Why Is Our Intelligentsia Getting Dumber?
February 28, 2011, 11:03 pm
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On Libya, the New York Times opens an article like this:

BENGHAZI, Libya — Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces struck back on three fronts on Monday, using fighter jets, special forces units and regular army troops in an escalation of hostilities that brought Libya closer to civil war.

I don’t know any other way to read this than that the New York Times doesn’t think what is occurring in Libya right now is a civil war. Events are bringing it “closer to” a civil war but it’s not one right now.

This is symptomatic of what I’ve complained about many times: Almost everyone in the West, especially among the intelligentsia, seems to have utterly forgotten basic, common-sense facts and simple knowledge about warfare. If what’s occurring in Libya right now isn’t “civil war”, then I don’t know what the heck is. People who don’t understand that – it’s not clear what they do understand about warfare.

I can only conjecture that the NYT is unsure it’s okay to call what’s happening in Libya a “civil war” because it doesn’t quite seem to fit the template laid out in movies like Gone With the Wind and Glory. Doesn’t there need to be a pitched-battle in a muddy field like Gettysburg, and legs getting cut off due to gangrene, in order to call something a “civil war”?

This is similar to how the entire intelligentsia still – here and now, in 2011 – refers to the situation in Iraq as “The Iraq War” (tm/2003). Ask anyone. People still discuss and speak about whether they agree with “The Iraq War”. That’s because, as everyone knows, there’s an “Iraq War” going on right now – which one? – “The” Iraq War. And why, you might ask, is there an “Iraq War”? Because the United States has soldiers stationed in Iraq. No one can conceive of the war being over, and us having won it (which actually occurred with the capture of Saddam Hussein), because it doesn’t fit their template of ‘winning a war’, which – as far as I can tell – comes from the ending of the original Star Wars trilogy: big thing is exploded, the Emperor is tossed down an endless pit, and all the people cheer, because there’s now permanent peace. Unless/until that happens, you can’t “win” a war, so the war can’t be over, so it’s still going on.

Describe the events of Iraq to a person plucked from 200 years ago, and they’d go: “I see. So, let me summarize: the U.S. successfully invaded, occupied the country, decimated and scattered the army, and the former leader was captured. I gather the U.S. won, then.”

Similarly, describe the events of Libya today, and they’d instantly recognize it as a civil war.

So the question is: why are people today dumber than people of 200 years ago?

My Oscar Goes To The Funny One
February 27, 2011, 11:17 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’m not a big believer in the idea that the Oscar is any genuine measure of a movie or an actor in the first place. But if we must take Oscar seriously, then I would point out what I think is its most glaring deficiency: the short shrift given to comedy.

Not an expert but I reckon that being funny on film has got to be one of the more difficult things to pull off in movies. It truly takes skill and talent. Lots of people can fake at being all pouty or sad that such and such Dramatic Thing happened. But not a lot of people, when you get right down to it, can actually be funny in a movie.

When they do, and are, I’d like to see them get Oscars. Why don’t they? Well because Oscars are too Serious and take themselves so Seriously that they’d be embarrassed to do it. At most they’ll give it to a comedy if the comedy gets all solemn and tear-jerky near the end (for example, Life Is Beautiful.) This is just one of many reasons that Oscars are meaningless, but it’s a big one.

Let’s look at 2004’s awards (honoring films from 2003). Here were the Best Actor nominees: Sean Penn for Mystic River, Ben Kingsley for House of Sand and Fog, Bill Murray for Lost In Translation (who got in via the ‘solemnness’ comedy exception), Jude Law for Cold Mountain, and Johnny Depp for Pirates (which, ok, fair enough). Sean Penn won for some movie you’re never going to watch again for like the 5th time and there you go. Whoop de doo. Raise your hands, how many of you want to go back and rewatch Mystic River because Sean Penn was so damn Oscary in it? (And how many of you even remember anything at all about Law in Cold Mountain?)

I submit that the winner should have been….Jack Black, for School of Rock (which I also think ought to have won Best Picture). The problem is that Black isn’t a Serious Actor, so he wasn’t considered. But he should have been. With all due respect to Mr. Kingsley who did well enough as that Iranian guy, no single actor that year stood out as much in a movie performance as Black.

