Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Great Enrichment

Last week, the subject of my column was the book, "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt. Actually, I guess that Bill Moyer's interview of Jonathan Haidt was my primary focus, but let us not quibble gentlereaders.

I also named and defined a modern malady I call Dizzinformation Anxiety Syndrome. This is the fear that you might miss/have missed/are missing important information. The fact that The Righteous Mind, and the interview, have been loose in the world for a few years without me knowing about them triggered an episode of DAS in yours truly due to the fact the subject of the book is one of my obsessions. That is, the devolution of many of the people who have to share this country, into hardened, uncompromising, semi-religious factions that demonize each other's viewpoints and lifestyles. I wonder if this phenomenon reminds anyone besides me of Sunni v. Shia Muslims?

It occurs to me that I'm aware of some information that doesn't seem to be getting the attention it deserves, in my semi-humble opinion. As a public service, I've decided to dedicate a column to it for I think that it should be getting much more attention that it is  -- you're welcome.

First, a caveat. I may be wrong, about this or anything really, a phenomenon that occurs with disturbing regularity. I mention this not because of modesty, false or otherwise; I'm semi-humble, not humble. But I believe that an attitude of healthy skepticism is more important than ever since we must be ever vigilant if we wish to avoid being dizzinformationated by the daily deluge of data delivered during this, the Dizzinformation age.

See Twain, Mark: "Lies, damn lies, and statistics."

[Were I truly humble I'd be a Zen monk and keep my thoughts/opinions/observations and the like to myself instead of putting them out there in front of a potential audience of some 7,404,976,783 people. Though my current readership is slightly smaller than that, I'm cautiously optimistic.]

So, there's this woman, her name is Deirdre McCloskey, who describes herself on her website as, "...a literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, progressive Episcopalian, Midwestern woman from Boston who was once a man. Not 'conservative'! I'm a Christian libertarian. "

[For the record, I'm a semi-literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, agnostic, Midwestern man from Pittsburgh who remains a man. Not conservative! I'm a bleeding heart libertarian. As you see, there's some overlap. Unfortunately (for me), I'm a dilettante, she's a genius.] 

As far as academia is concerned she's Dr. Deirdre McCloskey, the Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English and Communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago. None of the words in the preceding sentence are adjectives, they are bestowed upon her by her university. That's her official title, and it also serves as an accurate job description.

Incidentally, Deirdre used to be Daniel. She made the trans-formation back in 1995. Daniel/Diedre was a transexual long before being transexual was cool and/or politically correct. If the details are of interest to you, she wrote a book about it called, "Crossing, a Memoir."

Ms. McCloskey has spent the last ten years of her life writing a series of three books, her masterwork, the culmination of a lifetime of study that will make her (if there's any justice in the world) immortal in her field. She has a lot of fields (see above), but calls herself an economic historian.

There's unlikely to be a movie based on any of the three books in question. And in fact, I don't recommend them for the average Joe or Joan Bagadonuts. They are semi-scholarly tomes, written primarily for other scholars and nerdsihly inclined dilettantes (not unlike myself) that posit/explain/defend her take on economic history. I'm definitely not a scholar. However, there's much here for a dilettante (like myself) with an interest in not only economic history but history in general. She has a depth of knowledge that enables her to effortlessly synthesize economic history and myriad other subjects and construct a big picture view of how the real world actually works. She's a dilettante's delight, and has a great sense of humor. The books are:

The Bourgeois Virtues, Bourgeois Dignity and Bourgeois Equality.

She began her academic career studying economics because she wanted to know what economic/political system was the best for poor people. She became a Marxist but gradually morphed into a wild-eyed free marketeer, just like me! Other than the fact that I've never actually identified myself as a Marxist, haven't had a distinguished career, haven't published numerous books and articles and traveled all over the world teaching/speechifying/attending conferences with other brainiacs -- we have a lot in common.

Now, while accurately distilling the essence of three fat volumes into one column is a disservice to the author, the message is so important I'm going to attempt it anyway. If you wish to find out if I know what I'm talking about you can read the books, or, surf the plethora of articles and video content available on the web.

The Great Enrichment began around 1800. Suddenly, after thousands of  years of 99.9% of the world subsisting on the modern equivalent of about three bucks a day, the global economy went nuts. From 1800 till now the real income of the citizens of the planet Earth increased by anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000%. In the US, for example, we've gone from $3/day to $135/day.

Professor McCloskey's three books explain the who/what/when/where/why of this phenomenon. Continuing my vast over-simplification: It happened because beginning in Holland, around 1600, the values of a liberated bourgeoisie (the middle class, but thanks to Marx and company a word that's now often as not used with contempt) were applied to markets.

In the words of the professor, "The answer, in a word, is 'liberty.' Liberated people, it turns out, are ingenious. Slaves, serfs, subordinated women, people frozen in a hierarchy of lords or bureaucrats are not. By certain accidents of European politics, having nothing to do with deep European virtue, more and more Europeans [and eventually Americans] were liberated. You might call it life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

"To use another big concept, what came -- slowly, imperfectly -- was equality. It was not an equality of outcome..." it was "...equality before the law and equality of social dignity."

"And that is the other surprising notion explaining our riches: 'liberalism,' in its original meaning of, 'worthy of a free person.' Liberalism was a new idea."

For the record: slavery, imperialism, and/or the exploitation of any group by any other group didn't make us rich. Ms. McCloskey systematically and empirically destroys such arguments. DAT that I am, permit me to persist in oversimplification and ask -- as does Dr. McCloskey does, if the infidelic behavior mentioned above made a given culture rich, why, since that was the way of the world for millennia, why was our take home pay stagnant for several thousand years and then jump by 5,000% over the last two hundred?

I must stop now since I've exceeded my word budget. So, I'm going to violate company policy again this week and leave you with two links and let the co-founder of humanomics speak for herself. The first is a 10 minute, well-done quickie that covers all the basics.

The essentials

The second is a lecture given in India. It goes into more detail but is entertaining, easy to understand, and is about 40 minutes long.

A little more detail

Have an OK day.

©Mark Mehlmauer 2016

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