Becker and Feminism – Ernest Becker Foundation

Source: Becker and Feminism – Ernest Becker Foundation

The link above is to a piece published by the Ernest Becker Foundation and answers a lot of questions I’ve had about the absence of a women’s perspective in Becker’s work. It’s a fitting end to the series on misogyny that I’ve published here over the last few posts.

This is really worth the read.

 

 

Why do some people refer to sex as dirty?

By sex in the title here, I mean sexual intercourse and sexually related activities. I never could understand the reference. It seemed (and still seems) ridiculous to me. I understand it now, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept because it’s a metaphor that is deeply demeaning to women of course, but frankly, to all of us. The reference could make sense if it aimed at describing sex in a mud bath, but that’s never the intention, of course.

You all know this. It’s no secret. Men are never referred to as ‘dirty sluts.’ It just doesn’t happen. However, women are  routinely called dirty sluts, particularly by the porn industry, but also by some segments of the population with very categorical views of when, where, and with whom it’s okay to express one’s sexuality.

More basically, I heard with my very own ears parents chastising their children for having their hands ‘down there.’ “That’s dirty, don’t do that!” I’m hoping that it doesn’t happen with younger parents these days but I somehow doubt it. There are people on this planet who are pathetically if not pathologically ignorant, so nothing should surprise us. Moreover, cultural references are pretty pervasive and consistent in linking our ‘private parts’ with dirt. The word pudenda, the plural of pudendum, refers to “a person’s external genitals, especially a woman’s,” that according to the very reliable Google dictionary. Pudendum literally means: “thing to be ashamed of,” according to the same reliable dictionary. So, not only are genitalia dirty, they’re also something to be ashamed of. Now, even as a long time social researcher and somewhat cynical sociologist, I still find this reference to genitalia and sex, especially with reference to women as entirely perverse.

On another tangent, but still on the language train, if I want to refer to someone as not being entirely nice, I may call that person an ‘asshole.’ There we go again. It’s no surprise too that our swear words are pretty much entirely focussed on our genitalia and on sex. In French, swearing also involves the genitalia and such, but in Québec, you’re also liable to hear swear words referencing the Catholic Church and items used during the mass.

Since who knows for how long we’ve been alienated from ourselves. We refer to ‘my’ body. What is the ‘my’ that owns a body? We should’t be surprised, though, because that’s language and our language reflects our morality and our preoccupations and we are silently, unconsciously, subconsciously, and daily reminded of death. Language is entirely metaphorical so we express our fear of death not in direct terms, but obliquely, using metaphor. [By the way, if you want a good read: Talking Power: The Politics of Language, by Robin Tolmach Lakoff, Basic Books, 1990). It’s all about metaphor and politics. She’s got a great chapter in there on women and language.]

Alright, I’ll grant you that excrement is not far from being dirt and if mommy doesn’t want you playing ‘down there’ it could be partly because she doesn’t want you spreading shit all over the place. But that’s not the whole story, nowhere near. Excrement has much more meaning for us than that. Norman O. Brown notes in Life Against Death (p.295):

Excrement is the dead life of the body, and as long as humanity prefers a dead life to living, so long is humanity committed to treating as excrement not only its own body but the surrounding world of objects, reducing all to dead matter and inorganic magnitudes. Our much prized “objectivity” toward our own bodies, other persons, and the universe, all our calculating “rationality,” is, from the psychoanalytical point of view, an ambivalent mixture of love and hate, an attitude appropriate only toward excrement, and appropriate to excrement only in an animal that has lost his own body and life.

What does Brown mean when he writes that we are “an animal that has lost his own body and life.” ‘His’ in this sentence refers to humankind, all of us. In some ways I find it strange that Brown uses ‘man’ to include women and ‘his’ whenever a general possessive pronoun is on his mind. However, Brown is right. Taking a shit is a daily, unconscious, subconscious, reminder of our death and that’s distinctly unpleasant. If we thought about it consciously, we would be traumatized. So we use all kinds of metaphors to try to forget all about death or we joke about it. Few are the people who have come to grips with death and live a full life in their bodies, as their bodies, taking pleasure in them and accepting their aging and their annoying aches and pains. These are people who don’t yearn for a life beyond this life, because for them, that just doesn’t exist.

