The Mandibles – a story of a human impact of government finance

This review was posted at Amazon.

Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles is a dystopia focused on financial issues, but you won’t find Wall Street or government characters in it. It shows how overly simple – and popular! – government decisions ruin the lives of the regular people. It makes an argument that federal government debt is a serious threat to our society and an attempt to get out of debt easily by renouncing it would be a disaster, collapsing the economy and plunging the whole country into dire poverty. In the ensuing economic collapse, shortages of all goods rival what is reported out of modern-day Venezuela. Homelessness is massive. The chilling perspective surely provides some food for thought. The book is well written, with likable characters and vivid scenes.

There are some decidedly Randian notes in the book: the spirited defense of free markets, extended dialogue on economics, cartoonishly negative and arguably mean-spirited depiction of socialists. There is even something like a Galt’s Gulch that I liked better than the original. Rand’s Galt’s Gulch was a utopia and the weakest part of Atlas Shrugged, in part because utopias are generally boring. Shriver’s version is decidedly bleak and thus more realistic. And the whole book is written mostly from a “little man” perspective, which was severely lacking from Rand’s writings.

The book covers 2 distinct time periods: first two thirds of the book are set in the late 2020s – early 2030s, when US is spiraling into collapse. The events of the last third of the book occur in 2047, when the situation is not quite as dire on the level of basic necessities, but federal government reasserted itself and became an oppressive monster. Punitive taxation inhibits economic activity. Government controls every little transaction, down to a parent giving her child a small allowance. Life becomes even bleaker than in the first part because there seems to be no future to hope for. Yet both parts of the book are united by an uplifting thread: spirit and resourcefulness of two persons, a young and an old, finding answers to the toughest challenges.

I found the first part of the book plausible. The events in the book are set off by a decision of a large group of countries to introduce a common currency backed by hard assets. This particular event may be unrealistic, but it doesn’t really matter. Anything could serve as black swan and the book would work with only minor changes if the triggering event was different.

The second part of the book appeared to me to be more schematic and less persuasive. The 2047 period echoes the key element of Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End: government insisting on inserting itself into everything people do through electronic chips they own and control. While Vinge focuses on technological aspects of this arrangement, Shriver’s book is mostly about routine daily transactions. Interestingly, Vinge expected strict government chipping rules to be flouted and chips hacked, and his society, while not clearly described, was broadly functional. In the Shriver’s book, government control is inescapable and the resulting society hopeless. On this, it’s a bit hard for me to believe Shriver. There is another example of the similar absolutism in the book that sounds dubious. US state of Nevada breaks away from the totalitarian USA. The landlocked territory named USN badly need trade because it is too small to manufacture all the different goods available in the modern economy. US government prohibits any relations with the enemy territory and advertises dire consequences for seditious noncompliance, but doesn’t physically enforce the border. And in the book a spirited smuggling economy does NOT emerge! This makes no sense: while US people are under the spell of government propaganda, the Nevadans know that the border is non-existent and have all the incentives to make trade work. The lack of smuggling is decidedly strange for a book that extolls free markets. Black market is relatively free because it is remarkably difficult to regulate: government doesn’t do that and various non-government strongmen can only do so much. Smuggling and black markets have always existed where governments attempted to restrict trade – just look to Prohibition and the War on Drugs as examples.

The author also makes an astute observation that in a severe depression our entitlements system will lead to a bizarre phenomena where elderly would be the only people with meaningful income. They would become the anchors of their families. Woe to a family in which no one draws a Social Security for they will not know where their next meal will come from. This picture, while dystopian, is not a figment of author’s imagination: it would be familiar to people from former Soviet bloc who lived through internal conflicts and USSR breakup wars. Those government retirement checks were meager indeed, but amid civil wars and economic collapse there were often no jobs to be had.

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What’s wrong with The Giver: Sameness and communism don’t work

I’ve recently had a conversation with a couple of high schoolers about The Giver (a popular middle school reading assignment and a 2014 movie). The story is a dystopia set in an apparently post-apocalyptic world. The key feature of this world is Sameness: there are no seasons and no weather, all people live in identical housing and so on. Population of this world doesn’t have memories of the past, and their present is free of any strong emotions. They lack color perception and don’t know love, but there is no warfare, strife or hunger.

The world is supposed to come off unsympathetically dystopian, but it’s not all that cut and dry. Upon reading the book and seeing the movie I wondered how many people would be willing to take such a deal. And lo, the high schoolers I talked to expressed an opinion that the world of The Giver may be a nice place, especially for the older people who no longer care for romance and just want to live out the rest of their lives in peace and comfort.

Of course, it wouldn’t work this way. Seniors would be the worst off, actually, because in The Giver’s world, the authorities simply kill off (“release”) seniors.

For the others, the deal in The Giver is also not as good as it seems. We learn about the world through the eyes of Jonas, a teenager (12 years old in the book, but 16 years old in the movie). He is young and naive and doesn’t yet know much about his own world. He is shocked to learn that a routine act of “release” from community applied to elders, unexpected babies and sometimes adults is not a benign exile, but an execution. So it’s not as nice as it seemed at first: powers that be won’t send you to a war, but they will still kill you. If you’re lucky, you will live to advanced age, but what happens if you become unproductive due to an accident? This is hardly a utopia.

In addition, we learn from Jonas’ mother, who is a judge, that their community applies a whole specter of punishments, “release” naturally being the ultimate penalty. She relates that she sentenced someone to release. This fact alone breaks the beautiful picture of a harmonious society. The way their small community (a hamlet, really), “releases” people left and right, it might as well be called a death camp. And the world doesn’t look as perfect once you realize that people still routinely break rules and are punished for that. Is there really no strife in that world or any miscreants are swiftly executed before situation gets out of hand?

OK, so the society was totalitarian, but did they at least live comfortable lives with all their basic material needs taken care of? No way! History tells us that humans need incentives. Imposing Sameness removes material rewards as incentives. With punishment being the only incentive, a society can’t survive. The largest scale experiment of this kind, the USSR, collapsed much sooner than it reached anywhere near the level of control and uniformity depicted in the book. It was beset by deficits throughout entirety of its existence.

People tried to create utopia many times. Not a single one succeeded. Ask Governor Bradford of Plymouth Plantation how well communism worked even with seemingly highly motivated group of people who had no one to rely one rather than themselves. Answer: not well at all. Once individual incentives are removed and the fruit of labor is split between all members of the community, people start finding excuses to avoid work. In his writing, Governor Bradford relates how pilgrims, who arrived to settle a colony in the New World, attempted to do all agricultural work together and share the crops fairly and evenly. The result was a disaster that nearly wiped out the colony: people were unwilling to put much effort into tough farming work, even though their collective survival depended on it. Seeing this, next year they decided to parcel out land and let each family work its own lot. The quick end to the communist experiment saved the colony. Governor Bradford describes the improvement in these words:

The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

Sameness may be superficially attractive and communist ideal will probably always resonate, but it is a false calling, doomed to leave an impressive body count and ultimately fail every time it is tried. This is one of the most important lessons we could learn from all of human history.

 

References:

Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647. Edited by Samuel Eliot Morison. The University of Chicago Press. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch16s1.html