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Statistics Ad Absurdum

13 Jul

In the 1970s, orchestras began using blind auditions, playing behind a screen so the jury that cannot see them. As a result, the number of women in orchestras increased five fold… except they didn’t. That “fact” was vastly exaggerated.

Memory is a funny thing – the first factoid you hear often sticks and becomes truth, whether not it’s disproven later. What amazes me is how often that “fact” gets blown out of proportion. Take the “blind audition” story; I had never heard this until I took our DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) training at work.

Side note: My workplace does this training right. Compared to the horror stories I’ve heard, they’re not trying to shove a political agenda, or punish you for being white… just ways to be civil to each other. The only part that is “dicey” is the gender expression and identity section, but to be fair, we’re all trying to figure that out. How are we supposed to teach it?

So I’ve gone through this training around ten times–not because I was being punished, but because I work in the department that trains this. So I was asked to “produce” this class (handle the technical problems for this online class) as a favor for another trainer. Therefore, I’ve seen the video where they mention the “blind audition” research as an example of gender bias about ten times. This time, I decided to fact-check this.

The research was called “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians” by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse, originally published in the September 2000 issue of the American Economic Review. You can read the original study here, but I’ll warn you, it’s 27 pages long. Even I didn’t feel like going through all of it, so if you feel like going through Andrew Gelman’s blog about it, he lays out the stats pretty well in a shorter form. The point is that they looked at nine different orchestras (the “Big Five” and four regional ones) and compared their hiring rates across fifty years of data, then saw how that changed when blind auditions were added. The end result? On p. 737 of the original study, before blind auditions, women were hired 10 percent of the time; after, 35 percent. So there was an increase… but certainly NOT five fold!

What I found more interesting–and Gelman doesn’t mention–is that the paper is 65 pages long. But wait, Marcus, you just said it was 27 pages long? The research is… the other half of the document is the 741 times (!) this article has been cited in other research. As someone who has written many, many research papers, this might explain the exaggeration. When you’re just referencing the results (like I’m doing now) in your own paper, you simplify. You don’t mention that the research found women were 25 percent higher to get to the next round of auditions, not hired. I didn’t mention it either… to make a point. When you simply copy the stats to make your point, it’s much easier to exaggerate.

So 25 percent becomes 35 percent, becomes fifty percent, becomes fivefold. Why? This is the telephone game writ large. Original research is read by other researcher and used in their research, which is read by a journalist who writes an article, which is read by a DEI trainer who decides to use it in a class. Along the way, it’s easy to forget the exact number. Or because 25 percent isn’t dramatic enough, you say 50 percent, although I’d prefer to believe that was simply the writer not going back to confirm their facts. Because people want to have hard facts to support your empirical view, that women tend to get hired less than men, and a slight increase doesn’t quite make your point, does it?

Now the research didn’t cover the numbers of applicants, rather they focused on the proportion, because “symphony orchestras do not vary much in size and have virtually identical numbers and types of jobs.” (p. 717) They don’t hire that many people per year. It did mention that almost all harpists are women and that the New York Philharmonic (as of 2000) had 35 percent women. Is it possible that less women are going into those jobs? After all, women only comprise of 3.4% of all construction trades. Now is that because, like higher math or construction fields, you have to deal with a lot of pricks who hit on you or say “girls can’t do X?” Quite possibly. Music majors were the biggest pricks I ever met in college; my theory is that the less jobs available in your career, the more competitive they have to be. Female nurses comprise of 75% of the workforce, elementary school teachers has a higher gender bias towards women.

Is it possible that different genders are favor different types of work? That working nights as a violinist is not conducive to women who want to have kids? Or am I exaggerating? 🙂 Let me know in the comments below.

Do I Care Who John Galt Is?

11 Jul

I just watched a very snarky video about Ayn Rand and how her writing still affects the modern GOP. As a Libertarian who has (gasp!) never read any of her works, I can say that she is both right–and wrong–at the same time.

The video was from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which I really love, despite Oliver representing a very left-wing stance that I completely disagree with. However, he provides well-researched and interesting topics that really get me thinking. In Oliver’s opinion, Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism” is a glorification of selfishness which shows the true nature of those who like her writings, conveniently ignoring the facts that she was pro-choice, thought President Reagan was worthless, and thought Native Americans should have no rights.

Objectivism is based on the idea that human knowledge and values are objective: they exist and are determined by the nature of reality, to be discovered by one’s mind, and are not created by the thoughts one has. Now Wikipedia goes into great and soaring detail on what that means, and frankly, I have trouble understanding even this high-level view. However, I do remember that Ayn Rand stated that you either agreed with her completely or not at all, so frankly, I don’t bother learning objectivist epistemology.

That being said, as much as Oliver and his team snarked the hell out of Rand for being selfish, I have to ask… “How much do you actually care about other people?” This is my main objection to modern liberal thought; they talk a great game about saving the world, saving these people, raising up these things… but when it comes down it, they actually do very little. Rand is pointing out that if you get out of your own damn way with silly little things like morals and government interference, you can achieve greatness. If you need help to accomplish this, you are dependent and therefore subject to what rules that help comes with.

Interestingly enough, this is very similar to what Friedrich Nietzsche said. That to become the best you can be, to be a “Superman,” you need to get beyond good and evil and create your morals based on your most inner most desires. Unlike Rand, I have read Nietzsche and find him nigh impossible to get through. Why his philosophy spread at all was because an editor took out the end of every chapter (where the really profound stuff is) of all his books and published it as an abridged version. The rest is just Fred bitching about how stupid all the other philosophers are for not getting this simple premise… that he only reveals at the end of the chapter.

I like both of these philosophies, even though I don’t follow either of them. (Oh, and by the way, neither did Rand or Nietzsche.) Because I believe like the movie Wall Street (1987) taught us, “Greed is Good.” I believe man is inherently selfish; that’s important for survival as a person and a species. However, this is where you add in some Tanya (Jewish mysticism) or Buddhism or Taoism; it’s important to be selfish, BUT you need to balance it with selflessness. From a practical perspective, if you support those around you, they’re more like to support you in the future, because they understand the need to have help in the lean times. Similarly, if you give away all your money to the poor, but now you have to live on the street, you’ve done neither the poor or yourself any good. You have given the poor only temporary relief, while preventing yourself from providing for them in future. The greatest good, and greatest feeling of reward, is when you balance the two impulses. Then you can be monetarily successful and rich in good deeds.

John Galt actually gives the heroes of Atlas Shrugged hints on how to be successful and to reach the promised land. So even Rand’s characters couldn’t do it alone. But as I said, I’ve never read her works, so I could be ridiculously simplifying things. Maybe one of you have read it and can clarify it for me? Please put it in the comments below.

“Now What?”

30 Jun

I frequently ask the question, “Now what?” especially when it comes to racial justice, climate change, and other GIANT issues that activists bring up. If there is something small and reasonable I can do, I’ll do it. But frequently the call to action is either “Be afraid,” “Be ashamed,” or “Be aware.”

One of my readers asked that same question of me – I brought up the history of Juneteenth and the problem of trying to love our country at the same time being aware of its sins. A lot of people have trouble with this. We prefer to think in terms of dichotomies; black-white, good-bad, right-wrong. But real life doesn’t work that way. Real life has contradictions, injustice, trade-offs… and that’s uncomfortable.

Let’s talk about climate change. No, there is too much, let me talk about water pollution instead. Let’s say you’re a paper mill in Eastern Oregon. You produce waste product which is most conveniently dumped into the Columbia River. The EPA regulates the amount of waste you can dump into the river, but if you fish salmon out of that river, that may be putting too much toxic chemicals into the fish… which means it’s unsafe to eat.

Okay, at this point, you have to ask yourself, “Why not eat chicken?” That’s one option. But let’s say, you’re one of the multiple native tribes that live in that area for which a) salmon is part of your culture and b) we’re rather poor and need an cheaper protein source. Many of your tribal members AND neighbors also need the work that the paper mill provides. “Now what?”

The answer is “get involved.” To which I would answer, “I’ve got a life, I don’t have time, I don’t want to dedicate my life to this. I just want cleaner fish.” That’s why protests tend to be filled with young people. (I’m still not sure who sits outside courthouses waiting for rulings.) But there’s a variety of levels of involvement – if you’re not willing to march, write letters to the company, to your legislatures. Sure, they’ll mostly be ignored, but sheer numbers will get attention even to the most jaded folks. Reach out to the media. Jump on social media. Trust me, you don’t need to spend more than 15 minutes a week doing this. Anyone can slice off that amount of time.

For example, during the COVID shutdown, I wrote my legislators every week calling to end the shutdown. I knew they weren’t reading it, but someone in their office might be ticking my name next to a box. Trust me, when it was the only issue anyone was talking about, politicians want to know. If you repeat the message enough, people will hear. You don’t have to be angry about it, you don’t have to be impolite, you just have to be consistent.

Now here comes the hard part; be willing to compromise. As Americans, our finest asset is holding two contradictory opinions at the same time. (Don’t believe me? Polls say that many people who are pro-life are also pro-death penalty.) So let’s apply that to other parts of our life. We want clean water AND paper mills. Can we dump the waste water into containment pool? Can the state share the cost for a better filtering system? Can we make the paper company look good by supporting an environmental initiative?

In the end, remember – you are not powerless. You also don’t have infinite time. Be willing to provide as little as you can and embrace ambiguity. No… it doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker (maybe two bumper stickers), and it sucks as a call to action. But it has the advantage of being honest – and nowadays – that’s the most powerful element of all.

Taking Civil Religion Too Far

28 Jun

I’m a firm believer that faith in America and the values we claim to represent (whether we live up to them or not) is a good thing. This is called civil religion. But if you say the Constitution is “divinely inspired,” you may be taking it too far.

It is a tenet of my faith that the Constitution is divinely inspired — one of my most basic foundational beliefs. For me to do that because somebody asked me to is foreign to my very being. I will not do it.

Rusty Bowers, June 21st, 2022, when speaking in front of the January 6th Congressional Hearing.

Okay, let’s walk past joking about a guy named “Rusty,” or the reason behind Bowers’s quote (which is really fascinating), and go right to the quote itself. Rusty is the Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives (yeah, my state) and is a proud Mormon (not unusual–lots of LDS in Arizona). The man has morals, swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, and I salute him for that. But I had to look this up; apparently, this is NOT Rusty’s personal opinion. This is a teaching by one of the current LDS apostles–Dallin Oaks–who first put it forward in 1992 and recently preached about it at the general conference last year (2021).

In his speech/article, The Divine Inspired Constitution, the argument goes something like this. God has ordained faithful men to rule us and they formed the Constitution to protect our rights, ergo, it’s divinely inspired. However, even Apostle Oaks didn’t make this leap of faith (ha, ha); this is direct from Joseph Smith’s own hand.

And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.

Doctrine and Covenants 101:80

If you’re a Mormon, the D&C is just as valuable as the Book of Mormon (although some Mormons can feel free to correct me), “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3: 16-17) I wrote a whole thing about granting to “Caesar what is Caesar’s,” (Mark 12:17) but since the LDS church started here, it makes a kind of sense that there would be a equating America with the Promised Land… because it literally is. Jesus will come back to Earth at Independence, Missouri. (D&C 84: 2-3)

Okay, I disagree with this view, but it does bring up some questions of faith. If you amend the Constitution, are you tampering with God’s plan? Are the Supreme Court justices also divinely inspired when they interpret the Constitution (even the ones you hate)? Do you really need to have the teleprompter give the words of the perjury oath if you’ve given it a thousand times?

The answer to the last is YES. When you’re in front of a hundred people, it’s easy to screw up your lines. Trust me – it’s always good to have your script in front of you.

Lots of potential problems here – but what do you think? Am I misunderstanding what Rusty and Dallin are saying? Do you believe the Constitution is divinely inspired? Would you name your son Dallin? Let me know in the comments below!

Polite Fiction vs. Cynical View

27 Jun

Maybe I’m too cynical, but I’ve found recently that often I can’t take things at face value. I’m always thinking, “What’s the angle?” “What are they trying to push.” This applies to the news, to ads, but most recently, to holidays.

So my city recently celebrated Juneteenth—when the last slaves were informed they were free—which was June 19th, 1865. The City of Phoenix took the day off; Tempe had Juneteenth flags in the streets (alternating with the new Pride flags, for the month of June). I celebrated it by going to two bars, getting drunk, and having great conversations with vets. Now when discussing Juneteenth with my wife, more specifically its place in civil religion (yeah, these are the conversations I have with my lover—you know you want it), she gave a reason for its recognition that I interpreted as “polite.”

She was of the opinion that this, in addition to MLK Day, were two holidays dedicated to civil rights and it shows the shift in our national discourse and what we choose to celebrate. She put it in the lens of “civil religion” (which is often given as a pejorative), the religious-style way that we approach our national identity. We have sacred documents (Constitution, Declaration of Independence), hymns (America the Beautiful, National Anthem), liturgy (“I pledge allegiance to the flag…), and pilgrimage sites (White House, The Mall, Arlington National Cemetery).

But there’s a reason its pejorative; the reason for many of those “sacred” items in our civil religion were done for cynical reasons. The Constitution was a compromise between different political factions. The Pledge of Allegiance was added around WWI to ensure immigrants identified themselves as Americans; “under God” was added in the 1950’s to fight Communist “godless atheism.”

Which leads to holidays. Independence Day should have been June 2nd, when it was signed, but since it was only announced on the 4th, that’s the day that stuck. Columbus Day became a holiday to honor the Columbian Exposition in Chicago around 1892, which celebrates the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the New World. Well, that’s the polite answer. It was really to ensure the loyalty of hundreds of thousands of Italian immigrants and get their vote for McKinley.

Juneteenth might honor the end of slavery in America, but it only became popularized after the Tulsa riots on May 30-June 1, 1921 that destroyed Black Wall Street. (Not our finest hour. Also–came up while drinking in bars on Juneteenth.) We don’t like remembering a disaster, so we remember the positive. But at a time when racial politics are emphasized, it’s a way to ensure the loyalty of millions of African-Americans. Now—does that mean we shouldn’t celebrate it? By no means! We should remember ending slavery. We should remember Tulsa. We should remember Columbus AND the destruction of the native peoples as a result.

But the cynical side of me says to not pretend that this is proof of an evolution of the national consciousness. This is a political move to appeal to areas that have a large African-American population, or in the case of Tempe, people who want that evolution of the national consciousness. But I could be too cynical. Is it all right to do the right thing for the wrong reasons? Or to put a polite fiction over a gritty reality? Let me know in the comments below!

When the Parable Becomes TOO Close to Reality

23 Jun

Sci-fi is a great way of talking about current political issues without offending people. I remember Star Trek addressing climate change in “Force of Nature” back in 1993. Watching it now in 2022, I’m realizing that TNG was a little too on the nose, but not for the reasons the writers thought.

I’ve been watching a LOT more Next Generation, because it’s available on Pluto for free, and it’s nice brain candy that is inoffensive and I don’t have to pay much attention to… because I’ve watched most of these episodes many times before. So it’s getting through Season 7, where the writing is far superior, and it hit “Force of Nature.” As with many episodes, it’s only about minute 10 that I realize, “Oh, this is the climate change episode!”

So my eyes roll. For those not familiar with this particular ep, the Enterprise finds out that a particular unstable part of space is getting more unstable because high warp energy is wrecking it. Turns out his particular part of space isn’t unusual; there’s tons of places in space where the same thing can occur. So the solution is for everyone to keep their speed down to Warp 5 to prevent further environmental damage.

Okay–agree or disagree with this parable for climate change, what bugs me about this episode is not the message. It’s the fact that the consequences of this episodes are never mentioned again. You would think that the socialist utopian Federation would put in a speed limit and would enforce it, but nah… that constrains the writers of future episodes, and since stories move at the speed of plot, we just simply forgot about this.

When I mentioned this to my wife, she said, “Wow – just like climate change now!” That’s when it occurred to me; maybe this episode was a little too on the nose. Even those who claim to really care about climate change seem to forget about it when faced with greater issues. Pew Research–one of the most trusted survey agencies–say that Americans care about climate change more than ever. But it’s still low on priorities compared to other issues. So we might care enough to make a lot of noise on the issue, but not if it’s going to impact the economy, education, or social security. So just like Star Trek, when preventing climate change makes the story difficult to write, we ignore it.

In a strange way, Hollywood preached exactly what we think about this issue, if not in the way that they intended. But I could be wrong — let me know in the comments below!

“Literal Interpretation” is still “Pick and Choose”

16 Jun

The pastor of the Stedfast Baptist Church got a lot of press recently by saying the government should execute all gay people. This is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible… but is it? The answer is yes AND no.

First off, by giving this pastor any press, you have a) not discouraged him and b) gained him followers. From their Facebook page, they look like they may have fifty families, tops, attending this Fort Worth, Texas church. No one knew who the hell (pun intended) this guy was before Twitter blew up.

Second, his interpretation of the Bible is based on the King James Version. “Version” = interpretation, in this case “literally” from ancient Hebrew and Greek. This pastor doesn’t expect his followers to read the original languages, but the interpretation that is closest (in his opinion) to God’s will to His people.

Okay, let’s just take that at face value. So in that case, he’s right – Leviticus 18:22 calls homosexuality an abdomination. But verse 6 says not to uncover the nakedness of your family; so no swimming pool? Or next chapter, 19:19, no clothes made of two different materials… Where do you find all wool shirts? Do you wear them in a humid Texas summer? And you better not have any tattoos.

Also, better say goodbye to eating pork or shellfish. Or putting cheese on ANYTHING. Oh, but wait, there’s a line in Acts 10:15 that says, “What God has made clean, let no man call unclean.” Okay, that gets you off the hook for eating kosher, but then you have to ask yourself… Did God make a mistake in the Old Testament? Why would He say to do one thing and then change his mind a thousand years later? Isn’t Christ the same “yesterday, today, and forever?”

A journalist by the name of AJ Jacobs captured this problem best in the book “The Year of Living Biblically.” For a year, he tried a strict interpretation of the Bible. He never cut his beard, wore an all wool robe (with fringes), never ate pork, and at one point, got to “stone” an infidel (with pebbles and with their permission).

As you can imagine, that’s really hard, and completely incompatible with modern American life. So if you choose NOT to live like a Hasidic Jew, you’re picking and choosing what to follow in the Bible. Now it’s perfectly fair to say this is the “correct” or “best” interpretation, but it is by no means “strict.”

But why should I make the argument when others have done it better? Martin Sheen? Take it away…

All (Federation) Politics Are Local

14 Jun

I’ve become a little obsessed about the Star Trek universe lately (not sorry), starting with economics, which leads to volunteer leadership, but that leads us to Federation politics. How do politics work in the 24th Century?

Star Trek stays incredibly silent on this issue, because let’s face it, politics would ruin the entire socialist utopia theme. No one wants to see how the replicator is made. We do see politics within Starfleet, usually with admirals trying to screw each other over, or screw over the captain , but office politics is understandable and expected. But the civilian in the street who didn’t make it to Academy? How are they run?

The easy answer is… they’re not. Or at least, not at a level that is readily apparent. It’s also very clear that in the Federation, the individual member states can run their local politics however they want. So I imagine that the Andorians still have a Queen, the Vulcans probably have the most efficient unelected meritocracy imaginable, and Earth has sloppy, sloppy democracy. Earth doesn’t have much of an administration because they don’t need one. Computers put you instantly in contact with anyone on planet (and probably in the solar system, thanks to nutrinos), and a time delay with your video letter outside of your solar system. However, someone still needs to fix the roads, or at least, the replicator so you can do it yourself.

Even in our modern day, politicians will spend millions to get a job that pays thousands, because the power involved is worth it. So I imagine that Earth has a single local government, because when you can breakfast in San Francisco and immediately teleport for lunch in Paris, why would you have single-member districts? Of course, that’s kinda true today, and we still have them. Regardless, I imagine that there’s elections to become a planetary selectman (select-being?).

Just like local politics today, the Federation man on the street will have no clue who this person is until you need them. In the volunteer economy of Star Trek, their entire job will be to beg, borrow, or steal people to fix or build stuff. I’m guessing that they do that through the distribution of perks (see previous posts). How many of these people are there? It depends. My town of Phoenix has one council member per 650,000 citizens. Chicago has one alderman per 50,000. New York City has one alderman per 300,000, and they have borough governments as well. So it could be evenly distributed based on region, or multiple selectmen based on population, or possibly both.

Then you’ve got the selectmen’s boss who administer the elected officials. I’m guessing these aren’t elected directly, but rather elected from the officials themselves, like electing a Speaker of the House. They handle the big projects like the “Probably Going to Kill Us Machine ™” that will expand Science! That leaves the Federation itself, which has a Council. But the two times we’ve seen the Council (in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country), it’s like… thirty people, mostly aliens. Which I imply means humans get one seat on the Council, like the United Nations. So somewhere, there’s a Human Assembly (and doesn’t that sound racist) or Convention that meets on local human issues among their colonies. Those are elected from the planetary leadership and they elect their representative on the Council.

In the clips from Star Trek IV & VI, you see Starfleet represented there, but for the most part, Starfleet operates with very little civilian oversight. Like city employees today, sure, I bet the Council decides who to go with war with, but by the time the Romulans cross the Neutral Zone, it’s probably a moot point. So what does the Council do? Probably what the United Nations does now; a lot of speeches about human species rights and not much else.

Side Note: That does make me wonder about the implications of the beginning meeting in Star Trek VI… why would we mothball Starfleet? If there’s no money to count, people are dying (sometimes literally) to get into the Academy, why would we lower our military stance at all?!

So what did I forget? I’m sure there’s a copy of the Federation Charter online, but it is never covered in the shows, so… how canon is it? Let me know what I missed in the comments below!

Veterans of the Dominion War, Post #1701

13 Jun

I’ve had way too much fun talking Star Trek last week – but it did get me to a concept – the volunteer economy. We don’t have to wait for the 24th century, it already exists. So how does it work? Does it work?

I’ve been in many volunteer organizations, often as an officer, so I have a pretty good idea of how they work. It is a perfect example of a world without money functions. So let’s guesstimate what the Star Trek future is like by creating a veterans organization – since I’m a member of one today.

Okay, let’s say that you want to create the local chapter of the Veterans of the Dominion War, and you get the local (Earth) authorities to grant you a meeting hall. You decide to elect officers and have a bar/lounge area where veterans can come together and eat and drink. Officers organize events and decide the rules to the bar.

People LOVE becoming the commander/captain/president of the chapter, few want to do the work. So out of an executive committee of nine, two people do the actual work, whether they have the title or not. But that’s okay in this case because the post kinda runs itself; after all, it’s a building and the drinks are free. Except if something breaks down, which it does even in Star Trek, then you either need to wait for the civilian administration to fix it (which they never explain, but I bet it SUCKS), or you hope you’ve got a retired engineer in your chapter and beg him to fix the replicator. Or climate control. Or the roof. Thankfully, there usually is, and they do it… but it ain’t what you call quick.

Okay, but I’m betting these vets aren’t going to be satisfied with synthahol, and they know how to play the black market game that obviously exists. That means organizing a rotation of bartenders to make sure that Barry doesn’t drink up all the booze. (Yeah, Barry! Leave some for the rest of us!) Plus a system to ensure that Barry doesn’t drink too much at one sitting. Also, although bartenders aren’t supposed to drink while on duty, can you tell the smell difference between synthetic scotch and the real stuff?

So you may have a bartender who drinks all the good stuff or simply takes it home without permission. Even without the allure of money (we had a post commander who embezzled funds), I can think of two bartenders we’ve had at our post who were just BAD, and they were all volunteers. They drove members away, they drove volunteers away, and… you better have a disciplinary system in place. But no one wants to do that, so it’s always too little, too late. Many members will move down the street and found VDW Post… let’s call it 1701-A. 🙂

Removing money does not remove resource scarcity, which means you have to have a system to deal with it, and volunteer officers may or may not have the skills to handle it. I’ve been a chapter president and I lost most of my members because I didn’t tell one to stay home. This is the problem of running things without the authority to back it up.

Can you come up with better examples? Let me know in the comments below!

The Economics of Star Trek (Voyager)

10 Jun

At first, I didn’t think I’d talk about Voyager – after all, their economics is isolated from the rest of the Federation – but there are several things in that series that tell us a lot of about what I’m calling “the volunteer economy.”

Fair warning, I hate Voyager. I thought Season One combined the worst aspects of TNG, add in middling characters (except Seska) with terrible villains (the Kazon). They refused to touch on the more interesting possibilities of the series. 1) You just absorbed a group of Maquis terrorists/freedom fighters; why are they going to follow Starfleet regulations? 2) You’re 70 years from Earth–why are we pretending Fed morality? 3) Even if you accept the first two, why aren’t you plugging in all the tech you can find in the Delta Quadrant to get home? Nope – “get that crap off my hull.” (sigh) But after years of (not-that-) gritty DS9, the fans wanted gleaming starships, and alien of the week, so that’s what they got.

And yet I watched… so I noticed a couple things. Again, Starfleet is the best of the best; you not only have to volunteer, you have to want it bad. So I understand why Ensign Kim busts his ass and takes a lot of grief (mostly from me). Doctors in the 24th Century fall under the same guidelines, but what about the Federation citizen in the street? The hologram doctor makes perfect sense; let’s face it, being a doctor now is hard work and they at least get money. Now add a hundred more diseases and aliens from a thousand worlds whose anatomy is (okay, not that) different from humans. Do the civilian doctors get perks in Federation? Travel vouchers, better housing… what convinces the doctor in San Francisco to keep dealing with sick folks? Dedication will only take you so far before you say, “you know what? Risa sounds good this time of year.” That leaves thousands of sick folks behind; having automated health care would help immensely.

The folks on Voyager lean heavily on the holodecks, the natural extension of the replicator, for the obvious reason that they can’t go to Risa or Starbase 227 for R&R. But they make it obvious in the show that–just like replicated food–they know it’s fake and that entertainment comes at a mental cost. Not that stops people being addicted to holodecks or falling in love with programmed characters. I would imagine most of the population of Earth is “online” most of the time and that holoaddiction is a serious problem. Do they ration holodeck time for civilians? What convinces the Fed on the street to bother going to work when you can hang out with Leonardo da Vinci?

One of the few sops to this in Voyager is “replicator rations.” Their engines aren’t working great, so there’s limits to what they can replicate. With the amount of coffee Janeway drinks with her rations, is she drinking decaf? You would think that caffeine, like alcohol, would be a banned substance. (Maybe that’s why DS9 was obsessed with Klingon coffee? “A true warrior needs a jolt to make it a good day to die!”)

What about Janeway’s dog from the pilot episode? You would think that Federation Animal Control would be pretty strict. Again, she’s a Starfleet captain, so she get higher consideration, but maybe the benefits of pet ownership would outweigh the “potential sentience” issue of enslaving lesser beings. You’d think the Vulcans would have something to say about that.

Better yet, let’s keep with the pilot episode. Janeway gets Paris out of prison to be her connection with the Maquis; who the hell wants to be a prison guard? Unless that’s the reason they moved it to New Zealand? The San Quentin of the 24th Century? In the real world, that California maximum security prison is on one of the most beautiful and expensive beach-side real estate in the world. (Of course, it wasn’t when they built it…)

Voyager does get better by Season Five, but when you survived in the desert of sci-fi options in the late 90’s (Babylon 5 was over, Firefly was not until 2001), it was a LONG slog. But it brings up a lot more questions than answers about the socialist utopia. Did you notice something in the show that always bugged you? Let me know in the comments below!

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