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Taanstafl and Other Abstractions

That there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch is something many of the regulars here would consider to be self evident, possibly at the level of the inalienable rights.

Those who believe that the world, or “government”, or “the man” – or any other vague entity which does not map directly to any specific individual have rather more difficulty understanding this. And since by failing to understand something so simple, they fail to understand the way existence itself works, you get really bad fiction from people who think they’re owed awards.

It’s the same kind of thinking that says the government can just print money to get out of debt (this may be why economies in so much recent fantasy and science fiction stink on ice. The people writing them don’t have a clue how it works. Heck, I only have a vagueish notion of the deeper complexities of it, but I am aware of the basics – and more than that, I’m aware of the principles – the very scientific principles – that underlie the whole deal.

It’s pretty much a function of how many layers of abstraction we’ve managed to wrap around something. The abstractions are more powerful and flexible than the real things, but the human mind is really good at reifying abstractions and forgetting that the real thing is under the handy abstraction.

Take the once nearly universal notion of animating spirits (no, I do not mean that nice glass of something alcoholic you enjoy). We Western humans still do that, we just use different names and anthropomorphize everything instead of treating it as a mystical thing. Heck the folk that think they can get anything free do the same thing, only their animating spirits are things like “progress” and “wokedness”, not to mention whichever Balkanized interest group is the current victim du jour.

By attributing everything to the group rather than the individual, they’re reifying a nebulous collection of humans based on some characteristic and then expecting every human with that characteristic to act as an avatar of the group with all the traits they’ve assigned to it. Strangely enough, it used to be a really bad thing to do this, particularly when the traits in question included dark brown skin or specific religions. How times change…

Anyway, it happens because we’re human. Humans are a group-oriented species. Whether you call the group a herd or a pack or something else doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that wherever you’ve got people, they’re going to sort themselves into groups then distinguish their groups by the things that aren’t the same as that other group over there. Then they’re going to start thinking of that group as if it was a physical thing.

In some ways this is a good thing: without the abstraction of the group as a physical entity you wouldn’t have the mental framework to understand a hefty chunk of modern life, and you wouldn’t be able to have the legal framework for things like corporations – which would make commerce rather… challenging.

In others, though… It’s really easy to forget what lies under the abstraction, and that way lies big problems. Take money. It’s a pretty high-level abstraction even at the level of precious metal coins (and we’re several levels beyond that now, what with paper money, credit cards, and online transactions where the only changes that actually happen are to bits in a number of computer databases). Those coins, due to the rarity of the metals used, made a decent proxy for the combination of time and energy investment that sits underneath any physical transfer of goods. If you raise cattle, you have the time that it takes for them to grow, the time and energy involved in protecting them from predators, and in colder climates, the effort (again, time and energy) of keeping them from freezing and starving when the ground is buried under snow, not to mention the time and energy involved in keeping yourself alive while raising them and getting them to market. Summing all of that up as being worth more or less than a piece of precious metal is a pretty hefty bit of mental gymnastics, when you look at it that way.

Now, just imagine where you can take that in your fictional societies (I swear, one day I’ll write the universe where blood is the basis of currency – yes, vampires are in charge). And roll your eyes (preferably not so hard they fall out) when someone tries to tell you that there is such a thing as a free lunch.

There isn’t. You’ll pay for it – and you’ll pay more if you don’t pay up front.

58 Comments
  1. c4c

    May 24, 2018
  2. When my brother was very, very young, he came up with a setting where the currency was souls. Being loosely based off of the Christian concept of Hell (ergo, ‘you will go to hell after you die if you are evil’) it was a little unsaid where the souls came from. Now I wonder how those souls would be… obtained.

    May 24, 2018
    • Brett Baker #

      I could tell you, but I really would have to kill you.(And that would get the folks you do covers for mad at me, which I don’t want. So you don’t need to know.)

      May 24, 2018
      • I might ask my brother instead… see if he remembers. From what I last understand, his job is sort of a cross between QA, inquest, and accounting; his wife IS in accounting.

        When he was around 13, he had me type up and print off a contract that had a soul as the principal for a 5 peso loan – it was signed by the debtor as well! The loan was repaid, but as amusing as the story was I did not think it appropriate to recount at his wedding. I vaguely remember asking him how the nine hells he ever expected to collect in case of default, and got ‘well, I suppose I’ll get possession of his soul in the event of his untimely death.’ Later: ‘Since he paid me back I suppose the whole question is moot now… a shame.’

