Creative Destruction in Terry Pratchett’s The Truth

Terry Pratchett's The TruthIn bed each night, I’ve been slowly reading through Terry Pratchett’s The Truth. It tells the story of the rise of the newspaper in Ankh-Morpork. As expected, it is very amusing with an abundance of lines like, “He was the younger son in any case, and family tradition sent youngest sons into some church or other, where they couldn’t do much harm on a physical level.” But there is an equal amount of wisdom. In particular, it touches on one of the great intellectual boondoggles of our time: creative destruction.

As the term is normally used, creative destruction is the almost biblical process of one business (or even industry) taking over for another less efficient business. The key is that we should all applaud this because the process makes us all better off in the long run. And it is largely true — assuming that the economy is working as it should. Of course, the economy is never working as it should — a discussion I will come back to shortly.

In The Truth, movable type comes to Ankh-Morpork. This development does not make the engravers of the city happy. They quickly see their incomes disappear. But movable type allows for William de Worde to start The Ankh-Morpork Times — a daily newspaper. Previously, he had created small numbers of newsletters on an infrequent basis for very rich people in other cities. It’s little more than a gossip sheet. But he quickly finds that there is no problem putting out a sheet of news every day. And he can sell it for very little, so it is widely distributed. The money begins pouring in.

It’s clear that William is not alone. The availability of movable type makes printing available to a lot of people who could never have afforded it previously. In the book (as far as I’ve read), the engravers decide to go into the movable type business. But there is a more obvious use for them, which William realizes on his second day of being a newspaper publisher: pictures. So he hires a vampire photographer, Otto Chriek, and the rest is economics. At that point, the economy has stabilized because now the engravers can be used for more sophisticated work — leaving the typesetting to the new technology.

This creative destruction should make the entire town of Ankh-Morpork richer. They are, after all, producing far more stuff with the same number of people. And this shouldn’t just happen there. It should happen anywhere that an innovation increases productivity. Sadly, we do not see this in our own economy. But we used to! As Josh Bivens and Lawrence Mishel showed, from 1948 to 1973, the median worker’s wage went up at the rate of productivity growth. From 1974 to 2014, the productivity has increased roughly at the same rate, but wages have stagnated.

Productivity Wages Divergence

Obviously, the gains from productivity from such creative destruction had to go somewhere. And we know where that somewhere is. There has been a huge increase in income inequality. The extra money was simply captured by those who were already at the top of the economy. This is what happens when workers have no leverage. When unions were strong in this nation, they saw to it that workers got a share of the gains. Of course, ultimately it isn’t about unions but about the government limiting the power of unions. This started in 1947 with the Taft–Hartley Act. It just took 25 years before the constant assault on unions really paid off for the power elite.

This is something that bugs me about people who claim that we have nothing — economically speaking — to fear from automation. Overall, I agree with the idea. But in the context of a government that is determined to funnel money from the bottom of the income base to the top, we really could see huge increases in productivity that result only in more money for the rich. But as The Truth shows, it shouldn’t be like this. And it doesn’t need to be like this. And if the power elite were smart (and they show very few signs of being so) they would allow more of the gains to be shared. When you hold down the vast majority of the population, bad things happen.

Racial Profiling and the San Bernardino Shooting

Man Holding Sign: Deport All IraniansAt Sunday night’s Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders was asked a curious question with the lead-in, “I did want to ask you about a neighbor in San Bernardino who reportedly witnessed packages being delivered to that couple’s home, that it set off red flags, but they didn’t report it because they were afraid to profile.” I’ve heard this claim before. And it has been a big deal in conservative media because it feeds the narrative they most believe: that political correctness is destroying our nation and if we were just using racial profiling, we would all be safe. But it has never passed the smell test. It just seems too tidy and too much what people make up after the fact to contextualize this kind of tragedy.

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog is as up on this kind of “news” as anyone I know, and he explained that this claim isn’t even as strong as this. He wrote, “One neighbor of Syed Farook’s mother in Redlands, California, claims that another neighbor saw suspicious activity, but the second neighbor didn’t say anything because she didn’t want to engage in profiling.” And this claim itself comes from a single local television news reporter, although he reported it twice, so I guess that’s supposed to add credibility.

This whole thing leads me to the same place I find myself with the New Atheist crowd that claims that they just follow the facts. The brain doesn’t work that way. And I’ve seen far too many people unknowingly massage the narrative of things that have happened to them. It’s almost like Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. Step one: I don’t know what happened. Step two: You know what might have happened? Step three: It definitely happened. So I suspect that this went something like this:

A: “It just doesn’t make any sense!”

B: “I know. Did you ever see anything suspicious?”

A: “Well, they were getting a lot of packages. It seemed a little strange.”

B: “Why didn’t you say anything?”

A: “I don’t know. Racial profiling?”

B: “You didn’t say anything because you didn’t want to be seen as a bigot?”

A: “Yeah. I think that must have been it.”

On the other hand, if it had been just some crazy person, the narrative that develops is that they didn’t want to get involved or they (Rightly!) respect other people’s privacy. Normally, people don’t say anything simply because they have their own lives to lead. If they went around trying to explain why people do every inexplicable thing they do, there wouldn’t be much time left for anything else.

This reminds me of David Mitchell’s video, Social Signals. It talks about our tendency to act out little scenes in public to signal what is really going on. So instead of just turning around and going back to your house to get the phone you forgot, you make a big production of showing to anyone interested that you have in fact forgotten something. But of course Mitchell is right: no one cares. That is, no one cares until you turn out to be a mass murderer. Then that “crazy” business of walking back and forth in the street comes to be meaningful in a way that it was not at the time.

It’s interesting that no one has gone back to San Bernardino to locate this neighbor of a neighbor who didn’t want to engage in racial profiling. But the truth is, even if someone did, it wouldn’t matter. At this point, it is impossible to say — barring a diary entry, “Those people across the way are up to something; I should probably say something; but I don’t want to be accused of racial profiling.” That sounds like something Glenn Beck will put in his next novel.

Morning Music: Santa’s Lament

Don Novello: One Hundred Bulbs On the Christmas Tree PartyI have a good one for you this morning: “Santa’s Lament.” It comes to us from Don Novello, or as you probably know him, Father Guido Sarducci. The strange thing about Novello is that he doesn’t have much of a personality when he isn’t in character. Thus his comedy is usually done through some character or other. Another one of them is Lazlo Toth (like Laszlo Toth), sort of a typical ill-informed America. As I recall, he pestered Richard Nixon for years over some small amount of money “Lazlo” sent him for an appearance that Nixon had to cancel. It’s funny stuff.

Anyway, the thing about Novello is that he clearly doesn’t care much for Christmas. “Santa’s Lament” tells the story of a fed up Santa Claus. You see, people are always asking him for stuff, but they never ask what he wants. “You would not believe the letters I get!” He also has bad things to say about the elves and the reindeer. That especially applies to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Santa explains exactly where that ungrateful reindeer would be without him. And it isn’t pretty!

Anniversary Post: Crossword Puzzle

Crossword PuzzleOn This day in 1913, the first ever modern crossword puzzle was published in the New York World. It was designed by an immigrant from Britain, Arthur Wynne. You can see it there on the left. It contains all the things we expect from a crossword puzzle — namely, clues and crisscrossed words.

Wynne named his invention a “Word-Cross Puzzle.” Apparently this changed a couple of weeks later when a typesetter screwed up and printed it as “Cross-Word.” The name stuck. I have to assume it is because “crossword” sounds better than “wordcross.” Just the same, “Sudoku” hardly trips off the tongue.

If I didn’t know me, I would assume that I would be into crossword puzzles. I’m not. It reminds me kind of like my experience with chess. I was horrible at the game until I reached a certain critical mass of information. I did this by analyzing grandmaster games until a switched flipped and I understood what was really going on in games.

When I look at crosswords, I’m stunned. It makes no sense at all to me. For example, I was looking at this one at 24-25 with the clue, “Found on the seashore.” I thought, “That’s crazy! What two letter word is found at the seashore?!” The answer is, “Sand.” So you see, I can’t even figure out the basic mechanics of the game.

But someday, I would like to become a crossword puzzle person. As it is, I think my Sudoku skills are slipping a bit. The last really hard one I tried, I did not manage to finish. I think that’s the first time that’s happened to me since I started doing them about eight years ago. But in my defense, I was probably drunk and didn’t spend that long on it. Given that I went through an obsessive Sudoku period, maybe I should avoid the crosswords altogether.