Saturday, March 27, 2010

Shmoos and Free Goods

A week or so ago there was a comic in the local paper asking how you get Kentucky Blue Grass. The answer was to mow your lawn while the Smurfs were having a picnic.

That morning, the leader of our water aerobics class asked if anyone remembered the name of the characters shaped like bowling pItalicins who were in Al Capp's Li'l Abner strip. Her husband, after reading the Kentucky Blue Grass comic, thought they were called Smurfs, but she didn't think so.

Most of us in the pool remembered the characters but I was the only one who (and failrly rapidly) came up with the name "Shmoos". Since I am losing my mind (among other things) I was quite proud of my memory feat in this case. Especially so when several people I asked about it were unable to remember the name (the best one came up with "Igoos").

I looked them up in Wikipedia and was amazed at the philosophical content of the Shmoo characters. When I was a kid I just read the comic and laughed, but Shmoos represent some deep satirical ideas indeed! As well as the economic concept of a free good.

Here are some of the more interesting ones from Wikipedia. I recommend you read them all at the above link.

They consume no resources other than air and reproduce prolifically. The closest natural thing that does anything like that would be wild fruit trees and edible berry bushes. I guess we could include edible fish and land animals, but these usually require quite a bit of work to catch.

They are edible and anxious to please. The Li'l Abner comic panels [hold CTRL and press + to make images larger] show how a shmoo simply "draps daid - outa sheer joy" if a person looks at them hungrily! Raw, they taste like oysters, but cooked they taste like chicken (if fried), steak (if broiled), pork (if roasted), or catfish (if baked).

Shmoos sustain themselves and volunteer to be cooked and eaten. That put lots of farmers and hunters and grocers out of business! (So you see the mixed blessing of a free good.)

"They also produce eggs (neatly packaged), milk (bottled grade-A), and butter — no churning required. Their pelts make perfect bootleather or house timber, depending on how thick you slice it.

"They have no bones, so there's absolutely no waste. Their eyes make the best suspender buttons, and their whiskers make perfect toothpicks. In short, they are simply the perfect ideal of a subsistence agricultural herd animal. "

Shmoo are also entertaining. They put on "shmoosical comedies" that put actors and movie-makers and TV stations out of business. And, like the mythical "snipe", some especially tasty shmoos play hard to get. It is entertaining to go out at night with a flashlight and a large bag and a stick and catch them.

No need for humans to work anymore. So, it seems, with shooos around and procreating rapidly, humans would, in effect, be back in paradise before Adam and Eve sinned. That would put our political leaders and corporate execs and labor unions out of business as well.

In the Li'l Abner comic, the shmoos are hunted to extinction, by "shmooicide squads".
All Capp explained how he got the idea for shmoos in a Cosmo piece in 1949:
I was driving from New York City to my farm in New Hampshire. The top of my car was down, and on either side of me I could see the lush and lovely New England countryside… It was the good earth at its generous summertime best, offering gifts to all.
And the thought that came to me was this: Here we have this great and good and generous thing — the Earth. It's eager to give us everything we need. All we have to do is just let it alone, just be happy with it.
Cartoonists don't think like people. They think in pictures. Little pictures that will fit into a comic strip. And so, in my mind, I reduced the earth… down to the size of a small critter that would fit into the Li'l Abner strip — and it came out a Shmoo… I didn't have any message — except that it's good to be alive.
The Shmoo didn't have any social significance; it is simply a juicy li'l critter that gives milk and lays eggs… When you look at one as though you'd like to eat it, it dies of sheer ecstasy. And if one really loves you, it'll lay you a cheesecake — although this is quite a strain on its li'l innards…
I thought it was a perfectly ordinary little story, but when it appeared in newspapers, all hell broke loose! Life, in an editorial, hailed the Shmoo as the very symbol and spirit of free enterprise. Time said I'd invented a new era of enlightened management-employee relationship, (they called it Capp-italism.) The Daily Worker cussed me out as a Tool of the Bosses, and denounced the Shmoo as the Opium of the Masses...
They say "there is no such thing as a free lunch", but, if there was, would it be good for humanity?
Ira Glickstein


Howard Pattee said...

Ira is right that the closest thing to a Schmoo is a plant. Like the Schmoo, the matter in plants comes mostly from the air, but they do require sunlight and water (water is recyclable). Plants (including bacteria) are actually our necessary and sufficient life support system (vegetarians are often healthier than meat eaters).

NASA has been trying to figure out how to survive in space and concluded that bacteria and plants are only solution. In 1973, NASA scientists identified 107 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air inside the Skylab space station. Synthetic materials, like those used to construct Skylab, give off low levels of chemicals. This effect, known as out-gassing, spreads the VOCs, such as formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene, all known irritants and potential carcinogens. When these chemicals are trapped without circulation, as was the case with the Skylab, the inhabitants may become ill. Plants provide the essential natural scrubbing of these organics as well as producing oxygen.

Listen to Kamal Meattle’s T.E.D. talk for some healthy advice.

Ira Glickstein said...

Very interesting (and short) TED talk. THANKS Howard for the link.

Do you have any of these plants in your home? Is this advice (to have around three waist-high plants, 1) Areca Palm, 2) Mother-In-Law's Tongue, and 3) Money Plant per person in an office building) applicable to homes that are in less built-up areas?

Due to allergies, we keep our doors and windows closed and our A/C on all year. We've extra-insulated our home and it is only six years old so we probably have out-gassing from construction materials. I plan to check out the house plants. Does anybody have experience with caring for them? He mentioned wiping off the leaves each week and taking them outside every few months. What about their need for light, etc.?

Ira Glickstein

PS: Any comments on the issue of free goods? Natural, wild outdoor plants are free goods, but most plants are cultivated at some cost in human labor. What would happen if, along with wild plants, there were Shmoos that provided free milk, eggs, meat and, on occasion, cheesecakes? And if their skin served us as leather and lumber? Would civilization have developed? What kind? Science? Technology? Government?

Howard Pattee said...

I’ve been thinking about Ira’s question: What would “free goods” mean for the development of civilization? Actually, didn’t civilization really develop with cooperation and specialization in producing goods? Cooperation requires trading goods and services, and that requires placing a value on what is traded. Value is complicated because it involves all the costs in finding, recovering, manufacturing, and marketing, as well as the competition, quality, and demand for the goods. In the uncivilized biological world everything looks like “free goods” but only natural selection determines value.

In fact, conservatives, like Hayek, argue that economic controls fail just because “value” is too complex and subjective to be predictable. Only the “free market” determines value. I disagree, but that’s another issue.

For example, how do you determine the value of a 50-year-old Cedar tree? A lumber company might say it is worth about $5000 because it chooses to sell the lumber.

But suppose someone chooses to sell oxygen (which can be much more important for some people than lumber). From the Internet I get the commercial cost of oxygen: 7.9 litres (9.0 kg) of oxygen costs $54. From this we figure that 5 moles of oxygen costs about $1.

I also find that trees produce approximately 5 moles of oxygen per square meter leaf area per day (with 10 hrs of sunlight). Trees use about half this oxygen for their own respiration. Therefore, the net oxygen output of a tree is approx 2.5 mole per square meter of leaf area per day. A 20 year old Cedar has a canopy of about 80 square meters and hence net oxygen output of 2.5 x 8 x 80 = 1600 moles. So this tree’s oxygen could be valued at $320 per day or about $120,000 per year.

By the time the Cedar is 50 years old it would have produced oxygen worth commercially about $6 million! Of course this value is misleading because the “cost of oxygen” stated above is for producing pure oxygen in a tank, and I’ve ignored inflation. Most people’s lungs are able to get oxygen as “free goods,” except then it is not free of deadly pollutants. The cost of water is another complicated part of the problem.

An environmentalist would say these values are too simplistic. They say the value of a tree depends on its role in maintaining the global ecosystem which is even more complex (climate change is part of it). It is not just oxygen and lumber that has value. Trees remove the innumerable pollutants that are ruining our “free” oxygen. For more about the value of trees go to Amazing tree facts.

joel said...

