Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Dystopian Economics

This week my History of Art & Design II lecture is about "art between the wars"--the impact of Cubism and politics on art in the early third of the twentieth century. After holding forth on Constructivism, Surrealism, and Art Deco, I showed the "Streamlines and Breadlines" episode of Robert Hughes's paean to this country's art history, American Visions. The parallels between then and now, pointed out frequently these days in the papers (which my students generally do not read), became clearly apparent as Hughes proceeded from the Chrysler Building to the WPA.

I recommended that these kids watch Tim Robbins's wonderful 1999 film, The Cradle Will Rock, to soak up the ambiance of the period, and to further attune themselves (sorry for the pun--there's music) to the similarities.

But what really disturbs me about the current economic situation is not the fear of a return to the Depression. Rather, it's the total picture: Because of the banking crisis, people can't get credit to buy stuff--houses, cars, useless crap, whatever--they can't afford.

Now, I'll admit to having spent beyond my immediate means, and have been willing to pay for it in interest, but I've never spent beyond my total means to repay the loan. And I guess I would be in a bit of a pickle were my husband and I to lose our jobs (which is, of course, a significant part of the immediate problem). But there also seems to be an enormous number of individuals and institutions that have spent willy nilly without regard to consequences, giving out loans to folks with little promise of being able to repay them or taking out loans they can't possibly make good on.

And now I'm going to be spending my tax money--which should go to helping maintain infrastructure and provide a safety net for the truly destitute--to help shore up an economy that makes no bloody sense to me at all.

It's not that I'm without sympathy for people who were duped into borrowing from companies who painted a rosy future and obscured the bitter facts behind adjustable rate mortgages. But as a nation of spenders, we've been seduced by fantasies: The American Dream, American Power, American Wealth, American Can-Do. Buy a bigger house than you need; buy a bigger, fancier car; show off your success with expensive clothes and jewelry; buy the latest, greatest techno-gizmo! Spend your stimulus-incentive tax rebate, don't save it!

Never mind about saving for a rainy day (let alone a stormy one). Funny how the Big Economics boys didn't realize that a number of people had gotten wind (maybe through the vicissitudes of the oil bidness) that things might not be coming up roses, and thus banked their rebate checks rather than cashing them in for a new big-screen TV.

Whatever happened to plain old common thrift?

Of course, being thrifty (like being frugal) requires a long view: a notion of making it through to some future point. It doesn't fit in with our instant-gratification way of existing in the moment. Carpe diem! Forget about manana! Get it now, with easy credit, on a convenient installment plan! Forget about educating one's desire; whether you need it or not, buy it. Now.

A while back we started paying down credit cards and resisting the urge to buy anything we couldn't pay cash for, and it's amazing how quickly one can decrease indebtedness that way. As the principal is reduced, the amount of interest declines, and the loan melts away. As one debt is repaid, that money can go into paying off another more quickly. And so on.

I've also realized that I'm probably driving the last car I'll ever own. By the time my Civic (currently nudging 100,000 miles) runs out of gas, I'll probably have done so as well. So as soon as the Element is paid off in another year or two, we'll have that money to live on. I think of it as my retirement fund, since what little there was in my Fidelity account now probably won't be there by the time I retire--if I can ever retire.

Unless, of course, all of the trillions that are going into bailing out CEOs and short-sighted automakers actually do something to stimulate the economy and return us, hell-bent, to our free-spending, unthinking, blind obedience to the gods of greed-based corporate capitalism.

It's a good thing Adam Smith is already dead. Otherwise, today's headlines alone would surely kill him.

