In the Shadow of the Stars

20 07 2011

This was of course the film that won the Best Documentary Oscar in 1991, and it is a refreshing blast from the past compared to the too-cool-for-school style of the post-Michael Moore world. The film in a nutshell is the Chorus Line for opera singers, documenting the struggles, joys, and triumphs of those who sing in the chorus of the San Francisco Opera. While it is at times evident that they are afflicted by the green devil of envy and would of course prefer to sing the solos of the repertory that bring down the house, all the same, the people interviewed seemed well adjusted and thankful that they can make a living doing what they love.

What was most revealing to me was a rather whimsical scene of one such singer driving a commercial truck for his “day job”. He said that he learned both his love for opera and his truck driving from his father, who was evidently a great fan of classical music. Such an anecdote from the early 1990’s was a painful reminder concerning how far the working class has fallen in terms of a certain criterion of cultural literacy. In the past, it was perhaps not so unusual for a truck driver (probably unionized) to be an aficionado of the high arts, such as opera. This refutes the idea that the plebs must necessarily love what is plebian: what is so natural for a regular person to love Elvis compared to Verdi: working people crooned both at different times in history while doing their menial tasks? Or what makes Mozart less popular than Rick Ross other than the marketing? Doesn’t our economic system have to create cultural crap just to stay afloat? There is nothing natural about the demand for such cultural dreck: it is manufactured like everything else.

On the Austrian School

13 07 2011

Three very different essays from very different sources:

Israel Kirzner’s explanation of the Austrian approach to crisis.

A Marxist critique of the Austrian School.

And finally, an article from Slate on libertarianism in general. The money quotes:

To my critique of the Chamberlain example, a libertarian might respond: Given frictionless markets, rational self-maximizers, and perfect information, the market price for Wilt’s services could not stay separable from the market price to see Wilt play. (Visionary entrepreneurs would create start-up leagues, competing leagues would bid up prices for the best players.) In a free-market paradise, capital will flow to talent, until rewards commensurate perfectly with utility. Maybe; and maybe in a socialist paradise, no one will catch the common cold. The essence of any utopianism is: Conjure an ideal that makes an impossible demand on reality, then announce that, until the demand is met in full, your ideal can’t be fairly evaluated. Attribute any incidental successes to the halfway meeting of the demand, any failure to the halfway still to go…

Buccaneering entrepreneurs, boom-and-bust markets, risk capital—these conveniently disappeared from Nozick’s argument because they’d all but disappeared from capitalism. In a world in which J.P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt have been rendered obsolete, reduced to historical curios, to a funny old-style man, imprisoned in gilt frames, the professionals—the scientists, engineers, professors, lawyers and doctors—correspondingly rise in both power and esteem. And in a world in which the professions are gatekept by universities, which in turn select students based on their measured intelligence, the idea that talent is mental talent, and mental talent is, not only capital, but the only capital, becomes easier and easier for a humanities professor to put across. Hence the terminal irony of Anarchy: Its author’s audible smugness in favor of libertarianism was underwritten by a most un-libertarian arrangement—i.e., the postwar social compact of high marginal taxation and massive transfers of private wealth in the name of the very “public good” Nozick decried as nonexistent.

And the screw takes one last turn: By allowing for the enormous rise in (relative) income and prestige of the upper white collar professions, Keynesianism created the very blind spot by which professionals turned against Keynesianism. Charging high fees as defended by their cartels, cartels defended in turn by universities, universities in turn made powerful by the military state, many upper-white-collar professionals convinced themselves their pre-eminence was not an accident of history or the product of negotiated protections from the marketplace but the result of their own unique mental talents fetching high prices in a free market for labor. Just this cocktail of vanity and delusion helped Nozick edge out Rawls in the marketplace of ideas, making Anarchy a surprise best-seller, it helped make Ronald Reagan president five years later. So it was the public good that killed off the public good.

Credit for the first link is given to the Ius Honorarium blog.

On having more kids

7 07 2011

This article is the suggested reading for this post.

Reading certain conservative cultural sites, one problem that they see particularly in developed societies is that people are not having children. The logic (which I do see) goes that if we are to have any sort of safety net, we need actual workers working in order to support all of the retired workers or those who can’t work. Fair enough, the math is pretty easy in that regard. But if you take societies where the unemployment rate is 10-20% for the general population, and higher among young people (those of childbearing age), then what incentive do people have to start a family? In other words, I see how the evil Pill and rampant fornication on the part of my parents’ generation may have got us into this mess considering current economic laws and expectations. I just don’t see how such laws can get us out of them. It just seems a nice example of Monday morning quarterbacking.

In the short term, I don’t view this solution as being anything more than advocacy for the expansion and worsening of the working class slum. And no one is going to do that voluntarily. People can argue that this is what we have to do to pay the piper. We’ve been living high off the hog for far too long, and people have to start producing eight children with no visible safety net so they can all compete for the meager jobs that are left. That, and going back on the gold standard and abolishing the central bank. That will solve the problem.

That just seems like the economics of fantasy land.

I make a modest lower middle class income. I don’t think it would be a good idea for me to have more than two kids. If I have more, God should come down and slap me upside the head.

Spiritual not religious

27 06 2011

My wife and I recently saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. To get right into it, I don’t think this is a religious film. Most religious reviewers would like to see films like this as a religious film since they are starved of any popular phenomena that reflect their own biases. These “religious” biases are also influenced by pietist concerns of the devotio moderna in which any given encounter must be pigeonholed into a “burning in the bosom” for Jesus, or whether or not it edifies. “Contemplation” is a whole other thing. I would argue that God is completely absent from this film, and Malick only employs religious themes only insofar as they are used to articulate a philosophical point of view.

A few words should be said about the mechanics of the film and plot. In terms of the actual filmmaking, I was impressed but not floored by the scope of the first hour of this movie. The opening scenes take us from the house of a family that has just suffered the tragic loss of one of their sons, to the creation of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. Much of the imagery is grandiose, though I told my wife afterwards that the temptation for me was to see it in the same light as one sees those Imax presentations in museums on the death of the dinosaurs or hurricanes on the bayou. But these episodes never got to the point of kitsch in this film. Perhaps the most effective scenes came after this contemplation of cosmogony, when we see the emergence of a young family living in Waco, Texas, in the 1950’s. Scenes of birth, sleep, and play take the viewer back to his or her own childhood, and are shot with a contemplative care that make these images by far the best of the film.
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9 06 2011

I have a fascination with the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu, though I don’t uncategorically praise all of them. In fact, I think his films have been going downhill since his first film, Amores Perros, in 2000. I still consider his first to be his best film, with 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006) being of far inferior quality in my opinion. 21 Grams, another story about how an accident changes the lives of people, is at least watchable. Babel is, for lack of a better way of putting it, a preposterous movie, one that collapsed under the weight of its own ambition. The most elementary critique that one could make of Babel is that human beings in real life would never act that way. A couple would never just up and leave their two kids with their undocumented nanny for an unforeseen amount of time. Such undocumented nanny would not risk crossing the border back into Mexico expecting that she could just waltz back over the border with two gringo kids in tow. In my opinion, Babel was a sprawling mess weighed down by its own pretension. I found the movie to be barely watchable.

Thankfully, González Iñárritu’s trajectory as a filmmaker has swung a bit upward with his newest film, Biutiful (2010). Here the Mexican director and producer abandons the many interlocking stories technique to just focus on one story: that of a dying man trying to do the right thing, only to be frustrated by the hands of fate at every turn. As in the other films, there are no satisfying endings, no conclusions that make one unambiguously empathetic with any one character. And, as in Amores Perros and Babel, one of the real stars of the show is the neo-liberal capitalist social order itself: one in which society seems to be falling apart, and it is every man for himself. Even within these situations, González Iñárritu’s films show people trying to search for very traditional things (love, justice, redemption), even in their own distorted and frustrated ways.
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On incentives

7 06 2011

I stole this from my cousin. I just thought that it was interesting.

Phyllis et Aristotles

11 05 2011

ONCE upon a time, Aristotle taught Alexander that he should restrain himself from frequently approaching his wife, who was very beautiful, lest he should impede his spirit from seeking the general good. Alexander acquiesed to him. The queen, when she perceived this and was upset, began to draw Aristotle to love her. Many times she crossed paths with him alone, with bare feet and disheveled hair, so that she might entice him.

At last, being enticed, he began to solicit her carnally. She says,

“This I will certainly not do, unless I see a sign of love, lest you be testing me. Therefore, come to my chamber crawling on hand and foot, in order to carry me like a horse. Then I’ll know that you aren’t deluding me.”

When he had consented to that condition, she secretly told the matter to Alexander, who lying in wait apprehended him carrying the queen. When Alexander wished to kill Aristotle, in order to excuse himself, Aristotle says,

If thus it happened to me, an old man most wise, that I was deceived by a woman, you can see that I taught you well, that it could happen to you, a young man.”

Hearing that, the king spared him, and made progress in Aristotle’s teachings.

AND they lived happily ever after. Source

The Linguists

5 05 2011

I liked this film very much. It reminds me of my suggestion to my in-laws to stick a tape recorder in front of my wife’s dying grandmother to get some words of her Creole French on a recording for posterity. (They say it can’t be released, because it is a conversation between her and my wife’s father fussing about a relative.) Such things make me sad. Even though French is not a dying language, it is in these parts.

On perverse fantasies

4 05 2011

The only real Ayn Rand I ever read was the horrible novel, Anthem. However, when I learned recently what the plot of Atlas Shrugged is about, I was more than a little amused. So, as I understand it, the government gets “too big” and all the talented people, the business leaders, actors, etc., go “on strike”, dissappear, sort of the same spirit of “you won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore”. That’s really too damn funny. It reminds me of the anecdote that Zizek tells in the book, The Sublime Object of Ideology, where he mentions how some magnate asked why one of his managers never took a vacation. The manager explained that if he took a vacation, things might fall apart without him. To that, the magnate replied, “Don’t worry, I am sure things will be fine without you.”

“That’s the other reason,” the manager replied.
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San Honesto

2 05 2011

A totally made-up “folk saint” whose story can be found here.