(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘sociology

“I wasn’t worth a cent two years ago, and now I owe two million dollars”*…

If you think that our democracy cannot endure with the economic inequality that afflicts the 21st century, go back to the Gilded Age, when Americans worried that the nation could not stand with the economic inequality that arose in the late 19th century. If you think that the nature of work is changing dramatically, go back to the Gilded Age, when the economy was transformed. If you worry that changes in the environment are threatening health and humanity, go back to the Gilded Age when urbanization and industrialization gave birth to those worries. These parallels allow us to step back from the concerns we’re immersed in now and think about our world in new ways. The long lens of history shows us what we’re too myopic to see in the present…

Historian of the period Richard White recommends “The best books on The Gilded Age.” His five choices are each and all eminently worthy of reading; but his explanations for his choices are an education in themselves.

* Mark Twain, The Gilded Age

###

As we peer into the not-so-distant-mirror, we might recall that it was on this date in 1867, at the dawn of the Gilded Age, that U.S. Secretary of State William Seward and Russian minister Eduard de Stoeckl agreed to a treaty effecting the purchase of Alaska by the U.S.; it was briskly ratified by Congress.

The transaction added 586,412 square miles of new territory to the United States at a cost of $7.2 million 1867 dollars (2 cents per acre); in 2019 dollars, the price was $132 million (37 cents per acre).

he US $7.2 million check used to pay for Alaska

source

Written by LW

March 30, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today’s employer is seeking”*…

A century ago, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030, our workweek would be only 15 hours long. What happened? We’ve crossed all the technological thresholds Keynes identified, so why aren’t we living in the economic promised land? Well, if Keynes were here today, he’d probably blame our unshakeable instinct to work. He believed that human beings are cursed, that we have infinite desires, but there aren’t enough resources to satisfy them. As a result, everything is, by definition, scarce. Today, economists refer to this paradox as the “fundamental economic problem,” and they believe it explains our constant will to work. We make and trade resources as a way to bridge the gap between our infinite desires and our limited means.

That may sound like a reasonable theory, but there’s a problem: It doesn’t square with what we now understand about our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Until the 1960s, anthropologists believed hunter-gatherers led short, difficult lives. Only through incremental advancements in technology, the thinking went, were our ancestors able to secure greater wealth, tranquility, and free time. But when anthropologists began studying the world’s remaining hunter-gatherer societies, they came to a striking conclusion: Hunter-gatherer life wasn’t nearly as bad as everybody thought. One anthropologist, for instance, found a tribe that only spent 30 hours a week hunting and doing chores. The rest of the time, they made music, socialized, gossiped, and relaxed. They didn’t spend all their time working to satisfy their infinite desires. In fact, their desires weren’t infinite at all; they were limited, and easy to satisfy. This revelation suggests that the “fundamental economic problem” is not, as Keynes believed, the eternal struggle of the human race. It’s just an unfortunate recent development…

One of five take-aways from Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, by James Suzman (@anthrowittering), a social anthropologist based in Cambridge, England, where he directs a think tank called Anthropos that uses anthropological tools to solve economic problems. His first book, Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen, draws on the three decades he’s spent living with the Ju/’hoansi, one of the oldest hunter-gatherer societies in the world.

More at Next Big Idea Club (@NextBigIdeaClub): “Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots.”

* John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

###

As we rethink the rat race, we might send exquisitely-constructed birthday greetings to a man whose work continues to inspire and amaze, Johann Sebastian Bach; he was born on this date in 1685. Known both for instrumental compositions such as the Brandenburg Concertos and the Goldberg Variations, and for vocal music such as the St Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor, he sits at the apex of the Baroque period, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time.

source

Written by LW

March 21, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain”*…

You may not have heard of Robin Dunbar. But you will, perhaps, know of his work. Dunbar, now emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, is the man who first suggested that there may be a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom you can comfortably maintain stable social relationships – or, as Stephen Fry put it on the TV show QI, the number of people “you would not hesitate to go and sit with if you happened to see them at 3am in the departure lounge at Hong Kong airport”. Human beings, Dunbar found when he conducted his research in the 1990s, typically have 150 friends in general (people who know us on sight, and with whom we have a history), of whom just five can usually be described as intimate.

