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Writing the Rich: What Is it Like to Be a Banker?
Tougher for the novelist are the tasks of rendering convincing characters across the class spectrum and capturing economic intricacies in a way that’s both cogent and readable. I’ve not heard of any institutions that offer joint MFA-MBA degrees.
The impulse to become a writer suggests a fundamental fiscal incompetence. Fiction writers, often deriving their income from their status as writers (by teaching) rather than from their actual writing, tend to carve out lives somewhere within the middle class but find themselves at a remove from the higher and lower echelons of economic activity. The campus—a zone that encourages all participants to make a pretense of classlessness—has become the default home of most novelists, and this may partly explain why class is an easier subject to avoid now than in the days of Wharton, Fitzgerald, or Ellison. The love triangle in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot tilts not according to a geometry of class but according to the characters’ reading tastes. In any case, authors’ actual relationships to money don’t make for thrilling plot twists. Nobody wants to read a novel that climaxes with a successful book deal. There might, however, be a decent conceptual fiction to be written under the title A History of My Student Loans.
Milo Burke, the narrator of Sam Lipsyte’s 2010 novel, The Ask, makes a useful class distinction after an encounter with a governor’s daughter: “She was from the people who kept everything. I was from the people who rented some of everything for brief amounts of time. I knew I deserved no pity, would get none from the people who kept everything. They only pitied the people with nothing at all.” I don’t think it’s rash to assume that most American fiction writers come from and remain the people who rent things, and it’s worth considering how much sympathy they extend to people wealthy enough to keep things. So pity the novelist who sets out to write about the rich: Demonizing bankers may be an effective political tactic, but it’s not an option for a novelist trying to draw well-rounded characters, or for one who wants to offer an understanding of contemporary society that becomes more than a class grievance.
That passage in The Ask hurt when I read it. Anyway, the problem Lorentzen identifies is real, and he ably adduces evidence of it in a number of recent novels. Lorentzen's mention of "class grievance" called to mind Robert Nozick's account of "wordsmith" intellectuals' attraction to socialism and hostility toward capitalism. According to Nozick:
In the currency the schools had to offer, the smartest constituted the upper class. Though not part of the official curricula, in the schools the intellectuals learned the lessons of their own greater value in comparison with the others, and of how this greater value entitled them to greater rewards.
The wider market society, however, taught a different lesson. There the greatest rewards did not go to the verbally brightest. There the intellectual skills were not most highly valued. Schooled in the lesson that they were most valuable, the most deserving of reward, the most entitled to reward, how could the intellectuals, by and large, fail to resent the capitalist society which deprived them of the just deserts to which their superiority "entitled" them? Is it surprising that what the schooled intellectuals felt for capitalist society was a deep and sullen animus that, although clothed with various publicly appropriate reasons, continued even when those particular reasons were shown to be inadequate?
It is not surprising that those successful by the norms of a school system should resent a society, adhering to different norms, which does not grant them the same success. Nor, when those are the very ones who go on to shape a society's self-image, its evaluation of itself, is it surprising when the society's verbally responsive portion turns against it. If you were designing a society, you would not seek to design it so that the wordsmiths, with all their influence, were schooled into animus against the norms of the society.
So, if Nozick's right, it's not only ignorance of the inner workings of business, and of the money-making classes, which leaves fiction writers unable to write insightfully about the commanding heights of the economy. Simple innocence would not explain the urge to demonize bankers Lorentzen warns writers against, but Nozick's conjecture might.
I think Lorentzen is right that "The campus—a zone that encourages all participants to make a pretense of classlessness—has become the default home of most novelists...," and he's also right to suggest that on campus classlesness is pretense. Because, of course, Eugenides' Brown is a place where class distinction is reinforced and rehearsed -- especially among the wordsmiths.
Steven Johnson (Sam Lipsyte's roommate at Brown!) wrote an interesting piece in the New York Times, coinciding with the release of Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, about the Brown semiotics scene in the 80s:
The obscurity of the field was partly the point. In Jeffrey Eugenides’s new novel, “The Marriage Plot,” which takes place in part at Brown in the early 1980s, the heroine first stumbles across the semiotics program when a friend comes home with a copy of Jacques Derrida’s “Of Grammatology”: “When Madeleine asked what the book was about, she was given to understand by Whitney that the idea of a book being ‘about’ something was exactly what this book was against, and that, if it was ‘about’ anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things.”
Greek for the “science of signs,” semiotics as a field dates back to fin de siècle philosophers and linguists like C. S. Peirce and Ferdinand De Saussure; in modern times it is most commonly associated with Umberto Eco. The general thrust of pure semiotics is a kind of linguistics-based social theory; if language shapes our thought, and our thought shapes our culture, then if we are looking for a master key to make sense of culture, it makes sense to start with the fundamental structures of language itself: signs, symbols, metaphors, narrative devices, figures of speech. You could interpret a Reagan speech using these tools as readily as you could a Nike ad.
A master key to the culture: a pretty powerful thing to have. And then there's this:
“Going to college in the moneymaking ’80s lacked a certain radicalism,” Eugenides writes. “Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution. It drew a line; it created an elect; it was sophisticated and Continental; it dealt with provocative subjects, with torture, sadism, hermaphroditism — with sex and power.”
So we have a sophisticated, worldly elect among all that Ivy League classlessness. And it was already attracted to "revolution" (against what?!) and allergic to "moneymaking." Not that the elect has fared poorly:
[A] striking number of semiotics students have gone on to influential careers in the media and the creative arts. ... NPR’s Ira Glass, the novelist Rick Moody, the filmmaker Todd Haynes, Eugenides himself — all spent their formative years in the semiotics program. The antihero of Sam Lipsyte’s hilarious 2010 novel, “The Ask,” takes theory classes at a college clearly modeled on Brown. (Lipsyte was in fact my roommate for most of my college career; I like to think the stinging parodies of semio-babble in that book were modeled on his other friends.)
This is a pretty impressive set of white guys. They are indeed, as Nozick puts it, "the very ones who go on to shape a society's self-image, its evaluation of itself." But Ed Conard probably spends more renovating a bathroom than their combined net worth, and that's got to rankle. What does Ed Conard know about Saussure?!
All that said, Nozick's explanation is a bit too sociological for me. Perhaps it's true, as Lorentzen says, that "The impulse to become a writer suggests a fundamental fiscal incompetence." But what stands behind the impulse to become a writer? Whatever it is, maybe it also predicts relatively weak pecuniary motivation. I'd guess a largely native strain of personality has a good deal to do with literary aspiration. If I were to go over to the Dey House and force the fiction MFA students take a Big Five personality survey, I'm confident I'd find a group almost uniformly super-high in "openness to experience." By itself, high openness predicts left-leaning politics. Indeed, as Jost and colleagues have argued, personality is fairly ideological. This is important.
If the personality traits that generate liberals are also a goodly part of the recipe for making literary novelists, then "write what you know" is, in effect, instructions to remain inside a left-leaning mind's experience or the world. Now, high openness is very strongly correlated with curiosity and empathy. So high-openness novelists may want to understand the subjectivity of bankers. Bankers, on the other hand, probably couldn't care less about the rich inner world of writers. But the motivation to enter into a foreign perspective doesn't guarantee success. It can be exceedingly hard for a super-high openness, super-low conscientiousness (and thus super-liberal) writers (like me) to imagine, must less connect sympathetically with, the motivation of super-low openness, super-high conscientiousness (and thus super-conservative) business-folk. Mostly, we do a terrible job. In some ways, conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives.
So that's three things. First, novelists just don't know enough about business or people in business to write about them well. Second, novelists are wordsmith intellectuals who feel poorly treated by the distributive principles of market societies and tend to resent those who thrive in its non-semiotics-based class structure. Third, novelists have left-leaning ideological personalities that, on the one hand, make them curious and empathetic, but, on the other hand, make it hard for them to imagine what it's really like to experience the world as a right-leaning ideological personality.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
A new study finds surprising evidence of the self-evolution of urban foxes.
- A study from the University of Glasgow finds urban foxes evolved differently compared to rural foxes.
- The skulls of the urban foxes are adapted to scavenging for food rather than hunting it.
- The evolutionary changes correspond to Charles Darwin's "domestication syndrome."
How much can living in the city change you? If you were an urban fox, you could be evolving yourself to a whole new stage and becoming more like a dog, according to a fascinating new study.
Researchers compared skulls from rural foxes around London with foxes who lived inside the city and found important variations. Rural foxes showed adaptation for speed and hunting after quick, small prey, while urban fox skulls exhibited changes that made it easier for them to scavenge, looking through human refuse for food, rather than chasing it. Their snouts were shorter and stronger, making it easier to open packages and chew up leftovers. They also have smaller brains, not meant for hunting but for interacting with stationary food sources, reports Science magazine.
Interestingly, there was much similarity found between the male and female skulls of the urban foxes.
The observed changes correspond to what Charles Darwin called the "domestication syndrome," comprised of traits that go along with an animal's transition from being wild, to tamed, to domesticated.
The study was led by Kevin Parsons, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow.
"What's really fascinating here is that the foxes are doing this to themselves," Parsons told the BBC. "This is the result of foxes that have decided to live near people, showing these traits that make them look more like domesticated animals."
The researchers are not suggesting you should go out and get a fox as a house-pet just yet. But they are seeing the evolutionary process taking place that's moving the urban foxes along the path towards becoming more like dogs and cats, explained the study's co-author Dr. Andrew Kitchener from National Museums Scotland.
A fox beneath a tree in Greenwich park, south east London on May 14, 2020.
Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP
"Some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today," said Kitchener. "So, adapting to life around humans actually primes some animals for domestication."
The specimen came from the National Museum Scotland's collection of around 1,500 fox skulls.
You can read the study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
A fox at the LV County Championship, Division two match between Surrey and Derbyshire at The Brit Oval on April 9, 2010 in London, England.
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
Is Bitcoin akin to 'digital gold'?
- In October, PayPal announced that it would begin allowing users to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies.
- Other major fintech companies—Square, Fidelity, SoFi—have also recently begun investing heavily in cryptocurrencies.
- While prices are volatile, many investors believe cryptocurrencies are a relatively safe bet because blockchain technology will prove itself over the long term.
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon<p>The move came shortly after the payments company Square invested $50 million into Bitcoin, and after Fidelity announced that it was opening a Bitcoin fund into which qualified purchasers could invest <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-26/fidelity-launches-inaugural-bitcoin-fund-for-wealthy-investors" target="_blank">(minimum investment: $100,000)</a>. Together, this institutional backing might have something to do with Bitcoin's recent surge back to near its 2017 price peak of $19,783. (Bitcoin is listed at 19,384.30 as of Dec. 3.)<br></p>
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon<p>But more importantly, it suggests cryptocurrencies might soon have the opportunity to prove themselves in real-world use cases. After all, skeptics have long doubted the ability of cryptocurrencies to go mainstream as a form of everyday payment. But people seem increasingly comfortable with digital payment systems.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The entire world is going to come into digital first," Schulman said at Web Summit, adding that PayPal's services already go hand-in-hand with cryptocurrencies. "As we thought about it, digital wallets are a natural complement to digital currencies. We've got over 360 million digital wallets and we need to embrace cryptocurrencies."</p><p>Sanja Kon, vice president of global partnerships at the cryptocurrency payments processor company UTRUST, also spoke at Web Summit about the increasing adoption of digital payments:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Physical cash is becoming more and more obsolete. And the next step in the evolution is digital currency."</p><p>Kon noted some of the inherent advantages of cryptocurrencies, namely ownership. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"For many people, this is really the main benefit of cryptocurrency: Users owning cryptocurrencies are able to control how they spend their money without dealing with any intermediary authority like a bank or a government, for example," Kon said, adding that there are no bank fees associated with cryptocurrencies, and that international transaction fees are significantly lower than wire transfers of fiat currency.</p><p>Kon said cryptocurrencies have unique growth opportunities in areas where people aren't integrated into modern banking systems:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"With cryptocurrencies and blockchain, with the use of just a smartphone and access to internet, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies can be available to populations of people and users without access to the traditional banking system."</p>
Bitcoin as 'digital gold'<p>Still, it could take years for people to start using cryptocurrencies for everyday purchases on a large scale. Despite this, many cryptocurrency advocates see digital currencies, particularly Bitcoin, as a way to store value—digital gold, essentially.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I don't think Bitcoin is going to be used as a transactional currency anytime in the next five years," billionaire investor Mike Novogratz recently told <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-23/novogratz-says-bitcoin-is-digital-gold-not-a-currency-for-now?srnd=markets-vp" target="_blank">Bloomberg</a>. "Bitcoin is being used as a store of value. [...] "Bitcoin as a gold, as digital gold, is just going to keep going higher. More and more people are going to want it as some portion of their portfolio."</p><p>There are obvious parallels between gold and Bitcoin: Both are mined, do not degrade over time, are finite in supply, and aren't directly tied to the value of fiat currency, making them <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-gold-inflation/gold-as-an-inflation-hedge-well-sort-of-idUSKCN1GD516" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relatively invulnerable to inflation</a>. The obvious objection is that the price of Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies in general, is far more volatile than gold.</p><p>But for investors who believe the inherent value of cryptocurrency technology will prove itself over the long term, these price fluctuations are just bumps on the long road to the future of currency. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It's no longer a debate if crypto is a thing, if Bitcoin is an asset, if the blockchain is going to be part of the financial infrastructure," Novogratz said. "It's not if, it's when, and so every single company has to have a plan now."</p>
Singapore has approved the sale of a lab-grown meat product in an effort to secure its food supplies against disease and climate change.
Approve for your dining pleasure<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd3f57f8baf14e654812d30a309d1f17"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/307gysA18_E?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><a href="https://www.ju.st/en-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Eat Just</a>, a company that produces animal-alternative food products, announced the news earlier this week. In what the company is calling a world first, Singapore has given it permission for a small-scale commercial launch of their GOOD Meat brand product line. For the initial run, the cultured chicken meat will be sold as an ingredient in "chicken bites."</p><p>"Singapore has long been a leader in innovation of all kinds, from information technology to biologics to now leading the world in building a healthier, safer food system. I'm sure that our regulatory approval for cultured meat will be the first of many in Singapore and in countries around the globe," Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Eat Just, <a href="https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20201201006251/en/Eat-Just-Granted-World%E2%80%99s-First-Regulatory-Approval-for-Cultured-Meat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said in a release</a>.</p><p>According to the release, Eat Just underwent an extensive safety review by the Singapore Food Agency. It provided officials "details on the purity, identity and stability of chicken cells during the manufacturing process, as well as a detailed description of the manufacturing process which demonstrated that harvested cultured chicken met quality controls and a rigorous food safety monitoring system." It also demonstrated the consistency of its production by running more than 20 cycles in its 1,200-liter bioreactors.</p><p>While Eat Just did not offer details on its propriety process, it likely follows <a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24032080-400-accelerating-the-cultured-meat-revolution/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">one similar to other lab-grown meats</a>. It starts with muscle cell samples drawn from a living animal. Technicians then isolate stem cells from the sample and culture them <em>in vitro</em>. These cultured stem cells are then placed in a bioreactor, essentially a fermenter for fleshy cells. The bioreactor contains scaffolding materials to keep the growing tissue from falling apart as well as a growth material—the sugars, salts, and other nutrients the tissue needs to grow. As the cells grow, they begin to differentiate into the muscle, fat, and other cells of meat tissue. Once grown, the tissues are formed into a meat product to be shipped to restaurants and supermarkets.</p>
An abattoir abatement?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg2Mjg5OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODg1NDI3N30.AYmFJfWQbPjK-o1IatyFHL-OLjcfXBMmQKYyvz4oT3s/img.jpg?width=980" id="8a82d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="93f824fe4c6f397ab2b65e4665847e71" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A graph showing the number of animals slaughtered in the United States per year from 1961–2018.
Credit: Our World in Data<p>Singapore's approval is an important step in support for clean meats—so-called because they don't require animal slaughter and would likely leave a reduced carbon footprint—but hurdles remain before widespread adoption is possible.</p><p>The most glaring is the price. The first lab-grown hamburger was eaten in London in 2013. <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-23576143" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">It cost roughly $330,000</a>. As with any new technology, investment, iteration, and improved manufacturing will see the price drop substantially and quickly. For comparison, Eat Just's chicken will be priced equivalent to premium chicken.</p><p>Other hurdles include up-scaling production, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00373-w" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the need for further research</a>, and developing techniques to reliably produce in-demand meats such as fish and beef. Finally, not all countries may be as receptive as Singapore. Countries with large, entrenched meat industries may protect this legacy industry through a protracted and difficult regulatory process. Though, the meat industry itself is investing in lab-grown meat. Tyson Foods, for example, has <a href="https://euromeatnews.com/Article-Tyson-Foods-announces-investment-in-clean-meat/697" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">invested in the food-tech startup Memphis Meats</a>, the company that debuted the world's first beef meatball.</p><p>"I would imagine what will happen is the U.S., Western Europe and others will see what Singapore has been able to do, the rigours of the framework that they put together. And I would imagine that they will try to use it as a template to put their own framework together," <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-eat-just-singapore/singapore-approves-sale-of-lab-grown-meat-in-world-first-idUSKBN28C06Z" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetrick told Reuter's during an interview</a>.</p><p>Regardless of the challenges, the demand for meat substitutes is present and growing. In 2020, plant-based substitutes like Beyond Meat and Impossible foods <a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/plant-based-meat" target="_self">gained a significant foothold in supermarkets</a> as meat-packing factories became coronavirus hotspots. The looming threat of climate change has also turned people away from meat as animal products. Livestock production is environmentally taxing and leaves <a href="http://css.umich.edu/factsheets/carbon-footprint-factsheet" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a much larger carbon footprint</a> than grain and vegetable production. </p><p>Then there's the moral concern of animal cruelty. In 2018 alone, 302 million cows, 656 million turkeys, 1.48 billion pigs, and a gob-smacking 68 billion chickens were <a href="https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/animals-slaughtered-for-meat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slaughtered for meat worldwide</a>. And those figures do not include chickens killed in dairy or egg production.</p><p>If brought to scale and widely available, clean meats could become serious competitors to traditional meat. <a href="https://bigthink.com/technology-innovation/meat-alternatives" target="_self">One report has even predicted</a> that 60 percent of the meat people eat by 2040 won't come from slaughtered animals. It could be just the thing for people looking for a meat substitute but who find tofurkey as distasteful as, well tofurkey.</p>