Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Importance of Profits

For many people, the word "profit" evokes visions of rich robber barons, and greedy tycoons colluding to steal wealth from everyone else.  It's a word that is even synonymous with "greed" in a lot of minds.  Profit - according to some - is merely a "motive", propelling villains to choose the shady acquisition of money over the welfare of other people.

But is this really true?

Sure, dreams of being successful motivate everyone to one degree or another...  No one starts a business to lose money!

But profits are so much more than simply a reason for people to start a business.   There are plenty of reasons to do that...

Profits are actually an extremely important feedback mechanism which helps producers determine whether or not they are making & selling things people want at prices they're willing to pay. This information enables investors & business-owners to make complex market decisions... Decisions that could never be made without knowledge provided by observing profits & losses.

As economist Steve Horwitz wrote:[1]
"What critics of the profit motive almost never ask is how, in the absence of prices, profits, and other market institutions, producers will be able to know what to produce and how to produce it. The profit motive is a crucial part of a broader system that enables producers and consumers to share knowledge in ways that other systems do not."
How do producers decide to build houses instead of office buildings, cargo ships  or cruise ships?  How do they know if their business is providing customers with what they want or if they are wasting their time producing something no one likes or offering services no one needs?[2]

Profits & losses provide producers with knowledge of their success or failure - as judged by their own consumers.[3]

Likewise, prices provide us with information on what people value.  A product that commands a higher price means that there is more demand for the product than there is supply available.  Information provided by free prices has another benefit... It helps both producers and consumers make decisions about how to use their limited resources.  For producers, high prices encourage increased production - for consumers, high prices encourage limited consumption.[4]

This way, the supply of goods and the demand for them are always moving towards each other. Where supply & demand meet is what economists call "equilibrium".

However, the story doesn't end there.

Where all this gets confusing is that many corporations find free market competition to be too difficult.  Instead, some businesses prefer to obtain profits without actually offering consumers something of value.  They accomplish this by lobbying their friends in government for special favors - such as subsidies, tax exemptions, or other protection from competitors.[5]

Unfortunately, government has the power to take money by force from their citizens, so when laws are written which redirect money to favored companies, the government is also destroying the valuable information that profits & losses provide.  Thus government involvement has the power to radically distort market signals[6] and artificially promote the misallocation of resources.[7]

Profits & losses generated in a free market are crucially important and provide the information all of us need to make sound economic decisions every day.

* * * * *
Works Cited: 
  1. Horwitz, Steven G. "Profits: Not Just a Motive." The Freeman 58.2 (2008), pp. 21-23. The Freeman Online. Mar. 2008. Web. 28 Feb. 2010.
  2. Hayek, Friedrich A. "The Use of Knowledge in Society." 1945. Library of Economics and Liberty. Retrieved March 1, 2010 from the World Wide Web:
  3. Hazlitt, Henry. Economics in one lesson. New York: Arlington House, 1979. Print. "The Function of Profits", pp. 144-147. (PDF)
  4. "Price Signal." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 01 Mar. 2010.
  5. Stossel, John. "Big Government's Cronies." Reason Magazine. Reason Foundation, 4 Feb. 2010. Web. 28 Feb. 2010.
  6. Reisman, George. Capitalism: a treatise on economics. Ottawa, Ill: Jameson , Distributed by LPC Group, 1996. Print."Profits and the Repeal of Price Controls", pp. 180-183. (PDF).
  7. Mises, Ludwig Von, Murray N. Rothbard, Gottfried Haberler, and Friedrich A. Hayek. The Austrian Theory of the Trade Cycle and Other Essays. Auburn: Ludwig Von Mises Inst, 1996. Print. (PDF)

4Chan for Liberty

4 Chan just amused me... On a political thread on /b/ (typically NSFW) started about Ron Paul drumming up some support for liberty, some subsequent poster says, quote:
"H.L. Mencken once wrote: "There's a simple solution for all human problems: neat, plausible, and wrong."

If anyone does succeed in starting a real revolution to overthrow the government, you're absolutely fucked. Why? Because now you have to lead. Good luck trying to figure that out. It's not easy. Ron Paul and libertarians in general paint this black-and-white picture. It's simple, and plausible, and wrong."
But amusingly enough.... H.L. Mencken was a libertarian and about as anti-government as you can get ;)

In fact, Mencken is responsible for many of my favorite quotes... For instance:
"All government, of course, is against liberty."
"I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time."
Me too.  At any rate, Mencken's point was that people, and politicians in particular, oversimplify solutions to problems because they treat people not as individuals, but as demographic groups.  Thus it's easy to whitewash millions of people's issues into a one-size-fits all solution.  THAT is precisely what libertarianism rejects, and it instead embraces the idea that we are all individuals who should be free to set our *own* values, goals and find the solutions to our problems in ways that best reflect those things.  How to provide for millions of people's individual wants & needs is an extremely complex problem.

But when the state is involved, the solution is always "neat, plausible, and wrong".  Want some examples?

Take the financial crisis: Not enough money or credit available?  Hell, that's easy... Print more money!  Take health care: Not enough people can afford insurance?  Just take money from "rich" people to pay for it!  What about college education, home ownership, eco-friendly cars, etc.: Want more people to have those things? Just subsidize all of them!

