Tuesday, December 3, 2013

"Let's just wait and see what happens..."

Once upon a time (by which I mean, 2009), I stumbled on a great essay by Georgetown Law Professor, Jonathan Hasnas that purported to describe what it feels like to be a libertarian. In it, he wrote:
"I’ll tell you. It feels bad. Being a libertarian means living with an almost unendurable level of frustration. It means being subject to unending scorn and derision despite being inevitably proven correct by events. How does it feel to be a libertarian? Imagine what the internal life of Cassandra must have been and you will have a pretty good idea."
Hasnas goes on to say...
"Libertarians spend their lives accurately predicting the future effects of government policy. Their predictions are accurate because they are derived from Hayek’s insights into the limitations of human knowledge, from the recognition that the people who comprise the government respond to incentives just like anyone else and are not magically transformed to selfless agents of the good merely by accepting government employment, from the awareness that for government to provide a benefit to some, it must first take it from others, and from the knowledge that politicians cannot repeal the laws of economics. For the same reason, their predictions are usually negative and utterly inconsistent with the utopian wishful-thinking that lies at the heart of virtually all contemporary political advocacy. And because no one likes to hear that he cannot have his cake and eat it too or be told that his good intentions cannot be translated into reality either by waving a magic wand or by passing legislation, these predictions are greeted not merely with disbelief, but with derision.

It is human nature to want to shoot the messenger bearing unwelcome tidings. And so, for the sin of continually pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, libertarians are attacked as heartless bastards devoid of compassion for the less fortunate, despicable flacks for the rich or for business interests, unthinking dogmatists who place blind faith in the free market, or, at best, members of the lunatic fringe.

Cassandra’s curse was to always tell the truth about the future, but never be believed. If you add to that curse that she would be ridiculed, derided, and shunned for making her predictions, you have a pretty fair approximation of what it feels like to be a libertarian."
I've long known Hasnas' frustration. I feel it day in and day out.

And lately, with the flood of people losing the insurance coverage they used to have and being forced into dramatically higher insurance plans or onto the mostly non-functional government-created and subsidized "exchanges", this frustration is starting to boil over. I want to scream at people sometimes. Because starting way back in 2007-2008, when people started getting really excited about so-called health care "reform", I started writing and debating about that issue with anyone and everyone, and did so through the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Search this blog for "Healthcare", and you'll find a trove of essays and articles, most of them complete with citations and links to supporting documentation and economic arguments.

I've done my best to be fair, and to present the opposing case as accurately as I could, and I've stayed away from sensationalizing the issue or talking unnecessarily about "death panels" or "socialism" in the crass sense. I don't even like using the term "ObamaCare".

I'm not that kind of a thinker or a writer. I never have been.

But I have been sounding the alarm against what should have always been the perfectly obvious consequences of the legislation for years. And now many of those consequences are here biting people in the ass. Millions of people are losing their insurance coverage, which is a predictable consequence of a law that made their existing policies illegal to sell or buy.

Isn't that kind of... well... the point?

The PPACA created conditions where people who were voluntarily selling a particular set of health care insurance coverage at a price other people were voluntarily willing to pay were no longer allowed to do so. The politicians - Obama, Pelosi, Baucus, and everyone else - implicitly claim that they know better than those people.

The buyers were stupid. The sellers: Immoral.

Voluntary exchange be damned, Americans weren't wise or smart enough to make their own choices in an already severely restricted and government-controlled insurance market. The little bit of choice they had left had to be taken away... For their own good. At least that's the sales pitch when stripped of it's doublespeak.

Now Obama is sad. He's "sorry" that millions of people have been losing their insurance plans. Not sorry enough to admit fault, of course, but certainly sorry enough to lay out some new platitudes about how unfortunate this all is and level yet another populist bromide against those awful, mean insurance companies. It's their fault, don't you know?

It's not the fault of the law that literally made the more affordable plans they'd offered illegal and forced them to create new - compliant - plans that had to cover dozens more treatments, throw out all sane actuarial models, and cover people who we already knew were going to be extremely costly to the other members of the insurance pool.

None of that could possibly have made insurance less affordable, even though anyone who can do a tiny bit of arithmetic might have realized it would.

And of course, the fact that the law also requires people to buy these expensive health care plans or pay a fine couldn't possibly increase the demand for services, which even a cursory understanding of economics suggests would increase the price. That is, unless the supply of health care services went up as well, but thanks to new taxes on medical technology, heavy handed regulations on producers of medical services, and no actually positive incentives for health care providers to join the industry... the supply of health care technology and services is just going down.

As I've said approximately 87 billion times in the last few years:

More Demand + Less Supply = HIGHER PRICES.

Really, guys. It's not that hard. I promise.

And that brings me to the title of this post. "Let's just wait and see what happens" is the incessant refrain from people who have absolutely no counter argument to reality, but who desperately - and from what I can tell, purely partisan reasons - cannot bring themselves to believe that the utopian policy promises their favorite politicians have made won't come true.

Obama is an upstanding, smart man. He's charismatic. He's well-meaning. The goal of making sure as many people as possible in America can get whatever health care they need to stay in tip-top shape is noble, right? Promises were made and they sounded good.

But that's not how reality works. 

The problem is, instead of addressing the counter-arguments sufficiently (if at all), and instead of observing the data rolling in that's right in front of your face, you say, "Hey, man, let's just wait and see what happens!"

Yes.

Let's just keep pushing out the timeline. Eventually things will turn around, and the reality that you don't want to be true will - from nothing but wishful thinking - stop being true. And it's not just about this issue. It's been the same thing over and over, throughout the past several years.

Cash for Clunkers won't stimulate the economy, you say? "Wait and see what happens." Oh. Ok... Fine, let's wait around to find out that, yep, it was worthless. See the Washington Post:
"But, as it turns out, the critics were on to something. A new analysis from the Brookings Institution's Ted Gayer and Emily Parker found that the program was fairly inefficient as economic stimulus and mostly pulled forward auto sales that would have happened anyway. It also cut greenhouse-gas emissions a bit — the equivalent of taking up to 5 million cars off the road for a year — but at a steep cost."
What about the auto bailouts? "Just wait and see what happens, man." Waited... And what do we find? Yet again, costs grossly outweigh the benefits. Cato and others have done excellent analysis on this point.
"Any verdict on the auto bailouts must take into account, among other things, the illegal diversion of TARP funds, the forced transfer of assets from shareholders and debt-holders to pensioners and their union; the higher-risk premiums consequently built into U.S. corporate debt; the costs of denying Ford and the other more worthy automakers the spoils of competition; the costs of insulating irresponsible actors, such as the autoworkers’ union, from the outcomes of an apolitical bankruptcy proceeding; the diminution of U.S. moral authority to counsel foreign governments against market interventions; and the lingering uncertainty about policy that pervades the business environment to this day."
...and don't forget about the $55 billion hit American taxpayers are taking on that "investment" as well.

What about government "investments" to help other key industries like energy? We waited and found Solyndra, They failed and cost taxpayers millions with nothing to show for them.

What about minimum wage hikes? Again, we wait, and they raise unemployment rates, lower hours worked by part-time workers, and generally price the most vulnerable people in society right out of the labor market.

What about bank bailouts and general stimulus packages? Didn't they save the economy? Sure... If by "save", you mean prolong the pain for 5+ years and set us up for even bigger financial problems in the future, yeah.

Each time someone tells me that we should just "wait and see what happens", they're ignoring what has happened repeatedly throughout recorded economic history and they're ignoring the arguments actually being made that explain why their genius plans are doomed to fail. So they fall back on this position of ignorance, like we just can't know or even make an educated guess about what will happen. Logic and evidence is irrelevant when your vision is unconstrained by reality.

I'm tired of it. I'm exhausted and frustrated. It doesn't feel good at all to say "I told you so", when what I told you was that millions of people would be harmed by the policy you support.

I don't want to see millions of people hurt by other people's stupidity anymore.

Sadly, it's only the tip of the iceberg on the harm coming from insane policies that have only been expanded and strengthened over the past several years. Spending most of your life watching a train-wreck unfold that no one bothers to understand well enough to stop, even though you're screaming at the top of your lungs telling them to avoid the pain, takes a toll.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Much Disappoint.

Today, I sent a note to someone on Facebook essentially announcing my "unfriending".

