Monthly Archives: October 2020

REVIEW of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World – Giridharadas

2019, Vintage, 288 pages

Giridharadas defines MarketWorld as “an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo.” He has a beef with MarketWorld because of its inherent contradiction. In Winners Take All, Giridharadas points out the irony of how MarketWorlders donate money to rehab programs after raking in profits selling opioids (Purdue Pharma). Other examples include how MarketWorlders who own companies that target African Americans with more addictive menthol cigarettes give grants to help African Americans eat healthier in Harlem (Loews Corporation). Winners Take All is written as a tell-all exposé revealing the dark side of philanthropy all the way from Andrew Carnegie in the late nineteenth century to The Clinton Global Initiative and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation today.

The problem, according to Giridharadas, is that MarketWorlders become who they are by exploiting the masses. They harness the inequalities in the system to become the power brokers. And then they donate money to the causes that they support. They target a social and economic issue such as poverty, for example. But they never target the inequality itself that lies at the root of poverty. And that, writes, Giridharadas, is the heart of the contradiction: MarketWorlders create the problem, then ease their conscience by writing a cheque. Philanthropy in that guise is a sham. Today’s philanthropists donate, but they preserve the status quo that makes such donations necessary. Without the status quo, they wouldn’t have become rich. The rich have a blindspot when it comes to inequality. To illustrate his point, Giridharadas begins his book Winners Take All with a memorable epigram by Tolstoy:

I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible . . . except by getting off his back.

Solution One: Increase Taxes on the Wealthy

Because the rich will not address inequality, another group has to step up. Giridharadas proposes that the government is well suited for this task. The government, by increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, can fund a greater array of social programs to alleviate inequality.

Although not mentioned by Giridharadas, one such program that would have wide support from both sides of the political spectrum, from 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang to economist Milton Friedman–the architect of Reaganomics–is a universal basic income program. Such a program would simplify government and do away with the stigma of receiving welfare, employment insurance, and many other government programs by doing away with income-tested benefits by providing an automated and perpetual income stream to each citizen irregardless of wealth or need. Universal basic income appeals to the right because it simplifies government, makes government smaller by rolling welfare, employment insurance, disability benefits, etc., into one program. And universal basic income appeals to the left because it satisfies the left’s mandate for government to look after people.

In Canada, many people during the Covid-19 pandemic have come to rely on the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) payments. In the dialogue on what happens when the CERB program ends, some people have suggested instituting a universal basic income program. We will see.

Solution Two: Change Corporate Structures

Corporations exist for one purpose, and that purpose is to maximize shareholder value. “Greed is good,” runs the corporate mantra. If a company tries to place “doing good” ahead of “creating shareholder value,” shareholders will revolt and replace the board of directors. As Harvard business school professor Michael Porter and Mark Kramer wrote in a seminal 2011 essay: “Creating Shared Value,” companies overlook the long-term good by maximizing shareholder value in day to day and quarter to quarter operations. What if a new type of corporation could be created, one where “doing good” was built into its charter along with “maximizing shareholder value?”

After working years in private equity, this is what Andrew Kassoy did: he came up with and enacted a plan to reform corporate structure. He devised a framework to convert existing companies or for startups to structure themselves as “B corps” or “benefit corporations.” B corps would pursue a dual mandate to enrich shareholders and pursue good. Notable B corps today include Kickstarter, King Arthur Flour, Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, and Natura.

The largest B corp is the publicly traded education company Laureate Education with over 150 campuses in ten countries. It started trading on the Nasdaq in February 1, 2017 at $14 per share. Three and a half years later, it’s trading at $13.81, down 1.35%. I compared Laureate Education (LAUR) to other conventional (e.g. standard, not B corp) education companies trading on the Nasdaq. Perdoceo Education (PRDO) was at $9.78 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $11.81, up 20.76%. Lincoln Education (LINC) was at $1.96 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $5.34, up 176%. K12 (LRN) was at $19.53 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $28.93, up 48.13%. Finally, America Public Education (APEI) was at $24.40 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $28.84, up 18.2%. The difference in performance between the B corp Laureate Education and the others must be the inferred cost of “doing good.” The question, as always, is: “Do you invest in Laureate and let their board decide what is good or do you invest in the others and take the profit to use on what you yourself decide is good?” You cannot have your cake and eat it too: either you let Laureate do good at the cost of your return on investment or you invest in the other, more mercenary companies which will enrich you at others’ expense.

Solution Three: Ask the People You are Helping for Feedback

It’s ironic, writes Giridharadas, how the elites change the lives of those who need help without ever consulting them. The elites–who hail from the ivory towers and the gilded halls of private equity–look at social issues as corporate or academic issues: have a meeting, break down the problem into discrete quanta, insert each of these quanta into a PowerPoint presentation, put in into a chart, a graph, and connect the points. But, the greatest problems of our age are human concerns. Instead of turning the oppressed and the downtrodden and the unfortunate into a statistic and foisting your preconceived notion of what is good onto them, why not ask them what they want, ask them if they have ideas of how to better their world? If your goal is to help a village in Mongolia, it might be a good idea to do some ground reconnaissance in addition to your closed-door PowerPoint presentation.

This seems like a good point. Who knows the unintended consequences of bringing Western reforms to the far corners of the globe? I wish Giridharadas had taken his own advice in Winners Take All. He interviews many people and presents many points of view in the book. Unfortunately, all the critiques of capitalism he cites comes from CEOs, former presidents of the United States of America, private equity barons, and TED talks thought leaders. What does the street vendor in Vietnam think of inequality? What about the Mongolian miner working at the Rio Tinto copper mine? We don’t know. This not knowing the view from the ground brings me to my closing point: what are the roots of inequality?

The Roots of Inequality?

If you ask the power brokers in First World countries where poverty comes from, they will tell you that poverty arises from inequality. It started with Adam Smith’s economics. He told the butcher, the brewer, and the baker that self-interest makes the world go around. From Adam Smith to today’s corporations a line can be drawn: Smith’s self-interest has become the corporations “greed is good” mantra. As a result, some became rich and others became poor. The results are disastrous, they will say. And they will quote statistics that are hard to argue against, statistics such as how the top ten percent of people own ninety percent of the world’s wealth. Capitalism is the problem, the power brokers will say. And that is what they do say in Giridharadas’ book. Capitalism allows the few to get rich off the backs of the many.