I agree that civilization occurred in order to obtain goods without making war. It seems to me that Howard illustrated that the value of a good is too complex to compute. Only the free market which measures the intensity of desire for the good can give us the rapid and continuously free-floating determination that is needed in the marketplace. Also, the classic notion that supply and demand determine price is wrong. The intensity of a buyer's desire for a good as a function of price is sufficient to determine price when compared with a seller's intensity of desire to dispose of a good at a particular price. This approach appropriately brings in the fact that a transaction is an act of will, not a mathematical relationship. This avoids the seeming paradoxes such as the supply of magazines vastly exceeding the demand for them so that the surplus end up being routinely destroyed. A controlling agency like the state can set prices according to whatever formula it wishes, but it generally ends badly. I still recall buying bread in France in the days when the government fixed the price. When I would go for my loaf, the excuse was usually that those loaves had already been sold out earlier in the day.

Ira Glickstein said...

Joel is correct about the value of a good and the role of the free market in setting prices. Of course, the free market is not perfect. There will be a "random walk" of over- and undershoots in prices around the "true" value as well as local market distortions.

However, to really mess up the values, you need government interference! Joel mentions government-fixed prices for bread in France causing shortages. Years ago, bread prices were set so cheap in (I believe) the USSR, that people were using it to feed their chickens.

The housing bubble was caused, in part, by Fannie and Freddie, quasi-governmental organizations, guaranteeing loans made by banks to people who simply were not qualified on the basis of economics. The bailouts of AIG and Goldman Sachs and GM and Chrysler and the other "too big to fail" organizations sets a bad example of implied government guarantees to politically-connected businesses. Most of the very same execs who led their companies over the cliff continued to get big salaries and bonuses when, aided by the bailouts, they helped get them back on track.

That reminds me of some managers and engineers of projects where I worked who screwed their projects up and then "hid the screwdriver" so they were the only ones who could unscrew them, and were rewarded as heroes for doing so.

Howard's example of the supposed multi-million dollar value of free oxygen from a single cedar tree does, as he admits, not count the cost of purifying the oxygen and compressing it into a tank so it can be transported and conveniently used. I can just imaging some government accountant using similar reasoning to totally distort market values. The free market is neither totally free nor close to perfect, but it is way better than any other method of determining value.

When a willing customer and supplier in a competitive market voluntarily complete a transaction, they both feel they have gained the advantage. And, in most cases, they have. When I look at the electronic devices we have purchased over the past decade, it is amazing how much better and less expensive they are than anytime in the past. I wish all markets were as competitive and innovative and free of government control. The only valid role of government should be to enforce contracts, stabilize the money supply, and, in some cases such as allocation of the RF spectrum, set standards.

Ira Glickstein

joel said...

Whether it's a 50 year old cedar tree or a Monet or a ticket to a baseball game that can just as well be seen on television, it's passion that counts.

A salmon is the closest thing to a shmoo (not schmoo) that I can think of. You raise them to fingerlings in fresh water and release them in streams to go to the ocean where they graze unattended. When they're fat and juicy they come back to their release point, so that you and the bears can catch them. I'm sure they're happy to be caught.

Howard Pattee said...

Joel and Ira, I agree that government interference, as in price controls, is bad, but broad government monetary policies and laws affecting trade and natural resources almost everyone agrees are necessary. The issue is in the details.

Garret Hardin in 1968 wrote a famous paper in Science titled “The Tragedy of the Commons.” In it he stated that when humans (and organisms all the way down to cells) have access to a valuable resource that is free, they will be selfish and greedy to the extreme of using that resource up. The tragedy is that competition for using this free resource will destroy the resource that they depend on. This is the cause of many species’ extinctions, and has included human societies.

My contemporary, the ecologist Lawrence Slobodkin, made another well-known point that a free competitive strategy leads to winning or losing the game (survival or extinction), whereas in a stable ecosystem as well as in a stable society, the evolutionary strategy should be to “stay in the game.” This requires symbiotic or cooperative strategies that balance the competition.

These are famous ideas because they are supported by many lines of evidence. The only solution is an authority that can moderate the competition for the benefit of the community as a whole. That is what good government should do. I agree that our present government is not a good government, but this is because too many members are under the thumb of the controllers of the commons, rather than the whole democratic community that in a democracy should own the commons. The worldwide growth of what some would say is “the immoral” disparity between the rich and poor is the inevitable and dangerous consequence.

