The Mezunian

Die Positivität ist das Opium des Volkes, aber der Spott ist das Opium der Verrückten

Thistle Prose

There exist two commonly contrasted prose styles: purple and beige.

Authors who verse in purple prose gush extravagant diction, saturated with figurative language that attempts to magnetize readers’ glazed eyes to the style—and thus it is often criticized for obnoxiously distracting attention away from the important part of a story: the actual story. One could liken it to ketchup half-assedly splattered over a moldy potato to cover the sour, furry taste—or just ketchup on a plate itself, which some crazed little kid might like, but discerning tastes might find undesirable.

Then there’s beige prose, which rejects all unnecessary words, including figurative language. This is like a regular potato: It certainly doesn’t taste bad, but there’s nothing much interesting, either. And while one may argue that story is the utmost in importance, it’s hard to argue that works by Shakespeare, Tolkien, and Terry Pratchett didn’t derive value from style. For instance…

Come, bitter conduct; come, unsavory guide!

Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on

The dashing rocks thy seasick weary bark!

Here’s to my love! (Drinks.) O true apothecary!

Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.

…is just a little more memorable than “Romeo drank the poison and died.”

I propose that the best is a new version I call “thistle prose”—a hybrid between the sensory qualities of purple prose and the brevity of beige prose. Rather than saying as much as possible with as many words as possible, as in purple prose (or as little as possible with as many words for failed purple prose), or saying as little with as few words, as in beige prose, thistle prose attempts to say as much as possible with as few words as possible.

Take diction. The key mistake surrounding the contrast between purple prose’s extravagant diction and beige prose’s plain diction is the conflation of “plain” with “simple” and “extravagant” with “sensory.” The latter is particularly false when one considers words such as “utilization,” which is certainly long, but does not call any images to mind—other than perhaps business meetings and despair. Such a word may be compatible with (bad) purple prose, but it certainly doesn’t fit in with thistle prose, where “use” would work just as well.

The former cannot be shown well with single words, so let’s compare two sentences that use only simple words:

It was a cold, cloudy, and rainy late afternoon.

Al shook as rain struck him from sunset-burnt clouds.

Count the words: both have the same number—nine. The latter even has one less syllable than the former, even though it also uses more “extravagant” diction. This is because “simple” and “evocative” are not incompatible, nor does figurative language need to be longwinded.

Moreover, by replacing simple identifying constructions such as the former sentence with actions one can tell more with fewer words: one can say not only what’s happening, but hint as to the tone one wants to give. In the first sentence, “cold” is vague. Cold to whom? Is this positive or negative? “Al shook as rain struck him” leaves no such uncertainty; it’s obviously not an environment Al finds comfortable. (This sentence also already introduces the character Al. For the first sentence, we still don’t even know if any sentience exists in this story.)

Now, compare the thistle prose sentence to this purple prose sentence:

The atmosphere was bespattered with a brilliant fusion of pinks, blues, oranges, and grays—akin to a sodden newspaper dropped into a crystalline bowl of tangy fruit punch—from the reflection of the descending sun gleaming its luminescent light against the begrimed billows smothering the celestial heavens. Precipitation rained all over Al like a volley of arrows show by a million archers, each gelid projectile striking his marrow with chilly quivers.

Techniques for Thistle Prose:

Use (active) verbs: Verbs are the easiest way to add action without adding fluff. Even simple phrases like “the ground growled” and “storms brewed” are massive improvements over “there was an earthquake” and “it was stormy.” Of course, as any good technique, one should not use this any more than one should put ketchup on every meal. For one, unless you’re writing a fanfic of PeeWee’s world, readers may wonder why every part of nature seems sapient.

Go easy on adjectives and (especially) adverbs: These are why purple prose is so reviled. For instance, one can’t just “rip out someone’s eyes”; one must “mercilessly and violently rip out one’s round, terror-stricken visual organs.” First, why use a vague noun with an adjective when one can just use the specific noun in the first place? Two, this eye is round as opposed to what? Al’s cubic eyes? And is there a nonviolent way to rip out one’s “visual organs”? I suppose if one were undergoing surgery, maybe. As for “mercilessly,” that information should come from the context of the story. Do we know why this person’s ripping this other person’s eyes out? Will we eventually? Then why not just let that tell the story? For example, if we know she’s only pulling this poor fellow’s eyes out as a form of torture, then “mercilessly” is probably redundant. Torture is inherently merciless—causing agony is its whole purpose.

