Yuri Tarnopolsky
4. On new overcoats
inflation. competition with things.

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Essay 4. On new overcoats

Today the masses turn for their well-being not to the face of a god, king, dictator, or national savior but to the faceless substance of economy acting like climate, weather, and the roar of the earth. It is a new ecumenical paganism.  The words interest rate, inflation, stock market, and unemployment carry even more weight than hurricane, storm, drought, earthquake, and epidemics. Like the old readers of The Old Farmer's Almanac we search our  financial skies for signs of changing weather because we are all farmers in the third millennium: we grow money.

Economy is now part of global human ecology. As we all know something about stormy weather not just from textbooks, we are all entitled to a personal opinion on economy.

The primordial chaos of economy,  the tohu vebohu , "without form and void" of the second verse of Genesis, calls for somebody to say "Let there be light." The function of Federal Reserve is to keep inflation in check.  This is done by slowing the economy, increasing unemployment, and strangling the stock market where the soil for farming money is the most fertile.

To some people it seems natural. To others, including myself, it is irrational. How can we slow down the economy if our entire survival depends on it? We will have to resurrect tomorrow what we have killed today. Why not to slow it down forever, or open way to the natural course of Things and the invisible hand?

I am not interested in economics per se. I am no expert. By no means do I want to criticize anybody's policy. I have no recipe. I am just a metaphor hunter. In search for metaphors I look for  the secret meadows where they grow.

Irrational does not mean wrong. It is something neither true nor false, or both. According to Niels Bohr, one of the greatest experts on the laws of nature,

"If you have a correct statement, then the opposite of a correct statement is of course an incorrect statement, a wrong statement. But when you have a deep truth, then the opposite of a deep truth may again be a deep truth." (see Essay 8)

Niels Bohr was one of the creators of the quantum physics, a science that has always looked rather irrational not only to laymen but even to Albert Einstein but still holds as a deep truth.

Industrial Revolution started about 200 years ago.  A sharp increase of inflation was recorded somewhere around 1960-1965. We can see it growing since the end of WW2.  Something happened at that time.

This needs an explanation. If the productivity grows, everything should be less and less expensive. This may be true only until the resources of matter and energy are not close to exhaustion. Even today, however, the resources seem plentiful. If we pay more and more for our own existence, what are we paying for?

We have to look at our society and economy from afar to search for a major difference between the current historically short period and the preceding long one. And sure enough, the difference is there.

My explanation (irrational, rather than rational) is that inflation is what we pay for the existence of man-made Things that begin to live a life of their own.

The price of bread could be stable or fluctuate around an average if all the grain was grown, ground, and baked by humans and horses. Their output of physical energy was determined by biology. Using selection, we can significantly, but not endlessly, increase grain yields, production of milk  by cows and eggs by hens, but unless we have a radically new breed of humans, we cannot expect more work from them. Physical evolution of species seems to be almost as slow as the evolution of climate or continental drift.

Not so with Things. The Industrial Revolution was only the beginning of their evolutionary explosion. It opened new non-biological and non-renewable sources of energy—coal, oil, and gas. That energy was spent by industrial societies on making consumer products, means of their manufacturing and transportation, and means of their military protection and promotion.

The seeds of Things are their ideas.

WW2 for the first time shifted the social function of science from the quest for truth to the quest for production. Before that science was something like art and scientific ideas were valued for their uniqueness, beauty, depth, and potency to conceive other ideas . Science became an industry of knowledge, part of economy, branch of business, and an incubator of Things and ideas for sale.  If Things fathered by science multiplied, the profits percolated back to science. Scientists multiplied. Sciences multiplied. Not only that, but with each new decade, the scientific landscape could change beyond recognition. It seemed  like a new breed of scientists, their instruments, and theories is being created on daily basis.

While ideas of Aristotle, Darwin, and Einstein had no owner, ideas today are products for sale and they better be kneaded and baked quick. A private or public company for developing scientific ideas in information processing, biology, chemistry, and even mathematics is common today.

The intellectual capacity of human brain changes as slowly as human physical capacity. The intellectual production was increased by the Things in the form of scientific equipment and computers. Another large cycle of socio-economic metabolism closed: the gears of business engaged with the gears of science. That was the essence of the big evolutionary event of the 60's, the phase 2 of the Scientific Revolution, catalyzed by the cold WW3 more than by anything else.

As result of the Scientific Revolution, enormous amount of Things was created—not only individual Things, but also their species, genera, families, orders, etc., up to new kingdoms, like TV, computers, and satellites.

All this techno-life (Technos, as I would call it)  had to be fed with energy, installed, inspected, repaired, disposed of, and exchanged for new and improved species, genera, families, etc., as well as advertised, promoted, sold, insured, and defended from the competing species, genera, families, etc., and provided with well paid, qualified, educated, healthy humans to run all that. Moreover, science and industry could now manufacture and package human health in quantity and quality unheard of before. That was a product of unlimited demand, so that more qualified, educated, etc., etc., ..... to oversee species, genera... etc., etc.

While Things raised productivity—which has been a major justification for their invasion—they acquired a remarkable property of brevity of life. Each new invention and improvement made them obsolete within time essentially shorter than human life. Old Things had to be dumped because old age became a liability for both humans and new Things. The Things lost their traditional resale value. Some very old Things went up in price, but only if they had been practically extinct.

As result, we have some curves that follow. Whether people in America are healthier, more satisfied with life, have more comfort, security, and luxury, I cannot tell because I have no such data, but I suspect, that the answer is positive. I do not think there is a decline in general degree of happiness over hundred years. Still, it would be interesting to find out. It is much easier to find some economic data over surprisingly long periods of time.

One can find on the Web a calculator to compare prices for years from 1940 to present. A computer for $1000 could be bought for $100 in 1940. It could be bought in 1913 for $60. It was a fabulous life, a Golden Age! Can we revert the time?


The following figure presents consumer price index in USA since 1913 (source of data).


The picture looks even more dramatic if we take a larger period. The commodity prices, available for UK since 1600 (source: John J. McCusk, How Much Is That in Real Money?
American Antiquarian Society, 1992. I had found the tables on the Web, but lost the link and could not find it again)  can be taken as surrogate inflation data. The next chart shows them for the period 1790-1991, and believe me, they were practically stable in UK before that: 34.9 in 1600, 66.3 in 1790. They did not even double in almost 200 years and I thought they weren't worth plotting,.


The jump of inflation coincided with another jump: in gross domestic product, GDP
(source ; spreadsheet  ).


So, what was that "something" that had happened around 1965?

I believe it was the evolutionary explosion of the life of Things who (of course, who) invented a radical improvement in their mechanism of self-reproduction: industrialization and commercialization of science. They started to distance themselves from humans and use them as their own reproductive apparatus. This brings us back to Samuel Butler (see Essay 6) who predicted all that as soon as he had learned about Darwin's theory.

Humans, with their chaotic nature, were an excellent source of mutations for the blueprints.

After the Industrial Revolution, and especially after the 1965, economy and society found a new environment, free of restrictions of human biology. Humans believe that Things serve people. In fact, the opposite conclusion is equally true: humans serve Things. As I believe, we have here a typical Niels Bohr situation.

NOTE: What else happened after 1965, see Robert B.Reich, The Future of Success.    The idea about humans serving Things as their reproductive apparatus is almost 150   years old  and  is a topic of  Essay 6.

As I see it, the modern inflation is part of our wealth dissipated by Things we make. It is our  work, resources of mineral energy, personal time, and savings that we spend on the life of Things and not on our own biological needs, i.e., what we need today to be alive and well tomorrow. There is a small problem: the Things do not ask us for an invitation. The entire system of government, law, and business, at least in USA,  is based on a monumentally strong pro-life (for Things) paradigm.

If the Industrial Revolution brought to life the Things making Things, the Revolution of 1965 brought to life the industrial production of the ideas preceding Things, the Things  making ideas, and the ideas behaving as Things. Ideas became commodity and became engaged in the socio-economic metabolism similar to any business.

But don't ask me whether I think the Federal Reserve is good or bad. I am even ready to admit that the visible hand is always better than an invisible one because you can at least slap on it.

Our own actions of our free will can be good or bad, judging by the comparison of goals and results. They could be good or bad from the point of view of an ideological canon, such as religion or Marxism. Curiously, for the results of our dedication to either one we would need to wait until we were dead. But in the twenty-first century, we do not have any free will anymore. The measure of our free will is a number between zero and one, with zero being the degree of free will of the enzymes that assemble our own proteins and nucleic acids. Slaves had somewhat more free will than enzymes. We are all just enzymes in the global metabolism of  Things, like our own enzymes that are busy with our personal biochemistry. We assemble and disassemble Things, ideas for the blueprints of Things, and ideas for their own sake because they sell, too.

Now, where is the metaphor?

In 1842, Nicolay Gogol, a great writer of the nineteenth century, one of a few true immortals of Russian literature, published a short story The Overcoat. A lonely  timid poor clerk, living on a meager salary, had an overcoat so old and dilapidated that it could not be mended anymore and its owner was a constant subject of jokes and teasing at the office. Finally, with a couple months of fasting and a lucky increase in salary he was able to order a new overcoat for the cold Russian winter.

The downtrodden clerk seemed to have gained a new dignity and respect from colleagues. Same day, however, he was robbed of his new pride on a dimly lit street of Saint Petersburg—the tragedy he could not survive. 

“He saw some mustached men in front of him. “Hey, it looks like my overcoat,” said one with a thunderous voice. Akakiy Akakiyevich was about to cry help when another man showed  him his fist,  the size of a clerk’s head, saying “Don’t even think about it.” Akakiy Akakiyevich felt the overcoat pulled from his shoulders. Hit with a log, he fell face down into the snow and did not feel anything after that.”

The literary power of The Overcoat is all in fine details, not in its plot.  As a metaphor, this story looks to me like a parable of our new economy—by contrast, rather than by similarity. Unlike the Gogol's character, we are not clerks but farmers, some more lucky and gifted than others. The soil of economy brings forth its edible fruit together with its inedible companions because we share the land with Things and they plant their seeds between our feet. Whether we want it or not, we have to till the soil for them.  In exchange, the Things and not food, nor ideas, nor valor are our pride. It is the overcoat that wears us.

Let us celebrate and enjoy our new—only 50 years old—overcoat of many colors and beware of dimly lit streets.


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