Image Note: When I was looking for an image to illustrate this post, I went to Wikimedia Commons and searched under "shopping," which led me to an arcade and immediately reminded me of everybody's favorite dystopia: the city of Los Angeles as Ridley Scott imagined it in Bladerunner. A further search on Wikipedia for the film provided me with this terrific shot of Hong Kong taken by Diliff--and it was the emerging metropolis of Hong Kong that apparently inspired Scott. A recent bit on NPR about the proliferation of LED billboards in LA made this seem all the more more prophetic.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A New Hope

Sorry about the sappy title, and apologies to George Lucas, but there's an odd conundrum developing in the usually pessimistic corners of my brain. On the one hand, I look at the current economic mess and wonder, "What next?" just as the newest SNAFU hits the fan. Automakers, who have for decades ignored dwindling gas supplies and rising prices, resisted the need for less polluting vehicles, and who have been feeding the greed frenzy with the likes of Hummers and other fuel-insatiable monstrosities, have suddenly decided that they need help to carry on, or the entire country is going to drown in a tsunami of unemployment and related ills.

Or the banking industry, which has fed its own appetite for luxury and excess to such an extent that its CEOs and other executives have driven venerable institutions into a quagmire of bad loans and unspeakable debt, requires us to fork over 700 billions to help fix things--and some of the companies are apparently using it for bonuses they otherwise couldn't afford, or dividends, or other payouts that have nothing to do with saving the economy, and then bitching when somebody suggests using part of the windfall to provide an antidote for some of those "toxic" mortgages that caused the industry to implode in the first place.

On the other hand, however, I find myself waxing optimistic as I watch the new administration taking shape. The world as a whole seems pleased with American's choice of president, and some of the saber-rattling has calmed down. In this country, I hear positive comments on both the right and the left at the possibility that Hillary Clinton might become Secretary of State (something, by the way, I predicted to Beloved Spouse after she conceded the nomination to Obama), and there are increasingly audible noises about a Republican cabinet member. McCain seems to be in a conciliatory mood, and pundits are welcoming back "the old John McCain"--the one who brokered deals on campaign finance across the aisle, not the one who inexplicably chose rabidly partisan Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Abraham Lincoln is back in the news, thanks to Doris Kearnes Goodwin's almost prophetic book, Team of Rivals, which Barack Obama seems to be using as something of a guidebook in deciding how to populate his cabinet. Wisdom is back in style, and intelligence has been resurrected as a badge of honor, rescued from the dung heap under which it has been buried for the last eight years. I don't mean to be crabby about this, but the denigration of the intellectual in recent years has caused me more angst than any single issue aside from the war, and has made my job --and the job of teaching in general--immeasurably more difficult.

And therein lies the rub. It's really hard to be a utopian when things are going well. But for the first time in a very long time, I'm not sure the world is going to end before I die (my 65th birthday, December 21, 2012, notwithstanding). Even my daughter, who had grown increasingly disinclined to raise children in the world as it has been, decided after the election that maybe I will be a grandmother someday, after all. So despite the economy's current downturn, I can't help but see the possibility, at least, of a rebound if Obama can construct coalitions of people who really want to save the world--or at least help the world save itself. Perhaps fear of abject economic collapse is a good thing: an impetus to finally create workable solutions.

Of course, if things really do get better, the sequel to More News From Nowhere will look a little silly, based as it is (in its planning stages, at least) on the probability of near-future catastrophe.

The discussion in New Scientist I mentioned in my last post, about the future of science fiction, is also relevant here, because utopias spring from the same impulse: wondering about what can and/or will be. Economic difficulties are not the only ones we face, of course, and Kim Stanley Robinson is spot-on when he says "we have to do the impossible and imagine the next century. The default probability is bad - not just dystopia but catastrophe, a mass extinction event that we will have caused and then suffered ourselves. That's a story we should tell, repeatedly, but it's only half the probability zone. It is also within our powers to create a sustainable permaculture in a healthy biosphere." So perhaps the task of science fiction and utopian writers alike will be to imagine conditions that either stave off or ameliorate the catastrophic possibilities.

Immersed as I am with the current academic quarter, and in working on a myth course I haven't taught in years (but get to in January), I don't have much time for writing now, anyway. But I will, at least for the moment, enjoy the possibility of peace, economic recovery, and/or positive changes in the environmental situation. And if, in future, I'm out of a job in terms of plot devices or blog fodder, so be it. I think it will be well worth the price.

Note: just in time to help me celebrate, Wall-E is out on DVD today. For anyone who hasn't seen it, I can't say enough to recommend it. Pixar may have produced the single most hopeful film released in recent years, and this is the perfect moment for its wide release for home viewing.

Image credit: Evelyn de Morgan's Hope in a Prison of Despair, 1887, via Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Hard Times and Imaginary Worlds

Now that midterm madness is over, I can get back to thinking about things that keep my aging brain from degenerating too much. This time, I'm concerned about the future of entertainment in general, and in imaginary worlds in particular.

The current concern was brought about by the sudden demise of WizKids, a company that manufactured wonderful collectible card games, tabletop board games, the very popular Hero Clix series, and several film-related card and model games like Pirates of the Caribbean, and Star Wars Pocket Models. In the interest of full disclosure, my son was a designer for the company, which was bought out a few years ago by the giant trading-card conglomerate, Topps, which was itself acquired last year by Michael Eisner's media conglomerate, Tornante Group.

Topps, according to the abrupt announcement (reported to me not by my son, but by a former student who keeps track of such things), "will still actively pursue gaming initiatives" but feels that "it is necessary to align our efforts more closely with Topps current sports and entertainment offerings which are being developed within our New York office." Since the games seem to be really popular, judging from the number of forums and other web-presence, I was a bit curious about the company's reasoning.

But the answer seems to be fairly simple, according to Jeff Grubb's blog: plastics. "The sudden and unexpected demise of Wizkids has many likely causes, and if I knew anyone still there, I might even find them out. But since I worked for the about five years back, most of the original team have left, voluntarily or involuntarily or in a combination of the two. So while I can guess about what goes through the Topps' executives minds, I can't really speak to it. But I do know that oil prices have shot up in the past few years, and with the price of oil, the price of plastic. And that cannot be good for a company's bottom line."

Grubb goes on to link a BBC story about the emptying of the Chinese city of Guangzhou, where the plastic pocket-model games were manufactured, due to job loss. So the impact of the Topps decision reaches far beyond the city limits of the WizKids home base, Seattle.

A comment on the GeekDad post (on about the announcement notes the popularity of the Pirates and Star Wars lines, so it will be interesting to see what unfolds over the next few weeks.

American business's short attention span seems to be at work here, and it operates on a number of levels. Entertainment media of all varieties are affected by corporate bottom lines, and their need to make big profits quickly. Unless vast numbers of people latch on to a product in a short period of time, the product disappears or gets dumped--no matter how high its quality or how promising it is in the long term.

This is most apparent in television, where terrific programs get canceled because they don't build up an audience soon enough. Two of my all-time favorite shows, Firefly (cancelled after only eleven episodes had aired) and the award-winning Nero Wolfe (which enjoyed two seasons--but deserved more), got the ax because although they had loyal (and in the case of Firefly, almost fanatic) followings, the numbers just weren't big enough. Both shows were smart, witty, and beautifully imagined, but that wasn't sufficient. Instead, we get season after season of inane reality shows that are cheap to produce and popular with the great unwashed.

You'd think that production companies and networks would be interested in mature people with disposable income, who are attracted by good stories and good quality, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Maybe it's because we're smart enough to see through advertising ploys and don't fall for every pill-shill that comes on the screen--but that doesn't explain why the guys who make the stuff we would buy don't advertise on these programs.

Since many of my students will end up working for advertising companies, I'll be curious to see what happens after the fallout settles from the current economic mishegoss. I'm sanguine enough about the future to think that we will come out okay, if our new President is able to assemble a solid team of advisors and can steer us toward some sanity. But as smart as he is, he won't be able to save us from ourselves if we insist on instant answers and results, and if we continue to act as if tomorrow is the deadline for everything.

Games and television are, of course, only two of the media we use to speculate about the future and work through ideas about what comes next. If we stop fostering the imagination that supports invention and creativity through visual media, books, and game-playing, we'll end up limiting future possibilities. Fantasy and science fiction, instead of simply being escapist strategies to help the disaffected cope with our angst-ridden world, offer a kind of laboratory experience, where different possibilities can be explored. And if reading declines (though I'm not convinced it's going to), TV and games are going to become even more important.