Historically, the profits and power of modern capitalism depend on its taking control of the commons, often with government help. This commons is the whole Earth’s free natural resources, like land, trees, minerals, and oil. Capitalism does not pay for anywhere near full value of these free resources. If it did then, by definition of “full value,” it could not make a profit.

Marx made a less obvious point that modern capitalism doesn’t pay anywhere near the full value of the years of parenting and years of education that is necessary for its workforce. These are enormous costs that are, in effect, subsidies that capitalism needs in order to function. These subsidies come from the worker by low wages and from the government by taxation.

Ira Glickstein said...

"For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; For want of the shoe, the horse was lost; For want of the horse, the rider was lost; For want of the rider, the battle was lost; For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost; And all for the want of a nail." [based on "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse", Shakespeare, Richard III]

In the context of battle, the value of a mere nail rises to that of an entire kingdom!

From W.S.Gilbert's Princess Ida
"CYRIL My lord, we love our king: His wise remarks are valued by his court As precious stones.
"GAMA And for the self-same cause! Like precious stones the wit of [your King] Derives its value from its scarcity!"

Again, value derives from relative scarcity. The value anyone assigns to gold and diamonds comes from the work required to find and refine them into jewelery. In the context of a desert isle, I may be more than willing to exchange my $1000 gold coin for a mere cocoanut.

Back in 1978, my wife and I bought one of the first Apple II home computers for $5K (around $20K in today's dollars). Today's $200 cell phone/PDA has orders of magnitude more storage, computing power, and functionality. Yet, in the context of 1978, we were thrilled with our purchase.

The true value of anything in a multi-player competitive market is the price a buyer is willing to pay and a seller is willing to accept. Neither more nor less!

Howard is absolutely correct about "the tragedy of the commons". A free resource held in common may be destroyed by overuse. If everybody "owns" something, nobody cares for it as if he or she really owned it.

IMHO, cooperative group strategies are always undertaken for the purpose of keeping non-group members out. Cattlemen keep the shepherds out of common fields because sheep tear the grass out down to the roots.

Howard goes wrong (again IMHO) when he says:
"The only solution is an authority that can moderate the competition for the benefit of the community as a whole. That is what good government should do. I agree that our present government is not a good government, but this is because too many members are under the thumb of the controllers of the commons, rather than the whole democratic community that in a democracy should own the commons."

Perhaps if humans were all angels we could have what Howard calls a good government. Until then, we will have "the best government money can buy" where the politically-connected make the rules. There is no solution but to reduce the role of government and give it less authority and return power to local groups and the people.

Howard paraphrases Marx's "point that modern capitalism doesn’t pay anywhere near the full value of the years of parenting and years of education that is necessary for its workforce." What a load of hooey! Children can be and are produced in excess quantity by unskilled labor in most of the world, including parts of our country. On a moral scale, each life is equally valued, but, in the context of economics, the value of human labor is exactly equal to what a worker is willing to exchange it for what an employer is willing to pay. Neither more nor less.

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

Ira, From your last paragraph I would have to conclude that in your opinion economic decisions should exclude all moral considerations? Is this what you believe?

joel said...

Howard said:

"Ira, From your last paragraph I would have to conclude that in your opinion economic decisions should exclude all moral considerations? Is this what you believe?"

Joel comments: It's funny, but I didn't conclude that from Ira's post. I don't think that the word "moral" even applies to governments. An individual can take moral action into account when making decisions. I believe Ira has given the example of his purchase of a Prius as a decision in part based on morality, since it wasn't in his best economic interest.
An example of a government trying to take a "moral" action might be illustrated with the following anecdote. When we were traveling in Stockholm I noticed that fresh oranges were terrible. I asked the supermarket manager why this was. He explained that the Swedish government only allows purchase of citrus from certain African nations in order to help their economies. Although it might sound moral if an individual did this, when a nation does it, it skews the economy away from improvement. The African nations involved have no reason to improve their methods of agriculture if Sweden will buy any garbage they produce. (And, believe me they were garbage.) It isn't morality, it's a kind of imperialism of the spirit. A free citizenry as individuals might give some preference to Africa without disrupting the natural economic forces that cause products to improve.

Howard Pattee said...

Joel, you say, “I don't think that the word "moral" even applies to governments.” I don’t know how you think about moral issues. Do you mean that government policies toward issues like “human rights” or “polluting the Earth” are not moral issues? Or do you mean that you don’t think that governments should be involved with this type of issue?