Problem is, each of these "solutions" is built on two severe flaws.  For one thing, each and everyone ignores the long-term consequences of those actions:  Printing more money results in inflation and the misallocation of resources.  Taxing the so-called "rich" (which anymore means basically upper middle class) at higher and higher levels has diminishing revenue effects (i.e. Laffer Curve) when the rich start leaving the country, shifting assets & income into other, safer, settings and taking the jobs they provide with them.  It also removes the incentives middle class people have from working harder (e.g., if you're taxed at 30% on $100k a year, you take home $70k... If you're taxed at 50% on $140k a year, you take home... $70k.  Given that most people have to work significantly harder for the $140k a year job, what's the point?) and thus the median income continually decreases.  And don't even get me started on the distortions in the market caused by subsidies... I would think that the recent housing crisis should have been enough to disillusion people of the notion that government can produce better outcomes than people interacting freely and voluntarily with each other.

What's worse though, is that every top-down "solution" inherently eliminates individual human beings the freedom to decide for themselves how best to run their lives.


I can't link to 4Chan, cause by the time I do, the thread will have already disappeared given the fleeting, ephemeral nature of the site.

Funny thing is, that poster wasn't entirely wrong - usually when a revolution happens, someone "has to" (by which I mean, does) take charge.  But where the poster falls flat on his face with that aspect of his comment, is that in the libertarian dream-world where government encompasses only a small are of people's lives, there is a very wide berth for every individual person to plan for themselves!  When bureaucrats are in charge of controlling what millions of people do, OF COURSE it's difficult!  But the entire point of the libertarian idea - especially coming from F.A. Hayek and the like is that central planning fails precisely because it's impossible to know what other people's values, hopes & dreams are.

Politicians can't know what your goals in life are any more than they can know how soon you're going to run out of milk this week.  So the assumption that we should be looking to politicians of any kind for that kind of leadership is completely absurd - but it is the underlying assumption for most of the world's population.

The trick with any idea of "revolution", as usual, is making sure people understand all this going in and that we wind up with a repeat of George Washington (who abhorred the notion of becoming a tyrant and passionately stepped down from power when he could have been a permanent king) instead of a repeat of Napoleon.  If the "Ron Paul Revolution" were to ever actually take place the whole point of it would be that afterward, people in America get to run their own lives again, so the type of "leadership" (or more accurately; authoritarian domination) required would actually be rather minimal.

And as an added bonus, the economy and people's ability to engage in peaceful social activities that harm no one would be immensely improved.  It's always worth noting that freedom is not only a value that should be held for its own sake, it's also the source of just about everything that is good and functional within the human condition.

So... MOAR PLZ!!!

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Dog's Life (Vets vs. Doctors)

From Reason.TV, Ted Balaker explains some good stuff on health care:

I'm a Criminal... Again.

I'm so damn sick of Los Angeles sometimes... I've never gotten into an accident here, I've never robbed anyone, I've never injured a single other human the entire time I've lived in this city.  I've not started any fights, I've not even ever double parked in this town.

Yet.  I am a criminal.

Today I unquestionably broke the law... It's true, I admit it.  So you might be asking yourself, what happened??  Did you shoot anyone in a fit of rage?  Did your anti-government angst finally get the best of you and cause you to fly a plane into the local IRS building?

No. I sure didn't.

I drove through a red light... And for my transgression, I may very likely wind up with an extremely hefty ticket, as I distinctly saw the flashes Big Brother's cameras lashing out at me from their perch on the metal pole to which the stop light was affixed.

I committed such an egregious offense today because, quite frankly... The sun was in my eyes.  Anti-climactic, huh?  Yeah...

In the late afternoon, I was returning home from a lunch meeting with a good friend and another buddy of his (who, I should mention, brought his father along and both were delightful and really good people to be around).  I took a brief (and rather accidental) detour through Los Feliz, before continuing my relatively short journey home from Silverlake.  It was about 20 minutes before 5pm and I found myself traveling West on Sunset Blvd., and well... The sun was on its way down for the day (as happens in February around here).

Unfortunately, in spite of my sunglasses, it was very hard to see the stoplight near (or on... I can't quite remember) Vine Street.  So I did what most people normally do in these situations and simply followed the flow of traffic until the angle was right so that I could properly see the light.  The sun was at about 30o from the horizon, so naturally I had to be quite close to the light to actually see it properly...  As a result, once I got close enough, only then did I realize that it had just turned red, and that I would have to make a choice.

At that point, I could either:
  1. Slam on my brakes, screech to a stop some ways into the intersection - likely causing not only an accident, but a traffic jam as well.  Or...
  2. Proceed through the intersection in violation of the law.
Obviously I chose option number two.  

Now... It seems to me that in the age of reasonable legal statutes, I would have essentially done the right thing.  Sure, I might deserve some kind of warning to be more cautious, pay more attention, or to simply not drive into the sun in the future.  And believe me, all of those warnings would be taken into consideration.  Perhaps if a judge or policeman were feeling particularly severe or felt I endangered people (I didn't), then a small fine might have been in order.  Ok.  I can handle that...  

However, we live in the age of the traffic camera.  And if there's one really awesome thing about those things, from the point of view of the State, they cost very little and yet bring in literally millions of dollars for the city each year.  The law here is less about protecting individual rights or safety, and much, much more geared towards draining the citizens of every available dollar to feed the over-extended monsters that are the State of California & the City of Los Angeles.  So instead of a slap on the wrist and a small fine... If in fact I do get a ticket from this red light camera, I am facing a whopping $449 fee.


Cool, huh?  Know what else is great?  There have been many studies done on red light camera intersections - and in almost every case, accidents at these intersections have increased!!  Check it out:

"The pitch is that these cameras will increase safety and reduce accidents. Also, the cities will make some money on the side at more than $400 a ticket!

In Los Angeles the LAPD claims accidents are down after they installed cameras, but are they telling the whole truth or just trying to make money off motorists?

We crunched the numbers and the results may surprise you...

...We looked at every accident at every red light camera intersection for six months of data before the cameras were installed and six months after.

The final figures? Twenty of the 32 intersections show accidents up after the cameras were installed!"
Want more?

Here's the blog Camerafraud's Take.

The governments in Los Angeles and in every other city where these things exist, predictably, claim that these cameras are reducing accidents.  And (also predictably) they lie through their teeth.  What's even more ridiculous is the fact that in many places, for example the Temple Terrace, Florida case (where accidents were up 133% at red light camera intersections) as blogged by Camerafraud, the police suspiciously stop keeping records after the cameras are installed... From the ABC article about the cameras in that city: 
"To be fair, we're not talking about a great deal of statistical evidence. Just a handful of accidents compared over a 5-month period year to year.

So why not get a larger sampling over a longer period of time to really see if accidents at red light cameras are up or down in Temple Terrace?

That would seem like the thing to do. But after that initial report showing accidents were up, police in Temple Terrace stopped keeping track."
Reminds me of talking to Radley Balko when I was trying to get statistics on police brutality for the CitizenA video on the confused sense of who is dangerous people seem to have... Yet another piece of information police departments conveniently fail to keep decent records on... Notice a pattern yet?

Virtually any time the data is in conflict with a method for the state to either extract more "revenue" from its citizens, or with the ability of agents of the state to exert more abusive power over the people, the state has a fun little tendency of avoiding ever collecting that data in the future.

Oh, and here's something else!  From
"Well, according to study after study, rather than improving motorist safety, red-light cameras significantly increase crashes and therefore, raise insurance premiums. In fact, the only studies that have shown any benefit to red-light cameras were either done by the IIHS…the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or researchers funded by them. How very strange, don’t you think?

The most recent study revealing the truth about the cameras was done by researchers at the University of South Florida College of Public Health.

“The rigorous studies clearly show red-light cameras don’t work,” said lead author Barbara Langland-Orban, professor and chair of health policy and management at the USF College of Public Health. “Instead, they increase crashes and injuries as drivers attempt to abruptly stop at camera intersections.”"
"The only studies that conclude cameras reduced crashes or injuries contained “major research design flaws,” such as incomplete data or inadequate analyses, and were always conducted by researchers with links to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The IIHS, funded by automobile insurance companies, is the leading advocate for red-light cameras since insurance companies can profit from red-light cameras by way of higher premiums due to increased crashes and citations."
And finally......
"A 2001 paper by the Office of the Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives reported that red-light cameras are “a hidden tax levied on motorists.” The report came to the same conclusions that all of the other valid studies have, that red-light cameras are associated with increased crashes and that the timings at yellow lights are often set too short to increase tickets for red-light running. That’s right, the state actually tampers with the yellow light settings to make them shorter, and more likely to turn red as you’re driving through them.

In fact, six U.S. cities [Union City, CA, Dallas and Lubbock, TX, Nashville and Chattanooga, TN, and Springfield, MO] have been found guilty of shortening the yellow light cycles below what is allowed by law on intersections equipped with cameras meant to catch red-light runners"
Seriously though... What the hell?  Let's recap, shall we?  I've hurt no one. I've caused $0 in property damage. I successfully avoided panicking and thereby causing an unnecessary accident.  I did not stop in the middle of the intersection and block traffic needlessly.  

What I did do, to be quite fair, is break the letter of the law and rudely prevent a few people from moving forward when it was in fact their right of way.  I feel bad about that, and I'm glad no one was hurt... But there was very little to be done about it and under the circumstances I think I made the best decision possible.

I expect to be rewarded for it with several more hours of my life wasted in L.A. traffic court and perhaps getting financially hosed in the process.  Awesome.

I'm sick of being a criminal in this town without ever actually harming anyone.  It may be time to leave.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bjorn Lomborg: Smackdown!

A book is apparently coming out in the relatively near future attacking Bjorn Lomborg's two main books critical of the environmental hysteria of the last few decades, "The Skeptical Environmentalist" and "Cool It".  This book is by Howard Friel and is called "The Lomborg Deception", purporting to debunk what appears to be a series of straw men.

Bravo, Mr. Fiel... Bravo.

What's ridiculous though is that Bjorn Lomborg has already written an excessively persuasive 27-page rebuttal to the book.  When "The Lombord Deception" comes out, I'm sure it will be well received by a number of people in the environmental catastrophe camp.  In fact, one such review has already landed - Newsweek's own Sharon Begley writes:
"I don't want to be as trusting as the reviewers who praised Lomborg's scholarship without (it seems) bothering to check his references, so rather than taking Friel at his word just as they took Lomborg at his, I've done my best to do that checking. Although Friel engages in some bothersome overkill, overall his analysis is compelling. Let me pick three of Lomborg's contentions that Friel pretty much blows out of the water."
Let me rephrase for Ms. Begley... What she was saying was that she didn't want to be as "gullible" as other reporters praising Lomborg's work and not fact-check Mr. Friel, and then proceeds to completely take 100% of Friel as accurate, no questions asked.


This is pretty typical, and let's be honest.  She's a writer for Newsweek.  Does anyone with a brain even read Newsweek?  Jesus that magazine is horrific... I don't even think it's suitable for dentist's offices.


