Tag Archives: socialism

How Much Agency Do We Really Have?

How much agency do we actually have in our day-to-day lives?

How much freedom do we actually enjoy on a pragmatic basis?

I ask these questions as part of another thought experiment, albeit one that requires more introspection than the others I’ve posed. I think it’s relevant at a time when we’re dealing with a global pandemic that has severely restricted everyone’s agency to significant degrees. It’s also relevant because it’s something we rarely scrutinize.

There’s another reason I’m discussing matters of agency. It has less to do with current events and more to do with frequent criticisms of certain stories. As an aspiring writer and an avid consumer, especially of superhero media, the agency of certain characters is an integral part of that process. You can’t tell a meaningful story without characters exercising some level of agency.

What has become a major issue in recent years is the source, degree, and structure surrounding that agency. I’ve noticed critics and consumers alike scrutinizing who makes the major choices in a story, as well as what role they play, how they look, and why they’re doing what they do. While these are relevant details, that scrutiny can be misguided.

I see it whenever a female character is perceived as having no agency or having too much.

I see it whenever a male character is perceived as being the only source of agency for every major detail.

I see it whenever a character of a different race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation play a role that isn’t just restricted to tokenism.

It has derailed many meaningful conversations about some genuinely great stories. It has also established this standard for some people that if any character with agency happens to be of a certain gender or ethnicity, they roll their eyes and discount the story as pushing some sort of agenda. I find that to be incredibly shallow and short-sighted.

That’s why I think it helps to analyze how much agency we think we have in the real world. It’s easy to quantify that agency within the rigid structure of a story, but the real world is larger, more complicated, and a lot less predictable. How can we determine how much agency we actually have in the grand scheme of things?

How much agency did you have in being born into a particular time, place, or socioeconomic level?

How much agency did you have in falling in love with the person you married?

How much agency did you have in getting the job you have or the career you pursued?

How much agency did you have in finding the friends and social circles you’re part of?

On the surface, it may seem like you’re exercising your ability to choose in these circumstance. I ask that you take a step back and think a bit harder about it.

When it comes to our lot in life, did we really have much say in the economic and social system that we’re part of? Sure, we can choose to not participate, but in doing so, we either starve to death because we don’t have money for food or we become completely isolated from the world and any semblance of social support.

We think we have choices when we go to the supermarket or a restaurant, but how many of those choices are already chosen for us? We don’t always by the cheapest brand of cereal because we want to. We buy it because we have to. In that same sense, we don’t always buy the car we want. We buy what we can afford.

To a large extent, our agency is incredibly limited by our economic resources. It’s limited even more by our social structure, as well. We can’t always do what we want, no matter how depraved. We can’t just walk outside naked, rub our genitals against the nearest person, and yell racial slurs at the top of our lungs. We’d get arrested, imprisoned, or ostracized, at the very least.

Even if what we do isn’t illegal, we still limit our choices because of peer pressure and social stigma. It’s not illegal to watch porn on a public bus, but it will get you odd looks and plenty of scorn. To some extent, we sacrifice some of our agency to maintain an orderly, functioning society. It’s just a question of how much we sacrifice and how much we’re willing cling to.

With all that in mind, see if you can take stock in the amount of agency you exercise in your day-to-day life. You may be surprised by how little or how much you actually have. It may not be the most interesting thought experiment you can do for yourself, but the implications it offers are profound.

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How Much Money Do You Really Need?

Most people aren’t born into wealth. The vast majority of the population has no idea what it’s like to be a billionaire, a millionaire, or someone who just doesn’t live with the constant dread that they’re just one missed paycheck away from total ruin. There’s a reason why they’re called the one percent and it goes beyond basic math.

I admit I’ve often contemplated what it would be like if I suddenly became wealthy. I’ve even articulated some of those musings in detail. I suspect most people have day-dreamed at some point what they would do if they suddenly had a billion dollars at their disposal. For most people, it’s difficult to contemplate because, like it or not, money changes people and not always for the better.

When someone asks what you would do with a million dollars, it’s easy to come up with all sorts of answers. Some are inevitably going to be more absurd than others. The movie “Office Space” articulated that point perfectly. However, there’s another question that I feel is worth asking and I also feel it’s more revealing.

How much money do you really need?

I’m not talking about fantasy wealth here.

I’m not talking dream vacations, dream homes, or spending sprees.

How much money do you actually need to live a happy, comfortable life by whatever standards you define it?

That’s a harder question to answer because it varies for everyone. There are some people in the world who think a million dollars isn’t enough. Depending on where you live in the world, that’s not an unreasonable position. Even with those variations, it still doesn’t zero in on the answer. How much is enough?

I’ve seen how people act when the lottery gets above the $300 million mark. In my experience, once things get over $100 million, that’s when even a typical day dream isn’t enough to appreciate just how much money that is. I’ve tried to imagine it and in every case, I come to the same conclusion.

If I had that much money, I honestly wouldn’t know what to do with it.

It’s not that my needs are simple or cheap. I think my costs are fairly average for someone living in a suburban area. If I had $100 million, didn’t invest a penny in stocks or bonds, and stopped making money today, I still wouldn’t be able to spend it all before I turned 100.

I probably couldn’t even spend $50 million. When things get into the billion-dollar territory, it gets even more absurd. Even millionaires have a hard time fathoming how billionaires operate. Most people, even with decent math skills, don’t understand just how much money a billion dollars is.

At that point, you’re way beyond basic needs and wants. You’re in a domain in which you literally cannot spend all that money at once. You have to legitimately try to lose it all and while some people have done that, it often happens in the process of seeking even more billions to add to their fortune. It rarely occurs just by spending money on your day-to-day needs.

In that context, contemplating how much money you actually need says more about you and your situation than it does about your understanding of finance. If you need that much money to be comfortable, then that says something about your mindset and it’s not just about greed. Some want to change the world for the better with that money. Some want to impose their will on it. It depends on who you are and what drives you.

For me, personally, I don’t think I need anything above $10 million. I probably wouldn’t need more than $5 million just to maintain my current living costs, adjusting for inflation, and planning for my future. That might change if I ever get married and have kids, but for now, that’s my perspective.

I’m interesting in hearing how others would respond to this question. How much money is enough for you? How much would you need to be content, stable, and happy? Let me know in the comments. I’d be happy to revisit this issue again down the line.

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The Mixed (Yet Uplifting) Message Of “Malcolm In The Middle”

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Not every TV show gets to have a series finale. In fact, it’s fairly rare for any show, be it a sitcom, a drama, or a Saturday morning cartoon, to get to that point. More shows tend to get canceled before a finale can ever make it to the drawing board.

When a show does get to that point, though, it’s still no guarantee that the finale will be satisfying. Ideally, the end of a long-running show should tie up loose ends, create a sense of closure, and reward the audience for sticking with the story since it began. That’s the best case scenario. More often than not, finales tend to be mixed.

Truly satisfying finales like that of “M*A*S*H” are a rarity. More often than not, a series finale is going to leave some fans elated and others upset. To this day, there are still people who argue about the finale of “Lost” and I imagine there will be just as many arguments about the finale to “How I Met Your Mother.”

It’s next to impossible to create a finale that satisfies everybody. The most anyone could hope for is a show that at least creates a complete story, even if it remains open-ended to some extent. That’s how the finale to “Breaking Bad” handled things and while not perfect, I think it worked in the context of the show.

There is another show, however, that didn’t try that hard to make the perfect finale. In fact, the show did something unique in that it embraced the idea that there’s no perfect ending, but there is a path forward. There’s no final triumph or ultimate reward for the characters. There’s only the understanding that life goes on, there’s no easy way to do things, and sometimes the things you don’t like will always guide you.

That show is “Malcolm In The Middle,” a quirky, but entertaining sitcom full of juvenile humor and questionable messages. For some, the show just took family dysfunction to an absurd extreme. Even so, it was pretty funny. Between lovable charisma of Frankie Muniz, the physical comedy of Bryan Cranston before he was Walter White, and the overly dramatic presence of Jane Kaczmarek, this show had a lot to offer.

Like “Married With Children” before it, this show went the opposite direction of the typical feel-good sitcom. Malcolm’s family aren’t the upstanding, upbeat models of society in the mold of “Father Knows Best.” They’re a collection of low-class, ill-mannered, under-privileged brutes who always find themselves in bad situations that inspire bad decisions.

They’re the kind of dysfunctional family that give other dysfunctional families a bad name. Part of their appeal was how they navigated that dysfunction. They rarely learned their lessons, they rarely underwent meaningful growth, and they often screw themselves over with their bad decisions. That’s what made it funny.

For seven seasons, the antics of Malcolm and his family followed a fairly successful formula. Malcolm, his brothers, and his parents find themselves in trouble or in over their heads. They struggle to rectify the situation, but often end up making things worse and incurring plenty of memorable comedy along the way.

In the series finale, however, the show takes that formula and injects something unique into the mix. After seven seasons of wild antics, spectacular failures, and memorable monologues, “Malcolm In The Middle” sent a message that went beyond the forces behind family dysfunction. I would even go so far as to say that message is more relevant now than it was when the episode aired in 2006.

The main premise of the episode revolves around Malcolm graduating valedictorian from high school. Being a certified genius, as revealed in the first episode, his life is the only one within his dysfunctional family that has the potential to be something. There are other assorted side-plots to the episode, one of which involves a giant bag of shit that Reese created, but this is the main catalyst for the ultimate conclusion of the show.

Shortly before graduation, Malcolm is given the kind of opportunity that most people can only dream of. Instead of college, he’s offered a lucrative job at a tech company that would’ve given him a six-figure salary, stock options, and a far less hectic life compared to the one his working class family afforded him.

Malcolm makes clear that he wants that job. He wants that life because, unlike his brothers, he has a chance to escape it. Like so many other times throughout the show, though, his control-freak mother steps in and stops it. She makes the decision for him. He’s going to college. On top of that, he’s going to have to work his way through, drudging along as a janitor instead of using his genius to make things easier.

Naturally, he’s not happy about this. It’s not the first time his mother has made choices that affected his entire life. In fact, that’s one of the most prevailing tropes of the show. No matter what Malcolm or his brothers do, they can never escape their mother’s neurotic control.

She doesn’t just want to control what he does after he graduates, either. She wants to put him and/or shove him down a path towards becoming President of the United States. Both she and Hal, played by Bryan Cranston, reveal that they’ve had this in mind for Malcolm since they found out he was a genius. It leaves him baffled, frustrated, and pretty upset.

Among other things.

However, this time his mother gives meaning to her decision that go beyond the usual “I’m your mother so do as I say” excuse. Instead, she does something that nobody on the show ever attempted to do to that point. She imparts upon Malcolm, and the audience by default, a series of harsh truths within the context of the bigger picture.

Those truths all hit hard as they come pouring out in a memorable exchange that helps encapsulate so much of the dysfunction Malcolm’s family endures. At the same time, it also makes a compelling case for why Malcolm should become President.

Lois: That doesn’t matter. What does matter is you’ll be the only person in that position who will ever give a crap about people like us. We’ve been getting the short end of the stick for thousands of years, and I, for one, am sick of it. Now, you are going to be president, mister, and that’s the end of it.

Malcolm: Did it ever occur to you that I could have taken this job, gotten really rich and then bought my way into being President?

Lois: Off course it did. We decided against it.

Malcolm: What?!

Lois: Because then you wouldn’t be a good President. You wouldn’t have suffered enough.

Malcolm: I’ve been suffering all my life!

Lois: I’m sorry. It’s not enough. You know what it’s like to be poor, and you know what it’s like to work hard. Now you’re going to learn what it’s like to sweep floors and bust your ass and accomplish twice as much as all the kids around you. And it won’t mean anything because they will still look down on you. And you will want so much for them to like you and they just won’t. And it’ll break your heart, and that’ll make your heart bigger and open your eyes and finally you will realize that there’s more to life than proving you’re the smartest person in the world. I’m sorry, Malcolm, but you don’t get the easy path. You don’t get to just have fun and be rich and live the life of luxury.

Beyond simply reinforcing how much Lois exerts control over her children, her words reflect the collective frustration of families mired in dysfunction. From the Bundy family in “Married With Children” to the real people in the world who have kids they can’t manage and jobs that don’t pay enough, she articulated a sentiment that is difficult for most non-working class people to grasp.

Malcolm and his family are essentially trapped in the dungeon of modern society. They’re low-class, ill-mannered people who never got the opportunities to climb the social ranks. Lois and Hal work demeaning, low-paying jobs that don’t provide nearly enough to support a large family, let alone one full of rowdy children that get in trouble every other week. How could they not be dysfunctional in that environment?

It’s an environment that keeps anyone who wasn’t born into a good situation from improving their lives. It’s an environment that breeds and reinforces the dysfunction that Malcolm and his brothers so hilariously embody. Any time somebody does get a chance to leave, they jump at the opportunity and never look back. Moreover, they don’t do anything to help those who never get that chance.

Lois knows this. She can already see that happening with Malcolm. If he takes that job, he’ll just get rich and comfortable, forgetting about where he came from and never giving another thought to those who weren’t as fortunate as him. That’s entirely understandable, as Malcolm’s reaction so nicely demonstrates.

Most people do take the easy path out of hardship, poverty, and dysfunction. It’s not just a temptation. It’s a reflex. Growing up poor and dysfunctional is akin to torture and, as is often the case with torture, people naturally do whatever it takes to make it stop. Lois, for all her neurotic tendencies, is pushing Malcolm to endure for the good of every other dysfunctional family like them.

What makes these final moments of the show so powerful is that Malcolm actually listens to his mother in this case. He doesn’t fight her, for once. In the final scenes of the show, he actually follows the path she lays out for him, going to Harvard and working as a janitor to pay his way through. He’ll continue to suffer the effects of his family’s dysfunction, but it’ll help him maintain perspective.

That perspective is something almost no modern President will have. They really can’t because most modern politicians are millionaires. They essentially do exactly what Malcolm suggested, getting rich first and then buying their way into power. The fact that many politicians seem so out of touch with ordinary people, especially the working class, gives further weight to Lois’ words.

Rather than leave his dysfunction behind, Malcolm will carry it with him. He’ll use it to bring a perspective that others either don’t know about or don’t want to confront. Unlike everyone else who tries to raise awareness of working class dysfunction, he’s smarter than them. He’s actually capable of overcoming the traditional barriers that keep people like him from achieving real power.

It’s an unexpected, but satisfying brand of hope. Most episodes of “Malcolm In The Middle” tend to end with a sense of misanthropy that reverts Malcolm’s family back to the status quo. They’re never allowed to get ahead or rise above their dysfunction. At the same time, though, they don’t sink into a defeatist malaise like the Bundy family.

That’s exactly what puts Malcolm in a position to do something more in the end. Everything that held him and his family back is now a catalyst for something greater. He has both the perspective and the aptitude to do great things, such as become a President who actually cares about helping dysfunctional family’s like his.

At a time when income inequality is on the rise and the working class is enduring greater hardship, the world needs leaders who have Malcolm’s perspective. Unfortunately, such leaders are exceedingly rare, especially as powerful institutions become more and more prone to the interests of the rich.

The “Malcolm In The Middle” finale dares people to imagine what we can do when capable people from dysfunctional backgrounds actually get a chance to do something greater. The show doesn’t offer too many details about what happens to Malcolm beyond Harvard, but it’s refreshing and even a little uplifting to think that a show full of so much exaggerated dysfunction could envision a brighter future.

That future may not improve for people like Reese, though, but that’s probably beyond Malcolm’s abilities. Some dysfunction is just too great, even for a genius President.

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Why Capitalism Will Survive Technological Progress (To A Point)

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There’s a popular perception among those who speculate about the future. It has less to do with the technology and progress that we’ll make, as a society, and more to do with what will be rendered obsolete. Like dial-up internet or VHS tapes, there will be many artifacts of our current society that are destined to become relics of a bygone era.

Near the top of the list of those things people can’t wait to get rid of is capitalism. When I say “capitalism,” though, I don’t necessarily mean everything from the concept of money to big corporations to having 500 different kinds of covers for your cell phone. I’m more referring to the kind of economic system that creates extreme income inequality, mass exploitation of workers, and price gouging.

While I can appreciate sentiments of people who feel that way about a system where the inequalities are well-documented, I have some good news and some bad news for those looking forward to that post-capitalist utopia.

Capitalism is NOT going to become obsolete, but it will take on a radically different form.

I say that as someone who has written plenty about the upheavals our society will face when technologies like artificial intelligence, human enhancement, and advanced robotics become more refined. The economic, social, and political system, as we know it today, will not be able to function in that environment.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will disappear like VHS tapes. That’s especially true of our current form of capitalism. It’s already changing before our eyes, but it’s set to change even more in the coming decades. It may get to a point where it’s hard to call it “capitalism” by our current definition, but it will still exist to a certain extent.

Whether you’re a hardcore libertarian or a self-proclaimed socialist, it’s hard to overlook the flaws in capitalism. This is a system that is prone to corruption, negatively impacts the environment, and will gladly eschew health concerns in the interests of profits. Basically, if you’ve ever dealt with a cable company, the tobacco lobby, or the banking industry, you’ve experienced those flaws first-hand.

Many of the flaws, however, are a byproduct of logistical limitations. Human beings are not wired to make sense of the plethora of economic forces that govern the cost, production, distribution, and marketing of goods. We’re barely wired to assemble IKEA furniture. The human race evolved to survive in the plains of the African Savanna, not the bustling streets of New York City.

Even with these limitations, humanity has managed to achieve a lot from this flawed system. Despite its shortcomings, it has been the catalyst for modern society. The cities, industries, and technological advancement that we’ve undergone over the past 200 years would not have been possible without capitalism. Say what you will about the profit motive. Apple would not be a trillion-dollar company without it.

It’s for that reason, along with the knowledge of capitalism’s many documented failures, that emerging trends in technology is more likely to smooth out the edges of the system rather than render it obsolete entirely. As someone who groans every time he sees his cable bill, I admit I’m eager for those refinements.

I still don’t blame others for hoping that the entire system is scraped. The thinking is that increasing efficiencies in automation, improvements in manufacturing at the nano-scale, and advances in artificial intelligence will undercut the key foundations of capitalism. Why would corporations, marketing gimmicks, or brand restrictions even exist in a world run by intelligent machines, enhanced humans, and 3D printers?

It’s not an entirely flawed notion. We’re already seeing plenty of disruptions in established systems due to technology. Landlines are disappearing, streaming media has destroyed brick-and-mortar rental stores like Blockbuster, and self-driving cars will likely end the taxi and trucking industry as we know it.

Further down the line, even more industries will break down when you scale up and expand these same technologies. A sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence could manage the banking and financial industry without any middle men, who are going to be prone to corruption. That same intelligence won’t be prone to the same panics that have plagued capitalism for centuries.

Other technologies will render distressing institutions like sweatshops obsolete, thanks to advances in robotics and 3D printing. A lot of the exploitations surrounding capitalism, both in terms of people and the environment, come from labor and production costs. Mitigating or ending that exploitation can and likely will be done without undercutting capitalism, if only because it’s more efficient in the long run.

Then, there’s the prospect of human enhancement. That, more than anything, will change the nature of society and economics in ways nobody alive today can predict. Beyond undermining the multi-trillion dollar health care industry that exists today, changes to the human condition could fundamentally change the way the economy functions.

Even with all those changes, though, I believe a certain facet capitalism will survive. Even in a society full of enhanced humans equipped with brain implants, perfectly refined genes, and molecular assemblers that can build anything imaginable, there will be a market. There will be a form of currency. There will even be institutions, human and robotic, to manage it all.

That’s because, even in a society where hunger, disease, and poverty of all kinds has been eliminated, there’s still one market that will always exist. That market is escaping boredom. It doesn’t matter how healthy, content, or advanced you are. You’ll still want to avoid getting bored and this is where the future of capitalism truly lies.

I believe that boredom will be the only remaining plague in the future. I also believe that technology can only do so much manage our wants and needs. At some point, we’re still going to seek novel experiences. We’re still going to want to explore new feelings, whether that involves studying science or visiting a futuristic theme park like “Westworld.” The demand will be there and that’s where capitalism comes in.

It may end up being the case that those experiences will be the closest thing we have to a tangible currency. In a society where technology has made so many other resources accessible and abundant, it’s the only currency that has tangible and perceived value. There may still be other forms of money built around it, such as new crypto-currencies, but there will still be real market forces at work.

Some of those forces will have the same flaws we see now. Much of the current system depends on people working to produce goods and services, using the money they make to buy those goods and services, and participating in a vast network of investment, marketing, and distribution of resources. It’s a complex, chaotic, and inherently unmanageable system.

There will probably be failures, missteps, and conflicts in managing this new marketplace of experiences. Entire companies may emerge, possibly from some that exist today, that compete over who crafts those experiences and provides them to customers, either over the internet or directly into someone’s brain. That competition is likely to produce corruption and scandal, albeit in a very different form.

Having advanced artificial intelligence and humans that aren’t at the mercy of their caveman brains will help, but only to a point. As long as society is full of individuals seeking different wants and needs, there will be some form of capitalism necessary to meet them both. Trying to avoid or subvert that probably won’t lead to a better system, as the many failures of alternative systems have proven.

Like our current system of capitalism, there will be flaws. Even enhanced humans and artificial intelligence will have limits that need refinement over time. It’s those very shortcomings, though, that will help forge a better system overall. Again, it’s impossible to tell what forms they’ll take, but so long as there are markets, there will be capitalists seeking to profit from them.

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