Tuesday, October 1

The Road to Sanity: Part 3 of Money, Wealth, and You

It so happens that the one thing the social science of economics and its mathematical models can't take into account about money is human nature's view of it. No need to wonder, then, why American society has gotten progressively weirder as economics came to dominate U.S. government policymaking and then the entire culture.

So now that we've heard in earlier Pundita posts from Guardians of the Economy, Financial Stabilizers and a bona fide Guardian of the Sacred Cow, it's time to consider what human nature thinks of money and more specifically, wealth. For this we need to take a journey back in time -- way back, but first a brief stop at the Charlie Rose Show.

How Gloria Steinem made another feminist vanish into thin air

Several months ago Charlie Rose interviewed Gloria Steinem and another feminist, a much younger woman, whose name I don't recall for reasons that will quickly become evident. Every time Gloria spoke she was accompanied by loud clicking sounds, which the microphone amplified. The sounds were made by her wrist ornaments every time she gestured with her hands -- and she never stopped gesturing while she spoke.

She might have been wearing similar ornaments on her neck that contributed to the noise every time she moved her head; I can't recall for certain, but the point is that whether by design or unconsciously Gloria Steinem was deploying a very ancient means for being recognized as an authority. This rendered the other feminist at Charlie's interview table well nigh invisible -- to the point where if you paid me I couldn't recall her name even though it was flashed on the TV screen almost every time she spoke.

The Original Savings Account

Gloria's use of the noise of her ornaments to signify that she was the authority on feminism makes sense, if you think it through. When our race formed into large tribes the last word about a decision that affected the entire tribe couldn't be left to the person who could shout the loudest. There was always some fool who could shout louder than anyone else. Another means had to be found to establish whose opinion should carry the greatest weight at tribal council.

Then as now money talks and the ability to create wealth, which in its most basic and key meaning is simply abundance, does a better job of shouting than the human vocal cords. Before the days of currency, people wore their wealth in the form of whatever was considered to represent a prized store of value. The tradition of wearing a family's wealth probably still exists in remote regions of the world because I met with instances of it little more than a quarter century ago.

I don't know why men began piling the family wealth on their wives instead of wearing it themselves but that's what happened. (There must have been fights at first: You wear the family fortune today, dear. No you wear it; I have to milk the goat.) Maybe it was because the men didn't want to be burdened by wearing all that stuff while they hunted and fished. It might have been a way of thanking the wife for her abundance in producing children. And maybe it was a way for males to signify that they too produced abundance, the signs of which they gifted to the mother to their children. Maybe it was all these reasons and others.

In any case, what we moderns consider feminine ornamentation is actually humanity's original savings account, which did double duty as a badge of authority.

Telling the Wise One from the Fools

To cut a story, establishing authority for final decisions in the tribe worked out to which wife jangled, clacked, or clicked the loudest. Because a wife couldn't make that much noise wearing only one or two metal bangles, clamshells or a few beads or whatever, this signified her husband didn't yet have sufficient wisdom to make a decision that affected the entire tribe's welfare. But the wife who wore, say, 20 bangles on each arm could make enough racket to wake the dead just by waving Hello. This served as a polite but constant reminder to the rest of the tribe that her husband could provide the wisest counsel because he had a demonstrated ability to produce great abundance.

The recognition of the crucial links between the ability to produce great abundance, the need to accord this ability deference in the governing process, and the tribe's survival formed human nature's view of wisdom and wealth and inextricably bound the two concepts together.

For many thousands of years things bumped along according to the savings account jangling method of quickly distinguishing the fools from the wise.

Then history happened.

The Treasury

In the really old days people didn't live very long so family fortunes weren't that large. But as a longer life span evolved, and maybe also as our race became less nomadic and took up farming, the wisest man's wife had to be built like a Sherman tank just to walk under the weight of her husband's abundance. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the wheel was invented to truck around wives wearing a 300 pound savings account.

Finally things got to the point where some genius suggested that what the tribe needed was a treasury -- a central place to store accumulated wealth. Thanks to the copycat aspect of human nature this idea took off with other tribes as well.

Trouble soon followed.

I don't mean to imply that the establishing of treasuries was a monolithic or sudden occurrence around the world. As I noted even in this era there are probably tribes that still keep to the old ways. But the idea caught on or was independently conceived in many regions over time.

The treasury was an inevitable development. Yet this marked the weakening of the link between physical wealth and wisdom. Whereas the link had been very concrete when people were a literal bank, it became increasingly abstract when wealth was put in a building.