Now, if you ask the less well to do folks in First World countries why they live in poverty, they might, to judge from movement such as Occupy Wall Street, say something similar. Capitalism favours the rich, who get rich by exploiting the poor. The rich, in turn, through lobbying and donations to political parties, fandangle new ways to avoid paying taxes and nurturing the society that made wealth possible.

Now, if you ask the less well to do folks in Third World countries why they live in poverty, they just might have something different to say than the folks in First World countries. Judging from the vitality, dynamism, and energy in the hustling and bustling markets emerging in Vietnam, China, Poland, and Hungary, less well to do folks in Third World countries may be welcoming capitalism’s market reforms. Their response may be the opposite to that of their counterparts in developed countries.

This is one of the reasons I was hoping that Giridharadas would have asked the people burdened by inequality all over the world for their feedback. I conjecture that First World folks are quick to blame inequality. And I conjecture that Third World folks are less likely to blame inequality. My question, and one that is valid, in my mind is this: is capitalism a First World problem? My gut tells me many folks outside the First World would actually welcome capitalism.  Why this divide?

What is Inequality?

My closing question is this, and I don’t think it’s a question that’s easy to answer. There are so many variables involved, the question is probably best thought of as a thought experiment. My question is this: is inequality an artifact of capitalism, or is inequality something else, a natural, sociological phenomenon?

For a second, let’s turn away from the financial marketplace. Let’s look at book sales, something that has attracted my attention since publishing a book last year. Each year, over three million books are released globally. Most of these three million books will sell a few hundred copies. Some will sell thousands and tens of thousands. But the book market, despite being made up of millions of books, will be dominated by a few best-sellers. Think Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, and Dan Brown. In fact, the top 10% of best-sellers will be responsible for 85% of all books sold. If we extend this slightly, the top 20% of best-sellers will have captured nearly the entire book market, being responsible for 95% of the world’s book sales. Talk about inequality! But does anyone complain about the inequality of the book market? I think most people accept this as the way things are.

Did the distribution of book sales–the top 10% of the sellers own 85% of the market–remind you of another distribution I mentioned earlier in this blog? Earlier, citing Giridharadas, I wrote that the wealthiest 10% own 90% of the world’s wealth. In the markets, it appears a few winners take all. So too, in the book market, it appears a few winners take all. Is there a relation between the book and stock markets?

The Power Law Distribution

Although consumers believe they exercise autonomy in purchasing books, an emergent phenomenon can be seen if you plot book sales on a double logarithmic graph with the x-axis representing the sales rank (with each unit increasing in powers of 10, e.g. 1, 10, 100, 1000, etc.,) and the y-axis representing sales volume (again, with each vertical unit increasing in powers of 10, e.g. 1, 10, 100, 1000, etc.,). When sales rank and sales volume are plotted on a double logarithmic graph, a straight lines forms, descending on roughly a 45-degree angle from the top left to the bottom right of the chart.

Emergent phenomena are some of the coolest things. They are phenomena that appear on large scales, but not on small scales. The flight of starlings or the motions of schooling fish are emergent phenomena: like book buyers, they make individual decisions but the sum of their individual decisions can be modelled. When we see emergent phenomena, we see in social, economic, and natural systems a greater power at work, an invisible hand creating order from chaos.

If you plot on a log-log graph the number of people against their wealth, you will find that the miraculous happens: the data points will form a straight line with a similar slope to the book sales graph. Wealth–or inequality–obeys a power law distribution. What this says is that inequality is a natural phenomenon like all the other distributions that obey a power law. Besides book sales and income, the size of cities, the power of earthquakes, and the frequency academic papers are cited all obey power law distributions.

The power law hints at powerful forces shaping the quantities it measures. To determine the hidden mechanisms guiding the power law’s invisible hand, we have to conjecture. With book sales, for example, we can conjecture that the winning authors take all because of the influence of big publishers, word of mouth, the action of book clubs, the ability of social media to scale sales, the concentrating effect of bestseller lists, and so on.

Something similar can be done for income. We can conjecture, for example, a base point where people start off at similar incomes and wealth. By the action of chance, some will make more than others. Then we can add more variables: the ones with more can invest more, increasing their wealth at a faster proportion than those with less wealth. And perhaps those with minor wealth will choose to invest their money with a handful of winners, increasing the wealth of the handful of winners in much the same way as book buyers congregate towards a few best-selling titles. Then sooner or later, in this thought experiment, you end up with an income distribution that approximates that of the real world. Note that in this thought experiment, capitalism and inequality are not necessary hypotheses. The only necessary hypothesis is that, by random chance some will become wealthier.

In this view, capitalism and the markets are not responsible for inequality. In any given society–socialist, capitalist, communist, and agrarian, from the Bronze Age through to ancient Rome, the Industrial Revolution, up to modern times–the action of chance and the snowballing effect of social networks will create a winner take all distribution in wealth. You can redistribute the wealth through revolution or taxation, but you only reset the system for a duration: inequality, like the force of earthquakes and the size of cities, is a natural law built into the structure of society, any society. The moment the system is reformed, it starts working itself back into a critical state in a new guise.

