A few weeks back a friend of mine recommended that I watched Zeitgeist, a documentary that I later found out was pretty much just a potpourri of most of the larger, current conspiracy theories. Although I thought the movie was quite poor, I did enjoy the opportunity to watch it and apply critical thinking to many of the claims made. You can read that review and analysis here if you haven’t already seen it.
Well, the makers of that film are back, and they’ve put out the sequel, Zeitgeist Addendum. This time a different friend recommended the movie to me, in a mass e-mail. Now, let’s cover some things off right at the start. I hate mass e-mails telling me to do something. They raise an immediate warning flag, simply because of the consistency with which the claims that seem to get forwarded around are completely fallacious and pseudoscientific. At least my friend apologized for the mass e-mail, but… that doesn’t get you off the hook. I wrote him back and asked him what he thought about the first movie, and why this one would be different. His response was that Addendum offered a possible solution to the problems that are put forward in the film. Well, let’s find out how well that holds up to scrutiny. Cock one eyebrow, clench your teeth, and read on..
The movie starts out using many of the same techniques we’ve come to know from the first movie. Compelling music is played over top of, clips from random speeches. The editing and production, as before, are done well, which is important whenever you want to get your message out there, regardless of how valid your message may actually be. This is definitely one of the positives about the movie.
The first attack begins with an unstated major premise as the movie starts talking about how monetary policies have reached religious proportions, and represent unregistered interests of a great majority of the population. The unstated premise here is that the majority of the population has the knowledge, or even the desire, to really drive something as gnarly and complex as the economy. There is no doubt that many of us would like to see our country’s economy run properly, but that does not necessarily mean that we would be adding value by simplistically letting the public, for the most part uneducated in finance and economics, steer this machine.
The film tells us that economics are generally viewed with boredom and confusion (as are many other disciplines that require expertise and specialization to fully understand, such as physics, chemistry, biology, etc.). We are told that “The complexity of economics is a mask designed to conceal the most socially paralyzing structures humanity has ever endured”. Unfortunately, this really doesn’t reflect reality. Anyone that has spent any time looking into the latest financial crisis understands that the complexity is absolutely baked in to something that represents the sum total of all of the interactions and exchanges that make up our existence. Imagine every single way that you spend money throughout the day. All of these exchanges. Now imagine that amount being multiplied out to the whole population, and then try to convince yourself that tracking, accounting for and managing that mess doesn’t need to be complex. Hmm.
The film then enters into a half-baked explanation of how new money is injected into the economy, including a discussion of how US treasury bonds are created, and how they add towards inflation. I say this explanation is half-baked because it misses a lot of the finer details. This is not my area of expertise, and I don’t want to get bogged down trying to explain the process. However, the conspiracy skeptic has already done an excellent job analyzing these kind of claims and the whole money is debt angle (the main proponent of moving away from a money-based system is the republican senator Ron Paul). I highly recommend his review here.
The film covers some more ground, now approaching the topic of inflation, and implying that is solely a consequence of introducing more money into the system. Although this is definitely one of the prime causes, there are certainly other factors, such as changes in the real demand for goods and services, or changes in available supplies such as during scarcities. For more information, read the Wikipedia article on the subject. Needless to say, this is just one of the many over-simplified explanations that Addendum applys to complicated problems.
Addendum then takes a whacky (false) premise, and bulldozes forward with a ludicrous argument that hinges on that premise being true (which it isn’t): Since all of the money that banks create is counterfeit and not real, (this claim is based on one court case many years back), the money that you borrow for credit cards and mortgages is invalid, and so is your debt.
The movie confuses economic policy that applies on different scales and attempts to discredit one model with the other – this is a fallacious approach, and it’s not surprising that the makers have reached some of the conclusions that they have. At the macroeconomic scale, money is created out of debt, and then Addendum flips this to apply that notion of debt to the microeconomic model, focusing on people. This leads us to faulty statements like “Because money is entirely based on debt, people do what they always do to alleviate debt. They work”. Wait a second here. We work to get paid and earn money. This money then becomes ours. Trying to take the macroeconomic model and apply that to microeconomics is a fallacious approach. Addendum is far from the first documentary to mix up the scales of different models, another example being the fallacious reasoning that the movie What the bleep do we know? used to try and apply what occurs at the level of quantum mechanics to our macroscopic world. This poor line of reasoning earned them a pigasus award for being the media outlet that “reported as factual the most outrageous supernatural, paranormal, or occult claims”.
