Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty

[NOTE: There will be spoilers to the film. Of course... If you have a heart and an understanding of narrative beauty & story-telling, you should realize that my spoilers in no way harm the value of viewing the film for yourself. But you've been warned.]

It's rare that I'll get into anything on this blog that isn't heavily intellectual, philosophical, or work-related. This is by well-considered choice, of course... As open as I am with my thoughts on a lot of broad topics, my feelings and personal life I tend to like to keep for myself and those closest to me.

Nothing about that has really changed, however I want to break away from my usual book-length tirades on economics and politics to talk about a film that - as good art frequently does for me - reframed my feelings about a relatively significant life-event that I'm currently experiencing. I can't do that without alluding to at least some aspects of these experiences... So this is personal.

The Secret World of Arrietty is a newly released (or at least, newly distributed in the United States) film by Studio Ghibli... The production company run by master Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki.

It is based on the book series, "The Borrowers" by Mary Norton... I have not read these books, so I'm not really qualified to comment on the source material, but the film is about a pair of young teenagers who meet at an important time in each of their lives.

One is a human boy named Shawn who has recently been relocated to his mother's childhood home to rest before heart surgery; and the other is the "borrower", Arrietty - a normally proportioned girl who is about 3" tall.

The two essentially fall in love with each other as innocent & platonic friends... This bond is a common and recurring theme in most of Miyazaki's films, in case you're unfamiliar with his body of work.

Without divulging much of the story, over the course of the film, the love developed between Shawn & Arrietty comes to deeply affect each others' lives; changing them both for the better... But as is also a common theme in Miyazaki's work, in the end, Shawn & Arrietty cannot remain together physically and must eventually separate, having successfully transformed as characters. They say their bittersweet goodbyes and leave each other only with loving memories of their time together.

There is little more painfully real or beautiful in life than sharing experiences and deeply connecting with another person for only a short time.

And... without going into too much detail here... I find myself experiencing exactly these emotions and feelings now, as the person who has meant the most to me and has been my closest friend since moving to Washington, D.C., is now leaving for China.

There is no guarantee that I will see her again... and if that is the case, I can say with complete certainty that my life will be immensely poorer for it.

My life is already poorer for it.

I hope, of course, that she comes back into my life in a more tangible way as soon as possible and that in the interim I do not lose touch with her...

Life is strange & mysterious and it has ways of bringing people back together sometimes. I like to believe that this will be the case. As I get older and more financially secure, it fortunately becomes easier to make sure I see friends again as well, which is good... But who knows when, where or under what circumstances that may be - if it happens at all.

What has become exceptionally clear in the last few weeks is how important this person has become to my life in DC so far... It's one of those unexpected, entirely unplanned things when you find someone you truly care about, but it's also one of life's most beautiful surprises. Unfortunately, caring about people also tends to mean that you feel it when they are no longer there.

So to see her leave the city as I come into the full implication of my realization is a minor tragedy for me. By now, she knows all this and I hope the feeling is, for the most part, mutual... if not quite identical.

Studio Ghibli's film touches me most because of what I'm feeling now, and this always strikes me as one of the most intriguing aspects of art.

The ability of film (and all good art, really) to influence your emotions based not just on the "intrinsic" or objective merits of the artwork itself, but more-so on the experiences and emotional baggage you bring with you as the audience, is incredibly interesting to me. I entered the theater today reflecting on what's happening in my life right now... and because the film mirrored much of what I'm already feeling, it only served to enhance and further define the thoughts I brought with me.

Not all films can do this, however... Good art, in my estimation, is the stuff that sticks with you and challenges you or influences you to think and feel more deeply than you did before the experience. Miyazaki's films seem all to be capable of this on some level... The Secret World of Arrietty is certainly no exception.

[What follows is a pretty big spoiler... So again, you've been warned

Ultimately, however... It's the very last few lines of the film which are the most touching of all to me, and the most relevant to how I'm feeling now. It is the end that made me want to write this, and talk more - if even only to myself - about the film, and the story's relationship to my own story.

Shawn catches up with the borrowers just as they are leaving for a safer home, and he brings with him a sugar-cube as a (plot-significant) gift, showing his affection for Arrietty.

They have this conversation:

Arrietty: "I have to go. When is your operation?"
Shawn: "The day after tomorrow. I'm going to be okay. You gave me the courage to live."
Arrietty: [Unclipping the pin from her hair & giving it to Shawn] "For luck."
Shawn: "Thanks."
Arrietty: [Now crying] "You protected me after all."
Shawn: "Arrietty..."
Arrietty: "I hope you have the best life ever. Goodbye."
Shawn: "Arrietty., you're a part of me now. I'll never forget you, ever."

I know what they mean.

Perhaps I can often be accused of allowing my feelings in these matters to get the best of me. They have - as a few of my better friends know - gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion in my life and have from time to time caused me unimagined pain in the end. It is unquestionably risky to go out on a limb like I have often done.

But... Having survived the pain which has resulted from some of those moments, it still seems to me that the importance of having the strength to commit to one's feelings about certain, very special individuals is what humanity should really be about.

What is the value of life without love?

And so, this just can't mean hiding how you feel, hedging your bets or living in fear that someone won't care for you the way you care for them in an attempt to avoid pain. It must mean boldness and courageousness, in spite of the very real possibility that the people you've given your heart to - as friends, and as more than friends - may not feel the same way... It may end badly sometimes... But without the risk, there is no possibility of growth and reward. And without that, what's the point?

I do not want timid, mediocre friends or girlfriends.

I want people who know who I really am and who will be around - if only in spirit in some cases - for everything. I want them to know how I feel about them, and of course I want them to feel as strongly for me. I hope the important ones do. This - by the way - isn't intrinsically a romantic consideration either. I hope my male friends know how much they mean to me as well. The ones who matter do.

To me... That's what's important in life, and as I grow older, the more I understand how important it all really is. Every so often, I get to experience a beautiful piece of art which does a great job reaffirming it for me when I start to forget.

I hope I'm not alone.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Light bulbs. Again.

Apparently, since the light bulb bill was delayed a bit, we're back to going around and having discussions about it. I just had one such discussion with my father on the phone while I was ambling through the grocery store.

We were talking about my massive gig for GE (which I'll write about later, or you can check out at, and he asked me if we interviewed anyone from GE's light bulb department about what they think about the "stupid" Republican plan to try to stop the laws mandating higher efficiency in lighting - thereby essentially making incandescent bulbs illegal in favor of CFLs and other such technology.

I proceeded to explain that - on this issue - the Republicans were not the stupid ones, and that what actually matters here is time-preference. When I got home, I composed a follow-up email on the subject that I'd like to basically edit & share here.

For starters, I had to point out that I actually already made a video on Regulatory Capture, and that it covers exactly what is going on with the light bulb bill, in a bill that appliance manufacturers supported 10 years ago with washing machines:

More importantly, the relevant missing piece - as I said - is time-preference:
" large a premium a consumer places on enjoyment nearer in time over more remote enjoyment."
To pull from Human Action, there's this passage:
"Time for man is not a homogeneous substance of which only length counts. It is not a more or a less in dimension. It is an irreversible flux the fractions of which appear in different perspective according to whether they are nearer to or remoter from the instant of valuation and decision. Satisfaction of a want in the nearer future is, other things being equal, preferred to that in the farther distant future. Present goods are more valuable than future goods. [p. 484]

Time preference is a categorial requisite of human action. No mode of action can be thought of in which satisfaction within a nearer period of the future is not--other things being equal--preferred to that in a later period. The very act of gratifying a desire implies that gratification at the present instant is preferred to that at a later instant. He who consumes a nonperishable good instead of postponing consumption for an indefinite later moment thereby reveals a higher valuation of present satisfaction as compared with later satisfaction."
This is all basically to say that most people would rather have whatever goods & services they need (including/especially money) sooner rather than later if at all possible, and that the more immediate need you have of something, the more this is the case. Conversely, the less immediate need you have of something and the more stable your income, the lower your time-preference tends to be, and the more open you are to long-term acquisitions.

As a result, I would add to this one fairly important thing. People who are rich tend to have a far "lower" time-preference for all goods and services than poorer people.

My parents are - for the purposes of this discussion - "rich". So am I, in the grand scheme of things. That's not to say that they've got a giant pile of money or a bunch of beach-houses, but they can (and do) afford expensive light bulbs.

What this means, is that my folks have revealed their time-preference as valuing long-term savings over short-run cash-flow through their own purchasing habits. That's fine for them, of course... That's one of the perks of having more disposable income. But other people do not - and sometimes cannot - have the same preferences.

Some people need more money in hand today, and cannot actually afford to think about how much they may save 10-20 years into the future, or even 10-20 months into the future for that matter. So light bulbs are a perfect microcosm of this and a great teaching-example for time-preference as far as I'm concerned, because here we have two very obvious real-world choices to use.

These options might look something like this.
  • Option A: 60W Incandescent bulb, $0.50 (according to Amazon today). Average lifespan: 1,000 hours. $0.005 per hour
  • Option B: 60W "equivalent" CFL; $12.99 (again, Amazon). Average lifespan: 10,000 hours. $0.001299 per hour.
[Note: It's been brought to my attention via the comments that the 4-pack of incandescent light bulbs I originally found on Amazon for $2.00 no longer exists. I'm guessing this is because it was possibly on sale, but I'm not sure... So, as an alternate calculation using Feb. 20th, 2012 prices at Home Depot's website might include these 60W bulbs at $0.66 each which supposedly last 2,000 hours, against this dimmable 60W equivalent CFL at $8.47 with a lifespan of 8,000 hours.

That'd be $0.00033 per hour of light vs. $0.00105875 per hour of light... which ironically means the 60W incandescents are actually more efficient in this alternate case.

The commenter also challenged my use of dimmable CFLs rather than the much less expensive non-dimmable varieties, but my response reiterated below is that if we're comparing capability to capability, incandescents can be dimmed and even as a kid I had a dimmer switch in my own bedroom, so I think it's valid to want the bulbs to be able to do the same jobs.]

Obviously, [original] "Option B" is cheaper in the long run. Ok. Fine. No one would argue otherwise.

But... So what?

For my folks - who are, again, rather rich in relation to our examples here - $12.99 isn't a big problem in the short term. For someone who's poor, however, it really is. Especially when we might not actually just talking about one bulb, but perhaps we're talking about outfitting an apartment or a house full of light bulbs.

My mom is a teacher, and she teaches in a particularly low-income school district and many of her students are extremely poor.

So I asked her to imagine that one of her students' parents had 5 light bulbs burn out in a week in the apartment she recently moved into. It's not an impossible scenario, and we all know that the landlord isn't going to replace any light bulbs them for her.

Who thinks our hypothetical poor mom can afford to pay $2.50 [or $3.30] for 5 new incandescent bulbs? Probably she can, sure.

However... Can she afford to pay $64.95 [or $42.35] for 5 new CFLs? I doubt it.

Hell... Even if they were not the dimmable kind (which as far as I'm concerned means that they're not actually "equivalent" anymore) and they were only like $4.00 a bulb - which is what I paid the other day - that's still $20 instead of $2.50.

Moreover, does anyone really think that the marginal benefit of saving $5.00 over 10,000 hours of light bulb life is worth it to someone who can barely afford groceries? Who cares if the light bulbs are cheaper over the life of the bulb if the consumer can't afford to buy them in the first place?

But my dad claimed that fighting against legislation dictating light bulb efficiency and restricting consumer choices was the equivalent of preventing progress and keeping people "in the dark ages" with their old-fashioned light bulbs.

He really did say that.

In what universe, though? As far as I can tell, it's the laws conscripting people into paying higher prices for light bulbs, for cars, for energy across the board, which are the things that move us back to the literal dark ages in that they make access to indoor lighting much harder for the poorest people in society.

And of course, these laws all tend to originate from A. companies that stand to profit a ton from forcing people to buy more expensive products (companies very much like Phillips and GE), and B. comparatively rich people (like my dad) who are wealthy enough to make their first priority energy efficiency rather than immediate short-term cash-flow when lighting their homes.

These kinds of laws, little by little, remove people's ability to choose for themselves what they most value, and make it harder for the poorest people to maintain their current standards of living.

So the biggest joke of all is that the people supporting these kinds of laws actually tend to think they'll be good for poor people as they'll "save money" in the long run... But not to be overly blunt here, if you support price controls, or any other policy that limits people's access to choice in markets, you are hurting poor people. Period.

So when we talk about who is pushing for the "dark ages", in this instance it is not people who want to stop these stupid laws. It's the people pushing to pass them.

It's bad reasoning and a poor understanding of economics which leads people to believe that their own personal value judgments and their own specific time-preferences are "right" and should be imposed on everyone else by force, but what actually ends up happening is these kinds of laws screw over the poorest people by forcing them to pay much higher prices for household goods that they otherwise would be able to afford.

THIS is why I care about economics. This is why I work for the Charles Koch Institute.

This is also why the type of conversation I had with my father actively irritate me.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Underpants Gnomes and Health Care with Art Carden

In light of some recent debates about a mandate for contraception now provided by law, I would love to re-visit my massive collection of articles on Health Care. However... Time being limited, and my own skill-set being a little better suited to making 35+ videos in 4 days for major corporations in addition to my work advancing liberty with, I'll let Art Carden do the work for me!

In an article in Forbes on Tuesday, he wrote:
"...consider a hobby horse of my friends on the left: universal health care. The very phrase is misleading because it assumes that passing a “make it so” mandate will lead to “universal health care.” Or, to modify the way Steven Horwitz and I put it last year, the implicit model borrows from the Underpants Gnomes:

  • Phase 1: Pass a law decreeing that everyone gets free health care.
  • Phase 2: ?
  • Phase 3: Everyone has all the health care they need.

This certainly isn’t to say that American health care isn’t really, really messed up or that it doesn’t need fixing. It is and it does. However, we have to be very careful to understand first what happens in Phase 2 and second whether this will lead to everyone having all the health care they need.

When we don’t allow prices to emerge when they can help mediate cooperation, we distort people’s incentives and create waste in the form of either shortages or surpluses. It happens in the market for gasoline when we impose price ceilings and it happens in the market for unskilled labor when we impose price floors. Even if we grant that universal health care is a desirable goal, I’m comfortably certain that by the time such a proposal made its way through the American political process and by the time people responded to the incentives in it, the legislative cure would have been found worse than the disease."
The Underpants Gnomes to which he refers are these:

I wish more people understood this about policy-making.

I actually especially wish many of the panelists at the massive event I just produced huge amounts of video for also understood this (some did, many others did not). More on that later perhaps, once I've had an opportunity to think about it.

At the beginning of Art's article, he explained that:
"Economics is the art of seeing what happens in Phase 2 and determining whether the proposed intervention will lead to the desired outcome. As Henry Hazlitt wrote in his book Economics in One Lesson (which I discuss here), “(t)he art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
...and unfortunately, people who jump on various bandwagons of getting the state to favor this group's policy or that never look at Phase 2.

Especially on health care - but on many others like wars (on drugs, terror, poverty, etc.) - this is a huge problem. People just assume that there are no unintended consequences or hidden costs to mandating that a particular thing be done via force.

But there are.