The elites ascribe their position and wealth to superior intelligence and work ethic. The poor ascribe their position to the erosive power of capitalism and inequality. They are both fooled by randomness. If we can observe, from ancient to modern times, the distribution of income following a power law, then inequality is nature’s will. And how do you rebel against natural law? In ancient Rome, the Gracchi thought they had the answers. In revolutionary France, Robespierre thought he had the answers. Today, Thomas Piketty proposes his answers. But what is the answer? The answer, Giridharadas, is blowing in the wind.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

My Experience Workshopping and Directing Nicholas Dunn’s THE VALUE

Poster for Nicholas Dunn's THE VALUE, courtesy of Emily Armstrong at Starling Memory Designs

Poster for Nicholas Dunn’s THE VALUE, courtesy of Emily Armstrong at Starling Memory Designs

Clockwise from top: Leslie Appleton, Edwin Wong, Wayne Yercha, Vishesh Abeyratne, Nicholas Dunn, Alissa Grams, Anthony Gaskins

Clockwise from top: Leslie Appleton, Edwin Wong, Wayne Yercha, Vishesh Abeyratne, Nicholas Dunn, Alissa Grams, Anthony Gaskins

The more you read, the more ideas come to you. In the preparations leading up to the workshop and performance of Nicholas Dunn’s The Value, winner of the 2nd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition, I’ve been reading. Mark Bly’s book New Dramaturgies: Strategies and Exercises for 21st Century Playwriting inspired me to run the workshop around a series of questions. I would divide the play into thematic units and pose questions for the actors to explore. The questions would be mine; the answers would be theirs. You can see below how I’ve divided The Value into sections for the creative team to explore.

A concern, however, lingered: what if their answers diverged from my own ideas about the play? While reading George Sapio’s book: Workshopping the New Play: A Guide for Playwrights, Directors, and Dramaturgs the answer appeared. At the end of the book, Sapio  writes:

Bear in mind that the closer the play gets to opening night, the more redundant the director becomes, as well. I may catch hell for saying so, but it’s true. In the beginning, the actors follow the director’s ideas. They work with them, adjust to them, fine-tune them, and then make them their own. The director has the overall vision of the play and was chosen to direct because of that vision.

What a brilliant observation. Although it’s self-evident that the director has the overall vision of the play, Sapio’s words woke me up. I could start the workshop by communicating my vision of the play. This would establish a baseline around which we would explore The Value. My series of questions could be designed to tie back into my overarching vision of the play. By coming up with answers together with the actors may produce a more convincing reading. After all, it is the actors and not the director who will be presenting the dramatic vision to the audience. If the actors are themselves invested in the dramatic vision, they have skin in the game. Skin in the game, it’s all about having skin in the game.

That seemed to me to be a good start. If anyone is interested, here are my notes from the workshop. Enjoy!

My Vision of Nicholas Dunn’s The Value

Have you looked up the German expressionist painter E. L. Kirchner? He’s a real guy. 1880-1938. But Kirchner’s painting in the play, Summum bonum, is unattested. Summum bonum is Latin for “the highest good.” Philosophers from Cicero to Augustine and Kant have wrestled with the idea. The name of the play is called The Value and the dramatic fulcrum of the play is that the characters all try to value Kirchner’s painting. In other words, Dunn has them all trying to value “the highest good.” Brilliant. Through a crime drama—and a fun crime drama—Dunn explores a hard-core philosophical idea, namely the price that the highest good exacts on you. This exploration is the play’s kernel. How much is the highest good worth, in both dollar terms and human terms?

Through laborious training and sacrifice, Kirchner pays the price to create the painting. But notice that he doesn’t assign a price to it. Instead, he gifts it to McEvoy’s grandmother. The highest good changes hands the first time as a part of a gift exchange. We do not know what McEvoy’s grandmother gave in exchange for the painting, nor does it matter. It is enough to know that she did not give in exchange greenback dollars.

In Ian I see a clever, talented, and driven individual who didn’t get the opportunities most people enjoy. Society has crushed him down and spat him out. He’s been at the bottom too long. He’s willing to lay everything on the line to climb the food chain. And that means turning everything into cold, hard cash: he capitalizes on his relationship with Zoey, he capitalizes on this mysterious opportunity, he has a conscience, and for a second thinks about returning McEvoy’s heirloom back to its rightful owner, but he sells that out too. 

I think the play asks: “What if he gets millions? Will he have enough?” Or, once he climbs the food chain and gets his millions, will he then start feeling the poverty of a single-digit millionaire in the company of double- and triple-digit millionaires? He’s got the Midas touch.

In McEvoy I see a man haunted by the image of the highest good. He has insight into the value of art. He disagrees with Ian, who is quick to put a dollar figure onto the highest good. He understands the labours of the artist and the difficulty of valuing the aesthetic realm. With McEvoy, however, I think the play asks: “Is that a legitimate use of the highest good to keep it locked away?” Because that’s what McEvoy’s going to do. He can’t ever hang the painting. He can’t ever show it, or even let anyone know that he has it. What’s the value of the highest good if one person hoards it, locks it away in a cupboard?

In Zoey, I see a woman who’s willing to sell the highest good to create her own highest good. Her highest good is family. Whereas McEvoy looks at the highest good as something to possess and Ian looks at the highest good as something that can be converted into greenback dollars, Zoey understands that the value in the highest good is that others will pay money for it, and this money, in turn, can bring family back together. With Zoey, the play asks: “Can one give away the highest good to achieve a human good?”

So what’s my vision of the play? I think Ian, McEvoy, and Zoey each champion a certain truth about human value. I may have a position on who I like. And Dunn probably does as well. But Dunn doesn’t tell you what’s best. He invites you to consider these different standpoints on value. And that’s what makes this play extraordinary. A family person would understand Zoey’s position. An art lover would understand McEvoy’s position. And someone down-and-out for too long would see Ian’s point of view. My vision of the play is that no one’s right or wrong. They all take gambles and go all-in to get their heart’s desire. Their gambles are all reasonable, what someone in their position would do. But, just like in life, the unexpected happens. The crappy painting happens to be valued at $24 million. What were the odds? The unexpected throws down the best-laid plans of mice and men. Let’s see if we can capture this vision from page to stage.

Sections and Questions (divisions are my own)

1.1.1 IAN ALONE pgs. 1-3

Ian: “This is what happens…” Ian speaks similar lines on pg. 28, the flashback on p.64 and his closing lines. What’s going through his mind? Though he’s oppressed, beaten down, he feels a sense of destiny, like he was meant for something big. Born to lose but live to win. When he speaks these lines, he can sense his destiny unfolding. He speaks these lines with the fiery energy of destiny. Nothing will stop him. Nothing can get in his way. He is a character fascinated with himself. Can be played many ways. He reminds me of Shakespeare’s Richard III in his charisma.

