Sunday, July 18, 2004
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It would have worked if it wasn't for those meddling French literary critics!!
Curse that Ilias Yocaris!!
Last month, the professor of literary theory and French literature at the University Institute of Teacher Training in Nice published an essay about the Harry Potter series in Le Monde. Now the New York Times translates it for today's op-ed page. The highlights:
Dammit, the capitalist shock troops were supposed to get to Yocaris before he spilled the beans!!
Read the whole thing, if only for the amusement value. I found myself with four semi-serious responses (in increasing order of seriousness):
OK, I'm clearly taking this way too seriously.
The Times, incidentally, opens the essay by observing that "This article... got particular attention, including an essay published in response arguing that Harry is an antiglobalist crusader."
UPDATE: On my last point, I will Henry Farrell's argument that, "Dan just hasn’t been reading the right science fiction/science fantasy books." Certainly the sci-fi I've read that has stuck with me -- William Gibson, Philip K. Dick -- did not ignore the laws of economics. Mostly I was reacting to the endless hours of Star Trek I've consumed over the years. And I will be sure to read some of Henry's suggestions -- right after I get that tenure thing behind me.posted by Dan on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM
I've always thought the "economics" of Star Trek deserved attention, but you're mistaken about why Star Fleet officers don't carry cash (or even have pockets, apparently): they don't have to because apparently Star Fleet gets what it wants for the asking. Watch the very first 2-hour episode of Next Generation: not only is the culture on the planet falling over themselves to get a starbase there, apparently spending a big part of the gross planetary product to do so, but when Dr Crusher wants a bolt of cloth in the market, she doesn't negotiate a price, she says "send it to the ship."
There really are only two kinds of economic transaction: "let's trade things of mutual value toward mutual satisfaction" and "give it to me or else." This always looked to me to be more or less of an "or else" economy.
As far as Harry Potter goes, there is an anti-racist, egalitarian, meritocratic aspect that only a French marxist critic could miss, but there's another key here: Harry is a gifted but abused child who escapes from the abusive world into a world of great challenges and great power.posted by: Charlie (Colorado) on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
Man, for a post that used the word "cleavage" so many times, I expected pictures! :)posted by: fling93 on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
> The worst aspect of science fiction/science fantasy
MARCU$posted by: Marcus Lindroos on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
Dan, I think you're kind of proving that critic's point here. In a sci-fi world filled with things like warp drive, replicators, holo-decks, transporters and large-breasted former Borg drones who somehow manage to breathe in their ultra-tight spandex uniforms, the thing you just can't get past is the idea that capitalism might have given way to some other economic model.
What was it that Prof. Yocaris said? Oh yes:
"The underlying message to young fans is this: You can imagine as many fictional worlds, parallel universes or educational systems as you want, they will still all be regulated by the laws of the market."
It seems that you've as much as admitted that he's right, based on your own experience.posted by: Dave on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
That is because Yocaris was more accurate than he knew. Because capitalism is not a system to impose, but a description of how people like us actually act, imagining a different economy would mean imagining A) An imposed economy like feudalism, or B) a different type of human being. Sci-Fi has imagined some of each.
I think it would be cool if socialism worked. I find it disappointing that it doesn't. But hey, it doesn't. A free-enterprise model dominates others because it more efficiently harnesses human nature.
This is not to say that some future thinkers may not discover some method of exchange which even more exactly captures How People Are.posted by: Assistant Village Idiot on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
OK, I'm clearly taking this way too seriously.
Not at all. You're merely acting like the stereotypical right whinger who cannot abide any discussion on topics that might be construed as criticism against the core right whinge beliefs.posted by: Robert McClelland on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
I think the issue of sexism in HP is worthy of more attention than its economics, but there is something odd about a culture in which one race is as best I recall entirely devoted to hoarding gold (the goblins) and the enslavement of at least one other (the house elves) is only remarkable to one character. In many ways it's a nightmare universe.posted by: rilkefan on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
Many years ago I brought home a copy of one of the "Barbar the Elephant" series of comics. I then read it and immediately banned the series from the house as "economic pornography". Returning from France, Barbar brings civilization by establishing a Bureau of Industry and a Bureau of Leisure. My children shook their heads at yet another manifestation of one of their parent's idiosyncracies. A decade later, one of the children remarked that after reading a Barbar comic, one could only agree with my initial assessment. Furthermore, Barbar was massively racist.
