Tuesday, October 25, 2016

More lessons from King Midas, who discovered he could not eat gold

image: Ancient statue of the goddess Demeter, juxtaposed with field of barley. Wikimedia commons (link and link).

The previous post explored some aspects of the extraordinarily bad (but all-too-human) judgment displayed by the famous King Midas of Phrygia, from ancient myth.

One of the signature aspects of the king's poor judgment involves his failure to recognize the primacy of the realm of spirit -- the realm of the gods -- over the realm of matter, and over all things material.

This failure to acknowledge the primacy of the realm of the gods is most evident in the story of the Judgment of Midas, in which the king fails to recognize the supremacy of the musical skill of the god Apollo -- the very god of music and thus the source of all musical talent, and the mythical leader of the Muses themselves. 

For this failure, Midas is awarded the ears of an ass or donkey, a consummate symbol of his preference for the lower, the animal, the bestial and all that is proper to the material or bestial or lower realm, rather than what should be his proper recognition of things higher, things divine, and things spiritual.

The same pattern of failure to strive for what is higher, to recognize and pursue that which could elevate himself and help others, is also clearly evident in the more famous episode in the Midas story -- his calamitous request when granted one wish by the god Dionysus to have the ability to turn whatever he touches into gold. 

In this case, the king is granted one boon from the divine realm, the very realm of the gods -- and he squanders that opportunity by making a wish that, far from elevating or enlivening himself and those around him, will instead turn everything he touches into a lifeless lump of metal. The horrifying consequences of this bad judgment soon become evident, when Midas realizes he has with his wish cut himself off from the very source of life itself, when even his food and drink turns to gold between his teeth or in his throat -- and then, in some versions of the story, the ultimate illustration of his disastrous wish become manifest when he turns his own daughter from a living, breathing, loving young woman into a lifeless golden statue.

As we saw, the gods were benevolent enough to undue the rash request of Midas, as well as all the horrifying transformations it had wrought, when Midas threw himself upon their mercy, and followed the command to immerse himself in the river Pactolus, at its source.

The failure to acknowledge the realm of spirit -- from which all life in this material realm flows, and indeed within which (the ancient wisdom tells us) all things in the material realm actually find their fount and source -- ultimately debases and objectifies and turns that which should be a blessing into a curse.

Although this lesson may seem to be so obvious, and the folly of Midas may seem to be so self-evident that none could ever be foolish enough to make the mistakes that he makes, in reality we find that our society even in our supposedly enlightened modern age has in fact rejected many of the profound lessons illustrated in the Midas myth, and suffers from the very same horrendous consequences depicted in the ancient story of the king who failed to honor and recognize the primacy of the realm of the gods, focusing only on the gold.

One example of this pattern is seen in the refusal to acknowledge the gifts of the gods which provide blessing and the very source of life to all men and women (which we could also call the "gifts of nature"), such as the abundance of the soil or the abundance of mineral wealth beneath the soil, by some who would argue that these gifts of nature or the gods "belong" to some and not to others, and can and should be "privatized" so that their abundance redounds only to a few and not to society at large.

In an article published in April of 1891, Simon Patten -- the very first economics professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania (the very first business school in any of the united states of America) -- addressed this exact problem. 

The article was entitled "Another View of the Ethics of Land Tenure," and it was published in the International Journal of Ethics (pages 354 - 370). Note the word ethics in both the title of Simon Patten's article and in the title of the journal in which the article was published: Patten alleged that the failure he illustrates in this article, the failure to recognize and acknowledge and account for the gifts of nature (which the ancients might have also called the gifts of the gods) is an ethical failure. We might note that it is an ethical failure in exactly the same way that the failures Midas illustrates in the Midas myth are also ethical failures -- and the consequences can be equally disastrous.

In his article, Patten provides the example of fields under cultivation to provide food crops. He explicitly states that this example is only one of many others that could be used, but that it is a fairly easy way to illustrate the point he is trying to make, which also applies in other parts of the economy.

He asks the reader to consider the fact that different soils will naturally yield different harvests, depending on a variety of factors including the quality of the land, the amount of rain received at different times during the growing season, and so forth. He then notes that as society grows in number, more land will have to be brought under cultivation in order to provide more food, with the best land usually being brought under cultivation first, and later as the needs of society increase, land with poorer prospects may have to be planted with crops, even though at first that land was not deemed to be as worthy of the effort.

