Moscow 1950, Semyon Friedland
Dorothy Healey at Chelsea Bookshop, Long Beach, California
She stood before us, five feet tall,
middle-aged, a middle-class hairdo,
a skirted suit in neutral-color
and stumpy old-fashioned heels.
Her smoky hair was turning silver-white.
She looked Republican, could even pass
as a Mormon missionary.
And we the audience of dowdy poets
and semi-hippies from the state college,
some thirty of us in jeans and T-shirts,
long hair, the men with pigtails.
I was “right on the money” that she’d say:
“America is not a democracy; it’s ruled
by the rich.” Except she didn’t say
“rich” — too heavenly to American ears.
She said, “the bourgeoisie” (oh music
of my childhood) and “the ownership class.”
I hated certain features of capitalism:
ruthless rents, non-stop jingle of ads
pushing toothpaste to improve your sex life,
not having free health care or college.
But I also fell in love with Kleenex,
and a system that produced Kleenex
could not be wholly evil. Kleenex and
soft toilet tissue — now that was a revolution.
Embarrassing, I knew: my politics
reduced to pampering one’s behind.
Yet somehow I knew that WAS more real
than the dictatorship of the proletariat.
“Communism” sounded too extreme,
too stiff like the old-style “toilet paper”
(and shortages even of that).
Listening to Dorothy’s low-pitched,
cultivated, rational voice —
she’d mastered the art of not raising it —
as she carried on about the exploited
American masses, I heard the harmonics
of an earlier time —
when the police beat labor organizers
with union-busting batons —
there would be jail, there would be blood.
You had to be willing to risk your life,
and Dorothy had been, pure and devout.
Yet whenever she said “revolution” and
“the dictatorship of the proletariat,”
I couldn’t help but think — mistakenly —
about her having gone to a girls’ college.
I knew many in the audience
were New Age, convinced
each person was born with a mission
freely chosen in the astral plane,
a sacred task. How did the dictatorship
of the proletariat fit with the current lifetime?
Perhaps Dorothy’s secret sacred task
was to open our eyes to how irrelevant
Communism had become.
The Soviet Union still existed then,
but after the moon landing,
it didn’t count. Not much.
Funny, who knew soft toilet tissue
and the moon would decide?
On campus the day after
I heard an Old Left professor say,
“That bootprint made in blood.”
I heard the same bitterness
in Dorothy’s slightly gravely voice —
it seemed on the verge of pain.
“The bourgeois ideology,” she repeated
a lot. Did she really say, “the end of history,
the withering away of the state”?
We used to snicker at that Marxist prophecy
in my Warsaw high school.
The Last Judgment seemed more likely,
the proletariat inheriting the earth.
The audience sat blank-faced.
Then a polite applause
and putting away the chairs.
Afterwards a friend and I
went to Park Pantry, a nearby coffeeshop.
There I saw Dorothy again,
having a sandwich with her mother.
“Her mother’s ninety years old,”
my friend whispered in awe.
The two looked alike,
their white-haired heads leaning close,
more like two elderly sisters, I thought.
When the waitress turned up, I pointed out
Dorothy to her, and said with hushed thrill,
“Do you know who that woman is?
It’s Dorothy Healey, the head
of the American Communist Party.”
(Again I was mistaken: she was the head
of the Southern California chapter.)
The waitress raised her eyebrows,
stared, then said, “Oh really,”
and took our order. She didn’t seem to know
she was a member of the proletariat.
Did Dorothy know
that the waitress didn’t know?
Did she care? It was late,
so we skipped the walk
to the cliffs to watch
the full capitalist moon
above the black-glistening bay.
Dorothy died aged 91.
She quarreled with her comrades —
“What do those donkeys
in New York know?” —
and in old age she left the party:
another act of great courage.
The Chelsea Bookshop is no more.
I need not tell you
about the Soviet Union.
Only Park Pantry remains.
