Aurum Potestas Est

We as a race and a culture have a massive love affair with gold. It is the basis of our currency, the definitive mark of wealth and status, in some ways the bedrock of our society. We hoard it, we covet it, we hide it away except for special occasions, but we never really use it.

This is perhaps the strangest thing about gold; for something around which we have based our economy on, it is remarkably useless. To be sure, gold has many advantageous properties; it is the best thermal and electrical conductor and is pretty easy to shape, leading it to be used widely in contacts for computing and on the engine cover for the McLaren F1 supercar. But other than these, relatively minor, uses, gold is something we keep safe rather than make use of; it has none of the ubiquity nor usefulness of such metals as steel or copper. So why are we on the gold standard? Why not base our economy around iron, around copper, around praseodymium (a long shot, I will admit), something a bit more functional? What makes gold so special?

In part we can blame gold’s chemical nature; as a transition metal it is hard, tough, and a solid at room temperature, making it able to be mined, extracted, transported and used with ease and without degenerating and breaking too easily. It is also very malleable, meaning it can be shaped easily to form coins and jewellery; shaping into coins is especially important in order to standardise the weight of meta worth a particular amount. However, by far its most defining chemical feature is its reactivity; gold is very chemically stable in its pure, unionised, ‘native’ form, meaning it is unreactive, particularly with such common substances as; for this reason it is often referred to as a noble metal. This means gold is usually found native, making it easier to identify and mine, but is also means that gold products take millennia to oxidise and tarnish, if they do so at all. Therefore, gold holds its purity like no other chemical (shush, helium & co.), and this means it holds its value like nothing else. Even silver, another noble and comparatively precious metal, will blacken eventually and lose its perfection, but not gold. To an economist, gold is eternal, and this makes it the most stable and safe of all potential investments. Nothing can replace it, it is always a safe bet; a fine thing to base an economy on.

However, just as important as gold’s refusal to tarnish and protect is beauty is the simple presence of a beauty to protect. This is partly put down to the uniqueness of its colour; in the world around us there are many greens, blues, blacks, browns and whites, as well as the odd purple. However, red and yellow are (fire and a few types of fish and flower excepted) comparatively rare, and only four chemical elements that we commonly come across are red or yellow in colour; phosphorus, sulphur, copper and gold. And rusty iron but… just no. Of the others, phosphorus (red) is rather dangerous given its propensity to burst into flames, is also commonly found as a boring old white element, and is rather reactive, meaning it is not often found in its reddish form. Sulphur is also reactive, also burns and also readily forms compounds; but these compounds have the added bonus of stinking to high heaven. It is partly for this reason, and partly for the fact that it turns blood-red when molten, that brimstone (aka sulphur) is heavily associated with hell, punishment and general sinfulness in the Bible and that it would be rather an unpopular choice to base an economy on. In any case, the two non-metals do not have any of the properties that the transition metals of copper and gold do; those of being malleable, hard, having a high melting point, and being shiny and pwettiful. Gold edged out over copper partly for its unreactivity as explored above (after time copper loses its reddish beauty and takes on a, but also because of its deep, beautiful, lustrous finish. That beauty made it precious to us, made it something we desired and lusted after, and (combined with gold’s relative rarity, which could be an entire section of its own) made it valuable. This value allows relatively small amounts of gold to represent large quantities of worth and value, and justifies its use as coinage, bullion and an economic standard.

However, for me the key feature of gold’s place as our defining scale of value concerns its relative uselessness. Consider the following scenario; in the years preceding the birth of Christ, the technology, warfare and overall political situation of the day was governed by one material, bronze. It was used to make swords, armour, jewellery, the lot; until one day some smartarse figured out how to smelt iron. Iron was easier to work than bronze, allowing better stuff to be made, and with some skill it could be turned into steel. Steel was stronger as well as more malleable than bronze, and could be tempered to change its properties; over time, skilled metalsmiths even learned how to make the edge of a sword blade harder than the centre, making it better at cutting whilst the core absorbed the impact. This was all several hundred years in the future, but in the end the result was the same; bronze fell from grace and its societal value slumped. It is still around today, but it will never again enjoy its place as the metal that ruled the world.