Just one more thing: What the fuck does ‘taking a shit’ mean? Of course we know what it means, but what can we make of it literally? I really don’t know. However, I’d rather leave a shit than take one, thanks. Enough silliness for one day. More later.

 

 

Is Equality Between the Sexes Possible?

Is it possible to have equality between the sexes?

Given the history of sexual relations on this planet, a logical answer would seem to be a resounding NO. But I don’t think that’s so.

Yes, absolutely, I do think that equality is possible. However, it can only be possible when humankind, especially the male fraction of the species, agrees to give up its apotheotic quest for the god-like status of an immortal being. There are hints that there is movement in this direction (more on this later), but we have a long way to go before the bulk of humankind can reconcile itself to the idea that our bodies are all we are and souls do not exist except in our collective conscience.

I sincerely have sympathy for people who want to live forever. Our quest for immortality is the basis for a lot of our sociality. We share a belief in eternal life with others like us. We build institutions and organizations to perpetuate and nurture this belief. It’s an appealing prospect until one begins to read the fine print or we begin to kill each other to defend ‘our’ god against the gods of ‘others’ who dare to try to usurp our vision of the way to eternal life. The way gods work, there can really be only one that is the true god. All others must be pretenders. (This isn’t strictly true. Even one god, the one proclaimed by Moses and Abraham, can be the source of real division, death and mayhem). That said, let’s get to the nitty gritty.

It’s evident that males and females of many species of animal are dimorphic, meaning that the sexes vary in body size, shape and weight, hairiness, and in other easily ascertainable ways. Us humans are significantly dimorphic with males being on average stronger, bigger, etc.[1] So, men and women are not equal in many respects. This has lead a whole lot of conservative thinkers and philosophers going back as far into history as the eye can see to make the logical leap to conclude that these physical inequalities are the natural basis for the social, economic, and political inequality of the sexes. This is patently absurd but it doesn’t stop those who claim a logical basis for their arguments in natural human variation from making their claims on clearly ideological grounds.

It’s certainly true that there is huge variability in male human size, strength and shape. Some theorists might dare to suggest that the Nilotic peoples, especially the Dinka and Nuer, being very tall and thin on average, must be superior to the BaMbuti people of the Ituri Forest in central Africa, who are what we used to call pygmies, and who are very short and compact. The same is true for intra-female variability. The variability of human form is quite evident still, of course, but there is evidence that with international travel and population mixing that the variability that we have seen historically is very slowly attenuating.

Of course, we’ve seen evidence in history that skin colour, eye shape, etc have been significant bases for the imposition of social inequality. We ‘other’ people for all kinds of convenient reasons especially social and economic power. We deny people equality for whatever reason we can dream up or make up as long as it’s in our interests. So, what about the inequality that exists between men and women? Well, I think I’ve repeated it often enough, but it may be worth repeating again. Men have longed for immortality for as far back as we can ascertain. Their literate representatives who have gotten into the history books and have written a huge range of proclamations on the topic going back further than ancient Babylon have been pretty well in agreement that women are a huge stumbling block to achieving the objective of immortality. Women just can’t help but get most of us poor men all lathered up sexually and by that process, take our limited attention away from our focus on our spiritual salvation and eternal life.

It’s pretty common to read in historical documents, including the Bible, of course, that any form of pleasure of the flesh is sinful and leads to eternal damnation. In her book Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and The Catholic Church[2] Uta Ranke-Heinemann’s focus is on Church writers, theologians, popes and the like. She also, however, goes beyond her analysis of women and the Catholic Church, to consider relations between men and women taken more broadly. She notes that although it seems that proscriptions and interdictions regarding sex are pretty straightforward in historical texts, we cannot assume that everyone was on board with those specialists, philosophers, theologians, etc., who were often celibates and who lorded it over the masses. It seems the masses weren’t always in agreement with the high and mighty and often ignored interdictions even to the point of suffering persecution and social exile.

