Omphaloskepsis Will Not Redeem Defeated Political Parties

The British Labour Party is going through an internal debate process right now that seems de rigeur after an electoral thrashing. Long-time party members are saying the party must move to the centre, or to the left, or reach out to business more, or be tougher on business, or improve its broadcast communications and stop worrying so much about retail politics, or improve its retail politics and stop worrying so much about broadcast communications etc. Every proposed course is contested by another party faction, and a long period of internecine conflict and introspection has begun.

There is nothing particularly British or leftist about such post-defeat omphaloskepsis. The US Republican Party went through the same ritual after Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat. I appreciate the natural impulse to analyze (gripe about?) an unpleasant experience, but that shouldn’t stop political actors for facing a fundamental point of logic:

When the public turns against your party, the people you need to listen to are the ones who DIDN’T vote for you. If your party were in touch with the electorate and could figure out on its own a winning formula, you would have, well, won. The pathway to more support from the electorate by definition lies beyond the usual voices and outside the people who supported you in the recent election. It might therefore be more profitable for losing parties to talk much less about themselves and listen much more to what those who rejected them are saying.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

IVBPolitical paranoia month continues with my recommendation of a film that is at once a sci-fi chiller, a B-movie classic and an utterly unnerving destruction of any ability you may have to trust the people around you. It’s the legendary original adaptation of Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Made for peanuts in 1956, the film tells the story of a seemingly peaceful small California town where nothing ever happens. In the only starring role of his career, Kevin McCarthy plays town doctor Miles Bennell, who begins encountering a number of patients claiming that their loved ones are no longer who they used to be. They look exactly the same, but something’s not quite right about them. Dr. Bennell offers these worriers the standard reassurances about learning to relax, getting enough shut eye etc. It seems to work at first. The people who were once complaining soon become every bit as pleasant and vacant-looking as the loved ones they were so recently fretting over. Indeed, it is amazing how much better people feel when they just…go…to…sleep.

As strange events compound, Dr. Bennell and the woman he loves (Dana Wynter) realize that a sinister force is rapidly taking over the community and it’s almost impossible to tell who is afflicted and who is not. When they discover the extraterrestrial source of the change in the townspeople, they realize that their own lives are in danger and that it will be hard to convince anyone in the wider world that what they have seen is more than a figment of their imaginations.

My Name is Julia Ross (soon to be recommended here at RBC) is often cited as the prototype of a fine film made on a low budget; this B-movie is another sterling example of cinematic brilliance on the cheap. The only real expenses of consequence were the then ground breaking special effects. The town in which the movie was filmed — Sierra Madre — was used in its natural form; there are no fancy sets. Director Don Siegel went on to significant cinematic fame but the cast are unknowns and character actors who stayed unknowns and character actors. Producer Walter Wenger was an established figure in Hollywood, but his career was almost over when he made this movie. But none of that matters: This is grade A entertainment, loaded with suspense, shocks and solid performances.

IVB2The meaning of the story has been much debated over the years. Some have seen it as a parable about the dangers of Communist infiltration. Others see it as a warning about conformity in the era of McCarthy. I never met Jack Finney, but I know some of his close friends and members of his family. When asked, they describe him as a New Deal liberal and no one’s Red baiter. They don’t think he wrote the story as political allegory but simply as a good story.

You can certainly enjoy this nail-biter as Finney thought of it: A good story. But it also will resonate with you emotionally if ever you have been in a situation where you felt that everyone but you was in on a joke you hadn’t been told or where you felt persecuted for being different. The most disturbing thing about the film is how banal and pleasant the enemies are. Like the worst of the world’s villains, they don’t see themselves as evil. Rather, they think they are doing everyone else a favor by bringing them under their tent.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers deserves its reputation as a classic film. Don’t miss it!

p.s. Carolyn Jones who has the second female lead part here, went on to play Morticia on television’s The Addams Family.

p.p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.


Nestlé, for whom I have no brief regarding any of their businesses, is being attacked for bottling water in California during our historic drought; right perp, wrong charge.  I guess water conservation needs symbolic, inconsequential rituals, but I worry that doing silly things in the name of a good cause can be ill-advised. Restaurants are making a big show of not serving water unless requested; this isn’t completely off-base, considering the additional water used to wash the glass, but it’s totally de minimis.
Every drop of water that Nestlé doesn’t bottle in our thirsty state will be drunk.  It will either come from a faucet (the best place to get drinking water) or it will be bottled far away and hauled here in a truck burning diesel–or a ship burning bunker oil from Italy or Fiji, for Pete’s sake–and causing global warming.  The bottle will litter the landscape or the ocean, fill up a landfill, or be turned into a cheap suit, more bottles, or fuel.  The last three aren’t terrible, but they have their own carbon footprints.  Bottled water is a disgrace where tap water is safe and tastes OK, but not because of the water (especially when it’s just tap water, which it usually is).
Our local water agency just gave us a target of 35 gal/day per person for non-landscape water use (Debbie calculates that we are at 31, woo hoo!).  How much of that do you drink?  If you drink a quart a day, less than a percent, and if you are watering any garden, drinking water is, if I may say, literally a drop in the bucket.
If you don’t flush pee once a day, you’ve saved six times what you drink. Turn off the shower for a minute while you soap up  and it’s that much again.  Pass up three almonds and you’ve saved two whole flushes.  Skip a meat portion a week (not to mention a round of golf): now you’re really making a difference.
I’ve successfully driven bottled water out of events at my school in favor of a nice pitcher, and my students are much more likely to schlep a metal bottle that they refill from the tap than a bottle they bought full. That’s green.  But worrying about how much we’re drinking, local or otherwise, is a distraction.

Templeton Prize for an Advocate for People with Disabilities

At a joyful and moving ceremony last night at St Martin-in-the-fields, the extraordinary Jean Vanier accepted The Templeton Prize. I have heard a number of people say that after meeting him they wanted to become a better person. I now understand why.

Over a half century ago, he visited a horrid psychiatric institution in France, and a resident with intellectual disabilities asked him “Will you be my friend?”.

What would you have done in this situation? I think I would have engaged in an awkward interaction and then moved on. Vanier in contrast invited two residents to come live with him, initiating a movement that now includes 147 communities in 35 countries. In L’Arche communities, people with and without intellectual disabilities share their lives. Perhaps the most striking — indeed radical — aspect of the Vanier’s vision was his expectation that those without intellectual disabilities would benefit as much as those with them. It’s a complete departure from the typical medical model in which designated experts apply clinical techniques to designated helpees.

At 86, Vanier remains a marvelously eloquent, funny and inspiring speaker. This is his answer to the eternal question: What does it mean to be fully human?

Gunpowder and alcohol don’t mix

That was a bromide the NRA spammed around in its literature back when I was learning about firearms as a pre-teen.  Having no interest in or experience with booze, I found it confusing; now it makes a lot of sense, whether or not the slogan actually affects anyone’s behavior.  Gun violence is mostly just one form of alcohol violence.

Why is this relevant? Well, those carefree college years in Texas are about to get a lot more bracing and focused, as the state is ready to allow guns everywhere on campus, open and concealed.  I take my opinions about firearms and risk from Mark, pretty much as given, and I’m guessing this won’t produce an explosion of gun violence generally.  However, in Waco, there was just a rehearsal for what happens when drunk young men in cult-like exclusive organizations convene with lots of guns around.  I have pretty high odds that Texas will enthrall us with a fraternity party bloodbath in the not-too-distant future.

Medical Marijuana and the Ecological Fallacy

Some recent studies have shown that states with more medical marijuana availability have lower rates of opioid overdose and young male suicides. This was interpreted as meaning that people who use medical marijuana are at lower risk of overdose and less likely to take their own lives. If you think that constitutes good reasoning, you should also believe that smoking and being exposed to radon reduces your risk of cancer because in the aggregate, those variables are negatively correlated with cancer rates!

The recent medical marijuana studies have fallen into a seductive logical error called the ecological fallacy, which my colleagues and I explain in detail at a post at PLOS Mind the Brain. Once you understand the ecological fallacy, you will realize that many, many news stories about research make claims that just are not true (we give examples in our post).

Perhaps surprisingly, whether medical marijuana availability at the state level correlates with some other state-level indicator actually tells us nothing about how medical marijuana affects individuals. If a state-level correlation with some indicator is positive (e.g., states with more medical marijuana have higher rates of violence) the individual level relationship can still be negative (e.g., medical marijuana use makes people less violent).

Some medical marijuana activists have argued to me that it is inappropriate to point out that the studies in this area are methodologically flawed because doing so harms “the cause”. I don’t sympathize with such Lysenkoism. I believe scientists should seek and report the truth regardless of whether it concords with a political agenda (The scientist’s own or anyone else’s). If we give up on that regulating ideal of scientific inquiry, we can’t really complain when other people deny the evidence of oceanic acidification change or assert that the MMR vaccine causes autism.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Defence of the Realm

defence-of-the-realm-promo-16RBC’s political paranoia movie month jumps the pond this week to recommend a taut British conspiracy tale set on Fleet Street: David Drury’s 1986 thriller Defence of the Realm. The film embodies left-wing paranoia of the Thatcher years, with its deep scepticism of nuclear weapons, the US-British alliance and grey men in dark suits secretly controlling society from their Whitehall back offices and private gentleman’s clubs.

The story begins somewhat obliquely, with two juvenile delinquents fleeing the police until they come to a British airbase used by the American military (Presumably RAF Lakenheath, hint hint). One of them clambers over the fence, triggering an unexplained event that leads to an evacuation. An investigation is announced by Dennis Markham, MP, who is played by RBC favorite Ian Bannen (we have praised his work here, here, here and here). But before Markham can pursue his enquiry, he is forced to resign over a Profumo-esque sex scandal. Coincidence? Brash young investigative journalist Nick Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) begins to pull at the threads of the story, despite the warnings of his cagy if boozy senior colleague (Denholm Elliott). Pretty soon, Nick becomes aware that powerful forces do not want the truth to come out and will do anything to keep it quiet.

The movie’s perspective is pretty bleak and in that sense one could consider it a British cousin of last week’s recommendation The Parallax View. Byrne, with his dark looks and demeanor, is almost a physical expression of the film’s outlook, which is only further enhanced by the moody cinematography and music.

In addition to its suspenseful and exciting moments, this film has two towering virtues. The first is the performance of Elliott, who steals the movie as a wiser, sadder journalist with a core of integrity. It’s as good as anything this fine actor has carried off in his impressive career. The movie’s other principal pleasure is its evocation of a now-vanished Fleet Street culture, with heavy drinking at lunch, late nights at the office, and some peculiar and charming traditions (e.g., the scene where an ink-stained wretch’s retirement is marked by the sound of pounding printing blocks).

defenceThis isn’t a perfect movie. Greta Scacchi, in the sort of role that seemed intended to have critics say “See she’s not just a sex symbol, she can really act!”, is in fact pretty flat as Markham’s assistant and there is zero chemistry between her and Byrne. Also, some viewers may find the film too confusing or downbeat at least some of the time.

That said, Defence of the Realm is a worthy entry into the political paranoia genre that improves with repeated viewing. It will not make you trust your government more, but it will command your attention and keep you on the edge of your seat.

A final trivial note on the film: Prior to the big showdown with nefarious forces, Byrne walks through the same club library in which Daniel Craig and Michael Gambon made a drug deal in prior RBC recommendation, Layer Cake, which is also the room where I wrote that recommendation and this one too.

p.s. As of this writing, this movie is available for free instant video to Amazon Prime subscribers.

p.p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

History lesson, courtesy of Marco Rubio

I once thought that the constraints of writing on Twitter entitled people to a considerable measure of benefit of the doubt.

But this? A man has limits…

Screen shot 2015-05-13 at 19.08.30

What Coase Actually Believed

It’s remarkable how often people are remembered for believing or doing things that they in fact opposed. Professor David Ball recently passed along this gem from the famous economist Ronald Coase.

The world of zero transaction costs has often been described as a Coasian world. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the world of modern economic theory, one which I was hoping to persuade economists to leave.

Source: The Firm, the Market and the Law, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1988. p.174.