I've literally never written anything like this before, but this was someone who I had "friended" originally because I had believed he would add to the rich intellectual tapestry that is my Facebook feed. That sounds grandiose, I know, but I mostly use Facebook as a way to connect to people on an intellectual level.

The friends I seriously interact with on Facebook are mostly economists, political theorists, journalists, and a host of really interesting artists, musicians and writers. I have a very high concentration of published authors, professors, and other influencers of public thought and opinion.

I love this about Facebook.

The unique thing about the platform - for me - is that I can connect with all of these kinds of people, and discussions aren't limited by time, distance, or character limits. If you have good people around you, you can see a range of viewpoints and discussions that you'll never, ever, see in one room anywhere else. So when I specifically "friend" someone for the purpose of increasing the quality of intellectual discourse, and after a period of months discover that they have completely failed to earn their reputation... It's really disappointing.

Originally, I was planning on redacting the name of this person. I thought maybe it'd be rude, but after reading his thoroughly childish and disrespectful responses to my letter, I've changed my mind.

Read this:



What you've just read were the responses of a major columnist who blogs at the NY Times Economix blog and whose writing has appeared in numerous publications. He's written a few books about history and - interestingly enough - worked for the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations as a policy analyst, I believe focusing on Tax Policy.

Somewhere along the way, he became convinced that conservatives were all stupid and evil.

He explains this transition in an American Conservative column published in November 2012, called "Revenge of the Reality Based Community". In the article, he describes his disillusionment with the Republican party, and the rejection he experienced from that community when he began to publish criticisms of their policies under George Bush.

Among some truly absurd praise of Paul Krugman and Keynesianism, he wrote:
"At this point, I lost every last friend I had on the right. Some have been known to pass me in silence at the supermarket or even to cross the street when they see me coming. People who were as close to me as brothers and sisters have disowned me.

I think they believe they are just disciplining me, hoping I will admit error and ask for forgiveness. They clearly don’t know me very well. My attitude is that anyone who puts politics above friendship is not someone I care to have in my life."
I get it. He got scorned by his former "lovers" and had a zealous conversion experience leading him away from previous beliefs... All the things that make someone bitter and angry toward the community that used to welcome them. So he lashes out at his former friends on Facebook and elsewhere.

After several months of interacting with Mr. Bartlett's posts, I find that they're uniformly devoid of intellectual merit. Instead of combating ideas with arguments and evidence, he takes pot-shots at strawmen, and labels everyone with whom he disagrees as one type of awful person or another. What I thought would be a person who was going to post insightful, intellectually rigorous arguments challenging many of the orthodox policy positions held by conservatives (ie. the kinds of things I often like to post to my group of friends, in order to challenge some of the conservatives I know to rethink their positions) turned out to be a person who had nothing to offer at all.

So what, right? It's just a stupid guy on Facebook.

No... That's the thing. It's not. It's a guy who has a huge platform. A guy who writes in the New York Times on matters of economic policy. A guy who ostensibly has a bunch of intellectual credibility and insider political connections and who gets to use those connections to sway the opinions of other influencers.

And this is the level of intellectual honesty he displays!?

This is someone who would rather talk about where I used to work than what I actually said. He's someone who'd rather label me "right wing" to dodge a criticism, than simply respond with the respect I showed him. Someone who, when presented with even the slightest challenge to his fallacy-ridden, hubristic, and intellectually dishonest means of communicating with other people, would rather stamp his feet like a five-year-old child than acknowledge the criticism.

No wonder he praises Krugman... He's clearly modelled his whole notion of "intellectual debate" directly from his playbook.

From where I sit, this behavior is almost certainly an enormous indictment of his more academic work.

Why should I trust the opinions of someone who cannot even bring himself to address a person's actual arguments, and who will resort to dismissive retorts built around well-poisoning and ad hominems instead of addressing his critics? If all you can see in any intellectual disagreement is an "enemy" to be squashed by any means necessary, and you're perfectly fine misrepresenting them, misquoting them, and labeling them as beneath contempt... How can I take your supposedly "academic" work seriously at all?

Bartlett complains a lot about the "Republican echo-chamber" and "epistemic closure" (which I don't even think he's wrong about, by the way).

But he seems to be tragically unaware of the irony.

At any rate, reading Bartlett's page and now having this interaction makes me wonder if the reason for his loss of friends had less to do with them wanting to avoid dealing with "reality", and more to do with simply not wanting to be around a jack-ass who actually seems to believe his own hype.

Mr. Bartlett has since blocked me on Facebook immediately following the above interaction.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Alternet is an Idiot... Again.

It's time for Round 3 of "Alternet is an Idiot"!

For the uninitiated, here's Round 1, and Round 2.

This time, they have created a test to see if the libertarians in your life are "hypocrites", and let me tell you... It's fabulous. It's called "11 Questions You Should Ask Libertarians to See If They're Hypocrites". That's a bit of a weird title, considering the author asks wayyyy more than 11 questions. I guess I shouldn't be surprised to find out an Alternet writer can't count properly, but whatever.

According to RJ Eskow of Alternet, we - libertarians - "have a problem".
"Their political philosophy all but died out in the mid- to late-20th century, but was revived by billionaires and corporations that found them politically useful. And yet libertarianism retains the qualities that led to its disappearance from the public stage, before its reanimation by people like the Koch brothers: It doesn’t make any sense."
I'm sure this would come as a surprise to the numerous libertarians - including myself - who did in fact exist absent any knowledge of the Kochs or anything else during the late 20th Century, but even if it were true, perhaps we might attribute the growing resurgence of libertarian thought to be partially the consequence of the overbearing statism that has so pervaded American society and government over the last several decades.

Of course... That would conflict with this website's other persistent claims that the second half of the 20th century were marred by libertarian, free-market "fundamentalism" and that everything from wars to financial collapse were a result of these - otherwise completely non-existent - libertarians.

Oh well. Honestly, I'm too tired of this game to go through every idiotic thing the author claims is true about libertarianism.

The caricatures found in the article are many, predictable, and tedious. Here's a snapshot:
  • We're all for being selfish. 
  • Our ideas have no ties to reality. 
  • Cato, Koch, and Reason are all scary boogeymen. 
  • We're shills for big-money interests.
  • We think rich people are the best people and poor people are stupid. 
  • We want to destroy the environment. 
  • We worship Ayn Rand.

Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah...

There is so much epic stupidity and ignorance found throughout this article that I have no interest in working my way through it point by point. One of my favorite bits in the lead-up to the point is this:
"Randian libertarianism is an illogical, impractical, inhumane, unpopular set of Utopian ravings which lacks internal coherence and has never predicted real-world behavior anywhere."
Yeah.

An economy and society crippled by regulations with lovingly compassionate titles actually written by and for a select group of politically connected cronies which insulate them from competition and privilege them with bailouts and state protections wasn't at all predicted in Atlas Shrugged...

Noooooooooope. Not at all.

Anyway, the central point here is that we are big old hypocrites. Or, most of us are. So idiot Eskow conveniently provides us with a helpful litmus test to see whether or not we are, or are not, hypocritical. Unfortunately, he inserts all of his questions into a thick fog of sophistry, so it's a little hard to directly answer.

That's why I felt like it'd be a good idea to reformat the test to make it easier to actually take. For all my libertarian hypocrite friends.

The Libertarian Hypocrisy Test (re-formatted to actually look like a test):

Alternet idiot writes the following to set it up:
"Let’s say we have a libertarian friend, and we want to know whether or not he’s hypocritical about his beliefs. How would we go about conducting such a test? The best way is to use the tenets of his philosophy to draw up a series of questions to explore his belief system."
For the purpose of this test, let's - totally irrationally - assume that RJ Eskow actually understands even the most basic concepts that underline the "tenets of" libertarian philosophy. He clearly doesn't, but that's completely commonplace for these kinds of polemics, and hell... it's his test, so he can frame it how he wants.

Let's go through the questions. I'll share my answers... Feel free to answer each question for yourself.
Question 1: "Are unions, political parties, elections, and social movements like Occupy examples of “spontaneous order”—and if not, why not?"
Yes.

