Pie in the Sky: Week #15 of 52 Mini-Essays Project

On equitable distribution, a finite planet, and compulsive theft

Topic Idea: Maura Glennon


How much do you deserve? You, personally? I mean: how much stuff—money, houses, cars, clothes, paintings, toothbrushes, yachts, space stations, LEGO sets, truffles, iPads, twist ties, bottles of aspirin, clicky pens, hotels, Barcaloungers, coffee grinders, desk lamps, helicopters, and knitted caps—do you think you should own? Is it more or less than you currently have? What do I mean by “should”? Who decides; what are the criteria; is it about equity or merit or reparation or need or chance? Are you mostly angry or guilty or sad?

The topic of this essay is “Your Fair Slice of the Pie,” which was suggested by one of my besties, Maura G. The first thing you need to know is that it’s a bit of an in-joke: a few years ago Mo quit her academic job to open a pie shop just outside Northampton, Massachusetts. (It’s called Florence Pie Bar and it is a goddam national treasure. If you ever find yourself within a parsec of Northampton, Massachusetts, do yourself a favor and stop in for a piece of utter deliciousness.) She is a maven of literal pies. 

Even though Mo left it up to me to interpret her topic assignment, and I love that it can in theory be understood both literally and figuratively, of course the expression “fair slice of the pie” is always a metaphor. It also implies, crucially, that there is a finite amount of resources to go around: a pie is constrained by its plate, and the question of fairness becomes one of divvying up, not of growth or saving. It’s also highly individualistic, if not downright capitalist: the question assumes there is no possibility of us sharing the pie together, giving it all away, or throwing it on a bonfire in an orgiastic potlatch. Equally unthinkable is the idea that we could all dive in with our forks at the same time, not worrying about who got how much.

Even more crucially, the metaphor is not entirely about need. Apologies to Mo, but pie is not exactly a necessity: it’s a treat, a lagniappe, a sugary extra that you are allowed to indulge in after the hard business of your vegetables is behind you. In that sense, the pie in the expression “fair slice of the pie” connotes the good life—or at least the material conditions of the good life. If we can pretty much agree that all creatures deserve life, air, shelter, and basic sustenance, then the interesting (and hard) part becomes deciding who gets the goodies that help make up a fulfilling existence, an earthly passage containing pleasure, leisure, and even meaning.

Pastry is thus the perfect metaphor for the good life. George Eliot’s second novel, The Mill on the Floss, demonstrates this point in one of the greatest confectionary-centric scenes in all of English literature. The early sections of the novel focus on the childhood of its two protagonists, Maggie and Tom Tulliver, a brother and sister growing up in their father’s eponymous mill in an idyllic English rural setting in the 1830s. They have a contentious relationship; the younger Maggie worships her older brother and longs for his love and approval, but in time-honored literary older brother fashion he is a prat who doesn’t deserve her. In an early scene, they’ve gotten their hands on three jam-puffs and are trying to divide the third one between them. Tom’s pocket-knife does not do a very good job of cutting it evenly (“it was a difficult problem to divide that very irregular polygon into two equal parts”) and one bit ends up with more jam than the other. He forces Maggie to blindly choose one hand, even though she would have preferred to score points with Tom by giving him the best piece outright. Unfortunately for her, she chooses the hand with the jammier bit of puff:

“Oh, please, Tom, have it; I don’t mind—I like the other; please take this.”

“No, I sha’n’t,” said Tom, almost crossly, beginning on his own inferior piece.

Maggie, thinking it was no use to contend further, began too, and ate up her half puff with considerable relish as well as rapidity. But Tom had finished first, and had to look on while Maggie ate her last morsel or two, feeling in himself a capacity for more. Maggie didn’t know Tom was looking at her; she was seesawing on the elder-bough, lost to almost everything but a vague sense of jam and idleness.

“Oh, you greedy thing!” said Tom, when she had swallowed the last morsel. He was conscious of having acted very fairly, and thought she ought to have considered this, and made up to him for it. He would have refused a bit of hers beforehand, but one is naturally at a different point of view before and after one’s own share of puff is swallowed.

Maggie turned quite pale. “Oh, Tom, why didn’t you ask me?”

I wasn’t going to ask you for a bit, you greedy. You might have thought of it without, when you knew I gave you the best bit.”

“But I wanted you to have it; you know I did,” said Maggie, in an injured tone.

“Yes, but I wasn’t going to do what wasn’t fair.... If I go halves, I’ll go ’em fair; only I wouldn’t be a greedy.”

