Sunday, September 22, 2013

Even if you simply have to fudge it/Make sure it stays within our budget (The Super-Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000)

Who knew so many ponies were angry drunks?
When I was a kid, the one cartoon that stood out above all others was Ducktales. If you know the history of American TV cartoons, or you've read my book, then you know there's a reason for this; to make a long story short, Ducktales was a strong contender for best (English-language) cartoon of the 1980s, the beginning of the end of the "Wasteland" period of children's television, and the proof that syndication (soon to be succeeded by cable) made it possible for a cartoon to make a profit without sacrificing production values, paving the way for the Silver Age of Animation that runs from the 1990s through today.

But Ducktales itself was very much a creature of the 1980s. Scrooge McDuck is, in many ways, the ultimate capitalist, conservative hero. He is "self-made," rising from poverty-stricken immigrant to richest duck in the world entirely through his own efforts (or so, thanks to the utter invisibility of all but a few of his employees, we are led to believe). In the present, we see him already colossally wealthy, his business empire functioning apparently with little input from him while he gallivants about the globe having adventures and hunting for treasure, creating the impression that his wealth still comes from his own efforts; in flashbacks he is depicted young and poor, working hard and alone to earn his original fortune. Glossed over in between are the long years (almost a century!) between the Klondike Gold Rush and the present of the series, during which he must have grown his business empire in the usual way--hiring workers to produce products or provide services, charging customers more for those products and services than it costs to provide them, paying the workers less than the customers are paying, and using the resulting profits to expand into new areas, promote the business, and so forth. This is undoubtedly what Scrooge means when he (repeatedly) insists that he made his money "square": He kept his promises, abided by his contracts, and did not overtly lie to his customers and employees, which is to say he followed the ethical standards of business.

McDuck is depicted as strict, judgmental, quick to anger, slow to pity, convinced he has attained his fortune by being "smarter than the smarties and tougher than the toughies." In other words, he sees his wealth as proof of innate superiority, and Ducktales is by and large happy to support this view of himself; Scrooge McDuck is simply stronger and harder, a duck above and apart from the rest of the world's people, and his lack of compassion and charitable impulse is depicted as a quirk, a comedic flaw that doesn't actually impede him or make him less likeable.

Ducktales' success caused Warner Bros. to create its own syndicated cartoons in co-production with Amblin, which in turn caused Ted Turner's fledgling Cartoon Network (founded basically to give him something to do with the large libraries of classic cartoons he'd just bought) to start pursuing original programming, which in turn begat the career of Lauren Faust and, ultimately, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.

And now it's January 28, 2012. The top movie is Liam Neeson vehicle The Grey, and the top song is still "We Found Love" by Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris. In the news, the Syrian civil war continues to rage, the national state of emergency in Egypt is dropped just shy of a year after the revolution began, and the city of Oakland arrests 200 Occupy protestors.

On TV, we have yet another Applejack episode, M.A. Larson's "The Super-Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000," directed by James Wootton. The episode quickly became very popular, primarily because of its very fun, catchy, complex song (also called "The Super-Speedy cider Squeezy 6000,"), modeled heavily on The Music Man, though commenting fans more often recognized it as reminiscent of "Monorail" from The Simpsons. Both of those possible homages are songs that start as a con man giving his pitch, and evolve into crowd songs as the assembled townsfolk fall for it, and the song in this episode is no different, though it adds the twist of having two con men, brothers, whose different vocal ranges and tendency to finish each other's lines make the song more complex and possibly even catchier.

The Flim-Flam Brothers are most definitely liars, cheats, and frauds, that much is clear from their facial expressions during the songs, their names (flim-flam is a term meaning "deception, trickery, nonsense,") and the fact that they switch identities: at about the 5:30 mark of the episode, the brother with the lower voice and mustache says "He's Flim," and the higher-pitched, clean-shaven brother says "He's Flam"; after they've got the town mostly convinced, at about the 8:30 mark, the clean-shaven pony says "He's Flim" and the other says "He's Flam." But what's deeply odd about this episode is that their actual plan involves them telling the truth and keeping their promises--at no point do they engage in anything Scrooge wouldn't consider "square."

Their initial offer seems to be completely legitimate: they have a machine that can produce cider much more quickly and efficiently than the Apples can, and offer to make the cider for the Apples in exchange for three-quarters of the takings. Applejack rejects this offer, because she's afraid the Apples will no longer be able to make enough money from cider sales to keep their farm going. The next day, Flim and Flam show up with the cider they made in their demonstration the previous day and start selling it to the ponies who didn't get any Apple family cider. An argument ensues over whether the Flim-Flam Brothers should be allowed to sell it, since it's made from Apple family apples, and ultimately they hold a competition for sole rights to sell apple cider in Ponyville.

To this point, from a modern, Western, capitalist perspective, Applejack appears to be entirely in the wrong and a terrible businesswoman to boot. She has failed to provide enough cider, and rather than try to make more by hiring temporary workers, or reduce demand by raising prices, she is artificially attempting to suppress competition and block the introduction of new, more efficient techology for cider-making. The story shifts from The Music Man to John Henry, and we know how that ends, with technology triumphant and our hero crushed by the grinding gears that drive the inevitable march of progress.

But Applejack brings in her friends. She begins making cider faster and faster, and the Flim-Flam Brothers abandon their quality controls to win the contest. This is the key moment of the episode, when Rainbow Dash (as always our voice of modernity and cynicism) suggests that the Apples do likewise, and Applejack refuses. The Flim-Flam Brothers win the contest, but after the townsfolk taste their cider, they're driven out of town, and thanks to the contest there's enough Apple family cider for everyone.

At no point do the Flim-Flam Brothers lie. At no point do they cheat or steal or break a promise. Under the rules of business ethics they have done nothing wrong. And yet as I said their introductory musical number depicts them as con men, and the episode as a whole is clearly structured with them as villains. This moment is the reason why: Because unlike Applejack, they are good at business, and as such they are completely willing to sacrifice quality (or anything else) at a moment's notice. They are rational in the economic sense, willing to do what it takes to get what they want, and what they want is to make money and to win.

Put another way: Applejack is a farmer who uses money as a means to maintain her farm, to the end of producing products such as cider. The Flim-Flam Brothers are businessmen who use cider as a means to make money. They are alienated from the product of their work (and yes, I am aware of the irony that this is not only despite but because they own the means of production), caring neither about its quality nor the happiness of their customers so long as they can get money out of it. Remember again Scrooge's invisible army of employees, the fact that he never seems to engage with the actual work his businesses do, but rather goes off to microscopically increase his wealth with treasure hunts that take weeks and probably do not involve more than a couple of million in profit per trip, a fraction of a percent of what a single large-scale contract could earn him, and contrast to this Applejack, who gets her hands dirty, who values her creation not for what it can get her, not so that she can swim in a big bin of money, but because it is, in itself, a thing of value and worth.

The villainy of the Flim-Flam Brothers is that they value nothing for itself, only for what it can get them. They are the essence of capitalism, the price of setting a price for everything--a core assumption of capitalism is that everything has a monetary value and can be substituted for something else of equal monetary value, so there exists some quantity of potatoes worth giving up all your dreams for. So of course, in the end, we cannot have the moral spelled out for us. We must have Applejack simply declare that she learned nothing, because she really did know it all along, as we all do: business ethics aren't ethical. Honesty alone is not enough to be good; it must bring in its friends, such as kindness and generosity and loyalty and laughter--it must involve compassion, caring about what you're doing--to balance itself.

The fundamental difference between Equestria and our world is not magic, it's not the talking animals, it's not even the filter of self-censorship necessary in making a show for children. It is simply that in our world, the Flim-Flam Brothers are in charge.

Next Week: A less depressing episode, as Rainbow Dash is temporarily crippled in an accident and utterly cut off from everything she loves.


  1. Well, that's a singularly depressing (and, I would say, unnecessarily negative) take on capitalism. Rather than say "there is some amount of potatoes worth giving up your dreams for" I would note that a lot of dreams would happen if an arbitrarily large amount of money were to be thrown at them. Want to climb Mount Everest? Feed a million poor people? Cause the R&D of some drug that isn't being made due to it not being profitable? Money can make it happen! Money is sometimes used as a poor substitute for other things, true, but don't forget that in a capitalist society, money can also solve most problems. Our real problem is not money, but an absence of the will to solve problems.

    "A core assumption of capitalism is that everything has a monetary value and can be substituted for something else" - that's actually fungibility, an assumption in Economics. Capitalism happens with or without economic theory; it just happens to be more self-aware and self-referencing when economics are involved. It is not necessary to take an extreme position on fungibility ("everything for a price") to be a monetary capitalist and say that some things need to be priced ("I should probably set a price for my apples so that I can take money and exchange that for other goods, without having to barter all the time with people who may or may not like apples.")

    The contest itself is rather absurd; if the number of workers is variable then what we have is not pitting a set amount of capital in machine form vs. a set amount of capital in worker form, but rather a set amount of capital in machine form vs. the efforts of an arbitrary, escalating number of workers. This is not Gary Kasparov vs. Deep Blue but an expanding society of chessmasters vs. Deep Blue. If anything, Applejack is the superior capitalist because she won the contest by throwing more capital at it! The lesson seems to be not that business ethics aren't ethical, but that relationships matter tremendously in business. (I would argue that in abandoning quality standards, the Flim Flam brothers produce a substantially different product, and so there IS an ethics violation there.)

    1. I was about to say the same thing about their changing the product and how that is a lie and a violation of business ethics. It is a thing that a capitalist approach to money can lead people to do, but which they shouldn't do. It is no more acceptable within the framework of business ethics than burglary is within the framework of society in general, just easier to get away with.

  2. I remember the Big Three of Disney afternoons: DuckTales, Rescue Rangers, and TaleSpin. For me, the Rescue Rangers were the ones I was most obsessed with. Primarily because of Gadget Hackwrench, of course.

    *ahem* onto the MLP episode.

    You know, the first time I watched this episode, I thought it was going to turn out that the SSCS6K was a dud rigged to fall apart the instant Flim and Flam had gotten paid for it and skipped town. I was so glad they went with this as the moral instead.

  3. Like moritheil, I also disagree with the statement "there is some amount of potatoes worth giving up your dreams for". However, coming at it from an economic perspective, I disagree with it for different reasons. In particular, it conflates monetary value with utility and neglects diminishing marginal value.

    In the orthodox microeconomic frameworks, there is no guarantee that an arbitrarily large stash of potatoes can obtain a value-to-an-individual (that is, an individual utility) larger that the utility associated with that individual's "dreams".

    The classic illustration is the value/utility of water to a man dying of dehydration in a desert. A flask of water may be the difference between life and death, so the dying man would value an offered flask of water very highly indeed. A second flask may give him some greater likelihood of reaching the edge of the desert, so that would be highly valued too, though perhaps not as much as the first flask. Certainly, the twentieth flask is not nearly so valuable -- he now has enough water to safely exit the desert, but perhaps he can trade the water for some food at the end, or trade it with another dehydrated soul in exchange for food or simple companionship. The hundredth flask is essentially worthless, as his rucksack is now overflowing with flasks and so he must leave it where he stands (though he may one day return to retrieve it, perhaps on another ill-advised desert adventure).

    This is called diminishing marginal utility (though you probably already knew that). Potatoes certainly exhibit the property: in the limit, the value of each extra potato approaches 0. So it certainly can be the case that an infinite pile of potatoes is worth less that one's dreams.

    You can look at this from the other direction too: our hypothetical potato monopolist might be able to sell the first few potatoes at a grand price (because Filthy Rich wants him some chips and he wants them now!) but there's ultimately only so many potatoes a pony will stomach, and only so many ponies in the world. Eventually no one will have any desire for more potatoes and our potato monopolist will be left with the world's largest heap of compost (now also a glut commodity!)

    I was originally headed towards another point (something more directly related to your article, Froborr, I'm sure) but my mind's eye so longer sees anything but myriad potatoes. Perhaps I'll come back later.

  4. McDuck's wealth was the result of his magic lucky dime, without which he lost everything, was it not?

    The element-of-dishonesty of F&F is that they present themselves as traveling salesponies but then offer the product on a rental basis.

    (Begins to type long graf about rent-seeking behaviour, Ayn Rand's imaginary arete-based capitalists, wanders off wondering what Lambert Strether's cutie mark would be...)

    1. The meaning of the Number One Dime is one of those things that varies with the writer and the take. Some treat it as an amulet that's directly responsible for his fortune; at the other end of the spectrum is Don Rosa, who wrote the by-most-accounts definitive Scrooge McDuck story The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, and who had Scrooge actively deride the idea that it's "lucky", and explained that its value is purely sentimental: it's the first thing he earned, and the way he earned it--he charged five pence for the job, and was given an essentially useless American dime instead--taught him that he needed to be "tougher than the toughies and sharper than the sharpies". A lot of stories are somewhere between the two extremes, suggesting that its power is akin to Dumbo's magic feather: a placebo which then causes McDuck to make mistakes when missing.

      Speaking of Life and Times, which is the closest thing to an canonical McDuck biography (it's not because there's no such thing as a Duck canon, and writers have historically free to choose what elements they wish to adapt and discard when working on stories) it used details suggested by McDuck creator Carl Barks (which is why it made its way to DuckTales) to establish that the foundation for the McDuck fortune was gold mined in the Klondike--after two decades of failed ventures and poverty--which he then successfully invested. While the story makes it clear that his work ethic played a huge role in his success, it is equally clear in establishing that he didn't do it alone, and that he had plenty of guides and friends along the way (Teddy Roosevelt, for one).

      The decades between McDuck's initial success and "present day" (1947) are considered his dark ages, as he proceeds to increasingly become the pure capitalist and bootstraps apologist Froborr describes, which has the result of isolating him from his family and turning him into Charles Foster Kane, which is how he remains until meeting Donald Duck and entering the treasure-seeking adventurer phase of his life. That part of the story attempts to draw a line, saying that McDuck always "followed the ethical standards of business", except for That One Time, but the line eventually ends up being set on a rather arbitrary place, with "buying a diamond mine for a quarter" (technically not dishonest) in one place and "hiring thugs to burn down a Congolese village in order to coerce the villagers into selling their land" on the other. While present-day stories argue that he is no longer the sort of person that would do the latter, the fact that the former isn't considered equally condemnable makes this posts assessment's more accurate than I'd like it to be, at least if we talk about that particular version.

  5. I find it funny that this is the episode in which Applejack "didn't learn anything", because there's any number of things she did wrong. No, she didn't have anything to learn about friendship, but in more practical matters? Lots. Aside from her failure to adapt to supply or demand in the supply OR price categories, as you said, she also failed to negotiate with potential business partners.

    Applejack actually had a deceptively good bargaining position; she controlled all the supply of apples in Ponyville, but was capable of producing the end product in smaller quantities by herself, so if they didn't meet her halfway they'd be forced to find another town while she'd continue making money. And finding another town could be tricky since she probably has a lot of sway with the clearly wide-spread Apple Clan. Combine that with the obvious differences in labor between her end and their end, and she probably should have countered their opening offer with a 3/4 split in the other direction. (This is leaving aside the fact that BOTH sides would have been very well served to find somewhere more private to have their negotiations, mind you, lest the customers accuse either or both of intentionally restraining the supply of cider should it fall through; that's neither here nor there though).

    But that's not what she did. Because the cider machine wasn't part of their current business model, the Apples stonewalled the brothers. They did this even when they couldn't say with a straight face that their product was any worse than the Apples' after a taste-test. Escalating things to a contest probably wasn't smart on either side, given as I stated above Applejack's bargaining standpoint and the fact that she could also cut them off from a lot of other suppliers if so inclined. But even if she'd just sent them away, "opportunity" came up and waved its hand in Applejack's face, and she didn't answer.

  6. I'd just like to point out that Scrooge is redeemed for his greed by repeated acts of charity and philanthropy. We see him build hospitals, bridges, and libraries. He keeps his jobs local, and reinvests in the economy. And while he goes on these ridiculous trips, he also never takes things that are vital or unique to an indigenous people. This altruism and compassion means that while he is a capitalist, he's far more socially conscious and responsible than most people remember him as.

    To the numerous people complaining about AJ's business acumen: this is a craft brewed product. It is definitely a high value item, due to it's scarcity. If it was plentiful and always available then would it retain it's value? I some how doubt it.

    It's only a dour take on capitalism if you believe that a free market is the best form of economic system.

  7. Nobody's mentioned that Scrooge McDuck was the creation of Carl Barks, the "Good Duck Artist" of the comic books. Barks, like Scrooge, held many different jobs before settling on his life's work; he stuck to a punishing schedule, even past the age where many would retire. Some of his creations, e.g. the Terries and Fermies, made it into DuckTales pretty much intact.

    Regarding the Flim Flam Brothers – they finish the episode still owning their machine and with the knowledge that cutting corners is counter-productive; there's nothing to keep them from going to the next town and starting over. (Except that the apple farmers in the next town might be Applejack's kin, something I admit hadn't occurred to me.)

    We aren't told anything about the provenance of the Super-Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000. Some reviewers have suggested that the Flim Flam Brothers are also its inventors, and that they should stick to the tech side of things. One major flag against that: The song says that they're "The World-Famous Flim Flam Brothers," followed by "Traveling Sales Ponies Nonpareil." Not "Inventors Extraordinaire" or "Technicians Supreme" or anything like that. The skill they're most proud of is salesmanship. Who knows? Perhaps they've only got the SSCS6K on commission.

  8. Scrooge McDuck represented the sort of large-scale American industrialism that was actually in severe decline by the 1980s. He was a nostalgic figure by then, and had little in common with the junk-bond traders the decade is remembered for.

    I am under the impression that Flim & Flam acquired the machine in some shady business deal, and did not really understand how to use it from a business perspective, or even a driving-down-the-road perspective. They simply went about their usual way of hyping up their product-of-the-week and then trying to charge whatever they they thought they could get away with.

  9. There actually was a point where the Brothers were dishonest: when they tried to take the farm and evict the Apples; that was never part of the deal, which was solely about the cider monopoly. After the contest, even if FF's cider were still good, and they weren't run out of town, the Apples still should have been able to negotiate a decent outcome as their suppliers.


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