Though, there is a small caveat here. Spontaneous order refers to the act of humans interacting with each other voluntarily and setting up norms, institutions, and rules without involving the initiation of force. It's a process, not an outcome. Of the listed groups of people, unions & major political parties frequently use force to impose outcomes on people - by, for instance, using tax-payer's money to fund party conventions, or punishing people with fines & jail for not hiring union workers, etc. Theoretically, however, a union could - and should - be a great example of a spontaneous order that arises to improve the conditions of working people under a situation where there might otherwise be power-imbalances favoring the employer.
Question 2: "Is a libertarian willing to admit that production is the result of many forces, each of which should be recognized and rewarded?"
Of course production is the result of many different types of activities. How banal. Even the most basic understanding of how markets work should include a solid recognition of the complexity and interconnectedness found throughout the entire structure of production in every industry, for every purpose. Libertarians are typically the most cognizant of the myriad "forces" (a bad word choice) that go into producing goods & services.

What do you think "I, Pencil" is all about?



As for "rewarding" each of these things... I'm not really sure what Eskow is actually asking here.

In a free market, services and goods are provided via bidding and voluntary negotiation with individual suppliers. People are rewarded in accordance with those negotiations and in relationship to the value they're adding to the buyer or seller.

Sometimes that value is low to the buyer and high to the seller - like an intern working for free to gain on-the-job training and work-experience. Sometimes the value is very high to the buyer and very low to the seller - like the knowledge and experience someone like Mark Cuban might bring as a consultant to a small start-up. There just isn't one unified answer of what constitutes a good price.

These are all pretty simple issues of supply and demand.

Not sure what is even here to be "hypocritical" about... Which I suppose is why a couple follow-up questions are necessary here.
Question 3: "Retail stores like Walmart and fast-food corporations like McDonalds cannot produce wealth without employees. Don’t those employees have the right to “coordinate their actions with those of others in order to achieve their purposes”—for example, in unions?"
Of course. Coordinate away.

However... McDonald's also doesn't have any obligation to deal with the union. That's the part of a free society and freedom of association that cuts both ways. Real hypocrisy would be to believe that unions had the right to organize labor and offer a list of demands, but employers had no right to say to say no and hire other people.

...which... I suspect would be pretty easy for McDonald's. Just sayin'.
Question 4: "Is our libertarian willing to acknowledge that workers who bargain for their services, individually and collectively, are also employing market forces?"
Uh. Yes. How many times do we have to answer this question? It's just the same one, over and over.

YES!

People in a libertarian society are absolutely free to organize themselves into labor unions, to engage in collective bargaining, to shame their employer for bad conditions, to write articles, picket, buy TV and magazine ads, and state their case as loudly and publicly as they'd like, and to try to get the best deal they can possibly negotiate for their services.

I have never in my life met a libertarian who thinks otherwise. The only thing we have a problem with regarding unions is their propensity to use the law to force employers to deal with them when they don't get their way, and to use the law to compel people into membership.

Are we done with unions yet?
Question 5: "The bankers who collude to deceive their customers, as US bankers did with the MERS mortgage system, were permitted to do so by the unwillingness of government to regulate them. The customers who were the victims of deception were essential to the production of Wall Street wealth. Why don’t libertarians recognize their role in the process, and their right to administer their own affairs?"
Who's role in what process? What?

Fraud should be punished. Breaking contracts, coercing people into signing unconscionable contracts through deception, and stealing people's money should be punished.

I must be missing something since I don't see a cogent question here.
"That right includes the right to regulate the bankers who sell them mortgages."
Ohhhhhhhhhhhh.... Ok.

Wait...... No... I still don't really understand how this is supposed to expose "hypocrisy" for libertarians. Maybe I need some more clarification from the author.
"Libertarians say that the “free market” will help consumers. “Libertarians believe that people will be both freer and more prosperous if government intervention in people’s economic choices is minimized,” says Cato.

But victims of illegal foreclosure are neither “freer” nor “more prosperous” after the government deregulation which led to their exploitation. What’s more, deregulation has led to a series of documented banker crimes that include stockholder fraud and investor fraud. That leads us to our next test of libertarian hypocrisy: Is our libertarian willing to admit that a “free market” needs regulation?"
Oh! I see. What I thought was the question wasn't the question.

The answer to the actual question is: Yes. But not in the way the author thinks.

Markets do need regulation. What they don't need is the chaos created by government-imposed regulations and special protections. I understand that the author is confused by this idea... That's mostly because he's an idiot and believes that regulation is synonymous with government-created policy.

It's not.

Every single instance of an act passing which removed
or modified one piece of "regulation", included vastly
more new laws which increased the overall regulatory
burden on the financial industry.
Financial deregulation causing the financial crisis is 100% bollocks.

Firstly because no such meaningful deregulation actually happened, and secondly, because the real problems came out of other policies and protections provided to major financial institutions by their pals in government. Things like implicitly and explicitly guaranteed bailouts, special protections against losses on highly leveraged assets, laws which actively promoted sub-prime lending,

Unacceptable risks were taken because profits were guaranteed by law to remain (mostly) private while losses were to be socialized. This moral hazard creates an environment rife for abuse and fraud.

What I'd like to see done to fix this problem is two-fold.

1. Actually free the financial market.

This doesn't mean special handouts and countless regulations that favor big firms over small ones. It means let companies actually compete for people's financial business, and let them go bankrupt when they make bad choices. This puts a lot more pressure on banks to be wiser with other people's money.

2. Prosecute the hell out of the fraud and actual cases of deception. Let customers who were cheated actually sue banks, and reduce the limits of managerial liability such that the people making decisions about the actions of the bank have some skin in the game.

Re-align the incentives so they actually make sense. Do not just create another layer of incompetent, easily corruptible bureaucracy that works to write rules favoring the biggest, richest and most well-connected bankers at the expense of everyone else.

Oh... And while we're at it, let's free up the currency as well and end the Fed.

All in all, Cato is right. A more free economy would be far better at protecting consumers than the less-free one we've increasingly had my whole life.

By the way... Remember back at the top where the author said that libertarians had all but disappeared in the late 20th-Century? If true, how was it that we got a bunch of totally libertarian "deregulation" passed? Just curious how that would be possible if all the libertarian ideas disappeared. Let's just ignore the contradictions though, shall we.

Moving on.
Question 6: "Does our libertarian believe in democracy? If yes, explain what’s wrong with governments that regulate."
I'm going to assume that by "believe in democracy", our idiot actually means "believe that democracy is a really great system that morally legitimizes government actions."

If so, then... No.

Libertarians believe in the non-initiation of force.

There are plenty of democracies around the world that produce awfully anti-libertarian and illiberal outcomes... including our own here in the US.

I might turn the question around on the idiot author, actually. If you like democracy for its own sake, and you think there's something magical about it that makes the laws produced by such a system legitimate, do you ever object to any laws?

Do you reject democratically produced outcomes which make women and minorities second-class citizens, or criminalize the harmless activities of gay people? Do you object to the drug-war? Do you recognize the legitimacy of democracies which produce thoroughly theocratic governments?

Democracy isn't a magic bullet that makes everything anybody votes on morally sacrosanct.

If people at Alternet actually believe that it is, they're much bigger idiots than I thought, and obviously, I already have no respect for their intelligence as it is.

The problem with any form of government - including democracy - is that ultimately the outcomes rest on forcing the minority into acquiescing with the majority opinion regardless of what that opinion is. Libertarian minarchists tend to recognize that no system is going to be perfect, and entertain the idea that a Democracy with strong and immutable protections placed around individual liberties (ie. the purpose of the Bill of Rights) which are not subject to Democratic whim may be the best possible system.

I will entertain that argument. I don't accept it on faith, however, and I certainly do not think there's anything beautiful about Democracy by itself.
Question 7: "Does our libertarian use wealth that wouldn’t exist without government in order to preach against the role of government?"
Oh. This one is always fun.

It's a great question because it forces an "hypocritical" answer that is impossible to escape given the very conditions libertarians are advocating against. It's like calling a slave a hypocrite for advocating abolitionism while still sleeping in their master's barn.

Basically it's the political philosophy version of grabbing someone's arm and slapping their own face with it, while saying "Quit hitting yourself!"

Allow me the opportunity to keep 100% of the money that is currently taxed from me, allow people to actually create companies and markets for the goods & services government currently monopolizes by violent coercion, and then let's talk about the hypocrisy of this activity.
Question 8: "Many libertarians will counter by saying that government has only two valid functions: to protect the national security and enforce intellectual property laws. By why only these two? If the mythical free market can solve any problem, including protecting the environment, why can’t it also protect us from foreign invaders and defend the copyrights that make these libertarians wealthy?"
Frankly, the debate between minarchists and anarchists about the optimal means of promoting a free society is far beyond the intellectual capacity of this writer and his website. Debates between libertarians about whether or not intellectual property counts as property that can be defended by a government are also beyond his comprehension.

