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Before I get to the main matter of today’s blog, let me note with sorrow the death of Maurice Sendak, whose books have been among the favorites of my two pairs of children and myself--we read nearly all of them, some over and over. The TV and other mass-media announcements all seem to choose his Where the Wild Things Are as the book by which he is mainly to be remembered, perhaps because it was made into a movie. Our own favorites included that one but also several others: the Little Nutshell Library, In the Night Kitchen (with Oliver Hardy appearing as two pastry cooks) and an early book, Kenny’s Window. In one of my Reminiscences on this website (R&R no. 82, “Bill Crofut and Alistair Reid,” which is recommended reading for all parents who aim at raising literate children) I tell how my daughter Sarah received a thank-you note with a sketch from Sendak after she wrote to tell him what a big part Kenny’s Window had played in her growing up--he responded that he didn’t usually answer children’s letters, but hers had specially touched him because this was one of his own favorites, and not much noticed. So, if you can find a copy of Kenny’s Window, buy or borrow it and read it (looking at the pictures) with your children. It’s midway between real-world and dream; they may well “understand” it better than you do.

Now, to follow up on my ominous heading, and slip into the elegiac mode. Some time last year I started one of my blogs--I have files of these partly-written ones--with the above title, and wrote three paragraphs of it. We begin, then, with those, updated a bit:

A lot of older people, I think, those who can look back over enough decades to have watched it happen, are asking themselves a painful question: WHAT WENT WRONG with our country, the United States of America? Why has its history taken a seemingly irreversible downhill course? And the right answer, which seems to me beyond denying, is uncomfortable because it sounds Marxist, and I never was that, but it is nonetheless the right answer:          WHAT WENT WRONG is CAPITALISM. It has gone terribly wrong, and it is bringing us down. The truth is: BIG MONEY BUYS WHAT IT WANTS; AND WHAT IT WANTS IS DESTROYING OUR COUNTRY. Is there a way out? I wish I knew of one, or that someone else knew of one, that will work.

During those heady days of the seeming triumph of liberalism in the sixties and early seventies, I had an uncomfortable sense that there would be a backlash. How right I was: Nixon 1969-74; Reagan presidency 1981-89, after his governorship of California; George H.W. Bush 1989-93;

George W. Bush, 2001-09. And the defeat of the “good guys”: Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, others. And, during those bad years, the lifting of all curbs on the financial market, curbs that cannot now easily be reinstated. Ending these curbs permitted a fundamental change in the nature of banks and how they operate, a change that let them turn into huge money-making corporations, more responsible to their investors than to their depositors.

I was around, and beginning to be aware, during the great presidency of FDR [Franklin D. Roosevelt]; he pulled us out of the Depression, pulled off such triumphs as the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] and the WPA-- good ideas that he managed to carry out in the face of bitter conservative opposition that saw these as “creeping socialism.” Somehow, the two-party system then seemed to work, didn’t permit the kind of stalemate, blockage of legislation and the rest, that we have now. The 99%ers today are basically right: whether they can bring about any change is another question. Has too much irreparable damage already been done?

Now, continuing: I have of course been reading, in addition to the twice-a-week Paul Krugman columns and others that reinforce my feelings, the arguments that have begun to appear in the opposite direction. The NYTimes had a section last weekend of writings by the 1%ers--or, more accurately, the .01%ers--and their advocates about how they are necessary and beneficial for the economy. I suppose there is some truth in that; but insofar as there is, I feel all the more: god help us.

As so often, my thoughts go back to ask: what did the ancient Chinese think about this problem? And, as usual, they were there first, went quite a ways in that direction, decided (wisely, it now appears) to stop. I’ve written elsewhere--following Joseph Needham and others--about how they were for centuries far ahead of the rest of the world in the development of proto-science and technology, then decided (wisely?) against continuing in that direction some time around the early Ming. And I have conveyed the main observations of Ed Shafer’s lecture “China Invented the Middle Ages,” about how they introduced the compass, the stirrup, gunpowder, etc. And we all know that they invented printing, and brought it (including pictorial printing) to great heights surprisingly early, with (for me) a pinnacle around the late Ming. Now, what about money?

My highly unprofessional opinion--I don’t really know enough about the ancient Middle East, for instance--is that the Chinese were innovators there too. Their early currency was copper coinage, and the coin was worth as much as the copper in it. Later, they were the first (I think) to use paper money. And they certainly developed a vast and intricate mercantile system, which has to be taken into account in considering the patronage for painting, as well as much else in Chinese culture. But in principle, the Chinese placed merchants below farmers and artisans in their ranking of social roles, because the merchants didn’t really produce anything, just moved it around, so to speak.

Now, with that ancient insight, let’s look at our present financial world. Money is paid into funds and investments to purchase, in principle, some part of some company that makes goods or provides services. I remember, way back, reading and wondering about “futures”--people would “buy” hogs or sugar or whatever “in the future,” betting that they would be worth more then. The whole financial system is, if I understand it right (probably not), a vast expansion of that. But the old kind of long-term investment, someone looking at the indicators of the future prospects of a company, taking a chance on its being worth more in future and buying shares in it, is not the principal or typical kind of transaction any more. Instead, vast amounts of wealth are transferred, by clever and amoral people sitting at computers, from one commodity or fund into another, in micro-seconds. They are supposed to be doing this to service investors in the funds or banks they represent, but in fact they are doing it to enrich themselves, their shareholders and CEOs. Wealth exists as immaterial figures on a screen, or electrical impulses in cyberspace, largely divorced from real goods and commodities and services. And yet the transactions going on in this disembodied way make the Wall Street denizens obscenely richer, and the rest of us vastly worse off in more ways than one can count or comprehend.

So, fix the system to make that impossible? Great idea, but carrying it out can and will be blocked by congressmen who have (see above) been bought by the big-money powers. So where is a way out? I have no answer to that, and may not live to see one, and can only hope that one will be found. Otherwise, onward and downward to arrive at T. S. Elliott’s vision (as amended by me):


This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang

Not with a whimper

But with a bunch of electronic impulses in cyberspace.

James Cahill, May 8th, 2012

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