Thursday, June 04, 2009

Unjust Deserts

Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly, Unjust Desserts: How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance (New York: The New Press, 2008).

These authors, while acknowledging that generally now economic and other experts interested in economic issues understand that present knowledge derives from contemporary and historical sources, go one step farther and assert that “by far the most important element in all this is the knowledge that society contributes over time” (p. 15). They argue that “we (today) contribute relatively less and less as time goes on, but obtain more and more. Most of what we produce is generated – increasingly – by what we inherit, not by what we add to the inheritance” (p. 37). There is ample discussion about how we inherit this knowledge, through various means of creating repositories (such as journals and journals in libraries) and communicating (from oral to online means). For example, “The fundamental change occurred with the expansion of symbolic access across multiple external memory devices, beginning with written records and extending to today’s vast library holdings and electronic databases. The invention of books, journals, libraries, databases, and other systems of symbolic storage constitutes an essential (and still expanding) ‘hardware’ change in humanity’s cognitive architecture” (p. 47). They mention the importance of classification and cataloguing approaches, the role of universities and their faculty in creating canonical materials and conveying knowledge over time, and other issues of interest to a school such as ours. This leads them to believe that the “average high-tech millionaire today has essentially the same basic mental capacities as his predecessors. . . . The real difference is that he (and his colleagues and rivals) inherited much, much more knowledge, and much better-organized knowledge, with which to work” (p. 54). Building on this argument, Aperovitz and Daly conclude that “society as a whole . . . has a primary moral claim to that (very large) portion of wealth that the inherited knowledge it has contributed now creates” (p. 127). Obviously, they then use such notions to question how we approach the unequal distribution of wealth in our society.

No comments: