Back in May 2012, I read a couple articles that posed opposite opinions on the understanding of the 1%, or the .1%. Wendell Berry is a champion of many things including the environment, sustainable agriculture, and living simply. As a novelist, poet and essayist, he has written quite a lot on these topics. Edward Conrad is pretty much the opposite. He wrote a book, which I won’t read, about how everyone misunderstands the economy and especially the one percent. Much has been written lately about how the one percent, or one tenth of one percent is being persecuted by everyone else. They believe it is akin to the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews, or worse. Some believe that the increasing wealth imbalance is a good thing, that it makes people want to be like them. The two articles I read posed a very interesting contrast.
The book review and interview, written by Adam Davidson, of Conrad’s “Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy is Wrong”, goes though Conrad’s belief that the ultra rich investing improves everyone’s lives. He gives some examples, including Google, and tapering an aluminum can to save a milligram of aluminum. Davidson, at one point describes Conrad’s relentless use of mathematical logic against everything and then goes on to say that his world “often feels grim and soulless”.
Conrad believes that the unrelenting market and economic selection has assured the ultra wealthy have benefited society, or they wouldn’t be ultra wealthy. Wendell Berry, on the other hand, provides a personal story on just how this is wrong. He describes a story of when his grandfather went to market to sell the tobacco harvest, and came home with nothing. The tobacco company of James Duke had dropped the price so far that the farmers didn’t break even in selling their crops. Duke went on to try to rehabilitate his reputation by founding Duke University. Berry describes seeing a bronze sculpture of Duke as commemorating the “terrifyingly ignorant, even terrifyingly innocent, connection between his industry and his philanthropy”.
Berry’s essay describes what he calls Boomers and Stickers. Boomers are those people who “pillage and run.” Stickers are those people “who settle, and love the lives they have made and the place they have made in it.” It becomes easy to say that the ultra-wealthy are boomers and the rest are stickers, but I think that is an over simplification. There are boomers in many spheres, not just the wealthy. Personally, I find them parasitic rather than beneficial. Several people have written about Walmart’s decision to buy back several billion dollars of stock rather than use that money for increasing the wages of their employees. The boomers use the labor of others to increase their own wealth, and with the Walmart example, that is not beneficial to society as a whole.
Berry goes on to explain that it takes imagination. I cannot do justice to Berry’s poetic descriptions, but suffice it to say, it is the imagination that helps connect who we are to the world. It “enables sympathy, and sympathy enables affection”. In that, we “find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.”
It is this lack of imagination that allowed the tobacco companies to reduce the prices paid to farmers so much they couldn’t earn a living. It is the imagination that helped Berry’s grandfather and father become true stewards of their land, and teach Wendell what that means. It is the lack of imagination that causes people like Conrad to believe that accumulating wealth is good for the economy. It is the lack of imagination that makes people think that long term unemployed are lazy, rather than hard workers put out of work by policies implemented to cut costs.
Conrad describes the economy as a means to acquire wealth. He says that the growing income inequality is a good thing. And the more there is, the better off the 99% will be. He explains that most people don’t know how the economy works. “Most citizens are consumers, not investors. They don’t recognize the benefits to consumers that come from investment.” I suppose that might be true. I also believe that he does not realize that the less “consumer’s” earn, the less they have to consume. Davidson, the author of the review, says that Conrad ignores the economic work of the last few decades in that wealthy individuals game the system with power and politics. He dismisses the idea in the interview and says that concentrated wealth will inspire a nation of problem solvers – “Nobody was given a free ride because of their power.” This is totally at odds with Wendell Berry’s anecdote about James Duke.
Berry talks about how industrialism has divorced the land from the people. He then goes on to say that the fate of the land and the fate of the people. Because of that, Berry opposes the boomer enterprise. He says that this kind of industrialism has an incomplete accounting. This incomplete accounting does not take into account the abuse of the land, and the penalties that will come as a result.
As people are replaced by technology, and wealth is concentrated into the hands of the plutocracy, the failure of industrialism is too great to deny. There never was a precedence given to the common good. Communities, families, small businesses, and small farms have been destroyed. It has failed to conserve the wealth and health of nature. Using the environment as evidence of the failure of industrialism, Berry points out that soils are degraded ecosystems are destroyed, there are dead zones in coastal waters, and fossil fuels have been squandered.
One of the most powerful juxtapositions in the articles is around the use of data and statistics. Gordon describes using statistics to do many things including how to get a mate. Berry describes the abuse and exploitation of statistical knowledge, or objective knowledge. He indicts us all with the accusation that we have become part of the “thoughtless consumption of goods ignorantly purchased” and that we are now all boomers.
The failure of imagination that made Duke unaware of how the farmers faired, now isolates us. It is “by the imagination that knowledge is carried to the heart.” He argues that we should not be trusted with statistical knowledge - that we don’t learn from big numbers. We need to understand human intelligence on a scale much closer to the community or neighborhood.
His argument that “When people profit on a large scale, they succeed for themselves, when they fail, they fail for many others,” is a direct contrast to Gordon’s argument that wealth concentration is good for everyone. Gordon ignored the economic data, Berry lives it.
There is much more to explore with Wendell Berry’s article, I would urge you to take a long gentle read of it.