Friday, June 3, 2016

Basic Income (Or "Why Don't We Just Give Everyone Money?")

This Sunday, Switzerland will be voting on a concept called "basic income".

If passed, this new law would guarantee that all citizens of Switzerland would receive about 2500 Swiss francs every month, no questions asked. FiveThirtyEight estimates this as being about the equivalent of $2000 in the US if adjusted for cost of living, and while Nikki Sixx apparently disagrees with this assessment (check the comments of the article), $2000 a month seems like a workable income in the U.S., so I'm rolling with it. Anyway, this payout would be given regardless of income, regardless of employment, regardless of family status, regardless of anything except age and citizenship. Every adult citizen gets enough money to live a reasonably comfortable life.

Now before you go all, "Switzerland must be CRAZY!" you should know that this measure won't pass. When it goes up to vote this Sunday, polls are showing that about 70% of voters will say "no", and the reasons are fairly obvious. Higher taxes, less incentive to work, it's a largely untested idea in the first place... Yeah, the world probably isn't ready for this idea.

But ready or not, is basic income an inherently bad idea, or could it work?

For starters, this idea probably sounds a lot like communism, but that's not quite the case. This would only be communism if this was the only income anyone would ever receive or if it could only be spent on government-approved necessities or something. But all the government would do here is collect taxes and write checks. A person holding a job would still take home their paycheck (minus whatever new taxes were put in place), but then they'd receive another $2000 on top of that each month. So capitalism would still be the name of the game. People who put in the extra work would still be better off than those who don't and the government isn't controlling who gets what income and what they can spend it on. It's just money being funneled through the federal government and going to every citizen (and only citizens, not immigrants who have yet to earn full citizenship).

But communism aside, there are the more obvious problems that we touched on. Higher taxes is the first issue, but let's really figure out what that would mean. I'm not even going to attempt to understand the Switzerland tax system, so I'll apply this based on U.S. tax and revenue. In the U.S., we would need about $7 trillion more each year in tax revenue to pay each adult American citizen $2000 every month. So in other words, it would literally double our current annual federal budget. How much would we need to tax to make that happen? I'm not a tax expert, but just for the sake of argument, let's see what would probably have to happen. Well, let's start by saying that this new system would replace most other need-based social welfare programs like food stamps or what have you, but not programs like Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. We could roll health care into one single payer system (maybe that's pie-in-the-sky, but we're already talking about basic income, so I doubt single payer would be a stretch) and that would eliminate the burden on employers and individuals to pay health care premiums. The main reason I'm keeping Social Security is because people paid into it and they should probably get what they paid in. We could probably phase it out, but it would take a generation, so I won't account for it to help pay for basic income. Anyway, eliminating the other welfare programs would save us about $400 billion annually, which still leaves us with $6.6 trillion that we need to raise. Let's also say that we revert tax breaks for investment income to bring that down to a rounder $6 trillion. Then let's say we find ways to close loopholes and such to make sure corporations and the wealthiest Americans are actually paying the taxes they should be paying (easier said than done, I know, but this is just a thought experiment, so let's go with it). It's hard to know how much that would actually save us, but let's say we get the one-percenters and their corporations to cough up another $2 trillion tax revenue annually, bringing us down to $4 trillion.

To make this slightly less awful for corporations, we could also probably lower or abolish the federal minimum wage. After all, we wouldn't really need it anymore. That combined with no longer having to provide health care to employees would make it a lot cheaper to hire people for smaller, part-time positions.

Anyway, the remaining $4 trillion would be roughly half of our current taxable income each year. Yikes. Well, let's just say that income tax brackets across the board increase by 50% for everyone. Not a flat tax of 50%, but increase all the tax bracket rates by 50%. For example, income taxed in the 35% bracket would instead have 85% deducted. It's extreme, but $4 trillion is a lot of money and this is pretty much the only way we could realistically generate enough revenue to pay for it.

So what would this increase in taxes mean for most working Americans? Speaking for myself, I'd be paying about something like another $30,000 each year in federal income tax.

That sounds terrible, but considering that I'd be making $24,000 a year from basic income, that means I'd be losing about $500 a month. That would suck, but I could manage it. I was able to manage having that level of income a few years ago, so I could probably do it again. I'd just have to buy fewer video games and less snack food, mostly. That said, I do have a bonus, which is that I have a girlfriend. She's unemployed, so she would pay no additional taxes, but she'd get the $2000/month basic income as well, so we'd actually be way better off in this system.

You could say that this unfairly targets the wealthy, but everyone gets the basic income and everyone's tax rates would be increased equally across the board. I'd say that's the very definition of fairness.

It would also mean that lower income individuals would make even less from their jobs than they do now, particularly if we got rid of the minimum wage, but the basic income would more than make up for it. If you make $14,000 a year as a barista, you'd suddenly be making closer to $30,000 a year without needing to negotiate a pay raise or go full time.

And that brings us to the next big obvious problem with basic income, and that's whether or not this would disincentivize work. And yeah, it probably would. I mean, if you can live off $24000 a year and you don't feel like you need more than that, you probably won't want to work.

Well, what's wrong with that? I'm serious. Other than some arbitrary measure of "fairness", I can't really think of a good reason why everyone in this nation should have to do paid work to earn a living, especially when millions of Americans are trying to find jobs and can't.

Hear me out.

We have way more people than jobs, and as we improve technology and operating efficiency year after year, we'll probably continue to have fewer jobs and more and more people as our population keeps increasing.

A common attitude (particularly in America) is that a person shouldn't get something for nothing. They should have to work in order to receive an income. Otherwise they're a burden on society.