Children's lit often does embody implicit political political viewpoints. The question is, does it have any measureable effect?posted by: Acad Ronin on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
But Yocaris is also right - why the heck is Harry Potter's world a capitalist world? How can anyone make a profit selling goods to a person who can conjure anything he wants by waving a wooden stick? Why would a wizard ever buy anything?
Now, in Harry Potter's novels, there does seem to be a partial answer. You don't see anybody selling groceries or firewood, you see them selling books - intellectual property - and crazy candies - an invention, also intellectual property - and butterbeer - where the taste well depend on the artistic skill of the brewer, so it's more an art form than a material good.
posted by: Josh Yelon on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
Josh makes a good point, and one that's applicable to the Star Trek example raised in Dan's original post. What would (will?) the economic system be like in a world where technology (magic in the world of HP) eliminates the need to perform most menial work or purchase any basic commodities? Why do you need money when you can just wave a magic wand or press a replicator button to create whatever item you want? (Sure, it takes energy to run the replicator, but if we have freakin' replicators, I think it's safe to assume that the technology is advanced enough that energy costs are negligable.)
Intellectual property and physical space, i.e. where you live and how big your house is, are the only major commodities that would remain scarce, and hence subject to some sort of market-based economics.posted by: Dave on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
> Intellectual property and physical space, i.e. where you live and how big your house is, are the only major commodities that would remain scarce
I can't imagine an economy cropping up around intellectual property alone. What's the point?
Postulate a world where you can conjure any necessity effortlessly, but if you want original artwork (say, a painting), then that still takes substantial effort. In such a world, you could make money by selling original artwork - but why bother? So you have money to buy other original artwork? It sounds more like a game than an economy.
I would think that in that kind of world, what would happen is that people who feel inspired would create art for the pure joy of it. Those who feel lazy wouldn't bother. And that would be that.
posted by: josh yelon on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
The argument for both Star Trek and Harry Potter seems to be that the laws of economics as we know them don't apply when scarcity is no longer a factor. After all, it is precisely because human needs are unlimited and resources are limited that the myriad laws of economics function. This argument was made by one of my economics professors.
However, the fact that things become available in abundance does NOT mean that scarcity is ended. Today, we have abundance that was unimaginable a century ago, let alone five centuries ago. The average person lives better than kings used to live. Yet we still have scarcity. In the world of Star Trek, energy is cheap and replicators provide abundant goods. Yet, scarcity still exists! To prove it, ask yourself why anyone who wants a starship can't just get one. These things can't be replicated whole, so the energy and construction costs would be prohibitive. If the prices of food and other basic goods continue to approach zero, there will always be more luxuries that remain scarce. Star Trek's socialist economics is a farce (and I say this as a huge fan of the show). Gene Roddenberry said the world of Star Trek would be one without hunger and without greed, but he obviously never grasped that it is capitalism that will take us from here to there.posted by: Amarnath Santhanam on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
Also keep in mind that all the Star Trek shows have focused on members of a small elite, namely starfleet officers. Perhaps Starfleet has basically uinlimited resources because they coerce planetbound civilizations into paying them huge amounts of tribute. Perhaps the Federation has such a bloated military budget that Starfleet doesn't need to worry about money. The truth is that we know very little about what life is like back on earth. For all we know there still is a scarcity-based capitalist economy. Or maybe everyone has pretty much everything they want and no one works for a living. Maybe the Federation uses some sort of mind control technology to keep its citizens from desiring anything scarce, thus undercutting the foundations of capitalism. The question just doesn't get answered.posted by: Eric on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
Star Trek often did show merchants and signs of a capitalist economy, but they were almost always negative and they usually didn't involve the Federation. You can't forget the Ferengi.posted by: Xavier on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
Henry's basically right about SF, and to a lesser degree fantasy, as a whole (follow the trackback to Crooked Timber); Dan's claim as a whole is much overstated.
But it's hard to overstate the nonsense of Star Trek's economic system.
The pretend-economics involved is: given enough dilithium, the replicators can make everything except more dilithium or latinum. So the rules of scarcity get concentrated onto those two goods-- dilithium as an energy source, and latinum as a means of exchange among those who don't have easy access to replicators and dilithium. (Those who do, have no apparent need of means of exchange.) SO DS9, out on the frontier, has a moderately real cash-based economy, while intra-Starfleet transactions are wholly cash-free. That much would be moderately OK.
The real problems come with what characters (especially but not only Picard) say about the system as a whole, whenever they're talking to Ferengi or time-travellers. It's fine for intra-Starfleet transactions to be cashless. It's not fine to pretend that somehow the whole of the known universe except the Ferengi abandoned the idea of exchange centuries ago. For one thing, the whole edifice rests on dilithium production, which is known to be miserable work. People have to be either induced to do it or enslaved; Starfleet personnel aren't just assigned dilithium mining as part of their duties. So wher does that self-righteous anticapitalist French prig of a captain think his shiny crystals come from? It ain't from the struggle for perfection of the soul and artistic appreciation that he's always going on about...
(In this as in much else, DS9 was much better than TNG, as the weight of Roddenberry's utopianism was allowed to lift from the series a bit.)
end geek rant...posted by: Jacob T. Levy on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
I don't recall dilithium being a central component of the economy in Star Trek. It's what runs the warp core of a starship, but I don't think they ever said anything about it being necessary for overall energy production. In fact, I think most of the energy production comes from matter/anti-matter reactions.
As far as who does the dilithium mining, though, I would think that robots are the main workers in the TOS and TNG eras, but in the Voyager era, we find out that semi-sentient holographic workers do the dirty work of the Federation now.posted by: Dave on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
Note that there are no journalists in the Starfleet world, and no lawyers in the wizarding world. These create holes similar to the missing economic components. Creating entire societies is harder than it looks.
I think dilithium is somehow used in the matter/antimatter reaction. The Federation often clashed with the Klingons in TOS over dilithium deposits, so it was definitely a scarce good during the 23rd century. But Geordi said something to Scotty in "Relics" about 24th century warp cores recrystalizing dilithium while it was still in the chamber. I'm not sure if that made dilithium no longer scarce, but securing dilithium didn't seem as important as it used to be.
It's not just the Ferengi that were interested in money. Most non-Federation races were interested in money to some degree. Even many Federation citizens were money grubbers if they weren't in Starfleet. Vash was human, but she was always looking to make money.
The economics of Star Trek are inconsistent even within each series, and when you look at Star Trek as a whole the inconsistencies are even worse.posted by: Xavier on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
Don't get people started on Voyager, which had deeper problems than a skewed view of economics.
I think Roddenberry's legacy probably crippled the Star Trek franchise with respect to economics. He really thought humans in the future wouldn't need money because they'd be better people; you can call this a philosophy if you want to, but I always thought of it as more of an attitude. It was not an attitude emphasized in the orignal series, and the questions raised then and later about how all those fancy starships were built and paid for were left unexplained.
The original conception of the Ferengi arose, I believe, from an aging Roddenberry's desire for a villain race who were not made up of better people and therefore were obsessed with money. After Roddenberry's death and the beginning of the DS9 franchise somewhat more realistic stories relating to commerce started to be written, though it was never a focus and the Ferengi graduated from villains to comic foils. But commerce is hardly ever the focus of commercial television series, which at the end of the day are about entertainment, not politics.
Blasting Star Trek for not grasping the principles of economics is like blasting your company's flag football team for not grasping the West Coast offense.posted by: Zathras on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
Hey! You all should know that negotiating prices and payments has been relegated to semi-autonomous operations below the level of personal awareness. That occurred in the 2300's when we crossed over the threshold of computing power that allowed nearly instantaneous translations of previously-unknown, non-human communications systems that allowed the Federation to expand so readily throughout our galaxy...
In the SF genre, Jack Vance creates intricate societies where the otherwise-savvy traveler often has to negotiate products, services, and prices in unfamiliar cultural environments, with hilarious consequences. "The Moon Moth" is a classic. And Vance's "Magnus Ridolf" character is a suave fellow that gets swindled in various business deals but manages to solve the problems and more than recover his losses, generally to the dismay of the swindlers.