Of course, it’s really quite ridiculous to expect people to not enjoy sex. Plainly, there are many circumstances where sex is not at all pleasurable, especially for women and even ejaculation can be painful at times for a small minority of men. Still, essentially, sex and pleasure go hand in hand. I (and I daresay most men) would find it very difficult not to feel some pleasure upon ejaculation. Ironically, according to many writers historically men are not supposed to even experience ejaculation (during masturbation or coitus) unless it’s sanctioned by the authorities and only under very socially proscribed situations. In fact, Ranke-Heinemann notes that church authorities even discouraged sex between spouses, some going so far as to dictate time of day, day of the week, months of the year. Needless to say, the Church fathers were only concerned with male sexual pleasure and regulating it, not female pleasure, which they often assumed never existed.

Let’s not fool ourselves either to think that regulation of sexuality is a thing of the past. Female (and male) genital mutilation is still commonly practiced as well as segregation of the sexes. It’s also still common for states to try to regulate what you can do in the privacy of your bedroom.

One last thing before I move on. It’s clear that not all men are misogynists and women victims. Humans will always find ways of sharing intimacy and revelling in sensual, sexual pleasure no matter what the ayatollah, the pope, imam, rabbi, or whoever goes on about how bad it is and how it detracts from our main goal of immortal life in the presence of our preferred deity. It’s also true that women can have just as much of a stake in immortality as men do. The only difference between men and women in this regard is that men have made up all the rules and women must obey or live eternally in hell.

It’s also clear to me that men and women can equally be jerks, self-serving, mean, nasty, and violent. They may choose different paths to meanness, nastiness and jerkiness on occasion, but elimination of the search for immortality will not necessarily do away with the human condition although I really am optimistic that there will come a time when there will be less basis for stupid, vapid, ignorant human behaviour. The elimination of competition for favour in the eyes of God or just for individual specialness, even on the football field, will take us a long way to equality of the sexes. Just don’t expect dramatic results too soon.

It’s also true, I’m pleased to say, that we can love profoundly and unconditionally. Problem is that we do that in spite of all the social forces that work to divide us when they should be working to bring us together romantically, whether it’s woman with man, woman with woman, man with man or a combination of the above. I’m not saying we should abandon all restraint and engage in all out debauchery, but we should all be engaged in figuring out as we go along what we want rather than have the high and mighty do that for us in the name of a false hope of immortality.

Next: how little innocuous things like words, sayings, and practices can reinforce and even exacerbate sexual inequality.

 

 

[1] See de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex for a detailed exploration of this topic. Germaine Greer takes a slightly different look at sexual dimorphism in humans in her book, The Female Eunuch.

[2] New York, Doubleday, 1988.

Misogyny: What the Hell? Okay, Let’s Do This.

So, I’ve been putting off writing this post. The reason is that I’ve been reading, reading, and reading some more. There are hundreds if not thousands of books on misogyny and countless more scholarly articles, never mind the (probably) millions of newspaper, magazine, websites, blogs, and other sources I can’t think of right now, that try to understand misogyny or point out it’s catastrophic consequences especially for women, but also for all of us. And there are original sources to be evaluated including religious texts, philosophical works, and ethnographies. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the literature in reading and teaching a course on love and sex, but there are themes that re-occur again and again so it’s not necessary to read every piece of writing on the topic. What I have read is depressing enough.

I want to say that I have no intention of offending anyone by writing these words today, but some people will inevitably take exception. That I cannot control. Like Copernicus, Galileo, and the more contemporary Charles Darwin (although I’m not in the same category of eminence as they are), I must write what I see as the truth based on decades of study and reflection. That said, let’s do this.