1.1.2 THIS IS AN ART HEIST! pgs. 4-8

Zoey: “We pulled it off. Like, a heist! Like the guy in the, um, the Thomas Crowne affair.” Misdirection. In the “shitty newer one (Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo),” the characters overcome monetary issues to reunite. Brosnan could run, but he doesn’t: “Suppose I did run, then what would you have? Not the painting, not the $5 million, and not me.”  Moral of the story: Ian isn’t a billionaire playboy like Thomas Crown. This is a difference between theatre and the silver screen. Pg. 6, Victor’s first drink.

1.1.3 SO, WHAT’S IT WORTH? pgs. 8-12

Zoey: “Even a pawn shop has security—” Ian: “Yeah, probably better security than most museums. You’d be surprised.” How does Ian know so much about security? Ian: “Don’t use your phone.” A symptom of Ian’s fierce independence. He doesn’t want to be connected by phone. He doesn’t want to be connected by internet. He doesn’t want to be connected to the people who love him. He ran away to be by himself. Why is he so individualistic? Call this the Ian “fiercely individualistic motif.” 

1.1.4 IAN AND ZOEY pgs. 13-15

Zoey: “What, is this some kind of way of getting back at me?” This comment and back rubs and knowing looks. Something has happened between Zoey and Ian in the past, but what?

1.1.5 IT LOOKS LIKE A FIVE-YEAR-OLD’S FINGER PAINTING! pgs. 16-20

Victor sees mountains, deer, trees, and a cougar whereas the others see globs of colour. Is Victor seeing this for real? Ian: “We’re climbing the food chain. Tonight.” What does Ian mean when he says “climb the food chain?” Insatiable appetite? They discuss perceived value of painting. Pg.16, Victor’s second drink. 

1.1.6 BROTHER AND SISTER ALONE pgs. 20-25

Zoey: “He found him though. Put the guy’s face through a window.” Ian does the right thing and pursues vigilante justice in the case Zoey talks about. But he doesn’t do the right thing when McEvoy asks him to return the painting to the rightful owner. Why? Pg. 21, Zoey’s first drink.

1.1.7 ZOEY AND IAN ALONG pgs. 26-34

Ian: “This is what happens.” Then catches Zoey looking at him, looking at him at his moment of destiny. Zoey’s wager: I did this to be with you, for family. Ian’s declaration that “I left for me.” Recalls the Ian independence motif. Pg. 33, Zoey’s second drink. Pg. 34, Victor’s third drink.

1.1.8 MCEVOY CALLS AT DAWN! pgs. 34-35

Zoey: “Everyone has their issues.” What are Victor’s issues? Compare this play to Ibsen’s Ghosts or O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night. In those two plays the playwright gives us the prehistory. But in this play, their prehistory is shrouded. Is there a dramatic advantage of shrouding the past? Pg. 35, Zoey’s third drink and Ian’s first drink.

1.1.9 LET’S TALK ABOUT RELATIVE VALUE! pgs. 36-42

Ian: “Right, it’s a chance! An opportunity. They’re rare, and sudden, and yeah, usually a gamble. But that’s how we get ahead. You afraid?” What do each of the characters wager and why?

1.1.10 MCEVOY ARRIVES! pgs. 43-50

Has anyone ever been so fascinated by something or someone as much as McEvoy with the painting? Think of Gollum and “my precious” from Lord of the Rings. Pg. 44, Zoey’s fourth drink: she’s ahead of Victor and Ian now! Divergences between the text and reality. The text points to Victor as the hard drinker. But in reality, Zoey drinks harder than Victor.

1.1.11 IT’S A SUMMUM BONUM BY E.L. KIRCHNER! pgs. 51-53

What’s the significance of the name, which translates to “the highest good?” How do we incorporate the irony of negotiating over the highest good into the action? Note how the highest good was the highest evil to the Nazis: like the expressionist art form of jazz, it was “degenerate art,” had to be destroyed.

1.1.12 LET’S TALK MONEY pgs. 54-59

Stage direction: “Victor dives to the floor and begins to gather the money stacks.” How do you picture this stage direction? Desperation, savagery, animal-like, or? Notice Victor’s affinity with the animal realm: he see coyotes in the painting, he talks about Lucky, his childhood dog, later, Ian refers to him as a runt. Irony of pricing out the highest good as though the highest good could be understood in terms of money. It can only be understood in terms of sacrifice, which is what all the characters do: Kirchner sacrificed himself to make it, Ian sacrifices Zoey to get the most value for it, McEvoy sacrifices his integrity to get it back… McEvoy: “I thought… thought you were something different.” Ian is a chameleon. What did McEvoy think Ian was, exactly?

1.1.13 WHAT?!? IT’S WORTH $24 MILLION? pgs. 60-61

The first act ends swinging on the dramatic fulcrum of the play: the unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event.

2.1.1 FLASHBACK pg. 62

Ian: “…And we’ll just…see what happens.” Similar to opening lines. Is this spoken with a sense of destiny, when he expects the rays of the Fates too converge on that one moment?

2.1.2 I’M FUCKED! pgs. 63-67

Victor: “Whenever people are obsessed with something and something bad happens they always say: ‘That’s like Hitler’, or ‘it’s like the Nazis’ … These cartel assholes are like Nazis. About their money. They’re gonna murder me like the Nazis.” The irony of selling the highest good, the Summum Bonum portrait, to pay off the lowest of the low, the cartel assholes who are “like the Nazis.” The highest good, through the market process, is converted into the sustenance of the devil.

2.1.3 YOU REMEMBER LUCKY? pgs. 67-69

Does Victor identify with Lucky, looking at himself like a chained up dog? He also sees a coyote in the Kirchner. Affinity with animal world, he himself is savage, see 1.1.12.

2.1.4 PICK UP THE PHONE! pgs. 69-71

Zoey: “Wait, you don’t think there’s any chance that…” Victor: “What?” Zoey: “No. There’s no way.” Victor: “What?” What’s going through Zoey’s mind here?