Now, consider if that metal had, instead of bronze, been gold. Something that had been ultra-precious, the king of all metals, reduced to something that was merely valuable. It had been trumped by iron, and iron would have this connotation of being better than it; gold’s value would have dropped. In any economic system, even a primitive one, having the value of the substance around which your economy is based change in value would be catastrophic; when Mansa Musa travelled from Mali on a pilgrimage to Mecca, he stopped off in Cairo, then the home of the world’s foremost gold trade, and spent so much gold that the non-Malian world had never known about that the price of gold collapsed and it took more than a decade for the Egyptian economy to recover. If gold were to have a purpose, it could be usurped; we might find something better, we might decide we don’t need that any more, and thus gold’s value, once supported by those wishing to buy it for this purpose, would drop. Gold is used so little that this simply doesn’t happen, making it the most economically stable substance; it is valuable precisely and solely because we want it to be and, strange though it may seem, gold is always in fashion. Economically as well as chemically, gold is uniquely stable- the perfect choice around which to base a global economy.

Why the chubs?

My last post dealt with the thorny issue of obesity, both it’s increasing presence in our everyday lives, and what for me is the underlying reason behind the stats that back up media scare stories concerning ‘the obesity epidemic’- the rise in size of the ‘average’ person over the last few decades. The precise causes of this trend can be put down to a whole host of societal factors within our modern age, but that story is boring as hell and has been repeated countless times by commenters far more adept in this field than me. Instead, today I wish present the case for modern-day obesity as a problem concerning the fundamental biology of a human being.

We, and our dim and distant ancestors of the scaly/furry variety, have spent the last few million years living wild; hunting, fighting and generally acting much like any other evolutionary pathway. Thus, we can learn a lot about our own inbuilt biology and instincts by studying the behaviour of animals currently alive today, and when we do so, several interesting animal eating habits become apparent. As anyone who has tried it as a child can attest (and I speak from personal experience), grass is not good stuff to eat. It’s tough, it takes a lot of chewing and processing (many herbivores have multiple stomachs to make sure they squeeze the maximum nutritional value out of their food), and there really isn’t much of it to power a fully-functional being. As such, grazers on grass and other such tough plant matter (such as leaves) will spend most of their lives doing nothing but guzzle the stuff, trying to get as much as possible through their system. Other animals will favour food with a higher nutritional content, such as fruits, tubers or, in many cases, meat, but these frequently present issues. Fruits are highly seasonal and rarely available in a large enough volume to support a large population, as well as being quite hard to get a lot of down; plants try to ‘design’ fruits so that each visitor takes only a few at a time, so as best to spread their seeds far and wide, and as such there are few animals that can sustain themselves on such a diet.  Other food such as tubers or nuts are hard to get at, needing to be dug up or broken in highly energy-consuming activities, whilst meat has the annoying habit of running away or fighting back whenever you try to get at it. As anyone who watches nature documentaries will attest, most large predators will only eat once every few days (admittedly rather heavily).

The unifying factor of all of this is that food is, in the wild, highly energy- and time-consuming to get hold of and consume, since every source of it guards its prize jealously. Therefore, any animal that wants to survive in this tough world must be near-constantly in pursuit of food simply to fulfil all of its life functions, and this is characterised by being perpetually hungry. Hunger is a body’s way of telling us that we should get more food, and in the wild this constant desire for more is kept in check by the difficulty that getting hold of it entails. Similarly, animal bodies try to assuage this desire by being lazy; if something isn’t necessary, then there’s no point wasting valuable energy going after it (since this will mean spending more time going after food to replace lost energy.)

