Monday, March 31, 2008

The Economics of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Here's a post about economics, as suggested by Tammy. Well, sort of a post on economics.

I was watching the (original) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie (with Gene Wilder) - which came out the year I was born and which I have always really loved. I got it on DVD last year so my daughter could enjoy it, and I was watching it this weekend because my daughter put it in the DVD player to watch.

At the beginning of the movie, there is the "Candyman" song sequence, where the owner of a candy shop sings about how Willy Wonka was born to be a candyman and dances about, giving out candy in various forms to the children in the shop. Since I was a kid, this sequence always bothered me for this reason: A major plot point in the movie is Charlie's lack of funds to even buy a candy bar (because he's so poor) - and yet here, right at the beginning, you see all these kids dancing around, getting hundreds of dollars worth of candy for free - the proprietor just hands it out, you see no money exchanged. I wondered, why can't Charlie get some of that free candy?

Then as I watched it, and saw Charlie looking in through the window longingly as the sequence ends, all of the various arguments I've had in the blogsphere flooded in, and I wondered if instead one could take it for just how Charlie sees it - like all the kids get to dance and get candy for free (seemingly) and he's just left out of it because he's of the wrong class (too poor). Or something like that. In other words, it only SEEMS like candy is given away to him, given the relative wealth difference between him and those other children. They can afford it enough so that it seems (to Charlie) like it is just given away. I know, this is really overthinking it - in reality, they just wanted to do a musical number about candy, and that was a fun way to do it.

But this brought back the various blog arguments I've seen because of how it relates to perception. The "privileged" children in the store getting free candy - or rather, seeming to get free candy to the "non-privileged" Charlie Bucket - when the reality was, they really don't get free candy - Charlie's perception is mistaken -- which rather turns on its head the whole notion of "Standpoint Theory" - where the non-privileged supposedly have better insights than the privileged - in this case, the privileged know what's going on better than the non-privileged.

Though in my personal opinion, I think standpoint theory is mostly bunk (and it has been fairly effectively refuted by people other than me) for the simple reason that I don't see how one could ever think to know the experiences of others without ever having walked in their shoes - being less privileged doesn't suddenly offer a person any insights - and it may even cause envy and resentment, which would color perceptions. I think it is part of the notion in leftist thinking that the poor are somehow better than those who aren't poor (and especially better than the rich) when, last I checked, rich, poor, or middle-class, we are all the same species, with the same strengths, weaknesses, and personal biases.

Which brings me to more economics - survival of the fittest. Some use that as an excuse to do nothing for the poor (except blame them) and I think this is bunk. It is true that if one is truly exceptional, one can go from poor to rich. And so it is also true that some of the rich are people who have done exactly that - and so in that limited circumstance, you really can say that a person truly deserved to be rich and those poor people he or she left behind deserved it less because they didn't work to earn it. But that is not the norm - a huge amount of wealth in our society is inherited - even more so as we eliminate the estate tax and as certain members of the upper class strip out public funds to enrich themselves (like with the Iraq war). Being born to someone rich doesn't mean one deserves to be rich - while there is some component of genetics to who we are, such that a successful person might breed successful children, even there there is variation, especially as one goes down to successive generations. Beyond that, it is easier to make a million when you are born with a million in a trust fund.

The way I think about the various "classes" is this: I think the main determiner of what class you will be is what class your parents were - rich parents, rich children; poor parents, poor children. I think it takes a very special sort of individual (and some luck) to manage to climb to a new class level - from poor to middle or from middle to rich - or from poor to rich. You can decrease that difficulty with some help - like with the GI Bill, that sent a whole generation to college after WWII - that created a robust middle class (which has slowly eroded away of late). Of course, it also helped that all of the world industrial powers other than the United States had been bombed into rubble and so we had basically total market share for manufacturing for a while.

What this boils down to is this: you really can't say that the poor are poor just because they are lazy or unable to be anything else. It is really hard to get up out of one class - particularly when you start at the bottom. Sometimes cultural things make that worse - like favoring jocks over studying - while a few superstar jocks may get out, a much more reliable method of improving yourself is through education - which means being a nerd and studying over partying and socializing or doing sports.

I think the key is education - making it available for everyone and making it of good quality. And I don't support things like vouchers - which I see as a backdoor way to suck funds out of public schools and put it into religious schools, and as a subsidy for upper class parents who already have kids in private school and just want a tax break for it. (Because the vouchers never cover full tuition, and so the poor, who can't afford even partial tuition, are still stuck - leaving those who benefit the most those who can afford private school already anyway).

I'd favor vouchers if they did two things: 1) if they were not for religious schools - I don't want my tax dollars paying to teach bronze age superstitions as fact and 2) if they covered 100% tuition of any school you sent your kid to, so it would actually allow even the poor to have full school choice, as opposed to just giving a subsidy to the upper class to send their kids to school.

I favor some form of national health insurance - again, making it easier for the poor and middle class to move up - because the main cause of bankruptcy is not credit card spending sprees, it is medical bills.

I favor regulation of corporations for 100% transparency of their books - I think the best form of regulation is not so much forbidding certain behavior (though you still would have some of that) as it is making all behavior on public display. I would also give more power back to stockholders - you know, the people who actually OWN the companies. It is sickening to me to see, for instance, over half of shareholders vote to limit a CEO's compensation and then see the board just ignore it. I'd make 2/3 or 3/4th majoritys required of shareholders for setting things like CEO compensation and golden parachutes - and I'd add an extra layer of protection on golden parachutes - I'd make them all also contingent on a 2/3rd vote of the stockholders at the time of exercise. Of course, the GOP would hate this - this would take away a lot of their power and financial base - but hey, giving shareholders (owners) more power is what would make for a TRUE ownership society.

As it is, I see CEOs and boards using companies as personal banks, looting the value and living off of them like leeches. Which I find sickening. I'd think a true libertarian would want to eliminate that sort of legalized theft.

As I said before, the GOP favors privatization of profits - and the public financing of losses. Which is exactly the opposite of a free market. If they gamble and win, they want to keep all the winnings, if they gamble and lose, they want the taxpayers to bail them out and prevent them from taking any losses (and also allow them to keep their millions already "earned"). This is bullshit. I think what the Fed is doing now, in general, is really bad - they are lowering interest rates, which will just give a tiny bump now in exchange for a huge recession and huge inflation in the future - 5 to 10 years from now. But hey, anything to juice things up in an election year. Bush just keeps on proving that no matter how bad he's been, he can get even worse.

As usual, I have wandered far - from chocolate to Bush. To get back to Charlie - Charlie is wrong in his perception - there is no free chocolate. The other kids do have to pay for it. It only seems to him like they don't or that they have an unending supply because he has so little and because perhaps he likes to imagine things that way, as if he could somehow get there himself, if only he works hard enough. In a way, that's like the general lie that keeps the poor voting GOP - the notion that they vote for things that are hugely beneficial for the rich and powerful with the idea that they could somehow get those benefits too, if only they worked hard enough. Which is a lie - the benefits that the GOP gives are just for its cronies - and the hard work they reward is that of lobbyists, not anyone who actually produces anything. And as a final thought - I hope everyone reading this now has either "Candyman" or even better, "Pure imagination" running through their heads from the movie. Because I sure can't get them out right now after having watched the movie several times for toddler.


The Barefoot Bum said...

I wondered if instead one could take it for just how Charlie sees it - like all the kids get to dance and get candy for free (seemingly) and he's just left out of it because he's of the wrong class (too poor). Or something like that. In other words, it only SEEMS like candy is given away to him, given the relative wealth difference between him and those other children.

I think you're taking way too literally what can be interpreted as straightforward dramatic license, just showing class difference in general in a dramatic way without making a point as to very specific conceptual mistakes Charlie might or might not make about those differences.

DBB said...

I'm sure I'm being way too literal. I'm sure I'm also committing a "sin" that I see done far too often - coming up with all sorts of "meaning" about something that, in the end, was probably just an excuse for a musical number.

I've also seen that scene way too many times over the past 37 years.

E said...

I think what you're getting at with your "education will help alleviate class differences" problem is the idea of implicit curriculum: the unwritten rules that determine educational success. Most successful students learn these in the primary grades or from their parents(things like how to let a teacher know you don't understand; how to study; where to find the information you are looking for if you don't understand; resources and facilities available outside the classroom; how to build conceptual frameworks for understanding rather than memorizing discrete facts; how to ask questions to get the information you want; how to approach an adult you don't know and ask for something, etc), but by the time they reach middle and high school, these are things students are expected to "just know." I agree that giving parents control over their child's educational choices is important, but I think working harder to teach students that they are capable of steering their own course is even more important. American public schools were originally intended to teach people how to participate in society, not just float along, but it is all too often that we don't ever get around to teaching students how to do anything other than live at the whim of whoever happens to be in charge. So it's no wonder the level of nihilism and apathy we see by the time they reach high school.

What I really like about this approach is how it doesn't assume all kids are equal or that all kids are expected to reach the same prescribed benchmarks at the same time, or even at all, but what it does do is try to level the playing field and make sure students' eventual success and status is a product of their choices, interests, and abilities, not factors that are outside their control.

Tammy said...

"Being born to someone rich doesn't mean one deserves to be rich -"

Seeing the use of the word "deserve" in discussions of social class always makes me just a little apprehensive. The word, with all of its moral connotations, is simply too abstract (and too open to personal interpretation) to be truly relevant in such a discussion. An alternative:

"Being born to someone rich doesn't mean that one has done anything to EARN his or her wealth."

To "earn" is concrete -- the measurable result of following a series of actions. To "deserve", however, is an open-ended judgment of one's virtue. Does the rich heir become more "deserving" of his wealth if he denounces his fortune and gives it all away to the poor? And by contrast, do the poor, who benefitted from his gift, really "deserve" the money since they did absolutely nothing to earn it?

See? Too ambiguous.

Sigh -- it occurs to me that I just picked apart the word "deserve" in the same manner that you picked apart the Candy Man scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (which I truly loved, by the way, and thought was genuinely entertaining... well done, sir).

E said...

I also think comprehensive education in personal finance is absolutely necessary for making class transitions much more practical. It seems that financial know-how increases with economic status (duh, right?). So why am I still using the trial-and-error method every year to file my taxes? More to the point, why do I get "sticker shock" every year when I calculate my income and wonder why the hell I still live paycheck-to-paycheck? I feel like I'm barely scraping by on $90,000 a year, but nobody in my family ever had any money to manage, so I never really learned how. If we want to decrease the rigidity of economic hierarchy in this country, let's teach everyone how to work their money, not just those who have it.

DBB said...

Tammy - I understand your concerns with "deserve" - I actually share them as far as how that word is sometimes used - I think in my own mind, I tend to see "deserve" and "earn" as being interchangeable - in other words, I think you deserve the money you earn.

Maybe this is partly because I don't tend to indulge in general judgments about what people "deserve" in general, beyond what everyone is entitled to - like justice, equality, education, etc. Judgments with deserve beyond that (outside the context of punishment for wrongdoing, like stealing or killing) tend to rub me the wrong way, perhaps because of the religious connotations often involved with that.

E - I agree with you and I wish schools did more of what you describe - teaching real-world skills that we all need rather than just some watered down curriculum that instead passes for education. I think some people are afraid of having independent minded kids. I think there is also an element of bureaucracy to it all.

I'd rather my kids learned practical things, like how to balance a checkbook, handle credit, and all of that, than about "social studies" in some watered down fashion, oversimplified, with any controversy filtered out.

We should be educating our children to be good, productive citizens who are engaged in our society economically and politically. Instead, we bore them to death with rote learned nonsense in many places. Some of my classes had wonderful teachers and I learned great things - my humanities class in high school was probably one of the best classes in any high school ever - but lots of other classes were rather dull, uninspiring, and really didn't teach me anything that stayed with me beyond the final exam.

