This is a guest post by Marc Joffe, the principal consultant at Public Sector Credit Solutions, an organization that provides data and analysis related to sovereign and municipal securities. Previously, Joffe was a Senior Director at Moody’s Analytics for more than a decade.
Note to readers: for a bit of background on the SEC Credit Ratings Roundtable and the Franken Amendment see this recent mathbabe post.
I just returned from Washington after participating in the SEC’s Credit Ratings Roundtable. The experience was very educational, and I wanted to share what I’ve learned with readers interested in financial industry reform.
First and foremost, I learned that the Franken Amendment is dead. While I am not a proponent of this idea – under which the SEC would have set up a ratings agency assignment authority – I do welcome its intentions and mourn its passing. Thus, I want to take some time to explain why I think this idea is dead, and what financial reformers need to do differently if they want to see serious reforms enacted.
The Franken Amendment, as revised by the Dodd Frank conference committee, tasked the SEC with investigating the possibility of setting up a ratings assignment authority and then executing its decision. Within the SEC, the responsibility for Franken Amendment activities fell upon the Office of Credit Ratings (OCR), a relatively new creature of the 2006 Credit Rating Agency Reform Act.
OCR circulated a request for comments – posting the request on its web site and in the federal register – a typical SEC procedure. The majority of serious comments OCR received came from NRSROs and others with a vested interest in perpetuating the status quo or some close approximation thereof. Few comments came from proponents of the Franken Amendment, and some of those that did were inarticulate (e.g., a note from Joe Sixpack of Anywhere, USA saying that rating agencies are terrible and we just gotta do something about them).
OCR summarized the comments in its December 2012 study of the Franken Amendment. Progressives appear to have been shocked that OCR’s work product was not an originally-conceived comprehensive blueprint for a re-imagined credit rating business. Such an expectation is unreasonable. SEC regulators sit in Washington and New York; not Silicon Valley. There is little upside and plenty of political downside to taking major risks. Regulators are also heavily influenced by the folks they regulate, since these are the people they talk to on a day-to-day basis.
Political theorists Charles Lindblom and Aaron Wildavsky developed a theory that explains the SEC’s policymaking process quite well: it is called incrementalism. Rather than implement brand new ideas, policymakers prefer to make marginal changes by building upon and revising existing concepts.
While I can understand why Progressives think the SEC should “get off its ass” and really fix the financial industry, their critique is not based in the real world. The SEC is what it is. It will remain under budget pressure for the forseeable future because campaign donors want to restrict its activities. Staff will always be influenced by financial industry players, and out-of-the-box thinking will be limited by the prevailing incentives.
Proponents of the Franken Amendment and other Progressive reforms have to work within this system to get their reforms enacted. How? The answer is simple: when a request for comment arises they need to stuff the ballot box with varying and well informed letters supporting reform. The letters need to place proposed reforms within the context of the existing system, and respond to anticipated objections from status quo players. If 20 Progressive academics and Occupy-leaning financial industry veterans had submitted thoughtful, reality-based letters advocating the Franken Amendment, I believe the outcome would have been very different. (I should note that Occupy the SEC has produced a number of comment letters, but they did not comment on the Franken Amendment and I believe they generally send a single letter).
While the Franken Amendment may be dead, I am cautiously optimistic about the lifecycle of my own baby: open source credit rating models. I’ll start by explaining how I ended up on the panel and then conclude by discussing what I think my appearance achieved.
The concept of open source credit rating models is extremely obscure. I suspect that no more than a few hundred people worldwide understand this idea and less than a dozen have any serious investment in it. Your humble author and one person on his payroll, are probably the world’s only two people who actually dedicated more than 100 hours to this concept in 2012.
That said, I do want to acknowledge that the idea of open source credit rating models is not original to me – although I was not aware of other advocacy before I embraced it. Two Bay Area technologists started FreeRisk, a company devoted to open source risk models, in 2009. They folded the company without releasing a product and went on to more successful pursuits. FreeRisk left a “paper” trail for me to find including an article on the P2P Foundation’s wiki. FreeRisk’s founders also collaborated with Cate Long, a staunch advocate of financial markets transparency, to create riski.us – a financial regulation wiki.
