“No degrees Fahrenheit” – a tale for winners, losers … and the rest of us

lighting a match

In memory of Alan Watts.

You’re out are walking in the woods, when snow begins to fall. Lovely at first, you walk on, delighted by that magical feeling that happens when the sky is white and alive with motion, the fresh feeling on your face as each flake lands. The sky fills and the and flakes fall more quickly, and you walk on as the winds pick up. Soon snow hits with more force, each touch, no longer a caress, but just a bit of a bite.  “Hmmm… probably that storm on the way.” You turn to retrace your steps, only to find your footprints have been covered by a blanket of fresh snow.

Wind and snow begin to obscure your vision as the storm grows. Cold begins to bite a bit harder now: first your cheeks, then nose and ears.  You can feel your heart pound as your breath quickens along with your pace. You turn again and then again, in search of a familiar branch, a bend… something to point you home.

How could you have done this? An experienced hiker, you’ve been in these woods so many times. You know so well how quickly nature can turn.  Winds howl as the blizzard rages around you.  The temperature drops. The more quickly you walk, the more hopelessly lost you become, the colder and weaker you grow. You fear … and for good reason.

Then, ahead, as if from nowhere, there appears to be … no, not home, but something… just up ahead.  A cabin. If you can just manage to make your way.

Every step is a battle with the wind and snow. Practically blind, each step brings you a bit closer. Until…. You reach for the door and push.  Out of the cold grip of what might have been the end. Inside.

It feels unreal. You scan the inside of the cabin.  Food and water, and lots of it. Blankets on the bed. Firewood stacked high next to the hearth.  Your panic subsides, as you give yourself permission to begin to feel your exhaustion.

Nature rages on outside, but for now … safe. You breath more easily as you stack wood in the fireplace.

When you move the lit match toward the kindling, you hear it.

“I’m sorry, but you cannot light that fire.  We seem to have run out of degrees Fahrenheit.”

Okay, what!? Run out of degrees? This story just ‘jumped the shark,’ as they say. Quality of the prose aside, it just got nutty.  You can’t run out of degrees Fahrenheit (no, neither Celsius nor Kelvin).  After all, degrees are not ‘real’ in the same way water, food wood, or matches are real. You cannot hold or touch them … or place them in a fireplace.  The ‘degree’ is not heat; it is a symbol for heat, a way to measure and speak about heat. Only in the wackiest of worlds – only in the wackiest of minds – could someone mistake a degree for heat itself.

I used to teach an introductory economics class, sometimes to very young children, sometimes to older students and adults. These days , if it is taught at all, it would likely go by the name “comparative economics,” a look at the various ways people have tried to organize themselves to create material wellbeing for their societies.  I say again, “if it is taught at all.”

One of the things that always surprised me was how difficult it was to have older students see what elementary students could see right away; that money was not actually the thing anyone wants. People want the things that money stands for and allows them to have.  Just as degrees are a symbol for heat, money was not, in fact, value, but a symbol for it.  As it turns out, it was’t just my older students.  Quite a few adults have that same difficulty; some of them are economists.

“Okay, but that’s silly,” they say in just that dismissive voice you can imagine, if you have ever sat through college economics courses.

Well, you can’t eat it.  It does not last long enough when you burn it to generate any significant heat. You can’t grow food on it, or build a house with it.  I suppose you can prop up the end of the couch with it, if the leg falls off. But it’s not really the stuff you want.  You want what it can get you. The new house, the sumptuous meal, the trip to Hawaii, the new couch, the car… those things.  Money is a symbol that entitles you to do those things… IF.

If you are in the right country. If you are speaking to people who want it. If whomever buys into the agreement that these pieces of paper, coins, ‘credits’ count. Which is why it is so difficult for so many of the very youngest people to understand poverty and how older people respond to it… or, more accurately, don’t.

The other day Forbes’ annual list of billionaires came out. True to form, media outlets the world over reported the results as if they were the box scores of the latest ball game. ‘Bill Gates, back on top again, squeaking past Carlos Slim Helu by a mere two billion.’ (Yes, it is at least ironic that Slim’s name sounds like he is a ball player.)

The magnitude of it all can be staggering. In fact it oughta be.  For instance, one family – the Waltons – are said to be worth more than the poorest 40% of the American population.  The wealthiest 100 families own more than the lowest 60% of Americans.  At the upper ends, these numbers transport people from a conversation about wealth to one of desire.   “Can I afford … _____” gives way to  “What do I want?” And at the lower end? The words “poverty” and “poor” do nothing to reveal the crushing, skin cracking, urine soaked existence that millions endure.

And why?  Why must they endure it? Well, obviously because there isn’t enough ‘money.’  There is enough food.  There is enough shelter.  There are enough beds and clean sheets.  “But you see, there just isn’t enough money.”

When you’re very young, the foolishness of this situation (and the response) is obvious.  The poor in America do not need money, they need the things that money stands for: food, clothing, shelter from the cold and wet, clean water, toilets.  All of that is there.  There in abundance.  All there, and available in quantities such that supplying it to those in need would not cause one iota of lack for the Waltons, any of the other 100 families, anyone on Forbes’ list, or any of the so called 1%.

So tell me… why can’t they have it?