There’s one discussions about using economics to get a hold of foreign assets, and manipulate economies for our own gains. This is certainly reasonable, and we see things like hostile takeovers, economic sanctions, and trade embargos being used on the global scale to affect the kind of change that a country feels will benefit them the most. However, we need to be careful not to commit the fallacy of the slippery slope here, like Addendum does. Affecting economics to some degree does not imply that we can completely control or steer its course. Economies are very tricky things, and in many ways represent an emergent property of millions of individuals doing what they can to make money, and earn a living. You can only predict things like this to a certain extent.
Now we are treated to a very long interview with some guy dubbed an “economic hitman” talking about assasination plots, etc. He uses many terms that throw up red flags like “lots of weird stuff was going on”, and “There’s no question that this person was assasinated”. These throw up flags because we’re not given any context or sources to back this up. Why was it no question? Is that his opinion? Was it actually investigated and determined that was the case? If so, why didn’t he mention that? A lot of weird things happening coincidentally are not sufficient evidence for us to assume that they are in fact related to each other. That being said, it’s important to understand that I’m not saying they were not related, just that we do not yet have sufficient evidence to make that conclusion. Remember, a good skeptic always withholds judgement until there is sufficient evidence to support it.
The movie is intertwined with many of the same cheesy techniques from the previous movie to push us towards the agenda that Zeitgeist wants us to buy into, such as showing scenes from a movie that have someone making their points for them, without citing where this is from. This has the effect of leading us to believe that we are watching someone actually state a fact consistent with Zeitgeit’s agenda, but that is in fact just a scene from a movie, and not really sufficient evidence of anything. It’s subtle, and sneaky. Remember, before you allow yourself to just take what you’re being told in a documentary at face value, make sure you can at least determine what the source is.
Addendum tells us that the word terrorist is an empty term, and Al Qaida is made up. We’ve already covered off terrorism in my previous review of Zeitgeist, so let’s leave this for now. We can all agree that the United States’ administration has used the 9/11 terrorist attacks for a great deal of wrongdoing, but this does not mean that terrorism does not exist, or that the term is empty. Fortunately though, the film and I agree on something – the states are spending a ton of money on preventing terrorism (which has even lead to some ridiculous things like someone working for the TSA stealing over $47,000 worth of high-tech equipment from passengers), an event that may occur, rather than funnel that money into something like resistant-tuberculosis or diabetes research, both diseases that definitely are killing lots of people on a daily basis.
The movie now provides us with its own perceived truism, that efficiency, abundance and sustainability are enemies of profit. This is very simplistic. To some extent, it is true that scarcity is an enemy of profit. If you can limit supply, then the demand for the product will allow you to charge more. However, for items that have a fixed price, a large number of competitors, or numerous other situations, this model does not hold true. Artificially changing the supply or prices can also backfire on you. In decades past, when cigarettes were being smoked with great frequency, the large corporations selling them got together and agreed to raise the prices together, and thus inflate the price artificially. However, this backfired when it made room for new companies to enter the market and sell their products at a cheaper price to consumers. They grabbed marketshare from the big companies, and the larger companies realized that they would not be able to increase their profits with this technique.
Incidentally, this natural balancing is part of what led many economists to believe in the laissez-faire economic policies that have now led us to where we are. Additionally, efficiency may help lead to an abundance if you can create and extract your product faster and sell it at a consistent price, thus making more profit. If that isn’t an option, you could theoretically create your product at a faster speed, and then warehouse it, in order to avoid having too much supply. Lastly, you could take the additional time and resources you now find yourself with and put that towards investing in different avenues for gain. The claim that these things are enemies of profit really is based on a fairly sophomoric understanding of the way things work. As usual, this approach is immediately appealing because it makes sense on an intuitive level. However, as soon as you start to look into it, you can see that these assertions fall apart.
A resource-based economy is advocated for in the movie. However, I don’t really understand why the movie feels that this would be a solution. Watching further, we are treated to the talking head (Jacque Fresco) they’ve had on for the last forty-five minutes or so that we don’t need petroleum, we don’t need electricity. This is a facile statement. We don’t technically need anything other than food and water. However, our economy and our society have evolved to make use of these resources. Just because we don’t tecnically need them doesn’t mean that we could just stop using them outright and everything would be fine. As awareness of the problems caused by over-use of these resources becomes greater, we are starting to see people make a shift away from this lifestyle. However, just like you can’t change your own habits overnight, society and governments require time, patience, and focus in order to affect large-scale changes.
