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Scooby-gang-1969

We’ll get back to talking about the fear and ignorance which is tearing America apart in later posts.  For right now, I would like to say goodbye to one of the people who defined my childhood and provided me with endless delight back in the Saturday mornings of the 1970s.  Joe Ruby (1933-2020) was a writer and producer who worked with Ken Spears to create “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” a hit animated series about four teenagers and a Great Dane who traveled around in a groovy van, solving various mysteries.

Each episode featured a supernatural mystery, which, upon closer inspection was revealed to not be supernatural at all.  The ghosts, monsters, phantasms, and sorcerers were always revealed to be scary tricks employed by grifters and con-artists (usually as part of a real estate scam or a smuggling ring).  The gang would unravel the mystery and unmask the villain through classical sleuthing, slapstick, and ratiocination.  Although the gang occasionally collaborated with other classical American cultural heroes, such as the Harlem Globetrotters, Batman & Robin, and the Addams Family, the real break in the case usually came from the group’s intellectual, Velma, who would spot a loose thread and pull at it until the villain’s ridiculous scheme lay exposed in its full venality.

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“Scooby Doo” debuted in 1969 and eschewed the violence which was a staple in other cartoons because the studio was concerned about the the wave of political assassinations which had rocked the sixties.  Although some of the various spin-offs (of which there were many) abandoned Ruby’s core principle that the supernatural stuff was not real, the original series was actually a show about enlightenment values and reason (albeit dressed up with plenty of hijinks and a talking dog).

In most cases of “Scooby Doo Where Are You” the gang was able to figure out who the monster really was by means of a simple question: who would benefit from scaring people?  Then it was a simple matter of conquering their own fear to  unmask the villain.

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Joe Ruby also wrote “Thundarr the Barbarian” a post apocalyptic show about a distant future where everything is hopelessly ruined and grotesque warlords oppress the world’s beleaguered survivors.  Maybe if everyone had asked more “Scooby-Doo” type questions centered around rational, material evidence, the dark world of Thundarr would never have come into being.  You must cling to reason, even if you are scared, otherwise the monsters step out of the smoke and mirrors and become real.

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There is a fundamental problem with economics.  Well, actually I am sure there are many, many problems with this pseudo-scientific discipline of resource management (which is fetishistically concerned with money instead of value).  However, this particular problem lies at the crux of the discipline’s inability to predict human behavior or bring about valuable outcomes.   We will briefly explore why we should care about economics at the end of the post, but let’s get right to the thesis and baldly state the problem which economics does not appropriately address: humans are more concerned with status than with substance at least when they are not under mortal duress (and if they are in fear of their lives, their behavior will be irrational anyway).

The usual metaphor for rational economic thought involves pie (probably because the round pastry is irresistible and because it resembles pie charts, which economists love).  According to conventional economic theory: if you get an allotted slice of pie, what matters is how big your slice is, not who gets the rest of the pie.  If an economically rational being is faced with a scenario where he gets pie for some reason, he will happily take his pie and worry about how to make the pie bigger (even if a grotesque bully hogs the majority of the pie and then doesn’t even eat it).   From this reductionist fable we can then move on to other scenarios like increasing the participant’s slice relative to other participants (zero-sum pie?), contractual niceties of pie eating, seasonally adjusted pie indexes, or twisted game theory dilemmas…or whatever.

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Yet any parent can tell you that if one sibling gets one small slice of the pie and the other sibling eats the rest, it is going to be a problem.  Children understand that pie allotment is a proxy for social worth (which is worth more than the pie).  Economists get twisted up in unnecessarily complicated numeric models (or in facile metaphors of resource allocation) and tend to overlook the real thing people are after.

Kids innately understand that money is a red herring for status, and status is true currency.  A Hollywood A-lister can wander into a bar and never pay for anything and leave in a limousine with the best-looking person present.  Their status stands above money. Likewise, the pope or some slimy cult leader or the “communist” prime minister of a failed state does not really need to truck in naked dollars and cents.

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I was arguing about the affairs of the world with one of my college friends (he has an honors degree in economics from the University of Chicago and was managing George Soros’ fortune at the time).  He was worried that populism would vitiate the rewards of globalism.  “People will vote to get a bigger slice of a smaller pie rather than a smaller slice of a bigger pie (even if the latter is a much larger relative slice)!” he exclaimed angrily.

As moneyed interests capture all available levers of power in our troubled democracy and economic productivity drops, his words seem prescient.   I assumed then that he was talking about silly plebs, but I now wonder whether he was really talking about rapacious financiers. I guess it doesn’t matter: both these factions are now backing the current leadership’s agenda of corporate amalgamation, tax-giveaways to the super rich, isolationism, and protectionism—things which ultimately decrease the pie, but make it seem larger for the moment.

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Oligarchs and reactionaries both would prefer a smaller pie—so long as they have a bigger slice for themselves.  The pie doesn’t matter—it is not a metaphor for goods and services, like economists think, instead it is a metaphor for pecking order.  If someone tells you that you are ranked 300th among the 300 people who matter to you, what does it matter what is happening in China or whether tariffs will undo national prosperity? The fundamental metaphor is not apt, and thus economists are misunderstanding why people make the choices they do. Our fundamental problems: stagnant productivity, inequality, and political deadlock come from the fact that power brokers are busy making castes and setting them in stone…not baking pies.

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Human societies have always been hierarchical and probably always will be, so why should we care if the economists get this metaphor wrong? It matters because the pie actually should matter! The fact that everyone is jockeying for status by betting on short-term stock gains (or even scammier things) is impairing our ability to do important things. We are baking the wrong sort of pies   Our system is not producing medicines it is churning out drugs.  We are not researching, we are marketing.  The “makers” are busy making monopolies and cartels rather than space robots and immortality serums.  We really would be better with a small delicious pie made of summer fruit and real butter than with the monstrosity made of saccharine, corn starch, and cellulose.  This monstrous confection is the result of the fact that our system is some weird & debased celebrity contest (our leader is a conman and a reality tv star!). Economists need to wake up to the fact that we aren’t even baking pies…we are all in a bad reality tv show or a nightmarishly catty high-school clique.

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