~ Oriana © 2016
Recently I learned more about Dorothy Healey, and came to respect her much more than I did back when I met her at that lecture. She really was an extraordinary woman, heroic during her labor-organizing years, fearless of jail and other persecution. But her lecture was heavy on obsolete Marxist rhetoric, so it was easy for me then to relegate her to the “dustbin of history.” She seemed stuck in the thirties.
But think of her during the Red Scare of the McCarthy years. To be so hated takes great courage.
A bright woman blighted by the Marxist twilight.
Later, after she left the communist party, she spoke more freely, rejecting the Soviet model, criticizing those societies as backward. But no matter what, the Old Left was dead. And to think that people had been willing to die for those now forgotten dogmas, and ever believed in the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
(Quick clarification: when I attended the lecture, I mistakenly believed that Healey was the head of the American Communist Party. Actually she was the head only of the Southern California chapter. And somehow even after the lecture I maintained my mistaken belief; assuming the correct information was presented during the introduction, it must not have registered — another instance of a belief blanking out incoming information.)
“COMMUNISM IS LIKE PROHIBITION”
In 1929 Will Rogers visited the Hammer brothers, Armand and Victor, in Moscow. He made a very perceptive remark — I’m surprised that it remained unknown. “Communism’s like Prohibition. It’s a fine idea, but it won’t work.”
That’s a marvelous analogy. Alcoholism is a great evil, but you can’t combat it by making alcohol illegal. The same goes for greed.
Actually Lenin saw that communism didn’t work. That’s why he introduced NEP, the “new economic policy,” which allowed limited private enterprise and restored the use of money (in his desire to “destroy the power of money,” Lenin tried the coupon system).
Perhaps communism, like Prohibition, simply had to be tried so that humanity could see that an extreme approach doesn’t work. Capitalism (in some form -- it's constantly evolving) is here to stay, as is legal, regulated alcohol and tobacco (at long last, the “war on drugs” seems on its way out too). The difficult problem is how to encourage creative, entrepreneurial capitalism while restraining predatory capitalism.
The only thing we know is that no system will ever be perfect. But we must keep on trying to create a better world — in all possible ways, without rigid ideologies.
RICH = OWN LESS; DECLUTTERING AND SOCIAL CLASS
Capitalism’s great blessing: making consumer goods plentiful and affordable has also turned out to be a curse. The past was plagued by scarcity; now we are plagued by excess. Marx noticed the problem of overproduction; consumerism brought on the problem of over-acquisition, of life-strangling glut. It revealed that people are not good at letting go of useless junk and outgrown toys.
Of course the primary problem is environmental destruction; this is where heavy industry-centered Soviet-style regimes turned out to be even worse (of course it can be argued that Soviet-style “socialism” is actually state capitalism). But the daily problem is the clutter of useless possessions which threatens to engulf so many of us — the constant, energy-draining battle trying to “organize” useless possessions.
Don’t organize — throw it out! Letting go of possessions — who knew message this was going to be born from the battle with Moloch. And wasn’t it already Thoreau who said that things are in the saddle and ride mankind?
From mindless accumulation to mindful letting go . . .
It turns out that there is a class angle to this. The poor have been criticized for so many things — why do they eat junk food, unhealthy and expensive, e.g. potato chips rather than the super-cheap and nutritious fresh potatoes; why do they smoke, an expensive habit, and then run out of money for necessities; why do they waste money on lottery tickets; why do they have children if they can’t afford to feed them, and so on.
I am against shaming the poor — or anyone. People who “misbehave” are usually damaged persons who are under heavy stress. They smoke and drink to self-medicate. Poor decision making? The lack of the future tense in their speech? Their brain function may be subnormal (see http://www.newsweek.com/2016/09/02/how-poverty-affects-brains-493239.html?utm_medium=email&utm_source=How-Poverty-Changes-the-Brain&utm_campaign=newsweek_email_newsletter)
I remember what an addiction expert said about addicts: “They were raised to be incompetent.” Those raised in poverty were never taught how to live well on little money — for instance how to cook vegetables or prepare any fresh food. No pots? On the contrary, the kitchen is likely to contain a large number of pots of all sizes that aren’t in cabinets but instead pile up on the floor, amid empty beer bottles, broken plastic toys, an old non-working TV set or two, boxes, half-empty shampoo bottles, and more. And more. The stuff can pile up so high that the windows become completely covered with junk from the inside.
