Sunday, February 26, 2012

Zeitgeist: Scientism Fiction

To date, conspiracy theorists have created three "Zeitgeist" movies, all of which are available free on the Internet. The first one was released in 2007 and combined a rip-off of The God Who Wasn't There, 9-11 "inside job" conspiracy theories and an anti-Federal Reserve pseudohistory piece into one sprawling mess.

This was followed by "Zeitgeist: Addendum" in 2008, which was a two hour criticism of the monetary system and capitalism. It also introduced Utopian loon Jacque Fresco and his push for a "resource-based economy," which is a theoretical non-capitalism top-down command and control society.

This "resource-based economy" idea was fleshed out in the sprawling two hour, 41 minute "Zetgeist: Moving Forward" that came out in January 2011. I heard calls to adopt a "resource-based economy" from supporters at Occupy Boston, but I could not find any serious response to the third video from either the skeptical community or econ writers.

Since I'm a member of both groups, that daunting task naturally befalls on me. I think the long run time is what kept most people out, and now that I've watched the entire thing, I can say I can only justify responding to part of the film. I am leaving the first hour and a half to other people, as that focuses on questionable human behavior and biology scholarship that I am not familiar with, but do not trust the narrator to accurately report.

The heart of the film is in the section "Project Earth," where the viewer is told the best way to organize human society is through Fresco's centrally-planned direct democracy. This is constantly referred to as an approach with scientific support, but this is just vague hand-waving. No actual science is mentioned.

This is what Friedrich Hayek called scientism, where someone uses the trappings of science to prop up an idea that is not supported by science. This video is a wonderful example of the wild conclusions an ignorant person can reach when they get their hands on a few stray facts, but have no core understanding to build upon.

The narrator wants to abolish private property, money and specialization. He also wants to install direct democracy, but I think that idea has been defeated enough times that I can skip it.

Economies solve two major problems for a population: What to produce and how to distribute that production. The answer Zeitgeist gives to distribution is instead of owning objects, people will pick them at warehouses, use them, then return them. This silly idea invites all kinds of problems, but not as many as the films answer to the production problem.

This utopia will employ magic boxes to decide what to produce. The filmmaker calls these devices "computers," but they bear no resemblance to the device I'm writing this review on. A simply reading of "I, Pencil" from Leonard Read demonstrates the incredible complex production chain required to create a simple wooden pencil. Zeitgeist Utopians believe they can coordinate the resources to build superconductors, spacecraft, washing machines and hospitals without the aid of the price system.

It's been 90 years since the socialist calculation problem was identified and these Utopians have stumbled into the same problem. Should scientists focus on curing a childhood disease or extending longevity? What happens when you don't have the resources to make emergency parachutes, communication devices and cancer drugs? How do you anticipate how many tomatoes need to be grown for next season. What do you do when there's an early harvest and all the trucks that would help move the crops are moving wildfire equipment. There is no way to program a machine to make these value judgments for you.

What's more, they say we've had the technology to run this system since the 1970's, the same time Chile had it's fraudulent Project Cybersyn that made the same claims and came with the same flaws.

All people in this impossible world will live in cities that produce their own food. This is justified because of the reduction in transportation fuel, an idea so dead it's inhumane to dig it up again. In addition to food, all objects will be manufactured within the city as well. This daunting task is accomplished by using 3D printers to replicate objects.

Here's an easy question that will illustrate the flaw. Did the invention of cheap home computer printers eliminate the large devices books and magazines are printed on?

Of course not. If someone needs a 101 fliers, people know it's cheaper to print one copy and then travel to a store to make 100 photocopies. This obvious flaw is so painful to watch that I understand why some viewers mistake the video for satire. For a theory that talks a lot about efficiency, it certainly suggests a lot of inefficient solutions.

The film caps off its Utopian scheme by denying that the resource-based economy is anything like communism. This is a useless denial. It doesn't matter if someone denies they are a racist before assaulting a stranger because of their race. The organization this film suggests has the same basic structure as socialism, communism and technocracy, and denying it doesn't change anything.

I realize this review is appearing on a free-market blog, but don't let that fool you into thinking market-based organization is a political position. All modern economics supports using markets and capitalism to organize what to produce and how to distribute what's produced. The only debate is the extent of intervention from the government, and no serious economist supports zero intervention.

There are tons of little phony details I could spend all day pointing out. The narrator recites a well-understood flaw in using GDP as a barometer of economic activity, then acts as if this is a new criticism that disproves economic science. A speaker falsely presents Adam Smith's invisible hand as belief in divine intervention and tries to twist his message. The video also insist Milton Friedman was insincere in all his lectures and lied to the public to keep power in the hands of the evil overlords. People can only get away with this sort of drivel because of the economic ignorance of the public.

"Zeitgeist:Moving Forward" takes a collection of true facts and outright falsehoods and weaves a Utopian world, despite complete ignorance of basic economic knowledge. This is classic Do-It-Yourself economics told by someone who lacks the basic knowledge of the failed ideas of the past.

Currently the film has been viewed nearly 15 million times. If anything, the popularity of these videos reflects the sorry state of intellectualism today. People who identify with these videos consider themselves enlightened and wise, but they don't realize they're just recycling a collection of blood-soaked failures from less than a century ago. Refusal to learn from those mistakes would cause their doomed hypothetical society to repeat them.

1 comment:

  1. Very insightful, I enjoyed this post. As someone who has a relative who is caight up in the Zeitgeist Movement, it is nice to see someone take the initiative to debunk this movie's claims.