As I wrote in my last post, misogyny started when the animal became the human. Of course, we’ve always been animals, subject to all the vagaries and uncertainties that that entails including the challenges associated with survival, including getting enough to eat and drink, protecting ourselves from threats (floods, droughts, volcanoes, rock slides, predators etc.,) as well as replenishing the species by making babies. However, when we evolved sufficiently to become self-aware, which took millions of years, we were able, with our now bigger brains, to try to deny that we were ever animals in the first place. Or rather, we didn’t specifically deny our animality, we just tamed it by making it subject to control by our ‘self’.

Language has long fascinated me and there is plenty of evidence in our languages of the attempted denial or taming of our animality. If I say to you: “My body is really sore from that workout yesterday,” to what does the ‘my’  in that sentence refer? What is it that can claim ownership of the body? This linguistic turn had profound impacts on humanity long before English evolved. Virtually everywhere I look in the anthropological ethnographic literature, we’ve determined that ‘we’ are in fact not just our bodies, but ‘we’ are much more than that. We’ve managed to convince ourselves via our dreams (awake and asleep), our growing imaginations and probably through trances brought on by drugs, dancing or fasting) that we must be a very special animal indeed. This process led Ernest Becker to argue that it’s our ingenuity and not our animality that “has given [our] fellow creatures such a bitter earthly fate.” (EFE, p.5) As we developed selfhood and  our brains grew bigger and more capable, we convinced ourselves through ritual that we were able to control heaven and earth. We invented rituals and projects like the zodiac to convince ourselves that the heavens were in constant intimate relations with us and we read chicken entrails and runes to determine how we might control natural forces that threatened us. We created culture to oppose nature, as Becker argues, and our cultures are more or less elaborate and sophisticated projects to deny our animality and, consequently, our death.

We always knew that animals died and we were not oblivious to the fact that we all eventually meet the same fate. What to do? Oh, what to do? Well, the ‘forces of nature’ were always overwhelming and difficult to handle but we determined that if we pursued the right rituals, we could affect the course of our lives and of nature. We began to bargain with the forces of nature. “You back off and give us good crops and we’ll sacrifice a bunch of sheep to you. Sound fair?” But the forces of nature (gods) were never satisfied and needed constant reassurance that we would feed them. Kingship developed as a way of having a god present at all times to take our gifts and keep us safe. We, however, the weak, vulnerable species that we are also needed constant reminders that we mattered and that the gods were paying attention and were on our side. So, we split our societies into ‘moieties’ or (literally) halves so that we might have someone to compete against to show the gods how worthy we were. That process is still extant in modern society. We tirelessly set up competitions to prove our worth, our value and we do it most frequently for the glory of our God (gods) or, now, our secular god, our country, that institution that ensures us survival beyond our animal lives. Religion has always promised us eternal life. Why else would it exist? Thousands of religions over the course of history have given people thousands of ways of gaining eternal life. Problem is, in a competitive world, if my way to eternal life promised by my religion is the right way, your’s cannot be. Sorry about that.

Now comes the part where the most momentous invention ever to come from the human species was wrought. That’s the notion that if our bodies are mortal, then the only thing we can do is deny them their due. Because we were now connected to the forces of nature we could pretend that we had an inside track on immortality. Gods were immaterial and immortal, we could be too. If we performed the rituals just the right way, we could ensure our eternal survival. Our rituals became increasingly aimed at chastising the flesh, piling corpses upon corpses to assuage the gods. We needed to put emphasis on our selves, our souls, that immaterial aspect of ourselves that would not die if we performed the proper rituals at the proper time. Our bodies became our enemies. The body became associated with death, the spirit with life. Norman O. Brown states that in fact, the earth is the devil’s domain. Disease and death became the twin pillars of evil for us. Life on this earth was transitory, just a preparation for the immortality we could achieve upon our corporal death if we lived right, did the right things. Our denial of death led to our denial of our bodies and our lives. So, in order to live eternally, we were prepared not to live fully in our animality.

So, why do we associate faeces with dirt? Why must we avoid getting dirty? “We read that the men of the Chagga tribe wear an anal plug all their lives, pretending to seal up the anus and not to need to defecate…The body cannot be allowed to have the ascendency over him.” (Becker, The Denial of Death, p. 32) The Chagga men’s denial is our denial. In another post, I address this fact more fully, but for now, what of women?

Well, women were never the primary class of people who presided over ritual. They were much too busy having babies and being domestic. The first class divide then is between men and women, a mostly natural divide to start with, but with time, the most important class divide was between most men and the priestly class. Women need not apply. Not then, not now. (Yes, you can contest this point if you want.)

In fact, for men, their bodies are traitors to them because of their animal nature, their death instinct. When men and the priestly class came to dominate human societies, women were increasingly seen as the epitome of animality. Men ‘othered’ women for their sexuality, their attractiveness to men, for dragging men into a depraved and animal world. Sex became dirty unless it was sanctioned by the priestly class using the proper rituals. Sexual attraction had to be denied at all costs so that it couldn’t infect men’s spirits, their souls. Problem is, of course, we are a species that reproduces sexually so there was a need for a massive investment in ritual to ‘cleanse’ women especially during menstruation and in the regulation of the female being, of the female world which by it’s very nature condemned men to death. Sins of the flesh are a great way to eventually find yourself in hell. (Of course, things are changing and I’ll deal with that too in another post.) Dante’s hell isn’t as present as it used to be in Abrahamic consciousness but we have other ‘hells’ to replace it.

Enough for today. I will follow this set of blog posts with a list of the materials I used in researching this topic, at least the most important ones.

Without getting into too many specifics, my next post is about how women have been treated throughout history and labelled unclean and a threat to men’s ascension to eternal life. For that we need to visit the Old Testament, especially Leviticus, but other sources as well, including Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and others partly through Jack Holland’s work, but also through many others including Ernest Becker, Norman O. Brown, Otto Rank, Umberto Eco, Uta Ranke-Heinemann and Carol F. Karlsen. Simone de Beauvoir also figures prominently here.

 

 

Misogyny: What the Hell?

On this International Women’s Day, it’s a good time to introduce my next series of blog posts. I don’t intend these short posts to exhaustively cover the topic, but to serve as an introduction and to stimulate discussion and dialogue. In a future post I’ll explain the title above. Much of the significance of this post and those that follow on this topic is summarized in the title.

I’ve scanned a significant sample of the anthropological, historical, sociological, philosophical and theological literature and I’ve done so over decades and there is this stark truth that consistency reveals itself therein: There is no time in history that I can uncover when women were not treated as inferior to men. There is no time, nor place. Oh, there have been matrilineal, matrilocal, and matrifocal societies, but no matriarchal ones, nor have there been ones where women and men have shared power equally other than in Marx and Engels’ concept of primitive communism wherein women had supremacy over domestic life and men over social life, hunting and defence. If it did exist, it didn’t last long.

In response to the pervasiveness of this uneven relationship between men and women, some people might argue (and have they ever) that women are naturally inferior to men and should just accept their place in creation. In fact, this notion has dominated many treatises on the nature of humanity over history. It’s probably more common, even today, than some of us would like to admit.

I reject this notion out of hand, of course, because it’s patently false and the evidence is before our eyes every day. Constitutionally, women are not inferior to men any more than poor people are inferior to rich ones. Differences between the sexes exist of course but they are not grounds for discrimination or prejudice. As Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex, women have been ‘othered’ not because of any inherent weakness, but because of what they represent to men.

Women have inordinately suffered at the hands of men in history, of that there is no doubt, but many men would argue that women have inflicted their share of suffering onto men too. I’ve known some men who have expressed a profound hatred of women. They seldom can give reasons other than that they were treated unfairly, taken advantage of, abused and rejected. Still, it’s rare to read that a woman has killed her husband or partner during outbursts of domestic violence, while it’s common to read of men killing their wives or partners in the same situations. Men kill women much more frequently than women kill men.

However, for this blog post, I’m not primarily interested in exploring the individual, idiosyncratic expression of misogyny. Rather, I want to explore misogyny as an ideology of very deep-seated human institutional experience, experience that rules our lives as humans of whatever sex and determines to a large extent how we relate to one another in groups throughout history.

Misogyny is defined, for the purposes of this post, as a systemic, overarching and deleterious characteristic of human relations. It divides us. It denies us. It obviously has consequences for all individuals. None of us can escape it’s reach. Women can even be as misogynistic as men (for reasons I will explore later). Men who resist misogyny have a tough go of it because it reaches into every pore or our cultures. It will not be ignored. Still, for humanity to enter a new phase of history, one not characterized by brutality and ignorance, misogyny will have to give way. In the next few thousand words, I explore why that’s the case.

From the time the animal became the human, women have been paying dearly for our flight from death and our longing for immortality. This idea is from Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death, but it is repeated by other authors in various publications. It’s not often stated in these terms and some explanation of what Brown means here is necessary. Strangely, women are seldom included explicitly in analyses of the human condition and the statement by Brown above is unusual. For Brown, to be human means to be an animal that knows death in a way that no other animal does. Of course animals have a fear of death, that’s very easy to ascertain from simple observation, but animals, unlike humans, don’t make a fetish of it. If they face death as in a predator bearing down on them with intent to kill, they experience fear and flee. If they survive, it takes them very little time to go back to their routine life and the threat to their life is forgotten. Not us humans. No, we carry that fear around, relive it, dream about it, let our imaginations expand on its every detail and we, above all, need to explain it. So far, we haven’t done a great job explaining it. Instead, we’ve spent a great deal of our collective energy denying it, ‘it’ here meaning the death that inevitably catches up to each and every one of us and we’ve been very creative in our denials.

So, at the moment (maybe it took thousands of years) when our ancestors finally ‘became human’ and became self conscious, they realized that their wonderful tummies and the amazing sensations that they felt could not possibly come to an abrupt end. They faced danger on many fronts from predators, natural disasters, feuds and illnesses. They found their loved ones crushed by boulders during a landslide or drowned during a flood. Their bodies were obviously their weakness. They needed a way of transcending their main weakness, their bodies, to convince themselves that they, in fact, did not die although their bodies obviously did. Oh, their bodies might be toast, but not ‘them.’ So they set about creating any number of fantastical immortality-projects to convince themselves that even if their bodies rotted away that ‘they’ would not because they were not just their bodies, not even essentially their bodies, that they had within themselves an immaterial self that survived the end of their bodies. The anthropological literature is replete with descriptions of the incredible number and richness of ways in which peoples have imagined their immaterial selves. These imagined selves are the Yanomamo hekuru and our common variety soul. “Sure, body, you go ahead and rot. I’ll be around forever though. I don’t need you.”

So, what this leads to is essentially and inevitably the systematic cultural denial of the body. As Becker says in Escape From Evil, disease and death are the twin pillars of evil for us. Disease prevents us from enjoying life fully and death cuts it off permanently. Now, that’s no fun.

But what of women in all of this? Well, I’ll get to that in my next post. Suffice it to say here that a major part of our bodily lives is our sexual lives, procreative or not. For men who want to emphasize their immaterial, immortal selves, sex represents a big problem for them. It’s all about body, the great traitor to our immortality strivings. Men could eventually convince themselves that women were essentially body but that they were essentially soul. Now what are the consequences of that?

 

 

Why Average Incomes Tell Us Nothing About Real World Inequality

When the experts tell us that average incomes have risen, what does that actually tell us? Not much that’s useful in understanding real world politics and the inequities of economic life. I know that most of us understand averages, now don’t we? What’s there to explain? Well, let’s have a look at average incomes.

Incomes can be looked at using three measures of central tendency: the mean (the average), the median and the mode. For a technical explanation of these terms see: https://statistics.laerd.com/statistical-guides/measures-central-tendency-mean-mode-median.php.

Each of these measures has its advantages and disadvantages.  If we take a population and want to figure out their average height, it’s simple: measure each individual in the population, add the heights of all of them together and divide by the number of individuals measured. It’s unlikely that all people in a population would be of the same stature, and it doesn’t tell us anything about the range of heights. It’s always good to know what the range is otherwise there’s no way of judging just how variable the heights are in a population. Same goes for incomes. Scenario A below is of a fictitious population of income earners that each earns $100 thousand dollars each per year. That makes the total incomes earned by the group $1 million dollars and the average is $100 thousand. If you know where such a world exists, please let me know.

Scenario A  
Income Earner Income $ % of total income
Income earner 1 100,000 10
Income earner 2 100,000 10
Income earner 3 100,000 10
Income earner 4 100,000 10
Income earner 5 100,000 10
Income earner 6 100,000 10
Income earner 7 100,000 10
Income earner 8 100,000 10
Income earner 9 100,000 10
Income earner 10 100,000 10
Total Income 1,000,000 100
Average Income 100,000  

Now, let’s consider Scenario B below. The total income of all ten earners is still $1 million and the average is still $100 thousand. What’s changed? The distribution. In this scenario, the highest income earner brought in $200 thousand while the lowest earner brought in $45 thousand. That’s a significant difference and means that there is substantial income inequality but if a government wanted to obfuscate rather than clarify the issue, it might want to argue that average incomes haven’t changed. What are you worried about?

Scenario B  
Income Earner Income $ % of total income
Income earner 1 200,000 20.00
Income earner 2 150,000 15.00
Income earner 3 130,000 13.00
Income earner 4 100,000 10.00
Income earner 5 95,000 9.50
Income earner 6 85,000 8.50
Income earner 7 75,000 7.50
Income earner 8 65,000 6.50
Income earner 9 55,000 5.50
Income earner 10 45,000 4.50
Total Income 1,000,000 100.00
Average Income 100,000  

Now, consider this third scenario. The total incomes are still $1 million, the average is still $100 thousand. However, in this scenario, the highest income earner is taking in 72.7 of the total income. This scenario pushes income inequality to a much greater degree.

Scenario C  
Income Earner Income $ % of total income
Income earner 1 726,990 72.70
Income earner 2 85,000 8.50
Income earner 3 45,000 4.50
Income earner 4 20,430 2.04
Income earner 5 20,430 2.04
Income earner 6 20,430 2.04
Income earner 7 20,430 2.04
Income earner 8 20,430 2.04
Income earner 9 20,430 2.04
Income earner 10 20,430 2.04
Total Income 1,000,000 100.00
Average Income 100,000  

Now, think of a situation where aggregate incomes rise, but the lowest earners retain their share of earnings at 2.04 percent. Now the government can say: What are you worried about? Your income hasn’t changed at all and the country is getting richer. Silly you. Maybe you should just work a little harder.

Calculating median income isn’t much more helpful. The median income is the point where half the incomes are above and half below. That will tell us if a population distribution is changing in broad terms, but the median income in scenario C is $20,430.00. What does that tell you about the distribution of incomes in this population.

Calculating the modal income is interesting. The modal income is the one that appears most often in a distribution. In scenario C, the modal income is clearly $20,430.00. That’s the income most people make. It still doesn’t shed much light on the inequality in a distribution.

So, we always need more than a measure of central tendency to tell us what’s really going on in the world in terms of income inequality. If the government, or the head of the Bank of Canada for example, tells you that average incomes are rising, know that you’re not being told the whole story.

If you’re not concerned about these things, never mind.

Note: this post was inspired by a section of Robert Sapolsky’s book: Why Zebras don’t get ulcers.

 

Engineers thwarted by business men.

I’ve been rereading Thorstein Veblen. What a character he was. He came from a family of Norwegian immigrants living in Minnesota. He refused to say when he was born but we know he died in California in 1929. He studied at various American universities including Cornell and Yale and settled first at the University of Chicago to teach economics, economic history and related fields in the late 19th century. I’m not writing a biographical note here so if you want more details on the life of this amazingly intelligent but difficult man, just google his name.