^anarchist
I will simply note that many libertarians believe that government has a role in protecting people's lives, liberty, and property via establishing courts and police. One argument in support of minarchy in this regard is that anarchy would leave a vacuum of power typically filled by the most violent person who can terrorize the greatest number of people. A very, very small government limited to protecting individual rights would then be an improvement if the goal is to maximize individual liberty and allow people the greatest autonomy over their own lives.

There are anarchists who argue otherwise and think that the government is by definition an entity that abridges people's individual liberty, and thus cannot be expected to defend it, or really do anything but grow from minarchy into autocracy.

On the IP note, the author goes on to say this:
"For that matter, why should these libertarians be allowed to hold patents at all? If the free market can decide how best to use our national resources, why shouldn’t it also decide how best to use Peter Thiel’s ideas, and whether or not to reward him for them? After all, if Thiel were a true Randian libertarian he’d use his ideas in a more superior fashion than anyone else—and he would be more ruthless in enforcing his rights to them than anyone else. Does our libertarian reject any and all government protection for his intellectual property?"
This one generally does. I even published an article about it.

It's a hotly debated issue though, and certainly not one so easily settled by a moron who doesn't even understand the basics of libertarian philosophy.

Anyway... Here's another fun assertion setting up another great hypocrisy question:
Question 9 & 10: "Our democratic process is highly flawed today, but that’s largely the result of corruption from corporate and billionaire money. And yet, libertarians celebrate the corrupting influence of big money. No wonder, since the same money is keeping their movement afloat and paying many of their salaries. But, aside from the naked self-interest, their position makes no sense. Why isn’t a democratically elected government the ultimate demonstration of “spontaneous order”? Does our libertarian recognize that democracy is a form of marketplace?"
Because the outcome of elections rest on being able to initiate force against all those individual people who did not vote for your candidate or your government.

Shouldn't this be obvious?

The libertarian position rejects the initiation of force on the basis that individuals have the moral right to engage in whichever actions and behaviors they think are best with their bodies & property, provided that they don't prevent others from doing the same... It's as close to a universal position as it's possible to get.

I do what I do, you do what you do, and we can cooperate together or act separately as we each see fit as long as neither one of us initiates force against each other.

It's the essence of a peaceful society.

Elections create conditions where some individuals assert their moral right to control the apparatus that makes rules and initiates force against all the individuals within the territory dominated by that government. But government isn't some kind of magic filter where rights I don't have by myself (ie. I have no right to force you to do what I say just because I say it), can be granted to elected officials.

Let me use a concrete example. You don't have the moral authority to murder me right now. By getting 100 people together who all vote on whether or not they can murder me, each of whom individually has no moral authority to even cast a vote on that issue, you don't magically create that authority.

Democracy isn't a marketplace, and it's a grotesque misunderstanding of what markets are if you don't recognize the difference between coercing people who disagree with you into either participating in your value system or going to jail, and offering people the opportunity to trade with you and walking away if the trade is unacceptable to either party.
Question 11: "We’re told that “big government” is bad for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is too large to be responsive. But if big governments are bad, why are big corporations so acceptable? What’s more, these massive institutions have been conducting an assault on the individual and collective freedoms of the American people for decades. Why isn’t it important to avoid the creation of monopolies, duopolies and syndicates that interfere with the free market’s ability to function?"
For the gajillionth time. The initiation of force is unacceptable. 

Bigness really doesn't have anything to do with it.

Big government is particularly scary and awful because government is at its core nothing but violence. The more powerful that government is, the bigger it is, and the more control it has over everyone's daily lives, the more violence we're inserting into human interactions.

Do this or go to jail.
Don't do that or go to jail.
Pay this fine, or go to jail.
Pay your taxes, or jail.
Stay out of this area, or go to jail.
Answer my question, or go to jail.

...and if you don't want to go to jail?

We'll shoot you dead.

The reason "big" corporations aren't worrisome to me in general is because they cannot force me to interact with them. No company can require me to buy their products or send me to jail. At least, they cannot without colluding with government. To the extent that any corporation uses the state to create rules, and all the special protections I mentioned earlier, which favor their expansion and crush their competitors, I'm very concerned.

I'm not concerned because of their "bigness", however. Plenty of not-so-big companies are raking in all kinds of ill-gotten gains.

I'm also not especially worried about monopolies that form without government assistance and protection. Firstly, because they're exceptionally rare. Free markets are pretty robust, and monopolies eventually become non-competitive as they get bigger and less agile. Markets are filled with great examples of entrepreneurs creatively destroying behemoth competitors when the barriers to entry are low.

Barriers to market entry are virtually always products of government interference into the market - often on behalf of incumbent businesses. That is where the danger lies.

Monopolies qua monopolies can be bad for consumers, but the fact that they're bad for consumers tends to mean they die off very quickly as a new competitor that creates more value for buyers enters the market and poaches the monopoly company's unsatisfied clients.

So... Find me an example where a monopoly existed for any prolonged period of time that was both:
  • Hated by consumers, and...
  • Not protected from competition by the government
...and maybe, this argument would have some merit. Not much, but at least more than zero.
Question 12: "Does our libertarian recognize that large corporations are a threat to our freedoms?"
Sure! But again, this is only to the extent that the corporation is actually advocating the use of violence to get what they want.

To quote one of my all-time favorite lines from Milton Friedman (scary, libertarian economist!) from a 1978 interview he did for Reason Magazine (evil, Koch-funded libertarians!!):
"Business corporations in general are not defenders of free enterprise. On the contrary, they are one of the chief sources of danger....Every businessman is in favor of freedom for everybody else, but when it comes to himself that's a different question. We have to have that tariff to protect us against competition from abroad. We have to have that special provision in the tax code. We have to have that subsidy."
Please ponder this for a second.

This is one of the heroes of modern libertarianism - who, by the way, was quite active during the very period the Alternet article claims had no libertarians - speaking 35 years ago. Far from deifying "big business", rich people, or corporations in general, he is criticizing them for favoring government privileges over freedom for everyone.

Big businesses that use the state to create barriers to market entry for their competitors, businesses that request bailouts and corporate welfare paid for by taxpayers who go to jail if they don't comply, businesses that lobby for subsidies, and income guarantees, and who support all kinds of regulations on their industries - which is how regulation actually comes about in most cases - which make compliance very hard for small entrepreneurs and insulates the big political cronies from competition... These are corporations to be feared.

But in the end, it's not the corporation itself that grants the favors or writes the laws. It's all the politicians and people in government. At the end of all of this, it all comes back to the powers granted to (or more often simply taken by) the state.

The power to regulate is the power to destroy, and that power is almost always used against the little guy in
support of the wealthy incumbent who's paying for the politicians' next election.

People who don't understand this constantly misunderstand the libertarian position on business and regulation.

Oh... And now we have some "Extra Credit Questions" as well! Goodie.
Bonus 1: "Ayn Rand was an adamant opponent of good works, writing that “The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves.” That raises another test for our libertarian: Does he think that Rand was off the mark on this one, or does he agree that historical figures like King and Gandhi were “parasites”?"
Uhh... False.

Rand was opposed to forcing people to do what you think counts as "good". She was absolutely in favor of people engaging in charitable activities when they voluntarily elect to do so. Taking a single quote out of context, and without understanding her point is just bad form.

And to go on with this nonsense, and set up a bizarre false dichotomy whereby agreeing with Ayn Rand (on something completely misstated by the author no less) means you must reject the good works of someone like Martin Luther King? It's gone from just being abysmally stupid to actually shameless.

For the record, here's a pretty important quote by Ms. Rand that might shed some light on her feelings about MLK:
"Racism is a doctrine of, by and for brutes. It is a barnyard or stock-farm version of collectivism, appropriate to a mentality that differentiates between various breeds of animals, but not between animals and men... [It is] the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced by his internal body chemistry, which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors."
As far as I know, she was generally a fan of Dr. King. The Ayn Rand Institute is, writing:
"On Martin Luther King Day--and every day--we should focus on the proper antidote to racism and the proper alternative to racial thinking: individualism. We need to teach our children and all our citizens to look beyond the superficialities of skin color and to judge people on what really matters, namely, 'the content of their character.'"
Yeah... That sounds like some truly "adamant" opposition to "good works" to me.