At the same time, however, he notes that the market for wages paid to the workers on the various plots of land will tend to fall towards the price that makes economic sense for the least-productive plots of land. A farmer hiring laborers for a low-yielding piece of land will not be able to afford to pay those laborers prices that are higher than what the relatively low output of the field can support. This will tend to benefit the farmers hiring laborers for their higher-yielding pieces of land, because they can then pay wages that are about as low, or just as low, as that paid to the workers hired on the lower-yielding land.

If this seems confusing, just imagine the situation at an empty parking lot, where large numbers of migrant workers are sitting around in the early morning in their sweatshirts and work boots, blowing on their hands in order to try to keep their fingertips warm, and hoping that farmers will drive up and hire some of them for the day. When various farmers show up to hire laborers, the farmer owning a field that can produce 400 bushels per acre per year will not offer a wage that is higher than the wage that is offered by the farmer owning a field that can only produce 325 bushels per acre per year. If the farmer from the less-productive field can afford to offer X dollars per hour, then the farmer from the more-productive field can also offer X dollars per hour. 

The workers waiting in the parking lot do not ask, "How productive is your field?" when they are offered a job, and they have no way of knowing whether they are being taken to a more-productive or less-productive field when they agree to work for the day and drive off to the respective locations.

Note that this means that everyone with more productive fields will then be getting labor at a cost that gives them a greater margin of profit, basically as a benefit from the extra yield that comes not from better labor but rather from nature (or, as we might say, from the blessings bestowed by the gods -- in the case of crops, from the goddess Demeter and from the blessings of the sun and the rain and in fact the blessing of more men and women having babies in the society). 

This extra bounty from nature (or from the realm of the gods) will go directly to the land owner, and not to the laborers or to society at large (even though it was the growth of society that necessitated bringing more marginal land under cultivation, creating the lower wages that the owner of the better land can then bank as an extra profit margin). The benefit will remain private, even though it was obtained not by work but as a blessing from the divine realm.  

As Professor Patten, that first economics professor in the first business school in the united states of America, explained in his article in the journal of ethics:
If all wealth was produced by labor alone, then the value of a workman to society would be a just measure of the claim that each workman has upon the wealth that society has to distribute. But nature helps in the production of wealth as well as man, and at the end of each productive period society has to distribute the wealth produced by man, plus the wealth produced by nature. To illustrate, in the case of land, the poorest land means the land where nature does the least to aid man to produce food. The measure of the differences in soil is the difference win the aid of nature in production. If on the poorest land a man can raise 325 bushels of wheat, while on the best he can raise 400 bushels, the aid of nature on the best land is greater than that given to the poorest land by the equivalent of 75 bushels. [. . .] The difference between the better coal and iron mines, water-powers, and other natural resources, and the poorest of these in use, is due to nature [. . .].
With every increase of the number of workmen, some of them work under conditions where they get less aid from nature, and if the value of each man is fixed by what society would lose if he ceased to work, then the value of all laborers is equal to what they could produce, if all of them worked on as poor land or with as poor instruments of production as the few laborers use that are at the margin of cultivation [that is to say, they will be getting paid a wage that is equal to the X dollars per hour mentioned above, a price that is set by the affordability of labor on the lowest-producing land that is being forced into production by the needs of society]. All the increase of wealth due to fertile fields or productive mines would be taken gradually from workmen with the growth of population, and given to more favored persons whose shares are not reduced by the use of poorer land. These privileged classes would then enjoy all the advantages due to better natural resources or to more productive instruments of other kinds. When it is said that the workingman under these conditions gets all he is worth to society, the term "society," if analyzed, means only the more favored classes who are contrasted with the workmen. They pay each laborer only the utility of the last laborer to them, and get the whole produce of the nation minus this amount. 365 - 366.
This is the very pattern, if we think about it for a bit, that characterized the folly of Midas, the king who failed to acknowledge and recognize and honor the very god of music when judging a contest of musical skill. The problem that Simon Patten was explaining -- a problem he explicitly identifies as an ethical problem -- is the structuring of society in such a way as to privatize the gifts of nature, distributing them more and more to the owners of the fields and mines at the expense of those working in the fields and the mines. 

