Published on Online Journal, by Aetius Romulous, November 13, 2009.
… The winners write history, and law.
The ancient trade of Fish Monger is a simple case in point. Fish, and other bounty of the sea, lakes, and streams, is an essential foodstuff powerful with calories and proteins. Fish, along with loaves, were the classic staples of the burgeoning human food chain. An early problem was, however, that fishing was capital intensive. You needed a boat, a net, and a sea stocked with fish. Trading these things with folks without them for the grains and meats your sea didn’t provide gave rise to the fish trader, who transferred the produce from one geography to the other. Better diets all around gave rise to larger populations, each one of whom represented additional demand for fish and loaves each way. Traders made out like bandits, as did all members of the process of producing and investing for return – including bandits.
In Japan, the large capital costs involved in feeding an island nation naturally developed into conglomerated groups of fishermen to do the fishing, mongers to handle the transactions, bankers to raise the money, private “security” to protect the investment, and on top of it all, a CEO who became a de facto member of the national ruling class. These family owned businesses set the rules that allowed themselves to develop unfettered, becoming the fabric of culture and society itself by the time of the Meji Restoration of the 19th century, as “Zaibatsu.”
With the defeat of Japan at the end of the Second World War, these Zaibatsu were easily transferred into law and put to work rebuilding Japan on the American model. Mitsubishi (remember them?) became stupid wealthy as one of the big four, ancient “Keiretsu” organizations controlling, among other things, the business of feeding the people fish. The Industrial Revolution visited Japan as it did Europe, and the Mitsubishi Keiretsu harnessed the emerging technology better than most, that technology aiding and abetting the chemistry of ROI just as it would everywhere else. More people, more demand, more supply. World markets were opened, and Japanese fish began to emerge in places a thousand miles from any ocean.
Where demand did not exist, the suckerfish of the great capitalist whale created some. We call that marketing now. Kids demanded “Chicken of the Sea”; 30-somethings in Peoria began to eat Sushi on Saturday nights. Pets consumed trailer loads of their less fortunate, wondrously free friends of the ocean — an incredible feat of return on investment.
Great scads of wealth were created, wealth that was reinvested in other, better, faster ways to maximize return on investment. The occasional gold bidet was purchased, as were billion-dollar fishing fleets; an investment specifically intended to return the maximum, its holy charter not just protected, but also limitless by law. Be it an American hedge fund churning out insane algorithms for digital cash, or a Japanese Keiretsu machine harvesting the oceans, all are protected by law, and sanctioned by various forms of corporate charter to brook no opposition in the single-minded pursuit of return on investment.
A simple exchange of goods, the magic of grade school arithmetic, and the pure, innate curiosity and inventiveness of man (we call that greed today), all combined to bring us the funky Western civilization we love and enjoy. The creation of wealth and capital so long ago has allowed a handful of powerful, professional “interests” to organically develop around the world. Protected by laws they themselves write, and the willing acquiescence of a population that depends on the efficient functioning of the system for its plasma TVs, the modern free market capitalist enriches his nation as he enriches himself, spreading wealth by ever reinvesting, ever creating and filling demand. If he isn’t the de facto ruling class or government, he (there are the occasional “shes”) is the power behind it. It is not economics as much as it is religion and, as such, nobody but heretics is going to screw with that.
Extracting stuff from the earth, then creating a system that magically creates wealth by leveraging it a million times over, sanctioning the whole thing in law, and then demanding by natural right limitless return . . . does beg a series of humble questions. If the infinite and exponential creation of wealth depends entirely on the very limited resources of the earth, is there a point where the two lines on some graph may sometime cross? A point where unlimited demand meets exponentially diminishing supply? What happens then? What would it look like? How would we, simple earthlings, know when it was coming or if it had arrived?
Which brings us back to the Bluefin Tuna, completely fished out by 2012, and not a damn thing to be done about it. I thought about that recently when shopping at the local mega grocery outlet. Tuna was on sale, two cans for 99 cents. The daughter threw a few cans into the cart. “Sorry,” she said sheepishly “gotta have tuna.”
God had spoken for the Bluefin Tuna. (full text).
(Aetius Romulous, historian, economist, accountant, writer, and blood sucking CEO, born at the wrong end of the Baby Boom Generation – too late to enjoy the ride, too early to have missed it, and stuck in the middle with the mess. Aetius writes and blogs from his frozen perch atop the earth in Canada, spending the useful capital of a life not finished making sandwiches and fomenting revolution. It’s a living).