Culture, Political Economy

Our Luxurious Lives

Old Fashioned Water PumpA few months back I wrote a post called “Our Land of Plenty” in which I reflected on the superabundance of food available to us in the United States. I pointed out that we today have access to a greater amount and greater variety of food than the people of any other civilization in the entire history of the world.

In this post, I’d like to continue on that theme by calling attention to how luxurious modern western life really is.

While there are always going to be some discomforts, our lives in the United States today are more comfortable than almost any other people’s from the beginning of time. Yet how often do we take the time to consider and appreciate this fact? I would venture to guess that the answer to this question is “seldom to never.” Oftentimes, instead of being thankful for how good we have it, we like to complain about those things in our lives that aren’t perfect.

For example, we gripe when the weather is warm and muggy, and we forget that we have the unprecedented option to escape to air conditioned areas indoors. We also complain when it’s cold outside, and fail to appreciate that all we really have to do to make ourselves more comfortable is to turn up the thermostat. For most of us, there’s no gathering wood, no starting fires. It literally takes a turn of the wrist for us to perfectly control our climate.

Then there’s transportation. Most of us gripe about having to drive in a car for a few hours to get somewhere. We forget that in order to travel the same distance, our forefathers—if they were wealthy enough to do so—would have had to hitch up a carriage and spend several days on the road, staying at inns along the way. On those same lines, we like to gripe about 15-hour airplane flights to Europe while forgetting that a mere two centuries ago, that same trip would have meant several months at sea with a very real possibility of dying. Our travelling ancestors had bigger worries than lukewarm, in-flight meals.

Another modern convenience I think we often forget to appreciate is indoor plumbing. The fact that we, even as middle class  or working class people, can take a hot shower in our own homes every day would have been totally unbelievable to even the wealthiest aristocrats of the middle ages. In this regard—as in many others—the poorest among us are living better than even kings of centuries past.

Returning to the topic of food, I think we also take for granted the convenience of modern refrigeration, which allows us to safely store many products that were often eaten partially spoiled in past times, leading to serious health problems.

One final point I’d like to mention is our ubiquitous access to the internet. We live in the information age. The answer to almost any question—whether important or not—is instantly at our fingertips on a wide array of devices like desktops, laptops, tablets, and smart phones. While bibles and other books were once kept chained up because they were so expensive to produce, we today have a world of information at the flick of our index finger or even at our verbal command.

Let’s face it. At least from a physical perspective, we in the 21st century western world have been born into the easiest possible time and the easiest possible place to be alive. Ever.

In general, we today lead more comfortable lives than any other people in history. But among its many other lessons, history shows that comfort isn’t the best way to improve a people’s character. The greatest generations are born out of times of hardship rather than times of luxury.

There are a couple of morals to this story. The first is that we ought to have a better appreciation for how good we have it. Instead of whining about how low the water pressure is, we should be overjoyed to have hot water flowing into our homes at all. Instead of complaining that we’ve only got leftovers in the fridge, we should be thankful that we can even safely store food.

The second lesson is that we should realize that our present conditions are a perfect recipe for molding us into a soft, indolent people, and that in order to keep ourselves from becoming this, we need to begin practicing such things as fasting, mortification, and self-denial. If our current environment won’t shape our character in a positive way, we have to make an extra effort to do so ourselves.

Thirdly and finally, we should all recognize and consider the fact that we might not always have it as good as we do now. The recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and especially in Puerto Rico have shown how quickly all of our creature comforts can be taken away. There may well come a day when we don’t have our perfectly controlled climates, our hot showers, our ease of travel, and our instant access to information. Let’s not make our happiness dependent on our modern conveniences and easy way of life.

I’d like to close by paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton, who once said that the best way to appreciate anything is to realize that it might be lost. To that end, let’s appreciate our modern comforts, and let’s also realize and be prepared for the possibility that we might not always have them.

 

Nicholas Kaminsky

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Culture, Political Economy

Our Land of Plenty

Our Land of PlentyWalking through those doors is always a mind-blowing experience. I’m not exaggerating when I say I believe the sight behind those glass gates is one of the most incredible our country has to offer.

I am talking, of course, about the grocery store.

“The grocery store?” you ask. “That seems a bit melodramatic, don’t you think?”

“No,” I reply. “I don’t think so at all.”

While I have perhaps exaggerated a little, I’ve only done so in the sense that my mind isn’t always blown every time I pass through the doors of the local Cub Foods or Hy-Vee. But this is only because I, like most Americans, have become so accustomed to the superabundance of food with which our nation has been blessed that I often take it for granted. When I stop and think about it though, I am truly amazed.

Walking down the breakfast aisle alone, I count over 200 kinds of cereal, 97 kinds of jelly and jam, and nearly 30 varieties of peanut butter. Then there’s the produce section, overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables, even in the middle of winter with subzero temperatures outside. There are fresh oranges from Florida and fresh bananas from Guatemala. There are sweet potatoes from Canada and berries from Mexico.