(A quick disclaimer: there are certainly poor people who are also tidy. The smallest and most cramped apartment I’ve ever visited happened to be spotless, without a single excess item.)
But what most stays in my mind from my encounters with both rural poverty and the homeless is the amount of useless junk that’s never thrown out. I will never forget a homeless woman whose cart was filled to overflowing with strips of paper towels from public restroom, or the man dragging around not one shopping cart, but three. And what was inside those three tightly packed carts? Not blankets and extra clothing, but hundreds of plastic bags and dozens of broken small appliances like rusty toasters and alarm clocks, and the like “treasures” apparently fished out from garbage bins.
True, that’s mental illness. That’s clearly pathology. But a lot of us suffer to a degree from that pathology. That’s why so many books on decluttering and article with titles like “Feeling Poor? Get Rid Of Clutter.” And, suddenly, pushback: articles on why it’s “classist” and elitist to be decluttering, to want clean, beautiful open spaces.
And yet I never owned so much stuff as I did when I was extremely poor, and yes, in my case at least, it was a symptom of my poverty. More confessions later.
~ “Suddenly, decluttering is everywhere. It may have started with Marie Kondo and her mega-best seller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” but it has exploded into a mass movement, anchored in websites, seminars and — ironically — a small library’s worth of books about how to get rid of stuff.
I understand why people with a lot of stuff feel burdened by it, and the contrasting appeal of having less of it. I cleaned houses to put myself through college as a single mother. I spent my days in expensive homes, full of large televisions and stereo systems, fully furnished rooms that collected dust.
In a new documentary about the [minimalist] movement, “bad” consumption is portrayed by masses of people swarming into big box stores on Black Friday, rushing over one another for the best deals. They are, we’re led to understand, slaves to material goods, whereas the people who stay away from mass consumption are independent thinkers, free to enjoy the higher planes of life.
But those people flocking to Walmart and other stores don’t necessarily see things that way. To go out and purchase furniture, or an entertainment set, or a television bigger than an average computer monitor — let alone decide that I can afford to get rid of such things — are all beyond my means. That those major sales bring the unattainable items to a level of affordability is what drives all of those people to line up and storm through doors on Black Friday.
Those aren’t wealthy people who have a house full of expensive items they don’t need. Those are people teetering on or even below the poverty level, desperate for comfort in their homes. To point to them as a reason to start an anti-consumerism movement is just another form of social shaming.” ~
No, we shouldn’t shame the poor for rushing to Walmart sales and for eating junk food. Nevertheless, minimalism and beautiful clean spaces are a sign of a more cultivated and secure set of mind. We shouldn’t stereotype the poor as living in dirt and clutter — yet those below the poverty line seem more likely to hoard useless, broken stuff and fill their yards with stained mattresses, old toilets, and rusted junk cars. (I can’t get out of my mind what I heard or read somewhere: “His yard is full of weeds not because he’s poor. He’s poor because his yard is full of weeds.”)
Though extreme clutter may be more common among the very poor, especially the rural poor (I’ve witnessed it both in inland California and in Vermont), let’s face it: the middle class is also prone to mindless acquisition and not getting rid of things because “they might come handy one day.” The elderly often live with enormous accumulations of things of little worth, or none — old magazines, hundreds of old socks and handkerchiefs, stacks of chipped dishes, forty-year-old blouses and coats, multiple jello molds and rusty baking trays, wobbly end tables and soiled arm chairs, Tupperware, envelopes stuffed with expired warranties, thousands of old photos and slides, warped cassette tapes, never-used mugs from souvenir-shops, smelly old magazines, crossword puzzles filled out decades ago. Those who inherit the parents’ houses spend weeks, sometimes months, digging out the geological strata of those pathetic family treasures. Not infrequently they have to rent a giant dumpster. They get woozy with fatigue, they develop sciatica; they go out to celebrate when the floor finally shows.