Next we’re told that abundant alternative sources of energies already exist, and could easily be used and replace our current models. This is fallacious. There are many barriers to entry for making switches to alternative sources of energy. The least of which is that petroleum is an efficient source of energy that has been packed together over the course of millions of years. Yes, it is damaging to the environment, and yes, it is not a renewable resource. However, that does not change the fact that it is very cost-effective, and relatively cheap for us to extract and make use of the product. Switching to alternative resources requires setting up a supply chain to extract, process and delivery these resources (this in itself is a large undertaking, and requires a large amount of time to complete). We also need to have a good financial reason to do this, because, ultimately, we are selfish creatures. It’s not because companies want to make a quick buck (even though they would love to).
If companies went through all of this effort to create alternative fuel sources, and then started to sell it, they would likely have to sell it for a higher price per unit than they can petroleum. Why? Well, to start with, because petroleum is easy and efficient. Additionally, economies of scale dictate that the massive supply chain that already exists for petroleum means that it is even cheaper to extract and distribute than is our new and burgeoning resources. If you are presented with paying X for one energy, or twice that amount for a different energy, which are you going to choose. Maybe you will say now that you would do it for the environment and pay more, but history and human nature have shown us that this is wishful thinking, and that we will ultimately move towards using whatever will allow us to accomplish our goals for the least amount of money.
Solar energy is another resource mentioned, which is definitely an option. However, the claim is made that there are many advanced mediums today that can harness one-hundred percent of the sun’s energy, or a significant amount, and would be valid if they did not need to compete with existing energy sources on the market. This is true, but what does that mean? That theoretically we could just wipe out oil from the map, stop using it completely, and then use sun? The reason that these technologies are not able to get mainstream acceptance yet because of this competition is because they are too expensive to be feasible. Only time and further research will help us bring that cost down. Ending the use of oil outright will not lower the price of these technologies. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.
Zeitgeist Addendum tell us that as technology grows, the need for human labour will diminish. This claim is made by the movie, which then states that based on this, the notion of the monetary based labour system is a fraud. This is pretty silly, and once again, is a simplisitic view of the way things. If you look at history, technology does in fact remove a large number of jobs for humans, and, then creates new jobs in other areas. Computers have removed the necessity for a large number of filing jobs that were filled in the past, however, this new industry has created new jobs, and that is now the reason we have people like me working in software.
Another simplistic claim: Without money, the majority of the crimes created today would not occur. A lot of us worry about crime, and wish that it didn’t need to be there. However, I think that many of us understand that it is a necessary evil that comes with change, technology, and growth. As we as humans continue to grow up, we also must accept new responsibility that comes with that growth. Removing money will not change the fact that people can be greedy, hateful, spiteful, passionate, and will disagree with one another. To assume that taking money out of our society will end the majority of crime is to pull the wool over your eyes and ignore our own shortcomings.
We’ve listened to Jacque Fresco talk on and on for quite some time now. He has a lot of naive ideas that he and the makers of this movie obviously thing are worth your time, but I haven’t heard anything yet that gave me the confidence that his vision is tempered with realism. Here’s an example: “You see a sign on the highway that says slippery when wet. Instead of the sign, put abrasive surface on the highway, so that the car doesn’t slip when it gets wet”. These are the sort of statements that most of us will make from time to time when we don’t have the domain knowledge that experts in their fields do. This example is a pretty simple solution, don’t you think? Is it possible that there is a reason that this isn’t currently done, given how simple it is? Some people may choose to jump to the conclusion of “Because the government doesn’t care about its people”, but maybe there’s a simpler explanation, such as “We tried that, but it ended up wearing down people’s tires faster and causing more accidents”. Listening to this guy talk just doesn’t convince me that he’s tethered his optimism to the reality that we live in.
Another problem here is the claims that removing money from the equation means that people would just start being generous. People have been bartering since as long as we have lived in a social system. The monetary system just provides a way for us to have a universal item of barter for which we can then provide that to anyone. We could remove money from the equation, but you’re still going to need to barter for goods and services. You’ll just find it an awful lot less convenient if you don’t have something I need, when you need something from me. Many of these ideas fall short because of the fact that they rely on an idealized vision of how human’s interact with one another, much like extreme forms of communism do.