Economics has laws?!
Surely you're not suggesting that it's perfectly alright to disobey the laws of a real science like physics (Heisenberg compensators anyone) but the "laws" of economics must not be tampered with for the sake of verisimilitude?posted by: WillieStyle on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
- I can't remember where I came across this point, but someone once observed the oddity of the Ferengi barter economy. No coinage, not even electronic funds transfer. You'd expect better from shrewd businessmen.
- Replicators can't replicate everything. One TNG episode concerned a medication that couldn't be replicated. Also, in several TNG episodes characters comment on how replicated food doesn't taste like the real thing. Realistically there would be markets for such items (as well as services and intellectual property).
- When they release the later seasons of DS9 on DVD, they should insert some "No War For Dilithium!" protesters on the promenade deck.posted by: Alan K. Henderson on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
"The worst aspect of science fiction/science fantasy books is their malign neglect of the laws of economics."
Anyone who knows anything about science must be rolling on the floor laughing about this. Science fiction, at least, is about science--or at least it used to be. There is nothing scientific about economics.posted by: raj on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
Read Neuromancer by Gibson -- it definitely does not ignonre capitalism. Won the sci-fi trifecta in terms of awards and was what the matrix should have been.posted by: Jor on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
Mebbe someone should send this French twit a copy of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, who penned the immortal line, "There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch".
No there isn't, not even in the south of France.
Neal Stephenson's latest books -- Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle -- are are usually shelved in the SF section, even though they might be better described as historical fiction since they tell stories set in the present, WWII era, and the 17th C.
I think this is largely due to the fact that Stephenson's fan base discovered him in his depictions of high-tech futures (Snow Crash, Diamond Age), and retailers want to put his books where his fans can still find them.
However, one can argue that the Baroque Cycle is something you might call historical science fiction. It is in large part a story about the origins of modern science in the 17th C. It is also more deeply obsessed with economics than any other novel I've ever read. It wouldn't be a stretch to call parts of it "economics fiction" -- as it is a rip-roaring, swash-buckling tale about the early days of international commerce, standardized currency, banking, and the stock exchange. Reading it has made me want to to take a continuing ed class in the subject so I can keep up.
(Here's a peculiar personal "brush with greatness" aside: I'm pretty sure that I own a small fraction of the rather extensive SF collection of the adolescent Brad DeLong. His little brother was my best friend in high school, and I think he got much of his SF from Brad. And when his family sold the house they had grown up in, they bequeathed to me as much of the SF/Fantasy paperback collection that I could carry -- several boxes worth -- and, packrat that I am, I still have most of them -- the Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorecock, Fritz Leiber, Spider Robinson and a dash of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman for good measure.)posted by: Browning on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
The TIMES has, in it's own op-ed pages apparently, confirmed the perception of their trying to buck Capitalism in all it's forms and representations.
....If we're to take hteir complaint here seriously, at least.posted by: Bithead on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
I guess what bothers/interests me about the whole StarTrek thing is that there seems to be a correspondence of StarTrek interest with interest in the Libertarian party. This is just baffling. The Federation sounds like the UN with (i) actual powers and (ii) extraterrestrial aliens with the authority to tel earthlings what to do.
And, in StarTrek, one does not notice that the Federation has much in the way of Democratic transparency, or accountability to anyone.(You think there's be protests if the Federation did not get permission from the Senate to attack the Romulans.)
I could be wrong. I still think of Startrek in terms of Captain Kirk and tribbles, and Picard is something of a pretender. (And what are these other series you folks are talking about, anyway?)posted by: Appalled Moderate on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
Why is it that Marx's neologism "capitalisim" is used (and one might add derogatorially) rather than "private enterprise"?
Because by now that "neo"-logism is more than 150 years old.
Glad I could help.
And because it's difficult to come up with something that's obviously more accurate or politically neutral. "Private enterprise" can also include the mafia and the National Education Association.posted by: Roger Sweeny on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
Several years ago Edward Banfield wrote an article called, "Let Them See Fakes." It was possible, he said, to replicate (he didn't use the word) great works of art. The copies could then be put in museums worldwide and great art would be visible to millions and millions of people who don't get the chance now.
The reaction from museum people was horror. No matter how good they looked, the copies would be "fakes." There was something special in being in the presence of the original.
This seems a magical/religious attitude but it is certainly human. People seem to have an attraction to the unduplicatable, the one-of-a-kind, the "they-aren't-making-any-more-of-these.
Fairly often, a committee of art experts concludes that a painting recognized as, say, a Rembrandt is actually by a "student of Rembrandt." Though the painting hasn't changed, its "value" immediately plummets to a tenth or less of what it had been.
Or look at all the people who are willing to pay large sums of money for genuine Sumerian pottery or Anasazi dolls even if they are stolen from archeological digs.
Perhaps in the 24th century, we will have culturally evolved past that. Perhaps Roddenberry believed that. I'm skeptical.posted by: Roger Sweeny on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
> I think it would be cool if socialism worked. I
posted by: Marcus Lindroos on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
In addition to the lack of commerce in Star Trek, did you ever notice the complete lack of a popular culture?
Everyone listens to classics. Every artwork is a masterpiece. Consumer culture is gone, and was apparently replaced by nothing.posted by: Jason Ligon on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
House elves in Harry Potter all suffer from false consciousness. Bankers are all goblins. Plutocrats (Malfoys) are bigots - poor (Weasleys) are heroic, driven by family and the life of the mind.
About the only illiberal thing in the Potter series is the depiction of Percy the regulator, and that's only if one buys liberals always like big government.posted by: David Meyer on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
>The worst aspect of science fiction/science fantasy books is their malign neglect of the laws of economics.
This is certainly true of the sci-fi TV series. In these universes, there is virtually no private sector, and the profit motive is demonized (think of the endlessly despicable Quark). The desired goal is a top-down hierarchy with a benevolent, wiser-than-thou sort of ruling class, who in charge of allocating the resources to the deserving. And you notice that people do not run their own lives; they ask permission for different quarters, different careers, and so on.
Season 5 of Babylon 5 is almost unwatchable for this reason. Still, I persevere.posted by: Bostonian on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
On SF economics. There are at least two writers that seriously attempted to answer what would happen to the economy if there were replicators. First, George Smith addressed it in the "Venus Equilateral" short stories written in the 40s and 50s. In the stories, the replicator causes a major dislocation, but a businessman that is a friend of the inventors realized what can't be replicated: services. He also begs the inventors to come up with a medium of exchange that can't be replicated. It also can be used as the basis for another class of unreplicatable objects: "certified uniques".
In current SF, Iain Banks has written a series of books set in "the Culture", where a combination of unlimited energy and incredibly smart AIs have combined to produce an system where one can work as much or little as they want. Being a socialist, he was trying to work out what a socialist utopia would be like, and what the problems would be. I'm a fan of the series, most of which are well done.posted by: ech on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
I hate playing the role of the geek, but despite Drezner's constant hours of Trek viewing, he inexplicably missed one episode which answers his questions: Why don't Starfleet officers and crew carry cash? Well, they use CREDITS, not cash, to buy things like, say, Tribbles. There's no such thing as port call on these series? Why, yes there is -- see, for example, the merry crew's hijinks on Space Station K-7 in the Trouble with Tribbles!
Perhaps the Trouble with Triblles is the exception that proves the rule -- to say nothing of the fact that the Quark-like trader Cyrano Jones is the stereotypical greedy entrepreneur. Don't ignore the fact that all of the characters are state workers on these shows. It's not a surprise to see the market shut out of the narrative.
By the way, am I the only one who reads Harry Potter as profoundly SOCIALISTIC? Sure there's some capitalism at the margins -- n'er-do-wells like the Weasley twins and creepy weirdos like Mr. Ollivander operate small businesses in order to make a few bucks. But the best and the brightest wizards all seem to go into the civil service, not the marketplace. Why would Percy Weasley work for the Ministry of Magic instead of, say, the Firebolt Corp., or Gringots, or some wizarding law firm?
On it's face, Harry Potter's universe isn't a capitalist utopia; indeed, it looks less like the United States and more like that other beacon of economic liberty -- the EU!posted by: Larry on 07.18.04 at 11:36 AM [permalink]
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