The storehousing of wealth made it harder to spot at a glance or a hearing who was wise, wiser, and wisest. And the storehousing tended to downgrade the importance attached to wisdom. The parable "The King and the Golden Goose" illustrates this. The process of creating wealth takes work, which produces experience, which produces wisdom. The physical signs of wealth symbolize this. Yet once the product of work became abstract, greed for the product lowered the value of wisdom. And so the unwise king killed the goose that laid golden eggs on the assumption he could obtain all the riches at once.

Another downside to the building of treasuries was that separating the physical wealth from the person who owned it made it easier to rationalize the plunder of wealth and the killing of other humans in the process.

More Trouble

Treasuries led to all other sorts of trouble, although I don't know whether this was a chicken or egg situation -- whether large-scale armed conquests led to the building of more treasuries or whether the conquests geared up just because there were treasuries to raid. The story probably varied from region to region and era to era.

But I will say there is something about putting stuff in a building and marking it off limits without permission to enter that seems to trigger a blip in the male brain. Men could see the same amount of treasure walking around on women and not think anything of it, but give the treasure its own room and limit entry, and this is a recipe for trouble.

Eventually, in different parts of the world where treasuries were set up, the keepers of the treasury -- all men -- starting lording it over everyone else in the tribe. They wanted to be the only people who could wear stuff from the treasury. Then they started claiming they had a divine dispensation to wear the stuff. Then they claimed they were actually gods. Then they wanted everyone to bow down to them because they were the only wise people in the tribe. Then they wanted their families to inherit control of the treasury. It just went on and on.

Anyhow, humanity somehow survived the introduction of the treasury, but the ultimate price was that human nature found it much harder to maintain a standard for telling the wise ones from the fools.

War and More Degeneration of the Wisdom Standard

The rise of large-scale armed conquests meant that wealth could be stolen in increasingly large amounts. This placed human nature in another quandary when it came to identifying the wise ones. The ability to steal large measures of wealth signified cunning and even bravery. But possession of piles of stolen loot didn't necessarily indicate wisdom -- especially when rule over the hoard was inherited. In that event a complete idiot could be in possession of great wealth.

I'm not sure how human nature handled this new wrinkle, although it's likely the rise of bureaucracies and royal retinues was at least in part an attempt to patch over the problem of idiots in control of a kingdom's wealth. (Don't worry that he's an idiot; we're his brain.)

Faux Signs of Wisdom

Then, about 300 years ago, a new trouble launched -- in Europe, although it quickly spread to America.. The trouble was fake jewelry. By the way I don't think it's an accident of history that around the same time fake jewelry came into widespread use in the West the study called economics began to greatly interest Western governments.

It's not as if fake jewelry was introduced in that era; the ancient Romans made pretty good paste gems. But whether the Roman art was lost and rediscovered around 300 years ago or independently discovered at that time (probably historians of jewelry making know the answer), there might have been an impetus in Europe around that time to produce paste gems if economists were giving bad advice to kings, or if inbreeding in royal families was producing a lot of fools for royal heirs, or both those problems were in effect..

The problem with having a fool for a king is that he doesn't necessarily recognize wise advice from his retainers. Maybe that's where the saying, "A fool and his money are soon parted" comes from. If a fool blew through the royal treasury he still had to keep up the appearance that he possessed great wealth. That's where paste gems would have come in handy.

In any case, word got out about the newfangled fake gems. So then people cooked up the story that they wore paste because the real gems they possessed were now worth so much money they had to be kept under lock and key. That malarkey appealed to the copycat aspect of human nature. Soon, many members of the aristocracy were wearing paste gems. Social climbers followed suit. Then it was everybody's turn to be a posturing phony.

Fake jewelry was renamed "costume" jewelry in a nod to its widespread acceptance as a socially acceptable artifice.

By the time of the Art Deco period during the Roaring 1920s, costume jewelry made for women's party attire had become such an art that only a jeweler might be able to tell the difference between good paste gems and the real thing. This meant that people who hadn't a clue about how to produce wealth were able to wear signs that they had much wisdom, and often getting away with the masquerade.

A man could go far in society by draping his wife with good paste gems and setting himself up as an authority on amassing wealth. Fake credentials and fraudulent experts abounded. The U.S. stock market crash of 1929 saw many of the authorities losing their shirts, which left human nature even more confused about how to tell the fools from the wise ones.

