Weekend Film Recommendation: Strange Days

Before Kathryn Bigelow became one of Hollywood’s hot tickets for films like The Hurt Locker (2008), and before her public spat with James Cameron, she turned out some fairly unknown but enjoyable films like Point Break (1991) and this week’s movie recommendation, Strange Days (1995).

Screen shot 2014-01-03 at 15.52.20The film is set in a deteriorating L.A., in the final moments of the last millennium. Racial tensions are ablaze, everyone is paranoid, and no one is safe (the Rodney King riots from four years before the film’s release loomed large). Against that backdrop, the conceit of the film revolves around a technological device intended for leisure, which transmits signals directly into its user’s brain and allows them to experience a pre-recorded memory – either their own or that of another person – as though it is in the present. An amputee missing both legs can know the sensation of running barefoot along a sandy beach, and an embittered lover can re-live his favorite memories from a long-ago relationship. Except our protagonist Lenny Nero, an ex-cop played by Ralph Fiennes who now deals in the market exchanging these memories, is mysteriously being sent recordings of rapes and brutal murders, and he needs to solve the whodunit before the killer strikes again.

Bigelow has a real talent for constructing engrossing and visually sensational set pieces. Los Angeles has never looked as meretricious as it does here, with the 90s rave aesthetic spilling out onto the cityscape: there’s no shortage of neon, sequins, strobes, and billows of steam. The visual experience is all the more intense when accompanied by prevailing violence and jarring camerawork, especially during the memory scenes. Like most good sci-fi dystopias, there’s more than a hint of film noir to feast on. L.A. is a city in decay after having been used up by people trying to ‘get theirs’ no matter the cost, and the main characters wear an understandable look of exhaustion and resignation on their faces.

Screen shot 2014-01-03 at 15.56.51Unfortunately, Bigelow’s talent for visual extravaganza isn’t quite matched when she tries her hand at symbolism. Lenny’s ex-girlfriend Faith, played by Juliette Lewis, won’t take him back (D’ya get it? It’s like he’s lost Faith!); his best friend Max, played by Tom Sizemore, delights in the coming apocalypse (Hmm… I wonder how Lenny will end up if he abandons all hope and faith entirely?); and his guardian angel Mace, played by Angela Bassett, rescues him from just about every scrape in which he finds himself (redemption through the resolution of race tensions. That’s, like, so deep).

Nonetheless, I happen to enjoy that the central conceit is about the desire for escapism from the present life, and a failure to face up to current problems. It isn’t new, and while it’s been done better elsewhere (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stands out as one example), this is a good effort with impressive acting from a great cast, and a passable script by James Cameron.

If you can stomach the visceral opening scene of Strange Days, you’ll manage the rest. Enjoy this New Year’s film, but don’t expect it be a calm start to 2014!

This just in: default is bad.

Will the United States avoid default by refusing to pay its obligations as they come due?

Tweet from Megan McArdle <@asymmetricinfo>:

Hey, quick reminder: you know what’s bad for the economy, and your country’s reputation? Defaulting on the debt.

Megan and I disagree on a wide range of topics, and I think she’s fooling herself about the extent to which the libertarian project boils down to a commitment to worsen the income distribution, but when push comes to shove she’s reality-based.

That matters even more when others on her side of the Red/Blue Divide clearly aren’t. The current Republican line (cf. responses to Megan’s Tweet, or the latest nonsense from the Capitol Hill Republicans and the Feldstein/Mankiw Axis of Weevils) is that the Treasury will always have enough money to pay interest on bonds and bills, simply by stiffing its other creditors (employees, pensioners, contractors, and suppliers) thus avoiding “default” as defined by the Credit Default Swap markets.

This reminds me of a joke that went around during the first New York City financial crisis: that the City would avoid default by refusing to pay its obligations. But it’s not a joke (or, rather, it’s a joke in very bad taste) when it involves the credit of the United States of America.

You can choose to believe that defaulting on the nation’s legal obligations that don’t happen to be called “bonds” or “bills” won’t influence the confidence of world financial markets in Treasury debt, but that is what Mark Twain called “a vagrant opinion, without visible means of support.” But whatever its practical implications, not paying your bills when they come due – given that you have the capacity to pay them – is deeply, unforgivably dishonorable.

I only wish Megan had more company on her side of the aisle. And I hope that her lack of company makes her reconsider whether the Red jersey is one she’s really willing to wear.

“Puritan Progressive” Parents are Neither Puritans nor Progressives. Discuss.

Neither Puritans nor Progressives should be tarred with association with today’s hygiene obsessed yupsters parents

Mark Oppenheimer’s critique of hygiene-obsessed parents who are scared of immunization, processed food, non-organic anything and the alleged over-sugarization of children kicked off a long, engaging set of comments on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish about the “Puritanism of Progressive Parents”. It all makes for stimulating reading, but the basic framing is I believe unfair both to Puritans and Progressives.

Here’s Oppenheimer:

The Puritan parents I encounter are nearly all liberals, and they represent the persistence of two unfortunate tendencies liberals have inherited from the Puritans, queered along the way by Progressive-era reformers. The first is the fun-smothering tendency of Progressive-era moral uplift, the tendency that brought us Prohibition and the first laws proscribing opiates and narcotics.

The Puritans compete with the Victorians for being the chief whipping boys of lazy historical analyses like these, which source current moralistic views to long-dead people who in fact believed something quite different. The Puritans generally opposed Prohibition of alcohol, specifically because it would be an unfair denial of pleasure. Indeed, no less a Puritan figure than Increase Mather called alcohol a “good creature of God” (For those who want to know more about how different Christian sects view alcohol, let me put a plug in here for the scholarly work of my friend Rev. Dr. Chris Cook).

The other reason that the parents Oppenheimer quite appropriately derides should not be called Puritans is captured in the old saw that “The Puritans went to America for the freedom to practice their faith and to force other people to practice it too”. A Puritan would be delighted to meet a fellow member of the faithful, but that is not what I see in these parents. If they are vegetarian and meet another vegetarian, they are unhappy and commit to becoming a vegan. If they then meet another vegan, they become unhappy and commit to becoming an ovo-lactic vegan. They don’t want other people to share faith in a community of peers, they want to outrank their lessers within a hierarchy.

This is also why they are not truly liberal or progressive. They are not trying to save the world, they are trying to get an edge in life for themselves and for little Hayden and Sawyer too. Oppenheimer hits this point well, when he upends his own initial characterization of these parents as progressives:

Most of the middle-class “liberal” parents I know have allowed lifestyle decisions about what they wear, eat, and drive to entirely replace a more ambitious program for bettering society; they have no particular beliefs about how to end poverty or strengthen the labor movement, and they don’t understand Obamacare, or really want to. It’s enough that they make their midwife-birthed children substitute guava nectar for sugar.

Rather than surrender the terms liberal or progressive so easily to the domain of lifestyle and shallow issues of personal identity, I suggest we let those terms retain their political meaning by not describing panicky, entitled, hierarchy-obsessed, materialistic strivers as “liberals”. Likewise, let’s not throw theology and history to the side and call them “Puritans” either. If we need a shorthand term for them, I suggest that someone with literary skill invent an entirely new one, as long it isn’t very polite.

What Detroit means

The first thing I thought about Detroit is that the state’s appointment of a receiver demonstrated the Republican governor’s profound indifference to the democratic process of a Democratic city, not to mention a white governor’s profound indifference to a black city.   This may be true, but it’s also true that Detroit’s finances are such a catastrophe that, like New York in the 1970s, it seems to need an outsider to get its house in order. It helps that the trustee is African-American, though not very much: even temporary government without the consent of the governed should cause us alarm.

The second thing I thought about Detroit is that selling off the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art, which the trustee estimates would be sufficient to retire all of the city’s debt, is the best of a number of bad options. Museums nationwide are hyperventilating at the prospect, but they also think it’s sensible to keep on hand huge numbers of items that no one ever sees.  I don’t quarrel with the need to have a deep collection for research purposes, but I also don’t see why it’s considered bad form verging on unethical to sell the parts of the collection you’re not using in public to sustain the parts of the collection you ARE using in public, and at the same time not coincidentally making the sold pieces available to the public, albeit in a different location.

If there had been a Great Fire of Detroit, and the whole city destroyed, no one would argue that recreating the city’s art collection should take priority over food and shelter for the city’s people.  The years of financial mismanagement have incinerated Detroit just as surely as a physical fire; why shouldn’t we pay more attention to basic needs than to cultural institutions?

And isn’t the whole function of assets to provide financial security when income doesn’t suffice? Again, I wonder about the racial composition of those who champion the inviolability of the collection as against the racial composition of those who think it might be necessary to dispose of it. The state’s Attorney General has opined that the city may not sell them because they’re held in trust for the citizens.  But “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government,” and I don’t notice anyone’s raising a ruckus about the loss of that part of our patrimony.

The third thing I thought about Detroit is that the bondholders’ interests are being given absolute priority over the interests of current and former employees, whose pensions are at stake. This is the case in Illinois as well, where at least some portion of the pension “crisis” could be solved by refinancing the debt and stretching out repayment but where that solution is not even considered because the bondholders don’t like it. I understand the value of the municipal bond market to cities’ ability to expand infrastructure but municipal bond investors are investors and should be prepared to accept some pain when they toss their dollars into what’s obviously a money pit.

And the fourth thing I thought about Detroit is that it’s Americans’ closest analogue to what’s casually referred to as “the European debt crisis,”  throughout which salvaging the Euro has meant satisfying bondholders at the expense of people who’d like to work or collect their pensions.   Very few commentators seem aware that the real crisis is one of self-government (or its destruction), or that the Germans have managed to do through economics what they couldn’t do through war, that is, run Europe.  When externally-imposed austerity hit Greece, all I could remember was the bumper sticker from the era of the junta: “Greece: Democracy born 508 BC, died 1967 AD.”  Or, this time around, “reborn 1974, killed again 2011 or -12 A.D.”  As the saying goes, same s**t, different day.

Back to Detroit: if I were trustee, I’d sell off DIA’s assets in a heartbeat and use the proceeds to protect employee pensions. If there was anything left for the bondholders, fine; if not, too bad: it’s the pensioners who paid their share and are entitled to what they were promised. Even after years of trashing public employee unions (brought to you by the Heritage Foundation and other fronts for wealthy people who don’t like to pay taxes or see working people make reasonable money), there must be some court somewhere willing to recognize that the obligation of contracts shall not be impaired.

Of course, I would never be chosen trustee, but that’s not the point. The point is, my solution is what would happen if Detroit were still governed by its people. Detroit: Democracy died 2013 A.D.

Oklahoma tornado

Oklahoma is an oil state. Oklahomans vote for people like senators Inhofe and Coburn, who rail at the ‘myth’ of climate change.  After all, there are millions and millions of dollars still to earn selling oil to burn: what more evidence does a reasonable Sooner need?

People who think science is more than a political flag one can choose to wave or not, depending on whether there’s profit in it, are pretty sure that one of the effects of global warming is increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather.

I wish I believed that a just Providence sent things like today’s tornado upon people who vote for oil-whore Oklahoma Republicans.  I don’t, but could the devastation in Moore possibly give the survivors something to think about along these lines?

UPDATE (21 May):

I obviously wrote the foregoing too quickly and too elliptically.  Let me unpack it here:

The reference to a just Providence was a pointer to the repeated meme, trotted out (for example) after Katrina, that natural disasters happen to people who deserve to be punished. The reason I “wish I believed that” is that if I did, I would feel OK about the consequences, I guess even the children whose school was shredded around them.    But I don’t: I believe natural systems are ordered by an amoral, implacable, scientific reality that we understand much better by taking it seriously and being smart than by theodicy.  I believe actions like putting carbon back in the air from underground as fast as possible have consequences, consequences that fall most heavily on the least deserving: the poor people who will not have enough to eat as floods and droughts deepen and come more often, and all the children still unborn around the world who didn’t get to dance at the fossil fuel party but will still have to figure out how to live in a toasted planet – yes, and children in tornado alley who never voted for anyone.

I also believe that the time to talk about politics and how we engage with that amoral reality is while the manifestations of foolishness, especially their injustice, are salient, and that doing so shows respect and sympathy for those who suffered and died for no good reason other than the cupidity of their leadership and its wilful ignorance (or worse, putative ignorance)

Continued collapse of the information system: two more dead canaries

Two significant pieces of news today:  Google’s earnings (and stock price) are down, and Newsweek has given up on a paper edition.The Newsweek story is only the latest step down a path to oblivion, as the digital edition cannot survive financially either and will close down in turn.

This is happening because the business models for  providing content have collapsed.  Newsweek is one dying gasp of a hybrid system whereby content could be  denied to anyone who didn’t pay for a physical object, and the attention of readers therefore sold to advertisers who could be assured that (i) anyone reading the story on left-hand page 32 would see the nice big ad on page 33 and (ii) cared enough to plunk down  50c or so for the magazine.  Google is a different animal, that sells ads with the promise that people seeing the ad had shown some interest in the type of product on offer.   What made Newsweek worth buying was the expensive expertise of its authors and editors and the expense accounts on which the former could get stories; what makes Google run is the utility of its search engine, maps, and other cool stuff, that we pay for by tolerating the crappy little ads that appear on tiny patches of a screen about the size of  a two-page Newsweek spread, but cluttered with a bunch of other stuff. Or the infuriating big ads that pop up all over what you’re trying to read, infinitely more intrusive than advertising in old print media. That these ads aren’t a substitute for what print ads used to do is evidenced by how long ago it was that you clicked on one, and that the whole deal manifestly isn’t working out for Google. Continue reading “Continued collapse of the information system: two more dead canaries”

Does Self-Involvement Promote Tolerance on the Cheap?

I had a friend who as a young man was a macho, hard-drinking World War II hero. The surprise of his life came when he learned that his son was gay. The scene was every bit as awful as you would imagine, with hateful, scarring words uttered on both sides. But by the time I met him in his old age, my friend was a proud PFLAG member. At his funeral, his son offered a moving remembrance of the father he loved and the relationship they had managed to repair over many years of hard work.

