Tag Archives: Geek Post

Zombies & Race

imagesIn the U.S. the legends of zombies grew out of the cultures created by African slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean. Folklore experts have traced the idea of zombi back to the Vodoun practices in Haiti, where stories about people being brought back from the dead have been passed down over the decades. Sometimes these zombis are under the control of a master, and sometimes they simply wander mindlessly.

However in modern American pop-culture Zombies have taken on a different persona often being a reflection of societal ills. The first appearance of the “American Zombie” was probably 1932 when Bela Lugosi starred in White Zombie, a film about a white slave owning colonialist in Haiti whose sugar mills are run entirely by zombies. It was the first time that zombies became uniquely and distinctly American. These zombies are instantly recognizable and instantly  connected with slave labor and African-Caribbean culture.

zombi

This connection would persist into the 1940’s with the masterpiece I Walked With A Zombie, in which race and sexuality are explored. Here a white nurse arrives on the island of St. Sebastian to care for the zombified wife of plantation owner. Without spoiling too much the film shows a white man using Voodoo traditions of the local people to work on a plantation.

Other often over looked works include Revolt of the Zombies and King of the Zombies and in both films zombies are firmly rooted in slave culture and the comparison should be obvious. The zombies are how the plantation owners viewed their slaves–sub-human. Much has been written on the colonial powers equating the citizens of their African colonies as being more savage and animalistic. Luckily times have changed and progressed but the zombie lore has persisted and grown with us.

Night-of-the-Living-Dead

The 1960’s saw Night of the Living Dead as an allegory for Civil Rights and featured a black protagonist battle hordes of white zombies. In the end the black hero saves the day only to be killed in the final scene very akin to the lynchings of the 1960’s.

After the Civil Rights movement zombies became more interested in consumption–and not just brains. In the 1970’s Dawn of the Dead takes place in shopping mall and this time the genre tackles consumerism. The dead are confused so they return to a place that was important to them in life–a place of consumerism. The zombies are still hungry for brains, but also new Gap jeans.

Zombies and their place in pop culture won’t die because you can’t escape the past. Zombies are the like memories that we’ve tried to stash away and forget but keep resurfacing. Furthermore, it’s not just your memory it’s a mass memory of loss, like a horde. It makes sense that the millennial generation would be so enthralled with zombie lore. Studies show that this generation feels that things are getting worse. That they will not enjoy the comforts that their parents had and they may not be wrong. This is a generation tasked with fixing global warming, born into 9-11 and coming of age in the worst economic downturn in U.S. history. Why not throw zombies into the mix?

Dune, Economics and Podcasts!

Loyal Followers!

The Falcon Files made friends this weekend with the great folks over at Geek Progress and the result was some great conversations on Political Economy, the Middle East and Dune. Click here to give it a listen and be sure to visit some of there other works.

 

Quick edit: It seems some people have had a problem with the links working and I’ll look into that. In the meantime here is a the site: geekprogress.com.

 

 

What Superman and Lex Luthor Can Teach Us About Foreign Aid

Denzel-Washington-as-Lex-Luthor-Justice-League-United-NationsLex Luthor first appeared in DC comics in the 1940’s as a comical bad guy twirling his mustache as he plotted against the pride of Metropolis–Superman. Since then he has gone through many changes including going bald, to donning a giant suit of armor but more importantly his motives have changed.  Anyone would be hard pressed to call Lex a hero but like any good villain he has a point.  What if Lex believes that Superman’s existence on Earth is breeding a level of dependence?

As an alien, Superman protects the Earth not only from other extraterrestrial threats but also everyday crime.  Not being from this planet he may be interfering with the evolution of the human race.  With our great protector will we need to develop our own systems and inventions to cope with the challenges of everyday crime and invasions from outer-space? Superman removes responsibility from the human race as we no longer need to develop on our own–we simply rely on our off world guardian. Our savior from beyond.

Action_Comics_1

Aid has a similar track record of breeding dependence.  As Western nations funnel money into aid projects aimed at helping the world’s poorest they should be asking themselves if they are lifting people out of poverty or propping up institutions that are incapable of functioning on their own.

