Month: February 2005

Is Ayn Rand important?

No, I don’t mean historically, but rather as a thinker to read today.  Bryan Caplan tells me this is the one hundredth anniversary of her birthday, so here are my bottom lines:

1. Her greatest strength: Her analysis of the mentality of resentment.  She is, oddly, best as a sociologist, albeit in fictional settings.  Wesley Mouch is a brilliant character in his loathesomeness.  Her treatment of cocktail party conversations, while unintentional ridiculous parodies, also point to sad truths.

2. Her worst intellectual tendencies: The competition here is strong.  One could list sheer dogmatism, a necessity to make everything black or white, or an unwillingness to read others carefully or charitably.  More specifically, I will cite her tendency to redefine any favorable aspect of altruism as something other than altruism.

3. What do you really learn from her?  Most of her formal philosophy is wrong or at the very least underargued.  The true take-away message is a reaffirmation of how the enormous productive powers of capitalism — the greatest force for human good ever achieved — rely on the driving human desire to be excellent.  I don’t know of any better celebration of that combination of forces.

4. Her quirkiest yet correct view: That landing on the moon was an intrinsically wonderful thing to do, and libertarian objections be damned.

5. Her quirkiest yet incorrect view: That Mickey Spillane was a titan of American literature.

Addendum: Here are Bryan’s bottom lines, which with I cannot agree.  Try Alex also, directly above.  Here is Steve Chapman on whether Rand has gone mainstream.  Reason magazine weighs in too.  And here isa humorous treatment of Rand on food.

Dangerous jobs

More police officers die each year in patrol car crashes than at the
hands of criminals, and most of the time the accidents occur when the
officers are not speeding to an emergency, a new study says.

the researchers say the number of deaths could be reduced if police
departments did more to encourage officers to use seat belts. The
authors of the report, in The Journal of Trauma, reviewed hundreds of
police car accidents across the country from 1997 to 2001 and also
found that officers involved in crashes were 2.6 times as likely to be
killed if they were not wearing seat belts…

Dr. Jehle said that officers who were interviewed for the study were
surprised to find that about 60 percent of the deaths occurred during
routine driving. They tend to view the car as a haven. "It’s their
office," he said. "They’re in it all the time."

Here is The New York Times story.

Bird brains no more

The new [classificatory] system, which draws upon many of the words
used to describe the human brain and has broad support among
scientists, acknowledges the now overwhelming evidence that avian and
mammalian brains are remarkably similar — a fact that explains why
many kinds of bird are not just twitchily resourceful but able to
design and manufacture tools, solve mathematical problems and, in many
cases, use language in ways that even chimpanzees and other primates

In particular, it reflects a new recognition that the
bulk of a bird’s brain is not, as scientists once thought, mere "basal
ganglia" — the part of the brain that simply coordinates instincts.
Rather, fully 75 percent of a bird’s brain is an intricately wired mass
that processes information in much the same way as the vaunted human
cerebral cortex.

…behavioral studies in recent years have proved that many birds have more pallium power than your average mammal.

Even seemingly moronic pigeons can categorize objects
as "human-made" vs. "natural"; discriminate between cubistic and
impressionistic styles of painting; and communicate using visual
symbols on computers, according to evidence compiled by the consortium,
which spent seven years on the project with input from scientists
around the world.

Some birds can play games in which they intentionally
tell lies. New Caledonian crows design and make tools. Scrub jays can
recall events from specific times or places — a trait once thought
unique to humans. And perhaps most impressive, parrots, hummingbirds
and thousands of other species of songbirds are able to teach and learn
vocal communication — the basic skill that makes human language
possible. That’s a variant of social intelligence not found in any
mammal other than people, bats, and cetaceans such as dolphins and

Read more here.

Why are unions so prevalent in Hollywood?

The desire for ongoing health benefits is a big part of the explanation:

The [union] locals combine…welfare plans together in the centrally administered Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plans, while the guilds manage their own individual plans.  In either case, the system that has emerged in practice has the signal advantage that individuals’ benefits packages are not tied to any single employer but are fully portable from firm to firm.  In this way, the Hollywood unions and guilds play a role somewhat analogous to that played by the government-sponsored Intermittence du Spectacle in France, which provides unemployment compensation and other benefits to wokers in the French entertainment industry. 

Of course Hollywood is known for its short-term and volatile employment, and for the temporary nature of its projects.  The explanation for unions continues:

Additional important functions of the unions and guilds are (a) the codification and regulation of professional categories, (b) accreditation of members’ work experiences, and (c) the provision of educational, labor-training, and other qualification-enhancing services.

That is from Allen Scott’s new and excellent On Hollywood, The Place, The Industry; the book is an applied study in economic geography.  Here is my previous query about Hollywood unions.  And somewhere in here is a paper on whether Hollywood offers a possible model for reforming our health care system.

Addendum: Matt Yglesias adds: "the Writer’s Guild of America (of which my father is a member) plays an important role in arbitrating credit disputes. Screenwriters often get fired or otherwise leave projects in development, which are then finished by someone else. Oftentimes, three or more writers (or teams of writers) will cycle through a project before it’s completed. Someone needs to look at the final project, decide which writers deserve credit, who deserves the primary credit, and who — if anyone — should get a "story" credit. Contracting these responsibilities out to the Guild lets studios duck a series of nasty disputes in whose outcome they have no real interest. It also protects writers from directors or producers who might want to muscle their way into screenwriting credits."

Tips for viewing The Merchant of Venice

1. There is textual evidence that Shakespeare was anti-Semitic, but anti-Semitism is not the primary point of the plot.

2. Shakespeare uses stereotypes about Jews to mock his audience and to mock anti-Semites.  Most of all he is pointing the joke back in the faces of the bigots.  "Who is the merchant and who is the Jew?" is one of the central lines of the text.  And it is no accident that the play is named after the merchant, not after Shylock.

3. Shakespeare shows most of the play’s Christians to be mean, hypocritical, and full of lies.  They have every bad quality that they accuse the Jews of having, and more.  This is a very dark comedy.

4. The stories concerning the rings should be followed carefully.  The film mentions briefly (too briefly, perhaps) that Shylock treasured and kept the ring from his wife.  Compare this to how the Christians treat their rings.

5. The homosexual and lesbian implications of the story are explicit rather than some postmodern reinterpretation.

Elsewhere on the cinematic front, Yana has been watching the Star Wars trilogy for the first time ("…so these are the ones where he has the breathing problem").  I’ve been amazed how readily and appropriately the episodes have made the transition from "slick futuristic vision" to "dark tale of collapse, decay, and clunky technological malfunction."  I can hardly wait for May to roll around.