The decluttering books are right: there is something terrifically empowering about getting rid of useless old stuff and creating clean, uncluttered space. And Marie Kondo is right about doing it the radical way: when we focus on what we truly want to keep and retain only those possessions that give us joy, there isn’t really all that much. We keep wearing the same four or five favorite outfits, sit in one favorite armchair while the other two are just taking up room . . . How spacious the living room becomes without that klutzy furniture!
REDUCE YOUR POSSESSIONS UNTIL YOU REACH ENLIGHTENMENT
Marie Kondo advises tossing stuff out in a ruthless, totally radical fashion — almost all you own must go! — so that you get to the point when “something clicks.” She doesn’t actually use the word “enlightenment,” but it’s easy to guess she means nothing short of satori.
She is right about so many things, big and small. You’ll never use those spare buttons. Storage is hoarding (let me repeat this so it’s loud and clear: STORAGE IS HOARDING). “Papers? Throw out everything” (she explains why we don’t have to keep bank statements and the like).
What about those eighty rolls of toilet tissue? Are you stockpiling for WWIII?
Kondo begs the clutterholics to drop of fear of getting rid of too much. This goes especially for items that seem to have personal meaning. Yet you’ll never re-read those two thousand books, or those eighty notebooks filled with college lecture notes (or your own journals, for that matter). You’ll never look at those faded pictures documenting what you did during your summer vacations before digital photography made it possible to dispense with prints.
“How many pairs of jeans do you own?” I once overheard a teenage girl ask her friend. “Oh, maybe twenty pairs,” the other girl replied. “I own two hundred!” the first one exclaimed. “Wow!” stunned silence, then: “Where do you store them?” ~ “In a box under the bed,” the first girl casually replied, as if to say “Where else?”
This reminds me of yet another story. My mother said to a visitor from Warsaw, a woman scientist, “Sears has a sale on pants. Would you like to go?” “No, I already have two pairs,” the woman replied. “One pair of black pants and one pair of gray pants.” And if you think about it, that is sufficient: two pairs of pants instead of two hundred. It’s also understood that those pairs of pants are of the very highest quality.
Marie Kondo described closets so stuffed with clothes that it was a major struggle to wrestle out a single item. I can identify with that. When my life was at its bottom in my late twenties, I became a compulsive thriftstore shopper. My closets did reach that condition. The poorer I was, the more clothes I owned, also reaching the status of worst-dressed — precisely at the stage of life when I should have worn beautiful clothes, being young and effortlessly attractive. But desperation = greed = mindless acquisition.
I am certainly done with the acquisition stage. Now for the radical paring down, part 2 (I’ve accomplished part 1 early in 2014. In March or so of that year I remember telling the Salvation Army employee, “This is probably the last time you’re coming to this address.” He replied, “You think you’re done? You’ve barely started.” This instantly sounded true. I admit I was terrified.
Oddly enough, this time the first book to go was Kathleen Norris’s elegant hardback on acedia. I experienced a thrill of joy as I took it off the shelf, from which it shall be gone forever. Why did I ever think it would be hard to let go?
And that expensive jacket that never looked right on me? We don’t even realize what an energy drain it is every time we see it in your closet, and what emotional power surge awaits as we fold it into a donation bag.
Why does radical dispossession change your life? Because you have to keep asking yourself what is important to you NOW, what gives you joy NOW — not twenty years ago.
Once you get started, you can barely wait: what will be left? What will it reveal about the essence of yourself NOW?
Wait, someone may object. Don’t you need to money to create a beautiful house? Marie Kondo strongly hints that you create a beautiful house first — through elimination — and then your prosperity is likely to increase.
Even if your income stays the same, you will still be a happier person. All kinds of consequences follow an increase in happiness.
Clutter is poverty, no-clutter is wealth — if not physical, then at least spiritual. Think of monks in their spartan cells.
Petrus Christus, Portrait of a Carthusian, 1446
Still, everyone (everyone who isn’t rich, that is) believes that even upper-class homes have their islands of clutter. What about those obsolete electronics that we suspect lurk in that stylish cabinet? And we are willing to bet that the hostess has more purses than she could use in two lifetimes. Perhaps. But perhaps not. One of the best thing about financial security is that you let go of stuff without fear — should it turn out you need something after all, you can simply replace it. Fearlessly tossing stuff out makes you feel rich — never mind that the stuff has zero value to start with.
Kondo is radical because she has discovered that being half-hearted about discarding doesn’t work. If you throw out only half of your stuff, it can still take forever to find anything. Atkins certainly seemed radical when he advised cutting out carbs and eating protein and fat instead. The more fat you eat, the more fat you’ll burn, he said — provided you keep carbs as close to zero as possible. (Fat is the only food your body can’t turn into blood sugar, which drives up insulin, the hormone that makes you fat.)
Of course howls of protest went up from those pushing grains and egg substitutes. Thus it’s not surprising to see people protest the “elitist” equation: rich person = spacious and clean; poor person = messy and hoarding. This is not an absolute truth: there are poor people who are tidy. The rich people I’ve personally known? Always shockingly tidy. Every single one.
True, they have domestic help, but it’s also the mentality. They surround themselves with elegance and beauty. If you have something beautiful on the wall, you don’t want to spoil the view with piles of old newspapers on the floor. If you have a marble tabletop, you don’t want to strew it with junk mail.
My first encounter with minimalism was the Warsaw apartment of two sculptors, father and son. It was more like an art gallery: a sacred space.
Artists and the rich. It still startles me to see a way in which there is these two categories fit together along the dimension of open, uncluttered spaces.
“Churches are always clean. A dirty church just doesn’t work,” I remember Thomas Moore saying. Sacred space needs to be beautiful: clean and uncluttered.
We can laugh about it
but only Marie Kondo’s book has become a huge best-seller. There is a reason.
aphorisms by Janet Luhrs, author of Simple Living
MORE BEGINS WITH LESS
Abundance floods our lives when we give it all away.
Purging stuff is like falling in love.
Imagine loving everything in your home.
Success begins when we stop being so “organized” and simply focus on what is important.
And here is one more related article
“DON’T BUY ANYTHING NEW FOR 200 DAYS” CHALLENGE
After my father passed away, I started the process of picking up the pieces. Paperwork was filled and filed, ceremonies held. Then we had to empty out his old apartment. The month we spent cleaning out his old apartment shocked us all. There was just so much stuff. Bags of clothing, random knicknacks, mountains of books, kitchenware, furniture. A lifetime's accumulation of things.
It was cruelly ironic.
My dad invested countless hours, loads of money and energy into acquiring, transporting, moving and maintaining these possessions. Now, after his death, we were struggling to make away with it all. As the move-out day came closer, we even started panicking. How could we ever find a way to dispose of all of this stuff?
But we did. Even the purchases my father had been so proud of were sold, given away, donated, recycled or thrown away. We kept a tiny fraction of usable items (many of which soon disappeared as well).
So many resources, human and environmental, went into these possessions. All for what? Most simply went to waste. It struck me that people were undergoing this same experience all over the world. I became convinced that the consumerism I was brought up with was deeply shortsighted and harmful. It was a system that didn’t acknowledge anything except for an individual’s short-term needs. There is no wider context. It’s just you, the stuff and your desire to buy said stuff.
The environment gets screwed. Your wallet gets screwed. And then everyone gets screwed when you die and everything has to be thrown away, much of it ending up in landfills or in our oceans.
So I decided I was going to try something different. There was so much stuff already out there. I thought, I can probably get by without getting any new stuff, right? At least for 200 days, I thought. A nice, solid number.