At any rate, I don't need to defend Lomborg because he does so himself in one of the most amazing intellectual & literary smackdowns I've ever had the pleasure of reading.  Not only does it seem that Friel spends nearly the entire book arguing against things that Lomborg didn't actually say, he comes across as hugely incompetent in essentially every single aspect of scholarship.  Included in this are his basic understanding of charts & data tables, his basic mathematical ability and what's most distressing of all for a book dedicated to parsing footnotes and fact-checking - even Friel's research skills seem woefully subpar.

Repeatedly Friel apparently calls out Lomborg for inaccurate citations purely because he wasn't able to find a now 10-year old webpage...  In other words, Friel is either being ridiculously disingenuous or he's a complete n00b at teh interwebz.

I wouldn't be surprised at either...  At any rate, I encourage everyone to read Bjorn Lomborg's masterful takedown in all it's glory here: "A Response... (PDF)"  Now.  Unlike Begley, I make no bones about this "smackdown" conforming to my preordained expectations... But I challenge anyone to read it and not find it utterly persuasive.

More on this at by science correspondent Ron Bailey...  And also video of Lomborg talking about these things below:

The thing I love about Lomborg in general is that he's one of the few voices out there explaining that global warming, while potentially a problem, is solvable not by huge restrictions in liberty and massive new, centralized government control over everything - but by making sure people have the opportunity to use their available resources in ways that benefit them.  Unfortunately, this doesn't jive well with the apparent mission of most non-skeptical environmentalists, for far too many of whom, no amount of tyranny will ever be too much to accept in the name of "saving the planet".

The trouble, of course, is that like other economically illiterate morons, these folks don't grasp the consequences of the policies that they advocate on real human beings.  As a result, they don't really get how a government fix-all type solution works against the interests of most people (by willfully supplanting individual actions based on distinct, individual goals and dreams with forced collective ones based solely on the views of a few). Bjorn mentions water resources... People are increasingly worried that there will be a massive "water crisis" that plagues the world.

But who manages that, in virtually every single country on the planet?  Private individuals?  Hell no!

Governments manage water resources...  And they do an abysmal job, virtually without exception.  Part of it stems from a poor comprehension of basic economics, and thus we have a situation that essentially amounts to price-controls on water across the board.  What's this do?  Keeps the price of water near $0, for one thing... So you might think, "Fabulous, water should be free!" - but that artificial price leads people to obvious over-consumption.  Go figure...  However, people like Friel and many others, seem to be living under the delusion that you can do things to manipulate (and screw up) the economy with no negative side-effects, especially on things like the unemployment-rate.Lomborg, by contrast, always seems to realize that - so for him, it's about analyzing the trade-offs.

Lomborg's "radical" conclusions - the ones that get books like "The Lomborg Deception" written - are simply that 1. The environment and the human condition are improving on the whole, across the planet and have been for decades (truth). 2. It's better to be prosperous, free and solve problems with innovation than it is to blindly  destroy future growth & wealth in the name of an environmental crusade.

One would think that with the earthquake in Haiti being so recent in everyone's memory, people would wake up to the fact that natural disasters with seriously devastating effects tend to be devastating not because they were many magnitudes more severe than any previous disaster, but because the people effected are impoverished, have no accumulated wealth, and are thus incapable of preparing for or mitigating the catastrophe.  In fact, there have been a number of similarly severe earthquakes in my current home state of California...  Yet, in no case have hundreds of thousands been killed or have we seen half a million casualties.


Hint: It's not luck... Nor is it corrupt government officials making special deals with their buddies and looting the public.  (Point of fact; California's own situation with politicians looting the public treasury and putting increasingly painful burdens on the citizens here will impair our future ability to protect ourselves in the same way that Haiti's kleptocracy has kept the people impoverished for decades... That will be a fun time...)

Seriously though... Read the smack down, before I go permanently veering wildly off-topic.  It's great, credible, and worth the read.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

West Coast Road Trip Video!

I've finally completed the video of my brother and my 2009 Road-Trip.  Andy (brother) and I took all the photos & video, primarily with his little still camera - which is why there's the occasional artifacting with the video (sorry about that!).  Then I edited the video and wrote all the music from start to finish.

After watching it a billion times I have a few minor critiques of my own work but I am pretty happy with it and I hope you all enjoy.

Up NEXT: Finish "Profits" Video.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Spying on Students at Home? Why NOT!?

Holy crap.

Seriously... Here's some disturbing, Big Brother news for today... Boing Boing reports that students in the Lower Merion School District (in Pennsylvania) have been issued laptops by the school which...
"...have webcams that can be covertly activated by the schools' administrators, who have used this facility to spy on students and even their families. The issue came to light when the Robbins's child was disciplined for "improper behavior in his home" and the Vice Principal used a photo taken by the webcam as evidence. The suit is a class action, brought on behalf of all students issued with these machines."
I read stuff like this a few times a week, but almost never this severe.  This school is now fighting a class action lawsuit initiated by one of the students, Blake Robbins (brief HERE in PDF) against these charges.  Here's hoping justice prevails on this case one way or another.

In the meantime... Ugh!

Whinging About Wal-Mart

Reason magazine's Katherine Mangu-Ward points to the tree-killing publication "The Atlantic" regarding writer Michael Pollan's utter shock that Wal-Mart might have good quality produce rivaling that of Whole Foods.