There are extraordinarily complex ethical systems at play here—and that is exactly Eliot’s point. Tom is operating under one arcane set of “rules” and his sister another, and poor Maggie doesn’t stand a chance of making him happy. As we learn throughout the rest of the novel, Tom is a rigid, coldhearted person who revels in imposing his own iron-clad sense of justice on the rest of the world, Maggie in particular. But Eliot has captured here, in sticky miniature, a series of conundrums that extend far beyond one childhood squabble. When considering questions of equitable distribution, we are all “naturally at a different point of view” when we have a surplus compared to when we are indigent. But if Eliot were trying to make the point that generosity flows from a state of plenty, and that the hungry and struggling are more self-centered than the well-off, she would be dead wrong—and Eliot is never wrong. (Don’t @ me.) She is making a more subtle point: that most people don’t spend a lot of time worrying about questions of ethical distribution as long as they have enough themselves. When he’s considering how to parcel out the bits of puff fairly, Tom is operating behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance (he can’t know who will win the jammier piece); after his portion of pastry is gone, he has to live with the consequences of his ethical schema. His protestations of “fairness” are a disingenuous ruse to cover up his own petulance—the fault is in his own greed. 

I think most of us would agree that sheer chance is not the best way to decide questions of equitable distribution. I will confess that the reason I find Mo’s topic so compelling is that I cart around a crushing sense of guilt about my own use of resources, and thus think-worry about this question all the time. Let me hasten to say that there is nothing noble in my angst: it’s deeply neurotic, involuntary, and doesn’t do anyone any good.1 Furthermore no one wants to—or should ever have to—listen to the guilty ravings of a privileged white person, so instead let us turn once again to the nineteenth century. (And that, in a nutshell, is the raison d’être of Victorian studies.) 

We can trace the idea that there is a finite amount of resources to be distributed among an ever-growing number of people back to The Rev. Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). It’s the Malthusian doctrine—which influenced Charles Darwin as he was working out his theory of natural selection—that haunts questions of resource allocation to this day. The fact that you are doubtless now thinking to yourself “But that’s just natural. There simply is a finite amount of resources and distribution is a zero-sum game among a given population” is testament to the intractable influence of Malthus’s thesis. The scarcity model has a very particular, and relatively recent, history. There are other ways of imagining the relationship between the products of the natural world and human needs and desires: the Physiocrats of the 18th century and the Mercantilists before them did not enshrine scarcity as the central governing principle of political economy, and there were many heterodox economic thinkers even in the nineteenth century—such as John Ruskin, Henry George, and the evangelical Christian economists—who thought in different ways about this question.

For one thing, scarcity is operable only if you assume that human wants are illimitable. This is also an idea with a particular history that took shape over the course of the nineteenth century. It’s also an idea that developed in lockstep with industrial capitalism: it’s not exactly a coincidence that the thesis that human beings are inherently insatiable took hold alongside the idea that the best economic organization is one that maximizes “progress” and argues that growth is potentially infinite. Perhaps the deepest paradox of nineteenth-century classical political economy is the co-existence of the Malthusian thesis alongside optimistic narratives of never-ending development and progress—but it’s not as much of a paradox if you think of the latter as a mass (delusional) solution to the problem of the former. Marx once hilariously referred to classical political economy’s deepest fear, the stationary state2, as the “bourgeois ‘Twilight of the Gods.’”3

But the goal of the current essay is not to rehearse, far too quickly and irresponsibly, complex topics in the history of nineteenth-century economic thought. (I have a whole book about some of that shit, as do many other wonderful scholars.4 For a specific discussion of the concept of sustainability in the nineteenth century, see my essay here.) My intention instead is to natter on just a little about the emotionally charged questions surrounding resource allocation for us, today, living through a global pandemic, catastrophic climate change, and rising fascism. (These topics, along with the demise of the academy, constitute the four quadrants of the Wheel of Insomnia Horror that my brain likes to spin continuously at 3:00 in the morning). 

