Join 3,375 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Linear Programming Will Save Us From the Invisible Hand
May 30, 2012 2:24 PM   Subscribe

As part of Crooked Timber's Seminar on Francis Spufford's work of speculative fiction "Red Plenty." Cosma Shalizi has posted "7800 words about optimal planning for a socialist economy and its intersection with computational complexity theory."
posted by JPD (24 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
The comments on Crooked Timber are also worth a read.
posted by JPD at 2:27 PM on May 30, 2012


Red Plenty is awesome!!!
posted by Bwithh at 2:28 PM on May 30, 2012


This is why careful economists talk about balancing supply and “effective” demand, demand backed by money...This is just as much an implicit choice of values as handing the planners an objective function and letting them fire up their optimization algorithm. Those values are not pretty. They are that the whims of the rich matter more than the needs of the poor; that it is more important to keep bond traders in strippers and cocaine than feed hungry children. At the extreme, the market literally starves people to death, because feeding them is a less”efficient” use of food than helping rich people eat more.
posted by Chekhovian at 3:13 PM on May 30, 2012 [10 favorites]


Just commenting to say that I was going to post this awesome article. In case JPD's blurb wasn't enough, let me emphasize that there's linear programming in there too.
posted by escabeche at 3:16 PM on May 30, 2012


I saw this on some of the econ blogs I read. I'm still not quite sure I grok what the book is though? I'll try to read more about it.

RE: Soviet complexity theorists, I'm trying my damnedest to find information about Alexander Bogdanov but am having a hard time finding English Translations of his work on his philosophy of Tektology (a socialist/communist theory of cybernetics that was proposed before the major western work in Cybernetics/Complexity). From what I gather Bogdanov had a full philosophy that wanted to approach Communism via a holistic approach with this theory.

I am curious as to how his work relates to the guy that Red Plenty is about (sorry, I can't recall his name off the top of my head).

If anyone has any ideas on how to go about finding more info on Bogdanov (ideally, getting ahold of a book, whether as a computer file or even better, a physical format), I'd love to hear.

Speaking of Red Plenty - can someone sell me on it? I'm not much of a fiction reader, but I do enjoy speculative fiction and weird things like that. And I'm really getting into communism/socialism and the thinkers behind the Iron Curtain. I tried the excerpt at the book site, and it didn't quite draw me, alas...
posted by symbioid at 3:22 PM on May 30, 2012


Well, do you have Cyrillic renditions of any of those words? If so you can add those to your search terms.
posted by XMLicious at 3:27 PM on May 30, 2012


I'm still not quite sure I grok what the book is though?

The book is a novelization/fictionalization of the (real-life) work of some Russian economist-programmers who thought they could implement better central planning through the use of newly invented software/programming techniques. Inevitably, it fails, for reasons both technical and political.

Past that... well, suffice to say it is unlikely anything you've ever read. It's quite odd. The writing is not very good, frankly, but if you enjoy speculative fiction and trying to wrap your head around life behind the iron curtain, you should absolutely read it.
posted by louie at 3:27 PM on May 30, 2012


[a russian] theory of cybernetics that was proposed before the major western work in Cybernetics/Complexity

More correctly this should be:
[a russian] theory of _________ that was proposed before the major western work in ________

Where ________ is basically any noun, at least if you believe the Russians.
posted by Chekhovian at 3:44 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


CT & shalizi previously [1,2,3]

how do you solve a social calculation/coordination problem? the attempt i think leads to moral philosophy as opposed to the natural kind (which involves forming group identities... like multiple members-only virtual clubs ;)

cheers!
posted by kliuless at 3:45 PM on May 30, 2012


Once again, my understanding of mathematics is shown to be severely lacking. Thanks again mefi.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 3:50 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


As a complete novice to Spufford and his work, would it be better to read the book before taking a look at the Shalizi article? Conversely, would my understanding of the book be improved by first reading the article? I'm totally intrigued, but I want to approach this subject from the right angle.
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 4:17 PM on May 30, 2012


As a complete novice to Spufford and his work, would it be better to read the book before taking a look at the Shalizi article? Conversely, would my understanding of the book be improved by first reading the article? I'm totally intrigued, but I want to approach this subject from the right angle.
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 4:17 PM on May 30 [+] [!]


