Thursday, January 28, 2016

Kid gloves, bees, and fleas

There is an expression that I'd wager most people have heard or even used themselves: to handle (or treat) something with kid gloves. The sense of this expression is that of a gentle or delicate approach: whatever is being handled is being handled carefully. For instance, a tense diplomatic situation might require "kid gloves." Or someone tasked with laying off employees might be told by management to "handle it with kid gloves."

Source: Harvard Business School
But what does the phrase actually mean? Some might assume that the "kid" in the phrase "kid gloves" is some sort of age-based reference, that the idea is to be as gentle as one would be with a child. And while such an understanding works, for all intents and purposes, it is not correct in the least. Kid gloves are in fact a specific type of gloves that became popular among the upper class of 18th century England (and other parts of Europe). They are gloves made from the skin of a kid, a young goat. As such, they are delicate, soft, and very light-colored (almost white, in fact). Think of the gloves butlers are usually depicted as wearing in period pieces and you'll have the right idea. Or of a wealthy woman sitting in a salon sipping tea and wearing white gloves.

Thus, the sense of the expression—to handle something carefully—is a product of the nature of the gloves. Kid gloves are not work gloves, they are not appropriate for farming, for loading cargo, for working in a factory, etc. They are too easily dirtied and damaged, so one must be careful when wearing them.

Now, kid gloves—made from kid leather—were not cheap in the eighteenth and nineteenth century world. And since they were not useful in the ways that other leather gloves were, they were very much luxury items (thus making them even more expensive, since the people buying them tended to be wealthy). And in the past—like in the current world—there always existed "knock off" kinds of goods, especially with regards to fashion. Kid gloves were, as I said, made from the skin of young goats. But glovers (people who made gloves) often used lambskin instead, as it was more plentiful and cheaper than goatskin. As long as such knock-offs had the right color and seemed soft enough, few buyers could tell the difference. And really, what difference did it really make? One was as good as the other, right?

Sure. Tell that to someone with a knock-off Rolex or Chanel bag today who thought they were buying the real thing. We're talking major status symbol here. A well-to-do women in eighteenth century England would be mortified to discover her gloves were not real kid leather, especially if this was pointed out by a contemporary. So, getting lambskin gloves when one paid for kid gloves was a real thing, on par with getting an 8-karat gold ring today when one paid for a 24-karat gold ring. Rip-off! Outrageous!

As evidence of this, consider the following passage from Bernard Mandeville's 1705 poem, The Grumbling Hive (which I've previously provided in full):
One, that had got a Princely Store,
By cheating Master, King, and Poor,
Dared cry aloud; The Land must sink
For all its Fraud; And whom d'ye think
The Sermonizing Rascal chid?
A Glover that sold Lamb for Kid.
The poem itself is often wrongly (though understandably) referred to as The Fable of the Bees. In reality, the latter is the name of the book Mandeville wrote about the ideas in the poem, principally that of how private vices resulted in public goods, essentially an argument for spontaneous order in the market place, for a laissez-faire approach to the economy.

The poem is the story of a hive of bees who succeeded in creating a powerful and wealthy hive, as compared to others, because of the industry created by vices like vanity, pride, and greed. Ultimately, the hive collapses because many bees complain about theses vices and the corruption and fraud they cause to the point that their god strips them of all their vices. This destroys most of the industries in the hive, production and trade all but cease, and the hive becomes weaker and weaker and smaller and smaller.

The verse quoted above references the beginning of the end, as it were, as people who have gotten rich from the system begin to complain loudly about how unfair the system is. In this particular case, we have a bee who is a supremely wealthy—he has a "princely store"—by virtue of his own gaming of the system—"cheating Master, King and Poor" (which we might easily rephrase as his financiers, the state, and the poor)—loudly complaining (whining) about how he has been cheated. By who? By a glover who sold him kid gloves that were actually lambskin. And that one affront, that is enough to cause his massive overreaction, nevermind how he's been doing far worse to so many others. The fact that he was cheated/mistreated means the whole system is corrupt and needs to be changed.

Sound familiar? Am I too clever by half (another interesting turn of phrase that could use some backstory, though not right now)? Of late, we've had a series of billionaires mouthing off about corruption and the like, about how the government needs to clamp down on this vice or that vice (Bloomberg), about how there needs to be more taxes on the wealthy (Buffett, Soros, and previous versions of Trump), about corruption in general (pretty much all of them), about the media playing favorites (again, pretty much all of them), and so on and so on.

Think about this. These turkeys used the system, manipulated it for their own benefit across decades. Now they're screaming foul? After they've made their billions? Since Trump is currently in the national spotlight, lets focus on him. His bankruptcies are common knowledge. He'd have us believe that's a positive, that this history demonstrates his business acumen. It probably does. It shows he knows how to game the system. Because each time he declared bankruptcy, someone else had to eat the debt he accrued and couldn't pay back. Okay, sometimes these somebodies were banks and the like (who still didn't deserve to get used), but other times they were individuals and small businesses (especially in construction). Trump's bankruptcies ruined many of them. Ruined.

Then there's the current hoopla between Trump and FoxNews (Megyn Kelly). Trump is whining up a storm because he imagines he's being treated unfairly, so much so that he's refusing to participate in a debate with Kelly as a moderator. Awww, the poor wittle billionaire! Kelly was mean to him and he thinks its unfair! Never mind his unceasing misogynistic comments, his constant name-calling, and the fact that he is getting non-stop media attention, regardless. This is wrong! It's not right! The mythical establishment controls FoxNews and it's out to get him!


Yet amazingly, Trump's supporters are still there, still continue to back him, accept his mealy-mouthed justification for his actions and buy into his over-arching point of view: that the system as is completely corrupt and it needs and outsider in the person of Trump to fix it (and to be fair, Hillary Clinton is steadily walking this same road, carrying the same sort of baggage as Trump).

In my view, Trump's supporters are in for a rude awakening, should Trump win the nomination and somehow the Presidency. He's not equipped to fix anything. He is personally far too invested in the system and its inherent corruption to manage any sort of real change, apart from blowing the whole thing up, not unlike our erstwhile cheating bee. Because Trump—like that bee—imagines that he can  somehow emerge untouched from such a purge, despite the reality of his own background. And those flocking to his side? Well, we all know what happens when you lie down with dogs...
Qui cum canibus concumbunt cum pulicibus surgent.

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