Now... Wal-Mart's produce section was well known to me when I was in college and actually lived within a few miles of a Wal-Mart.  Alas, I live blocks away from a Whole Foods (and an even shorter distance from another, even better gourmet grocery store called Bristol Farms) and the nearest Wal-Mart is at least 20 miles away.  Being in Los Angeles, I've got no shortage of acceptable grocery options, but Wal-Mart's fantastic supply chain has alway made them the cheapest.

I don't really care about the dismay and mental anguish Mr. Pollan experienced finding out his preconceptions about Wal-Mart were largely baseless and stupid, as I suspect that were he to break away from the never-ending cliché that is the existence of most of the media, he would find that many of his notions are childishly naive and often based on prejudice.

Speaking of which... The the whole reason I'm blogging it at all is because of this...

DMXRoid|2.16.10 @ 4:54PM|

How did you miss the money quote in this article?
"In an ideal world, people would buy their food directly from the people who grew or caught it, or grow and catch it themselves."
Really? In an ideal world, instead of specializing at all, every human should devote their labor to acquiring food? People should be forced to catch and kill their own houses and computers too. Then we'd be in utopia.

JD|2.16.10 @ 5:01PM|

In an ideal world, I wouldn't have coffee or chocolate (not being likely able to buy directly from the people who grow it, seeing as how they're in the tropics and I'm not)? Methinks the person who wrote that sentence didn't think it through very carefully.

John|2.16.10 @ 5:02PM|

Good catch. My God that is a stupid statement. I guess if you didn't live on the coast, you wouldn't be eating any seafood. Live up north? You better learn how to can and pickle because it is going to be a long winter.

JW|2.16.10 @ 5:54PM|

What do you guys have against famine and limited choice?

Personally, I found that exchange to be hilarious...

But it is depressing how many people don't seem to get that it is division of labor that does almost everything great for humanity.  It is because I don't have to buy my produce directly from the guy who grew it that I can enjoy Asian (aka: Korean/Japanese/Apple) Pears, Cilantro, and the assortment of deliciously spicy chili peppers that are in my fridge and I didn't have to pay but a few dollars for all of the above-mentioned list of foods.

I wonder if the people who say idiotic things like that have the slightest clue of the consequences.  I have metal bed frame - should I have purchased that from a blacksmith instead of

I hope not... Since I don't know any blacksmiths, for one thing, but more importantly because the price would have easily exceeded my ability to pay and then my limited resources would be sucked up on one purchase instead of many, as Wal-Mart offers.  We all have limited resources, so the inefficiency that Pollan is naively suggesting is a good thing would be a death-nail for prosperity across the board.  Human capital is about time, effort & skills... And I don't have the skills to be a farmer, the interest in becoming a metal worker or the time to produce every single thing I use each day.

This idea that we should all happily return to some mythically serene agrarian lifestyle is not only insane, but it's  bafflingly stupid to boot.

There is nothing good about working 20 hours a day doing back-breaking labor, all year - winter snow, summer heat be damned - all just to barely survive.  Technology & division of labor is what makes life in the 21st Century so awesome.  I can spend my days doing things like writing music because someone else, who enjoys farming produces more than enough food and the comparative advantage of having it shipped to me through several intermediary 3rd parties is so great, that I can afford to live the life I want and not starve.

This is amazing.

Don't let any sanctimonious jerk tell you otherwise.

Monday, February 15, 2010

New Blog Series: "Bad Movie Logic"

I've been writing about media & intelligent reasoning for a long time and basically everyone who knows me knows that I care a lot (too much?) about bad ideas that make their way into movies. So I've decided to start a new series on this blog called "Bad Movie Logic". It will cover the ridiculous ideas in movies & TV that get overlooked by most people who accept stupidity in order to be entertained. Some of these will be big excursions into philosophy & psychology, some will be on economics and business organization, but the running theme will be stupidity written into entertainment.

I care because fundamentally all of the entertainment & media we consume affects how we think about the world. Sometimes that's great!

For instance, in the 1940's, the Superman radio show broadcast real Ku Klux Klan secret passwords (leaked by infiltrator Stetson Kennedy) to it's children audiences while Superman was battling the KKK on the air. As kids tend to do, much of America's youth wound up mimicking Superman's battles in front of their parents - some of whom were also Klan members. As the kids unwittingly revealed real secrets of the Klan in the presence of their family, they were also mocking the very institution that their parents belonged to.

Consequently, many of the kids' parents abandoned their KKK membership and activities because of the embarrassment of being ridiculed by their own children.

A strong case can be made that Superman Radio was instrumental in bringing about the destruction of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States - Not only because the parents were embarrassed, but because a whole generation of kids grew up idolizing a hero who battled against racism (and Communism, and Nazism, for that matter) each week.

Media has this amazing power to influence people - and depending on the ideas supported by it, entire generations of people can be taught to believe different things. Smart people will recognize the hazards of walking through life without considering the effects of the influences and attempt to correct for them. There are many influences we all grow up with which may or may not be intelligent or healthy... So obviously sometimes we need to spend some effort correcting for that. Unfortunately - many people do not develop the curiosity or motivation to do this.

So when the influences are good - like opposing collectivism in it's various "ism" forms (e.g. racism, sexism, nationalism, tribalism, or communism) - then people benefit and society is made better as a result.

Unfortunately... Sometimes these influences are not-so-great.

The world has changed much since the 40's, and Superman is just as likely to be a communist than he is to fight them.

