Daily Archives: July 19, 2015


In the most recent news cycle, much of our attention has been ruled by a distant object, a body entirely beyond the reach of the simple citizens of Earth, cold, presenting a surface with an odd combination of smoothness and roughness but undented by the usual expected projectiles, a body that might appear to have a heart but of course we know it is just an icy illusion, a body drawn to our attention by a fantastically expensive endeavour…

But enough about Donald Trump and his presidential bid. I’d rather read about the Pluto formerly known as a planet. It truly is amazing to me that while we have all learned about the “ninth planet” since our childhoods, only now is it being seen in any surface detail at all. And it is fascinating – see for yourself.

We can, of course, go about our lives quite happily without directly concerning ourselves with Pluto, fascinating as it may be to at least some of us. But we cannot go through our lives without being affected by plutocracy: rule by the rich.

Donald Trump is slightly unusual in the openness of his plutocratic philosophy. Most US presidential candidates are rich, but even the rich ones try to pretend to have the view of a common person, at least when talking to general audiences (some of them have been caught making more plutocratic comments to audiences they assumed were entirely well moneyed – hey, who let the help have recording devices?). But there is a common assumption, often followed even when overtly denied, that people with money are more virtuous or at least more worth listening to. After all, we learned in our youth that you get money by working, so those who have more money have worked harder and smarter and must thus be worth following (and perhaps one of these stars will throw some money our way as they pass nearby too, no?).

This turns out not to be altogether reliably the case. The way you get to have a lot of money is by finding the most efficient means of accumulating more of it. Once you come to have a certain amount (by work, cunning, luck, or inheritance), you can use that to give you a considerable advantage in further accumulation. Those of us who play poker know that if you have a big stack of chips you can make big bets that will bully many of the people with shorter stacks off the table, and even if you lose one or two hands a stack advantage tends to compound itself unless you get reckless and fritter it away. And many of us in the working world have noticed that a company with a big bottom line can use it to squeeze out smaller companies. Beyond that, though, the way they get all that money is simply by extracting value disproportionate to their investment of time, money, and effort.

This is true for everything at root: the sun constantly sends us energy that drives a renewing cycle of growth; without it we would not have plant life, which gives us food (and the food that eats that food, i.e., meat) and, over much longer periods, such things as petroleum, which we are currently extracting faster than it is being made (see above about reckless gamblers). We would be as cold and lifeless as Pluto if we did not have the abundant free heat and light of our nearby star. Similarly, in the world of business, you as a company owner are able to increase your wealth by taking a share of the value created by your employees. A person like Donald Trump does not have billions because he works a million times as hard as a person who has thousands. He has billions because he has found ways to take a goodly cut of the value created by millions of people. Those people have thousands because they do not get the full value of their own efforts, and they don’t get all that much of a cut of the value of anyone else’s efforts either.

Well, that’s how the system works. It has been popular, too, and not without reason. We have created laws to help keep the most egregious ways of extracting values from others from happening too much. People such as Donald Trump manage to keep their businesses generally legal, or anyway not to get caught and punished for doing illegal things. But in the eyes of many, there is only an artificial line between a plutocrat such as Trump and some lord of the underworld.

Hmm. Pluto was the lord of the Underworld. So why would not plutocrats be lords of the underworld?

Ha ha. That pun works in English because we don’t have contrastive vowel length between the two roots. It keeps us from telling two things apart that seem similar but actually have nothing in common other than coincidence. On the one hand is classical Latin Plūtō (they didn’t write the macrons, but we do to keep track of which vowels are long), which comes from ancient Greek Πλούτων. He’s the brother of Jupiter and Neptune and is the god of the underworld (by the way, to fill in the planets, Uranus was a Titan, but Titan is a moon of Saturn, who was a god; the gods are descended from the Titans, but… oh, never mind). On the other hand is πλοῦτος, Greek for ‘wealth’. Note the difference between ω, which is omega (meaning ‘big o’), and ο, which is omicron (meaning ‘small o’). The former is long; the latter, short. Also note that the accent mark is different between ού and οῦ – an intonation difference that is made now only by classicists, and not them always either.

So there is no more connection between Pluto and plutocrats, really, than between people who gain political influence by being able to pay to look like they care and those who gain it by actually caring (I think there are some), or between government of the people by the rich people for the rich people and government of the people by representatives of all the people for all the people. Or between the planet Pluto and the Disney dog Pluto. Or, for that matter, between the dog Pluto and that other dog, Goofy.

How does that happen, now, that they’re both dogs, but Goofy gets a voice while Pluto just barks? Hm. Well, I’d rather listen to someone who makes some kind of sense, however goofy, than someone who just makes noises for attention.