Balancing blunt numbers

Connect the Dots

Already light with cheap beer, I was entitled to one free drink (albeit with an $8 cover charge) at Starry Plough as one of that night’s randomly chosen poetry slam judges.

Every week, the unsuspecting Irish pub hosts the Berkeley Poetry Slam group, composed of local individuals drunk with the sobering power of the pen. And yet there I was with my dank glass of IPA, ready to put a number on their spoken words reflecting a spectrum of emotions beyond love and hate.

With four other judges to balance my increasingly cloudy judgment, I didn’t feel too much pressure to calculate each score based on secret word references and the nonsense of iambic pentameter. I was there to enrich my soul, not boost my ego.

Though I was buzzed enough to judge like Paula Abdul in American Idol, I began feeling like I needed to be more like Simon Cowell. These poets were competing for money, after all, and feelings alone were insufficient to determine such a consequential paradigm.

Numbers were all I needed to place monetary value on the poets’ otherwise worthless words. It was a simple setup of raising two placards, one whole number accompanied by a decimal to settle potential ties … but the only problem was that I’ve always had an issue settling things with numbers.

Although “math is universal,” as it is the language nature uses to explain her infinite complexities, math is also the finite reasoning used to justify our economy that is based on overproduction and surplus. The limited education of such a biased interpretation enables our society to leap forward in spite of every fall back.

The greeter at Walmart can buy an iPad, but can’t afford retirement. We can staple our stomachs to reduce our appetite, but still can’t find a way around diabetes. And soon, we’ll be able to detect seismic movement in our own homes, but somehow can’t make housing or college affordable for those greeters at Walmart.

Instead of working to balance production and consumption to get closer to an economic equilibrium, we create excess in case we run out, as if hoarding is the only way to survive.

When overproduction is the basis of economic growth as major business players propagate overconsumption and policymakers try to mediate its regulation, growth is shown with numbers that delude economic stability. Although the unemployment rate continues to fluctuate between what’s normal and what isn’t, our leaders are more concerned with promoting economic growth to only further normalize the status quo.

While the likes of anarchists and Amish completely reject such unstable growth by isolating themselves from consumer (surplus) culture, artists and academics compromise as their work reflects innovation’s dysfunctional culture. They may have fallen prey to the comforts of excess, but they are not subdued by it.

People with the instruments of art and education are obligated to contribute to the well-being of others who have been dragged down by the progress they only dream about.

As countries like China and India are still considered “developing” with an increasing annual GDP in the midst of an economic crisis (generally considered the worst), how is economic growth a sign of progress when rural farmers are displaced and shantytowns are commonplace?

The market is free while consumers and producers are distracted by profit. And yet the market is controlled when corporate welfare is prioritized over individual welfare, as taxes hardly act as regulation.

Though this may be seen as a bureaucratic problem, the government has to feed the overarching instrument of progress — economic growth — through overproduction that can only be achieved by exploiting those who can’t even afford what they produce.

Our physical needs may be satisfied, but the increasing use of antidepressants shows that our needs are beyond the “physical,” and our wants will never be fulfilled as long as they remain so. The artist’s conscious reflection of life and the scholar’s hopeful research show that we are not mere “profit-maximizers,” but are symbiotic.

Since I didn’t trust a score manipulated by my lack of attention to numbers, I nudged my two friends to help me decide on a conscious one (especially when I had to miss the beginning of one poem to relieve myself of bad judgment). As the evening’s last poet put it, our score was “blunt like swishers.”

Although our collaboration was an effortless one mediated by raising and furrowing our eyebrows at each other, each score was validated by subsequent cheering or booing. However, cheers were all we gave the poets, because they spoke their words with the clarity of truth. They had nothing to sell us — they only gave.