        May 24, 2018
    • Kate Paulk #

      From gingers, I would have thought.

      May 25, 2018
  3. 23skidoo

    May 24, 2018
  4. That’s one of the challenges I encountered when doing the research and then writing Merchant and Magic – the complexity. Even in a relatively simple economy like the North Sea coasts in the 1100s, wow! Trying to keep track of demand, regulations, shipping costs, which goods had “Just prices” and which could be priced to the market, trans-shipment, currency and weight conversions… And that’s just the surface.

    May 24, 2018
    • Kate Paulk #

      Oh, yes. It’s a delicate balance to have enough reality that the system is feasible without overloading on the complexities. I’m not sure I’ve ever managed to get that part right.

      May 25, 2018
  5. First sentence of second paragraph does not work. “believe that the world…” what? In fact, you can print money to pay off debt, if you are a government. It’s been done. You may or may not like the consequences, depending on how much money you print. There are complications if your debt is not payable in your own currency, but that is not a problem with sovereign debt.

    May 24, 2018
    • Well, if you’re going to devalue your currency, you might as well do it through buying off your debts. Not that that’s a good idea, but at least you get _something_ for trashing the monetary assets of your citizenry, and generally wrecking your economy.

      May 24, 2018
    • Kate Paulk #

      Ah, yes. I managed to leave off a key clause along the lines of “owes them something” as I recall.

      May 25, 2018
  6. Thanks for the blog article, it made me think (a rare enough event that I note it when it happens). At what point in a civilization’s history do the people cross that invisible barrier that allows them to trust their currency (whatever it is) enough to trade valuable goods for the physical representation of the government’s stability, money. I’m dealing with that right now and this put my thinking on a new path. Thank you!

    May 24, 2018
    • Kate Paulk #

      That’s a truly challenging question – usually there’s an evolution from having multiple local authorities producing the money and some really interesting exchange rates to having some central authority be in charge of the money. Unless it gets imposed by fiat, in which case you invariably get a flourishing black market.

      May 25, 2018
      • Yeah, I’m wrestling right now with how do you reimpose a system of money when the old world has collapsed and the survivors all barter for what they need.

        May 25, 2018
        • Kate Paulk #

          If you’re a tyrant/dictator/etc. you do it by force of arms and spend a lot of time squashing the black market that arises. Otherwise you let it evolve as it needs to.

          May 25, 2018
        • Why did people invent money in the first place? Becuase it’s easier than carrying around a chicken or a dozen eggs or four loaves of bread every time you need to get supplies from the next guy over or the craftsman up the way. And he may not want the whole cow, he may just want some of the meat, so do you butcher it yourself? Or do you trade something with the butcher and is that going to leave you enough to pay the guy making your new plow? And how are you going to haul around ‘whole cow of meat’ as you pay everyone off… and can you pay NOW for future services?

          May 25, 2018
          • All very true and important to remember. Thanks for the reply. You guys are all very generous of spirit and I appreciate it.

            May 25, 2018
          • Terry Sanders #

            I have a book somewhere that starts with the Giant Stone Coins of Yap Island (at least one of which is still in circulation, even though it sank in a canoe accident decades ago), and develops his theme that *all* money is basically standardized IOU’s. Even gold–it’s just harder to counterfeit.

            May 27, 2018
            • Kate Paulk #

              Pretty much, yes.

              May 30, 2018
        • That’s why it took so long to get rid of metal coins, which were still a kind of barter.

          May 26, 2018
          • I never thought of it that way, but yeah, I see your point. Great propaganda in coins, too.

            May 26, 2018
  7. “yes, vampires are in charge”

    I fear that any society in which the vampires are in charge would truly suck.

    May 24, 2018
    • Brett Baker #

      That joke bites.

      May 24, 2018
      • Sorry, I know it was a bloody poor attempt at a joke, but it was the best I could do.

        May 24, 2018
        • SheSellsSeashells #

          Fangs for nothing.

          May 24, 2018
          • Zsuzsa #

            Someone get the carpapult in here.

            May 24, 2018
    • Evenstar #

      So would it be polytics? Would you pay your taxes in blood to the government?

      May 24, 2018
    • Christopher M. Chupik #

      You’d have freedom during the day, at least. The nights, not so much.

      May 24, 2018
      • So rather like many downtown areas in modern America? Everything looks fairly nice, and you’re probably fairly safe during the daylight hours, but you want to be gone by dark.

        May 24, 2018
        • Brett Baker #

          Actually, during the Crack Wars in the 90s, downtown Youngstown Ohio was the safest part of the city after dark. People went there for work in the day, and after 6-7pm it was literally deserted.

          May 25, 2018
    • I love you guys XD

      May 25, 2018
  8. Bears repeating:

    If a for-profit entity offers you a valuable service for free — you’re not the customer; you’re the product.

    “(I swear, one day I’ll write the universe where blood is the basis of currency – yes, vampires are in charge)”

    Oooooh. So, are there different demoninations, er, denominations? would it be based on scarcity (mouse) or volume (cow)? would addict or alky blood be considered debased currency? And are there any Vulcan vampires??

    May 24, 2018
  9. TonyT #

    The bit about printing money reminds me of Evelyn Waugh’s excellent book, Black Mischief (which might be too funny to be art….)

    And I totally agree with the necessity of remembering what’s underneath these abstractions – when we forget, like many people today, it leads to problems

    May 24, 2018
    • Aww man, you guys are so awesome! You just gave me the perfect ending for a story I’d been struggling with! Thanks just for being yourselves.

      May 24, 2018
  10. “There isn’t. You’ll pay for it – and you’ll pay more if you don’t pay up front.” It’s the interest and carrying charges that’ll get you.

    May 24, 2018
  11. It’s worth remembering that a gold-based currency is also not a free lunch. There is a reason why no country in the whole world uses gold today–it has serious problems.

    Sometimes people object to the modern economy because the central bank continually has to fiddle with the money supply in several dimensions. It’s an unstable system that only works due to someone actively managing it. And for centuries, no one was able to figure out how to do that.

    But somewhere around 1930, the Federal Reserve did figure out how to do it. No perfectly, but well enough that it was better than gold. This ought to count as one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th Century. Over the decades, they (and other central banks) have got better and better at it, and other countries gradually gave up on gold for good.

    Have a look at the two charts in this article from the Atlantic. They make it really clear that we’ve got a good thing going.

    https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/08/why-the-gold-standard-is-the-worlds-worst-economic-idea-in-2-charts/261552/

    Yes, the price of that is someone has to sit on top of the money supply and constantly fiddle with it. But there is no free lunch. You just don’t get this kind of stability with gold or any other “automatic” method.

    Gold sure is pretty, though. I’ll give it that.

    May 24, 2018
    • Zsuzsa #

      True, although since reading Dave Barry’s description of our monetary system as the Tinkerbell standard (we all clap our hands and say, “I do believe in money, I do believe in money”) I’ve always had this slight nervousness about it.

      https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5161965

      May 24, 2018
      • Writers aren’t the only ones who depend on the willing suspension of disbelief! 🙂

        May 24, 2018
    • Brett Baker #

      It’s better to read Sir Patchett’s “Making Money”. And use Lord Vetinari’s method of encouragement.

      May 25, 2018
    • Kate Paulk #

      Yeah, gold is pretty, and it was a standard for a long time because it’s not common and it tends to last. I forget the exact number, but in one of my geology classes long ago, there was an estimate that something like 99% of all the gold ever mined is still in use somewhere. That’s exactly the kind of stability you want in a currency.

      As for the graphs, they make a point, but I have to admit to some skepticism about their accuracy. I know the basis by which the CPI (and therefore inflation) is calculated has changed numerous times in the last 150 years. I strongly suspect that the changes are intended to minimize the apparent inflation – but I don’t have the facts to say this for sure, so it remains a suspicion. Also, I note the absence of the stagflation era, the 90s, the tech wreck post Y2K….

      I’d say that ideally one graph would prove the point – the one that shows inflation rates with a normalized CPI calculated the same way for each time period and marking out key inflection points such as the various removals and returns to the gold standard, the experiments with banning private gold ownership, the major stock market crashes, and so on.

      Yes, I’m skeptical. I know how to lie with statistics, so I tend to be automatically cautious when I see graphs like these being used to make a point that doesn’t quite match the data the graphs are showing.

      May 25, 2018
    • Robin Munn #

      The Atlantic shows one graph from 1919 to 1934 (some very interesting dates, as they coincide with the end of WWI and the middle of the Great Depression) and another graph from 2008 to 2012, and they think that proves something? If they showed me two graphs that cover the same date range, then I’d take their point under consideration. As it stands, that article makes me rather distrust anything The Atlantic has to say, because if they’re going to cherry-pick dates like that, they’re going to lie about other things. (Yes, cherry-picking your data is lying, plain and simple). Falsus in unum, falsus in omnibus, and now I know NOT to trust economic reporting from the Atlantic, because they’re willing to lie in service of the argument they’re trying to make.

      Here’s a better graph, showing that the gold standard had very little to do with inflation at all.

      Clearly, something major happened around 1970. What was it? That’s the important question. It wasn’t switching away from the gold standard.

      May 26, 2018
  12. I think a lot of the problems people have envisioning things is because they are never in an environment where they can really feel the effects of what they choose to do. It’s as basic as “never going camping”; while there’s a lot of things that are very easy when you go camping (you can get a nice tent for sixty bucks!), there’s still a very direct connection between your choices and their effects. Don’t bring enough blankets? You’re going to be sleeping cold—and cold is cold, even in the summer. Don’t pack the food right? Well, you’re hungry now.

    I recall a hike that I went on in middle school with a bunch of people who hadn’t really done that before. Bring water, we were told, so I got a sling canteen, and most of them brought those awful bottles with the plastic straws that you have to carry. Hot day (over 100º.) The trail—well, the trail was supposed to be seven miles, and it was… but unfortunately, there were another three miles to go when the trail ran out. (It was next to a lake, so it’s not like we were going to get lost.) Sticker grass, oh yes. I ended up sharing my water and even carrying someone over that last stretch of sticker grass (I removed my shoes and socks, because it was less painful barefoot!) I bet a lot of them learned certain lessons from that trip. I know I did. (Like “check the details of the information you’re given” and “make sure your companions are properly prepared.”)

    May 24, 2018
    • mrsizer #

      How cold can it possibly get in August? Well, in Wyoming at 9,000 ft, it gets quite cold. Shivered all night then drove to Laramie’s Walmart and bought two quilts for each of us. Still have the quilts.

      May 24, 2018
      • TonyT #

        In the middle of a continent it can get quite cold at night, with large swings between night and day (something like 60-70F swing in New Mexico IIRC) – and it’s probably worse at higher elevations.

        May 24, 2018
      • August is the only month in which I-80 through Wyoming has not been closed due to excessive snowfall.

        But seriously, even in a warm climate, the ground sucks heat right out of you if you don’t barrier properly.

        May 25, 2018
    • I’ve been teaching a bit about electricity to 8th graders and also doing a project with them that involved some electronics and a twelve volt battery. One group connected their battery and everything started sparking and melting. After we got everything under control they were insistent that they had followed the instructions — yeah, except for the one that said, after you solder those wires clip them off. The students didn’t clip the wires so the wires crossed when the device got pressed down. They had just asked me the day before what a “short” was. Well, now they know.

      May 24, 2018
      • TonyT #

        Yup, short circuits are impressive, and can melt metal (not that I’ve done it of course – just ignore those melt marks on my multi-meter probes….)

        May 24, 2018
        • I know a guy who shorted a 200 amp box with a screwdriver. He was in a hurry, had a partner who didn’t switch off when he was supposed to.

          Did you know that steel will -spray- when heated suddenly enough?

          May 25, 2018
      • Housemate told us about a HS science experiment involving electricity, where one oops resulted in an impressive arc of electricity zapping a nearby classmate’s arse – the electricity went to her denim’s back pocket button. Her yelp was rather surprising.

        It maaay have been his project partner who did that though – I forget half the story atm. Those girls didn’t like each other.

        May 25, 2018
  13. Hmm. O-positive for small purchases. AB-negative is the highest denomination, but you have to go to the blood bank to use it, nobody else can break it for you.

    Also gives the saying by deadbeat debtors a new twist. “You can’t get blood out of a stone!” “You don’t look like a stone, sir. Do you want to pay as a lump sum, or in installments?”

    May 25, 2018
    • Kate Paulk #

      Have you made your mandatory donation to the blood bank sir? Allow me to… assist you…

      May 25, 2018
      • This new tax regimen sucks.

        May 25, 2018
        • Kate Paulk #

          Yes, it will bleed you dry.

          May 25, 2018
      • Eh, I’m only a Lincoln, not a Benjamin – much less a Cleveland.

        May 25, 2018
    • Draven #

      T-Negative for foreign purchases?

      May 26, 2018

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