Haiti has become the poster child for this kind of development.  Essentially Haiti has become a nation run by NGO’s that no longer build capacity and good governance but instead detract from the government.  This results in a weak coalition of non-profits and aid workers who measure their success by intent instead of impact.

Lex could easily make a similar argument for Superman and his hero complex.  What does it mean for the human race that we rely solely on the powers of an alien to solve social ills like crime? In the case of defending us from larger threats such as Braniac or Darkseid…would these threats come to Earth if Superman were not present? Aid too has a dark side that comes with the footprint of aid workers and organizations.

This is not to say that we should end aid or that Lex Luthor is the unsung hero. We should however examine closely our intents and our impacts in the field.  Building capacity and building institutions that can better serve our stakeholders and pull them put of poverty would be a much better use of aid as opposed to simply giving benefits away.

Walking Dead and International Relations Part 2: Human Edition

Rick-Grimes-Michonne-The-Governor-the-walking-dead-33819289-648-365  Continuing with the analysis of The Walking Dead and its implications for International Relations we will take a closer look at the non-Zombie communities and the choices they make that are similar to the classic Prisoners Dilemma.

The central idea to a prisoner’s dilemma is that two actors face a situation where cooperation is mutually beneficial but both sides are tempted to cheat for maximum gain, thus taking advantage of the other player.  Arguably, the best outcome is when I cheat but my partner tries to cooperate, the worst is the reverse.  The second best is when we both cooperate and of course there is the possibility that both sides try to cheat. Another school of thought is that in any Prisoner’s Dilemma or negotiation the chance for mutual gain is present hence the mutual cooperation is the best possible outcome. The logic being that once Player 1 has exploited Player 2, the relationship is ripe for conflict, leading neither party to cooperate in future talks. However this only works if neither party prefers conflict and focuses more on what is right rather than what works.  In standard math terms…..

Exploitation>(I cheat & You don’t)>Cooperation (We both cooperate)>Conflict(Neither of us cooperate)> Loss( I cooperate & you don’t)

  OR 

Cooperation (We both cooperate)>Exploitation>(I cheat & You don’t)>Conflict(Neither of us cooperate)> Loss( I cooperate & you don’t)

The Walking Dead has two groups one led by Rick, a former sheriff whose people find shelter in a prison and another led by the Governor. The negotiation revolves around a land bargain that would led to peace between the groups as long as Rick hands over Michonne who the Governor hates…but is also one of Rick’s best people. Ideally, peace is worth more than Michonne so Rick should cooperate, but the Governor prefers conflict and so he is a spoiler.

Luckily Rick has a change of heart at the last second…but he has an agent problem in Merle.  Merle decides to take matters into his own hands and attack the Governor’s people.

merle-knife-hand

In the absence of law and order the world of The Walking Dead is similar to that of world of international relations. Without a hierarchy to enforce behavior or agreements, the temptation to cheat, and fear that the other might cheat is very high.  As this show reminds us with the Governor, not everyone is playing the same game. Furthermore, those negotiating the agreements may not always be able to control their team, or militia as Rick couldn’t control Merle. Another reason why civil wars are often harder to end than inter-state ones is because one side may in fact prefer war, and because the elites at the table may be unable to control those they are supposed to command.

The Walking Dead and IR Theory Part 1: Zombie Edition

18870-the-walking-dead-the-walking-deadThis week ushers in the start of the fourth season of The Walking Dead and it got me thinking about the conflict between the zombie and non-zombie communities. In The Walking Dead a few survivors are struggling to survive in a world infested with flesh-eating zombies and are forced to decide which fellow humans they should help in a world of very limited resources and flesh-eating undead. Thus a dualism is established of zombie = bad, human=good, along with a healthy dose of prisoner’s dilemma between the remaining humans. This kind of binary thought is common in conflict. While sometimes one side is clearly the aggressor most of the time there are factors that lead groups to be active participants in the chaos that violent conflict generates.

The dualism can be traced back to the prophet Mani and the establishment of Manichaeism which saw the universe as a struggle between the forces of dark and light.  This dualism has been adopted by many religions  and cultures overtime and poses some problematic political questions.  Randy Borum a terrorism expert elaborates, ” When individuals identify a problem, blame another for this problem and view the other as evil, it justifies any actions taken against them.”  He goes on to suggest that this is a common pathway that an individual takes in order to justify acts of terrorism. How can you negotiate with flesh-eating zombies? Is there an appropriate policy response? Are we guilty of applying Manichaeism thinking to the zombies? Few conflicts have a clear division of good and bad. For instance who is bad in Syria? The Assad government? The opposition groups? The Russians? The U.S.? The larger takeaway is that in most cases there are interests and there is gray, not black and white…or zombie.The Walking Dead1.1 Days Gone ByBehind The ScenesAndrew Lincoln

Orcs, Trade & Slaves : The Economics of Mordor

url  You would be hard pressed to complain about the imagination and creativity that went into making Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy which includes languages, deep and intricate histories and even detailed maps.  However Tolkien was undeniably better at history than economics which brings us to this week’s question….where did the orcs get their food?

As the map above illustrates, Mordor is a farmers nightmare.  Depicted as an ashen wasteland where nothing grows, no rivers run through it and the ground is littered with rocky fissures with little to no rain fall, we can safely assume that Mordor is not an agricultural power house.  With that in mind the Dark Lord must have been trading with an outside power.

url-1                                                                                           In order for the balance of trade to work, Mordor must have something of value to trade as its hard to threaten with an army that someone else feeds.  It’s hard to imagine that the orcs were highly skilled labor, but they could have been exporting swords.  Sauron had mines, and forges so the mass production of swords could easily function as an export good.  Keep in mind that Mordor’s political system is that of a dictatorship, so there’s no need to pay the orcs just keep them fed.  This frees up any capital you might gain from exports to be spent on food supplies, after all even the Dark Lord’s army marches on its stomach.   Trade seems likely for Mordor, orcs farming is odd if not impossible, but it comes with its own difficulties.

Mordor is landlocked and surrounded on three sides by suspiciously straight lines of mountains.  While these natural boundaries are ideal for fending off attackers, it does make trade precarious and expensive.  In the North-West there is the active volcano of Gorgoroth, from which no rivers run,  to the South East lies the undrinkable bitter Sea of Nurmen, thus,  all trade must travel by land which is 14 times more expensive than by sea.  Mordor is beginning to look more and more like a closed economy  typically plagued with underdevelopment.

For the sake of argument let us assume that the balance for trade was struck between one neighboring nation and Mordor. In order for Modor’s economy to work they would need to have constant wars to keep up the demand for swords.  If Sauron were to not start a war surely morale would drop, followed by an economic meltdown and starvation.

Slaves are certainly a possible answer and the effiiceny of slave agriculture sparks heated debate.  In a slave system can there be any specialization of labor? Studies have shown that individuals work better with rest and I doubt that many slaves get time off from work. Furthermore farming is extremely difficult…wouldn’t the slaves do as little as possible just to avoid punishment?   Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman contest these ideas in their book Time on the Cross which discusses the economy of the U.S. south on the eve of the Civil War. Time on the Cross argues that the plantation system was more complicated and that it was extremely efficient and that the southern states economy was on rise as the Civil War approached.  Engerman and Fogel’s findings have been debated and some have been discredited by historians Herbert Gutman and Peter Kolchin who write that Time on the Cross focuses on one plantation and ignores the human abuses that occurred in that time period.

While Mordor would have no concern for it’s slaves  it does raise the question of the slave trade. There doesn’t appear to be any slaves in the rest of Middle Earth so where are they coming from? Are they captured men and women? Who regulates them? It’s doubtful that the orcs could regulate a team of farmers forced or not to work so even with forced agricultural labor Mordor won’t be productive.

With this economic model in mind its hard to imagine what the orcs get out of serving Sauron.  The fiery eye upon the mountain and ring wraiths may not care if the lands are covered with sulfur and ash but the orcs must eat.  What on Middle-Earth are they thinking serving a Lord who rules over a bankrupt nation with no imports? Even in the conquest of Gondor the lands will be turned into a similar wasteland so there’s no prospect for future riches.

In the real world economy Mordor would be riddled with debt.  Orcs would become refugees streaming westward in hopes of employment in Gondor.  Rather than closing its gates to invading armies Minas Tirith would be coping with huge numbers of immigrants.  Orcs would hire themselves out as labor for a square meal and a days pay while the mounted bands of Rohirrim would patrol the borders and turn back those looking for a better life.  Dark Lord or not Sauron would have to borrow heavily to keep Mordor from emptying of its populace. One ring or not, the real power is in the purse strings.

Dune: What SciFi Can Tell Us About Why Nations Fail

images-2

The Science Fiction masterpiece written by Frank Herbert was largely based on the Bedouin and Arab cultures throughout the Middle East and the extractive political economics that drive conflict today. For those of you unfamiliar with the story here is a brief description….

On the desert planet Arrakis, there is a very precious commodity called the Spice.  This commodity is only found on the inhospitable planet and is necessary for interstellar travel.  The intergalatic trade guild, CHOAM, requires it and uses a baron from another planet to extract it. There are two warring families the Atreides and the Harrokens, both competing for the rights to the spice and the native inhabitants are the Fremen, tribal nomads who have learned to survive the harsh environment.  The Emperor sides with the Harrokens, Paul Atreides father dies and Paul is exiled, where he allies with the Fremen. From there they wage war and Paul eventually becomes their just ruler.

It borrows much from Islam such as Hajj and Jihad (the Bulterian Jihad against sentient machines) and Paul Atriedes character is clearly modeled after desert prophets like Jesus, Moses and Muhammad. Furthermore off shoots of of Islam develop including Zensunni and Zenshia which are hybrids of Zen Buddhism Sunni Islam and Shia Isalm respectively.

The Arab language is very prevalent throughout the book, such as the Aba, a loose robe worn by the Fremen and is typically black, can be loosely translated to the Abaya, the traditional female dress for centuries. Some have argued that the word Arrakis, the planet of Dune is derived from the Arabic word Raqs meaning to dance, however this is only true in some dialects and seems to be a remote possibility.

From a economic development stand point, Dune represents an excellent example of extractive economics.  While the spice is a valued commodity and arguably the most important export in the galaxy as it is required for travel, the Arrakis natives remain improvised.  The largest threat to their lives seems to be a lack of water, something that could be easily traded for given the balance of trade. All technology on Arrakis had been built around saving water, even the dead were drained and their fluids given back to the tribe. They are shocked to hear that Paul comes from a planet where water falls from the sky into giant pools of water that surround land. A student of economics would ask why something that has low demand in once place, Paul’s planet, and has such a high demand in another is not being traded?  Why is it that people with access to such an amazing natural resource like spice, are deprived of something that could be traded so cheaply?

The answer comes down to good governance and self rule something James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu discuss here. By establishing extractive institutions such as the Baron or Western Oil companies, you have stymied development and laid the ground work for corrupt governments.  The Fremen are unable to capitalize on the trade imbalance simply because they are not governing themselves, the trade guild governs them with no interest in building an economy only extracting a commodity. This is similar to economics of Egypt under Hosni Mubarak who was supported by western powers for decades while the economic opportunities of the Egyptian people crumbled.

Some would argue that the spice lead to a paradox of plenty, or a resource curse where natural resources are more of a curse than a blessing to a nation’s economy.  Primarily OPEC countries are used to make this argument by comparing their GDP with their vast resources in oil, but little is taken into account of the extractive institutions that plagued the region for many years. Without examining institutions that govern whether it be interstellar empires, western oil companies, or corrupt governments we cannot understand the struggles of people today.

Whether Frank Herbert foresaw the debates of transparency or the political uprisings in the Middle East today, we will never know as he is dead. However, Dune remains one of the best examples of Arab culture and political economy in Science Fiction today.