For 200 days, I didn’t buy anything new except for food, basic toiletries and medicine. Everything else would be borrowed or bought secondhand. I made a conscious effort downgrading what I already owned. I targeted to minimize the legacy of trash and unusable materials I left behind. I explored alternative, zero-waste methods of clothing myself, such as shopping via classifieds, thrift stores and exchanging clothing via clothing swaps. I expanded my knowledge of homemade and minimalistic cleaning methods.
I got rid of a lot of stuff that was weighing me down, like extra clothing, extra kitchenware, extra photos. I donated my wedding dress. Most of all, I learned to live with less.
Most material possessions are just nice-to-haves. They add a spark of happiness in your life. But the spark fades quickly, and unless you have a constant and solid foundation of emotional wellness, you need to ignite these sparks continuously by buying more and more.
As we are starting to see clearly, we are hitting the limits of the planet’s ability to provide more. This used to make me panic — will I have “enough” for the future in a world where climate change has made getting resources so hard? But there is never enough when you always need more.
So, set a date to start taking a break from needing more. You might very well find that you have quite enough. I know I did.
You can't take it with you
The usual objection to this is “Oh, no. If people stop buying stuff they don’t need, it will destroy the economy.”
In the wake of 9/11, when the nation was reeling from the wound to the collective psyche, President George W. Bush urged Americans to go shopping. His defenders point out that there was a fear that the terrorist attack might cause a recession.
Somehow, however, it sounded incredibly shallow.
My main response to the anti-anti-consumerist protests, though, is twofold:
1. People who are able to divest themselves of a mountain of useless possessions and live simply will always be a tiny minority.
2. Those who stop buying useless stuff will not necessarily stop spending. They will now have money to spend on other things — travel, health, education. And when they do buy something in the “consumer” category, it will be a thing of quality, an upgrade from what they had before.
Jean Cocteau and companion
And now for something related but different. Here is a somewhat long but eye-opening article on “social insurance” — going back to the visionary Enlightenment thinker Thomas Paine.
THOMAS PAINE PROPOSED SOCIAL INSURANCE BASED ON COMMON PROPERTY (or how come no one objects to the “idle rich”)
~ There are two basic ways to obtain income: wages from work, and rents from property (including interest and profits). ~
“Republican leaders tend to think of social insurance as a socialist or communist scheme designed to undermine private property and free markets. Their arguments can be traced to Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, whose 1944 book The Road to Serfdom warned that the emerging social democratic regimes of Europe were stepping onto a slippery slope to totalitarianism. Adapted into an illustrated booklet distributed widely by General Motors in the mid-1940s, The Road to Serfdom has fueled American opposition for decades now. Ronald Reagan, probably inspired by Hayek, made a recording opposing Medicare for the American Medical Association in 1961, predicting that it would lead to the state dictating to people what jobs they must perform and where they must live and work.
The ironies here are rich. Conservative criticisms of social insurance reflect profound misapprehensions of its relation to private property. Social insurance, in both theory and practice, arose in defense of private property and against communist and socialist threats. Exploring these origins is essential now because they contain important lessons that will help us strengthen social insurance to meet the challenges of post-industrial capitalism.
Long before Babeuf and his followers tried to undo poverty through communism, England tried to address the problem through the Poor Law system, first codified under Tudor reign and revised many times since. Poor Law regimes were characterized by means testing, “less eligibility,” stigmatization, work requirements, and state regulation of the poor. Means testing subjected the poor to probing and humiliating inquiries into their means of support. Less eligibility meant that the support the poor could claim had to be less than the lowest-paid worker’s wages—a formula intended to deter potential claimants of relief and ensuring them only bare subsistence.
Poor relief stamped on its recipients the degrading badge of dependency. The able-bodied unemployed were often forced to labor in workhouses, under the stigma of the presumption that they were too lazy to work unless compelled to do so. In the workhouses, they were confined by the totalitarian governance of overseers, under conditions barely different from slavery, and denied civil rights. Poor Law ideology rationalized such harsh measures on the assumption that poverty was either inevitable—in the case of disability or death of able-bodied workers within the family—or caused by vices such as laziness, alcoholism, gambling, and sexual licentiousness. (Such thinking is easily recognized in U.S. welfare policies for the poor, especially since the “welfare to workfare” reform of 1996.)