There is also the meat section, with every cut imaginable, both fresh and frozen. There’s beef and pork and poultry and seafood. If I so choose, I can purchase and consume filet mignon or lobster or ribeye or octopus.

My point is that we in the United States today have access to a greater amount and greater variety of food than the people of any other civilization in the entire history of the world. For the last several thousand years of human existence, most of mankind—or rather all of mankind—has only been able to dream about the variety of foods on the shelves in our grocery stores.

Let’s be honest, we are living like kings. Even the poorest among us can eat better than many of the wealthiest men of ages past.

A case in point is meat. It used to be that most people didn’t get to eat meat on a regular basis because it was too expensive. In many societies it was considered a luxury item to be consumed only on special occasions. Today, however, we get to eat meat, if not every day, at least multiple times a week. Even dirt-poor history teachers can pick up a Big Mac or throw some pre-pattied burgers on a $10 mini-grill from Walmart.

It’s hard to deny that we have it pretty good. While our ancestors used to have to go out and hunt and forage if they wanted to eat anything, we today can simply pick up the phone, order a pizza, and have it delivered—hot and delicious—right to our doorstep.

I’ll say it again: we in the United States today have access to a greater amount and greater variety of food than the people of any other civilization in the entire history of the world.

And how do we celebrate this superabundance of food?

Well, by wasting a lot of it, unfortunately.

It’s estimated that Americans throw away 6 billion pounds of food every month. That’s about 20 pounds of food per month for every man, woman, and child in the country. Of course not all of this waste happens at the consumer level. Plenty of food gets discarded at the source or at the retail level as well.

Still, that’s a pretty astonishing amount of waste.

I think a big part of the problem is the need for Tort reform. Many caterers, for example, won’t even let their own customers take home leftovers for fear of being sued if they happen to become ill after eating them.

Even more important though, I think, is a change in attitude. We need to stop taking this abundant food supply for granted. Most people in history haven’t had nearly this level of prosperity, and we might not always have it either. We need to be more grateful for it. And more amazed by it.

 

Nicholas Kaminsky

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Philosophy, Political Economy

Heresy, Alchemy, & Economics

Inventers of the Modern World

“In Newton’s universe, bodies have no telos because they have no substance other than mathematically described extension. As a result, all motion results from external force, which is ultimately attributable to arbitrary will.

The change in motion Newton wrought by making force the central concern of his physics would have profound political and economic implications. Once inertia became the fundamental principle of the universe, strife would become central to all subsequent expressions of the English ideology based on Newtonian physics. According to Adam Smith’s reading of Newton, greed or self love is an instinct which is analogous to inertia in that each body in space seeks its own good without regard to any other body. Greed, which would lead to chaos, is held in check by competition, and the result is Smith’s version of perfect motion, otherwise known as the ‘invisible hand’ which assures that private vice is transformed magically (or alchemically) into public good.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is another example of the English ideology derived from Newton, which also claims that strife – or, as Darwin would say, competition for scarce resources leading to natural selection – is the fundamental principle of the universe. Darwin, like Newton, ‘frames no hypotheses.’ He looks at nature and discovers that ‘strife’ is its fundamental law.”

“This brings us to the mendacity at the heart of the English ideology. Proponents of British empiricism claim with Newton that they frame no hypotheses, while at the same time smuggling covert occult principles into their systems. They subvert the notion of essence; they promote the destruction of substance; and then at the last moment, rather than accept the consequences of what they have wrought, introduce some mathematical deus ex machina or scientific ‘law’ which saves the universe from the chaos which is the natural consequence of their subversion, and reintroduces an order which is totally confected (or framed) and which turns out to be nothing more than a projection of the English economic status quo, which began with theft, onto the universe. The common denominator of the various projections of the English ideology which Newton, Smith, Malthus, and Darwin share is Capitalism, the economic version of strife, which is the fundamental principle of the universe.

Confronted by increasingly strident complaints from the continent which accused him of smuggling occult forces into his system, Newton responded by declaring apodictically, ‘hypotheses non fingo.’ Subsequent proponents of the English ideology would make the same rhetorical move, by claiming that ‘science’ allowed them to view nature as it actually was, without any intervening conceptual framework. In reality, the proponents of the English ideology were doing nothing but projecting their own culture onto the very thing that needed to be explained. This is precisely the charges which Mirowski levels, when he claims that the physicists in question (and this certainly applies to Newton as well as the economists who imitated him) were guilty of ‘reconceptualizing the universe as a reflection of our social and somatic selves.’ In fact, Mirowski continues, ‘physicists have been doing just that for centuries.’”

– E. Michael Jones, Barren Metal – 

– Lucas G. Westman


* These passages are taken from the chapter, Newton and the Capitalist Universe

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