Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Modeling the Rich

Economic models are good insofar as they are useful. As long as a model consistently generates accurate predictions, it makes the world easier to understand. This is true even if its assumptions and mechanisms are unrealistic, contrived, ludicrous, or patently false.

True or false? Explain.

I don't always agree with my friend Sarah Skwire. I like James Joyce, and no special pleading will convince me otherwise. But we see perfectly eye-to-eye that the novel is a model. The novel may adhere to forms, tropes, patterns, and contrivances not typically found in real life, but within its narrative constraints, the novel mimics something useful or interesting about the world and humanity's role in it. And like the economic model, the novel can be good or bad at generating accurate predictions.

Part of the difficulty with judging the performance of models is distance and rigor. Experimenters can test whether or not the grim trigger strategy (permanent shunning) outperforms the tit-for-tat strategy (shunning with the chance for forgiveness) by having laboratory subjects play games over and over again. Econometricians can test whether or not deficit spending under the particular conditions of the economy improves the general welfare but once. In a novel (and here, I use the word expansively to include long-form narrative-driven prose like epic poetry, cinema, some video games, or television serials), readers know right away if an everyman character is badly written: she will be wooden, contrived, one-dimensional, vapid. The tempting peril of this is that the farther the character from the reader's experiences, the less critical will the audience be. We were all teenagers once, so we know how well Holden Caulfield represents our own experiences. Few of us were ever rogue replicant bounty hunters, so your guess is as good as mine about how accurately Rick Deckard represents a post-war android assassin. 

I see similar effects in films detailing situations I have disproportionate private knowledge about. My submarine service lends me some insider knowledge about life beneath the waves, so I'm surprised when I find folks who didn't think the 1995 Gene Hackman film Crimson Tide was a ludicrous farce from the opening fanfare to the closing credits. Because of this, I have my own model of literature:

The further removed the subject is from the audience, the less likely it is to be accurate.

Therefore, most science fiction is speculative, most writers who've not carefully studied economics have uncanny-valley versions of trade in their stories, and most stories about submarines run the risk of sailors keeping fish tanks in berthing. Similarly, since very few typical movie-goers know too many flesh-and-blood billionaires, screenwriters are at grater liberty to caricature the very wealthy. Hence Daddy Warbucks and his bizarre indulgence of Annie. Hence Montgomery Brewster and the curious prudence-enhancing terms of his inheritance. Hence Charles Foster Kane and the mad pathos of his seclusion at Xanadu. 

Hence Batman.

In this far-mode reckoning, authors and audiences can have 4 types of relationship: 
  1. The author attempts to reflect life as best he can, relying on the audience to be an accurate, impartial judge.
  2. The audience relies on the author to be the source of their knowledge on the topic at hand.
  3. Both: the relationship is reciprocal. Authors and audiences each learn a bit from each other.
  4. Neither: the novel is pure escapist fantasy, utterly divorced from any semblance of reality and both the audience and the author know it.
This isn't typically a problem. Most folks know when they crack open a Dostoevsky yarn, they're in for a stylized Russia and it's what Werner Herzog calls the "ecstatic truth", the truth buried in the lie, that's worth extracting. But it can be a problem when someone writes a story about the very rich. The author could well be crafting anecdotes out of whole cloth, while the audience thinks "oh, so that's what it's like to be flilthy, stinking rich." nb, this goes for both the well-to-do in the audience and the hoi polloi alike. Or in the case of American organized crime, what it means to be a gangster. Do you suppose the reality shows featuring spoiled heiresses would have been what they were without the tender ministrations of F. Scott Fitzgerald? 

My point is this: be mindful of your unconscious biases. Some of the models you may be carrying about how rich people behave could come from the fanciful portrayals of imaginative writers, nothing more. This warning applies both to outsiders and insiders. And be especially cautious when proposing policy that owes its pedigree to fanciful portrayals. I implore you to consider for a moment that you might be mistaken.

Literature is most euvoluntary when both readers and writers cultivate healthy skepticism.


  1. What I like most in your blog is the line on the header that is Exchange is creation, I totally agree with the fact.

  2. Samuel Wilson , god job , you shared good experiance


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?