We agree of course that “An individual can take moral action into account when making decisions.” So I wonder when a president of a government uses his authority to make a “moral” policy decision, why can’t we attribute this decision to his government?

Howard Pattee said...

Ira, you dismiss Marx’s observation as “a load of hooey” that capitalist should recognize that childcare and education of workers are costs that benefit the capitalist.

I would say that the value of childcare and education is a fact, not a political or moral issue. Today, many enlightened industries, like Microsoft and Google, recognize this fact and provide child care and educational support for their workers. In fact, if I remember correctly, your PhD was supported by capitalists who would appear to accept Marx’s observation.

I agree that some countries produce an excess of employable workers. Economically, do you think these countries’ living standards would be increased or decreased if their governments or their industries provided support for their health and education?

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Howard and Joel for some lively collegial discussion of important issues.

Of course economic decisions have a moral aspect that must be considered. Just as each individual is a moral agent and must consider that aspect of his or her actions, when that person holds a corporate or governmental office his or her moral compass must also be active.

However, when big government or big business or big labor makes moral arguments to maintain some policy or to change some other, I always "follow the money" and, believe it or not, find self-benefit at the heart of the supposed morality.

Trial lawyers (like John Edwards) parade pitiful victims of medical procedures with bad outcomes and idiots like that woman who got scalded when she put a cup of McDonalds coffee between her legs and drove off before juries and get gigantic sympathy verdicts. The lawyers keep 30% of the haul and the injured get compensated. However, excessive litigation raises the cost of medical care by 10-20% for all of us and the prices of consumer products by an unknown amount. Is that moral - to make the poor and middle class pay more for their medical care and food and other services?

Established businesses and labor unions use (true) stories of child labor and low wages and bad working conditions in foreign countries to argue for trade restrictions that benefit who? Well, the benefits go to those politically-connected businesses and their workers. And at what cost? Well, consumers pay more for inferior products and the foreign workers we are so concerned about are made to work even harder and under worse conditions.

Yes Howard, IBM paid for my PhD (and thus part of your salary :^), but they did it for well-justified selfish reasons. Yes some companies provide on-campus child care and pay for employee health care and so on, but also for selfish reasons. They do it to attract and retain the best employees and to help them improve themselves by graduate education. Companies that treat their employees with a high level of morality generally increase loyalty and productivity.

But, this only works to a certain point. If you've been watching the new TV series "Undercover Boss" as I have, you know that most low-skilled workers are employed at strenuous, repetitive, and often dirty and boring tasks. These workers must be pushed hard to push productivity up and keep the companies competitive. Keep quality up and costs down or go out of business.

But government workplaces cannot go out of business, and some corporations are "too big to fail". Civil service jobs and heavily unionized industries are famous for work rules that ruin productivity. When I worked the night shift at the main Post Office in Brooklyn as a temp during the Christmas rush, I was pulled aside and told I was walking too fast! As editor of my City College of NY engineering magazine, it had to be printed at a union shop, at a cost three times that of non-union. On one of my first engineeering jobs, I could not move a meter from one lab to another without getting a unionized technician to do it for me.

Wonder why the US steel industry lost out to foreign competition? Why our car companies cannot compete in cost or quality? Why California is bankrupt? Why several other states are close behind? Why the US will almost certainly "monitize the debt" away and financially destroy those of us on fixed retirement incomes?

All in the name of compassion and morality and increased living standards for the poor underclass. The only beneficiaries are the politically-connected crony capitalists and crooked union bosses and corrupt politicians (in both parties). And the victims are and will be anyone stupid enough to work hard for a living.

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

Ira, thank you for the peroration on your bad experiences with bureaucrats. I agree that many organizations are sub-optimal or mismanaged.
You say, “I always ‘follow the money’ and, believe it or not, find self-benefit at the heart of the supposed morality.”

Of course I believe this. This is not as you say a “supposed” morality. This is a real morality. Names for it are “ethical egoism” or “enlightened self-interest” (see Wiki). There are innumerable varieties.

The question I was asking is: Does this type of morality solve the tragedy of the commons problem? Certainly unenlightened self-interest, more commonly called greed, does not!

Marx’s recognized that no common resource should be considered as “free” just because it is easy to ignore or avoid the hidden costs. This is often the case with natural resources, but as Marx pointed out it is also the case with children who grow up to be workers. Marx was never consider a moralist or even to have an ethics. It seems clear to me Marx is right on this point: Only by objectively recognizing these real costs and paying them can the tragedy of the commons be prevented.

How can any entity other than a government of some form assure that payment for common resources is for the benefit of the society as a whole? The obvious cases are the natural resources of the Earth, land use, air, water, oil, minerals, agriculture and lumber.

Of course there will always be a conflict between government policies trying to prevent the tragedy and industries trying to use these resources to make money. Extremists on either side are not the answer. We need to find a balance.

joel said...

Howard said: We agree of course that “An individual can take moral action into account when making decisions.” So I wonder when a president of a government uses his authority to make a “moral” policy decision, why can’t we attribute this decision to his government?

Joel responds: We might if we're talking about "Papa Doc Duvalier." More generally, I think its not a good idea to anthropomorphize something that's only a legal fiction. You need real personhood to attribute the word moral. In the case you suggest it's the leader who is moral or not. In a democracy it would be kind of clumsy to say that the country mostly acted in a moral fashion at least according to the moral point of view of the majority of voters. I don't think you would be too happy if the "Moral Majority" determined the morality of your country. According to a majority of voters the nation acts immorally when it condemns abortion, approves gay marriage and approves the death penalty. Who is to do the judging? I think it's more productive to ascribe morality to people rather than legal constructs that have neither consciousness nor conscience.

Ira Glickstein said...

Howard: I'm having trouble with your exposition of Marx. If we calculate the "real cost" to parents of having and raising children and pay parents that amount, will they not respond by having more children? Won't more children further increase the load on the resources of the "commons" you are so worried about "the natural resources of the Earth, land use, air, water, oil, minerals, agriculture and lumber"?

Marx lived at a time when there was not great population pressure and when an army of workers were needed for industry (and "cannon fodder" for the military). Nowadays, we have excess population growth and much manual-type labor can be performed cost-effectively by automation.

Employers already pay much of the real estate taxes that go for schooling their future workers. Part of an employer's cost of labor is the income taxes they withhold for their workers, as well as the portion of worker salaries that go for their income and real estate and sales taxes.

Perhaps we should charge parents for having more children?

Ira Glickstein

Howard Pattee said...

Joel, I understand your point and I mostly agree with it. Most ethical and moral concepts have meaning only for individuals. For example, the empathy of a government makes no sense.

What I have a problem with is the idea of justice. This is certainly a basic ethical concept. However it is usually defined only in terms of a society. John Rawls, for instance, claims that "Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” It is common to speak of a “just society.” For example, I think it is a reasonable question to ask if a just society can execute alleged criminals without a trial, use slave labor, or for that matter, use workers paid less than a subsistence wage.

Ira says, “. . . the value of human labor is exactly equal to what a worker is willing to exchange it for [and] what an employer is willing to pay. Neither more nor less.”

Most workers do not have much of a choice. They either must work for what is offered or they don’t get work. Most developed societies require some form of basic or minimum income. Some people feel the income enormous disparity between rich and poor is unjust as well as immoral.

Howard Pattee said...

Ira, my exposition of Marx was all too brief. My point was that most of Marx’s complaints about his society, including paying the costs of child care and education, have been addressed and corrected in modern developed countries. Specifically, the cost of child care and education is now paid in most countries by taxation of both individuals and corporations. This has generally resulted in decreased birthrates, not the increase you worry about.

For many reasons, like the Cold War, Americans are not only ignorant of Marx’s ideas, but are irrationally paranoiac about them. His scientific approach and his psychological interpretation of human behavior and religion is especially threatening to religious conservatives.

Marx’s ideas are often considered the origin of the social sciences. Many democratic countries have “communist” and “socialist” parties; but I think it is fair to say there is no communist party that follows Marx’s teaching any more than there are Christian churches that follow the teaching of Jesus (or republics following Plato, or democracies following Jefferson).

After the total disaster of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, China’s economy is growing rapidly under a communist regime that is promoting capitalism. I wonder what Marx would think of that!