This week's New Scientist ran a special feature on the future of science fiction, and some of the responses (from some of today's best writers) are telling. Stephen Baxter points out that "science fiction has - rarely - been about the prediction of a definite future, more about the anxieties and dreams of the present in which it is written"-- and that may well be its primary value. I especially liked Margaret Atwood's response: "Not all of science fiction is 'science' - science occurs in it as a plot-driver, a tool, but all of it is fiction. This narrative form has always been with us: it used to be the kind with angels and devils in it. It's the gateway to the shadowiest and also the brightest part of our human imaginative world; a map of what we most desire and also what we most fear." Science fiction are us.

I'm really going to miss the Star Wars Pocket Model games and the Pirates games, not because I played them but because I liked the idea of them. Of course, I enjoyed the idea of having a son who designed space ships and pirate ships for a living, but I also liked the ships themselves: tiny little objects made to fit in miniature worlds, like the imaginary landscapes of Charles Simonds or of the dollhouses we played with as kids. They add a physical dimension to imagination, and help us map out strategies, or re-imagine the past, or simply to play--a vital ingredient in figuring out how to survive the present and invent a viable future.

Images: Some of the WizKids loot I've collected; a screen shot from the television series Firefly, via Wikipedia.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

This Land is Our Land

Yesterday morning I voted in a local elementary school. It took about ten minutes, and at the end of my session with the touch-screen machine, I took my little plastic card back to the poll-watcher and stopped by the table that held the "My Vote Counted" stickers. By that time, I was already weepy. I knew it was coming, because I've often wept after voting. It's probably a combination of relief, sentimentality, and memory (I've been interested in the process since I was sixteen), but I always choke up, and I always embarrass myself on the way out of my polling place. This time, however, the lady who hands out stickers said, "Don't worry, Honey. You're not the first one today! It's an emotional process."

And it is. The democratic social contract we've established allows me to participate in the process of choosing who will not only lead our country, but represent it to the rest of the world. During most of the last decade, I have not been a happy camper, because I've seen the image of this country decline around the globe (even as economies have chosen to emulate it to a recently disastrous degree). I've seen leaders and potential leaders who denigrate education and intelligence as being "elitist" and (largely because they don't understand the science) who have dismissed growing scientific evidence that human beings are destroying the planet as being "cynical" (because they don't know what cynicism means) or as doomsaying.

We talk a great deal about equal opportunity, but inequality persists. We talk about justice, but injustice abides. We assert our primacy in world affairs, but we act unilaterally and alienate our allies. Nobody seems to want this to be the case, but we actually do little about any of it. People who start at the bottom have little hope of rising very far, the innocent languish in jails because of inadequacies in the justice system, and our unwillingness to respond to environmental crisis and to participate in global initiatives has made us seem like a nation of rich, spoiled children.

But as a result of the ballots cast yesterday and in the days leading up to the election (thanks to the proliferation of early voting options that helped precincts all over the country deal with an influx of new voters), we are now in a position to re-address these issues and to re-emerge as a model of opportunity, justice, and responsibility.

I don't know what the future holds, or how well Barack Obama will be able to manage the morass of complexity we call "the government." I do know, however, that he has inspired millions of young people to vote and to participate in the process; this is especially promising because it is their future we've been messing about with. I fervently hope that the conciliatory speeches I heard last night--both of which also made me choke up again--will mark a different approach to politics, and signal an effort to rebuild our economy and the world's understanding of who we are.

However one might feel about the outcome, this is an enormously symbolic election. It marks the moment when, after over two hundred years of assertions about equality and opportunity, we have finally reached the point where we are doing what we say we are: a nation of human beings, where arbitrary categories such as race and gender no longer bar citizens from the highest offices in the land. We've finally grown up, just in time to show our kids a better path toward their own future.

Image credit: Flag map by Lokal_Profil, via Wikimedia Commons.