I strongly recommend reading the book first. Spufford's book is meant for an intelligent general audience and the article is meant for a narrower specialized audience. Furthermore, Spufford's book is a humanistic novel about key interconnections in Soviet society shown through a series of character vignettes - it is a brilliant book of ideas but also more than that - it's a deep literary story about society; it is not a book of ideas with shallow dramatic dressing. Spufford covers far more ground and context thematically than addressed in the article and he is also generally a terrific novel writer to boot. You do not need to read the article to fully appreciate the book but reading the book will help you appreciate the article.
posted by Bwithh at 4:30 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Once again, my understanding of mathematics is shown to be severely lacking. Thanks again mefi.

It's always something. I feel the same way about super hero graphic novels and gender studies.
posted by benito.strauss at 4:30 PM on May 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Speaking of Red Plenty - can someone sell me on it?

Some spoilers ahead, perhaps... be warned.

I'm afraid I can't sell you on it much, because as a work of "Speculative Fiction" I found it frustratingly incomplete. You see, had the book been a letter-accurate retelling of exactly what happened, how would the Soviet Union have fared? Just as it did.

As a work of "Alternate History (subgenre: alternate histories that lead to a world effectively identical to the one around us)", it's fascinating. There's a huge amount of insight and even some really uncanny inside-baseball about the political hurdles that such a thing would be up against.

I feel extremely ambivalent about Red Plenty because, as an exercise in political culture of the USSR of the 50s to 70s, it's really interesting, but nothing actually HAPPENS in the book. There's no "Red Plenty." There's no triumph of the socialist system because clever programmers sorted out the problems of production, incentives, and distribution. It gets squashed.

Red Plenty, had it been about the space race, would have just been Korolyev surviving his accident, but the N1 and moon program nevertheless getting quashed for political reasons, and proceeding to lose the space race almost exactly as the USSR actually did. And then having the temerity (or tongue-in-cheek iront) of calling the book "Red Moon."

Perhaps I missed some important stuff, but the book does not deliver on the title. And if the title was selected with a bit of irony, the marketing took the title more or less at face value.

As a set of alt-historical vignettes, it's fascinating. As a speculative fiction novel, it just doesn't deliver.
posted by chimaera at 4:58 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Shalizi's piece contains some great Socialism advocacy:

I don’t think this sort of pathology is intrinsic to market exchange; it comes from market exchange plus gross inequality. If we want markets to signal supply and demand (not just tautological “effective demand”), then we want to ensure not just that everyone has access to the market, but also that they have (roughly) comparable amounts of money to spend. There is, in other words, a strong case to be made for egalitarian distributions of resources being a complement to market allocation.

(There is an open Shalizi thread from 24 May.)
posted by bukvich at 5:11 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I ran into the book first via Ken MacLeod's blog, and was deeply disappointed in the writing (mediocre to bad) - took me a few tries to get through it. Honestly, I felt that it would have been a better book had it simply been a nonfiction work about the same subject. You could have gotten more interesting details in, and the subject, being a remarkable episode in Soviet history virtually unknown in the West, would have had serious potential.
Red Plenty, like its subject, offers a tantalizing glimpse of something that could have been amazing, but wasn't. Maybe there's some sort of complex metacommentary there, I don't know.
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:12 PM on May 30, 2012


chimaera's description reminds me of Father Guido Sarducci's bit about a parallel universe where everything is the same except that people eat corn on the cob vertically instead of horizontally.
posted by XMLicious at 5:22 PM on May 30, 2012


That's kinda how the book plays out.

