Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Thoughts after seeing "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" at the Field Museum in Chicago

Two important things about the Egyptians are directly relevant to our current social juncture. Egyptian civilization was quite stable, and they buried a lot of cool stuff in the ground.

These two salient facts are related because Egyptians kept their economy and society in equilibrium by destroying the capital accumulation that almost inevitably follows from human nature. By burying royal surpluses under the desert sand, they prevented the ratios between the different classes from becoming overly imbalanced, and were able to stifle social change for centuries and even millenia.

The curse of wealth in America is that each aristocracy is displaced by the next wave of economic growth. Thus the Astor fur-trapping fortune was rendered insignificant by Carnegy and DuPont, and the DuPonts are penniless Pikers next to Gates. If one of the goals in achieving social status is to pass that social status on to your children, at any given moment, the American aristocracy has a vested interest in stopping the engine of economic growth. Nouveau riches often accuse old money liberals of "trying to kick the ladder away", and this is not without some truth, but it is equally true that the current Government's policies also work towards the same goal (for example, fighting wars and destroying wildlife preserves for cheap oil rather then allowing natural market incentives to encourage innovators to come up with substitutes).

After a bit of tinkering, however, it looks like Bush may have finally found a formula for creating social stability that rivals the ancient Egytpians. Rather than burying money in the Valley of the kings, the new plan is to ship it to the Chinese in the form of interest payments on the national debt, and let the Chinese deal with its socially disruptive effects. If the growth in GDP is stripped away year after year, society will be easier to keep in equilibrium. Of course, the Chinese know almost as much about social stability as the Egyptians, and they are keeping the money here, temporarily foiling an otherwise brilliant plan...

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