Spock’s Brain

I take an inordinate amount of pleasure in this note from the Wikipedia entry on Spock’s Brain under Reception and Influence:

“The episode was referenced in Modern Principles: Microeconomics by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University as an example of how it is virtually impossible to have a command economy; in that not even Spock’s brain could run an economy.”

At left is the picture from Modern Principles; we also snuck in an oblique Simpson’s reference.

From Wikipedia I also learned that Phish has a song called Spock’s Brain, alas it is not about the difficulties of running a command economy.


Congratulations! You're nobody until you're mentioned on Wikipedia.

However didn't someone else put that a little more academically a little earlier? You know. Something to do with catallaxy.

Leonard Nimoy wrote: "Frankly during the entire shooting of that episode, I was embarrassed - a feeling that overcame me many times during the final season of Star Trek."

I suspect that Nimoy went through phases with his relationship with Spock. I can well believe he was embarrassed by it when he was young and trying to impress people who are not worth impressing. But Spock outlasted them all. Did Nimoy truly come to love the role that brought him such fame, fortune and (one hopes over-age) groupies? I would hope so. I think if you're going to do a cheese-y role on TV you need to be more like William Shatner and embrace the cheese wholeheartedly. Who would not want to have been Spock?

"I Am Not Spock", 1975: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Am_Not_Spock
"I Am Spock", 1995: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Am_Spock

... trivial, fictional whims by quite ordinary Hollywood TV/Movie screenwriters ... are so important to our understanding of economics and the world at large (?)

any Hollywood references available for professorial egos ?


You think I'm a failure. I know who I am, and I'm
proud of what I do. It was a conscious choice. I didn't
fuck up. And you and your cronies think I'm sort of
pity case. You and your kiss ass chorus, following you
around going, "The Fields Medal, The Fields Medal."
Why are you still so fuckin' afraid of failure?

It's about my medal, is it? Oh God, I can go home and
get it for you. You can have it.

You please don't, you know--

I mean that--

You know what, Gerry? Shove the medal up your
fuckin' ass, all right? Cus' I don't give a shit about your
medal because I knew you before you were a
mathematical god. When you were pimple-faced and
homesick, and didn't know what side of the bed to piss

Even though that's what he may have said, it seems unlikely that anything he did in the Star Trek episodes could have cleared the dizzying height of his embarassment bar. E.g.: The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=34&v=AGF5ROpjRAU)

I think that is reading to much. I am not sure we are told Spock's brain was planning a modern economy. We are told it/he was circulating air, running heating plants, purifying water and that it/he possess the knowledge developed by the formerly advanced civilization. http://www.chakoteya.net/StarTrek/61.htm

Probably, the inhabitants don't need a market to know they don't want to freeze (the planet is going through an Ice Age) and that they want to drink potable water every now and then.

Aside that, all we see is a pocket of primitive women (primitive men ran away), who are fed and taken care by the Controller (Spock's brain), but are probably too dim-witted to operate (as plan-fulfillers) a modern economy or even enjoy most of its fruits (how many new cars and magazines do they buy?). Spock was not the Soviet GOSPLAN, and the women were not Stakhanovite workers trying to fulfill their state-mandated quota or having to forego refrigerator consumption because Moscow wants to build tanks.
Not that I care about Star Trek. But, as I said, I think it is reading too much into a kid's show.

Also, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4fU0Ajo4RM

Contrast that Star Trek episode with the episode of the planet that had adopted the economist's (i.e., efficient) approach to war, a war with hundreds of thousands of casualties but no physical destruction of capital. Efficient, indeed!

You've given me an opening to mention my favorite essay, "In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You" by Cosma Shalizi. He puts a lower bound on the amount of computing power necessary to run a Kantorovich-style command economy, describes the other intractable problems even if genuinely massive computing power were available, and then points out how many of these same problems apply in a capitalist economy and are "solved" in pathological ways. It's a tour de force.


From that:

"I do not have a knock-down proof that there is no good way of evading the problem of planners’ preferences. Maybe there is some way to improve democratic procedures or bureaucratic organization to turn the trick. But any such escape is, now, entirely conjectural. In its absence, if decisions must be made, they will get made, but through the sort of internal negotiation, arbitrariness and favoritism which Spufford depicts in the Soviet planning apparatus."

In a way, we are approaching something like the solution now: time in inventory replaces price as a signal.

Essentially every retailer now knows velocity of sales, seeks to avoid stalled stock, seeks to have hot items on hand. You don't need to solve for a full economy if everyone is rapidly communicating, making more of what is in demand and less of what is not.

But yes, bad episode or not, Spock's Brain was probably successful free market propaganda.

By the way, it occurs to me that "Chinese stuff on eBay/Amazon" exemplifies this. I think much is not even manufactured until ordered. "On demand" to the extreme. Goods are then produced at the lowest price possible.

Example: Etekcity Backpacking Stove

Compare to whatever at REI.

Didn't you claim not so long ago that Oscar Lange was underrated?

There are good algorithms and there are bad algorithms. The fact that the most naive algorithm you could think of requires a supercomputer doesn't mean that a better computer, or a reasonably good approximation, couldn't be ran on an ordinary computer or in Spock's brain.

Doesn't Amazon prove that Marxism-Leninism-Bezosism is a workable system to overtake and surpass capitalism?

Pretty sure communism was proven to be NAP-hard.

Plenty of economies are essentially planned. A large prison, for example, is planned. On a smaller scale, the space station has to be entirely planned. Most corporations are mini-planned economies where departments requisition resources

Where I think the insight comes is what is the demand that is being satisfied? In the space station and prison the demand that is allowed are very basic necessities with limited room allowed for individual whimsy.

The 'planned economy' can only work if demand is planned with supply. Since no one brain is going to be able to think up of all the things millions of brains might want, But hidden here is a philosophical assumption that the economy should be producing everything individuals want. Inside our planned economies like stations and prisons, this assumption is rejected.

The planners at a firm or prison can rely on market prices which simplifies things immensely. The prison planner, for example, knows immediately that it's not going to be optimal make the prison bars out of gold.

Not to mention that in the case off the space station, there is a market driven industry satisfying all of the requests.

Militaries are planned economies, and during major wars like WW II, huge swaths of the US economy were planned. Planned economies can do a few things well. The world's most successful economies are a mixture of planned and market. The trick is recognizing what things markets do well and which governments do better - as Lincoln pointed out 150 years ago.

And yet the most successful militaries in WWII were usually those with the least centralization. The small Finnish guerilla units evicerated Russia’s top-down planners. American generals like Patton were given significant leeway to reach objectives, and the Germans, though totalitarian in politics, encouraged their soldiers to use initiative.

Max Hastings:

“The German soldier almost invariably showed far greater flexibility on the battlefield than his Allied counterpart.”

Where the Germans faltered, was in the central planning demanded by Hitler and his obsequious generals. So even as you cite war and armies as examples of successful central planning, the truth is that central planning is often their greatest weakness.

Well, not when it came to industrial war production. Germany was far less joined up than the UK and the US and suffered for it.

'The small Finnish guerilla units evicerated Russia’s top-down planners.'

First, they were not 'guerilla units.' Second, the Finns ended up losing 11% of their territory to the Soviets - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_War

Third, when the Finns and Soviets went back to war, the Finns were allied with another group of fairly well known top down planners - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continuation_War

"A large prison, for example, is planned."

Only part of the economy is planned; you are leaving out a significant part.

True but the underground market and formal market of the prison economy still is small relative to the total thing. For example, I'm pretty sure all the money earned trading cigarettes back and forth in a year is small compared to the actual payroll and benefits of the staff.


There are plenty of other reasons why people might consider this the worst Star Trek episode ever. I give it a few extra points for camp value. The worst episode of (original) Star Trek was "The Empath." It was dreadfully dull, astonishingly stupid, and yet incapable of being used by MST.

The writer Rose Wilder Lane was still a Communist when she visited the Soviet Union 1n 1919.

In Russian Georgia, the villager who was her host complained about the growing bureaucracy that was taking more and more men from productive work, and predicted chaos and suffering from the centralizing of economic power in Moscow. At first she saw his attitude as merely “the opposition of the peasant mind to new ideas,” and undertook to convince him of the benefits of central planning. He shook his head sadly.

"It is too big – he said – too big. At the top, it is too small. It will not work. In Moscow there are only men, and man is not God. A man has only a man’s head, and one hundred heads together do not make one great big head. No. Only God can know Russia.”"

A practical example was offfered by Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov, who served as Deputy Manager of a Stalin-era Soviet factory. One of the factory's worst problems was the supply of lumber, and Gennady, whose father had been in the lumber trade before the Revolution, was contemptuous of the chaos into which the industry had been reduced by the Soviets:

"The free and “unplanned” and therefore ostensibly chaotic character of lumber production before the revolution in reality possessed a definite order. As the season approached, hundreds of thousands of forest workers gathered in small cartels of loggers, rafters, and floaters, hired themselves out to entrepreneurs through their foremen, and got all the work done. The Bolsheviks, concerned with “putting order” into life and organizing it according to their single scheme, destroyed that order and introduced their own–and arrived at complete chaos in lumbering."

As Gennady says:

"Such in the immutable law. The forceful subordination of life’s variety into a single mold will be avenged by that variety’s becoming nothing but chaos and disorder."


Worst ... blog post ... ever.

There's also a pretty good prog-rock band named Spock's Beard, after one of the series' finest episodes. I'm a big fan of Trek's third year but Brain is an embarrassment

There's an enjoyably bad episode where Kirk, Spock, Abe Lincoln and a Vulcan philosopher must battle four of galactic history's worst villains -- so the creatures staging the battle can learn whether good or evil is the stronger philosophy. Perhaps TC could reboot this as a battle between warring economic theories.

When I taught a class on the economics of financial markets, when we got to talking about optimal portfolios I made sure to quote the Ferengi 62nd Rule of Acquisition: the riskier the road, the greater the profit.

AT makes the dubious claim that a "command economy" is "impossible". Gosh, I have NOT looked into it, but it seems to me that it is quite possible - - using AI and deep data. Perhaps he meant that it is not possible for a small group of people, and I'd agree that a relatively efficient economy is probably not compatible with small group OR hierarchical planning. The problem is, it seems to me, his use of the word "central" - what does he mean by that? I can't run a business in Peoria if I'm sitting in NYC? Since, if I can, we can assume that NYC (or Podunk, UT) can be the "central" in central planning. Hence, his argument is what? That all companies must be run (planned) by their sales departments? Even I know that sales typically gets its marching orders from Marketing or at least they work together. This post reminds me of the Creationists and one of their principle arguments against the Theory of Evolution, that it is about us evolving from monkeys. Which is of course as accurate as lumping all Control Economies into the 5 year plans of the Communists and then concluding that an effective Control Economy is "impossible". Seems to me that ALL businesses are run by the control (at the top) of a small group, which seems to vitiate his pronouncement. Or perhaps I misunderstand.

You misread. Alex never said a command economy is impossible.

¿por qué no exigir a la AI pseudopeople que nos diga lo que está mal con el status quo actual y cómo ordenarlo antes de que giveem las llaves de la Tesla
sorta como alas de agua o entrenamiento

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