The movie centers around Daniel Ellsberg’s revelation of the Pentagon Papers and their publication in The New York Times and most of all The Washington Post, the center of the dramatic tension. The courts rule for the newspapers (and ultimately Ellsberg) and Spielbergian triumphalism reigns. Yet so many of those liberties have reverted to the state — had he stuck around, would Edward Snowden have received a public trial before a court of law? You may believe Snowden is a different case (read Gladwell), but shouldn’t a public court be deciding that? The feel-good tone of The Post also would not match a movie about a minor American military victory in the Vietnam of 1966, given what followed. Does historical context matter so little? Post-Obama, can newspapers protect their anonymous sources in matters of national security?
I usually don’t mind when movies play fast and loose with the truth, as is done in almost every biopic or history. (They didn’t actually blow up that Death Star, they merely damaged it.) But this case is different. The whole theme of this film is about standing up for the truth even when commercial considerations dictate otherwise. It then feels dishonest to give Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) a wildly overblown role, as this portrait does. But it does make for a better story and presumably a higher-grossing movie.
For an artwork that pretends to defend freedom of the press, the underlying message is remarkably Trumpian in an almost Straussian manner. The press collude, dine and party with leaders, and refuse to reveal their crimes and scandals, all to receive “access” and to be flattered. Every now and then their need for reputation, and the desire for a broader national market, spurs them to “turn on” a president gone astray. “The people” don’t have much of a say and fake news is everywhere.
The sadder commercial reality is that the first quarter to third of the movie is sophisticated and then it falls into good guys vs. bad guys. It’s not smart enough to be Strauss.
It feels as if every actor or actress in the movie is a “grizzled veteran” of some kind or another.
The scenes of newspaper and print technology will go down as some of the finest cinema of our time.
Yes, I’m talking about Downsizing, starring Matt Damon. If Henry George is right about exorbitant rents and land scarcity, of course the solution is to shrink the people, thereby creating in real terms more land (plus solving a lot of environmental problems). In this movie, shrinking people to a few centimeters tall raises the value of a dollar by about 1000x — how’s that for a Georgist result? The small people live in splendid houses, massive relative to their diminutive size, and can eat all the gourmet food they want because they need only a snippet of foie gras or for that matter a very small piece of diamond. Yet they still must interact (badly) with the larger world, thus the Swift connection. How about Piketty? Well, the small people have trouble mastering nature or producing for the larger outside world, so they are dependent on their preexisting wealth. The wealth to income ratio is remarkably high, and woe unto anyone who has to rely on labor income in the “small world.”
Then the movie starts! It’s an uneven film in a number of ways, still for economics “food for thought,” or for that matter social critique, I haven’t seen anything nearly as good for a while.
Andy was great, here is the text and audio, here is the introductory summary:
Before writing a single word of his new book Artemis, Andy Weir worked out the economics of a lunar colony. Without the economics, how could the story hew to the hard sci-fi style Weir cornered the market on with The Martian? And, more importantly, how else can Tyler find out much a Cantonese meal would run him on the moon?
In addition to these important questions of lunar economics, Andy and Tyler talk about the technophobic trend in science fiction, private space efforts, seasteading, cryptocurrencies, the value of a human life, the outdated Outer Space Treaty, stories based on rebellion vs. cooperation, Heinlein, Asimov, Weir’s favorite episode of Star Trek, and the formula for finding someone else when stranded on a lonely planet.
My favorite part was this, which Andy answered with no hesitation:
COWEN: What if there were two immortal people, let’s say it’s the two of us, placed on opposite sides of the Earth, an Earth-like planet, and we can wander freely with no constraints but just foot speed. How long does it take us to find each other?
WEIR: Can we collude in advance in any way?
COWEN: No, we cannot.
COWEN: But we know we’re trying to find each other.
WEIR: We know we’re trying to find each other. Well, we should both — but can we have a — are we both rational actors and we —
COWEN: We’re as rational as you and I are; take that as you wish.
WEIR: So, no?
WEIR: I think the best thing to do would be for both of us to pick an arbitrary great circle to walk, around the planet, and leave markings along the way denoting what direction you’re walking. So I would arbitrarily pick a direction to go and I would just go that direction with the intention of circumnavigating the entire globe, and I would walk at maybe half what is a comfortable speed for me. And you would do the same thing. Now, somewhere, our two — in fact, in two points — our great circles will intersect.
WEIR: And when one of us reaches the other one’s, then they start following the markers at full speed, and then you get the guy. Right?
COWEN: And what’s your best guess as to how long that would take?
WEIR: Well, if you pick two points, I’m guessing one of us would have to walk probably about a quarter of the way around the planet before we found the other one’s great circle. And then you’d have to walk again. So in terms of circumnavigation times, it would take you 2x to get all the way around the planet, because my initial plan was you’d walk half-speed. So I’m guessing it would be a quarter of that, so one-half x to get to your great circle, and then a quarter x to find you along your great circle, on average, I’m guessing. So one-half plus a quarter, so .75x. So three-quarters of the time that it would take to circumnavigate the planet.