Maybe I'm crazy for asking this question, but... why? Why should a person have to work to have a basic existence? I mean, it's not like it's fun to live on a $24,000 salary, but at least it's possible. It allows a person enough security that they can pursue specialized training or an education. More people could start businesses. More people could move to a part of the country that they like, even if it doesn't have a terrific job market. Why should a person have to work at a job they hate to survive and have a chance to pursue their real dreams?

This idea of "everyone should work for a living" made sense when we had more jobs than people, but we've gotten to a point where most Americans don't need to work in order for our economy to stay strong. Heck, having all of these Americans without jobs and without a livable income makes them more a burden on society because they can't buy anything. The problem is that we don't have enough jobs for people to earn enough money to afford that living, even if they want to. The solution seems to be to try and create incentives to create more jobs, but if our economy doesn't need more jobs in order to function optimally, maybe more jobs isn't the best solution. We'd just be having corporations hire extra people that they don't need so that they can work jobs they probably don't want so they can earn a currency that is inherently worth only what we collectively agree it should be worth.

Fiat currency was created to be representative of some kind of arbitrary value for goods and services. It's kind of an abstraction of a trading system. It essentially exists so that a person doesn't take more goods and services from the economy than they contribute. If the work you do produces enough value into the economy to offset what you take, then you provide a net benefit to the economy. The problem is that the amount we're paid often has no direct relation to the value of our work, and this has only become more pronounced as our economy has become more based in services than in goods. People who play professional sports get paid millions of dollars for providing entertainment. How much is that entertainment worth? It's worth whatever people are willing to pay. Meanwhile, a person making minimum wage at a coffee shop is probably generating way more wealth than they're taking home because that person is easily replaceable and has to take whatever pay they can get.

This notion of a worker getting paid less than they are worth is the source of most income inequality and it's what has inspired a lot of communist revolutions in the world over the past century or so, but they often attack the problem in the wrong way. The state would often just control too much of the economy to stifle greedy capitalism. Eventually the workers started to get tired of the government having too much control and not being able to take advantage of their new wealth. To quote from "A Complete History of the Soviet Union As Told By A Humble Worker, Arranged To The Melody Of Tetris":
The winter is cold, I’ve got plenty of gold
And I’m standing in line for a loaf of bread
So while communism fails because it lacks capitalism's ability to grant successful and hard-working people a better standard of living and puts too much power in the hands of the government, this was also happening in an era where powerful nations still needed a lot of low-skilled workers. These days, low-skilled American workers are becoming an endangered species, partially because of foreign labor, and partially because of inevitable obsolescence. We just don't need as many as we used to, and the ones we need are often being filled by foreign workers.

We could try and bring back jobs for these workers, but if those jobs were really needed, they would still exist. Without the minimum wage, perhaps a number of outsourced and downsized jobs would return to America, but probably not enough to single-handedly fix poverty. We just have way too many people.

Having jobs that we don't need--like Wal-Mart greeters for example--would make us feel like these people are earning their keep, but why can't we just be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that a Wal-Mart greeter doesn't contribute any real value to the economy? We're just wasting their time. Why not just give that person $2000 a month and let them spend their time however they want?

And more than that, having millions of Americans suddenly all have a lot more money and time would be great for our economy.

Part of the problem with hoarding wealth is that there are some things that a person usually only buys once or twice. Houses, cars, phones, insurance, movie tickets, you get the idea. Even billionaires generally only buy a handful of these things if they want to collect. But if millions of Americans suddenly got a massive boost to their income, imagine the possibilities. For example, imagine a whole bunch of people moving to Detroit or Cleveland to take advantage of the dirt cheap housing markets. It wouldn't matter that there are no jobs in Detroit or Cleveland. They could just move there and live off of basic income. With more people living there (and with most of them having a lot of free time on their hands), more companies would have incentives to create more businesses in that region, which would improve the economy further.

People without jobs surviving on basic income would probably contribute to society in other ways. Perhaps through art and literature, perhaps through dedicated study of esoteric academic subjects, or perhaps through innovation. Time is a precious resource, and we'd essentially be giving millions of Americans tons of it to do with as they see fit.

There's this cynical notion that if we give a whole bunch of people a ton of free money with no strings attached, they'll just sit around and watch TV all day everyday. And yeah, a fair amount of people probably would. But look at retirement age people. A lot of them try to stay active for the sake of staying active. A lot of them want to maintain a standard of living that costs more than their fixed income can provide on its own. And these are people that have largely earned their rest and could get away with sitting at home and watching TV all day without anyone calling them lazy. If those people are still willing to stay active in our society and economy despite having enough money to survive and no social pressure to contribute, why should we expect younger people to behave any differently?

And really, if a person's instinct is to spend their whole day sitting around and watching TV... why would we want that person to work? If they did, they would probably be lazy workers. Why not just let them stay home if we as a society can afford it? Wouldn't it be nice to go to McDonald's and only interact with employees that actually want to be working there? And besides, those lazy people would probably pump all of their basic income back into the economy since lazy people aren't usually very good at saving money. If that's the case, they wouldn't be much of a burden on society. The people who wouldn't be using the basic income would be the people more likely to lose more money in taxes than they'd make from the basic income, so that would actually hypothetically improve the economy.

We have about 150 million jobs in America and about 300 million adults. If about half of Americans just didn't work, we'd still have enough people to fill all of those jobs. More importantly, a lot of the open job positions in the U.S. simply don't have enough qualified people to fill them, and there aren't a lot of paths that allow lower income people to pursue the necessary training to qualify for those kinds of jobs. Perhaps basic income would give them enough financial freedom to change that.

So laziness probably wouldn't be much of a factor.