Failing to understand that Rand - and actual libertarians (she's an Objectivist, and rejected other forms of libertarianism, FYI) - advocate all kinds of voluntary action, but reject coercion, should be embarrassing, and asserting that libertarians (or at least Ayn Rand) rejected doing "good things", because you grossly misunderstand this idea, is just... well... idiotic.

What's hard to understand about this?

Since it seems that the Alternet crowd has the intellect of a small child, let me try to simplify this:

Voluntary action = good.
Coercion = bad. 

If you want to engage in charity, and help other people, and you are not forced to do so by someone who will throw you in jail if you don't, that's awesome by any libertarian standard. What's more, Martin Luther King, Jr. had a number of fairly libertarian tendencies as well - for example, his iconic quote on civil disobedience:

 

King did not say, "Hey, if the law was created democratically, it's A-OK!", and why would he? Most of the laws affecting his community were racist and extremely harmful, and entirely created via majority-rule, democratic elections. Democracy cannot replace individual freedom if you want to have a peaceful society where anybody is actually able to "do good".

Lastly...
Bonus 2: "Libertarianism would have died out as a philosophy if it weren’t for the funding that’s been lavished on the movement by billionaires like Thiel and the Kochs and corporations like ExxonMobil. So our final question is: If you believe in the free market, why weren’t you willing to accept as final the judgment against libertarianism rendered decades ago in the free and unfettered marketplace of ideas?"
I suppose listing the hundreds of academic and philosophical works, papers and other scholarly articles on the subject of libertarian philosophy written by people who were neither funded nor had anything to do with either of those people wouldn't be convincing?

It certainly would be too time consuming for me at this point.

Notably, when I reasoned my way into believing that people were rightfully autonomous individuals and that freedom & property rights were the root of a prosperous society, Peter Thiel wasn't a billionaire, and I'd never heard of the Koch Brothers. I just read a lot of history, some economics, and thought long and hard about philosophy, starting with the question, "Do I own myself?"

That said, I do work for one of them now, and it's awesome.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

New Project: Video Production Education.

As I begin this post, I'm sitting in a hotel room in Orlando, Florida.

Yesterday, I gave a talk to a conference which was geared towards helping ordinary people from around the country get better at producing multimedia content - for the purposes of enhancing their own local political activism. The format was a little off-the-cuff, and to be honest, I would have organized it much differently than it was... but I still think I conveyed some helpful information.

A lot of what I talked about came from material I'd presented in other settings.

For example, I talked about dramatic structure a bit, and showed everyone this chart I made a while back, when I was giving a talk on narrative story-telling and how to construct a comprehensible story:

The problem with this, is that without having some serious time to devote to explaining this chart, which I didn't really have, it really just ends up being a lecture that goes right over people's heads. I mean - even though it seems simple enough to understand in the context of writing a novel, or a play, it leaves open a bunch of major questions - such as: How do you incorporate this structure into a documentary? Into a news package? Into a YouTube comedy video?

Do you even need to? Maybe there are different forms to consider that work better? When is no form at all an appropriate choice?

How do I explain the complexity of all that to a room of people who are really there to find out how to set up a basic podcast studio, or learn how to get better quality man-on-the-street interviews than their iPhones allow them to get?

The truth is, there are a lot of resources out there available for film-makers to learn "Hollywood" techniques on film & video production, but not very many - or any, as far as I know - which are specifically geared towards not only helping people use their cameras better, but which also help people understand how to create better quality content at a really basic level, or for news & documentary content.

What good does knowing what a Follow-Focus is for do for you, if you don't really even know how to manually set focus on the camera you have?

Not much, I would guess.

So with that in mind, I think I'm going to start writing a lot more about production techniques, and I'm going to try to structure my writings in a way that is actually useful from start to finish. I'll include instructional videos where I can, and as time permits me to make, and work through the methods, techniques, and ideas needed to elevate people's home-movies into clear, well-produced audio & video productions.

I'll be talking about everything from story-development through distribution... But I might not be doing it at this blog. I need to think about it a bit before I start, but if I do this the way it probably needs to be done, I may very well need to create a proper online course through Udemy, Kahn, or Skillshare or something like that, and I'll probably shift over to a CitizenA Media blog.

I'd like this to be useful to people, though, so what I really want to know from everyone out there reading this is: What problems have you encountered that you've not been able to solve? What can I help you with?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Bad Journalism at HuffPo and Think Progress? Shocking!

So, last week, my employer - The Charles Koch Institute - started running this video as an "advertisement" just in the Wichita, KS area. Take literally one minute and watch it:



This 60-second spot is a cut-down version of a video that CKI had produced a couple years ago (slightly before my time), which you can check out on YouTube. Embedding has been disabled on it, but you can watch it by clicking here: http://youtu.be/v1U1Jzdghjk

A few days ago, my dad - knowing that I've been working on a film that I've been trying to get released for quite a while - asked me if this was it (it's not), and forwarded me a fairly critical Huffington Post story about the video which basically just conveyed language & ideas taken straight from a predictably negative Think Progress blog on the video/Wichita campaign.

Setting aside for a moment the lazy journalism involved in basically copying & pasting an ideological blog and passing it off as reporting, the content of the HuffPo article itself is just absurd.

I'm in the process of moving right now and I hadn't had time to read or formulate a more comprehensive response to my dad's email yet, but as Think Progress continues to hammer away at CKI for the video, I figured maybe I'll just write this up here instead.

Before I begin, please note that these are my thoughts only, and are not endorsed by CKI nor are they meant to publicly or officially represent the organization in any capacity what-so-ever. I do not speak for the Institute, only for myself.

Cool?

Ok, cool.


That said... The Think Progress/Huffington Post piece is riddled with economic falsehoods, obfuscation & misdirection, and outright logical fallacies and deserves a closer look.

In an article originally titled: "Koch Brothers Commercial Claims..." but which is now more accurately titled; "Charles Koch Foundation: An Income Of $34,000 Puts You In The Wealthiest 1 Percent", here's what David Winograd of HuffPo had to say:
If you earn $34,000, that puts you in the wealthiest 1 percent of the world, according to the Charles Koch Foundation.

That's one of many assertions made in a new ad that attempts to undermine government policies that protect low- and middle-income Americans. You can watch the ad, which is produced by Koch's conservative non-profit group, here: [VIDEO you saw above]

Of course, earning $34,000 in the U.S. won't get you very far in most parts of the country. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that a family of three needs an income of at least $44,617 a year to cover basic living expenses in the cheapest parts of the country. In Wichita, Kansas, where the commercial is currently being aired, according to Think Progress, a family of three would need to make $53,721 to get by. That's far more than $30,000 a year that two parents earning minimum wage would make.

Minimum wage is one policy that billionaire Charles Koch would like to see eliminated. In a recent interview with the Wichita Eagle, Charles Koch described the federal minimum wage as one of the policies that “creating a culture of dependency” and added that it “reduces the mobility of labor.”
Not a lot of words, but I guess that makes it a bit easier on this side.

First off, let's start with the easy stuff... "The Koch Brothers" didn't produce or pay for this video at all. Charles Koch did through the Charles Koch Foundation.

That's not to say David Koch probably doesn't agree with its contents, but they aren't conjoined twins! I've been here for 2 years and David has had exactly nothing to do with my day-to-day activities. Never met him, never heard him speak, he's never been in the office, his name isn't on the door... It may not matter to most people, but it's just sloppy reporting and it's an easy thing to get right unless your goal is to use language to heighten the nefariousness of the activity by insinuating a conspiracy among a unified pair of evil billionaires.

Speaking of evil billionaires, the Huffington Post recommended some other content for me to check out after I finished reading the article. How thoughtful of them!

I guess they figured I'd enjoy this slideshow:


The appearance of this specific slideshow on a post about Charles Koch's non-profit activities is just coincidental, of course. Nor does it have any effect on the way readers look at the central topic of the article. Nooooooooope... Not at all...

Ugh.

Anyway, the headline has been changed, so at least that pet peeve isn't as much of an issue anymore, and yet even so, the very first sentence is shoddy journalism.

Why's that?

Well... Cause the $34,000 figure isn't "according to the Charles Koch Foundation", it's according to economists at the World Bank. Highly comparable figures are also confirmed by any number of other global research organizations that study this kind of stuff.

I'm sure it would surprise few people to learn that I'm friends with many of the economists who probably contributed to the data in the original video that got repurposed for the Wichita ad, and in my experience they all strongly prefer to base their conclusions off of data-sets produced by entities like World Bank, IMF, St. Louis Federal Reserve, and other widely-respected and generally "neutral" sources - or data-sets produced by partisan "progressive" outfits like - ironically enough - the Economic Policy Institute or Center for American Progress.

Don't believe me? Here are a bunch of other articles referencing the fact that $34,000 per year puts you in the 1% wealthiest population in the world.
So... While the HuffPo article certainly makes it seem like this is a poorly sourced claim made up out of the blue by dastardly partisans looking to manipulate you, the truth is that it's a widely accepted figure created by a well-respected organization and which was reported by plenty of major news outlets. It was not merely "asserted", as the article claims.

In fact... None of the information we used in the rest of the video (or the longer original from which it was cut) came from any particularly biased sources or is otherwise indefensible.

It's also unarguably true that real world evidence all strongly correlates economic freedom (i.e. property rights, mostly uninhibited freedom to buy/sell/trade, stable currency, low taxes, etc.), to higher incomes per capita, higher standards of living, and everything else we tend to think is pretty good. Economic freedom rankings are produced by the Fraser Institute in Canada, which is one of only two organizations I'm even aware of which even attempts to compare economic freedom internationally, and they're by far the best. All their data is publicly available and the way they do the rankings is based on a pretty clear formula, so it's not even all that subjective.

And here's the thing... Nothing the reporter quoted from Think Progress actually refutes any of that!

They just say - and I wouldn't disagree - that American families have a higher expectation and prefer even higher incomes. Fortunately, the median household income in the US was $52,762 as of 2011. The overwhelming majority of Americans are not only in the "top 1% of the world", we're far above the threshold. Obviously more than that is better, especially for families, but that wasn't the point of the ad - the point of the video is that we can look around the world and see how clearly prosperity is correlated to economic freedom, and how America's ranking has fallen dramatically in the last 15 years.

Either way, the whole article is framed as some kind of skeptical challenge, but it presents no actual challenge at all. Odd, huh?

Then the discussion turns again towards Minimum Wage - which is not only not mentioned in the video - but which Think Progress is just flat-out wrong about when they promote it as some panacea for improving the lives of working people. Charles Koch is correct, and they are not. Miminum Wage HURTS poor people by denying them opportunities to work.

I've covered this a zillion times in a zillion forums, including this one - when 5 years ago I presented 50 years worth of journal articles in a blog titled: "Minimum Wage: 50 Years of Fail"

Empirical data clearly and repeatedly shows that minimum wage increases correspond to lower levels of employment, reduced payroll hours, and other depressive consequences that predominately affect the least skilled, youngest and poorest people in our society.

The only study that actively countermands this is one by David Card and Alan Krueger (who you might remember as part of the Obama administration) and although it's widely discussed, it's a study that has been thoroughly refuted and was methodologically flawed from the outset.

As my buddy, Antony Davies who teaches economics at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, noted:
"What non-economists are often unaware of is that the Card-Krueger study didn't look at employment among minimum wage workers. It looked at managers' intentions and recollections about employment. A follow-up study (published in the same journal) by Neumark and Wascher duplicated Card and Krueger's study using the same population, and the same techniques. But, instead of asking managers what they intended (or remembered) doing in response to the minimum wage change, Neumark and Wascher looked at actual payroll data.

They found what economic theory predicts -- the increase in the minimum wage resulted in unemployment among minimum wage workers."
Furthermore, this isn't even an area where there's much internal disagreement among the economics profession. According to Greg Mankiw (who wrote what is literally the most widely used college economics textbook in the world), across many polls of the profession, studies have shown that 79% of economists agree with the following statement:
"A minimum wage increases unemployment among young and unskilled workers."
That's not to say that the consensus is guaranteed to be right, but c'mon. The theory is sound, the evidence supports it, and the overwhelming majority of economists agree that Minimum Wage increases unemployment rates.

So, I mean... If what you want to do is hurt poor people by reducing their opportunities, then by all means - go ahead and follow the advice of Think Progress.

Anyway, the bigger problems here are that journalists and pundits write about this stuff using insinuation, bad logic and lazily connect ideas that are actually unrelated. CKI's video is about America's trajectory in economic freedom and it uses an international comparison because, well... that's the whole point! As the government increasingly controls more and more of our economy, we can look to other parts of the world and see the consequences.

They aren't pretty.

So maybe we could have a conversation about that, instead of constantly promoting ancient and long discredited fallacies of folk economics and ginning up fear of the dreaded "rich guy"? Huh HuffPo? How about it?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: Man of Steel

On February 13th, 2010, I wrote a blog-post about the news that there would be a new Superman film, "rebooting" that franchise, and that Christopher Nolan may be attached as a story producer. Among other things, I wrote this:
"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 [Superman Returns] 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!

...

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."
I was a little worried that Zack Snyder wouldn't get that... and that he wouldn't really get who Superman is. I am thrilled to say that I was (mostly) wrong.

Paging Alex Ross.
The story itself isn't linear, which I liked. Rather than drag down the film with 40 minutes of exposition, we jump straight into the action on the dying planet of Krypton, then cut right to a 33 year old Clark Kent (or we may assume) working as a fisherman in the arctic. It's only in flashbacks spread out through the film that we get to see the story of Clark's upbringing in Kansas... His childhood, his interactions with his adoptive father (played perfectly by Kevin Costner), and his gradual discovery of who he is and what he can do.

As I suspected, "Man of Steel" is a lot darker in certain ways than you might expect to see with Superman, but overwhelmingly, the essence of what Superman is and the kind of story-writing I always want to see with that character is what you get with the movie.

I've been talking about this, for a long, long time... But stop and really think about who Kal-El is, and you'll understand why I've been so let down by the writing for Superman.

First off, he's not actually "alone" like so many of the iterations of the story foolishly portray him to be.

"I grew up in Kansas, I'm about as American as it gets."
He's got wonderful, loving and inspiring human parents who are all he knew since he was an infant, and who played a profound role in his morality and character development. Then, as he grew up, he gained access to archives prepared by his birth-father Jor-El (played by a hammy - but good - Russell Crowe) & mother Lara (Ayelet Zurer), and ultimately learned that his Kryptonian parents loved him just as much as Jonathan & Martha Kent (Diane Lane) did.

Most human children should be so lucky.

So to play him off like some sad - or even creepy - lost puppy (like Bryan Singer did in Superman Returns) makes absolutely no sense.

Clark's struggles are much more interesting than simply being an "orphan". Superman may be the child of a doomed planet, but he's not alone and he was raised in a wonderful home with good values, so he's not really all that much of an orphan anyway.

What he actually is, is a man with unbelievable power.

But what's equally uncommon, is that he's also a man with unfailing integrity. Truth, Justice and the American Way (I know, my libertarian friends, nationalism sucks, but what we're talking about here isn't that Supes is a stooge for the state, but that he actually really does believe in freedom & self-determination). He's the guy who actually understands that with all his immense power really did come immense responsibilities.

This is Superman's struggle... and while I think Snyder could have developed this point a lot more, "Man of Steel" was the first movie I've seen to even deal with the issue at all.

This Superman is a man who struggles with not fully knowing where he comes from and what he can do, his need to keep that part of himself a secret, while still trying to protect the people around him. Kal-El's power means that every single choice he makes is hugely important - yet, he's not omniscient and struggles with knowing for sure what the right choices even are. And most of all, Clark must tip-toe through the world, just to interact with people safely. He lives in a perpetual state of extreme self-control. In one flashback, where Clark is getting bullied by some of his classmates for being a weirdo (and honestly, teenage Superman couldn't be anything but a weirdo), we get a great moment where as an audience, we can do nothing but empathize with how difficult it must be to be one of the most powerful beings in the universe and yet be just as emotionally vulnerable as everyone else.

Few people could handle that kind of pressure, let alone actually live up to it without simply going crazy and wrecking the world - and that's what's interesting about the character.

It's what I love about the character. Superman is far more complex emotionally than most modern writers and comic book fans give him credit for... at least, he should be, and is when written right.

So to see these kinds of questions even brought up in "Man of Steel" is so exciting to me, and Henry Cavill turns out to be a spectacular casting choice for this role. He's confident, kind, and utterly believable. And it doesn't hurt that when he's shirtless, he looks like this:

Man of Steel, indeed.
But that's not all... Superman is nothing without a good villain!

Comic book writers at DC have struggled with this problem for years, but given how powerful Superman
actually is, having him battle some local thug is usually pointless. He's an intergalactic powerhouse, not a beat cop. The threats he deals with need to be correspondingly huge if the challenge is to be remotely believable. So for approaching a century, writers have racked their brains trying to find worthy adversaries for the Man of Tomorrow.

Lex Luthor's ruthless genius and expertise in science, engineering & business make him a good human nemesis. Doomsday's Kryptonite knuckles and mindless brutality made him a formidable enough foe to actually kill Kal-El... And really, that's nothing compared to Darkseid's Omega Force.

So... Go back to what I said at the beginning.

A real bad guy isn't a cartoon. People who do bad things don't usually wake up in the morning and go,
"And so he says to me, you want to be a bad guy? And I say Yeah Baby! I want to be bad!"
(Only the Evil Midnight Bomber does that. Boom, baby, boom!)

Seriously though... People who do the most damage in society are the ones who single-mindedly believe  that they are doing the right thing, and (this is important), that anything they do to achieve their goals is justifiable.

Michael Shannon's "General Zod" is that villain. And, he's easily the best part of the film.

Here we have a man who was genetically designed by the central planners on Krypton to be Krypton's military leader. His sole purpose is to be the man who protects the Kryptonian people from all enemies - foreign and domestic - and he takes that job very, very seriously. When the council of politicians (who seem to be just as big of asshats on Krypton as they are on Earth) fails to act decisively in preventing the imminent collapse of the planet - after taking actions that Jor-El, chief scientist of the planet advised against - Zod attempts a coup d'├ętat, killing the head of the council.

Why? Because he's "evil"? No. Because his job is to save Krypton and "that's what needs to be done".

"I will find him!!!!"
Then, when Jor-El takes the Codex (a skull-like object containing Kryptonian genetic material and which is clearly of high importance to the survival and expansion of the species) and sends it to Earth with Kal-El, Zod chases Jor-El back to his house, attempts to stop the launch of the spaceship and ultimately vows to find Kal-El, wherever he ends up.

And 33 years later, he does.

Oh boy.... He does.

Michael Shannon is fantastic in this role. I imagine he doesn't especially like being type-cast as "crazy intensity" guy, but he really does it better than just about anybody, and this is so, so, soooo important to a story like "Man of Steel".

Superman needs an adversary who is not only powerful enough to be a legitimate threat to the world and to him (and the sheer destruction in the 2nd & 3rd acts is proof enough on this point), he needs an adversary who's motivations actually make sense. Zod is saving his people. Even though Kal-El is Kryptonian, Zod sees him as collateral damage to a mission that is absolutely crucial to the greater good of the Kryptonian species.

He is - in his mind - the good guy. The entire time. And that's really important!

At this point, you're probably thinking that I see "Man of Steel" as a near-flawless film. Unfortunately... It is not. For one thing, while I actually think Amy Adams did the best job of anyone who has yet played "girl reporter Lois Lane", her character was still a bit under-developed and when it's clear that she and Clark are going to be more than "reporter and source", it comes a bit out of left-field. For another thing, there's a lot of dialogue that goes a bit over-the-top in the cliche department. I don't mind it that much, and I didn't come to see the film for it's riveting dialogue anyway... but still. It is a weakness.

Oh, the things I know about the history of  media...
Another weakness is that the US Military sucked up a boatload of tax-money for promotional tie-ins with "Man of Steel", and it shows. Given the screen time they got for their contributions, US Air Force logo might as well be on the damn cups at every movie-theater showing this flick. The National Guard is now using this promotion as a recruiting tool with their cringe-worthy "Soldier of Steel" campaign. Of course, that's hardly the only product-placement in the movie. IHOP gets some noticeable (although often kind of hilarious) screen time as well.

Don't get me wrong - I've got nothing against product placement. Superman Radio in the 1940s was brought to my grandparents by "Kellogg's Pep" after all!

But it shouldn't take you out of the story, and here from time to time, it does.

All in all, though, most everything was handled pretty well.

We didn't get stuck with a painful origin story for the millionth time. Lois & Clark don't spend the movie making googly eyes at each other. Clark doesn't spend his time whining about how he really wants to tell Lois the truth, but can't (*ahem* Smallville). We aren't subjected to camp and obvious ridiculousness the whole time at the whim of producers who didn't even care about the source-material. The villain is appropriately badass, and represents a serious challenge to Superman. Superman himself is incredible, human, inspiring and has an emotional core that will be easy to develop in further installments. The casting is bang-on. The effects work - while a bit overplayed - is all top-notch, and most everything about the plot mostly makes sense... With the exception of a few "Jor-El ex Machina" moments.

Oh, plus!

Let's all breathe a collective sigh of relief for the fact that neither Tim Burton, nor Nicholas Cage, were involved and not once do we get a giant spider, or polar bear wrestling. All of those things could have happened in this movie, but didn't. Whew!

Best of all... "Man of Steel" isn't just another dumb re-hash of a movie from 1978 that never deserved the acclaim and adoration it's still clinging onto in the first place. Yeah, I know. Blasphemy. Whatever.

If you're looking for practical advice on whether or not you should see the movie, all I can say is that I will definitely be seeing it again in theaters, and I sincerely hope the powers that be let Zack Snyder continue with the franchise and build on what they've done here in a way that gives the progenitor of all superheroes the respect his character's legacy deserves.

I'm hopeful.

This guy sits on my desk. In case you hadn't figured it out yet... I am actually a really big fan.
[PS. The film also brings up another topic that I won't spend any time on right now- but on which I'm very tempted to devote another post to, or perhaps make a video about, very soon. That topic is one I've discussed on this blog before: "Sci-fi and Inconceivably Advanced Societies". The last time I talked about this issue was years and years ago, and this film provides an excellent opportunity to update those thoughts.]

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Just Stop Being Offended.

I have some useful advice for basically everyone that will make their lives a lot easier and less stressful. Here it is: Just stop being offended.

Now, this may seem impossible to some of you... and I understand that it might be difficult, but I assure you, it is both possible and necessary if you no longer wish to have your mental and emotional well-being constantly compromised by other people whose words and actions are beyond your control.

What's more, I've found over the years that some people are not just offended by things intended to be offensive, but instead, seem to be looking for reasons to take offense to anything and everything that anybody does.

For example... Just today, one of my favorite Facebook friends posted a Salon article about the supposed homophobia present in Disney movies: "Why are there no gay Disney characters?"

And sure... There aren't any gay Disney "princesses", and no sweeping same-sex love-affairs in their whole universe really. Perhaps that's a tragedy... But I actually have far too many other (and I think actually much more substantive) criticisms of most of the messages contained in Disney movies to spend a ton of time on why there aren't any overtly gay characters.

However, that article did have a lot of linked content, and one of those links took me to another article about the supposed "gay slurs" and perhaps nascent homophobia found in Disney Animation Studios' wonderful film, "Wreck-it Ralph".

Here's the thing, though... I loved Wreck-it Ralph and noticed absolutely nothing in it that could be remotely described as "homophobic". In fact, to the contrary, the film has two central themes (first, that you get to choose who you want to be and don't need to be stuck in the roles society has defined for you... and second, that you're ok as you are, even if people think you're a little weird) and both are - or conceivably should be - inspiring to anyone who is a little outside the norm.

Gay people obviously included.

That said, of course I'm not gay, so perhaps I just wouldn't ever be able to pick up on the kind of homophobic references someone who's been attuned to it his whole life might more easily recognize. So... Here's what author, Chris Bogia, had to say in "They Wrecked It: Reflecting on Homophobia in Disney's Wreck-It Ralph":
"I was crestfallen when the game's villain turned out to be yet another mincing gay stereotype. At first I let it go -- I really wanted to enjoy Wreck-It Ralph.

That's when Ralph, the lovable hero (depicted perhaps uncoincidentally as an exaggeratedly tough masculine guy), quips about the King of Candy's palace color story, pink. A gag is had at the defensive king's lispy expense: "IT'S SALMON!" Pink would have been a bad choice for a palace made of candy?

Then it gets much worse.

After some limp-wristed gesticulating by our villain, Ralph grabs him, shakes him, and calls the confectionary monarch a "nelly wafer" (it's like Nilla Wafer, get it?)

"Nelly."

That word is hardly thrown around these days, and I'm sure most young kids seeing Wreck-It Ralph wouldn't know what it means. However, when entered into Google for anyone that didn't already know it's definition, here it is:

"Offensive Slang: Used as a disparaging term for an effeminate homosexual man."

There's very little grey area here. The hero of the Disney animated movie I just saw shook the mincing, effeminate villain and called him a homophobic slur (after already insulting his decorating taste!)."
Ok. I think I see the problem now. Maybe Bogia just doesn't know anything about the history of film, and perhaps he was actually looking for something to be offended by.

First of all, King Candy (not "The King of Candy"... an error that makes me question whether or not Mr. Bogia really paid that much attention to the film) isn't actually a "gay stereotype" at all.

He might be lispy and effeminate in certain ways, but he is - in fact - a virtually spot-on impersonation of 1930s-1950s comedian and character actor, Ed Wynn, as voiced by the utterly fantastic Alan Tudyk.

Ed Wynn started in Vaudeville in the 1920s, and became a well-known radio actor by the 1930s. And of course, the film & television industry grew directly out of those two traditions by the 1940s... and some people, like Wynn, stuck around.

Although you might not have seen Ed Wynn's performances on "The Twilight Zone" or "What's My Line?", I can pretty much assure you that you do, in fact, know his work as the Mad Hatter in Disney's classic 1951 animated feature, "Alice and Wonderland":



Wynn certainly isn't mocking gay people, he's doing Vaudeville schtickle while voicing one of the most absurd characters in Disney's pantheon. And of course, the fact that Wynn's voice is so heavily tied to Disney feature animation, and the fact that the King Candy character is based almost directly on Wynn's Mad Hatter, makes it hardly surprising that Alan Tudyk would be doing a ridiculously over-the-top lispy homage.

Also, on a purely aesthetic note, I'd simply point out that there's just nothing about Wynn's lisp or inflection that is stereotypical "gay man". Not all lisps are created equally.

Compare Wynn's Mad Hatter (which is basically just... Ed Wynn), to say... Mario Cantone (a little NSFW):



Also... Try to forget that Mario Cantone is actually a gay man, thus rendering the whole notion of this lisp as an inherently insulting stereotype a bit weak.

The point here is that when people do the "gay lisp" to mock (or celebrate!) gay people, they're doing Mario Cantone, Nathan Lane, or maybe Harvey Fierstein... They're not doing the Mad Hatter.

These are different things.

So... Right out of the gate, there's probably nothing intentionally homophobic or offensive by the vocal character of King Candy. To me, Bogia's interpretation of it as homophobic strikes me as at best a simple misunderstanding of the characters being referenced and an ignorance of cinema.

No crime there... But.... It's hard for me to imagine getting offended by that.

And, fair enough, Mr. Bogia says that didn't bother him that much, but that what really got to him was Ralph's use of the word "Nelly" in the phrase, "Nelly Wafer". Yet, curiously, Mr. Bogia leads his explanation of why this is offensive by noting that "the word is hardly thrown around anymore". As far as I'm concerned, that's a massive understatement. Except through extensive Googling, would you have ever assumed that word to be a gay-slur?

I've heard the word "Nelly" used in literally only one context - and it's an ancient one: "Nervous Nelly".

My guess is that your experience lines up with mine pretty closely. Furthermore, in the context of "Nervous Nelly", there's  really no sense of sexual orientation being involved. Effeminate, sure... Wimpy, definitely... But...... Gay?

Not really.

But even if it did have that connotation, it's a connotation that absolutely no one in the audience - and I'm guessing on the writing team - had any knowledge of. Instead, while I was reading Bogia's article, I suspected that what was more likely was simply that sometimes writers are looking for unique, silly or clever ways of working dialogue into the story that both fits the tone and makes sense.

The character's name is "King Candy". He's surrounded by candy. He has two donut guards named Wynnchell (*cough* Wynn *cough*) and Duncan. The entire universe being inhabited is filled with puns!

Beard Papa was a security guard.

Speaking as a scriptwriter, I would be looking for every available opportunity to cram another candy-related pun into the movie. So to assume that "Nelly Wafer" is a gay slur, you really have to assume quite a bit else as well.

Namely, that:
  1. The writer had ever heard it used as such (which, I seriously doubt, as it's incredibly obscure)
  2. That there are literally no other possible interpretations (obviously false),
  3. That the writer was to some extent deliberately sneaking in homophobic or anti-gay messages into a movie about being true to yourself and accepting yourself you are.... even if you have giant hands or glitch all the time.
See?
None of those things seem especially likely to me... And what's more, I went looking on Disney's wikia about Wreck-it Ralph, and curiously enough, instead of "Nelly Wafer" being listed under the "other names" section, the word is actually "Nilly Wafer". They also directly confirm my observation that the character is based on Ed Wynn's Mad Hatter.

What's more, I also looked at a copy of the screenplay. Here's the scene [emphasis mine]:
RALPH
Well, maybe I’ll just have to have a little talk with the winner then.

KING CANDY
Is that a threat I smell-- beyond the halitosis you so obviously suffer from?

RALPH
Listen Nillie Wafer, I’m not leaving without my medal.

KING CANDY
Yes, you are. Wynnchel, Duncan, get him out of that cupcake and on the first train back home. And if I ever see you here again, Wreck-it Ralph, I’ll lock you in my fungeon.

RALPH
Fungeon?

KING CANDY
Fun Dungeon. It’s a play on words.... Nevermind. Now, I’ve got a glitch to deal with, thanks to you. Goodbye Wreck-it Ralph. It hasn’t been a pleasure.
Nillie/Nilly (as in... "Nilla", obviously). Not Nellie.

So it's even more likely that Mr. Bogia is getting upset because he heard something in John C. Reilly's performance that merely sounded to him like something that virtually no one else in the world would even know was insulting.

And again... It's just a pun.

Is there any reason to believe for a second that it's some covert slight against gay people? A secret homophobic slur or a gay-bashing "dogwhistle"? Really?

Can common sense enter into the picture at some point? For some people, the answer to that question is unfortunately.... No.

Far too many people I encounter on a regular basis seem to be looking for a fight or to get their feelings hurt. Maybe I should be more sympathetic to people who grew up as victims of frequent insults and bullying, but this really brings me full circle.

It's up to Chris Bogia whether or not to be offended by things that happen in life. It's up to all of us to choose how to react to the world outside our control. And spending your life on constant high-alert that people might sometime... somewhere... be saying hurtful things about you as an individual or as part of some specific group just isn't healthy.

It leads people - like perhaps Mr. Bogia - to see insults and offenses where none truly exist. For those of you who will yell at me about being white, straight and male... I'm guilty as charged. I don't know what Chris Brogia's life has been like (neither does he know what mine is like... I've been "bullied" and mocked too, you know), and I cannot judge the way he feels about anything. His feelings are his own. But I can say that regardless of how he felt, the offenses he's reacting to are imagined.

The solution to this is to remember a few things about life.

  • First: Nobody thinks about you as much as you think about yourself. The world doesn't - contrary to every feeling you might have - revolve around you. So don't assume that everything is some secret coded message designed to make fun of you or make you feel bad.
  • Second: The only person you can control is yourself. So get a grip. Unless someone actually means to offend you, try not to be offended. In spite of what you might wish to believe, it's not actually everyone else's responsibility to know in advance what may or may not hurt your feelings and tip-toe around them at all times. It's not fair or even possible to expect others to read the minds of every person they meet and avoid every touchy area for each and every one of them. You can't and don't do it for them... Don't expect everyone else to do it for you.
  • Third: When someone does say something actually offensive, and they mean for it to offend you, take a step back and ask yourself whether or not the source or the content of the offense is even worth the headache. Is the offending person someone whose opinion you actually care about? Was this person just lashing out in anger during an argument? Did they know you would be offended by what they said and say it anyway? Are a few words you didn't want to hear worth ruining your day over?

In short. Just STOP being offended so much.

If you do, you'll make the world a much better and less stressful place for yourself, you'll avoid assuming the worst in everyone else, you'll also reduce your level of narcissism, and you'll completely dis-empower everyone who seeks to get under your skin by saying mean things to you,