I'm sure you have better ideas about how to do all of that than I do, with your practical experience - any suggestions for how to nudge one's school district to do this? My daughter starts kindergarten in just over two years and I worry about what she'll be in for. At the very least, I want to make sure the holes in her education are filled in somehow, even if I have to do it myself. (Though I wonder who can find the time where the holes can be so huge).

E said...

I honestly don't know what's out there on the elementary level, but we have a new principal at my high school, and so many of the programs and trainings we're getting in line for next year have this focus. It seems like she really wants to equate a diploma with practical skills rather than just learning facts and passing a test. I was an hour late getting home because I was in my department chair's room getting all the scoop on a class I'll be teaching next year that combines the English curriculum and content standards with a technology-based study/computer/life skills class that really seems to be targeting these exact issues.
Like I said, I have no idea what anybody's doing in elementary, but I've heard some neat anecdotal stories about teachers implementing entire economies in their classrooms where good behavior is tied to earning money, which is then used to rent desk space, extra credit opportunities, classroom priveleges, etc, or pay "fines" for poor behavior, but that has more to do with individual teachers' management decisions rather than curriculum.

Michael said...

The most useful skill of my adult life (besides general "bullshitting" ability ) I learned in high school.

How to type.


As far as what a class of people "deserves", I see it like this:

- Socialism doesn't work. It just doesn't. I wish it would. I wish I could lie and say that I could even get on board for it. I can't.

- It's a WHOLE LOT easier to make money if you have it. That sounds simplistic, but it's true. If I had $280K right now, I could make $50K tomorrow. TOMORROW. ( our landlord offered to sell us the duplex we live in, thus my bitterness ) Plus, wealth often comes with the knowledge concerning how it was acquired in the first place or at least the necessary connections.

-I still don't think it's the government's job to level the playing field. I do think, however, that it's the government's DUTY to not take our tax money and tilt it in the favor of those who are connected croney's. Which is how things currently work.

How do we fix it?

I have no idea.

Any change would have to be sudden, violent and generally unpleasant.

DBB said...

E - it's too bad they can't make that part of the curriculum and instead you have to hope individual teachers do something with it.

Michael - I don't think socialism generally works either, but sometimes it seems like the choice is between socialism for everyone or socialism just for the cronies.

I also think typing is probably the most useful thing I learned in High School.

E said...

My most valuable high school experience was learning to use my boobs to launch a pen across the room. I could have gotten the hormone-ridden boys across the room to do my homework for me, if I wasn't almost always smarter than them.

Sweating Through fog said...

Great post! I'm with you on your analysis of Standpoint Theory - the left does assume that the less privileged are morally and ethically superior to the more privileged. And that the less privileged have a keener view of injustice. In their view, privilege always results in blindness, not empathy, and lack of privilege always causes righteous anger, not bitterness. It is a legacy of Christianity.

I'm with you on universal, single-payer health care, despite my generally libertarian leanings. But we differ on vouchers - in my view there should be no funding at all for public education - all the money that the government spends on education should be used to cut checks to parents. Let parents select private schools and use the checks they get from the government to pay for them.

And I long ago realized that the GOP is not really libertarian in any sense.

DBB said...

E - that's impressive - and I can't help but think of gaming, just because how my brain works - could you roll dice that way?

It is always more satisfying to do your own homework if you do well - hard to be excited about getting an 'A' if you didn't write the paper...

STF - I think the whole privilege thing in certain left-wing circles is an extension of the pissing contest you see between various groups about who is the most oppressed.

I still think education, quality education, should be guaranteed for everyone. Doing that is what makes a nation a first world nation. What you describe isn't all that different from what I'd advocate - fully funded education for everyone, with a choice about where to go with it.

The GOP is not now, nor was it ever, libertarian - it just sounded libertarian when out of power. The GOP is authoritarian.