The only way this basic income structure wouldn't work (at least as far as I can tell) would be if we as a nation simply didn't generate enough GDP to give everyone a basic income without negatively impacting business. Since my rough calculations required taking about $3 trillion from the wealthy, that means we'd be risking dropping our GDP down to where it was during the Great Recession. The hope, however, is that since that money would be put back into the economy through a sudden dramatic increase in disposable income for about half of Americans, we wouldn't actually see our GDP dip down. The businesses that suffer from higher corporate and investment taxes would likely benefit from being able to get rid of the minimum wage. If we also implemented single payer health care, that would also make it easier for businesses to hire cheap labor since they wouldn't have to worry about expensive benefits. They might have a harder time filling those positions, but that would just create an incentive to either innovate ways to eliminate those positions, or just treat their employees better. Beyond that, business would probably be booming thanks to all of this money being pushed back into the economy. The only difference would just be that people making money in the highest tax brackets would have a lot less of it than they used to, and that would mean less investment and philanthropy. However, regular people could still invest and create new businesses through crowd-sourcing (see Kickstarter) and philanthropy would be less essential in the U.S. as we essentially eliminate poverty.

Obviously, I'm not an economist, so I'm probably not accounting for certain factors. In addition, a lot of this was conditional on the assumption that we'd actually be able to get the wealthy to pay their fair share and that they wouldn't "go Galt" or find other loopholes to exploit. I essentially paid for this by removing most existing welfare programs and then taking $2.6 trillion from corporate income (mostly targeting corporations that make over $1 billion a year in profit), and $4 trillion from the individual income of all Americans. The goal would be to make it so that corporations still had enough money to maintain profitability, and to make it so that people making less than $75,000 a year would see little to no impact on their overall income once you account for the basic income in addition to their increased tax burden. It is said that people making $50,000 a year reach peak happiness. Making more than that doesn't apparently improve happiness by very much. A person making $50,000 a year is about as happy as someone making $1 million a year. As someone who makes more than $50,000 a year, I'd agree that I could probably be perfectly happy with this level of income and making more probably wouldn't make a significant difference in that regard. I mean, I'd be able to travel more and go out to eat more, but right now I have a job I like, a decent place to live, a good car, more than enough food, a cat, good health care, high-speed internet, a great computer, a 50" HDTV, a bunch of video game consoles, and a manageable amount of debt. I'm living the dream and I don't think my lifestyle would change all that dramatically if I made more. I mean, I'm still going to try and make more money because I'd like to pay down debt faster and budgeting is hard, but if I was making $100,000 a year and new tax laws made it so I was instead making $80,000 a year in order to end poverty in the U.S. practically overnight, I think I could learn to adjust. So, in my opinion, so long as someone making more than $50,000 a year doesn't suddenly start making less than $50,000 a year, I don't think we'd severely impact anyone's individual happiness in any significant way.

On of the few complications I can think of is how the economy might respond to the higher demand, particularly as corporations are losing money in tax revenue. They could respond by jacking up prices, but not to the extent that would prevent people from being able to buy things, otherwise they'd be passing up on an opportunity to break sales records. We typically think inflation only happens when the treasury creates more money, but since a lot of this money is kind of already out of the economy, reintroducing it like that might have the same general effect. That's what it's important that a good portion of the money comes from income tax and not just from corporations and investments.

In addition, we'd probably need to produce a lot more goods to satisfy the increased demand. We'd easily have enough labor, particularly if we got rid of the minimum wage, but resources are already a problem and this would likely just make it worse. Still, I think that's the sort of problem Americans are pretty good at solving, and the alternative is basically just throwing up our hands and saying, "I guess America can only support a certain number of people and everyone else has to leave or slowly die."

There's probably a lot that would need to happen to make a system like this viable, but think of all of the problems it would solve if we could make it work:

People over 18 wouldn't have to live with their parents as much.

College would be more affordable.

A person could take their time to find a good job without worrying about whether or not they can pay rent.

Landlords wouldn't have to worry about their tenant's ability to pay rent.

No more food stamps.

Fewer people would have to declare bankruptcy.

Way less crime (at least crimes generally committed out of desperate poverty).

People looking for work will have an easier time finding it.

Employees will work harder because they will be more likely to have a job they actually want.

People will choose professions based on their desires and skills more than what professions are more financially stable.

More people would be able to risk quitting their job to start a different career path or start a new business.

Fewer people would need to work multiple jobs.

More parents would be able to stay at home and raise their children.

Employees would have more leverage in negotiating with their employers without having to unionize.

Populations would be less likely to concentrate in big cities.

Businesses would suddenly have way more customers than before, which could in turn mean needing to hire more employees.

Retail would be more profitable on weekdays as people surviving on basic income wouldn't be busy at work.

We wouldn't have to burden employers with mandated benefits or the minimum wage.

Will the idea as presented in Switzerland work? Probably not. But the general idea itself seems plausible. It seems like it could be the optimal hybrid of both socialism and capitalism where both sides feed one another and keep them balanced. Socialism keeps capitalism from hoarding wealth and capitalism keeps socialism from stagnating the quality of living and crippling small business.

Proponents of basic income say that it will drastically reduce the administrative overhead we have with current welfare programs, that it takes government decision-making out of the equation when it comes to socialism (so government incompetence wouldn't be a potential factor), and that it applies to everyone equally so it seems generally pretty fair.

The biggest obstacle is just figuring out how to make the necessary tax revenue to afford it and to make sure that revenue largely comes from places where the money is just sort of sitting around and not doing anything. Once that wealth goes back into the economy, the system will largely sustain itself through increased consumerism and less administrative burden on the private sector.

I think the main reason I'm currently liking the idea of basic income is because it's more forward-thinking. Our current system isn't sustainable. A distressingly large number of Americans simply have no way to escape poverty, and as our population increases and our work force becomes more and more automated and dependent on foreign workers, this problem will only keep getting larger. It's probably too difficult to try and get corporations to behave in a way that would actually benefit Americans, so why not just let them do what they do and just take half of their money and give it to everyone equally?

Basic income eliminates this inevitable problem and creates a system that is less vulnerable to the ups and downs of capitalism. Yes, it means higher taxes, but it also means smaller government, and unlike taxes that go towards programs that only some citizens benefit from, everyone will receive basic income. Granted, it would only benefit about half of Americans, but the other half would still be doing fine. The wealthy would still be wealthy, just less so, and the poor would have about twice as much money as they currently get from welfare without having to go through the bureaucracy. More importantly, they wouldn't have to deliberately avoid work or luxury in order to continue to qualify, which is one of the current problems with welfare as it can sometimes incentivize a person to not try and improve their standard of living.

In a more practical sense, the biggest obstacle this idea has is just people. Even if a lot of people all agree that it's a good idea, the people who have the strongest influence in our government are the people who would probably be inconvenienced the most by basic income. They like having their exorbitant wealth. But that's one reason why I think it's important to tie this in with eliminating welfare programs and the minimum wage. These are things that the wealthy have been trying to eliminate for years, and the biggest obstacle they have is that eliminating those things would destroy millions of American lives. But this is a system that could work for everyone.

I don't know if I'm 100% sold on the idea. There are probably downsides I'm not considering or anticipating. It needs a lot more debate. And I suppose that's why I'm writing this.

This is an idea that needs to be debated more. Economists should crunch the numbers and see if we could make it work. A smaller nation like Switzerland has to try it out and see if it can work. It's crazy, but not crazy enough to be completely dismissed outright.

Is this is the economy of the future? Let me know what you think.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Overdue Thoughts on "Deadpool" (the Movie)

I finally saw "Deadpool" last week, and as someone who once wrote a very long (and surprisingly popular) blog post about why Rob Liefeld should stop taking credit for Deadpool, as well as a post about my thoughts on the leaked trailer for the movie, I guess I should probably post a review.

It's fantastic.

Most of my impressions from when I saw the leaked trailer last year were fairly accurate. This is very much the screenplay that got leaked several years ago, but kicked up a notch. I was worried they would water down the script, but they actually did the opposite. Rather than take out fan-service-y stuff and the salty language, they added more in. They even included Bob of HYDRA some random group of henchmen completely unaffiliated with intellectual property owned by Marvel Studios, which I totally didn't expect (I even said as much in my earlier post). They gave Vanessa (who may one day become the character Copycat) a lot more agency than she had in the screenplay, which I was happy to see. Weasel got a lot more to do, Blind Al was included for no good reason (but I'm still glad they did it), and the inclusion of Negasonic Teenage Warhead was great. I don't even mind that her power set is completely different from her comic book counterpart because honestly, the movie's power set for her is way cooler.

The movie has its share of problems. I do think the original screenplay was tighter. The new stuff with Blind Al did kill the pacing a little bit. It's hard to get away with introducing a brand new character towards the end of the second act. They also then spend a few minutes collecting a bunch of weapons only to accidentally leave them in the taxi before the third act, rendering it entirely pointless. Also, I thought many of the action sequences lacked a certain flair. Perhaps I've been spoiled by movies like "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", but I rarely felt like the action kept me invested. Even so, they weren't BADLY shot or choreographed, I just wish they tried to push the envelope a bit more. Deadpool allows for some really creative stuff and his most interesting action sequence was at the very beginning of the film. I'd say this is probably just because of the director's relative inexperience. I don't want to rag on him too much, though. He did just fine.

But let's step away from the technical and get a little more nerdy.

I am glad they were pretty faithful to the character's origins, particularly after the travesty that was "X-Men Origins: Wolverine". It was a very pleasant surprise that they stuck so close to at least the main story beats of the character and that they didn't change too much for the sake of making the character more "palatable".


I still prefer his comic book version, and the reason is probably the closest thing I have to a philosophical problem with the film's interpretation of the character.

I like my Deadpool to be miserable.

I won't spoil too much of the movie (not that there's a lot to spoil), but suffice it to say that this is not a sad movie.

You might be scratching your head at that. "Of course it's not a sad movie! Deadpool is a funny character!" you might say. And you're right, but as Carol Burnett said, "Comedy is tragedy plus time." In addition, I also find that (at least in Deadpool's case) tragedy is often comedy plus time.

I've written extensively about this already, but Deadpool's character struggle is never really about the struggle between good and evil, but more a struggle between apathy and sympathy. He often knows what the right thing to do is, he just struggles with whether or not he should even bother doing it. His evil isn't a desire to cause harm to innocents, but the kind of evil caused when good people choose to do nothing.

In the comics, his origin pushes him to a point where he little choice but to disconnect himself from reality in order to function. In the Workshop, he's brought to the brink of death so many times that he actually starts to see Death herself. At a certain point, Death becomes one of the few things that brings him comfort. They literally fall in love, and towards the end, he decides to pull a stunt that will both stick it to the people who tortured him while also going out with a bang. He makes a conscious decision to end his own life, but at the last minute, his compassion gets the better of him, activates his healing factor for the first time, and permanently robs him of his ability to die just as he was about to welcome Death with open arms. In the end, he can't even die when he wants to.

His life is such a cruel joke that the only way he can cope is to act like his hallucinations of speech bubbles and comic frames and such are real. He has to believe that there's someone with a typewriter putting him through all of this for someone's sick idea of entertainment, because otherwise, reality is just too much for him to bear. Humor for him (and for most of us) is a defense mechanism.

And since he's so disconnected from his world (out of necessity) it makes it difficult for him to care. He's tried to be a hero on several occasions, but the problem is always that he just doesn't care enough to hold himself to the same code of ethics as the other heroes. He doesn't see the problem with killing a bunch of henchmen because if this is a comic book world, they probably don't have names or faces anyway. And it's hard for him to put in the effort to make a difference when he knows that something will probably come along and ruin it a while later. Even when he gets small victories, in the end, he's never allowed to win and be happy. Comedy plus time equals tragedy.