Much of the media produced in the United States and around the world anymore is positively filled with horrendous ideas. I tend to focus on movies - like James Cameron's Avatar - where horrendous ideas are either expressed through bad economics, support for institutionalized violence or which depict humanity in implausible ways.

Over time, some of the clichéd fallacies that permeate the motion picture industry and the rest of the media become imbued in the general belief structure of the population. Though I hesitate to go Godwin, Joseph Goebbles understood this perfectly. A lot of modern Americans do not, however, and as a result society is filled with misinformation presented as basic premises time & time again and far too many people mill about not even realizing they're being affected by it.

Often this misinformation is kind of "harmless" (all ignorance has a cost) and amounts to urban legends, popular mythologies and little lies that really don't impact people's lives too much like ghost stories, JFK assassination plots or El Chupacabra. Usually people have at least enough decent sense to recognize when those kinds of things are just stories, but of course, there is always a part of the population who struggles with that... But these people aren't my concern...

Telling lies behind a proscenium or temporarily believing those lies as an audience member can actually be one of the best things in life. I'm not out to get riled up about art not depicting reality. I love Science-Fiction and Fantasy, I like Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and a thousand other films & books which depict impossible events.

But we all know they're impossible and suspension of that kind of disbelief is essential to some of the best stories ever told. It doesn't matter if the Force enables Yoda to levitate large objects, or that we can travel through space at a billion lightyears a second, or be carried out of danger by a magical Phoenix. If a story-teller makes these things part of his universe, who am I to argue? Creativity and imagination are wonderful things and help the best writers tell allegorical stories about humanity that are far more potent and universal than when we stick to reality as it is. Superman can fly, see through walls and lift a mountain, and that's perfectly fine.

What interests me is the presentation of the more harmful premises and ideas expressed in all types of movies that wrongly portray logic & human action. Within the universe that people inhabit, are their actions lining up with the character's motivations or incentives, and are basic premises that writers use to set up the metaphor for human life that they're depicting actually legitimate, or are they nonsense as well?

See, an allegory or morality-tale only works so well if it reflects something about real things that real people go through. Up to the point when Luke Skywalker found out that Darth Vader was his father (spoiler alert!), he had believed his father to have been killed by Vader, and that Vader was the embodiment of evil in the universe. If you found out a piece of information that rocked the very core of your beliefs, you too would likely shout "Nooooo! That's impossible!!!".

You might not fall 500' through the bowels of a floating city and get rescued by a Wookie... But I doubt very much you would accept such a world-altering piece of information any more pleasantly.

Point is; Skywalker's behavior is consistent with real human behavior - and as a result, he is empathetic and relevant to your experience as a human being. Even though you can't know what it's like to use a light-saber, you can know what it feels like to be betrayed... Thing is though, writers tend to be pretty good about the emotional stuff - the easy, human stuff. What they tend to be bad at is the stuff below the surface - stuff that takes some thought, some knowledge and perhaps even some mathematical aptitude.

As I already covered at length with Avatar, many filmmakers simply don't care enough or are not smart enough to think through any of that, and as a result, we get media of all types that play to idiotic misconceptions about the world that actually reflect human behavior inaccurately.  This translates to real life in important ways - for example in 2003, preconceptions about the wild, Hobbesian nature of humanity was on full display in the news media during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  We were all told stories of how there would be looting, riots & murders... Yet none of that happened on any meaningfully large scale.

So why was it just assumed that it would happen?

My guess: Movies & media have portrayed that as the inevitable result of lack of government "order" for decades.  It's not true, and it leads to bad premises about the world at large, and a poor understanding of human nature.  These bad premises wind up pervading society and affecting the way most people view the world, and unfortunately that general view seems to have taken a turn for the worse.

What I hope to gain by doing this at the very least is to have some fun and stretch my brain while talking about something I love - the multimedia arts. But if I'm lucky, I hope that a few people may actually learn from this, stop to analyze their own bad premises a little more often and reject the standard set of "truths" drilled into us all our whole lives. The cool thing about taking command of your own beliefs and really stopping to think about what you're being fed is that when an idea is good - like mocking and embarrassing members of the Ku Klux Klan - you can always keep doing it! But if an idea is bad and harmful, you can cull it from your mind and your actions and we'll all be better off because of it.

Now... Since I have no boss telling me what to write about, like all my other posts, these will probably appear whenever the idea or the mood strikes me. I hope my readers (all 9 of you!) find these segments amusing, interesting or worth your time in some way.

If not... You know where the complaint box is! So enjoy, laugh (hopefully) and most of all... Think.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Superman Returns... Again!

I've just learned that Christopher Nolan may be involved in a reboot (finally!) of the entire Superman movie franchise...  My reactions are mixed.

"Our insiders say that the brains behind rebooted Batman has been asked to play a "godfather" role and ensure The Man Of Steel gets off the ground after a 3 1/2-year hiatus. Nolan's leadership of the project can set it in the right direction with the critics and the fans, not to mention at the box office."
On the one hand, I love Christopher Nolan, and what he's done with Batman.  Batman Begins is easily one of the best superhero movies ever made, and the Dark Knight follows closely behind.  Nolan just "got" the character so perfectly and treated the source material seriously enough that he managed to make Batman believable again.

As with Superman, the Batman franchise had been saddled with the unfortunate burden of stupidity and campiness for decades.  Tim Burton's 1989 Batman was excellent, and got some of the tone right, but it's certainly not aged very well and unfortunately everything that's come after it deteriorated until Joel Schumacher unforgivably left us all with the disturbing taste of George Clooney in skin-tight rubber complete with built-in nipples.  The problem is really that (again, like Superman) the people who owned the rights and were responsible for the story neither understood it nor took it seriously...  Nolan did.  But then, Nolan seems to have a sensibility that fits Batman perfectly.

