Archive for June, 2010

No worries.   I am not a Trekkie.   I don’t even have Star Trek on my Facebook list of favorite TV shows.  But immediately after the Godfather Trilogy, Pulp Fiction, and a Bruce Springsteen concert, there is no better bible for life lessons than Star Trek’s 3 seasons of everlasting fame.  One of them is apropos for today’s economic predicament.

Show number 23–”A Taste of Armageddon”–was a first season classic.   It aired on February 23, 1967.  For Chicago readers, this was around the time of the great Chicago snow storm of 1967.  I was four years old.

The U.S.S. Enterprise is transporting an Ambassador to distant star cluster.  Captain Kirk, who is accompanying the Ambassador, beams down and has a convo with the planet’s head honcho.  Kirk learns that his planet has been at war for 500 years with a nearby planet , one that was originally settled by their people but is now their sworn enemy.  They have been at war so long that they can’t even recall why.

Luckily, this inter-planet war is fought by compassionate nations.  Social engineering evidently is one of their specialties.  These kind-hearted people discovered that the deaths that come with war are unnecessarily violent and the destruction is an avoidable by-product.   So they did away with the exploding devices.  Instead, the outcome of the battles was determined using a computer simulation.

A war is still a war even if computer simulations are used as substitutes for things that go pop.    But for war to be a war, deaths are a must.  So, when the computer spits out its results, the people calculated as casualties voluntarily report to dis-integration chambers to die.   The deaths are compassionate–you might say this is the change they came to believe in.

Enter U.S.S. Enterprise.  The computer incorporates the ship into its simulation and, as fate would have it, calculates that the Enterprise is destroyed.   Captain Kirk, bless his heart, refuses to cooperate and instead destroys the war computers.  “Not good”, cries out the planets’ leaders, as they know that this breaks the treaty that set up the simulated war.  Now a real interplanetary war is imminent.

Kirk saved the U.S.S. Enterprise from needing to turn over its crew members over to die–though their deaths would have been humane.  You see, the civilization that the Star Trek gang stumbled upon decided that war was unnecessarily cruel.  Sure, people had to die–that part they understood.  But why did the deaths need to be so painful and gory.  And couldn’t the collateral damage be avoided?

So they put their best social engineering to work.   And they decided that they could turn over the fighting of the war to computer simulations.   At the end of each computer battle, Social Security Numbers would pop out like lottery balls.  Only in this lottery, you got the gas chamber instead of a pile of money.    War was thus more compassionate.   One catch though–this war lasted 500 years.

But then the leader of U.S.S. Enterprise beamed down and came to the rescue.  In a passionate outburst that made Phil Donahue envious, Captain Kirk pointed out the unintended consequence of the simulation.  War causes violent death.  War causes massive destruction.   This is why war is to be avoided.   This is why civilizations must act responsibly so as to prevent war.  Violent death and massive destruction is the necessary deterrent.

Via social engineering, this kind-hearted civilization sought to make war more gentle.   But this social engineering came at a steep price–500 years of continuous war.  The incentive to prevent or end war was reduced with the removal of the violent death and massive destruction.  This lasted until Captain Kirk destroyed the computer and did a Phil-Donahue on them.  Once the simulation stopped running, peace was made and the war whose cause was long forgotten came to an immediate end.

Fast forward to today, as we find ourselves deep into a many-year economic quagmire.  We have enacted many policies to offset the harsh impact of the recession.  We’ve increased government payrolls and used stimulus spending to prop up industries and employment.  We significantly extended unemployment benefits.  We protected companies from bankruptcy.  We made it more expensive for private enterprise to hire employees.

The uncomfortable questions are “are we prolonging the downturn?” and “Are we making it more likely that we will have future troubles?”.   What happens if we don’t let businesses fail?  What happens if we protect salaries and pensions, even as we watch an industry such as auto manufacturing struggle?  What happens if we take too much money from those who achieved success and give it to those who haven’t?  At what point are we hurting society by misplaced compassion?   When do we cross the line where we are doing great harm to those people that we think we are helping?

Market corrections are ugly.   People lose jobs.   Life savings evaporate.   Homes are foreclosed.  Businesses go bankrupt.  It is ugly and painful.  It is, however, a necessary ingredient to a prosperous long-term economy.

A struggling economy forces society to adjust.  Get smarter with investing.  Hold corporations more accountable.   Be more responsible with personal financial management.  Make better choices on education and family structure.   Support politicians who enact policies that promote a thriving economy.