Let’s go back and identify some other great comedy performances – and compare them to the actual Oscar winners:

2004 – Jon Heder, Napoleon Dynamite. (winner – Jamie Foxx for Ray)
2003 – Jack Black vs Sean Penn
1999 – Ron Livingston, Office Space. (winner – Kevin Spacey, American Beauty)
1998 – Jeff Bridges, Big Lebowski. (winner – Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful)
1997 – Mike Myers, Austin Powers. (winner – Jack Nicholson, As Good as it Gets)
1990 – Macaulay Culkin, Home Alone. (winner – Jeremy Irons for Reversal of Fortune)
1988 – Leslie Nielsen, The Naked Gun. (winner – Dustin Hoffman for Rain Man)
1983 – Eddie Murphy, Trading Places. (winner – Robert Duvall for Tender Mercies)
1982 – Sean Penn, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. (supporting actor winner – Louis Gossett Jr)
1979 – Bill Murray, Meatballs. (winner – Dustin Hoffman for Kramer v Kramer)
1978 – John Belushi, Animal House. (supporting actor winner – Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter)

Now, I don’t say that every guy on my Comedy List was better than the actual Oscar winner, and some of the matchups here are tricky. I’ll give my props to Walken and Duvall – those were their best performances after all. And choices like Culkin, or Nielsen, may seem downright stupid (though I can kinda defend them – they left their mark, didn’t they?).

But imagine that, for each pair, you had to go back and watch one of them again. Is it so much of a stretch to think you’d pick more from the comedy list? And mightn’t that say something? Which list contains more performances that stand out in your mind as distinctive, as good performances? I know my answer…

Data About Music

By popular acclaim, here is some DATA for your DATA processing pleasure. Because nothing says music and artistry appreciation like DATA!

Out of curiosity – or simply because I’m just the sort of nerd to do something like this – I threw my iPod listening history into a pivot table and, where necessary, grouped artists together by one-degree-of-separation associations (for example the top item, which is 1/6th of what I have ever listened to, are all groups that contain Jack White, Brendan Benson, or both).

I think it’s clear this shows me to be a not-well-rounded, non-diverse music listener of high order, not likely to impress a SWPL diversophile anytime soon (for one thing, the list is very white. No Kanye West whatsoever! In fact, I think the only nonwhite you’ll be able to find below is a Brazilian, singing in Portguese – singing David Bowie songs).

Measuring this way (by number-of-songs-listened), a third of my listening is accounted for by essentially three acts, and fully half of what I listen to ultimately comes from seven sources: the aforementined White/Benson axis, the Canadian band Sloan, Tim Rogers or his band You Am I, Dr. Frank or his band the Mr. T Experience, Green Day or the albums they’ve released incognito, the Easybeats (? I guess because they’re the canonical iTunes band – also, because their songs are short, it’s easy to rack up listens), and various projects having something to do with what I still think of as my favorite band of all time, Redd Kross.  It’s even less diverse than it appears, because there are numerous incestuous collaborations with the preceding that I probably haven’t accounted for (for example, for reasons too boring to go into if you don’t already know them, one could justify merging Jason Falkner into the Brendan Benson category, the Posies in with Big Star, the Muffs and the Mr. T Experience, Beck and Redd Kross, etc.) I just noticed that I didn’t merge Fountains of Wayne with Tinted Windows, but kinda should have. Then of course you could expand the metric: didn’t Redd Kross tour with Teenage Fanclub? And didn’t they cover a Shangri-Las song or two?

But I’ll spare you.

Races:  white, white and white.  Countries:  U.S., Canada, Australia, and (further down) a bunch of Englands. 

Music:  Rock and/or roll.

(Compare and contrast: President Obama’s supposed iTunes playlist circa 2008. Couldn’t find a more recent one, presumably because whatever interns a guy like that has to construct things like this have been too busy to brainstorm, agree on, and focus-group such a list recently…)

The full list is below (for brevity, I’ve truncated a long tail of one-play-wonders, but this shows 98% of all plays), summarized by number-of-songs-played, as a percent of the total. And before you say it, I already know what you’re thinking:

You’re thinking, “FASCINATING”.


Grouping Total
White Stripes/Raconteurs/Brendan Benson/Dead Weather 16.8%
Sloan 9.5%
You Am I/Tim Rogers 6.0%
The Mr. T Experience/Dr. Frank 5.7%
Green Day/Foxboro Hottubs 5.0%
The Easybeats 3.9%
Redd Kross/Malibu Kids/Anna Waronker 3.8%
Rocket From The Crypt 3.2%
Elliott Smith 3.2%
ex-Jellyfish (Jason Falkner/Roger Manning/TV Eyes) 2.9%
The Shangri-Las 2.2%
Weezer 2.2%
Warren Zevon 2.1%
Fountains Of Wayne 2.1%
Teenage Fanclub 1.9%
Macklemore 1.8%
The Muffs 1.7%
Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra & Jansug Kakhidze 1.4%
Mike Patton 1.4%
Matthew Sweet 1.4%
Gene Clark 1.3%
The Hi-Fives 1.2%
Big Star 1.1%
Sam Roberts 1.1%
CAKE 1.0%
Weird Al 1.0%
The Vandals 1.0%
Pulp 0.9%
Superdrag 0.9%
ex-Jayhawks (Gary Louris, Mark Olson) 0.8%
Joan Jett & The Blackhearts 0.8%
Beck 0.8%
Squeeze 0.8%
T.Rex 0.8%
Tinted Windows 0.8%
Seu Jorge 0.8%
The Dickies 0.7%
Sweet 0.7%
Suede 0.7%
David Holmes 0.6%
Utah Symphony Orchestra & Maurice Abravanel 0.5%
Badfinger 0.5%
Alphaville 0.5%
Spacehog 0.5%
John Grant 0.3%


Andromeda Klein
February 27, 2011, 3:53 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

Excellent fan-made video for the author-made theme song to one of my favorite children’s books.

Bill Clinton, Right-Wing Menace
February 27, 2011, 2:47 pm
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Maybe I’ve missed it but few seem to have noticed that the recent bold, historic, progressive Obama Administration initiatives have ended up being repudiations of no one so much as…the Clinton Administration led by his Secretary Of State’s husband.

It was Bill Clinton who implemented “don’t ask don’t tell”. It was Bill Clinton who signed the Defense Of Marriage Act. (I might add that he also blockaded and repeatedly bombed Iraq, believing them to have WMD programs, and also signed ‘welfare reform’.) To hear the Left today, these were evil, repressive, right-wing policies, and reversing them was of the highest priority.

I’m left wondering why exactly the Left ever liked Bill Clinton at all. Was it just the (D) after his name? Flash back to 1998: Clinton was impeached, and the Left threw a hissy fit, successfully arguing against conviction, of this man whose policies they obviously hate.

Had Clinton been successfully convicted, what would have happened? Al Gore would have become President. And one might argue he would have won re-election easily in 2000. Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?

What exactly was the Clinton adulation and knee-jerk defense based on? Because evidently it wasn’t the substance of his policies.

This Year’s Goldstein II
February 27, 2011, 2:22 pm
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What I’m trying to get at with the Emmanuel Goldstein post is how strange it is that the Left so often becomes so personality-focused in their counterarguments to right-wing proposals. I say (or more likely/more feasibly, some politician says) ‘let’s do policy X’. Sooner or later, we’ll find that the Left’s response is not that policy X is bad because of reasons ABC, but that the politician advancing it is a bad person.

Let’s say you convince me that that Wisconsin governor guy (whose name escapes me) is a bad person because he took that phone call. Do you think I feel compelled to defend him against your petty attack? What do I care. I have nothing invested in what’s-his-name per se. And it’s not like I’m related to him or anything. It’s not like I’ve married all of my ideas to that particular individual. Similarly, let’s say you convince me that proves that he’s in thrall to the ‘Koch brothers’ (whoever they are) who, you convince me, are super-bad people.

Now what? What the hell do you think you will have proved about public-sector unions? The mind boggles.

The Metric Is Not The Goal
February 27, 2011, 2:28 am
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A side eddy that came up in the below-mentioned free trade debate is this notion of ‘GDP-maximization’ as a symbol for what is (purportedly) wrong with liberal economics. Foseti says that there are/should be other values besides simply maximizing ‘GDP’ (here serving as a stand-in for wealth). Aretae says economic growth rate is the god-metric.

Once again – and I’m sorry I know this is getting really annoying – but they’re both right. If you focus on ‘GDP’ (or any similar, actually-existing metric) and construct policies around trying to maximize it, or that you think would maximize it in your thought-experiment, seems to me you are indeed likely to end up with some warped outcomes, that antiliberal skeptics can and will point to, as a weak link in your free-market armor, as evidence that liberal economics ignores (what Foseti terms) ‘higher values’.

Yet I still agree with Aretae that economic growth should be the goal! How can this be?

Growth should indeed be the goal. It’s just that we can’t measure it worth shit. We can’t measure anything worth shit, because these aggregate metrics and statistics are all the result of large calculations by nice-comfy-job’ed well-enough-meaning Smart People, and all large calculations are wrong. What we can do is use reason and economic common sense, to understand which policies are likely to point in the right direction. And then make convincing arguments for those polices, based on reason and economic common sense (NOT statistics like ‘GDP’).

And the right direction is, undeniably, economic liberalism, which is to say, the free market, which is to say, freedom. This is probably why it remains true, as Bryan Caplan wrote, that the more people understand and have knowledge about economics (as opposed to ‘GDP’ or something), the more economically liberal they are.

But if you think ‘GDP’ is a synonym for wealth and ‘GDP growth’ is a synonym for economic growth, and/or if you think that economic liberals actually believe in ‘GDP’ or otherwise only look at part of the picture, then Foseti’s appeal to these or those ‘higher concerns’ left unsatisfied by liberal economics has undeniable appeal. But of course ‘GDP’ is just a made-up metric; surely it’s designed to capture something interesting and meaningful, and does an ok job in the main, but even if measured perfectly it’s ultimately – necessarily – an imperfect approximation to the thing it’s meant to signify. (Interesting discussion of some conceptual problems with the GDP construct, which I have no doubt only scratches the surface, is here.) And we can’t and don’t measure it perfectly anyway. But this is sort of a red herring. GDP is just a metric.

So let’s address one of Foseti’s ‘higher concerns’, the externality caused by an Oregon teenager being unemployed when he could be pumping gas due to their full-service-gas-station requirements. The idea being, a ‘you can’t pump your own gas law’, in creating a job for that teenager, could be better than the nominally ‘GDP-increasing’/efficient solution of not having such a law. Do I agree with Foseti that an unemployed young person is a problem? Of course. Do I think the ‘GDP-maximizing’ mentality could lead one to render the teen unemployed with no (or, insufficient) associated benefit? Sure, perhaps. But do I agree with Foseti that such laws therefore make sense? I absolutely do not.

If that teen being unemployed causes an externality, that externality, by definition, is destroying wealth one way or another (this is what externality means). Foseti would probably say that the sort of ‘wealth’ it’s destroying won’t necessarily show up in ‘GDP’, but that’s merely a statement of the incompleteness of ‘GDP’ as a measure of wealth – not a proof that increasing wealth isn’t a good goal. And if it’s destroying so much wealth that it’d be better just to have a self-service ‘tax’ (in the form of that law), then having the self-service law would be the wealth-maximizing solution. It may or may not be the ‘GDP-maximizing’ solution, but if it’s not, that’s (in this hypothetical) a knock against GDP as a metric of what it’s meant to measure. Basically, Foseti in citing an ‘externality’ is saying, every bit as much as Aretae did, that the best policy is the one that maximizes wealth; it’s just that it may not maximize GDP (in which case GDP is failing to capture something important about wealth).

But it would not be so if ‘GDP’ were a perfect metric – if it really were the god-metric. Using the god-metric, the best policy would always show up on top. It’s just that we can’t build, let alone measure, the god-metric.

This all sounds pretty tautological, which it is, which is why once I figured this out I stopped getting into these sorts of discussions.

The ultimate problem for Foseti’s case is that he needs to actually establish his claim – namely, that the externality of the unemployed Oregon teen outweighs the economic damage caused by the inefficient no-self-service law. Unless I missed it, he hasn’t. This would require actual economic argument. Economic liberals have the argument that, if the teen pumping gas were the economically-preferred solution, then people would have been paying up for full service already. Foseti instead just substitutes a call to ‘higher concerns’. And he’s clearly correct that that’s what people do, when they oppose liberal economics as cold and not responsive to other human values. They say that an obsessive focus on ‘GDP’ leads to the neglect of other important values. Is that true? Of course it is. ‘GDP’ sucks, it’s just some human-constructed number that to be measured and calculated, and all large calculations are wrong.

But that doesn’t mean that economic growth shouldn’t be the goal, and it’s not an excuse for substituting your ‘higher concerns’ for those of other people – especially the ones that show up in market prices. Essentially, if you think ‘GDP’ is an imperfect metric, I’m with you, but if you want me to support policy X as economically preferable, you still need to convince me – with actual economic argument – that it increases efficiency and wealth (broadly defined – and I’m willing to entertain quite broad notions of ‘wealth’). But this is hard to do if you make no reference to – or, worse, ignore and wave away as meaningless – revealed preferences whatsoever.

‘GDP’ certainly is, and market prices may be too, an imperfect metric for the thing they represent. I am nothing if not skeptical – to the extent that I can pretty fairly be accused of being an anti-intellectual know-nothingist – of human-created metrics. But at the end of the day, even I think – especially – market prices are probably better than your waving of hands. In short, if you really think it’s so beneficial for the teen to pump your gas, then feel free to express that value – that ‘higher concern’ – by reaching into your pocket and paying full service.


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