I think most ethical, responsible people leading relatively privileged lives in the Global North wonder if they are using an outsized proportion of the planet’s resources for themselves and their families; it turns out we can actually (sort of) answer this question. A few months ago I came across this fascinating website and tucked it away for future syllabus planning; it’s getting hauled out this semester as part of my course plan for Honors 101: “Self and Society.” (In other words, Honors 101: “Absolutely Everything.”) The web project, entitled “A Good Life For All Within Planetary Boundaries,” tracks—along various axes and using various metrics—the environmental resources needed to deliver to every human being the basic components of “a good life.” Its stark conclusion is that “meeting the basic needs of all people on the planet would result in humanity transgressing multiple environmental limits.”5 (If you want to jump straight to the page that allows you to adjust the various criteria of the good life and track the subsequent environmental impacts, you can do so here.) This is essentially the Malthusian thesis updated for the era of climate change and environmental consciousness; the only solution according to this schema is a drastic reduction in human population or everyone accepting much less than “the good life” entails. Oh, or the third option—the status quo, which involves a small minority of people on the planet leading amazing lives while everyone else squats in the dirt.

Obviously there are extraordinarily complex ethical questions at play here. What exactly are the components of a good life and how are they quantified? (Even more crucially: Why only human beings?) Should everyone on the planet drastically curtail their consumption of resources in order to spread things out more evenly among all people—even if that means that no one gets a good life? Or should we have a serious conversation about planetary carrying capacity and population control? I know, I know—that question has a terrible, awful, misogynist, racist history and it therefore feels nearly impossible to go there. Some feminist scholars, most notably Donna Haraway, have been trying to broach these topics in more nuanced and responsible ways in recent years, but it’s not easy. One consideration that might nudge us a little in that direction is the undeniable fact that eventually, probably soon, maybe even already, the question of population control will be taken forcibly out of our hands in traumatic and catastrophic ways. Maybe it’s better to do it deliberately and ethically than allow billions to die of famine? I dunno—it’s just a thought. Call me a crazy dreamer.

I think about Maggie and Tom Tulliver a lot. The emotions kicked up when questions of distribution arise are perhaps the most primal of all: deeper than desire, deeper than fear, deeper than love—because they encompass all three. When I was growing up I was locked in what felt like a death struggle with my sister over the very limited resources (of attention, of care) that my parents could offer. My mother openly detested me and worshipped my sister, so I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what her secret was. Why was she lovable and I was not? For a number of years I struggled against (and lost out to) a near-daily compulsion to go into my sister’s room and rifle through her things—her jewelry box, makeup table, desk drawers, clothes closet—and stare at it all and touch it. Her stuff seemed impossibly glamorous and magical to me; some reptilian corner of my brain believed that her power would rub off if I handled her possessions. I would usually steal something, even though I knew I would be caught immediately, get into huge trouble, and further solidify my mother’s contempt. But there was simply no way I could stop myself. The pull of the things, the stuff, the totems, was too strong. They were not a substitute for love, but they sure felt like it at the time.

I don’t mean to reduce extraordinarily complex, large-scale, planetary questions to the level of the personal; my compulsive pinching of my sister’s Bonne Bell root-beer flavored lip gloss is obviously not the same thing as Jeff Bezos clutching his disgusting billions in his greedy claws while his workers subsist on poverty wages. But I am a psychoanalyst at heart, and I truly believe that we all have an inescapable ethical obligation to work on our own stuff in order to get better at collective action, at taking care of others. If we all stopped and breathed and calmed ourselves every time strong emotions arose around who gets what and why, would it make a difference? If every single person on the planet was a practicing Buddhist, would life be better for everyone? I mean, I think you know how I would answer that question. But how would you?

1

I also think this kind of self-excoriation might be largely innate. When I was 8 years old I was out trick-or-treating with a gang of neighborhood kids when I was suddenly flooded with shame at the sheer idea of begging for food I didn’t need. I turned abruptly around and walked home by myself, and informed my parents that next year I would trick-or-treat only for UNICEF. Which I did. And was super, super annoying about it. Just a few years ago I told this anecdote to someone I was trying to impress, who responded in horror, “How awful to grow up with such a punishing superego.” LOL.

2

A few classical political economists, most notably John Stuart Mill, argued differently: “I cannot, therefore, regard the stationary state of capital and wealth with the unaffected aversion so generally manifested towards it by political economists of the old school. I am inclined to believe that it would be, on the whole, a very considerable improvement on our present condition.” John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy (Library of Economics and Liberty), http://www.econlib.org/library/Mill/mlP61.html.

3

Theories of Surplus Value, trans. G. A. Bonner and Emile Burns (New York: International, 1952), 427. It’s all much more complicated than this, of course. Marx’s comment was more properly in response to the doctrine of the falling rate of profit, another anxiety that haunted Smithian-Ricardian political economy. (He was specifically attacking the sanguine reassurances of Say’s Law.)

5

It actually gets even worse: “No country in the world currently meets the basic needs of its citizens at a globally sustainable level of resource use.”