"What if Detroit were ACTUALLY keeping a 100 MPG carburetor from going to market?!?"
"Um, everything happens exactly the same?"
"Yes! But kinda different. For the people directly involved."
posted by chimaera at 5:28 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Where does consummerism come into the economic spectrum? I understand the "fantasy" of communism and the failure of central planning to satisfy the collective demand but didn't it (communism) exist as a philosophy to moderate demand as well as supply it? It seems to me that Capitalism/consummerism is rushing headlong into a world of dwindleing resources. We have great faith in our technology to solve problems of resource shortage but we seem to be getting more and more desperate, disparing of the ruling oligarchs while paying lip service to the idea that we exist as a democracy still. The bottom line the seems to becoming the dominate theme and not the quality of life as a society.

At some point the collective wisdom will have to be that collecting piles of things is pretty pointless, the world is finite but not human appetites. We all can't be billionaires with more money to spend than we could in a lifetime. The world just doesn't work that way. Eventually the quality of life becomes important. We can have a world where everyone is fed and housed and has access to medical care. The are plenty of willing hands to do the work. It might take a few generations but the planet could be a garden letting the "mighty market" dictate our reality doesn't seem to be working.
posted by pdxpogo at 5:36 PM on May 30, 2012


Your complaint is very odd, chimaera. I didn't get the sense that this was intended to be speculative fiction, and certainly not alternate history. It's dramatised history.

There's nothing counterfactual like a secret 100 MPG carburator.

Maybe there's marketing material that sells it as SF, but I haven't seen it.
posted by cdward at 5:46 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


As I said I may have missed something important -- I got the distinct sense from its UK marketing (and the various blogs that referenced it, perhaps many of them without reading it) that it wasn't a dramatized history but a speculative alternate history. On the merits as "dramatized history" it's fascinating (as I said in my first comment). But however it got morphed in its early days of marketing, my expectations were definitely mis-tuned to what it really is.

And further, I'll have to agree with AdamCSnider in that it didn't really *need* to be written as a novel, per se. The dramatization is actually the less interesting bits, the more fascinating info is in the endnotes to each chapter. I found Spufford's journey (as can be seen in the notes) more interesting than his destination as a novel.
posted by chimaera at 5:58 PM on May 30, 2012


I didn't see the UK marketing, but I never got the impressions that Red Plenty was meant as speculative fiction (in the futurist/fantasy sense/alternative timeline sense) or alternative history either - I read it as dramatized history with speculative fictional elements to deepen the dramatic experience or to make narrative points more effectively (in the same vein as Simon Schama's terrific Dead Certainties, Unwarranted Speculations). The scifi site Strange Horizons gave Red Plenty a rave review but the reviewer had to make a special argument that the novel should be taken as scifi and as fantasy (the Russian fairy tale trope)
posted by Bwithh at 6:19 PM on May 30, 2012


Shalizi may not be an economist, but he is still a far better economist than most economists
posted by moorooka at 8:41 PM on May 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


i like this comment: "Now, we call these planners banks, or these days venture capitalists, but when Schumpeter, writing in 1939, wanted to explain the function of banks under capitalism, he described them as our version of Gosplan."

viz. Jamie Dimon and the Fall of Nations
cf. The Future of Capitalism - "over millions of years humans have evolved to operate quite successfully in limited and well-defined groups. But we’re now moving into a world where the social group that is relevant to the future success, maybe even survival, of humanity is no longer a tribe, a city or a nation. It is the world as a whole. Once humanity is operating on a global level, people have to cooperate on a far broader scale, and the mechanisms for cooperation which have evolved over thousands of years may break down. He gives the financial crisis and the inability of nation states to control it as one example of this breakdown. Others are climate change, nuclear proliferation, energy depletion and environmental destruction. These are all global challenges for which cooperative social mechanisms have not had time to evolve... He posits a form of 'group selection' – natural selection operating within entire societies rather than individuals, a concept very controversial among biologists and anthropologists."
posted by kliuless at 5:38 AM on June 6, 2012


« Older Sometimes politicians say something stupid on Twit...  |  What if a deadly epidemic was ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments