Past episodes Reader's Guide to the Nostrum Universe Nostrum Correspondence Corner
Subscribe to Nostrum Home
(New to Nostrum? We recommend starting at the beginning.
Totally lost? Find out who's who in the Reader's Guide.)
Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?
They call it the dismal science, a system where social interaction is translated into a collection of numbers that can be analyzed to provide maps of the past and projectors of the future. Life transmogrified into arithmetic, history as a ledger book, future events as inevitable actions of predictable agents. From Adam Smith to Alan Greenspan in one swell foop of capitalist market forces, from laissez-faire to trust-busting to the breakup of Microsoft and the merger of AOL and Time-Warner, from the search for El Dorado to the Opium Wars to fall of the Asian markets to the Euro's failure in Copenhagen, from 1893 and 1929 to Wage/Price Freezes and OPEC and the cost of crude oil…
Economics. It is far from an easy subject, and it is also not one of simple agreement, in which the more you learn, the more you know. If one studies the human body, for instance, the more one learns, the more one finds out. If as a medical student you dissect your first cadaver, you discover that the song was only marginally correct when it said the knee bone connected to the thigh bone, and that there's actually a whole bunch of musculature and cartilage to be accounted for, but still, the general theory was accurate. When you take up your residency, you and your fellow surgeons will never disagree about the various ligatures holding human beings upright, and in fact the more you know the less likely you are to disagree, so when you finally go into private practice, you can charge professional football players skaddillions of dollars for their reconstructive surgeries because you are in high command of objective knowledge and the skills to make this knowledge useful. No one will come along and suggest that, au contraire, the knee bone connected to the head bone, and everything can be explained completely differently if only you look at it from a different vantage point. That contrariness is true of economics, however. In the dismal science, the more you know, the less likely you are to agree with those who also know a lot. Of course there are schools of thought, and you will in your path of statistics find kindred spirits, but to reach the top of the tree you have to ultimately prove that everything already known is wrong, and that market forces don't work that way but this way and that everybody but you has been looking at it incorrectly.
If you do not believe this, read up on the economists who win the Nobel Prize for their profession. Each one, in essence, completely disagrees with his or her predecessors. This is, for the most part, not true for the Nobel Prizes in medicine, or physics, where information is added to the extant information to get more information, while in economics, information is posited against extant information to get the same amount of different information, a Hegelian path to nowhere, it would seem, but still, the economics prize winner gets the same million bucks as the medicine prize winner, so who is to say what the nature of truth is after all?
Anyhow, there are some elementary aspects of economics that do not spit into the wind of endless revision, and one at least that you can take to the bank every time (or not take to the bank, depending on which side of the equation you happen to be on). That nugget of economic wisdom is the law of supply and demand. There are few actual laws in the dismal science, where one is much more likely to encounter the word theory than the word law, but there is at least this one. It is taught in grammar schools, repeated in high schools, nailed to the wall in colleges and believed, acted on and proven true in virtually all social interactions. It is a law that is not immutable, but even in physics, for every Newton there's an Einstein, and all that is needed is a better understanding of the laws operating on the laws, and so before we start disproving the law of supply and demand, or Newton or Einstein, let's just accept it and move on with our demonstration of its viability.
To wit: the law of supply and demand can be understood to mean that when there is a lot of a commodity, and not a lot of desire for it, it is not held in particularly high value. Conversely, when there is a limited amount of a commodity, and a lot of desire for that commodity, it is held in very high value. For example, there is not a lot of gold in the world, there is a lot of desire for it, and therefore it costs a lot. There is no true intrinsic value to gold aside from its desirability; it is sort of shiny and, as metals go, easy to work with, and it's also rare enough to demonstrate that if I have some and you don't, I am somehow better off than you are. That is, gold is valuable only because we desire it. Why we desire it is worthy of its own essays, but desire it we do, and because it is rather scarce, we're willing to pay a lot for it. On the other hand, dog poop is rife on the streets of Paris, and no one particularly wants it, so it is entirely unlikely that you would find anyone willing to pay for it. A Montmartre businessman contemplating the collection and resale of dog poop would be well advised by his local guy de banque or whatever they're called to seek another avenue of enterprise.
The real understanding of supply and demand is not at the edges, however, but in the middle. Take rice, for example. There's plenty of rice out there, and there's also plenty of desire for it, so rice maintains both a relatively low price and a relatively steady price. If there's a draught, however, while the demand for rice might remain constant, the supply will decrease. Theoretically, the price will go up. But why? Well, first, it probably will cost more to get; farmlands might need to be retilled, or the rice might need to be imported, so the cost of the commodity will increase literally. It becomes more expensive, therefore it's higher priced. Or in another scenario, a warehouse may have tons of rice it already bought at normal prices, but it's the only warehouse with any rice at all, and suddenly there are more people at the door every day than ever before, and the warehouse can raise the selling price without getting any resistance to the customers. The crux of the matter here is the desire. If people really really want rice, they may be willing to buy it at any price, which means that sellers can sell it at any price, until ultimately the ceiling price is reached and either people switch to wheat or there's revolution in the streets or everyone starves to death. And there is an economic presumption that items do have ceiling prices. Sooner or later there is a price tag that is too high, and that's the end of that rice market.
You can imagine all the convolutions of supply and demand, and while the law itself is simple, the applications are extremely complex. Amazon dot com was extremely desirable with a limited supply of stock available on the market, and people drove the price up to the stratosphere. The desire for dot coms suddenly evaporated in the light of such economic realities as businesses having to earn more than they spend to make a profit, and despite the supply of the stock remaining steady, the value of the stock diminished by factors of ten because of the lack of desire. If the desire had remained constant, Amazon could have issued more stock, which, if the desire remained constant, would have lowered the price because of the increase of supply. When companies want to raise their stock prices, they sometimes buy back their own stock, thus limiting the supply in the face of level desire.
And on and on and on and on.
Even into forensics. Finally.
At this moment in time, a few days before the Venerable Bede tournament in a forgotten corner of either New York or Pennsylvania, or perhaps New Jersey, there is panic in the northeast. For all practical purposes, a few days before any tournament there is panic wherever the tournament is, because of a simple reality of supply and demand. There are usually more than enough forensicians to go around, but there are never enough judges. At any tournament, some judges may be hired by the event for resale to the participants, or more likely the tournament may have some of its own resources that can be packaged as commodities (colleges sell their undergraduates, high schools sell their overgraduates), but these are never enough to go around. The attending schools almost always need more judges than are available, and are forced to fall on their own devices for acquiring them, with noticeably mixed results.
Let's look at some more numbers. The Venerable Bede sets a requirement that every two Policians (or fraction thereof) have one judge, every four LDers (or fraction thereof) have one judge, and every 5 Speechies (or fraction thereof) have one judge. Presumably every team coming to the event has no more than one coach (or fraction thereof) for each division, and usually less, while many teams have more than two Policians, four LDers or five Speechies. The Bede charges $150 for each resold judge, which is a high price, but by no means a stopper, as every resellable judge has been sold three weeks prior to the date registration closed, meaning that this outlet has now gone dry. The warehouse is empty of rice. It is time to starve, seek new outlets, or switch from rice.
In the switch from rice, many teams enlist the aid of their parents (with the notable except of the area of Policy, which, if it were to be judged by parents, would quickly devolve into street riots the likes of which haven't been seen since the last election in central Florida). As any student will tell you, parents are invariably bad judges, and as any coach will tell you, parents are invariably unreliable judges, but at least as far as the forensicians are concerned, any parent they bring is an invariably bad judge that will be shafting some other team, while the coaches will tell you any warm body will do and they don't even bother trying to memorize the parents' names from the same logic that cowboys might not name their horses for fear of getting too attached to something they might someday have to eat.
As for starving, this is a distinct possibility, and there are times when forensicians do not attend events because no judging was to be had. All the overgraduates were unavailable, all the parents had really good excuses (everything from "the DNA testing has proved paternity" to "my grandmother will be dying that weekend"), and there were no retreads available from the tournament itself. There have been times, unfortunately, when tournaments have sold more judges than they had, and the ensuing chaos has brought coaches to their feet demanding to smell the blood of the judges they have paid for: "Bring me the head of Noah Grabowitz," (or Jon Gegenheimer or that Vestavia guy who never smiles or words to that effect, any real live judge with fire in his loins, except maybe for that Vestavia guy who never smiles) rings through the chambers of academe with chilling effect.
We won't go there.
And finally, there's the seeking of new outlets. Thusly… In his seeking of an opportunity to attend the Venerable Bede and see Gloria Fudless, Disney Davidson posts a message on the LD listserver offering his services as a paid judge, a weekend ronin for some ballot scribbling in the back of the room.
Within three hours he has seven offers. Disney, no student of economics himself, being more inclined to the artistic side of life, is introduced firsthand to the law of supply and demand. Being a quick study, Disney grasps at his opportunity, and with his newfound mastery of the dismal science, does what anyone would do in his position. He decides to auction himself off to the highest bidder.
A marketing war ensues. Bids are tendered, considered, countered, beaten. Two teams go for preemptive offers but don't have the credentials to back up their ability to pay (would you trust a New York City school with no coach and a junior for a business manager?).
And then the big one comes in. Manhattan Lodestone, in the person of Mr. Lo Pat, offers Disney Davidson $300 for two days of judging, plus transportation, meals, and his own room at the tournament hotel.
Disney grabs it.
And the law of supply and demand is proven once again.
And note also that the law of Nostrum being able to talk about nothing for endless pages, with a mere five legitimate paragraphs of content at the very end, has also been proven once again. As Tristram Shandy was once noted as muttering while reading Cryptonomicon, mes etoiles!
It is, in essence, the worst situation she has ever endured. And she doesn't know how much longer she'll be able to endure it.
At the beginning, it was easy. A couple of brief kisses, some hand-holding, the odd snuggle on the bus. You'd be willing to do most of this with your cocker spaniel, so for Tara Petskin to do it with Haircut Puente was not all that much a stretch. At least not in the short run.
But the run is not short. Haircut is completely unaware that Tara is simply using him to make Invoice O'Connor jealous. As far as she can tell, Invoice O'Connor is also completely unaware that she is trying to make him jealous.
And the stakes have suddenly risen.
Until now, all of Tara's and Haircut's contact has been in public. At school. At Seth B. Obomash's house. At the Algren. On the bus. But that can't last forever. Haircut has invited her to his house to start prepping for the Gladecreek Tournament in two weeks. Seth won't be at the house. And according to Haircut, neither will his parents be at the house.
And there was no misunderstanding the inference in this piece of information when Haircut delivered it to Tara. Oh, yes, he does want to start prepping for Gladecreek. He's been talking about the Burning Bush kritik, whatever that is. But he wants something else to.
Romance. And Tara Petskin alone.
Which is the last thing Tara Petskin wants.
It is one thing to brief kiss, hand hold or odd snuggle. It is another thing altogether to go over to Haircut's house. It doesn't matter what it will lead to, it will lead to something bad. Something Tara doesn't want, but also something that is entirely her due consequences.
Welcome to the Bahamas.
"You'll love this kritik," Haircut is saying to her. They are sitting on the steps in front of the school during their lunch period. It's cold outside, but the weather can't outweigh the value of not being inside.
"What is it?"
"It's complicated. It's from Texas."
"Oh." He might have well has explained a wine by saying it's from France: the flavor may not be defined, but the provenance is impeccable.
"We could get a pizza, and go over it."
"I've gotta work on my website first, but that'll only take a couple of hours, and then I'll be ready to go."
"Ready to go."
"Ready to … go."
The options are clear.
Tara can bite the bullet and tell Haircut that she doesn't want to be romantic with him any more. In other words, she can dump him. After about one week. After all their history from the old days. After the obvious way she used herself as a lure to convince him to come back to debate. Probable outcome: he'll walk. He'll quit her, and he'll quit the team, and that is not what Tara wants. Sure, she wanted originally to get Invoice's attention, but she also wanted a good debate partner, and, aside from Invoice, there's none better than Haircut.
The second option is that Tara can play the hand she's dealt herself. She can go to Haircut's house, and accept the consequences. She can learn the Burning Bush kritik, and do a little non-resolutional spooning. Probable outcome: Tara will hate herself more than she already does.
The final option is that she can continue to string Haircut along and make no decision whatsoever. Don't go tonight, only see him when there's somebody else around. Continue with the brief-kissing hand-holding odd-snuggling scenario. Put off the inevitable as long as possible on the hopes that in the interim the world will end and she will be relieved of solving her problems. Probable outcome: None.
Note that none of these options, in the words of forensics, solves for Invoice. No matter which she does, she will be no closer to Invoice O'Connor than she is now. And probably no further either.
"I really have to do bio tonight," she tells Haircut. "I am definitely not ready for that test tomorrow."
His eyes narrow. "That test is going to be a knock."
"Not for me. I haven't studied one minute."
He sighs. "What about the Burning Bush kritik?"
"We'll meet at Seth's Saturday morning like we planned."
"What about Friday night?"
"You know I have to baby-sit."
"I didn't know you were baby-sitting."
"I told you that." She is lying of course. She hasn't baby-sat in two years, she's not baby-sitting tomorrow, and she certainly never told him any such thing.
He sighs. "I guess we won't get together then."
"Next week. Definitely. I promise." She is lying again. Of course.
It is, in essence, the worst situation she has ever endured. And she doesn't know how much longer she'll be able to endure it.
How will Disney spend his judging earnings?
Is any of our supply-and-demand commentary accurate?
Will Tara be able to elude Haircut forever?
Should we hire Al Gore to replace the Nostrumite, now that Al's going to apparently have some time on his hands?
Will Tipper run for Chuck Schumer's senate seat?
All singing, all dancing, all talking in our next episode: "Carry Me Back to Old Guatemala."
Go to the next episode due Dec 13, 2000.