Thursday, May 07, 2020


Michael Erard is the author of an essay on Aeon, an online feed of valuable thought and entertaining observation that is slightly more sophisticated than many outlets.  The authors are often high-prestige and worth following in other venues, like YouTube lectures.

The premise of this essay in Aeon is that though most people learn that the roots of modern literacy are in math, keeping track of transactions and developing the geometry of land ownership after floods of the Nile River, there is another early use of symbolism (preliterate) that is in painted caves or arranged circles of stones meant to record astronomical phenomena like midsummer.  Clearly the division between the use of math and words -- both symbolisms that began the creation of cultures and nations -- is real and defensible.

Almost as soon as the test for “innumeracy” was devised, I had to admit that my score was low, which was a quick blow to my arrogant pride in my IQ.  (It's not very big.)

The next blow came from repeatedly flunking a college course in Statistics.  I finally passed the first of a two part course, but the professor I could understand retired before I mastered the second part.  The residue of this struggle is in realizing that most of the numbers that dominate the news, particularly about the pandemic, are bogus.  Evidently people who become reporters never passed statistics either. 

The third humbling realization came from moving to Valier.  Everyone here is an expert at arithmetic — the guys from doing constant back-of-the-envelope figuring about managing wheat fields or stock outcomes and the women from bookkeeping and comparative shopping, often online.  This is not a culture that values poetry, though they enjoy a good story. I am a person who finds numbers toxic, not a good fit and a worse employee.

The Aeon essay claim about the “religious” uses of words is valid in my experience, even if you consider patriotism to be a formal religion, based on national allegiance and the similarity of the group, which is reinforced by credos, pledges of allegiance, and singing in unison.  Much of our “feeling” about what is right and successful comes from watching the guy next to us — never more than in an agricultural community.  Chanting in a group wearing the same hat is part of Trump’s successful strategy in this red state, even if we have a blue and honored governor.

I take a slightly different approach to capitalism than most people.  I see bureaucracy as needing numbers as a guide, which makes bureaucrats controllable by simply miscounting or by hiding actual numbers.  Thus, the fairly successful illusion that this pandemic is less widespread than it really is.  Luckily, resourceful people have learned that if they are prevented from testing individuals, they can still measure sewage to figure out how much the virus has infected the population.  And to discover the extent of a-symptomatic infection at the level of fatalities, it is possible to graph death rates for various periods and places.  Maybe not all the isolated deaths have been properly reported, but it’s hard to hide rotting bodies, even when the dead were living rough because they were homeless.

If bureaucracy is always seen as capital maximization, its value as “venture capitalism” to start new businesses is lost.  Capitalism, economic system, dominant in the Western world since the breakup of feudalism, in which most means of production are privately held and production, prices, and incomes are determined by markets.”  But the exchangeability of money and land have created a major opportunity for corrupt forces to “launder” the bookkeeping that lets them steal ownership of assets.

It’s not just the unreality and exchangeability of capital that open the door to games, but also the dependence on credit with interest.  Even the altruism of venture investment is denied when interest is too high, a practice so old that it’s in the Bible.  Usury (/ ˈ j uː ʒ ər i /) is the practice of making unethical or immoral monetary loans that unfairly enrich the lender. The term may be used in a moral sense—condemning, taking advantage of others' misfortunes—or in a legal sense, where an interest rate is charged in excess of the maximum rate that is allowed by law.  (American Heritage dictionary).”

Many games have been devised: bundling assets of various quality, convincing mutual funds for retirement to be entrusted to companies that could go bankrupt, mincing ownership into small parts but running the whole by a corrupt and secret committee.  

The use of credit and even of interest is effective and even benign or necessary unless it is joined with the governmental ability to set up "situations", like wages that are not high enough to meet the cost of living, to force people to borrow at high rates.  This is easier to recognize when mafia indulges in protection rackets — pay us or we’ll wreck your store and kill your family — or drug dealers create a craving for both the drug itself and a means of paying for it that is illegal, so that the government’s management of law enforcement is made the source of extortion.  Pay or be turned in, maybe to corrupt courts.  This is one reason our prisons are crammed, giving rise to a new capitalism racket, the private monopolization of public duties with a secret element.

Another aspect of capitalization operates in plain sight — indeed, where gambling is made a celebration and addiction — is the stock market.  This has become a major management tool of capitalism that aggregates the actions of many into profit and loss as though the consequences could be known.  When controlled by computers, worldwide, and enormous numbers refer to things that don’t exist in reality — like monetary compensations for loss — it has the ability to force people into borrowing with usury level loss.

In fact, because of the ability of computers to handle money or other elements in such enormous quantity as rivals the human genome with its billions of genes, we are on another level of reality.  We have as different an understanding of what things are as we did when the genomic identity of species began to be compared with the taxonomies we had previously assumed.  We are challenged to explain the nature of land ownership, the basis of nations, and what wealth means, if they are only marks in a journal of transactions.  To finance a nation on the basis of taxation when the reports are so skewed and rearranged by the definitions, those tricky words, and so based on wealth that is not land, begins to seem foolhardy.  The rule of law means nothing if it is in pencil on flammable paper, but even less if it's only a computer algorithm based on demographics of domination and revenge.

If a number idiot like myself can see this, partly because of wrestling with pledges to support congregational church budgets, how do others stand for these games?  Are they hooked or merely deluded?

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