2.1.5 NO SALE pgs. 71-73

Ian: “We caught a break! We caught that bit of fate, that kind of lucky chance that you can’t buy or, or work your way into. We caught it by accident. We have to use it!” This line ties into Ian’s opening and closing lines (“This is what happens”), full of a sense of destiny as a recompense for all he has suffered.

2.1.6 ZOEY’S REBUKE pgs. 74-75

Zoey: “This is an opportunity. To fix things. To survive together. To maybe get to a place where having something is just as good, just as fulfilling as wanting it … I risked everything for you. Because we are kin … Well? what will you do?” Ian: “I. Can’t. Settle.” These lines break my heart. Why can’t Ian settle? Does it tie back to the opening epigram by cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins: “Modern capitalist societies, however richly endowed, dedicate themselves to the proposition of scarcity”? That is to say, Ian cannot have, he can only want?

2.1.7 CAN A $24 MILLION PAINTING BE WORTH $60,000? pgs. 76-78

Was it fair for McEvoy to offer $60,000 for a $24 million masterpiece?

2.1.8 IT WAS GRANDMA’S PAINTING pgs. 78-79

Why did Kirchner give this to McEvoy’s grandmother? This painting was originally a gift. Does its transition from a gift (priceless) into a commodity (worth x dollars) change the nature of the painting? Is it more “mercenary” now? Is there a secret McEvoy has kept to himself?—he seems intimately aware of the painting’s history. McEvoy: “It [Summum Bonum] is humanity at its basest and its most glorious. It is Kirchner.” Why does McEvoy say that the painting is also humanity at its basest? Because of the painting’s association with the Third Reich?

2.1.9 APPEAL TO IAN’S SENSE OF JUSTICE pg. 80

How close is Ian to capitulating? Remember that in the case of Derek and the orphans, he had done the right thing, and at considerable expense to himself.

2.1.10 GIFTS THAT ARE WORTH EVERYTHING AND NOTHING pgs. 81-82

McEvoy: “You can’t auction it, you can’t advertise that you have it. You don’t know who to look for to sell it illegally. It is now only worth what someone like me can give and what people like you can find.” McEvoy, Zoey, and Victor all think Ian should close the deal at $60k. Is Ian’s case that he can get more than $60k a strong one?

2.1.11 GOODBYE MCEVOY pgs. 83-85

Ian: “You are what people see, what people think you are worth.” McEvoy: “You are what you do! What you do. Nothing more.” Ian talks of other people evaluating an actor’s actions. McEvoy talks of the actor reflecting on his own actions. Ian’s point recalls the behaviorist psychologists—led by BF Skinner—who thought the brain was a black box: what’s inside doesn’t matter. It’s a functional view of action. It’s how you appear to others that counts. McEvoy’s point recalls the state of the mind as it reflects on itself. It’s an expressionist view of the mind. Expressionism, after all, attempts to communicate the subjective state of the mind to an outside viewer.

2.1.12 FIGHT! pgs. 86-93

Zoey: “Just give it to them, Ian, Because it doesn’t matter. With a shit-load of money or none, you’re the same. You’re nothing. You’re no one.” Would Ian be nothing were he to get his millions? Say his plan works and, down the road, he gives Zoey and Victor their share. What then?

2.1.13 pgs. 94-95 THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS

His face becomes stern, confident, almost welcoming. His eyes alight, determined. He drinks in his new reflection. Ian: “This is what happens.” This ties in the beginning, middle, and end of the play with a sense of fate or destiny.

Special Bonus: Opening Comments Prior to the Show

Hi everyone, I’m Edwin Wong, thanks for joining us.

The second annual Risk Theatre Tragedy Competition is upon us! Today we present the winning play, Nick Dunn’s The Value. Risk theatre is a theory of tragedy I developed. I wrote a book on it. It’s like Aristotle’s Poetics, except, instead of pity and fear—which is so fifth century—risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action because risk is one bad ass 21st century idea. This competition promotes a new brand of tragedy, one where low-probability, high-consequence events thrill audiences, one where the characters pay the price when they are struck down by the highly improbable. When you see the play, think on your own life, and how you interact with the improbable.

Nick Dunn’s The Value, dramatizes risk and the impact of the improbable. There’s nothing like it that explores value in art—absolute value, perceived value, relative value, and intrinsic value—in such a sustained attack. An all-star cast will be performing the play. Anthony Gaskins plays Ian. Leslie Appleton plays Zoey, Vishesh Abeyratne plays Victor, Wayne Yercha plays McEvoy, and Ali Grams narrates. There’s so much action we have no time for intermissions. Running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes. The show is co-produced by Theatre Carpe Diem—thank you Kara and Anton—and streamed to you by The Canadian Play Thing—thank you Janet! This is Zoom, glitches are going to happen. Dropouts are going to happen. And we’re going to power on through because risk theatre is theatre in love with risk. Stay with us after the show for an audience talkback.

Nick, so glad you participated in the competition and congratulations on taking the $9000 prize. Did you want to say a few words about the play before we dive in?

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What a fireworks way to end year two of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. Onwards into year three!

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Review of THE GIFT: HOW THE CREATIVE SPIRIT TRANSFORMS THE WORLD – Lewis Hyde

Vintage, 2019 3rd edition (1983 original), 474 pages

In its Library of Congress classification, Hyde’s The Gift is filed under the heading of “economic anthropology.” I can see why it’s an economics book, but perhaps for a different reason than you think. Its structure reminds me of Bloomberg finance articles. Have you noticed how formulaic finance articles are? They begin with some eye-catching headline: “Bob Big Shot Banker Sees Gold Surging to $2500” or something equally dramatic. Next come the supporting arguments: uncertainty in the upcoming election is driving up the price of gold, geopolitical tension is driving up the price of gold, and so on. Then the article ends by hedging its own arguments: “But all bets are off if the good guy wins the election” or “But all bets are off if the peace settlement is negotiated in time.” Does this sort of structure seem familiar?

Like Bloomberg articles, The Gift begins with an enticing eye-catching headline: “Capitalism Destroys Art: Hyde and Artists Call for a Return of the Gift Economy.” The arguments follow, fast and furious. Art is a gift. To assign a market value to a gift destroys the gift. For this reason, artists languish under capitalism. Gift economies, however, increase the abundance of art. Look to the tribes of the South Sea Islands which circulated necklaces and armshells. Look to the potlatch ceremonies of indigenous North American populations who exchanged ornate copper plaques. Look to the embodied wisdom in folk tales that say: “To possess is to give.” And, for evidence of the fecundity of art in gift rather than market economies, look to the poems and lives of two American poets, Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound. Then, in a surprise move, Hyde concludes by saying that perhaps all bets are off: art and capitalism can coexist.

Finance articles make me smile. They’re articles which seem to say something but say nothing. By hedging their bets, the writer tries to have it both ways: heads I win (“I told you this would happen”) and tails I win as well (“I told you this might not happen”). The writer has no skin in the game: he’s already covering his tracks in case he’s wrong. For the same reason Hyde’s The Gift arouses my suspicions. He talks of the evils and excesses of the market economy, touts the wholesomeness of the gift economy, and ends by saying that although capitalism destroys art, capitalism is here to stay.

If his thesis, as the conclusion of the book seems to say, is incorrect and requires further examination, then what’s in it for the modern day artist?—the book makes it clear that there can be no returning to the widespread gift economies of old. Society is just too big now. Why should the artist read this book? In the foreword, Margaret Atwood writes: “If you want to write, paint, sing, compose, act or make films, read The Gift.” But, having read the book, I am thinking that, if I wanted to write, paint, sing, compose, act, or make films, the last book I’d want to read would be The Gift. The world it paints for the arts is dismal: art is a gift that the artist will never be paid full value for.

When I picked up The Gift, I was hoping for some kind of revelation into value in art and in life. The reviews and accolades the book received were of the highest order. I was hoping for something life-changing, something like Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’ Your Money or Your Life, a book I read twelve years ago which changed the way I look at labour. The Gift, I feel, fails to live up to its hype.

Art is a Gift

Hyde’s fundamental position is that art is a gift. It’s inspiration. We don’t will art to happen, it just happens. The ancients allegorized this inspiration into the image of the Muses who would visit the artist to infuse the artist with the divine vision. In more modern times, when Jack Kerouac advises artists to be “submissive to everything,” he’s telling them to think of themselves as a conduit for inspiration, rather than as the source of the inspiration itself. Because art is a gift and not a commodity, capitalism can’t quite put the correct value on art. And when it tries to value art, it destroys art in the same way as a gift is destroyed when one starts to calculate its value in dollars and cents. Or so Hyde argues.

Three objections to the “capitalism can’t value gifts” hypothesis come to mind. First: is art a gift? Second: if art is a gift, then are not many things other than art also gifts? Third: doesn’t the market circulate art further than the gift economy could?

It’s a romantic notion to think of the artist as a Byronic figure communing with nature in some distant cave. I get that. But is that the case? For a long time, the artist was thought of as a tradesperson, and looked upon the same way as we look at electricians, plumbers, and carpenters today. Except these artist tradespeople wouldn’t build houses. They would build songs to be sung at the liturgy. Think of JS Bach or Handel, who were employed to churn out new compositions for the faithful year in and year out. Other artists were expected to craft poems to recite at state festivals. Think of Sophocles and Aeschylus, poets who wrote plays year in and year out for the festival of the Greater Dionysia.

Is the production of art a gift created by a heroic Byronic artist tuning into the world spirit or is the production of art a trade? These days—as evidenced by Hyde’s position—art is pure inspiration, something that breaks all the rules like Jimi Hendrix’ guitar playing. It comes to you from the heavens. But, in the past, the creation of music was more like a trade. Young composers would spend years imitating the old masters in music guilds (the historical equivalent to the trade unions producing carpenters today) before creating something in their own style. Even in folk music up to the 1950s, you wouldn’t be expected to write new songs: if you were a folk singer, you were a tradesperson, working in the tradition, putting your spin on the songs passed down to you.

Wouldn’t artists be better served to think of themselves as tradespersons? It’s a more down to earth way of looking at yourself than seeing yourself as a lightning rod for divine inspiration. And this way, you can get paid some kind of standard market rate. Hyde has a point when he says it’s hard for Byronic hero type artists to be paid fairly: how much should you charge to be the lightning rod for divine inspiration? Baroque composers such as Telemann and Heinichen were considered to be tradespersons. It wasn’t until Beethoven and later that the cult of the divinely inspired artist arose. Maybe we should return to Baroque sensibilities where art is not so much a gift, but a trade.

Hyde, however, addresses this point. He posits that today there is low art and high art. By low art he means romance novels and perspective drawings used to illustrate architectural spaces. In some cases, artists may partake of both spheres, as in the case of the painter Edward Hopper, who would paint soulful night-scenes of American cities one day and produce paintings for magazines such as Hotel Management the next. Low art is art by the numbers, is machine art, is expendable art, is art that will be forgotten. High art, on the other hand, has soul and, like scientific discoveries and the other monuments of the creative spirit, will endure for all time.

I object to this sort of split between low and high art. This sort of distinction smacks of elitism, seems hoity-toity. If, say, romance novel such as Nora Roberts can sell millions of copies over and again, then, there is something of the creative spark in her artistry. Her work moves people. It is art. This point has been a matter of contention in my book club, of all places, for a long time. I’ve been trying to get us to read a romance novel. The response is: “Romance novels are beneath us.” To which I respond: “You know how hard it is just to sell a few hundred copies of a book? These writers are selling hundreds of thousands of copies. In a hundred years, I bet there will be university courses on the 21st century romance novel and people in the future will lament how underrated the best romance writers were. Some romance novels will even become classics.” Some people believe this may happen. Some don’t. The people who don’t believe it could happen also didn’t believe the Smithsonian Museum would stage a Bob Ross painting exhibition. Bob Ross is now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. If you’re not familiar, Bob Ross is the TV painter who painted “happy trees,” “almighty mountains,” and “fluffy clouds,” the painter whose works were considered crass, banal, and derided as commercialized kitsch by the serious artists of the time.