But the thing that keeps Deadpool (in the comics) tethered is that he can't completely convince himself that he's really just in a comic book. Sure, he SEES all of the comic book trappings and observes how contrived everything always seems to be, but he also knows he's crazy and hallucinates quite a bit, so a part of him isn't entirely sure. There's a part of him that still stays invested, still believes that there's a point to all this, and in the end, that's always what keeps him from going completely dark side. It's the same reason we keep watching "Game of Thrones". We have to hold onto the hope that eventually the bad guys will get what's coming to them and the good guys will be vindicated for doing the right thing. But at the same time, we know that there's a good chance the writer will just slap us in the face and make us sad again.

Alright, so now that I've gone into what I find deep and interesting about Deadpool in the comics, let's talk about his character in the movie.

Everything I've just described has basically nothing to do with the Deadpool in the movie.

While Deadpool in the movie does go to the Workshop and does have to deal with a lot of crap, his torture isn't quite as bad as in the comics. In the movie, they're torturing him to try and activate his latent mutant powers. In the comics, they tried to give him powers, but they assumed they failed, so they just started using him as a live specimen and trying to keep him alive as long as possible so they can perform as many experiments on him as possible. His scars weren't caused by just one incident like in the movie, they were the product of months (possibly years) of experiments, all undergone while cancer ravaged his body and riddled him with tumors. He is a character defined by being perpetually on the brink. He sits on the wall between life and death, he sits on the wall between good and evil, he sits on the wall between comedy and tragedy, and similarly, he sits on the fourth wall between reality and fiction.

In the movie, Deadpool's fourth-wall breaking has no clear reason for existing other than "he's Deadpool". Sure, he feels disconnected in the same way as his comic book counterpart, but we never really see what brings him there. We never see him reach the point where he gives up, and to me, that's an important part of Deadpool's character. Almost every other comic book superhero reaches a point where they either choose to give up or stand up and fight, and Deadpool in the comics uniquely tried and failed to do both. He couldn't save his friend and he couldn't get the release of death that he craved. He didn't want to exist, but he was left with no other option. When you have to live a life you don't want, and you have incredible (almost unimaginable) power, what do you do with it? To me, that's the central question of Deadpool as a character.

In the movie, Deadpool does have the moment where he tries to be a hero and fails, which I'm glad they included, but he never gives up. Vanessa always drives him through the plot. She's his tether.

In the comics, Deadpool and Vanessa did have a similar relationship, and it is important. I also vastly prefer Vanessa in the movie, for the record. However, once Deadpool in the comics leaves Vanessa to go to the Workshop, he has no intention of returning to her. He wants her to move on without him. She stops being his motivation at that point in the comics, though that's probably out of necessity since Vanessa has her own thing going on in the comics and if she continued to pine for him, it would be weird that she never mentioned him before they retroactively decided that they were a thing.

My point is that Deadpool in the movie is perhaps too conventional. I never felt like there was something deeper going on behind his hijinks. At his best, Deadpool can be like the Shakespearean "fool" character, who serves both as comic relief, but also as scathing satire of the world he inhabits. He never really reaches that level in the movie, and I think that's my biggest problem with it.

All that said...

I think that this Deadpool still works on his own merits. Yes, he's substantially different in many subtle ways from the comic book version, but I recognize that I'm probably in the minority when it comes to wanting to see a more depressed and scarred Deadpool. I'm a privileged middle-class white American, so I can identify with someone struggling with existential nihilism and having a hard time giving a shit. The movie Deadpool appeals more to people who recognize that we're all in a shitty place, but that doesn't mean we have to let it get us down. Perhaps we need more comic book movies about that and fewer movies in general about depressed white guys who are sad about having incredible power and not knowing what to do with it.

This is a more optimistic Deadpool, and while it's not the Deadpool I fell in love with, I still think it works and he's probably a better fit for a movie than my Deadpool would be.

Still, the fact that I have to cut this deep in order to find a serious criticism is something I never thought I'd ever get to do. I was afraid the movie would turn out like the terrible video game that came out a few years ago. I was afraid it would completely misunderstand the character and be oppressively unfunny for the entire duration.

After "X-Men Origins: Wolverine", I never thought we'd get a Deadpool movie good enough to warrant deep criticism. I'm a big fan of Deadpool, and even I thought that an R-rated faithful adaptation of Deadpool would tank at the box office. I never thought Fox would let it happen, and if they did, I assumed it would then serve as a financial justification for why they would never let something like it happen again.

I'm so happy I was wrong.

Not only did they actually make almost exactly the sort of Deadpool movie I hoped they would make, it kicked ass in the box office, proving once again that conventional wisdom is changing.

Oh, and my last big concern going into the movie was that it wouldn't be very funny. While the trailer made me laugh a few times, the "red shirt, brown pants" gag fell really flat.

Much to my delight, this movie is hilarious.

Honestly, the "red shirt, brown pants" gag was the only joke that made me cringe in the entire movie. Just about everything else lands perfectly. Even seeing it with a small audience didn't diminish the laughs I had all the way through.

Part of what makes the comedy work is the chemistry between the actors. The cast here is phenomenal, and even the weakest performance (Ajax) wasn't really all that bad.

The decision to make Colossus purely CG was weird, but I understand why they did it (they don't want to worry about having to recast him in a future X-Men movie).

While the movie's pacing is a bit clunky, I don't really care that it is. The stuff with Blind Al is fantastic and really brought me back to the Joe Kelly comics that I loved.

I'm so glad this movie actually happened and I can't wait for the sequel. I hope we get more stuff with Blind Al and Weasel, I hope Bob makes a return appearance, I hope they give Vanessa her mutant powers, and I really can't wait to see how they deal with Cable.

Maximum effort!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Guilt Trip: Why I Hate the Genocide Path of "Undertale"

A little over a week ago, I was shocked to discover that my brother had not heard of "Undertale". I could understand that he hadn't played it yet; I had only just finally gotten around to playing it myself. But given how universally praised the game has been, particularly with all the "Game of the Year" accolades it has been receiving by the fistful, it was surprising that I got to be the first person to tell him about it.

It's a somewhat difficult game to sell, which is probably why so many critics have put it on their "Best of 2015" lists as a short way of saying, "This game is really good," and getting people to play it without having to spoil any of it.

And... well, yeah. This game is really good. Particularly the first time you play it.

This post isn't a review (at least not per se), but if that's what you're looking for, suffice it to say that I highly recommend playing it.

A friend of mine has been obsessed with this game for months. She hasn't been playing it that entire time, mind you. She hasn't played it since she reached the ending a second time and she swears she never intends to play it ever again. But she can't stop thinking about it, talking about it, writing about it, watching Let's Plays of it...

And it's not that she has seen all there is to see and done all there is to do. In fact, there's a LOT of game content she hasn't experienced for herself. My brother (who picked it up after I made him aware of it) also intends to leave the game (for lack of a better term) "unfinished".

If you know nothing about "Undertale" (as I did before a week or so ago), this might seem confusing. Why leave a game unfinished? And while fans of the series like to be coy about it because "you have to experience it for yourself", I personally disagree. The reason is not that shocking and doesn't really give away anything about the story. It perhaps gives away what kind of story "Undertale" is, but I don't necessarily think that ignorance of that aspect makes the experience any better. It's not like there's a big twist or anything that hinges on this. That said, SOME "Undertale" fans would likely tell you to go in and play it knowing absolutely nothing. I personally find that irresponsible, but I'm probably in the minority on this, so if you'd rather trust the majority over me, you should probably stop reading this post and go play it a couple times. Or rather, play it once, reload your save, do some extra stuff, and then beat it again to get the "True" Ending (assuming you qualify).

Alright, time to dig in.

So if you took the advice of the multitudes and played this game knowing absolutely nothing about it, you probably experienced one of two possible situations:
1) You accidentally killed a couple monsters early on in the game, got one of the "Neutral" Endings, and then had to play it again because how were you supposed to know that you couldn't kill ANYTHING!
2) You played with a walkthrough because as soon as you heard there was a "True Ending", you wanted to make sure you did everything you needed to do to unlock it.

However, if you ignored the advice of the majority of fans and are reading this before having played "Undertale", allow me to pull back the curtain slightly: There are TECHNICALLY several different "Endings" to the game, but none of these are actually endings because at the end, the antagonist of the game shows up and asks you to do it again without killing anything. Even if you did go through without killing anything on your first try, you'll still have to go back and complete a few more errands before you get the "True Ending". And if you go through the game killing everything... well, we'll get to that more later, but suffice it to say that you won't have a good time.

See, "Undertale" has a minor narrative conceit (one of many) where your character's ability to use save points is actually canonical in the game. Your character is literally time traveling every time they return to their SAVE (as the game calls it). And when you "finish" the game and choose to start over from the beginning, your character is technically time traveling back to the beginning of the game. This means that if you play another game, the ending you just experienced wasn't actually an ending because your character's story is continuing in a fifth-dimensional sense.

As interesting as that is, it's my first gripe with "Undertale". I don't like the "True Ending" or as it's more commonly known, the "True Pacifist Ending". Not just because you pretty much can't achieve it without a walkthrough, but because if you follow a particular path, you'll never be able to see it at all without cheating.

I don't know why they feel the need to include the "Pacifist" qualifier, because honestly, not only is this the "True" ending, it is pretty much the ONLY ending. The other endings don't have satisfying conclusions. Unlike a game like "Mass Effect 2" where the "less than perfect" endings are all still legitimate endings for the game, if you don't play "Undertale" in exactly the way Toby Fox (the creator) intends, he doesn't want you to enjoy the conclusion.

That might seem harsh, but while I do love "Undertale" and still recommend it, I was pretty annoyed by the "True Ending" and how it is presented in contrast with the other "endings".

I went in knowing that you weren't supposed to kill anything. This game was originally pitched as "a traditional role-playing game where no one has to get hurt." This was a big selling point for me because I've always wanted more games that treated this option with seriousness. Some games LET you play a game without killing anyone, but few games actually acknowledge it, let alone reward it. Sure, you can play through "Fallout 3" without killing (almost) anything, but the game doesn't care if you do. No one is impressed by your moral fiber. No achievement is unlocked.

The "Metal Gear" games have always encouraged pacifism without necessarily requiring it, which is one thing I've always loved about those games. So knowing that "Undertale" carried on that tradition was exciting to me.

However, in "Undertale", doing a pacifist run isn't just an option, it's the only valid option.

Like I said earlier, if you do any ending other than the "True Pacifist Ending", the game asks you to try again until you do. If you do get the "True Pacifist Ending", the game literally asks you to put the game down and never ever play it again because everyone has a happy ending. Why would you want to spoil that by sending your character back in time?

For starters, the thing that makes games like "Metal Gear" and "Mass Effect 2" great is that the different paths you can take are all equally valid. When you finish, it doesn't tell you that you played the game wrong and tell you to do it over again. And when you play the "ideal" way, the game doesn't end by asking you to never play it again.

And you know what? I VASTLY prefer the so-called "Neutral" endings of "Undertale" over the "True Ending". In the "Neutral" endings, the third act confrontation is far more interesting, the boss battles are more exciting and harrowing, and it changes based on whatever choices you made along the game. The "True Ending" on the other hand skips over my favorite boss fight of the game, changes the varied and interesting final boss with a far less interesting boss, and gives you an ending that is 100% exactly like everyone else's. And then it tells you that you chose correctly and guilts you into never playing it again.