All of the man's other work is kind of dark like that... And that's important.

Batman is a dark character...  His roots were born out of the rage & vengeance he felt upon his parents' murder.  He trained to become a ninja and master other martial arts so his fighting style is a combination of hiding in the shadows and quick, powerful beatings, he uses a symbol of fear to terrorize criminals and he has developed superb skills as a detective and forensics expert.  And Batman needs to do all that, because he is not invincible!  Bruce Wayne can't simply fly into the scene and withstand bullets... He must think in order to survive and accomplish his goals of fighting crime.

Christopher Nolan got that, and it showed.  For the first time in Batman Begins, the character himself wasn't a joke.  He was a complex person dealing with the loss of his family and watching his city deteriorate.

But will this translate to Superman?

I don't know.  Superman is drastically different character.  He is a little tragic, sure... But he's never "dark" in any meaningful way.  He is invulnerable physically (obviously), so there's little reason for him to be too cautious most of the time.  As a result, he does just fly into the path of bullets and doesn't worry about it.  He didn't earn the moniker "the Big Blue Boy Scout" for nothing, afterall!  Superman may be an orphan in the biological sense, but his earthly parents gave him the love and support that he needed to become a strong individual with a great deal of personal integrity.

To a great extent, Superman's "true" identity is actually Clark Kent, whereas Batman is actually the "real" identity of Bruce Wayne.  Wayne is the shell... Batman is what's underneath.  As Dean Cain's Superman put it in Lois & Clark: "Clark Kent is who I am, Superman is what I can do."

I have no idea if Nolan understands that, and just because he was perfect for Batman doesn't automatically guarantee that he's right for the Man of Steel.  And worse, he's got some additional problems lined up at the starting gate...

The movie rights to Superman have been consistently owned by fools who have no understanding of what the character actually is or why it's been the icon for not only superheroes & comic books for 80 years, but the mascot of America itself.

The Salkind brothers, who owned the rights during the Christopher Reeve days wanted to make the first Superman ridiculous, absurd and campy and were only half-stopped by Richard Donner, who managed to make the best out of a night mare producing team...  Of course, even after Superman's phenomenal success, Donner was fired anyway and then we got Richard Pryor as a computer hacker and Superman literally carrying a net full of nuclear warheads into space...  There is nothing defensible about those films, so when they decided to reboot the franchise a few years ago, I was excited.

But now the rights are owned by hairdresser-to-the-stars, Jon Peters, who's idiocy knows almost no limits. 

Take it away, Kevin Smith:

So then Superman Returns happens... Which I also have mixed feelings about.  I think it looks beautiful (although the colors are a bit too muted across the board)... I love most of the action in the film, and hardly has the there ever been a more heroic entrance than Superman flying faster than the speed of sound through a broken airplane wing and catching a 747 just before it destroys a baseball diamond!  But the story is horrific.

First off, it's really just a rehash of 1978's Superman where Lex Luthor yet again tries to destroy a large chunk of the United States so that he can get rich on real estate.  A lot of the same jokes are recycled as well...  And what was a stupid, overly ridiculous plot in 1978 is positively asinine in Superman Returns.  At least in the original, the land that he was going to own was arable and made of minerals commonly found on planet Earth.  In Superman Returns, he was going to kill billions of people, and displace most of the Eastern Seaboard and replace it with a big chunk of Kryptonite crystal.

How, pray tell, will he get anyone to live there... Much less pay him for the privilege, since he would have destroyed the majority of the world's economy and exposed himself as the biggest mass-murderer of all time in the process.

Lex Luthor of the comics is complex, intelligent, a master schemer and interestingly enough - as all true villains should be - actually concerned for the well-being of his planet.

Real bad guys don't think they're doing bad things!  They think that they are saving the world.  They almost always have the best of intentions, not the worst...  Lex Luthor believes (not unreasonably, I might add) that Superman is the advance guard for a malevolent alien invasion.  He's a little paranoid, he's holds many grudges and he's an egomaniac - but his motivation is often well intended... At least in his own mind.

Hollywood doesn't do that kind of character complexity very well most of the time... Especially not in movies produced by Jon Peters.  But as a result, the whole thing is laughably stupid.  And yes, I know I'm talking about "comic books".

But like any fantasy & science-fiction writing, the issue isn't about the believability or reality of the technology or magical abilities - it's about the human character development.  Sci-Fi is allegorical... That's kind of the whole point!  When you're watching the Lord of the Rings, you are asked to believe that there are Elves and Wizards, and that there is a magic ring that makes the wearer invisible and under the creeping control of a powerful evil sorcerer.  And that stuff makes for an interesting, more imaginative story - but that's not what the Lord of the Rings is about.  It's about people.  It's about friendship, it's about ordinary people being able to stand up to the tyranny of bad people, and it's about a dozen other things that have little to nothing to do with whether or not Gandalf can make lightening shoot out of his staff.

Christopher Nolan seems to grasp this concept.  The powers, the fantasy, are not what's important - what's important is that the world itself has internal consistency and that the people who inhabit it behave like real people.  None of the Superman movies have succeeded on that score.  Characters have been one-dimensional, the internal logic of the world Superman inhabits has been repeatedly violated, and directors, writers & producers have chased after cheap laughs and idiotic plot lines.

So yeah, I really hope that Nolan can bring the understanding of character and realism to the franchise - as I am still waiting for a Superman movie that isn't completely absurd - but I worry that he will take Superman into the darkness in a way that is inappropriate.

Time will tell, but it's definitely time to start over.

Monday, February 8, 2010

What part of "Congress Shall Make NO Law" is Hard to Understand??

From the brief on the Citizen United case prepared by the Supreme Court:
"Although the First Amendment provides that “Congress shallmake no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech,” §441b’s prohibitionon corporate independent expenditures is an outright ban on speech, backed by criminal sanctions. It is a ban notwithstanding the factthat a PAC created by a corporation can still speak, for a PAC is aseparate association from the corporation. Because speech is an es-sential mechanism of democracy—it is the means to hold officials ac-countable to the people—political speech must prevail against lawsthat would suppress it by design or inadvertence. Laws burdening such speech are subject to strict scrutiny, which requires the Gov-ernment to prove that the restriction “furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.” WRTL, 551 U. S., at 464. This language provides a sufficient framework for protecting the interests in this case. Premised on mistrust of governmentalpower, the First Amendment stands against attempts to disfavor certain subjects or viewpoints or to distinguish among different speak-ers, which may be a means to control content. The Government may also commit a constitutional wrong when by law it identifies certain preferred speakers. There is no basis for the proposition that, in thepolitical speech context, the Government may impose restrictions oncertain disfavored speakers. Both history and logic lead to this conclusion. Pp. 20–25."
How is this complex?

I had a rash of conversations with a number of friends & frenemies who don't seem to grasp these basic concepts.  They, following the suits in the media, went on a series of insane non sequitur tangents about "corporate speech" claiming that corporations are not people.  Well... True enough... Corporations aren't people, and as a result, corporations have no ability to "speak" at all!  Which, I should note, is precisely why that argument is irrelevant...

It is the INDIVIDUAL PEOPLE who have organized themselves into a corporate structure who are speaking, and in the case of Citizens United, the sole purpose of their organization into a corporation at all was to create a video speaking critically of an incumbent politician.  That incumbent politician was Hillary Clinton - who then used a horrendous law to stifle political speech on the grounds that Citizens United wasn't the New York Times (a much bigger corporation which was conveniently exempt from the campaign finance law's unconstitutional restrictions on political speech within a month of elections).

In short, Hillary Clinton did exactly what the First Amendment was designed to prevent!!!

The whole point of freedom of speech is that no people anywhere may be prevented from speaking or producing speech in any medium they so choose.  It specifically prevents Congress from making any law restricting that liberty because the Founding Fathers were exceedingly clear on the value of debate, dissent and the importance of allowing unpopular views.  It doesn't matter what is being said, it doesn't matter who is saying it, it doesn't matter if it's one person, 10 people, 1,000 people chanting in unison, or 10,000 people who've organized into a corporation, a religious institution, a charity, a union, etc. who've appointed a leader to speak for them.  The First Amendment is not contingent on how speech is expressed, it is simply and clearly the most important of all limitations on Congress preventing them from damaging liberty in the United States.

This nonsense about corporate personhood is asinine and unrelated to that point.

That said, let's talk about that for a second... The reason corporations are treated as individuals within certain legal frameworks in some sense is actually extremely important insofar as it separates the corporate entity from shareholders and protects the individuals involved from really serious problems, to quote Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute a few weeks ago:
"...would the “no rights for corporations” crowd be okay with the police storming their employers’ offices and carting off their (employer-owned) computers for no particular reason? — or to chill criticism of some government policy.

Or how about Fifth Amendment rights?  Can the mayor of New York exercise eminent domain over Rockefeller Center by fiat and without compensation if he decides he’d like to move his office there?

So corporations have to have some constitutional rights or nobody would form them in the first place.  The reason they have these rights isn’t because they’re “legal” persons, however — though much of the doctrine builds on that technical point — but instead because corporations are merely one of the ways in which rights-bearing individuals associate to better engage in a whole host of constitutionally protected activity."
It's just a technicality... Kind of a definitional trick, not a literal position.  Corporations aren't "people", and it's an idiotic strawman to say that that's how they are being treated - fortunately a tiny majority of the US Supreme Court is clear on that point.  You can't talk to a corporation, or be hit in the face by one...  You can only do those things with the people who run those entities.
It is nothing more than an organizational structure which has been codified & sanctioned by the legal structure of the country for centuries.
Now... I don't blame people for wanting many corporations to have less access to people's hearts & minds, but everyone needs to keep in mind that there's no way to do that without destroying the liberty of everyone who wants to speak with a unified voice.  So simply banning speech is useless - and furthermore, the truly big corporations, especially the news media, already have exemptions.  Even if you could stop some corporations from speaking within 30 days of an election it would inevitably be those like Citizens United and not the real big money who helped write the laws to begin with.
The point is very simple.  People are free in the United States to say whatever they want in whatever organizational form they  choose.  Only individual people have rights, and those rights don't go away when those individuals form groups.  
Instead of whining about all that, it's time for the supposed supporters of civil liberties to wake up and revisit the text of the First Amendment, which reads:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
So my challenge to all those whining about this topic:  Please find me the part of the above statement that says "except if you're a corporation", "unless you hold politically unpopular views", or "unless it is 30 days prior to an election". 
That part isn't there.
Please everyone, quit wasting my time and that of everyone else with stupid.  Thank you.