The book that secured Veblen’s public notoriety and reputation is The Theory of the Leisure Class. It’s a compendium of commentary on the mores and institutions of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s available free online. Once you become familiar with his unusual use of language, he makes for a very entertaining and enlightening read. His chapters Pecuniary Emulation, Conspicuous Consumption, Conspicuous Leisure, and Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture are a classic dissection of the institutions that affect us all daily. He lays bare where our wants, needs, desires, and dreams come from. His conclusion is that they come from our ‘pecuniary’ culture. Pecuniary means relating to or consisting of money. For Veblen, our money culture and it’s predominant ruling class of ‘captains of finance’ determine how we see and act in the world. They are the preeminent institutions of our world.*

Now, and finally addressing the title of this post, Veblen was particularly interested in parsing out the various components of the economic institutions that dominate our lives. In his book The Engineers and the Price System, available as a Kindle book, he argues that business men, particularly investment bankers and financiers in general, not your run-of-the-mill corner store operator, farmer, or forestry contractor, are constantly at odds with the engineers that actually run industry. For Veblen and most economists  business and industry are two separate things. We often conflate them today. In our world business dominates industry but it doesn’t have to be that way and, of course, it wasn’t always that way. In feudal Europe, the manorial lord drove industry, not the incipient mercantile class.

Industry, for Veblen, does not mean only the factory system and machine production, it means all the physical activities in which humans engage to produce what they need and want as well as the knowledge needed to do so. He concludes that in our world business finance curtails industrial production (particularly commodity production) as a means of increasing or maintaining profit levels. This is easily observable, but it seems strange to think this is true for some people.

For Veblen, profit making often requires the curtailment of supply. Producing as much and as fast as possible, efficiently and effectively, is the aim of engineering. This imperative constantly goes against the business need to make profit where curtailment of production can ensure prices remain high. These ideas, of course, are not revolutionary, and they are behind Canada’s supply management policies regarding poultry, eggs, milk, doctors, and lawyers.

For a good example of how engineers are thwarted by financial interests, one just has to look at how urban infrastructures are built and maintained. Let’s take Courtenay for example. It’s a smallish city on the east coast of Vancouver island, typical in every way. It has the requisite shopping malls, hospital, schools, service businesses and residential neighbourhoods. Now, the municipal government is made up of elected officials, management staff and workers. The elected officials represent pecuniary interests although they claim to represent all city residents. The management staff includes civil engineers, urban planners and the like. If decisions about where to build streets, what they would look like, the materials used in their construction, etc., were left to the engineers, the city would look entirely different than it does. The monetary interests constantly impose cost restrictions on the engineers with the result that street design, urban planning and related activities, are a hodgepodge of compromise including irritating merge lanes and intersections, inadequate bridge structures and neglected maintenance that leaves many roads a hazard to drive on. However we think about it, engineers are systematically constrained by the vested interests represented by elected officials. Of course, not all elected officials see themselves as representing the vested financial interests, but if they didn’t follow the policies imposed on them by the provincial government with regard to fiscal ‘responsibility’, they would soon be removed from office. And, of course, there must be some oversight of the work of the engineers. The point Veblen makes is that the oversight is the prerogative of business interests in the name of maximizing profit, and not for creating the greatest good for the greatest number of people, in this case, the residents of Courtenay.

By the way, Veblen is off the mark when it comes to the role of engineers in a potential overthrow of the ‘kept classes’, but he wasn’t beyond speculating on the way the pecuniary culture would come to an end. I have to reread his book Imperial Germany to determine what his views are on globalization, but that’s my next Veblen read. Karl Marx was very conscious of globalization and, for him, the end of the capitalist domination of industry and production was predicated on the advanced globalization of capital accumulation. Veblen wrote extensively about Marx and admired his materialist historical method. He did have reservations about Marx’s work, but that will be for another blog post.

 

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For Veblen institution means a ‘crystallized’ habit of thought or life, crystallized meaning that they are spread throughout society so as to be essentially unquestioned by most people.