Now here's the kicker. As I mentioned, there's another path you can take where you decide to kill everything instead. The problem is that if you complete it, the game will remember it forever and you'll never EVER be able to get the "True Ending' again (unless you monkey around with the game data in your computer). The game will never forgive you for it.

This is why my friend will never play along the third route. Because she likes her happy ending and knows that if she goes down that dark path, she'll never be able to get that happy ending back without cheating.

So when I got the "True Ending", I did a reset. Like I said, I didn't even really care much for the "True Ending", so I didn't really care about losing it. I wanted to experience the entire game. So I started again, this time killing everything.

Hoo boy.

So this run is known by the fans as the "Genocide Run". Toby Fox apparently prefers to call it the "No Mercy Run", but I have my own name for it...

"The Guilt Trip"

Now I'm going to avoid explicit spoilers for the actual content of the game, but seeing as most people probably aren't going to experience "The Guilt Trip' for themselves, I feel justified in talking about what it's all about in the vaguest of terms. Nothing I say will spoil the "Neutral" or "True" runs of the game, and I won't even spoil the specifics of anything in "The Guilt Trip", just the broad strokes. Now, without further ado, let's talk about "The Guilt Trip".

I hate it.

I genuinely think that the way it exists and the way it is presented not only hurts the game as a whole, it's also incredibly judgmental, sadistic, and infuriatingly smug.

It's entirely not worth it, and before fans jump down my throat... I KNOW, OK? I get that it's SUPPOSED to not be worth it. That you're SUPPOSED to regret doing it and that you SHOULD feel bad for pursuing it.

And you know what? The game explores that stuff really well. There was a lot of really interesting potential in this ending. But certain choices Toby Fox made for "The Guilt Trip", particularly the very end, make it go from a fascinating exploration of the gamer psyche to what is essentially a never-ending punishment. Toby Fox isn't Hideo Kojima. He's Ramsay Snow. Oh, and if you decide not to play it and just watch someone else play it, he's punishing you too. He actually apparently hates you even more because you don't even have the guts to do it yourself.

So if no one was supposed to play it or even watch it, what the fuck were we SUPPOSED to do? It's not like it's completely optional, either. There's important story information that you ONLY get if you play through "The Guilt Trip". Without it, the fandom's understanding of the game series would be incomplete.

And yet Toby Fox punishes us for trying to experience it.

It's one thing to punish somebody with the intent that they learn and grow from it as a result. But that's not what Toby Fox wants. Remember, if you complete "The Guilt Trip", you will NEVER get to have the "True Ending" unless you cheat, meaning that no matter what, you'll always be guilty.

Toby Fox doesn't want people who complete "The Guilt Trip" to learn and grow. He wants to hurt them.

And I'm not just talking about people who do "The Guilt Trip" because they're actually sadists and want to watch everyone die. No, trust me, "The Guilt Trip" is directed SQUARELY at people who do it entirely because they're reluctantly curious. Even if you feel bad every step of the way, in Toby Fox's mind, that makes you even worse.

That's what Toby Fox is punishing. Not malice, not sadism. Heck, I think a sadist would enjoy this path a lot more than I did. No, Toby Fox is punishing curiosity.




This path is Toby Fox saying, "What, you thought my 'True Ending' wasn't good enough? Well screw you! Here's an even WORSE ending! And you are going to have to fight REALLY hard to get it. And I won't even let you play the game again afterwards until you sit in front of a blank screen for 10 minutes. Go fuck yourself."

Now, I understand what he's going for. He's saying that the greatest evil in the world is perpetrated by people who commit evil without actually admitting that they're evil. They do it out of curiosity or ignorance or a sense of the greater good. That part I'm totally OK with and I actually think it's really interesting and well-executed. And if he stopped there, I probably would be applauding it right now.

But that wasn't good enough for Toby Fox. He needed to be a sanctimonious prick about it. He had to punish the player as if they were ACTUALLY a sociopath. He had to impose ACTUAL consequences. And then he presents an ending that's abrupt, unsatisfying, and lazy. Rather than accept that the motivations for why a player goes through "The Guilt Trip" are complex and treat the player with respect (especially after everything they've been through), "The Guilt Trip" is the forbidden fruit, and Toby Fox cackles with self-satisfaction while playing both God and serpent.

What this SHOULD have been was a recommended starting point. Your character starts out behaving like a character in a typical RPG where you're expected to fight and kill everything. Then the game makes you feel bad about it. Then you go back and do it again with mercy. Your character learns that not everything is as it seems and to give peace a chance. Then you complete the game with the "True Ending" and can put it down with satisfaction because you've seen everything there is to see and you've grown as a person.

Nope. Can't do it that way. And if you could, I would vastly prefer that overall path. Too bad. Like I said, if you complete "The Guilt Trip", you can't get the 'True Ending", so the game is essentially forcing you to get the "True Ending" first.

This is not an oversight. This is 100% intentional. Toby Fox WANTS you to never see that part of the game. Well, that's not exactly true. He does want you to see that part of the game, but only so he can make you feel bad for wanting to see it. That's why he set it up this way. Rather than accept that people are capable of learning and growing, he prefers to make it so there's no way you can ever feel 100% OK with ever doing "The Guilt Trip".

I would be OK with "The Guilt Trip" if there was a way to get a slightly different version of it that doesn't permanently fuck up your game so long as you don't do it after you get the "True Ending". I think that if somebody chooses to do "The Guilt Trip" after experiencing the "True Ending" when there is an alternative, then the way it's presented makes sense. Then there's evidence that the player truly doesn't care about the characters and is just doing all of the endings for the sake of completion.