If you’re looking for more examples of low art which makes high art blush, consider Andy Warhol’s Pop Art or Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Beethoven spent four years at the end of his life composing 33 variations around Diabelli’s banal and run-of-the-mill waltz. In both Warhol and Beethoven’s cases, they created art that appealed to mass sensibilities to make a few bucks. The legend surrounding the variations is that Beethoven refused to work with Diabelli’s Schusterfleck or “cobbler’s patch” theme until he found out how much Diabelli was paying. In both Warhol and Beethoven’s cases, the commercialization of their gift does not seem to have impaired the soul or their art. Warhol is considered one of the 20th century’s preeminent artists and The Diabelli Variations one of the pieces the pieces amongst in the concert repertoire.

For a moment, let’s say with Hyde that art is a gift. What is more, let’s also say with Hyde that gifts are better off circulating in the gift rather than the market economy. Then the real question becomes: is art the only gift?  Let’s say there’s a gardener. She just has a knack growing plants. Her talent is a gift just as much as the painter’s or poet’s art is a gift. Should the gardener also circulate the fruits of her labours outside the market economy? Or let’s say there’s a dog or horse whisperer. He just has a knack with animals. His talent is a gift as well. People are dumbfounded at how he understand animals and animals him. Or let’s say there’s an athlete. She can skate and shoot the puck better than anyone else. She’s gifted. Now consider this: Hyde would have zero issues with hockey players, veterinarians, and farmers partaking in the market economy. Athletes, doctors, and farmers also have a gift. Why does Hyde only have an issue with artists partaking in the market economy? Is it because, at bottom, he feels that the market economy pays artists too little? I’m thinking that may be the real reason. Note that his two case studies of poets in the second section of the book are both poets that lived and died in penury: Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound.

Either / Or, Leonard Cohen, and David Bowie

In a typical either / or proposition that characterizes his book, Hyde writes:

But the artist who sells his own creations must develop a more subjective feel for the two economies and his own rituals for both keeping them apart and bringing them together. He must, on the one hand, be able to disengage from the work and think of it as a commodity. He must be able to reckon its value in terms of current fashions, know what the market will bear, demand fair value, and part with the work when someone pays the price. And he must, on the other hand, be able to forget all that and turn to serve his gifts on their own terms. If he cannot do the former, he cannot hope to see his art, and if he cannot do the latter, he may have no art to sell, or only a commercial art, work that has been created in response to the demands of the market, not in response to the demands of the gift.

Either the artist uses his gift or the artist commercializes his gift. If he uses his gift, he may not have anything to sell. If he commercializes his gift, he loses the soul of art. Grim indeed. But what of the artist who realizes he can adapt his gift to the market economy? That was the story of poet Leonard Cohen. He realized his gift was poetry. And he also realized he couldn’t make money selling his poetry. Not that he was unhappy selling his inspiration, there just weren’t buyers. But he realized if he set his poetry to song, he could make a living as a singer-songwriter. He adapted. Hyde’s artist is an idealist, all or none. The all-or-none artist can’t adapt, and become a bitter shell: case in point is Ezra Pound. Why not adapt your gift like Leonard Cohen? Most people would say the commercialization of his art in no way detracts from the soul of beauty.

David Bowie was another artist who found a way in capitalism. He securitized his art by inventing and issuing “Bowie bonds.” Investors would purchase bonds in $1000 denominations from Bowie. The bonds were backed by his music catalog. The royalties from his music catalog would pay investors 7.9% each year over ten years. The investors bought the rights to his royalties for a decade. At the end of the decade, Bowie would return the investors’ principal, and the rights to the catalog went back to Bowie. The investors would get a 7.9% income stream, and a chance to own the man who sold the world. Bowie would get $55 million up front, the amount of money investors poured into his Bowie bond offering. Does anyone think the lesser of Bowie’s music for having turned his gift into a commodity? Did this exchange somehow alter how people enjoyed his music?

Would Bowie and Cohen have been greater artists if they had avoided contaminating their gift with market forces? Would they have greater respect if they had lived in penury like Whitman and Pound? Gift exchange, to be sure, in potlatch ceremonies and the South Sea islands, is a splendid ceremony. In the past, if you had tried to sell Bowie bonds to fellow tribe members, you’d surely be run out. But today, we live in a market economy. If you try today to live within the marginal gift economy, you’ll be run out of society like Whitman and Pound. The artist would do well to live in and change with modern times. To me, Hyde’s position is idealistic and seeks a return to what is not there anymore.

Credibility

It’s more enjoyable to read a book when you feel that the author is an expert in whom you can believe. In a chapter called “The Bond,” Hyde argues that materialists treat life like a commodity. He cites a car company that knew of a safety defect but neglected to implement it due to the cost. Here’s the passage:

In a classic example both of cost-benefit analysis and of the confusion between worth and value, the Ford Motor Company had to decide if it should add an inexpensive safety device to its Pinto cars and trucks … In the end, however, Ford decided that benefits did not justify costs, and no safety feature was added to the vehicle. According to Mark Dowie, between 1971, when the Pinto was introduced, and 1977, when the magazine Mother Jones printed Dowie’s analysis of the case, at least five hundred people burned to death in Pinto crashes.

Reading this passage triggered my spider-sense. Elsewhere, Hyde cites sources in detail. No endnote here. And no mention of Dowie in the bibliography. Then there’s the hedge: “According to Mark Dowie.” Elsewhere in the book, people “declare,” “say,” or “explain” the facts. “According to” belies the author’s confidence. And then the final trigger was the qualification of the number of burning deaths as “at least five hundred people burned to death.” Either you are burned to death or not. I expected a whole number, not an indeterminate “at least five hundred.” If that many people perished, I found it amazing that Ford could continue to sell the car for so many years. I decided to do a quick Google search.

