On Arguing Economics

Just to get the main point across allow me to start this post by simply stating, there exists no such thing as the economic model from which we can impartially derive any sort of self-evident conclusions, policies, or values.  By which I mean that there is no purity test to determine which economic model is somehow more objectively “valid” than another.

For example, take two modern economic models that stand on completely opposite sides of the spectrum:  Marxist communism and laissez-faire freemarket capitalism.  [I’m aware that different people have over the decades attempted to give varying definitions within both these models, thereby making an overreaching analysis on my part impossible; hence, I will primarily be addressing elements that are agreed upon components by almost all professional voices in the aforementioned fields.]  Putting aside what Marxism has come to mean to the layperson through the various revolutionary forces that carried its banner in the 20th Century, at the core of the economic model is the proposition that societal development is best understood as the process by which humans–as a collective–produce the necessities of life (often referred to as historical materialism among Marxist scholars).  While the nuances of the whole thing can get very convoluted from here on out, the basic framework Marx was working off of, within this scope of historical materialism, is that human society is better served if the workers who physically produce the products necessary for the life of all of society retained economic control over said products.  From this he further postulated the emergence of a commune like market of commerce, in which production is owned and distributed equally among all sectors of society (i.e. communism), as a historical inevitability that human development is progressively heading towards in the modern era.

The theoretical problem of course in the Marxist economic model is that the validity of historical materialism is dependent on the notion that we accept the validity of historical materialism; this is otherwise known as a tautology (or circular argument), and is fallacious by definition.  The practical part being ignored in this model is that the perception of human progress as developing towards one specific sociocultural norm or another is only evident in hindsight, and any economic/social course that ends up developing can in retrospect be rationalized in terms of its preceding events; this is true even for identical situations that yield contrasting outcomes.  Not to mention, if we are to approach economics from a historical perspective (as Marxism claims) a decent case could be made that human nature (even in modern, industrial time) seems to be more conducive on creating hierarchical social structures, rather than collective communes.

Before any freemarket advocates who might be reading this start handing out congratulatory “Likes” to my dismantling of Marxism (I’m looking your way libertarians and self-styled classical liberals), it needs to be said that the reasoning underlying laissez-faire freemarket capitalism fares no better than its socialist antipodes.  The premise that economic sectors perform at their best when market forces are allowed to compete unmolested by non-market factors (like the government), rests on the idea that little to no regulation will in itself create an environment in which all the various forces that make up the marketplace will have to compete against one another; theoretically leaving the final word on what products/serves are to succeed in the freemarket to the consumers (i.e. all of us).  In theory, this sounds great; in practice, just like when it comes to Marxist economics, historical data casts a few doubts on the extent to which laissez-faire capitalism holds up.

First, the proposition that the freemarket is something akin to a self-sustaining, self-correcting organism ignores the fact that the freemarket is–above all else–entirely man-made.  The freemarket, as an economic plane in which human beings exchange commerce, is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, anymore than a locomotive is a naturally occurring phenomenon; we purposefully invented it to serve our economic needs.  Thus, to argue a “hands-off” approach to an entity whose very existence is owed to primarily “hands-on” interests, can be argued to be more than a bit narrow-sighted.

More than that, when we look at the era in which laissez-faire freemarket capitalism thrived unmitigated in the U.S.–the late 19th and early 20th Centuries–instead of seeing a marketplace of robust competition, driven by the needs of the consumer, we see a gradual concentration of market power in the hands of a handful of conglomerates.  The reason being that, economically speaking, the initial surge in competition experienced in a newly emerging market, left to its own devices, can in time have a minority of businesses surpass their competition to the point that they are virtually the only option on the market left for the consumer.  In this historical scenario, the presence of a laissez-faire freemarket did not create a healthy competitive environment, nor did it have any means to correct the centralization of commerce powers in the hands of the few over the many.  (In fact, in this case the government actually did have to step in and implement anti-monopoly laws to try and introduce competition back into the market.)  Therefore, the unanswered (or unanswerable) question concerning laissez-faire capitalism is the issue of–given the proposition that faceless, easily corrupted government agencies cannot be trusted enough to interfere with the business operations of the freemarket–why faceless, easily corruptible conglomerates ought to, for some reason, be seen as more trustworthy in this regard?

Although this much should be obvious by now, the point of this post isn’t to convince anyone to accept the superiority of one economic theory over another.  Even as far as the two (admittedly more extreme) examples cited above, I’m sure that given more time and interest we all could go back and forth listing all the sincere benefits and advantages of both Marxism and laissez-faire capitalism.  Acknowledging this, my greater point about economics remains the same, which is that while the historical study of economics can produce viable, scientifically tangible, insights about some aspect of human societies (primarily developments in the commercial and fiscal sectors), proposed economic theories themselves lack this level of scientific rigor.  All economic theories (be it Marxism, laissez-faire capitalism, or anything in between) by necessity begin with an assumed conclusion (“human society is naturally moving towards a collective communal state”, “the freemarket operates best when left unregulated”, etc. etc. etc.) and then go on to selectively interpret all socioeconomic developments through the lens of whatever situation is more conducive to the promotion of the favored economic conditions already accepted by the economic theory in question.

From this it certainly does not logically follow that all economic theories are equal in their outcome (whether for good or bad).  Or that any one economic theory couldn’t be claimed as more preferable for any specific society (I think most reading this can agree that feudalism would generally be a horrible model for modern society).  What it does mean is that there is no such thing as an all-encompassing, omniscient economic system deduced through unfiltered objective reality, as opposed to individual, subjective human preferences.  In light of that, I think perhaps talks of economics from opposing viewpoints is due a bit more humility and reservation about one’s own pet theories, than what is currently on display in public discourse.

Just some food for thought, savor it as you wish.

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James Frey: A Lesson of Honesty in Writing

In 2003, James Frey published a widely acclaimed memoir, titled A Million Little Pieces, about his experiences as a young addict struggling to rehabilitate his life back to sobriety.  It is a dark and engaging account of the depth to which a person can fall as his inner demons–in this case, manifesting externally in the form of crack and booze–brings him to a crossroads in which the next handful of decisions could literary be the determining factor between life or death.

Needless to say, the reading public responded very well to the book, and Frey was heralded not just as a great writer and storyteller, but as somewhat of a hero for those who have been affected by the horrors of addiction (either personally, or vicariously), for whom he served as an eloquent communicator to the general public on how to emphasize with their less-than-sober counterparts in society.

As time went by, praise and attention continued to grow, and Frey’s star shined bright enough to even warrant attention from Oprah Winfrey’s coveted Book Club (surely, the hallmark of any author serious about actually selling her or his book in the industry).  Around this same time, however, a different sort of attention was also creeping up and casting a more accusatory shadow over Frey’s spotlight.  Eventually, after much push and pull, and pontificating about integrity and trust, it was revealed that a large chunk of the details concerning Frey’s lived experiences in the book, were not lived experiences at all.  Although we don’t know exactly to what extend things have been fabricated in the faux-memoir, we do know that just about every event detailed that ought to be verifiable (i.e. police records, specific people and interactions, etc.) simply aren’t.  So much so, that the book nowadays sits in the fiction section of your local bookstore, and serves as a case in point of a literary forgery.

Despite all the controversy, it needs to be said that James Frey is actually a decent writer, and A Million Little Pieces is not a badly written book, and given his knack for storytelling he has gone on to write several subsequent works that are equally engaging and enjoyable (though, since the incident, he has wisely kept both feet squarely within the realm of fiction; showing that a person truly can learn something from a degree of public shame).  Thus, the question I’m more interested in concerning this entire mess isn’t really about Frey’s stand alone role in this matter, but rests more on the issue regarding the extend to which the writing world (writ large) has a professional obligation to maintain honesty with its readers?

The question should be an easy one on first sight, for who would say out loud that writers need to be free to unabashedly lie to their audience?  This is especially true for writers whose prose rests in the realm of non-fiction.  Yet, although certainly true, I think just repeating a platitude on this matter does little to really convey the seriousness of an incident like this.

Sticking with the example at hand, I read Frey’s book after the drama had already unfolded, and was never in doubt about the faulty veracity of its claims as one might have been if they came to the work under the ruse of it being an honest memoir of a person’s private struggles.  I can see how someone who had become emotionally invested in the story of the flawed-yet-persistent person fighting to gain back some semblance of meaning and sanity in his chaotic life, would have felt more than a little betrayed on hearing that this “real” person was a mere sensationalized character in one authors hopeful attempt at circumnavigating through the competitive hoops of the publishing world.  They felt duped, and rightfully so, because in a very clear way they were.  And this one experience could very well sour the public and harden a cynical attitude towards the apparently appalling lack of a rigorous vetting process on the hands of publishers more concerned with making a buck of off people’s empathy, then researching on whether the “real-life” story they’re selling is in fact bunk.

This is where the responsibility lies, in my opinion.  The literary world as a whole has an obligation to at the very least accurately promote the product they are selling.  And to do so prior to publication, not post-public outcry, which (let’s be honest) will still push sales by virtue of secondhand curiosity alone.  I accept that I’m naive in my thinking to expect a business to prioritize integrity and honesty over financial imperatives, but seeing as how–if I’m inclined to share an opinion on the matter–I feel obligated it be an honest one; be it idealist, if it must.

The Importance of Consistency in Fiction

The appealing thing about writing fiction as opposed to nonfiction is having the ability to create one’s own reality in the prose.  Be it gravity, atmosphere, characters’ sensory perception, human anatomy and mortality, none of these things need to be bound to the limitations we ourselves feel in our daily lives.  This is a powerful tool that allows authors to explore and describe the world’s they create with interesting insights without having to worry about being in line with the minutiae details of modern physics, and let’s them appeal to the reader’s wonder about the infinite realm of possibilities concerning reality as it can be challenged by her/his imagination.

Science fiction is an excellent example of this, both in book and movie form, where entire alternate universes can be conjured up with their own set of logical rules and physical laws that characters have to abide by.  There is a pitfall in this whole formula, however, that’s easy to fall into if an author is not careful.  While it is true that the sole limitation to the worlds you create is the depth of your own imagination, it needs to be remembered that what makes even a fantasy world realistic and believable to the audience is that–once its rules and laws are laid out–it remains consistent to its own reality.

If characters in a story generally cannot fly, having a character suddenly appear in chapter ten who inexplicable flies is an example of inconsistency.  If the monsters of the story are initially described as slow moving and clumsy, having them give chase in the middle of the story to create suspense is an example of inconsistency.  Speech patterns are a similar issue, where if a character’s accent quirks are sometimes emphasized in text and other times they are not, this is an example of inconsistency.

Generally, in epic sagas like Lord of the Rings it is understood that occasional logical flaws will occur for the sake of keeping the plot going (i.e. why didn’t the Eagles just take Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom at the start of the books, because then the story would be resolved in one book, rather than a trilogy).  Small-scale errors most readers can forgive for the sake of the narrative.  It’s when bigger, more obvious gaps in logic occur that many start to raise their eyebrows suspiciously.  For example, why do the vampires in Twilight go to school?  They’re over a hundred years old in the story, what reason do they have to keep attending high school?  And since they don’t age, do they have to keep changing schools so as not to have to explain why they spent the last ten decades in the same exact grade?  Since they do have regular contact with humans via having to go to school, why aren’t more people suspicious about the fact that none of them have aged, ever?

Science fiction films tend to be even worse offenders to this rule of consistency.  The now forgotten 1994 time traveling movie Timecop, sets up a reality in which time travel exists.  Within this reality they make the explicit mention that you can only travel to the past, never to the future; essentially making this the one and only “time travel rule” the characters need to follow.  Yet, the plot goes on to break this rule almost immediately by having characters who have traveled back to the past return back to their former present; even though, technically, when they travel to the past that past becomes their present, so returning to their original timeline means they are traveling to the future, which is they one thing the plot explicitly states you cannot do in this time traveling reality.  And it’s never explained how this is possible, even in a halfhearted way.  The viewer is simply expected not to notice.  But we do, and we are naturally put off by it, even if we can’t fully articulate why at first viewing.

If you are setting out to write fiction, and epic fantasy fiction at that, by all means let your only limits be the depth of your own creativity.  But please, for the sake of all our collective rational senses (as well as the senses of the characters you have so painstakingly born onto the page), don’t cheapen the experience by failing to have your worlds adhere to the rules and laws of the realities you yourself saw fit to give life to on the page.  Your future legion of devoted readers and admirers will thank you for it.

The Problem with The Walking Dead: A Case of Bad Storytelling

The Walking Dead TV show (henceforth to be referred to as TWD in this post for the sake of preserving valuable time and endangered cybertrees) has been going on for eight seasons now, with potentially many more seasons to follow in the years to come.  The original source material, The Walking Dead graphic novels, have also been in publication for close to fifteen years, so there’s little reason to think that the show’s writers will run out of material or story arcs anytime soon.  I’m aware that writing this criticism of the show will be seen as somewhat pointless by some readers as an ever greater portion of TWD’s fan base has steadily been voicing their displeasure with the direction, pacing, and overall content that the show has been putting out for the better part of (at least) the last four seasons or so.

Usual complaints range from too many boring filler episodes that are hardly necessary for the amount of time spent on them (i.e. we really don’t need to see flashbacks of secondary characters wandering through the woods before they met up with the main cast, especially if we already got the jest of it through previous dialogues exchanged between the characters; we have imaginations with which we can piece spoken/written narratives together, it’s one reason why books still exist, after all).  Contrived moral dilemmas that seem out of place in the reality of the world the characters inhabit (i.e. Morgan’s infuriatingly laughable pacifist stance when it comes to even killing literal undead monsters that feed on the flesh of the very people he considers his friends and loved ones; it is not a noble position to be respected, it is just stupid, even for a guy that went–still is[?]–crazy).  The introduction of characters that had no great impact in the overall plot despite heavy buildup (i.e. the Terminus crew of anally-retentive cannibals), or whose presence/nature defy belief (i.e. the Trash People of season seven, who in the mere 2-3 years since the zombie apocalypse have forgotten how to speak in complete sentences, despite being fully grown adults who presumably went through a school system and had some semblance of a regular life prior to the relatively recent fall of civilization).  And, of course, the fact that the show is hardly even about walkers/zombies anymore, who serve largely as a background piece to all the issues discussed above.

I see all these complaints, and largely agree with them.  Many more invested writers have done a great job giving full analyses on these issues (and many more), and I see no point in harping on them further than I already have.  What I want to discuss here is a criticism that I personally haven’t come across all that much, and that is that TWD suffers, and will continue to suffer, from a key flaw repeated in most bad storytelling: lack of optimistic direction for the characters/story itself.

The dystopian concept of a hopeless world isn’t new, and has been used for a longtime in fiction.  However, what separates a well-written dystopian story from a bad one is that even in a hopeless environment the reader/viewer is given some notion that the protagonists can have some kind of ultimate triumph over the hopelessness that plagues them.  That doesn’t mean that a happy ending has to be delivered at the story’s resolution (in many powerful cases, it’s not), but if there is no semblance of any kind of optimism that readers/viewers can get emotionally invested in during the progression of the plot, what exactly is the point to continue to care about where the character/story is heading?

Within the reality of TWD, everyone–and I do mean, every single person on the planet–is infected with the zombie virus that will be triggered once s/he dies, regardless of whether s/he came in contact with a zombie.  As of the moment of this writing, the plot has given no indication that there’s any chance of a cure to this ultimate fate for the characters (the first’s season hinted that there isn’t).  Nor is there any attempt by the characters to investigate the possibility of such a cure (notwithstanding Eugene’s scientist charade, which the main cast was never really dedicated in pursuing besides very briefly, and then mostly as a means of moving the plot setting out of Georgia).  So, the original dilemma of the show were the zombies, and since we do not, and seemingly cannot, resolve that dilemma, ever, the next dilemma for us (the viewers) to be invested in is the protagonists’ continued survival in this hopeless world.  The problem is that, if the dilemma is learning to survive in a world where “zombie-state” is the inevitable fate for everyone, we’ve already seen the fully extend of how the characters would cope with this reality, and one would argue repeatedly so in the course of the last seven seasons.  So what’s left to see?  What is the ultimate payoff that they deliver to the viewer from here?  Are they going to learn how to fortify themselves from the undead threat better than we have already seen them do in Alexandria?  Seems unlikely.

The repeated attempts to introduce new villainous characters to serve as antagonists to the main characters each and every season is also redundant in the grand scheme of things.  At the moment, the main villain is Negan.  I’m supposed to care if Negan’s group (the antagonists) defeats Rick’s group (the protagonists).  But let’s say the so-called unthinkable happens, and Negan does win the war against Rick’s group.  In the end, Negan is still human, and Negan will eventually die (even if just from old age), and then Negan will be just another mindless zombie in a world littered with equally mindless zombies.  Again I ask, what ultimately is the point?  What is the payoff for us to get emotionally invested in as viewers?  Because I really don’t see one.  Furthermore, I would argue the writers of the show (and, yes, I’d put the graphic novels in this same boat) have failed to give us much to really care about anymore at this point.

I know there are fan theories online about how maybe those born after the zombie outbreak (like Rick’s daughter Judith) might be immune to its effects, but short of the show/plot actually confirming this it remains mere fan speculation.  Maybe it will be the note that the show finally ends on to give us a bit of needed optimism for this world’s fate of humanity, but at this point, given how there has been no buildup to any such dramatic revelation, I wouldn’t be surprised if such a plot point was met with a resounding “meh” from the viewers that haven’t already moved on by then.

As much as I hate admitting it given how much I enjoyed this show at one point, I have to be honest that The Walking Dead has given me no real reason to care about what happens from here on out, no reason to be emotionally invested in its continued plot development, and therefore no reason to continue to invest my time in it.

“One among the stars…”

13.7 billion years traveled.

100 billion galaxies crossed.

4.5 billion years endured.

170 million generations survived.

 

Crossed a distance beyond innumerable stars…

Endured dangers of every imaginable kind…

Until it was passed down to a…

…7 billion…

…billion…

…billion…

…string of chemical bonds.

 

And each atom in this bond…

is unique in its own regard…

so there isn’t a part of you that makes up who you are…

that doesn’t speak to your birthright among the stars.

“Sitting as I’m reclined to sit…”

Sitting as I’m reclined to sit, to watch the sages of my age

Rivet us with tales of worry ’bout the happenings of the day.

 

The scorn rises from the cynics lips; lisping laments for the lame.

The jester gestures at the festive scene of stalwarts’ silly seriousness.

While the content point to the sky on high, to avoid the pits below;

The discontent comfort in the pits beneath, to not be burdened by too much sunny hope.

 

And I sit, still inclined to recline, afar from these treats, and tricks, and qualms, and psalms,

Hearing these sages happily sing sorrowful splendors, soaring through a splintered sky.

 

“This age is lost, and masses stupid!” shouts the cynic from his stool.

The jester shrieks, “Oh, what fun it is to mock so cruel, and play the fool that beats the fools!”

“But hope is near, no need to fear!” come the voices from a happy few.

“I’ll hear no more, your hope I scorn!” snub back the hopeless legion, shrill and lewd.

 

And I sit, inclined to try and define, whilst still seated reclined,

How to approach the voices bestowing wisdom onto me.

How to understand these people eager to define the world for me.

What views to hold; what views to scold.

Which to mock…flock to…and which to block.

 

Only wanting to understand whose banner I am most inclined to stand under.