But no. Toby Fox wanted to make a point, and that point required restricting the player so that the only way they could experience the whole game was if they did the "True Ending" before "The Guilt Trip".

And just to reiterate, the point that he wanted to make that was SO DAMN IMPORTANT was... that you are a terrible person for wanting to see the whole game he created.

It has no justification other than sadism, smugness, or perhaps both.

And the biggest problem with this is that it flies in the face of what this game demonstrates through one of its characters.

So now I'm finally going to get into SPOILERS in order to explain what I mean in greater detail.

The character of Asriel is essentially the main antagonist of the game, and like the player's character (Frisk), he can use SAVE points. And something you find out during "The Guilt Trip" is that Asriel did the same thing as you. First he went through and made everyone happy, but that wasn't good enough, so he went through and killed everyone just to see what would happen.

And yet, in order to achieve the "True Ending", you have to forgive him. He is the one that pleads with you to never play the game again because he's finally found happiness.

Asriel gets to have the arc that the player SHOULD have, but cannot have.

When you complete "The Guilt Trip", you destroy the world. Then, if you start up the game again, after waiting 10 minutes at a blank screen, you are given the opportunity to recreate the world by giving up your SOUL. This returns the game to more or less what it was like before, but now, if you try to get the "True Ending", it will be implied that your character will turn evil and murder everyone again. Your character is now soulless and beyond redemption.

So Asriel is forgivable, but Frisk isn't? Why?

And inconsistency aside, when you play through "The Guilt Trip", the game is so passive-aggressive in so many ways that it feels like it tries to make itself less enjoyable just to hammer the point home even harder..

Puzzles? Meh, we solved most of them for you. That's not what you REALLY came for anyway, is it?

Fun characters and antics? Nope. Too happy or interesting. You just want everything dead, right?

Final boss fight? HAH! The real final boss is also done for you and the last boss you DO fight... Well...

OK, I have to talk about this before I keep going.

The battle with Sans is INFURIATING.

He's the last boss that you actually fight, and he is INSANELY difficult. But not for any fair reason. No, Sans cheats.

He invents new mechanics that are not used at any other point in the game (poison and dodging), he hits hard with moves that require dozens of attempts to figure out, he starts attacking you IN THE MENU, and you have to attack him two dozen times before he actually fucking dies (and he dies off-screen to deny you the satisfaction). Oh, but before you get the last hit off, he tries to cheat AGAIN by refusing to end his turn. You have to beat him by sitting still and waiting for him to fall asleep, and then you have to budge your SOUL icon over to move the rectangle to the FIGHT button in order to win.

I spent something like 6 hours fighting Sans.

With every other boss fight, even the ones that were actually difficult, I always felt bad about winning. I love most of these characters and it hurt to kill them.

But Sans? I wanted him dead. And I'm glad I killed him. I never really thought he was that interesting in the first place.

And how does the game reward you for suffering through this?

You walk into a room, lose all control or ability to change the events, and watch as characters say a few creepy lines and then kill the game. No end credits, no request to try again without as much murder. Just done. And then you're either irredeemably evil or a cheater.

It's a huge slap in the face.

"The Guilt Trip" isn't fun. It's grueling and punishing in every sense of the word.

And the most frustrating part is that it COULD have been great. The stuff that Asriel/Flowey says towards the end about how he went around killing all of his friends just out of curiosity because his ability to SAVE meant that he wouldn't have to suffer consequences is GREAT metanarrative stuff. It's deep, it really hits you in the gut, and it makes you think about just how sociopathic it is to go through every possible path in a game just to see what it's like.

But by forcing the player to suffer unavoidable consequences as a result of doing it means that unlike Asriel, Toby Fox doesn't think we deserve redemption.

Why not? Why go through all of that stuff and make the player suffer if not to help them learn and play games more thoughtfully?

Well, it's because he's not trying to teach the player anything. He's not trying to give them the arc he gave Asriel. He's making a point about what he dislikes about games and gamers. He's soapboxing.

In other words, "The Guilt Trip" is not a real ending.

It's a trap.

Not unlike the Garden of Eden and the forbidden fruit, there's no right answer. If you obey God's command, you'll forever remain ignorant of the nature of good and evil and everything the world has to offer. If you deny it, you'll gain new knowledge, but you'll forever be exiled from the Garden of Eden.

So fuck you, Toby Fox. I don't want your "True Ending" again anyway. It's preachy hippy dippy garbage where everyone's problems can be solved with the power of friendship.

The battle with Asgore in the "Neutral" path is AMAZING. It's one of my favorite things about the game. Having it replaced with a corny scene where the entire cast shows up to tell Asgore to stop being a meany is eye-rolling and lacks the depth that it has otherwise. The Asriel fight is OK, but it's too similar to every other fight in the game. The Photoshop Flowey fight is WAY more visually interesting and memorable.

So no, I'm not going to change my game data to undo my "Guilt Trip". I will wear it like a badge of honor. Toby Fox can make me feel like a bad person, but I'm fine being exiled from the Garden of Eden if he's the God who rules it.

I just finished playing through another "Neutral" run, which thankfully isn't changed by my "Guilt Trip". In the end, Flowey asked me to play again without killing anyone (I killed one or two minor monsters at the beginning of this run).

Sorry, asshole, but if I'm not going to be forgiven, neither are you.

"Undertale" is a great game and even after all this, I still recommend it, but because of Toby Fox's preachy self-indulgence, it falls short of being one of my personal favorite games. My favorite games are games that I can pick up and play again and again to relive the experience. Toby Fox went out of his way to make sure I wouldn't want to do that.

Fine, Toby.

You win.

I hope your "victory" is as hollow as you decided to make mine.