Paine regarded both Babeuf’s scheme and England’s Poor Laws as outrageously unjust. State communism violently abrogated the fundamental rights of individuals to liberty and the fruits of their labor. The Poor Laws, too, undermined the liberties of the poor and inflicted suffering and humiliation on them. Neither regime was compatible with democracy. A third way to address poverty was needed—one compatible with individual liberty, universal dignity, equal democratic citizenship, and distributive justice.
Paine began with an analysis of the fundamental causes of poverty. Against Poor Law reasoning, Paine denied that poverty was either inevitable or due to vice. And against Babeuf, Paine denied that private property inherently caused poverty. The difficulty lay only in the distribution of claims on the income derived from ownership. Private property systems offer two basic ways to obtain income: wages from work and rents from property (including interest and profits). But not everyone can work. All human beings are unable to work for substantial periods of their lives, and some are unable to work at all. If work cannot provide for all, then the way to ensure that no one suffers poverty is to ensure that all are entitled to rents. And in principle, all should be, he writes:
The earth, in its natural uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race; that in that state, every person would have been born to property; and that the system of landed property . . . has absorbed the property of all those whom it dispossessed, without providing, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss.
Therefore Paine proposed to end poverty by reconfiguring the system of property rights. Property, he argued, should incorporate a scheme of social insurance, including old-age pensions and disability insurance. Everyone would own this property, by right. He also proposed stakeholder grants for young adults. These would be funded by a 10 percent inheritance tax on land and personal property.
The key features of his plan were generosity, universality, and entitlement. Generosity meant that social insurance payments should be sufficient to prevent poverty, not merely to prevent starvation. Universality gave everyone a stake in the system and avoided the humiliations and violations of privacy entailed by means testing. Entitlement meant that everyone could claim payments as a property right, a claim of justice rather than charity, and thereby avoid the stigma of dependency. These features ensured every adult’s personal independence, with no one forced to forgo their liberty as a condition of subsistence.
Less than a century later, social insurance became a reality under Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of Germany and minister president of Prussia. During the 1880s, Germany instituted the first health insurance, retirement pensions, and workers’ compensation plans. Bismarck was no socialist. He also promoted the notorious Anti-Socialist Law, which prohibited socialist meetings and mailings and authorized police to banish socialist leaders from their cities. For Bismarck as well as Paine, social insurance was erected as a defense against communist and socialist revolution, and as proof that a system of private property and markets could deliver a decent standard of living and security to all.
Paine saw that, if adults are to retain their freedom and personal independence in contexts where they cannot work, or where work doesn’t pay decently, they need a source of rents—property income. Otherwise they will be at the mercy of meddling bureaucrats—the overseers of the poor—or subordinated to the whims of private charitable donors. Modern social insurance follows Paine: it is structured as an entitlement, functionally equivalent to a property claim on an income stream. Property claims distribute income on an impersonal, nondiscretionary basis, independent of anyone’s judgment of what a particular individual needs or deserves. Social insurance shares this virtue. Because it is not means-tested, claimants do not have to prove their neediness before suspicious authorities. Nor do their claims hang on bureaucrats’ judgments of their individual moral deserts. The size of their claims is based on impersonal rules graded to their record of prior contributions into the system.
Property is not, as a general matter, earned. As Paine observed, land and other natural resources are produced by no one’s labor. The state decides through property law who gets to claim natural resources. In the United States, original claims to land and mining rights have mostly been given away. Assets produced by labor in one generation are inherited, not earned, by the next. Even when assets such as housing are created by their owners’ labor, their market value is less a function of those labor inputs than of surrounding social activities and legal arrangements, including property laws. Income from property is also, as a general matter, unearned and a function of prior constructions of property law. No one works to earn their returns on passive investments.
Paine saw that the distinction between the dependent and independent is a function of property entitlements alone, and not of whether one ever lifted a finger to earn, pay for, or deserve the property in one’s possession. The idle rich are counted as independent, even if their income wholly derives from passive investments, speculation in zero-sum financial games, and inherited property. Why? Only because their property endowment empowers them to pay for the things they want, rather than be forced to beg for someone else’s charity. From a causal point of view, however, they are entirely dependent on the labor of others, since they produce nothing themselves.
Paine saw a better way: ensure that everyone has entitlements—property claims—to a sufficient stream of income to live freely and decently.
Paine was also right to see that robust and universal social insurance is a constitutive feature of a sound economy based on private property and markets, not a threat to it. Capitalism began with wholesale attacks on numerous forms of property rights: primogeniture, entail, commons rights, chartered monopolies. It has also engaged in massive property innovation, including the creation of corporate stock, intellectual property, rights to the broadcast spectrum, and many types of derivatives. In constantly redefining property, capitalism has always engaged in redistribution. Recognizing this reality is an important step toward overcoming the ideological obstacles to redefining property rights in the interests of everyone—not only of the 1 percent.
Marble butterfly, San Juan Island
GET A NICER COFFEE MUG — WE TASTE WITH ALL OUR SENSES
“Imagine for a minute that you were at a coffee shop and were offered the option of being served coffee in either a lovely porcelain cup or in a not-so-lovely plastic cup. Which cup should you pick?
According to Aradhna, when we drink coffee—or for that matter, when we eat or drink anything else—we taste it not just with our taste-buds, but also with our other senses. The sense of smell, as most people know, is inextricably intertwined with the sense of taste. (Without being able to smell, for example, some people claim that we cannot distinguish between potato and apple. I’ve never checked this myself, but after seeing this video—particularly the latter half—, I have a good mind to try it out on my kids!) Indeed, Aradhna argues, it is not just the sense of smell that is intertwined with taste, but virtually all the other senses, including touch, sound, and sight are too, which is why the texture of chips (soft vs. crisp), the sound that it makes when we bite it (its “crunchiness”), as well as its color (golden yellow vs. white or brown), can all significantly affect our enjoyment of it.
According to Aradhna, the reason all of our senses matter is because all sensory inputs are ultimately combined into one overall evaluation in the part of our brain called the orbitofrontal cortex. In other words, we literally cannot distinguish the extent to which different sensory inputs contributed to our overall enjoyment of food. This may be one reason why people’s brains light up more—meaning there is evidence at the neurological level that people derive greater enjoyment—when they taste the same wine from a bottle that they think is more (vs. less) expensive.
A question that follows from the perspective of someone who wishes to maximize their pleasure from drinking a cup of coffee, then, is: should one attach importance to the cup? Or, put in more general terms, does “packaging” matter? Does the cover of a book matter for enjoying its content? Does a person’s physical attractiveness matter for enjoying their company?
The answer, according to Aradhna, would be resounding “Yes!” While she points to one reason why we enjoy something more when it is presented in a more pleasing manner—namely, that our brain combines all sensory inputs into one overall evaluation—findings from yet another stream of research, on “halo effects,” reveal another reason why superficialities matter. Halo effect findings reveal that, when something is more pleasing to our senses, we impute a whole bunch of other positive qualities to it. Thus, for example, a good-looking person is thought to be more intelligent, competent, and warm, which is why attractive people earn more money than their less-attractive counterparts. Halo effects seem to apply, within some limits, to inanimate stimuli as well, which is why we enjoy a shopping environment more when it looks and smells good.
In sum, presentation matters. The cup from which we drink matters, perhaps not as much as the coffee itself, but it can certainly add significantly to, or detract significantly from, our enjoyment of the coffee. Likewise, it stands to reason that we enjoy a book more when its cover is better-designed and a hotel room more when it is more put-together, etc.”
Coffee plant in bloom
ending on beauty:
I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs:
A palace and a prison on each hand;
I saw from out of the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the Enchanter’s wand.
~ Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage