Time is Money

#55 - Time

One of my favorite uses of science fiction is when it is used as a mirror, reflecting things about ourselves we might not have otherwise realized.    Orwell’s novel 1984 is an example of this; he wrote in 1948 and simply reversed the two numbers to give it a futuristic gloss, but one of his aims was not just to warn about the future but also to comment on his present.

This was one of the things I found compelling about “In Time.”  Visually, it looked a bit like “Gattaca” a sci-noire, futuristic-1920’s kind-of feel.

As for the message itself?  That, to me was a mixed bag.  In fact, as I ponder it, I realize that my ambiguity around the movie was in fact rooted in my wider ambiguity around capitalism as a whole.  I think Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for every other form of government.”  This mentality kind of expresses my feelings about capitalism; it is perhaps the worst economic system, except for every other economic system.

The Passage of Time
Image by ToniVC via Flickr

Note the word perhaps.  That’s an important point of what I’m trying to say here.  I’m really not sure.

Because I’m just working through this, because I just am not sure, I’m violating my self-imposed moratorium on blogging political.  I don’t have an axe to grind here, it’s more like I have some ideas to ponder.

So first off: “In Time.”  The previews do a pretty good job or stating the premise.  The idea is that money is no longer our currency: time is.  We work to get more time added on to our lives.  We spend this time on shelter, food, etc.   The very “richest” have thousands of years on their hands.  The very poorest live day-by-day.  Enentually, many people just die in the street, having literally run out of time.

The protagonist is thrust in to a situation where he becomes a sort-of Robin Hood; he robs time from the rich and gives it to the poor.  This provides ample oppurtunity for some waxing philosophic around the nature of theft and justice.  For example, the film’s equivalent to a police officer has a really interesting speech about how he doesn’t care about justice, he just cares about the law.   When confronted with the theft he’s engaged in, the main character says to the robber-baron types that they are theives, too.

The power of allegory is it’s ability to sneak up on us.  In the bible, Nathan confronts David with his unjustice by dressing his actions up in symbolism.  It wallops David, right upside the head, that there is truth in Nathan’s story.

Similarly, my initial reaction was “No, the metaphor doesn’t apply, here.  Having a bunch of money isn’t like having a bunch of time added to your life.”  But actually, as I considered it more deeply, the metaphor actually does work.

The rich live in safer neighborhoods.  They can afford safer transportation.  Better health care.  Healthier food.   When things get challenging to the wealthiest among us there wealth serves as a net in all kinds of ways.  They have access to all sorts of assistance, guidance, and help through their wealth.  They are able to access schools that do a better job of preparing their kids for life, not just in teaching academic facts, but also schools which reinforce broader life lessons about the value of hard work.   The rich have easier access to healthy stimulation and entertainment, giving them broader possibilities of de-stressing and mantaing wellness,

I am not denying that charities don’t do amazing things.  I’m not saying that there are no stressors associated with being wealthy.  I am not denying some measure of personal responsibility.

But it seems to me that it’s hard to deny that wealth does not equal in an increase in time; if not an an increase in time as measured by the clock, at least an increase in the quality of the time we have access to.  Perhaps the point even more compelling than this is the idea that in fact, we do have enough resources.  Our money-based economy has created a delusion of scarcity, an image that it is a necessary evil that some people starve.

Having said all that, I do believe that the film engaged a bit in the Myth of the Noble Savage.  In the end, none of us are noble.  Acting like the under-resourced have some inherent goodness that the wealthy are with out doesn’t help anybody.

For example, when the time is freed up and passed among the poor, there is enough to go around because everyone takes exactly what they need.  In my experience, greed cuts across income.  Ultimately, greed is the same for the rich and the poor.  All of us face the risk of greedy hearts when we submit to the fear of not having enough.   While it’s true that the rich can hoard their wealth, it’s equally true that those doing with out can turn themselves over to greed, and sell out their beliefs in order to have percieved needs met.

*** Spoiler Alert*** Don’t keep reading if you want to keep some of the surprises of the end of the movie*****

This implication was bothering me just a little.  Then, near the end of the movie, their police-like force is watching the overturning of the system; so much time has been given away that it has lost all value and the formerly wealthy now have no power over the workers. 

One cop says to another “What do we do now?”

The other cop puts his gun down and says, “We go home.”

The putting down of the gun is such a small thing.  But it’s also huge.  I don’t think I’m reading into the film to say this implies the idea that they were on the verge of a whole new order, and in this new order, there would be no need for police officers.

Religious scholar John Hick classifiued Socialism as a pseudo-religion, partially based on the idea that there is this promise built into the theory, this promise of a homecoming to a limitlessly better existence.

I think to some extent, this is why we end up signing on for so many faulty idealogies.  Laissez-faire capitalism also promises an Israel for us to return to; ironically, it’s not so different than the communist one; government becomes an anachronism, people naturally do what’s in everybody’s best interest.

I think that we are wired to look for this promised land.  As far back as the Garden of Eden, we tried to approach this promised land under our own power.  And history is nohing if not the chronicle of continuing failed attempts at returning to this promised land.  We can’t do it on our own.  I wonder when we’re going to get that?

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My day-mare

As I was laying half awake, this series of scenes played themselves out in my head.  I’d call it a day dream, except it wasn’t all peaceful and happy.

It resolved around my current health struggles, and the impact they are having on my career.  The drama in my head ended with me out of work, on disabality or unemployment or something.  The feeling of being that way was really tough.  I had this sensation that to be that way, to get money that way, would be a terrible place to be.

Please hear me out.  I’m doing quite the opposite of judging somebody who is not able to enjoy gainful employment, for whatever reason.

I had this feeling that if I ended up that way, it would be my illness, my brokeness that is providing for my family.  I had this sense that to mantain that way of being I’d have to almost nurture my sickness, that it would become the center of who I am.   It would be like I’d be a professional patient: my way of providing for the family.

(I hope it doesn’t feel this way to people who are recieving disabality.  Again, this is a system we all pay in to and are all entitled to.  I’m thankful that it is there.  But none of this makes it any fun.)

On the heels of this was the realization that it’s an awesome thing to be able to provide for my family through the better parts of me, through my skills and through my hard work.  It’s a pretty awesome system, for all it’s problems, that allows us to make the world a better place and care for our families at the same time.

If you’re somebody who is working hard, making the world a better place, and taking care of your family, I hope you’ll share with me a sense of how blessed it is to be able to do this.

Profits and prophets

The recent health care speech and debate has turned our attention to the idea of a profit motive.    Despite scare-mongering to the contrary, the plan on the table does not socialize medical care.  But President Obama makes no bones about the idea that the profit motive in this case needs to be kept in check.

I think he’s right.  And I think that’s these special ways that this plays out for Christians.

Many people believe that the more unregulated the profit motive is, the more efficient we, as a society become.  Self interest, they say, is the only trait we can really expect from people.  We end up saying if a person behaves in their own self interest this is a morally good thing for them to do.

But are we prepared to deal with the fall out when we apply this logic to providers of health care?  Some of the following are theoretic problems.  Some are actual, every-day, real world problems.  But all of them are examples of health care providers acting to maximize profits:

* Whenever it is cheaper to let a person die than treat a person, it is in the best interest of the provider to allow the person to die, if treatment will be more expensive than the premiums that the person will pay for the rest of their life.

* Whenever amputation is cheaper than rehabilitation or treating an ailment, we should expect the provider to amputate, provided that the amputation won’t interfere with the patient’s ability to pay premiums.

* The cheapest treatment will be preferred.  Even if this treatment is painful, inefficient, carries side effects, etc, this is the one that a rational health care provider will go with.

Their is a public relations aspect to all this.  It can be argued that companies might be willing to lose some profit because the negative PR will cost them more.  And sometimes this helps.  But the PR thing, it’s just another expense.  It’s just a further piece for the executives to figure into the equation.  Somewhere, right now, there is a guy in a suit.  And he is saying “If we do X, we will save Y dollars.   However, the negative PR will cost us an extra ___ dollars.  Which decision leads to a larger profit?  Is there a way we can spend a few dollars to undo that negative PR?”

I’m not meaning to demonize the executives.  They are between a rock and a hard place.  The problem is with the system itself.

For Christians, there is a further complication in all this.

If it’s true that self-interested decisions are the only reliable motivations, then this is a result of man’s fall.  Are we really foolish enough to want to court this?  Are we arrogant enough to think we can harness this?  Do we realize that this really is a deal with The Devil himself, in quite a literal way?

In so many things we are faced with a very difficult balancing act.  On the one side, we must accept that the world is a certain way.  On the other side, we should try to hope, work, and fight for a world that is better.  On the whole, an economy which is capitalistically oriented is a wise recognition of the way that a world is.  But to suggest that industries such as health care ought to be driven by capitalism is to go to far in this direction.

Apoptosis

“Cell suicide, or apoptosis, is a normal part of the development of tissue.  More cells are produced than required, and the redundant cells are instructed to kill themselves by chemical messengers.  After their death, their remains, which contain valuable cellular material, are digested by other cells.”

The concept was illustrated in a matter of fact way.

In the biology text book.

The first thing that strikes me

is how very ghastly this is.

The second thing that strikes me

is how very universal this is.

“Species suicide, or extinction, is a normal part of the development of life. More species are produced than required, and the redundant species are instructed to kill themselves by an excess of predators and a lack of prey. After the death, the niche, which was required to be filled by something in the system, is taken over.”

That description does not occur later in the same book.

in the section on speciation and population dynamics.

Once the scale becomes recognizable,

I suppose,

it becomes a bit more hearless to progress in this manner.

“Company suicide, or going out of business, is a normal part of the development of a free market economy. More businesses are produced than required, and the redundant businesses are instructed to kill themselves by the utter lack of profit. After their death, their remains, which contain valuable business materials, are purchased at going-out-of business sales.”

I am sure that no text

on free market economics

has ever put the concept in just this way.

But

it wouldn’t be far from the truth.

 

“Relationship suicide, or growing apart, is a normal part of the development of a life. More relationships are entered into than are required, and the redundant relationships are instructed to kill themselves off by dear-John letters and by “let’s just be friends” talks. After their death, the remains, which contain valueable experiences, are picked over for nuggets that might be used in the next relationship..”

You’d have to dive

between the lines.

To find that meaning

in a self-help book.

“Individual suicide is a normal part of the development of societies. More lives are produced than required. Redundant people are instructed to kill themselves by their utter lack of success.   Occasioanlly the suicide is a literal one.  More often the body keeps going after the souls has been give up on.   After the deaths, when the hollow shells of men and women keep going on, the valuable fruits of their lives are harvested by those who keep going.”

 

 

 

Species suicide, or extinction, is a normal part of the development of life. More species are produced than required, and the redundant species are instructed to kill themselves by an excess of predators and a lack of prey. After the death, the niche, which was required to be filled by something in the system, is taken over.

 

Company suicide, or going out of business, is a normal part of the development of a free market economy. More businesses are produced than required, and the redundant businesses are instructed to kill themselves by the utter lack of profit. After their death, their remains, which contain valuable business materials, are purchased at going-out-of business sales.

 

Relationship suicide, or growing apart, is a normal part of the development of a life. More relationships are entered into than are required, and the redundant relationships are instructed to kill themselves off by dear-John letters and by “let’s just be friends” talks. After their death, the remains, which contain valueable experiences, are picked over for nuggets that might be used in the next relationship.

 

Individual suicide is a normal part of the development of life. More lives are produced than required. Redundant people are instructed to kill themselves by their utter lack of success. After their deaths the remains are incenerators or left to rot in cemetaries.

Revelations and materialism

I finished reading through Revelations yesterday. 

I share these observations with a bit of hesitation.  It was recently pointed out to me that Revelations contains the instruction to neither add nor take away from itself.  It also contains the promise that we benefit simply be reading the book.

Clearly, the conclusion is that we add to read more and interpret less.  In a way, our interpretations can become a sort-of adding to the text. 

So please take my suggestions with a grain of salt.  It’d be better to read scripture than read my blog.  But seriously?  You already new that.

The thing that struck me is that you don’t have to work very hard or look very deeply for distrubution of wealth and capitalist greed to become a central theme of Revelations.

So much has been made of the number of the beast.  Above all else, it seems to me a license to participate in the world’s economy.    Chapter 13 says: 

“He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, 17so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. “

When things are ugliest, Babylon falls.  Babylon seems to be a superpower.  But it’s not about military might, really:

For all the nations have drunk
      the maddening wine of her adulteries.
   The kings of the earth committed adultery with her,
      and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.”

Later, in Revelations, we get a list of these excessive luxuries: 

“When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. 10Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry:
   ” ‘Woe! Woe, O great city,
      O Babylon, city of power!
   In one hour your doom has come!’

 11″The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more— 12cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; 13cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men. ”

Not a single thing provided by Babylon was necessary for life.  It was all over-the-top.  Decadence.  As I look at the last few words, I wonder if the bodies and souls of men means slavery in the strict and obvious sense or if this might be a reference to the ways we get addicted to being pampered, the ways we, in our comfort, can forget looking after the widow and the orphan.

It seems a pretty astounding understanding of globalization.  There are even references to the mourning of those who shipped Babylons goods, and to the businessmen who made it all happen. 

I’m not here to say “Babylon is really _____” or “The world is happening at _____.”  Really, what I’m trying to say is that materialism is identified as an evil in scripture.  Having a surplus when others do not have enough is seen as a wrong.  We will weep when Babylon falls, but Babylon must fall before God’s kingdom can come.

 

 

Bail outs?

I continue to find it necessary to take a bit of a sabattical from politics.

It is therefore in a spirit of open — not loaded– questions that I ask this.

What’s the idealogical justification for the massive bail outs going on of all these ailing companies?

I’m not debating the pragmatic effectiveness of it all. 

I’m wondering how somebody explains a belief in the power of the unfettered markets, on the one hand, and on the necessity of such massive government intervention, on the other.  How did Adam Smith’s invisible hands let this happen?

A mostly unrelated question I have around all this stuff is based on something I read in the last few days.  The claim being made was that with out the bail out, the economy will grind to a halt because borrowing and speculation will cease to exist… and so the question here I have:

Is an economy built on borrowing and speculation a well-built economy?  Shouldn’t the foundation of our economy be something stronger than speculation and work we haven’t yet done?

Open Sourcing: Good, Bad, or inevitable

There’s an outstanding discussion about open sourcing here.

And it got me thinking:

Is the future collaborative or competetive?

More specifically: Will we continue to view our creations as just another form of capital?  Does the open sourcing mentality feed into the good things about capitalism?  Or does it cut these ideas off at the knees?

I probably don’t understand enough about the paradigm shifts that are currently going on to be able to answer these questions with any authority.  But here’s my initial thoughts:

Traditionally, we have looked at creations in a certain manner.  We’ve lumped together a wide variety of creations together in terms of how we treat them.

Roughly speaking, an inventor gets a several year head start.  A creation isn’t allowed to be co-opted by others for varying numbers of years.

If I write a novel I own it.  It’s my property.  If it’s been written any time recently and you try to publish it and make money off it with out my permission than I get to sue you and get most of the money you made off of it.

At some point, this product enters the public domain.  I don’t own it anymore.  Then anybody can publish it.  (Consider, for example, a Stephen King novel.  If I photocopied his latest novel and tried to sell it I would be in big trouble.  Shakespeare or the King James translation of the Bible are public domain and can be published by anybody.)

To the best of my understanding, medicines are pretty similiar.  The time scale is shrunk considerably.  But it’s the same idea: the company that invents a new drug gets exclusive rights to it for the first several years.  At some point, the generics are allowed to step in and compete.

There are problems with this system.  (For example, the fact that some life-saving drugs are not available quickly and cheaply to the third world is nothing short of evil.)  But over all, it seems to be pretty effective.  The two things that we need to balance are consumer’s rights and inentor’s rights.  If it becomes too easy to mass produce something a person worked hard for, then we have just killed the impetus to innovate.  If it became too hard to mass produce new ideas, then we have just killed the possibility of competetion.

In other words, as much as I might wish that a certain medication was cheaper for my family, or for a family in the third world, if companies were required to sell drugs just above the actual physical cost of making the medication, then they would not be able to fund the support network required to make modern pharmecology happen.   If a company can’t tack on extra money to the medications, then how do we pay the salaries of the reps. that sell the meds, or the researchers who developed them in the first place?

There seems to be no way around the fact that the more skilled a person is the more he will command in terms of a salary.  (Perhaps it’s a bit more elaborate than that: the skills need to be in an area where there is a demand, of course.)  Therefore, the organizations that figure out how to make the most profit will be able to attract the most talent.  (All other things being equal, of course.)

Perhaps the revolution of open source is in the realization that the most profit doesn’t necessarily come from the best corporate warrior.  In addition to squashing the competetion, a company might mantain an edge by fostering cooperation.

Nonetheless, so long as we operate under a capitalist system, it’s hard to imagine how the corporations won’t syphon off the best and the brightest.  And it’s further reasonable for these corporations to see a profit in doing so.

As individuals create, it seems like they have a right to reap the benefits of their creations.  Is their a way to balance the innovations that benefit all of us that might result from improvements on these creations with the right of the creator to benefit?

If I create an original song, computer program, or head ache remedy, I deserve to be rewarded for this.  My creation should certainly be protected from out-and-out piracy.  But where is the line between piracy and improvement?  Did Vanilla Ice improve that amazing “Under Pressure” Riff or did he pirate it in “Ice-Ice Baby?”  If you make my medication or computer program a little bit more effective, do you have the right to do so and then market your improvements right after my creation?  If so, how do we stop corporate juggernauts from making cosmetic changes to mom-and-pop operations and then driving them out of business through superior experience and financial clout?

Perhaps the morality is irrelevant.  Perhaps this train won’t stop whether it’s a good thing, a bad thing, or an indifferent thing.  Perhaps all we can do is just try to do is handle these events as best we can. 

I suppose there is a good side to this.  It’s not hard to envision large groups of non-incorporated people both serving as a check on the power of the corporations but also working supportively to those corporations and professionals which take care of them.   Perhaps it’ll be a bit like the relationship between amateur and professional astronomers over the last couple hundred years, where the amateurs supplemented the professionals’ data and observations.

This stuff is all in it’s infancy.  And I’m a bit out of my element in these assumptions.  What do you think?