However, in recent history (and a spectacularly short period of time from evolution’s point of view), one particular species called homo sapiens came up with this great idea called civilisation, which basically entailed the pooling and sharing of skill and resources in order to best benefit everyone as a whole. As an evolutionary success story, this is right up there with developing multicellular body structures in terms of being awesome, and it has enabled us humans to live far more comfortable lives than our ancestors did, with correspondingly far greater access to food. This has proved particularly true over the last two centuries, as technological advances in a more democratic society have improved the everyman’s access to food and comfortable living to a truly astounding degree. Unfortunately (from the point of view of our waistline) the instincts of our bodies haven’t quite caught up to the idea that when we want/need food, we can just get food, without all that inconvenient running around after it to get in the way. Not only that, but a lack of pack hierarchy combined with this increased availability means that we can stock up on food until we have eaten our absolute fill if so we wish; the difference between ‘satiated’ and ‘stuffed’ can work out as well over 1000 calories per meal, and over a long period of time it only takes a little more than we should be having every day to start packing on the pounds. Combine that with our natural predilection to laziness meaning that we don’t naturally think of going out for some exercise as fun purely for its own sake, and the fact that we no longer burn calories chasing our food, or in the muscles we build up from said chasing, and we find ourselves consuming a lot more calories than we really should be.

Not only that, but during this time we have also got into the habit of spending a lot of time worrying over the taste and texture of our food. This means that, unlike our ancestors who were just fine with simply jumping on a squirrel and devouring the thing, we have to go through the whole rigmarole of getting stuff out of the fridge, spending two hours slaving away in a kitchen and attempting to cook something vaguely resembling tasty. This wait is not something out bodies enjoy very much, meaning we often turn to ‘quick fixes’ when in need of food; stuff like bread, pasta or ready meals. Whilst we all know how much crap goes into ready meals (which should, as a rule, never be bought by anyone who cares even in the slightest about their health; salt content of those things is insane) and other such ‘quick fixes’, fewer people are aware of the impact a high intake of whole grains can have on our bodies. Stuff like bread and rice only started being eaten by humans a few thousand years ago, as we discovered the benefits of farming and cooking, and whilst they are undoubtedly a good food source (and are very, very difficult to cut from one’s diet whilst still remaining healthy) our bodies have simply not had enough time, evolutionarily speaking, to get used to them. This means they have a tendency to not make us feel as full as their calorie content should suggest, thus meaning that we eat more than our body in fact needs (if you want to feel full whilst not taking in so many calories, protein is the way to go; meat, fish and dairy are great for this).

This is all rather academic, but what does it mean for you if you want to lose a bit of weight? I am no expert on this, but then again neither are most of the people acting as self-proclaimed nutritionists in the general media, and anyway, I don’t have any better ideas for posts. So, look at my next post for my, admittedly basic, advice for anyone trying to make themselves that little bit healthier, especially if you’re trying to work of a few of the pounds built up over this festive season.

Other Politicky Stuff

OK, I know I talked about politics last time, and no I don’t want to start another series on this, but I actually found when writing my last post that I got very rapidly sidetracked when I tried to use voter turnout as a way of demonstrating the fact that everyone hates their politicians, and I thought I might dedicate a post to this particular train of thought as well.

You see, across the world, but predominantly in the developed west where the right to choose our leaders has been around for ages, less and less people are turning out each time to vote.  By way of an example, Ronald Reagan famously won a ‘landslide’ victory when coming to power in 1980- but only actually attracted the vote of 29% of all eligible voters. In some countries, such as Australia, voting is mandatory, but thoughts about introducing such a system elsewhere have frequently met with opposition and claims that it goes against people’s democratic right to abstain from doing so (this argument is largely rubbish, but no time for that now).

A lot of reasons have been suggested for this trend, among them a sense of political apathy, laziness, and the idea that we having the right to choose our leaders for so long has meant we no longer find such an idea special or worth exercising. For example, the presidential election in Venezuela – a country that underwent something of a political revolution just over a decade ago and has a history of military dictatorships, corruption and general political chaos – a little while ago saw a voter turnout of nearly 90% (incumbent president Hugo Chavez winning with 54% of the vote to win his fourth term of office in case you were interested) making Reagan look boring by comparison.