The struggle my friend had with his son was painful and long-lasting, yet it was rooted fundamentally in their love for each other. They cared about each other enough to fight, and to persist through emotional agony and confusion until they re-forged their family bond. In some sense, to be deeply critical of another person’s private life is possible only if you are deeply interested in that person’s private life to begin with.

I would like to think that the aggregation of experiences such as my friend had with his son is a major reason why heterosexual Americans have grown collectively more tolerant of gay people. I am sure it accounts for some of it, but I worry that there is a less noble explanation for some of the new open-mindedness. Let me give an example of the sort of interaction that troubles me:

An undergraduate declares “I don’t get hung up on whether the guy living next door to me is gay”.

“Why not?” I ask.

“Because his sex life isn’t my business. I just don’t care.”, he responds, with a note of pride.

“Would you care if your gay neighbor were unemployed, or had cancer, or were depressed and lonely and needed a friend?”.

After a pause: “No. That’s his business too.”

At my worst moments, I wonder if we are producing tolerance on the cheap as a byproduct of our increasing, technology-fueled self-involvement. Certainly, narcissistically-driven tolerance is better than activated bigotry: If you don’t care about your gay neighbor at all, you don’t care enough to spray paint hateful messages on his house or take a knife to his car’s tires. But I don’t think the tolerance that emerges from not giving a damn about other people generates the growth and understanding that can emerge when people struggle to know and to love each other over what at first seems an insuperable divide of difference.

The Darwinian Selection of Public Policy Problems

Last week, I had a lively discussion about drug policy with a blazingly smart member of parliament. I explained that there is no true solution to drug problems. Rather, we use public policy to pick the particular sort of drug problem society will have. For example, different policy environments can make it a human rights problem, an addiction problem, a crime problem, an AIDS problem, a public disorder problem etc., but no policy will produce a true ending of all of society’s problems with drugs. There are some policies that ameliorate multiple aspects of the problem, but in most cases we are faced with hard choices about what sort of problem we will have rather than a problem-free alternative. And because people do not agree about which choice is the best, the policy debate is both eternal and unresolvable.

He asked me whether there were other policy problems of this nature. I started to say that policy problems around protections for privacy vs. the value of transparency were an example, and then thought that maybe policy problems around the degree of regulatory power of government versus the freedom of the private sector was a better example, and then realized that I couldn’t think of any current public policy problem that *wasn’t* essentially unsolvable because certain realities were in basic tension.

So I posited to him that public policy problems have been put through a Darwinian selection process in the era of modern government, and all the easy ones have died off. Modern sewerage has eliminated cholera in London and no one is calling for its return. Problem, in short, solved. Ditto constructing and laying out buildings in a fashion that makes another Great Fire impossible. Everything that was solvable has been solved, and died off accordingly in our public policy debates. All that survives are hard choices.

The M.P. pointed out that this is almost never acknowledged. Rather, there is ridiculous rhetoric along the lines of “There is no contradiction between growing the size of our cities and having less countryside” and the like, when in fact there are some essential tensions in our current policy problems and therefore some hard choices to make.

He then challenged me: “Politicians can’t really stand up and say that our problems aren’t solvable. I mean, how would you sell that? What would you put on a bumper sticker to explain that?”

“Life is Dukkha” I said, to his laughter.

Professor who shut student’s laptop acquitted, fired.

Professor who closed the laptop of a student surfing the web during class acquitted of battery–and fired.

Four months ago, I posted about the case of Frank J. Rybicki, a college professor at Valdosta State who was sued, arrested for battery, and suspended from teaching after he took it upon himself to shut the laptop of a student who refused to stop surfing the web during class.

A couple of days ago a Georgia jury found Rybicki not guilty of battery. To the surprise of no one—including, I’m fully confident, the student in question—“nobody was able to offer evidence that he intended to hurt his student’s finger.” In response to the “customer is always right” argument made by some RBC commenters the first time, Rybicki

said he thought the real issue in the case was the right of a professor to maintain the classroom as a learning environment. He said that he realizes that some students disagree, and tell him things like “I paid for this class so I should do what I want.” But Rybicki said that what a student pays for is “for me to teach,” and that means setting some standards in the classroom.

It sounds as if the vast majority of Valdosta State students backed Rybicki, a popular teacher.

This is not, however, a happy ending. Given the acquittal, Rybicki will now be free to teach in 2011-12. But the university told him in June that he wouldn’t be welcome after that. (Rybicki doesn’t have tenure—but unless the reporting is very bad indeed, it sounds as if he’s been fired well before his tenure review.)

As I said the first time, if your opinion on this resembles mine, a certain college president needs to hear it. And now that opinion will enjoy the backing of twelve duly empaneled citizens.