Of course, there are cases in which one of the other two styles may be preferable. For instance, beige prose is probably still better for strictly informational writing; there’s not much need for growling grounds or striking rain in an article discussing the labor and subjective theories of value. Even purple prose may be tolerable for more poetic works or for exaggerative humor. There is also, admittedly, a fine line between thistle prose and purple and beige, as there can be trade-offs between sensory description and brevity. Sadly, no literary device can completely overrun an author’s personal judgment successfully.

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What the Subjective Theory of Value Truly Means for Meritorious Resource Distribution

The pretend breakthrough of economic thought that is the discovery that resources cannot be objectively qualified is often claimed to be proof that “socialism” is infeasible, despite this idea already being noted by socialists such as Proudhon[1] and even Marx[2] long before the neoclassicals and Austrian-schoolers. It does, indeed, prove that an economy managed by a tiny minority separated from the public is infeasible—if one is naïve enough to support such a society. However, the subjective theory’s implications go beyond “socialism”: It discredits any attempt at creating objective meritorious economic outcomes, period—including market methods.

The conclusion most economists derive from the subjective theory is that, because there is no objective method of qualifying an object’s value, we should just let the people decide for themselves. Cost is based not on effort, but on what consumers “choose” to pay for an object in a “voluntary” trade. Often, this is stated with a metaphor for democracy: People vote with their money on which objects have value[3].

Well, already, we have obvious problems with the claim that the subjective theory supports capitalism: An economy controlled by the “people”—AKA the public—sounds suspiciously socialist. Second, voting only works if it is based on “one-vote, one-person” principles, which is obviously incompatible with capitalism, which is characterized by unequal income distributions. This would make any meritorious economic distribution self-defeating: The inequalities it would create would also create advantages derived from better economic control (more “money votes”), which are independent of skill—and thus unmeritorious.

Furthermore, while promarket economists like to discuss the supposed “voluntary” nature of market trade, what they completely ignore is that trade is inherently reliant on the distribution of resources: It is not enough to say that Person A volunteers to trade Object A for Object B and Person B volunteers to trade Object B for Object A; both Persons A and B, as well as everyone else, must also agree that Person A is the rightful owner of Object A and that Person B is the rightful owner of Object B in order for this trade to truly be voluntary. Those who believe Object B does not belong to Person B would logically question what right Person B has to accept values in exchange for a possession Person B had no right to exchange.

This ownership is usually defended as objectively-proven on the claim that people “create” their property themselves; but this is false: Nobody creates property by oneself; such an action is called “magic.” Instead, all production relies on access to natural resources or capital created from earlier natural resources. Thus, one’s ability to “create” is reliant on one’s access to the world’s resources—it is based on the previous distribution of resources.

Even if we accept the claim that gaining more wealth earlier in life makes one deserve the later economic boost more than those who gain wealth later in life, inequalities of birth date disrupt this: Those born earlier gained an advantage over those born later not based on inherent effort or skills, and thus unmeritoriously.

And even if we accept that, one still must ensure that the current distribution of resources is objectively proven to be just. This leads to the key flaw with the subjective theory’s defense of the market: It is based on circular logic. It attempts to defend the current distribution of resources based on a market system that is backed on the current distribution of resources. This means that the distribution of resources in the past affects the present and distribution of resources in the present affects the future: Unjust riches lead to more unjust riches; unjust poverty lead people to gain much less than they would have if they had the right amount of resources.

This is admitted by a few well-known economists. Sraffa noted that “general equilibrium theory shows that a decentralized market economy leads to an outcome that can be labeled optimum, i. e. a [sic] best. However this best rests upon two very tough assumptions: 1. That the existing distribution of wealth is sacrosanct.”[4] Samuelson and Nordhaus in what is probably the most well-read economics textbook in the US, after two paragraphs hailing Adam Smith and his “invisible hand,” begrudgingly mumble, “A final reservation comes when the income distribution is politically or ethically unacceptable. When any of these elements occur, Adam Smith’s invisible-hand doctrine breaks down and government may want to step in to mend the flawed invisible hand.”[5]

So, how do we objectively prove that the current distribution of resources is “sacrosanct”? We can’t. Because resource distribution is contingent on the past, and that distribution based on its past, and so on, it would require an intellectual god—someone with the knowledge of virtually all past history—to sort through all of the disruptions in the past—every instance of theft, imperialism, slavery, and so on—not to mention the subjective nature of who was responsible for what work in collective jobs.

Sraffa, Samuelson, and Nordhaus all heavily understate the problems the subjective theory creates for capitalism. Keep in the mind, the whole purpose for any market is to distribute resources in a meritorious way—that is what the “invisible hand” is supposed to do (well, the mainstream misinterpretation of what the “invisible hand” is supposed to be, at least)[6]. What Samuelson and Nordhaus’s point essentially means is that the market is useful for distributing resources justly, unlike government-run economies—except when it isn’t. Such a claim is utterly absurd. The very subjective nature of the “invisible hand” breaking down when resource distribution is “politically or ethically unacceptable” means that the level of government intervention needed or not needed is arbitrary—except based on what politics or subjective ethics say: What the people democratically choose. Thus, Samuelson and Nordhaus’s argument does not support capitalism, but democratic socialism. Even if the public chose an economic system and distribution similar to capitalism, their legitimacy comes not from the disproved inherent validity of capitalism, but based on democratic choice. On the other hand, if said public chose a socialist, or even communist, resource distribution, that would be just as legitimate.

More importantly, “property rights”—the core of capitalism—cannot be defended if there is no objective way to prove who rightly owns what. Any claim of unfair theft, from either the government or any other entity, can technically be nullified, since who justly owns what cannot be objectively determined. Until it can be, “property rights” are fiat, and thus capitalist laws that defend said “property rights” are, too.

Indeed, that this makes capitalist resource distribution defended purely on what the state chooses to enforce reveals the absurdity of the whole “capitalism” vs. “socialism” debate entirely: “Capitalism” is inherently a form of “state socialism.” The only reason premarket economists could chide social justice “busy-bodies” for trying to mess with the market was the claim that the resource distribution created by their particular economic system is supposedly objective, unlike the “busy-bodies,” who try to base it on their own biased judgments. Who are they to say who deserves what? But since this claim of objectivity is false, that makes promarketers just as much “busy-body” tinkerers and their markets just as much forced onto the public as any democratic socialist system.

If any economic systems benefit from this epiphany, it would be those that do not hold objectively-proven meritorious resource distribution as a goal, such as an economy in which all citizens share all resources or “parecon” (participatory economics), in which resource distribution is decided by democratic choice. The latter is particularly notable, as it is exactly the solution the subjective theory truly leads toward—economic democracy. It also follows Samuelson and Nordhaus’s accidental logic leading to resource distribution being decided by political and ethical forces.

Moreover, it fits the simple nature of subjectivity: Democracy is how we deal with the subjectivity of general ethics—we certainly don’t call for some supposedly enlightened individual or futilely attempt to create mathematically-perfect models to decide for us how a country as a whole should be run. If resource distribution is truly a subjective issue, it stands to reason that it should be decided by democratic means as well.


[1] “The opinion of the human race on the existing difference between real value and market price may be said to be unanimous.” Proudhon, P. J. (1847). System of Economical Contradictions: or, the Philosophy of Misery. p. 88.

[2] “A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference. Neither are we here concerned to know how the object satisfies these wants, whether directly as means of subsistence, or indirectly as means of production.” Marx, K. (1867). Capital, (Vol. 1). Chapter 1, section 1, para 2. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch01.htm#S1.

[3] “These innate and acquired tastes—as expressed in the dollar votes of consumer demands—direct the uses of society’s resources.” Samuelson, P. A. & Nordhaus, W. D. (2010). Economics, (19th Edition). p. 28.

[4] Sraffa, P. (1995). “A Positive Program for Successful Capitalism.” pp. 9-10.

[5] Samuelson, P. A. & Nordhaus, W. D. (2010). Economics, (19th Edition). p. 30.

[6] Grampp, W. D. (2000). “What Did Smith Mean by the Invisible Hand?” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 108(No. 3), pp. 441.

Posted in Politics