Woo, we were just told by the movie what success is. This is a fairly patronizing and condescending thing to do, since the entire notion of success is really subjective to the individual. Using the film’s own definition of success to push its agenda doesn’t really add much to the mix. We end this section with more obnoxious stand-up comedy, like they used in the first one. Again, a semi-subtle way of bashing the opposing view without actually having to back that up with any evidence.
The next bit strikes me as quite interesting – hypnotic imagery is shown on screen as narratives are played at us. This is mostly interesting because it seems fairly sneaky. If I was making a film complaining about people being treated as sheep, and how they had the wool pulled over their eyes, I would try to stay true to my own message, and avoid using tricks like this (regardless of whether or not they actually have any net effect).
Zeitgeist ends with a proposed solution, which includes a lot of gems, and by gems, I mean foolsgold. Some of these are boycotting large banks by moving your banking and credit cards to other banks. Again, this is simplistic, and completely misses how complicated and intertwined everything in the economy is. The next advice I partially agree with: turn off mainstream TV news, the notion being that these are partisan and controlled by corporations. I only partially agree because it’s important to listen to all sides of an argument (hey, I’m sitting through the second Zeitgeist movie here, so at least I’m following my own advice). Just make sure you get your news from multiple locations and sources, and you will be sure that you are receiving an accurate portrayal of what is really going on.
Another item is to boycott the military. Again, this is very simplistic (do you see a trend here?) – war is no doubt a negative thing, but is it something that we can just walk away from, or is it simply part of the human condition? It is also false to believe war does not bring any benefit, as a large amount of innovation (nuclear power for example) has come from war efforts. I’m not in favour of war myself, and am a pacifist. However, that doesn’t mean that I am naive enough to believe that simply boycotting the military altogether would actually achieve the proposed ends.
The last solution is to join Zeitgeist’s movement. I would advocate against doing this, for the reasons that I have listen above. In short, I don’t think this is a very well thought-out or well-researched movement. If you want to make a difference, do things by acting locally to solve a lot of these problems, such as reducing the amount of waste you create on a daily basis, reducing the amount that you drive, and eliminating your debt. Act locally, but think globally. Joining the Zeitgeist Movement is not going to really achieve anything. But don’t take my word for it.. Do your own research and determine how you can best affect the positive change that you want to see in the world around you.
Thoe movie ends with a cheesy cinematic showing a bunch of people getting fed up and throwing down the trappings of their everyday life, and then as soon as they’ve done this, the world becomes shiny and colored. It’s cute rhetoric, but again, doesn’t really teach us anything, and is simply used as a way to push your towards the maker’s own agenda.
The biggest problem with Zeitgeist Addendum is how simplisitic it’s approach, questions, and proposed answers all are. Every analysis looks only at the very surface, and then draws assumptions based on that. When I was young, I always used tell my dad that if I was in a car falling off a cliff, I would wait until the last minute, and then just jump out of the car. My thinking was that the car was falling, I would just get up and jump out. It’s not until we grow older, and learn about gravity, how we are also falling with the car, and why you cannot jump up to just negate your momentum, that you understand how simplisitic your perceived view was. Unfortunately, the makers of Zeitgeist have never taken the time to look any deeper than these initial naive conclusions. There is a reason that we have specialists in fields, and that is because those fields are very complex. It is understandable for people to look at our economy and want to blame economists, but honestly, they are human, just like us, and they want what is best for themselves, their friends, and their family as well. They know their stuff, and they know it well, and they will gladly try and explain to you how the economy works, and why it is so complex. It’s too bad that the makers of this movie never really sat down and talked to enough of them.
On a positive note, I must admit that I’m quite impressed with how a good a job the producers of the movie did with what I assume is a limited budget. The production on the documentary is good, and it definitely makes the movie easier to watch. However, the unfortunate part of this is that someone has clearly spent a lot of time and effort to put forth such a misguided effort. In that regard the movie is a little bit saddening, as the people have their hearts in the right place (a desire to affect positive social change), but have been let down by our educational system. If we really want to see positive change in the long run, the hope lies in our education system. How can you help towards that effort? Spend the time to research claims that are presented to you (thoroughly), and be willing to offer alternative explanations to people that strike you as misguided in their thinking. Help encourage skepticism and critical thinking, rather than condescending and stomping on other people’s beliefs, and above all, act locally to affect the positive change that you want to see in the world around you.
Annnnnd, now I scrub my hard-drive clean of this movie.