Inherited Intellectual Wealth

If you are any generation under baby boomers, you know that belts have been tightening ever since. You have less wealth, less of a chance of owning a home, your wages have been stagnant since the late 1970s, and the costs for healthcare, education, and certain goods has certainly skyrocketed.

Lord David Willets spends a great deal of time explaining this in his book. If you would like the TL;DR version, check out his YouTube video.

Yes the truth of the matter is that for the greater part of economic history that can be recorded, the middle of the 20th century may have represented a fluke in terms of the rise and sustainability of the middle class. After the financial crisis of 2008, Thomas Piketty revealed much to those who still had not been convinced with his bestselling work Capital in the Twenty First Century. Recently he greatly expanded on his original thesis with the bloated Capital and Ideology. At over 1,000 pages, will bigger be better? I’ll let you know when I finish it.

When I start it.

Yes and here it seems we are headed for an economic recession, and with the state of the world in hibernation, we have a premium on time and a stark absence of money to spend on anything. It is in times like these that the spark of creativity begins to take shape. Write the novel, create that start up, do the research, invest in yourself.

Much of the wealth that came to young people in the years outside of the 20th century actually came from inherited wealth. The reason why in the Austen and Hardy novels of yesteryear that marriage was so important was because it dictated the transfer of wealth and the lineage of money in families brought together in romance more based on property and duty than on love and emotion. That is what charged the novel’s romantic aspirations. With baby boomers holding onto quite a large amount of the goods and continuing to do so through social security, inheritance will likely take a larger role in our lives as young people are gutted by student loan and consumer debt.

But what about that novel?

The truth here seems just as deadly. Many have turned to heroes like Shakespeare and Isaac Newton. Look at the creative discoveries and the incredible inventions of logic and abstraction! They used epidemics to create the language and plots of the world that we still live with today.

Unfortunately, with a reminder from an article in the New Yorker by Thomas Levinson, sure Newton worked during the plague, but it wasn’t the plague that brought it out of him. Rather, Newton treated that time as no different from his time before and after. For a greater part of Newton’s life, one could say that he was always mathematically industrious. He had inherited the intelligence from before the plague, and so the timing could not have been more perfect. He had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to take a stab at creating classical physics. When he did, one could see that the plague need not to have occurred at all.

I told my students to spend this time doing the creative thing, but that was a mistake. In order for this moment to “work” for creativity and inspiration, one needed to have the habits already inherited before them in order to do anything with it. And that could possibly mean that the intellectual property of the world may go to those who already had it: what poor person who has relatives with ongoing health problems and contracting coronavirus at an alarming rate is going to think to themselves that the dangerous risk of creating something important is any more relieving than the comforting malaise of Netflix?

The problem that will last in America’s poor will continue, meanwhile only those with dowries to hand down will find this moment as an opportunity.

To sum up, we can see the problem but have little of the tools, real or otherwise, to address it. Characters across literature have frequently pressed against this, but I will end with the internal monologue of Oedipa Maas from The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon.

Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?

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