However, another, more interesting (hence why I’m talking about it) argument has also been proposed, and one that makes an awful lot of sense. In Britain there are 3 major parties competing for every seat, and perhaps 1 or two others who may be standing in your local area. In the USA, your choice is pretty limited to either Obama or Romney, especially if you’re trying to avoid the ire of the rabidly aggressive ‘NO VOTE IS A VOTE FOR ROMNEY AND HITLER AND SLAUGHTERING KITTENS’ brigade. Basically, the point is that your choice of who to vote for is limited to usually less than 5 people, and given the number of different issues they have views on that mean something to you the chance of any one of them following your precise political philosophy is pretty close to zero.

This has wide reaching implications extending to every corner of democracy, and is indicative of one simple fact; that when the US Declaration of Independence was first drafted some 250 years ago and the founding fathers drew up what would become the template for modern democracy, it was not designed for a state, or indeed a world, as big and multifaceted as ours. That template was founded on the basis of the idea that one vote was all that was needed to keep a government in line and following the will of the masses, but in our modern society (and quite possibly also in the one they were designing for) that is simply not the case. Once in power, a government can do almost what it likes (I said ALMOST) and still be confident that they will get a significant proportion of the country voting for them; not only that, but that their unpopular decisions can often be ‘balanced out’ by more popular, mass-appeal ones, rather than their every decision being the direct will of the people.

One solution would be to have a system more akin to Greek democracy, where every issue is answered by referendum which the government must obey. However, this presents just as many problems as it answers; referendums are very expensive and time-consuming to set up and perform, and if they became commonplace it could further enhance the existing issue of voter apathy. Only the most actively political would vote in every one, returning the real power to the hands of a relative few who, unlike previously, haven’t been voted in. However, perhaps the most pressing issue with this solution is that it rather renders the role of MPs, representatives, senators and even Prime Ministers & Presidents rather pointless. What is the point of our society choosing those who really care about the good of their country, have worked hard to slowly rise up the ranks and giving them a chance to determine how their country is governed, if we are merely going to reduce their role to ones of administrators and form fillers? Despite the problems I mentioned last time out, of all the people we’ve got to choose from politicians are probably the best people to have governing us (or at least the most reliably OK, even if it’s simply because we picked them).

Plus, politics is a tough business, and what is the will of the people is not necessarily always what’s best for the country as a whole. Take Greece at the moment; massive protests are (or at least were; I know everyone’s still pissed off about it) underway due to the austerity measures imposed by the government, because of the crippling economic suffering that is sure to result. However, the politicians know that such measures are necessary and are refusing to budge on the issue- desperate times call for difficult decisions (OK, I know there were elections that almost entirely centred on this decision that sided with austerity, but shush- you’re ruining my argument). To pick another example, President Obama (and several Democrat candidates before him) have met with huge opposition to the idea of introducing a US national healthcare system, basically because Americans hate taxes. Nonetheless, this is something he believes very strongly in, and has finally managed to get through congress; if he wins the elections later this year, we’ll see how well he executes.

In short, then, there are far too many issues, too many boxes to balance and ideas to question, for all protesting in a democratic society to take place at the ballot box. Is there a better solution to waving placards in the street and sending strongly worded letters? Do those methods at all work? In all honesty, I don’t know- that whole internet petitions get debated in parliament thing the British government recently imported from Switzerland is a nice idea, but, just like more traditional forms of protest, gives those in power no genuine categorical imperative to change anything. If I had a solution, I’d probably be running for government myself (which is one option that definitely works- just don’t all try it at once), but as it is I am nothing more than an idle commentator thinking about an imperfect system.

Yeah, I struggle for conclusions sometimes.