Saturday, May 06, 2017

Commentary: Inside the Box

"Inside the Box" is the first piece of fiction I've written in a while. I know a lot of people like to let their work stand for itself, but I like to at least keep track of what I was thinking at the time. So this post is really just for me. But if you want to be less confused, read the story and come back. I'll wait.

Working in IT as I do, I'm constantly barraged by advice to "think outside the box", and truth be told, that's mostly how I make my living. Last week I was driving home, passing the Belk distribution center as I have done uncountable times before when the phrase popped into my head. Here's what I saw:

"The Box" - The Belk distribution center in Jonesville, SC

My basic inspiration isn't terribly mysterious, is it?

I started to think, what if the box weren't a metaphor? What if someone actually lives in a box? And that's all he does... live in the box and think about the world outside of it? I thought about why he would live in the box, and say why in the story... the Calvin and Hobbes comic is real, and I remember having felt a fleeting moment of vertigo when I first read it. The strip I'm referencing was similar, but not identical, to the comic at the right, here. I can't find the actual strip, but I'm not terribly surprised. Bill Waterson re-visited this concept several times during the course of his career. Here's another example, below:

As irrational fears go, this takes the prize. So I used it with attribution.

To build such a thing as the Box you have to be wealthy, so I made Foster wealthy. That wasn't such a great stretch of the imagination. I actually knew a millionaire recluse named Foster. He didn't live in a box, but he did have a small house on a lake, and he did keep exotic birds. So I used his first name and his birds.

I purposely kept the original source of Foster's wealth vague, because it's a short story, and that's an unimportant detail. It is solely intellectual, however; and Foster is completely a self-made man. The story doesn't allow the reader to know much about his background other than that. His race, ethnicity, favorite foods, etc. are up to the reader to fill in as they prefer. If you were to ask me why didn't I include a Black transgender character in this story, I'd respond that Foster is obviously Black and transgender. Or not. That's subject to your bias, not mine.

Politics enters when Foster cuts off personal ties to the outside world. Now that is subject to my bias. I'm vocally Libertarian, and the news of the world is somewhat scary these days. You have left-wingers and right-wingers running around attempting to control other people, protesting their success or dictating their actions. The Box is a sanctuary from all of that. It's a little microcosm where the delineation between "my space" and "everyone else's space" is physical.

I'm also a capitalist who knows how capitalism actually works in the modern era. In today's world, success is no longer tied to labor, but to perceived contribution. Ideas, not sweat, are the fuel of the new economy. The scope of that success is a matter of scale. If a lot of people pay you a little bit each because your ideas are valuable to them, you will become immensely wealthy. That doesn't mean you cheated anybody, or that you rose on their backs by depriving them, or that you are obligated to "give back". You got wealthy because you gave in the first place. Value for value. That's the thing about capitalism that no socialist on Earth truly comprehends. You provided the people of the world with a valuable product or service, and they gave back to you in the form of voluntary payment. The obligations are necessarily met by the free market. Everything else is charity or theft.

To be sure, most right-wingers get it wrong, too. They don't comprehend the vast difference between accounting and economics, which is why they wish to run government like a business or bring back the restrictive gold standard. Only when wealth is based on labor does this make sense. Gold is a limited resource, as is labor. It's perfectly reasonable in such a world to tie the monetary supply to the effort involved in producing some scarce resource. But that's not our world. In a world like ours, where ideas are the prime commodity, money itself is merely an idea. It still must be controlled... you don't have money just because you wish to have it. And labor still does have value. But money isn't a limiting factor to innovation.

In a short story, points are exaggerated for effect. In this story, Foster has limitless ideas with practical applications, so I tweak income inequality heavily in his favor. In practical terms, "income inequality" is a talking point reserved for the jealous who have not learned that their success should be measured against their comfort based on their efforts to leverage equal opportunity. In practical terms it means very little. It . An individual can only consume so much. Give enough people enough resources, however, and they can consume everything.

So I made that happen. Foster's life is dictated by his guilt and fears. Agoraphobia forced him to withdraw. Fear of a jealous populace who would "Occupy the Box" forced him to batten the hatches. Fear of those same people led him to give those same people whatever they wanted without effort on their part, and without restriction. Traditional capitalists brokered the process.

Foster ultimately becomes a god, of near limitless power. He thought he had the answers. Untouched by the consequences of his power, and indifferent to the limitations of the world, he thought his power could be given to mortals without consequence. He didn't consider that the most radical consequences are inevitable and unintended. So the Left and the Right conspired to petition this small god for the means to destroy themselves, quite successfully. And to be sure, I don't limit my satire to them. Foster himself represents that brand of thinker who would rather retreat from the world or solve their problems for them (he is both at once), who is equally culpable.


There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

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