In 2011, Cathy O’Neil (a.k.a. Mathbabe) an influential Progressive blogger who has a quantitative finance background ran a post about the idea of open source credit ratings, generating several positive comments. Cathy also runs the Alternative Banking group, an affiliate of Occupy Wall Street that attracts a number of financially literate activists.
I stumbled across Cathy’s blog while Googling “open source credit ratings”, sent her an email, had a positive phone conversation and got an invitation to address her group. Cathy then blogged about my open source credit rating work. This too was picked up on the P2P Foundation wiki, leading ultimately to a Skype call with the leader of the P2P Foundation, Michel Bauwens. Since then, Michel – a popularizer of progressive, collaborative concepts – has offered a number of suggestions about organizations to contact and made a number of introductions.
Most of my outreach attempts on behalf of this idea – either made directly or through an introduction – are ignored or greeted with terse rejections. I am not a proven thought leader, am not affiliated with a major research university and lack a resume that includes any position of high repute or authority. Consequently, I am only a half-step removed from the many “crackpots” that send around their unsolicited ideas to all and sundry.
Thus, it is surprising that I was given the chance to address the SEC Roundtable on May 14. The fact that I was able to get an invitation speaks well of the SEC’s process and is thus worth recounting. In October 2012, SEC Commissioner Dan Gallagher spoke at the Stanford Rock Center on Corporate Governance. He mentioned that the SEC was struggling with the task of implementing Dodd Frank Section 939A, which calls for the replacement of credit ratings in federal regulations, such as those that govern asset selection by money market funds.
After his talk, I pitched him the idea of open source credit ratings as an alternative creditworthiness standard that would satisfy the intentions of 939A. He suggested that I write to Tom Butler, head of the Office of Credit Ratings (OCR) and copy him. This led to a number of phone calls and ultimately a presentation to OCR staff in New York in January. Staff members that joined the meeting were engaged and asked good questions. I connected my proposal to an earlier SEC draft regulation which would have required structured finance issuers to publish cashflow waterall models in Python – a popular open source language.
I walked away from the meeting with the perception that, while they did not want to reinvent the industry, OCR staff were sincerely interested in new ideas that might create incremental improvements. That meeting led to my inclusion in the third panel of the Credit Ratings Roundtable.
For me, the panel discussion itself was mostly positive. Between the opening statement, questions and discussion, I probably had about 8 minutes to express my views. I put across all the points I hoped to make and even received a positive comment from one of the other panelists. On the downside, only one commissioner attended my panel – whereas all five had been present at the beginning of the day when Al Franken, Jules Kroll, Doug Peterson and other luminaries held the stage.
The roundtable generated less media attention than I expected, but I got an above average share of the limited coverage relative to the day’s other 25 panelists. The highlight was a mention in the Wall Street Journal in its pre-roundtable coverage.
Perhaps the fact that I addressed the SEC will make it easier for me to place op-eds and get speaking engagements to promote the open source ratings concept. Only time will tell. Ultimately, someone with a bigger reputation than mine will need to advocate this concept before it can progress to the next level.
Also, the idea is now part of the published record of SEC deliberations. The odds of it getting into a proposed regulation remain long in the near future, but these odds are much shorter than they were prior to the roundtable.
Political scientist John Kingdon coined the term “policy entrepreneurs” to describe people who look for and exploit opportunities to inject new ideas into the policy discussion. I like to think of myself as a policy entrepreneur, although I have a long way to go before I become a successful one. If you have read this far and also have strongly held beliefs about how the financial system should improve, I suggest you apply the concepts of incrementalism and policy entrepreneurship to your own activism.
This is a guest post by Adam Obeng, a Ph.D. candidate in the Sociology Department at Columbia University. His work encompasses computational social science, social network analysis and sociological theory (basically anything which constitutes an excuse to sit in front of a terminal for unadvisably long periods of time). This post is Copyright Adam Obeng 2013 and licensed under a (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License). Crossposted on adamobeng.com.
Eben Moglen’s delivery leaves you in no doubt as to the sincerity of this sentiment. Stripy-tied, be-hatted and pocked-squared, he took to the stage at last week’s IDSE Seminar Series event without slides, but with engaging — one might say, prosecutorial — delivery. Lest anyone doubt his neckbeard credentials, he let slip that he had participated in the development of almost certainly the first networked email system in the United States, as well as mentioning his current work for the Freedom Box Foundation and the Software Freedom Law Center.
A superorganism called humankind
The content was no less captivating than the delivery: we were invited to consider the world where every human consciousness is connected by an artificial extra-skeletal nervous system, linking everyone into a new superorganism. What we refer to as data science is the nascent study of flows of neural data in that network. And having access to the data will entirely transform what the social sciences can explain: we will finally have a predictive understanding of human behaviour, based not on introspection but empirical science. It will do for the social sciences what Newton did for physics.
The reason the science of the nervous system – “this wonderful terrible art” – is optimised to study human behaviour is because consumption and entertainment are a large part of economic activity. The subjects of the network don’t own it. In a society which is more about consumption than production, the technology of economic power will be that which affects consumption. Indeed, what we produce becomes information about consumption which is itself used to drive consumption. Moglen is matter-of-fact: this will happen, and is happening.
And it’s also ineluctable that this science will be used to extend the reach of political authority, and it has the capacity to regiment human behaviour completely. It’s not entirely deterministic that it should happen at a particular place and time, but extrapolation from history suggests that somewhere, that’s how it’s going to be used, that’s how it’s going to come out, because it can. Whatever is possible to engineer will eventually be done. And once it’s happened somewhere, it will happen elsewhere. Unlike the components of other super-organisms, humans possess consciousness. Indeed, it is the relationship between sociality and consciousness that we call the human condition. The advent of the human species-being threatens that balance.
The Oppenheimer moment
Moglen’s vision of the future is, as he describes it, both familiar and strange. But his main point, is as he puts it, very modest: unless you are sure that this future is absolutely 0% possible, you should engage in the discussion of its ethics.
First, when the network is wrapped around every human brain, privacy will be nothing more than a relic of the human past. He believes that privacy is critical to creativity and freedom, but really the assumption that privacy – the ability to make decisions independent of the machines – should be preserved is axiomatic.
What is crucial about privacy is that it is not personal, or even bilateral, it is ecological: how others behave determine the meaning of the actions I take. As such, dealing with privacy requires an ecological ethics. It is irrelevant whether you consent to be delivered poisonous drinking water, we don’t regulate such resources by allowing individuals to make desicions about how unsafe they can afford their drinking water to be. Similarly, whether you opt in or opt out of being tracked online is irrelevant.
The existing questions of ethics that science has had to deal with – how to handle human subjects – are of no use here: informed consent is only sufficient when the risks to investigating a human subject produce apply only to that individual.
These ethical questions are for citizens, but perhaps even more so for those in the business of making products from personal information. Whatever goes on to be produced from your data will be trivially traced back to you. Whatever finished product you are used to make, you do not disappear from it. What’s more, the scientists are beholden to the very few secretive holders of data.
Consider, says Moglen,the question of whether punishment deters crime: there will be increasing amounts of data about it, but we’re not even going to ask – because no advertising sale depends on it. Consider also, the prospect of machines training humans, which is already beginning to happen. The Coursera business model is set to do to the global labour market what Google did to the global advertising market: auctioning off the good learners, found via their learning patterns, to to employers. Granted, defeating ignorance on a global scale is within grasp. But there are still ethical questions here, and evil is ethics undealt with.
One of the criticisms often levelled at techno-utopians is that the enabling power of technology can very easily be stymied by the human factors, the politics, the constants of our species, which cannot be overwritten by mere scientific progress. Moglen could perhaps be called a a techno-dystopian, but he has recognised that while the technology is coming, inevitably, how it will affect us depends on how we decide to use it.
But these decisions cannot just be made at the individual level, Moglen pointed out, we’ve changed everything except the way people think. I can’t say that I wholeheartedly agree with either Moglen’s assumptions or his conclusions, but he is obviously asking important questions, and he has shown the form in which they need to be asked.
Another doubt: as a social scientist, I’m also not convinced that having all these data available will make all human behaviour predictable. We’ve catalogued a billion stars, the Large Hadron Collider has produced a hundred thousand million million bytes of data, and yet we’re still trying to find new specific solutions to the three-body problem. I don’t think that just having more data is enough. I’m not convinced, but I don’t think it’s 0% possible.
This post is Copyright Adam Obeng 2013 and licensed under a (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License).
I take the Economist into the bath with me on the weekend when I have time. It’s relaxing for whatever reason, even when it’s describing horrible things or when I disagree with it. I appreciate the Economist for at least discussing many of the issues I care about.
Last night I came across this book review, about the book “Money: The Unauthorised Biography” written by Felix Martin. It tells the story of an ad hoc currency system in Ireland popping up during a financial crisis more than 40 years ago. The moral of that story is supposed to be something about how banking should operate, but I was struck by this line in the review:
It helped that a lot of Irish life is lived locally: builders, greengrocers, mechanics and barmen all turned out to be dab hands at personal credit profiling.
It occurs to me that “living locally” is exactly what most people, at least in New York, don’t do at all.
At this point I’ve lived in my neighborhood near Columbia University for 8 years, which is long enough to know Bob, the guy at the hardware store who sells me air conditioners and spatulas. If our currency system froze and we needed to use IOU notes, I’m pretty sure Bob and I would be good.
But, even though I shop at Morty’s (Morton Williams) regularly, the turnover there is high enough that I have never connected with anyone working there. I’m shit out of luck for food, in other words, in the case of a currency freeze.
Bear with me for one more minute. When I read articles like this one, which is called Pay People to Cook at Home – in which the author proposes a government program that will pay young parents to stay home and cook healthy food – it makes me think two things.
First, that people sometimes get confused between what could or should happen and what might actually happen, mostly because they don’t think about power and who has it and what their best interests are. I’m not holding my breath for this government program, in other words, even though I think there’s definitely a link between a hostile food environment and bad health among our nation’s youth.
Second, that in some sense we traditionally had pretty good solutions to child care and home cooking, namely we lived together with our families and not everyone had a job, so someone was usually on hand to cook and watch the kids. It’s a natural enough arrangement, which we’ve chucked in favor of a cosmopolitan existence.
And when I say “natural”, I don’t mean “appealing”: my mom has a full-time job as a CS professor in Boston and is not interested in staying home and cooking. Nor am I, for that matter.
In other words, we’ve traded away localness for something else, which I’m personally benefitting from, but there are other direct cultural effects which aren’t always so awesome. Our dependency on international banking and credit scores and having very little time to cook for our kids are a few examples.
It’s Sunday, which for me is a day of whimsical smoke-blowing. To mark the day, I think I’ll assume a position about something I know very little about, namely real estate. Feel free to educate me if I’m saying something inaccurate!
There has been a flurry of recent articles warning us that we might be entering a new housing bubble, for example this Bloomberg article. But if you look closely, the examples they describe seem cherry picked:
An open house for a five-bedroom brownstone in Brooklyn, New York, priced at $949,000 drew 300 visitors and brought in 50 offers. Three thousand miles away in Menlo Park, California, a one-story home listed for $2 million got six offers last month, including four from builders planning to tear it down to construct a bigger house. In south Florida, ground zero for the last building boom and bust, 3,300 new condominium units are under way, the most since 2007.
They mention later that Boston hasn’t risen so high as the others hot cities recently, but if you compare Boston to, say, Detroit on this useful Case-Schiller city graph, you’ll note that Boston never really went that far down in the first place.
When I read this kind of article, I can’t help but wonder how much of the signal they are seeing is explained by income inequality, combined with the increasing segregation of rich people in certain cities. New York City and Menlo Park are great examples of places where super rich people live, or want to live, and it’s well known that those buyers have totally recovered from the recession (see for example this article).
And it’s not even just American rich people investing in these cities. Judging from articles like this one in the New York Times, we’re now building luxury sky-scrapers just to attract rich Russians. The fatness of this real estate tail is extraordinary, and it makes me think that when we talk about real estate recoveries we should have different metrics than simply “average sell price”. We need to adjust our metrics to reflect the nature of the bifurcated market.
Now it’s also true that other cities, like Phoenix and Las Vegas are also gaining in the market. Many of the houses in these unsexier areas are being gobbled up by private equity firms investing in rental property. This is a huge part of the market right now in those places, and they buy whole swaths of houses at once. Note we’re not hearing about open houses with 300 buyers there.
Besides considering the scary consequences of a bunch of enormous profit-seeking management companies controlling our nation’s housing, and changing the terms of the rental agreements, I’ll just point out that these guys probably aren’t going to build too large a bubble, since their end-feeder is the renter, the average person who has a very limited income and ability to pay, unlike the Russians. On the other hand, they probably don’t know what they’re doing, so my error bars are large.
I’m not saying we don’t have a bubble, because I’d have to do a bunch of reckoning with actual numbers to understand stuff more. I’m just saying articles like the Bloomberg one don’t convince me of anything besides the fact that very rich people all want to live in the same place.
Aunt Pythia is yet again gratified to find a few new questions in her inbox this morning. Sad to say, today’s column really has nothing to do with sex, but I hope you’ll enjoy it anyway. And don’t forget:
I’m an academic in a pickle. How do I deal with papers that are years old, that I’m sick of, but that I need to get off my slate and how do I prevent this from happening again? I always want to do the work for the first 75% of the paper and then I get bored. But then I’m left with a pile of papers which, with a biiiit more work, they could be done.
Not Yet Tenured
One thing they never teach you in grad school is how to manage projects, mostly because you only have one project in grad school, which is to learn everything the first two years then do something magical and new the second two years. Even though that plan isn’t what ends up happening, it’s always in the back of your mind. In particular you only really need to focus on one thing, your thesis.
But when you get out into the real world, things change. You have options, and these option make a difference to your career and your happiness (actually your thesis work makes a difference to those things too but again, in grad school you don’t have many options).
You need a process, my friend! You need a way of managing your options. Think about this from the end backwards: after you’re done you want a prioritized list of your projects, which is a way more positive way to deal with things than letting them make you feel guilty or thinking about which ones you can drop without deeper analysis.
Here’s my suggestion, which I’ve done and it honestly helps. Namely, start a spreadsheet of your projects, with a bunch of tailored-to-you columns. Note to non-academics: this works equally well with non-academic projects.
So the first column will be the name of the project, then the year you started it, and then maybe the amount of work til completion, and then maybe the probability of success, and then how much you will like it when it’s done, and then how good it will be for your career, and then how good it will be for other non-career reasons. You can add other columns that are pertinent to your decision. Be sure to include a column that measures how much you actually feel like working on it, which is distinct from how much you’ll like it when it’s done.
All your columns entries should be numbers so we can later make weighted averages. And they should all go up when they get “better”, except time til completion, which goes down when it gets better. And if you have a way to measure one project, be sure to measure all the projects by that metric, even if they mostly score a neutral. So if one project is good for the environment, every project gets an “environment” score.
Next, decide which columns need the most attention – prioritize or weight the attributes instead of the projects for now. This probably means you put lots of weight on the “time til completion” combined with “value towards tenure” for now, especially if you’re running out of time for tenure. How you do this will depend on what resources you have in abundance and what you’re running low on. You might have tenure, and time, and you might be sick of only doing things that are good for your career but that don’t save the environment, in which case your weights on the columns will be totally different.
Finally, take some kind of weighted average of each project’s non-time attributes to get that project’s abstract attractiveness score, and then do something like divide that score by the amount of time til completion or the square root of the time to completion to get an overall “I should really do this” score. If you have two really attractive projects, each scoring 8 on the abstract attractiveness score, and one of them will take 2 weeks to do and the other 4 weeks, then the 2-week guy gets an “I should really do this” of 4, which wins over the other project with an “I should really do this” score of 2.
Actually you probably don’t have to do the math perfectly, or even explicitly. The point is you develop in your head ways by which to measure your own desire to do your projects, as well as how important those projects are to you in external ways. By the end of your exercise you’ll know a bunch more about your projects. You also might do this and disagree with the results. That usually means there’s an attribute you ignored, which you should now add. It’s probably the “how much I feel like doing this” column.
You might not have a perfect system, but you’ll be able to triage into “put onto my calendar now”, “hope to get to”, and “I’ll never finish this, and now I know why”.
Final step: put some stuff onto your calendar in the first category, along with a note to yourself to redo the analysis in a month or two when new projects have come along and you’ve gotten some of this stuff knocked off.
Dear Aunt Pythia,
I am a freshly minted data scientist working in the banking industry. My company doesn’t seem they know what to do with me. Although they are a ginormous company, I am currently their sole “official” data scientist. They are just now developing their ability to work with Big Data, and are far from the capability to work with unstructured, nontraditional data sources. There are, apparently, grand (but vague) plans in the future for me and a future DS team. So far, however, they’ve put me in a predictive analytics group. and have me developing fairly mundane marketing models. They are excited about faster, in-database processes and working with larger (but still structured) data sets, but their philosophy seems to still be very traditional. They want more of the same, but faster. It doesn’t seem like they have a good idea of what data science can bring to the table. And with few resources, fellow data scientists, or much experience in the field (I came from academia), I’m having a hard time distinguishing myself and my work from what their analytics group has been doing for years. How can I make this distinction? And with few resources, what general things can I be doing now to shape the future of data science at my company?
Newly Entrenched With Bankers
First, I appreciate your fake name.
Second, there’s no way you can do your job right now short of becoming a data engineer yourself and starting to hit the unstructured data with mapreduce jobs. That would be hardcore, by the way.
Third, my guess is they hired you either so they could say they had a data scientist, so pure marketing spin, which is 90% likely, or because they really plan on getting a whole team to do data science right, which I put at 1%. The remaining 9% is that they had no idea why they hired you, someone just told them to do it or something.
My advice is to put together a document for them explaining the resources you’d need to actually do something beyond the standard analytics team. Be sure to explain what and why you need those things, including other team members. Be sure and include some promises of what you’d be able to accomplish if you had those things.
Then, before handing over that document, decide whether to deliver it with a threat that you’ll leave the job unless they give you the resources in a reasonable amount of time or not. Chances are you’d have to leave, because chances are they don’t do it.
Please submit your question to Aunt Pythia!
The Dow is at an all-time high. Here’s the past 12 months:
Once upon a time it might have meant something good, in a kind of “rising tide lifts all boats” sort of way. Nowadays not so much.
Of course, if you have a 401K you’ll probably be a bit happier than you were 4 years ago. Or if you’re an investor with money in the game.
On the other hand, not many people have 401K plans, and not many who do don’t have a lot of money in them, partly because one in four people have needed to dip into their savings lately in spite of the huge fees they were slapped with for doing so. Go watch the recent Frontline episode about 401Ks to learn more about this scammy industry.
Let’s face it, the Dow is so high not because the economy is great, or even because it is projected to be great soon. It’s mostly inflated out of a combination of easy Fed money for banks, which translates to easy money for people who are already rich, and the fact that world-wide investors are afraid of Europe and are parking their money in the U.S. until the Euro problem gets solved.
In other words, that money is going to go away if people decide Europe looks stable, or if the Fed decides to raise interest rates. The latter might happen when the economy (or rather, if the economy) looks better, so putting that together we’re talking about a possible negative stock market response to a positive economic outlook.
The stock market has officially become decoupled from our nation’s future.
I was surprised and somewhat disappointed yesterday when I found this article about Star Trek in Slate, written by Matt Yglesias. He, like me, has recently been binging on Star Trek and has decided to explain “why Star Trek is great” – also my long-term plan. He stole my idea!
My disappointment turned to amazement and glee, however, when I realized that the episode he began his column with was the exact episode I’d just finished watching about 5 minutes before I’d found his article. What are the chances??
It must be fate. Me and Matt are forever linked, even if he doesn’t care (I’m pretty sure he cares though, Trekkies are bonded like that). Plus, I figured, now that he’s written a Star Trek post, I’ll do so as well and we can act like it’s totally normal. Where’s your Star Trek post?
Here’s his opening paragraph:
In the second episode of the seventh season of the fourth Star Trek television series, Icheb, an alien teenage civilian who’s been living aboard a Federation vessel for several months after having been rescued from both the Borg and abusive parents, issues a plaintive cry: “Isn’t that what people on this ship do? They help each other?”
That’s the thing about Star Trek. It’s utopian. There’s no money, partly because they have ways to make food and objects materialize on a whim. There’s no financial system of any kind that I’ve noticed, although there’s plenty of barter, mostly dealing in natural resources. And the crucial resource that characters are constantly seeking, that somehow make the ships fly through space, are called dilithium crystals. They’re rare but they also seem to be lying around on uninhabited planets, at least for now.
But it’s not my religion just because they’ve somehow evolved past too-big-to-fail banks. It’s that they have ethics, and those ethics are collaborative, and moreover are more basic and more important than the power of technology: the moral decisions that they are confronted with and that they make are, in fact, what Star Trek is about.
Each episode can be seen as a story from a nerd bible. Can machines have a soul? Do we care less about those souls than human (or Vulcan) souls? If we come across a civilization that seems to vitally need our wisdom or technology, when do we share it? And what are the consequences for them when we do or don’t?
In Star Trek, technology is not an unalloyed good: it’s morally neutral, and it could do evil or good, depending on the context. Or rather, people could do evil or good with it. This responsibility is not lost in some obfuscated surreality.
My sons and I have a game we play when we watch Star Trek, which we do pretty much any night we can, after all the homework is done and before bed-time. It’s kind of a “spot that issue” riddle, where we decide which progressive message is being sent to us through the lens of an alien civilization’s struggles and interactions with Captain Picard or Janeway.
Overcoming our natural tendencies to hoard resources!
Some kids go to church, my kids watch Star Trek with me. I’m planning to do a second round when my 4-year-old turns 10. Maybe Deep Space 9. And yes, I know that “true scifi fans” don’t like Star Trek. My father, brother, and husband are all scifi fans, and none of them like Star Trek. I kind of know why, and it’s why I’m making my kids watch it with me before they get all judgy.
One complaint I’ve considered having about Star Trek is that there’s no road map to get there. After all, how are people convinced to go from a system in which we don’t share resources to one where we do? How do we get to the point where everyone’s fed and clothed and can concentrate on their natural curiosity and desire to explore? Where everyone gets a good education? How can we expect alien races to collaborate with us when we can’t even get along with people who disagree about taxation and the purpose of government?
I’ve gotten over it though, by thinking about it as an aspirational exercise. Not everything has to be pragmatic. And it probably helps to have goals that we can’t quite imagine reaching.
For those of you who are with me, and love everything about the Star Trek franchise, please consider joining me soon for the new Star Trek movie that’s coming out today. Showtimes in NYC are here. See you soon!