In his new book, Dunbar revisits and unpicks this number, by which he stands; and he brings together several decades of other research in the area of friendship, some of it his own, some that of anthropologists, geneticists and neuroscientists with whom he has worked. It can’t be definitive: the possibilities in this field are surely limitless. But for the reader, it sometimes feels like it is. Why do most women have a best friend? Why do many men struggle to share confidences? Why is it so painful when we fall out with our friends? Above all, what effect do friends (or a lack of them) have on our mental and physical health? Think of any question you might have and you’ll find some kind of an answer to it here. What you may feel in your gut, it will back with science. Its central message, however, may be summed up in a sentence. In essence, the number and quality of our friendships may have a bigger influence on our happiness, health and mortality risk than anything else in life save for giving up smoking.

Dunbar could not have known that his book would be published in a time of such loneliness, and some readers may find what he has to say, in this context, reassuring…

Dunbar’s Number, a (confirmatory) reconsideration of the value– and limitations– of friendship: “How important are your pals?

* Muhammad Ali

###

As we contemplate companionship, we might humbly note that today is Everything You Think Is Wrong Day, a celebration fo imperfection created to remind one that one is not always right.

source

“In the absence of value judgements, value goes up in flames. And it goes up in a sort of ecstasy.”*…

Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)”

When Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)” sold at Christie’s in New York for $179 million dollars in May 2015, it was only the 36th time in the past 315 years that a world auction record had been set, and the sale raised questions well beyond the art world. How could a single painting be worth so much? Why is art so important to wealthy households? What economic and social factors could lead to enshrining Picasso’s colourful near-abstract portrait as the most valuable picture in the history of the modern world?…

Three economists offer an an explanation based on an analysis of art auctions dating back to 1701: “A History of the Art Market in 35 Record-Breaking Sales.”

* Jean Baudrillard

In this sense, therefore, inasmuch as we have access to neither the beautiful nor the ugly, and are incapable of judging, we are condemned to indifference. Beyond this indifference, however, another kind of fascination emerges, a fascination which replaces aesthetic pleasure. For, once liberated from their respective constraints, the beautiful and the ugly, in a sense, multiply: they become more beautiful than beautiful, more ugly than ugly.

Thus painting currently cultivates, if not ugliness exactly – which remains an aesthetic value – then the uglier-than-ugly (the ‘bad’, the ‘worse’, kitsch), an ugliness raised to the second power because it is liberated from any relationship with its opposite. Once freed from the ‘true’ Mondrian, we are at liberty to ‘out-Mondrian Mondrian’; freed from the true naifs, we can paint in a way that is ‘more naif than naif’, and so on. And once freed from reality, we can produce the ‘realer than real’ – hyperrealism. It was in fact with hyperrealism and pop art that everything began, that everyday life was raised to the ironic power of photographic realism. Today this escalation has caught up every form of art, every style; and all, without discrimination, have entered the transaesthetic world of simulation.

There is a parallel to this escalation in the art market itself. Here too, because an end has been put to any deference to the law of value, to the logic of commodities, everything has become ‘more expensive than expensive’ – expensive, as it were, squared. Prices are exorbitant – the bidding has gone through the roof. Just as the abandonment of all aesthetic ground rules provokes a kind of brush fire of aesthetic values, so the loss of all reference to the laws of exchange means that the market hurtles into unrestrained speculation.

The frenzy, the folly, the sheer excess are the same. The promotional ignition of art is directly linked to the impossibility of all aesthetic evaluation.

In the absence of value judgements, value goes up in flames. And it goes up in a sort of ecstasy.

There are two art markets today. One is still regulated by a hierarchy of values, even if these are already of a speculative kind. The other resembles nothing so much as floating and uncontrollable capital in the financial market: it is pure speculation, movement for movement’s sake, with no apparent purpose other than to defy the law of value. This second art market has much in common with poker or potlatch – it is a kind of space opera in the hyperspace of value. Should we be scandalized? No. There is nothing immoral here. Just as present-day art is beyond beautiful and ugly, the market, for its part, is beyond good and evil.

The Transparency of Evil: Essays in Extreme Phenomena

###

As we appreciate appreciating art, we might recall that it was on this date in 1862 that (in order to create liquidity to finance the Civil War) the U.S. government issued its first official paper money. “Demand Notes,” the first federal issues of the Civil War, were immediately exchangeable in gold or silver “on demand” at seven banks spread across the country. They were quickly replaced by very similar-looking “legal tender” notes that could not be readily converted to specie. These issues were notable for the bright, dark green imprints on their backs, and ever since then American paper currency has been familiarly nicknamed “greenbacks.”

source

Written by LW

March 10, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production”*…

Television fueled the second stage of modern consumer culture, “democratizing” luxury on a scale previously unimagined

The notion of human beings as consumers first took shape before World War I, but became commonplace in America in the 1920s. Consumption is now frequently seen as our principal role in the world.

People, of course, have always “consumed” the necessities of life — food, shelter, clothing — and have always had to work to get them or have others work for them, but there was little economic motive for increased consumption among the mass of people before the 20th century.

Quite the reverse: Frugality and thrift were more appropriate to situations where survival rations were not guaranteed. Attempts to promote new fashions, harness the “propulsive power of envy,” and boost sales multiplied in Britain in the late 18th century. Here began the “slow unleashing of the acquisitive instincts,” write historians Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J.H. Plumb in their influential book on the commercialization of 18th-century England, when the pursuit of opulence and display first extended beyond the very rich.

But, while poorer people might have acquired a very few useful household items — a skillet, perhaps, or an iron pot — the sumptuous clothing, furniture, and pottery of the era were still confined to a very small population. In late 19th-century Britain a variety of foods became accessible to the average person, who would previously have lived on bread and potatoes — consumption beyond mere subsistence. This improvement in food variety did not extend durable items to the mass of people, however. The proliferating shops and department stores of that period served only a restricted population of urban middle-class people in Europe, but the display of tempting products in shops in daily public view was greatly extended — and display was a key element in the fostering of fashion and envy.

Although the period after World War II is often identified as the beginning of the immense eruption of consumption across the industrialized world, the historian William Leach locates its roots in the United States around the turn of the century.

In the United States, existing shops were rapidly extended through the 1890s, mail-order shopping surged, and the new century saw massive multistory department stores covering millions of acres of selling space. Retailing was already passing decisively from small shopkeepers to corporate giants who had access to investment bankers and drew on assembly-line production of commodities, powered by fossil fuels; the traditional objective of making products for their self-evident usefulness was displaced by the goal of profit and the need for a machinery of enticement.

“The cardinal features of this culture were acquisition and consumption as the means of achieving happiness; the cult of the new; the democratization of desire; and money value as the predominant measure of all value in society,” Leach writes in his 1993 book “Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture.” Significantly, it was individual desire that was democratized, rather than wealth or political and economic power…

From Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays (and his pioneering of modern propaganda and advertising), through Alfred P. Sloan and General Motors (and the proliferation of choice), David Sarnoff and radio (then television), and now the internet– over the course of the 20th century, capitalism preserved its momentum by molding the ordinary person into a consumer with an unquenchable thirst for more stuff: “A Brief History of Consumer Culture.”

[Your correspondent highly recommends Land of Desire, and as a video “chaser,” Adam Curtis’ remarkable Century of Self (on YouTube here).]

* Adan Smith, The Wealth of Nations

###

As we consume consciously, we might spare a thought for Thomas Crapper; he died on this date in 1910.  Crapper popularized the one-piece pedestal flushing toilet that still bears his name in many parts of the English-speaking world.

The flushing toilet was invented by John Harrington in 1596; Joseph Bramah patented the first practical water closet in England in 1778; then in 1852, George Jennings received a patent for the flush-out toilet.  Crapper’s  contribution was promotional (though he did develop some important related inventions, such as the ballcock): in a time when bathroom fixtures were barely mentionable, Crapper, who was trained as a plumber, set himself up as a “sanitary engineer”; he heavily promoted “sanitary” plumbing and pioneered the concept of the bathroom fittings showroom.  His efforts were hugely successful; he scored a series of Royal Warrants (providing lavatories for Prince, then King Edward, and for George V) and enjoyed huge commercial success. To this day, manhole covers with Crapper’s company’s name on them in Westminster Abbey are among London’s minor tourist attractions.

 source

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: