Weekend Film Recommendation: The Trotsky

Rise, comrades, from your slumber! A rousing film of the people awaits you this weekend! Ok, maybe not. But at least it’ll give you a good chuckle. This week’s movie recommendation is Jacob Tierney’s recent offbeat independent Canadian film The Trotsky (2009).

Leon Bronstein, played by the stoner-comedy staple Jay Baruchel, is a quirky high school student in Montreal. He’s a bright kid with a peculiar dress sense, theatrical flair, and fervid empathy with the plight of the worker. Understandable, really, when you consider that he’s the re-incarnation of Leon Trotsky. Ok, again, maybe not. But even if his belief is misplaced, he certainly takes it seriously: he takes his impassioned effort to cultivate class consciousness to the oppressed laborers at the local factory, where he hopes to organize a hunger strike.

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There’s a small hitch. Leon’s dad (played by Saul Rubinek) is the oppressive factory owner from whom Leon petitions for the liberation of the workers. When the hunger strike barely crosses over from nuisance to inconvenience, dad sees a teachable moment. He pulls Leon from his plush private school and enrolls him in public school. This is all for the best, as it gives young Leon a ripe opportunity to sharpen his wits against the oppressive regime of Principal Berkhoff, played by Colm Feore, who sports an uncanny resemblance to Lenin. The rest of the film is about Leon’s efforts to rise to the occasion for which he feels destined, and this includes unionizing the school pupils, falling in love with an older woman named Alexandra, and hopefully being exiled from his home.

Part of the comic conceit is that young Leon’s efforts to emulate the life of the real Trotsky so obviously take priority above actually making good on the promises Trotsky might have made – when all’s said and done, if there’s a choice between gaining publicity for himself and liberating the oppressed, Leon seems to care more about the former than the latter.

Nonetheless, one of the heartwarming take-away messages is that the difference between boredom and apathy – the accurate diagnosis of which preoccupies much of Leon’s interactions with his fellow schoolmates – is that between people who are either yet to be roused to action, or those who cannot be so roused. If boredom is the affliction, then Leon fancies himself as the man capable of delivering the necessary message. And while Leon’s efforts throughout the film certainly seem self-indulgently theatrical, there’s a charm in his fanciful charade. For this, the role of Professor McGovern (played by Michael Murphy), a political theorist who’s wistfully nostalgic for his days of agitation at Berkeley in the ‘60s, is a useful foil: by the end of the film, the older characters are forced to wonder when they decided that the kind of futile idealism that Leon characterizes switched from something they encouraged to something they now view as pie-in-the-sky petty insurrection.

Screen shot 2014-07-25 at 11.20.13Part of the fun in a film such as this is placing the references: some of them are straightforward (Trotsky’s search for an intellectual soul-mate by the name of Vladimir who will fill the role of his Lenin), while others are less so (the positioning of the characters is sometimes a little artificial, and held just long enough to evoke a propaganda poster). But the film does a good job of playing to different audiences with varying levels of familiarity with Trotsky lore. The lower threshold of audience familiarity with communist history is set invitingly low to ensure that only very few people will feel left out. If you’re one of those people whose knowledge of the real Trotsky’s life extends only as far as ‘something about a czar’ and ‘something else about a pick-axe,’ don’t worry: the bulk of the rest is covered within the film itself. There are, however, plenty of inside gags for those with more than merely a passing interest (a recurring nightmare of Leon’s, usually stimulated by some interaction in which another character has made him feel infantilized, is a nice witty reference to Battleship Potemkin). But there are plenty of base guffaws littered throughout to keep anyone entertained.

The supporting cast is wonderful, with particular highlights from Leon’s father and Principal Berkhoff. Sure, it’s a high school comedy, but the audience extends far beyond the usual stoner crowd that forms the main draw for most films of that ilk and for which Baruchel often appears as a principal character.

The $21 gift horse

David Klemencic is one of the appellants in the Halbig v. Burwell lawauit that threatens to upend the entire subsidy scheme in the federal ACA exchanges. (He turned out to be the key one to establish standing as an injured party, here page 9.) He objects to paying $21 a year for a Bronze policy with the subsidies. That’s not a number picked from thin air, it’s a calculation supplied under oath by Donald Moulds, the acting assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the HHS (h/t Stephanie Mencimer at Mother Jones). On the open market, the cover would cost the 20-year-old Klemencic $1600 by his own account. If he refuses to buy the policy, he will become liable to pay a fine of $100. That’s the injury he complains of. The gift horse has the wrong-shaped ears.

You have to marvel at the principled folly of American libertarians. A man is offered health insurance worth $1600 a year for $21, and he refuses it because it comes from the evil coercive government. He’d rather die – and on his own principles no doubt should, if he injures himself badly enough with his own nail gun and there’s no third party to sue. In practice, he would go to the ER as a free rider on the state taxpayers under pre-ACA rights to emergency treatment, but no doubt he would overcome his principles and submit to help.

My question is about the ethics of the behaviour of Michael Cannon and Jonathan Adler, the right-wing policy wonk and jurist who ginned up the case. You come across a loon who proposes to do something dangerous and totally against his own interests, like removing the seatbelts from his car or the fire extinguisher from his boat, because. What’s the right thing to do? Either try to persuade him to change his mind, or report him to the cops, or pass by on the other side as experience suggests that the other courses are ineffective and loons will be loons. That’s not what Cannon and Adler did. To all appearances, they encouraged him in his self-destructive behaviour, inflating his grievance into joining their high-profile lawsuit. He can’t change his mind now without shame. That was plain wrong. Adler sometimes comments here, so I invite him to defend his actions.

The omelette for which Klemencic serves these libertarian nihilists as the broken egg will break many more if their Cunning Plan comes off and the Supremes support nutty textualism against common sense out of conservative spite. The HHS will stop paying the subsidies to nearly 5 million policyholders through the federal exchanges, creating a massive discrimination with those lucky enough to live in California or Kentucky. Many will have to cancel their policies and become ininsured. A number of policyholders and their family members will die as a result, before the law can be repaired federally (at earliest in 2017), or holdout states set up their own exchanges (in some cases, never). Fiat iniustia, ruat caelum.

If your child died as a result of the actions of Klemencic, Cannon and Adler, would you think of guns? It would be the manly frontier thing to do.

BTW, my uninformed prediction is that the panel decision of the DC Circuit will be reversed en banc, aligning it with the 4th Circuit, and the Supremes will decline to take the case to save themselves the embarrassment of another split decision advertising their internal political divisions or a conservative climbdown. Maybe I’m an optimistic liberal loon.

Military education, apparently,…

is to education as military music is to music, as the old joke about military justice goes.

When we don’t need to kill people (and I do not diss the military function of the military), our armed forces still create value for our society by modeling a code of honesty and personal honor, just like professional sports; people we can look up to and try to emulate, who do it the hard way and don’t cheat, and who know we all depend on each other and go out of their way to share credit for their accomplishments. Right?

Oops.  Poor Walsh is being savaged as a plagiarist, and I think there had better be something in the UCMJ that would support a court martial. But that isn’t even the big outrage in this story (HT member of a private listserv).  There’s no evidence in this story that Walsh’s behavior is typical or common; anything as big as the Army will have some number of cheats, liars, sexual abusers, and whatnot.  What we should be up in (figurative) arms about is what the story does indicate to be a convention: our government is operating a “college” that regards fifteen pages with no original thinking or insights as a master’s thesis.  I read and supervise these things in my day job: this is not a master’s thesis, nor an undergraduate thesis, and (close to) not a course term paper, and wouldn’t be any of those things if Walsh had actually written it.

Where is the accreditation committee for the Army War College? Where is Darrell Issa when we need him?

The Enduring Myth of “Killer Heroin”

I was at a meeting with the Australian drug addiction researcher Shane Darke last week, which gave me the chance to congratulate him for publically predicting correctly that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s autopsy would show that the actor’s tragic overdose death was due to a combination of drugs and not an unusually strong or contaminated batch of heroin.

I talked with Harold Pollack recently about how careful research on overdoses destroyed my prior belief in “killer heroin” hype:

There’s a very nice paper just out by Professors Shane Darke and Michael Farrell, who are two of the world’s leading experts on the topic…toxicology studies of overdosed people very rarely find that impurities played an important role…victims didn’t particularly receive high doses, either. Such findings surprised me. The fact that we’ve got 16,000 people a year dying from pure, legally-manufactured opiate analgesics shows you that it’s really not about the unpredictability of illegal markets, it’s about the drugs per se.

The killer heroin/impure heroin narrative sounds plausible on its face, but the data completely undermine it. Data notwithstanding, here it is again from Isaac Campos in a recent article by German Lopez.

The most dangerous thing about taking heroin right now is you don’t know what you’re really taking. You don’t know how pure it is, which makes it very easy to overdose,” Campos says

I can’t be judgmental of Campos as I would have said the same thing, with confidence, at one point (particularly before the nation was flooded with pure, consistent, labeled opioids like Oxycodone and the result was…an overdose epidemic). But I would respectfully ask him and everyone else to look at the data on overdoses and have a rethink. Successfully tackling the overdose crisis — which is now causing almost as many deaths in the U.S. a year as AIDS did at its peak — will not be facilitated by incorrect assumptions about the nature of the problem.

Tangled-web Dep’t

Julia Ioffe, reporting on the insane theories about the Malaysian jetliner peddled on Russian TV and in Russian newspapers, points reports that Vladimir Putin is now caught in a trap of his own making.

Russian mass media is now dominated by an extreme-nationalist lunatic fringe, built up by Putin and his cronies but no longer under their detailed control. And the alternative reality presented there influences not only mass public opinion but also elite opinion, since to stay in touch people with real decisions to make have to pay attention to the prolefeed. If Putin wanted to act responsibly, he’d be swimming against the tide. Yes, it’s his tide, in the sense that he made it, but Ioffe – quoting a Karl Rove/Mark Penn figure named Gleb Pavlovsky, who fell out with Putin after helping to engineer his last election – suggests that he cannot control it in detail.

It’s a scary picture.

What’s scarier is that, if you change the names, it applies to the relationships among the plutocrats, the GOP apparatchiki, and the world of the Murdochized press, the Koch-driven think-tanks, and Red Blogistan.

Orwell was right: there are historical moments when insisting that 2+ 2 = 4 is a radical political act.

Three Ways of Looking at Marijuana Consumption Data

Here’s a nice chart from Andrew Sullivan on marijuana consumption in Colorado. It illustrates a point that has been made many times by drug policy analysts such as Mark Kleiman and Beau Kilmer: The total volume of pot consumption is accounted for almost entirely by users who smoke every day or nearly every day. Envisioning how different stakeholders would respond to this evidence can be helpful both for appreciating the impossibility of value-free evidence-based policy and for understanding one of the basic dilemmas of legal marijuana regulation.


AT THE PUBLIC HEALTH CONFERENCE: “Colleagues, you can see from this chart that not all marijuana users are of equal concern to us. Some people use the drug rarely, and we know that such users tend to be high social capital individuals who could set their lives right in the unlikely event that they did develop a drug problem. So we should focus instead on these heavy users in the bottom two bars of the chart, who tend not incidentally to be people with less education, less income and poorer access to health care. The evidence we have shows that the primary risks of this drug, for example marijuana dependence, mental health problems and poor school and work performance, are concentrated in the subset of people who use every day or almost every day. Let us therefore resolve to keep the size of this group as small as possible through high taxes that discourage heavy consumption, caps on THC content that reduce the ability of the drug to promote dependence and limits on advertising and points of sale in vulnerable communities.”

AT THE CORPORATE BOARD MEETING: “Well friends, you can see from this chart that not all of our customers are of equal concern to us. We can’t make much money from the people in the top few bars of the chart, so we should focus mainly on the heavy users who provide us the bulk of our revenue. We need to move as much of the population as possible into this high-revenue bracket. So let’s all agree to press for lower taxes, higher THC content and as much advertising and as many retail locations as possible in the communities where our best customers tend to live.”

AT THE STATE LEGISLATURE: “Fellow committee members, as you know we have seen this chart twice today, once when the public health advocates visited and again when the marijuana industry lobbyists visited. Both groups agreed on the evidence but they wanted us to respond to it in opposite ways. And that’s not the end of what we have to consider. The state budget analyst’s office has calculated that almost 90% of the marijuana tax revenue we wanted from legalization comes from the people in the bottom bars of this chart. We care about public health but if we implement policies that make too many of those heavy marijuana users quit, the tax revenue hit we will take might force us to sacrifice other important priorities.”

Does socialism cause dishonesty?

Here’s an interesting natural experiment.

For external, historical reasons, workers in one half of a culturally and linguistically unified but politically divided country had the right to organize unions to defend their interests against employers, while in the other half of that country workers’ organizations were state-controlled in the interests of management, and genuine union activity was punished by firing if not worse.  After that country was reunified, randomly chosen people from the union half and the non-union half were subjected to a standard psychological test measuring the propensity to cheat.  Those who had grown up under conditions were ordinary people could defend themselves openly from oppression by their bosses turned out to be more honest than their peers from the non-union part of the country.

Conclusion: Unionization makes people behave well, while union-busting makes them behave badly.

Of course, it’s not an entirely clean experiment. The non-union side (East Germany) was under foreign control, with a secret-police network that recruited as much as one-third of the population as informants. So possibly dishonesty is caused by living in a world of fear and distrust, rather than by the absence of workers’ rights alone.

Worse than that, the non-union half was systematically looted by the occupying power, while the union half was treated much better by its conquerors and became rich. So maybe it’s scarcity, rather than or in addition to denial of workers’ rights, that makes people dishonest.

Still and all, the result is what it is: a strong labor movement is associated with improved morality.

Only somehow that’s not the conclusion the authors of the study (including Dan Ariely, a perominent behavioral economist and the author of a good semi-popular book on the subject, Predictably Irrational) decided to draw. Instead, they focused on the fact that West Germany had, alongside wealth, the rule of law, personal freedom, and a strong trade-union movement, a primarily market-based economy, while East Germany was under the Soviet system – what Orwell accurately labeled “oligarchic collectivism” – with arbitrary government, no rule of law, and no respect for human rights; residents could be and were shot for trying to emigrate, and many tried to leave just the same.

Using a definition favored only by Bolsheviki and fans of plutocracy, Ariely et al. elect to call the East German tyranny “socialism,” and pretend that their study shows that living under “socialism” worsens the morals of a population.

Having reached an extreme conclusion from a single poorly-defined case study, Ariely and his colleagues then stop, without trying to test their conclusion out of sample. Sweden, for example, has great personal liberty, honest government, and the rule of law, but much more state ownership of enterprise, more tightly regulated markets, and a far more redistributive tax-and-transfer system than Germany.  Swedes are also (if we restrict our attention to mostly-Lutheran Northern Germany) culturally similar to Germans.

Would Ariely and his co-authors be willing to bet that Swedes are less honest than Germans (or Norwegians, living under a regime closer to German mixed capitalism than to Swedish social democracy)?  If so, I’m happy to take the other end of the bet.

The same applies if we were to compare Israelis raised in explicitly socialist kibbutzim to other Israelis, or  Englishpeople raised before the Thatcher era with those raised after, or Canadians with Americans. (After all, the same people who use the word “socialist” to describe Stalinist tyranny also use it to describe national health insurance.)

Of course in all of those cases one could name other factors that might influence the outcomes. But that’s precisely the point: the same is true of the German case. Yet Ariely and his co-authors seem to think they’ve proven something, and the Economist and Alex Tabarrok (who certainly knows better) at Marginal Revolution and Mark J. Perry at AEI (who may not know better) swallow it whole, without raising a single methodological red flag. “When it comes to ethics, a capitalist upbringing appears to trump a socialist one,” trumpets the Economist, hoping that its readers will vote to help the rich get richer and the poor get poorer while “reforming” union power out of the labor markets.

To call this a “mistake” would, it seems to me, be far too generous. A blunder that extreme only happens when the people making it want to fool themselves and others. It’s an example of what Dan Kahan calls “motivated cognition.”

Do the thought experiment for yourself.   Imagine that the results had come out the other way: say, showing that Chileans became less honest while Pinochet’s minions were gouging out their opponents’ eyeballs and Milton Friedman was gushing about the “miracle of Chile”? How do you think the paper would read, and what do you think the Economist, Marginal Revolution, and AEI would have had to say about its methods? 

I know that some of my libertarian friends consider my views of their movement uncharitable, but honest to God, the combination of high IQ and good formal economics training with great willingness to believe and repeat obvious nonsense that characterizes that group is really hard to take.  Of course con-cons and professional lefties also believe some truly stupid sh*t,  but neither group is as good as the glibertarians at pretending to be Serious Social Scientists.

Here’s a Pro Tip: If you never reach and publish a conclusion that doesn’t support  your prejudices, no one has any reason to take any of your results seriously.

More classroom flipping: testing as learning

The “flipped classroom” pedagogical model is the hot ‘new’ idea in my industry. The idea is to move didactic delivery of knowledge (especially facts) out of the classroom to venues better suited to it, like the web and books, and use live meetings of students and prof for coached use of that knowledge in discussion, exercises, and the like. New, as in, “this is how art, mechanic arts, and sports have been taught for thousands of years”.   I have pretty much drunk this Kool-Aid, partly on the evidence that active learning is the universal practice everywhere the task is to acquire a skill, including very high-level skills. No-one begins teaching the piano with a reading assignment or a lecture.

Another way to “flip” the learning experience is to move testing from a big-deal end-of-the-course high-stakes assessment to frequent, low- or no-stakes events throughout the course. There’s a lot to like about this on its face, starting with the near-complete dissimilarity between what conventional exams measure and what education should be making people better at. I also dislike the infantilizing affective tone of exams that can be graded with an answer key: grownups who quiz each other as a social convention “Hey, guess what I read in the paper this morning.  No, really, guess!” don’t have a lot of friends.

It turns out that low- or no-stakes testing right after we get a dollop of knowledge helps us retain the knowledge, and better than restudying or reviewing the material.  This seems to be the key paper , and why haven’t I known about this for eight years?  Active learning of course has a lot of this built in: after you play a passage on the piano and get some coaching on what you did, you actively ‘recall’ what you learned by playing it again, or playing something else.  It seems that for enduring recall, the task of retrieving something from memory is as important to improve with practice as the act of committing to memory.

The effect size here is notable, and look at those error bars:


Remarkably, you don’t even have to actually ‘take the test’ in the sense of writing down your answers.  And it seems that learning your score on these tests doesn’t matter, never mind whether they ‘count for your grade’.

I think, on the strength of this research, I have to make space in every class session for quick testing , and figure out how to design such tests for the kind of material I teach. Students are mistaken about this stuff, and incorrectly predict that they will remember material better after a week when they study it repeatedly than when they study it once and are tested on it. (Of course, students are mistaken (or misinformed) about a lot of learning technique, like highlighting (lose it).) They will grouse, but at least I have some real research to reassure them with.

Pub Quiz

Today’s quiz is about international abbreviations. Google not and see how you do on this one. Please post your score and any comments/corrections. Answers and scoring key after the jump.

1. During the Eurozone crisis, what five countries were referred to as the PIIGS?

2. What three nations signed the ANZUS treaty?

3. What four countries are referred to in the acronym BRIC?

4. Sometimes a fifth nation is added to make the above BRICS. What is this country?

5. What four developing nations are shorthanded as MINT?

6. For what does the acronym SEATO stand?

7. Three of the world’s busiest airports are abbreviated DXB, HND and LHR respectively. What are their full names?

8. The above are termed IATA codes, which stands for what?

9. What nations’ currencies are abbreviated BMD, ILS, NOK and TND, respectively?

10. If you were a librarian, you would often have occasion to look up an ISSN or the LTWA. For what do these acronyms stand?

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