Patten actually argues that the profit should indeed go to the owners of the land, but that a claim should be assessed on such profits (in the form of taxes) in order to return part of that value to the laborer (the implication being that the tax burden should be upon passive income and in particular land tenancy of cropland or mining land which receive the benefits of nature, rather than placing the tax burden upon labor).  He writes:
If a laborer loses twenty dollars a year by a social change [such those just illustrated in his example], he is restored to his former condition, if the state pays twenty dollars of his school bills, or if it improves his sanitary condition so that he pays less doctor bills to that amount. He would also be put on his former footing, if the streets were improved so that he could live in places with lower rent, or if the cost of transportation was reduced so that he could get his food and fuel more cheaply. 367.
An astute reader who disagrees with Patten might argue that the owner of the better land, who is benefiting from the cheaper labor, probably had to pay more per acre for that better land than did the owner of the poorer-quality land, and this will often be the case. But, the fact that in this country the mortgage debt used to purchase such real estate can be deducted from taxes enables borrowing greater amounts than would otherwise be borrowed to make such purchases, and means that the additional productivity provided over and above the labor (by the gifts of nature, or the gifts of the gods, depending on your choice of terminology) will again be captured by the land owner, as well as the bank to which the interest on the loan is paid, rather than to society, leaving the laborer out of the equation and thus privatizing what is actually a gift from nature, or the gods.

This argument from Simon Patten is included as part of the larger argument made by Professor Michael Hudson, in his 2015 book Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Destroy the Global Economy (see, for example, pages 83 - 86). 

In that book, Professor Hudson provides a plethora of counter-arguments to objections such as the one just mentioned, and many others as well. He explains that many classical economists sought to place the tax burden on areas where natural monopolies enable the collection of economic rents, beginning for example with the French Physiocrats in the 1750s, who proposed taxing land rent (and only land rent) in order to, as Dr. Hudson puts it, "collect what nature provided freely (sunlight and land) and hence what should belong to the public sector as the tax base" (48).

As it stands today, however, the bounty that ancient society would have seen as flowing from the realm of the gods (the sun and rain and soil and waterways, and the treasures of gems and minerals and chemicals deep beneath the surface, each of which is presided over by multiple gods and goddesses, nymphs and naiads and other beings proper to the spirit realm) is often seen or described as wasted or squandered if it resides in the public sphere, by those who believe all these gifts should be privatized for the benefit of individual owners and corporations rather than to society at large.  

Even more hideously, countries or leaders who have resisted the demands that the wealth of that country should also be privatized (usually by people and corporations from the outside) have found themselves threatened with regime change, or have had their countries invaded and in many cases the leaders of those countries met with a violent death. 

This pattern has played out in Iran in the 1950s, in Afghanistan during the 1970s and 1980s, in Libya in 2011, and in numerous countries in Central and South America over the past several decades (to name just a few of many other examples of this very same pattern). The option of seeing the riches of minerals or oil under the surface as a gift from nature (or from the gods of mining and metallurgy and underground riches, such as Hephaestus or Plouton) to benefit the public as a whole was not allowed: such riches could only be privatized, and wars would be  (and continue to be) started in order to enforce privatization of nature's bounty to a given country as the only allowable option.

But it is not the only option -- it is not even the most life-affirming option. As Midas found out when he was offered one wish from the gods, and then focused only upon gaining more wealth, the refusal to observe the proper order, and the refusal to acknowledge the gifts that flow from the gods, only ends up  making us bestial, as well as objectifying and deadening everything around us, and ourselves as well.

Professor Hudson in his book even compares the situation to the myth of Midas, saying: 
Ancient mythology asked how King Midas could survive with nothing to eat but his gold. This threatens to be a metaphor for today's finance capitalism -- a dream that one can live purely off money, without means of production and living labor. To avoid this fate, the remedy must add financial reform to the 19th century's unfinished revolution to sweep away the surviving inequities of post-feudal land grabbing, seizure of the Commons and creation of monopoly privileges. Tese are the vestiges of the past appropriations and insider dealing that underlie rent seeking and endowed a financial system that remains grounded in neofeudal practice instead of investing in industry and human well being. 398.
Even when his folly had reached its peak, and threatened to destroy everything he loved (and his own life as well), Midas did not find himself beyond mercy or beyond remedy for all he had done. He was permitted to go find the source of the stream, and dunk his head in it three times. 

I believe that stream was a celestial stream, and that it thus represents a spiritual solution -- because the problem at hand is in fact a spiritual problem, and a moral and ethical one.

In his 1891 essay, Professor Patten of the Wharton School asks, "What ethical principals should we accept to bring our actions into harmony with the moral law?" 363.

This is actually an extremely well-framed question. By "the moral law," I would argue that Professor Patten means the same thing that the ancients would have recognized as the law of the gods -- the very powers inhabiting the very realm from which flows all that we have here in the material plane, including sun, rain, food, crops, babies, and life itself.

As Midas discovered, failing to answer that question properly can have disastrous consequences. 

But as the ancient myth also teaches us, the consequences can be repaired, if we turn back towards the source, and immerse ourselves in it.