Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘stories

Soup from a nail

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There is a family of stories based on the following general idea:

Someone* puts water and an iron nail in a kettle, telling others** that he is making soup. Nail soup is both delicious and nourishing, and all are invited to share it—but, of course, it would be even better if he had some X, some Y, some Z, and various other ingredients.*** The bystanders bring such ingredients, and in the end there is indeed a delicious and nourishing soup.

*Some versions might have more than one “chef”.

**Vice versa, the “others” might be a single person, as in the version I first encountered in Sweden; however, the below discussion will require multiple victims. Of course, the fraud aspect is more obvious with one victim, who then single-handedly contributes everything, while the soup is divided equally between the victim and the fraudster.

***Alternatively, that everyone who contributes will receive a fair share, or some similar variation.

A sensible reader will realize that this is a form of trickery to get a free meal at the cost of others, that the “chef” did not actually contribute anything more than firewood and water—both of which could be gathered for free by anyone. Any and all real contribution came from the “guests”, who are short-changed in return, as the soup is shared between “chef” and “guests”. (I am strongly reminded of a typical politician/government/whatnot, who scopes in tax money, doles it out again minus a loss, and expects the people to be grateful for the “gift”.)

Some time ago, I encountered an almost absurd interpretation of this type of story:* The “chef” had been a catalyst to create a soup that the others would not otherwise have had—and was therefore their benefactor! (I am strongly reminded of some Leftist and/or Big-Government proponents with no clue about Economics.)

*I did not keep a link, as I did not intend to write anything at the time. Much later musings over this story brought a correspondingly later wish.

Let us consider this for a moment. To my recollection, the setting in the version told was a poor village, where there was little to eat. The idea was that the one might have had some meal,* the other some beans, the third a small piece of meat, etc.—and together they had soup.

*I do not recall the exact ingredients used, but they are beside the point.

First, in the short-term, each of the villagers might have had some gain of the “balanced diet” type, as eating a soup made of X, Y, and Z is likely to be more balanced than just eating X. (Maybe, also an improvement in taste, but this is a secondary concern among the hungry.) However, at the same time, there is a loss of quantity, as the share of the “chef” must be subtracted—instead of having, say, a pound of meal, someone might now have a share of soup corresponding to 0.8 pounds of meal. Is that really a good exchange? Then we have complications like uneven contributions, the risk of a tragedy of the commons, whatnot. (Indeed, the presence of secondary cheaters cannot be ruled out, e.g. in that someone contributes half a pound of meal and still expects a full pound’s worth of soup. Especially when different ingredients are compared, there is a great risk of both cheating and genuine differences of opinion—is that quantity of salt worth more or less than that piece of sausage?)

Second, in the mid-term, the no-free-lunch principle comes into play: Yes, there is soup today, but what about tomorrow? That pound of meal might have been intended to bake a loaf of bread to eat tomorrow. Now, when tomorrow comes, there is no pound of meal, there is no loaf of bread, and the day will be hungry indeed. Not only has hunger just been differently distributed, not removed, but there is a fair chance that the situation for the villagers has been worsened, as the self-rationing to get by until the next payday (or whatever might apply) with a fixed store of supplies has been disturbed. (And, again, the store has been implicitly diminished by giving the “chef” a share—not just redistributed in time.)

Third, if there actually was a benefit to this type of soup, the villagers might* well have developed the idea on their own. That they did not (or did, tried it once, and never repeated the attempt) might* be a sign that it was not a good idea, and that they were tricked into a poor decision by the belief that the “chef” made a true contribution that, in turn, would have made their respective investments worthwhile. Moreover, if the soup was not a good idea just between the villagers, then it is a worse idea when they have to gift the “chef” his undeserved share.

*Depending on how bright they were, how much experience they had gained in similar matters, how the relationships within the village worked, etc. When the analogy is moved to nationwide politics and the nationwide economy, chances are that they would be smart enough.

Indeed, this version of the story, the implications of this-and-that, and the original interpreter’s weak reasoning form very interesting parallels to modern politics.

As an interesting contrast, look at a hypothetical free-market version of this story (the above being Socialist): Someone comes to the villagers and says that he is willing to make soup for them. Anyone can get a quantity of soup in exchange for a payment in ingredients; the quantity will be determined by the value of the ingredients.* If this makes sense to the villagers, they will come; if it does not, they will not—but it is all their informed** choice. Notably, if they consider the share taken as profit, in exchange for the convenience of coordination and whatnot, small enough, they will continue to come—if not, they will arrange to cut out the middleman and make the soup cooperatively; alternatively, someone else will propose the same deal at a lower price (i.e. ingredient-to-soup ratio).

*In reality, there might be quite a few more details to resolve, say, a minimum of buyers before the soup can realistically be made and exactly how to value various ingredients vs. each other and the completed product.

**Above, they did have a choice, as anyone could have declined, but that choice was outright disinformed—anyone agreeing would have done so under faulty assumptions and chances are that most of those who did agree would have declined, had they been correctly informed.

Of course, once the government gets wind of this situation, chances are that it will involve it self in the soup production, be it commercial or cooperative, including by measures such as forcing everyone to join, even when they do not consider the soup a good idea, instituting a “from everyone according to ability; to everyone according to need” principle, etc. (And note the side-effects that might follow, e.g. that some reduce the work they put in to gain their meager food stores, because they know that what they do gain will be confiscated and the amount of soup they receive will remain unchanged.)

As an exercise for the reader, please consider what parts of the above would or would not have worked better with money.


Written by michaeleriksson

August 27, 2022 at 12:27 am

An absolutely awful marriage story

with 4 comments

A few weeks ago, I encountered an an absolutely awful marriage storye. In fact, one that almost made me feel sick—but which the blog author absurdly proclaimed to be “great”. (From context it is not clear whether she also was the author of the story or merely a spreader of it. Either way, seeing it as great requires a near complete lack of perspective and insight.)

At the time, I left a comment explaining why it was awful. Having just noticed that this comment has been arbitrarily censored (the more in need of a comment a post is, the greater the risk of censorship, as I have noticed over the last year), I try to recreate the gist here:

  1. The woman has an entirely unrealistic and unreasonable view of what marriage and love is.

  2. She is about to throw away her promise of “until death us depart; for better and worse” based on what appears to be mere boredom.

  3. Instead of constructively discussing her issues with her husband, she waits until she has given up hope of him spontaneously changing—and then springs divorce upon him.

  4. She requires of him, in order that he proves himself worthy of the second chance he requested, that he consider his own life worth less than her (hypothetical) whim of having a particular flower. This is something that is, frankly, inexcusable: A wife may have the right that her husband risks his life to save hers (and vice versa!), but under no circumstances that it is sacrificed for a whim.

    Besides, any man who agreed to even the hypothetical situation would afterwards be in an impossible situation: How can he later refuse to buy her jewelry for a mere few hundred dollars at her asking? To take out the garbage in the middle of a Superbowl game? To letting her unilaterally decide where every single vacation is to be held? … That the man still wanted her after hearing this demand is hard to fathom—better divorced than living with such a self-centered bitch.

  5. While he declines, he does give an extremely cheese explanation for why he declines—and this explanation proves her earlier dissatisfaction to have been very, very unfair. In effect, she was about to throw away a far more wife-friendly husband than most women ever have—and one that she gave no signs of deserving.

To make matters worse, there are many elements of this story that are reminiscent of the bad marriage experiences I have heard men tell from real life, including that problems are not brought to their attention, that unrealistic expectations are raised, and that they are faced with a divorce out of nowhere and without the wife reflecting on what a marriage actually implies.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 23, 2011 at 4:42 pm