By the time the French fashion designer Coco Chanel popularized the wearing of gobs of obviously fake jewelry with women's daytime attire, the entire concept of wealth as a guide to a person's wisdom had gone out the window. Any fool could Put on the Ritz and do so without even trying to pretend to wealth.

By the post-World War Two era economic theories had come to dominate the thinking about wealth in modernized societies. Individual wisdom was no longer necessary for humanity's survival, and neither was individual wealth; the science of economics and collective efforts would make the entire society wealthy. If you couldn't be personally wealthy it didn't matter because you could be glamorous and chic; Chanel's dressing herself and her rich clients in fake jewels and simply cut suits that could be easily copied by mass manufacturers of cheap costume jewelry and ready-to-wear suits was a way of saying all this.

Wisdom was dead. Long live cleverness, convenience, and revolving store credit.

The Recent Past

Human nature -- still with us after all these millennia, as the Gloria Steinem story illustrates -- rebelled at modernity's complete destruction of any handy way to tell the fools from the wise. The rebellion manifested in odd and even tragic ways, bubbling up like ash belched by a dormant volcano. Here are but just a few signs of the inferno buried under modernity in the USA:

Take, for example, Them. By the late 1950s in America self-published books and pamphlets began appearing in suburban mailboxes to warn that a cabal of super-rich, super-smart people was plotting to take over the world. By the late 1960s Them had been joined by a large cast of aliens and monsters, all looking like normal people until they suddenly showed their true form and leaped on the unsuspecting. A soap opera about an outwardly normal upper income family of vampires on Long Island made it onto national daytime TV.

The word "phony" crept more and more into the American lexicon.

Housewives whose husbands made a good salary began showing up at the shopping mall dressed like overgrown children -- in baggy sweatshirts and jeans -- and wearing not a bangle to jangle, even though they had a box full of real jewelry gifted by their husbands. What use was it to parade the stuff if it had no real meaning anymore?

A husband would come home from work to face a red-eyed wife sitting next to mounds of used Kleenex and snarling through three martinis, "You don't love me anymore."

The husbands took refuge with their secretaries. Wives burned their bras. The divorce rate skyrocketed. Women went to work in business offices and became shopaholics on credit, amassing piles of cheap costume jewelry. Then they wept when saw their wedding band, a vestige of a symbol of wisdom, at the bottom of a jewelry box. Then they went into psychotherapy.

Yes, all things told, human nature hasn't had a good hair day in modern society for at least a century. Come to think of it, human nature in many parts of the world probably hasn't had too many good hair days during the past 5,000 years.

If by now you're getting the impression that a major preoccupation at the back of your brain is trying to tell the wise ones from the fools -- I don't think we have a one-track 'unconscious' but the issue seems to be high on our list, given its importance to our survival.

What Are the Wise Men Saying Today?

So we return to the present era, which finds grown American men, now relegated to the status of children sitting outside the circle at the tribal council, hanging on every word issued by the wise men at the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee, then spending weeks dissecting the meaning of every word uttered by these paragons of wisdom and impatiently waiting for the next utterance.

The paragons are currently wondering, according to Bloomberg News, if they made a mistake by basing their decision to taper quantitative easing on the nation's official unemployment rate, which turned out to be a poor indicator of economic improvement because it doesn't reflect that many Americans have simply given up looking for work. Ah! The wise ones are wondering. What could that mean?

And we disapprove of the mullahs' rule over Iran.

Closing Thoughts

I repeat: The recognition of the crucial links between the ability to produce great abundance, the need to accord this ability deference in the governing process, and the tribe's survival formed human nature's view of wisdom and wealth and inextricably bound the two concepts together.

Again, I repeat: it was the recognition of all this which was a key to humanity's survival. And this is as true for the individual as for the group.

There is no way to separate the two concepts for survival purposes. The desire for wisdom unsupported by the work that produces an abundance degenerates into intellectualism. The work  for wealth unsupported by the desire for wisdom degenerates into an accounting of possessions.

Whenever peoples in earlier times forgot this or didn't learn it, at the least they suffered badly and at worst their societies quickly died off. That modern peoples have not been taught this explains the staggering number of neuroses and personal tragedies that are connected with money. The road to sanity for American individuals, and for the nation, starts with recognizing one of human nature's hard-won keys to survival.



Anonymous said...

That's why Hindus value only gold jewels and have never fallen for designer ornaments ;-). Nothing less than 22 carat,even in the poorest families.

Anonymous said...

You've sealed your right to call yourself Pundita, with this one.

One of the more brilliant and witty capsule surveys I have seen, since grooving to Richard Armour back in college.