The results shook my belief in Hyde. According to the Wikipedia article—which I regard as a neutral source (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Pinto)—the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that “27 deaths were found to have occurred between 1970 and mid-1977 in rear-impact crashes that resulted in fire.” That’s a big difference: 27 versus “at least 500” deaths. The Wikipedia article also discusses the legacy of Dowie’s analysis, the findings of which have been debunked in peer-reviewed law journals.

The Gift is now in its 3rd edition, copyright date 2019. Hyde’s gone through and revised the text. But it’s a shame that he didn’t include a footnote placing an asterisk next to Dowie’s claims. He could have at least mentioned that Dowie’s claims are open to question. Because there isn’t a note, I wonder how often Hyde’s facts are open to interpretation elsewhere in the book.

If You Talk about Money Supply, Please Include a Discussion on Inflation

Hyde asserts that the ideal loan which draws together people in the gift society is the interest-free loan:

In a society that recognizes the right to make a reasonable profit on capital, the equity rate is called the prime rate. Above the prime we have rates for speculators and suspicious strangers. Higher still, we have modern usury, loan sharking, theft by debenture. And below the prime we find various “friendship rates,” which fall to different levels for different degrees of friendship, until we return to the interest-free loan, the pure gift case.

The best loan, one that reinforces the human bonds in Hyde’s ideal gift society, is the interest free loan. By giving the gift of not charging interest, the relationship between creditor and debtor becomes equable. But is this true?

The Gift came out originally in 1983. In the 1980s, inflation in the US averaged 5.82% each year. In the decade prior, inflation averaged 7.25%. Einstein once said that “compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it; he who doesn’t, pays it.” In Hyde’s gift economy, debtors understand inflation—which compounds like compound interest—and creditors have no idea. Creditors, by not charging interest, give their wealth to debtors.

If a creditor in lends $1000 dollars on January 1, 1980 and receives back $1000 dollars on December 1, 1989, he will have lost close to half his money. Because of 5.82% inflation in the 1980s, $1000 in 1989 will only buy you what you could have brought with $567.97 in 1980. This is because of inflation: the $2 loaf of bread in 1980 will cost $3.52 in 1989. The creditor, if he wants to preserve his spending power in the face of inflation, would have to ask the debtor to pay back in 1989 not $1000, but $1760.67. But this, in Hyde’s book, is called usury, frowned upon in the gift society. I would have liked to see Hyde tackle the issue of inflation in his chapter on usury. It’s not as easy as saying: interest free loans preserve relationships. They don’t. Interest free loans ruin the creditor.

Later on in the chapter “Ezra Pound and the Fate of Vegetable Money” a similar issue arises: inflation should be a crucial element of the discussion. But it’s nowhere to be found. “Vegetable money” was Pound’s term for a perishable currency. Pound thought that a perishable currency would encourage the circulation, rather than the hoarding of money. You lose money by having money. Pound advocated German economist Silvio Gesell’s stamp scrip which would lose one percent each month. While inflation in the 1980s wasn’t as drastic—5.82% each year—it achieves the same result: by holding money, you lose money. I was looking forward to a discussion on inflation and Pound’s perishable currency. But inflation is nowhere to be seen. Inflation was the monetary phenomenon of the 1980s. That makes it even more surprising there is not one mention of inflation anywhere in the book.

Walt Whitman

The second half of the book contains two case studies in the gift society. The first looks at poet Walt Whitman. He gave himself to nursing soldiers back to health, teaching illiterate and rude young men to read and write, and writing poetry. These were his gifts to the world. But what did the world give back? Hyde ends the chapter on an enigmatic note. Whitman alone, unloved, and unappreciated finds solace in nature. Whitman believed in the gift society. But what did society give back to him?

Ezra Pound

In exploring the roots of Pound’s antisemitism, Hyde constructs a new portrait of the Jew as a modern incarnation of Hermes, at once the protector of thieves, god of commerce, messenger of the gods, and lord of roads. Was such a new portrait that plays on old caricatures really necessary? But let us suppose that, to explore Pound’s antisemitism, it was somehow necessary and justified. Then the next question: was is also necessary to reproduce Arthur Rackham’s illustration: “The Jew of Hawthorn Hedge” in the chapter on Pound? The illustration also plays on caricatures of Jewishness.

Closing Thoughts

In The Gift, Hyde tells the story of the gift societies of the old day, the societies where artists were cherished and received gifts in turn for sharing their gift of art. These gift societies gave way to market societies, gave way to capitalism, gave way to modern exchanges which no longer valued art and artists. In The Gift, Hyde has given a gift to all those disenfranchised with modernity: his gift is an idealized vision of an abundant past. I found this book to be imbalanced in its criticism of the market economy and its praise for the gift society. Remember, Bronze Age Greece was also a gift society. That didn’t prevent the Achaeans and the Trojans from ravaging their cultures and artists by waging the ruinous Trojan War. The funny thing, however, is that by destroying their cultures, they gave the singers of the future a song to sing for the ages. Perhaps the extinction of the artists—the best of the homo sapiens—under the market economy today will inspire a new epic song, one as big as The Iliad, the poem of force.

In today’s age, Hyde thinks that the artists cannot. I think that they can. And therein lies a quarrel. Hyde’s question, however, remains: why do so many artists fail to find recognition today? I think the answer is that in the old day, the village or the tribe would nominate one person to be the artist, one person to be the seer, and so many people to be farmers, hunters, and gatherers. In short, one did not choose a vocation, or at least did not choose in the same way as we think of it. At a young age, one shows strength: the tribe trains this person for the military life. Another person shows the spark of art: the tribe trains this person for the artistic life. In this way, they look after one another in a mutual compact. Today, however, we ourselves choose to be an artist or a politician or a cobbler. We have this freedom of choice. And we pay for this incredible freedom by sometimes being rejected. I think that, had Walt Whitman or Ezra Pound been born in an earlier age into a gift society, and they had spoken out against the values of the tribe and lived outside the tribal society, they would not have fared much different than they did in the market society in which they actually lived. Artists today fail to find recognition because they have taken risks to become an artist. Some will fail so that others can succeed. That is freedom’s price.

Don’t forget me. I am Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.