but I always try to respond cogently.  Please keep writing comments!  I know that wordpress makes it hard to respond, but I really esteem your input.

I guess the point of this blog is you–the readers! Of course, like all writers, I want to be read and to reach more like-minded souls! The fact that someone is actually reading Ferrebeekeeper is what makes it different from being a diary or a weird set of notes. I am constantly thinking about how I can make this effort more appealing while not selling out and using misleading click-bait to write about worthless celebrities.

Although Katy Perry always manages to sneak in somehow.

Although Katy Perry always manages to sneak in somehow.

It comes down to this paradox. This blog is not about selling something (although I guess WordPress sometimes puts ads on it), yet I do want it to be better and reach more people—which involves selling myself more effectively. What can I do to improve? How can I make this space better for you? Please write to me with your concerns, suggestions, and comments.  Working together, we can make the next thousand posts even more astonishing and beautiful!

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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!

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