COWEN: OK, great answer.
WEIR: That’s my guess.
Do read/listen to the whole thing…
That’s why the latest Star Wars trilogy is so dark: It’s looking more and more like real life, where the credits never roll and problems can always recur…The Last Jedi premiered a few hours after we learned that the FCC had reversed its stance on net neutrality; we all sang “Yub Nub” back in 2015 when that vote went one way, but we know now that the war wasn’t won.
After a muddled start, it is really quite good, unlike VII more than worthy as an installment in the series. I like the color red. I enjoyed seeing a Star Wars version of a puffin. The performances are much better than in VII.
Here is my earlier post, The public choice economics of Star Wars (a Straussian reading).
Doug’s new book Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy is the greatest book on trade policy ever written, bar none. and also a splendid work of American history more generally. So I thought he and I should sit down to chat, now I have both the transcript and audio.
We covered how much of 19th century American growth was due to tariffs, trade policy toward China, the cultural argument against free trade, whether there is a national security argument for agricultural protectionism, TPP, how new trade agreements should be structured, the trade bureaucracy in D.C., whether free trade still brings peace, Smoot-Hawley, the American Revolution (we are spoiled brats), Dunkirk, why New Hampshire is so wealthy, Brexit, Alexander Hamilton, NAFTA, the global trade slowdown, premature deindustrialization, and the history of the Chicago School of Economics, among other topics. Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: Here goes. The claim that 19th century American growth was driven by high tariffs. What’s your take?
IRWIN: Not really true. If you look at why the US economy performed very well, particularly relative to Britain or Germany or other countries, Steve Broadberry’s shown that a lot of the overtaking of Britain in terms of per capita income was in terms of the service sector.
The service sector was expanding rapidly. It had very high productivity growth rates. We usually don’t think as that being affected by the tariff per se. That’s one reason.
We had also very high productivity growth rates in agriculture. I’ve done some counterfactual simulations. If you remove the tariff, how much resources would we take out of manufacturing and put into services or agriculture is actually pretty small. It just doesn’t account for the success we had during this period.
COWEN: Is there any country where you would say, “Their late 19th century economic growth was driven by tariffs?” Argentina, Canada, Germany, anything, anywhere?
IRWIN: No. If you look at all those, once again, in late 19th century, they were major exporters, largely of commodities, but they did very well that way. You know that Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world in the late 19th century. It really wasn’t until they adopted more import substitution policies after World War I that they began to fall behind.
Definitely recommended, and here is Doug’s Wikipedia page.
I thought the year started very slowly, but later picked up, here were my favorites. There are reviews behind the linked items, or occasionally a link to outside information. With the foreign films, as always, I classify these according to the year I saw them, not the year of their initial overseas release. Here goes:
Toni Erdmann (rollicking German satire about parents and children)
After the Storm (Japanese complacent class, plus pending doom)
Magnus (the chess prodigy)
Tower (animated with graphics, about the Texas tower shooting in Austin, history of violence and how people respond to it)
Dunkirk (uses angles better than any movie ever)
Get Out (racial discrimination, plus a satire on both horror and Sidney Poitier)
Columbus (architecture in the Indiana town, when to leave home)
Two Trains Runnin’ (history of rediscovering the blues)
The Florida Project (the Brazilians and Cubans find American lower income groups tough to deal with)
Faces, Places (Agnes Varda, travel, memories, art, and the transience of it all)
The Square (European intellectual mainstream is bankrupt)
For visuals and the staging of scenes, the winner was Dunkirk. For social science, Get Out and The Square and Paths to the Soul (pilgrimage) were the richest. If I had to pick a single winner, it would be the Chinese-Tibetan Paths to the Soul, replete with tales of signaling, social cooperation, journeying, and life and death, especially when seen on the large screen.
The estimable Chug asks me:
Curious what you consider the top classic movies and books about American politics and DC.
Today let’s do movies, the following come to mind:
1. All the President’s Men.
2. No Way Out: Gene Hackman at his peak. The Conversation also might count as a DC movie.
3. The Exorcist, set in Georgetown. Maybe The Omen too?
4. The Manchurian Candidate.
5. Wedding Crashers.
6. The Day the Earth Stood Still.
7. Born Yesterday.
I don’t really like Independence Day, but it deserves some sort of mention. The Oliver Stone Nixon movie I’ve yet to see. I like Being There, and it is set in DC, but it doesn’t feel like a “Washington movie” to me. Legally Blonde, Logan’s Run, and Minority Report are all worth ponders, and have their cinematic virtues, but I am not sure they are true to the spirit of the question.
The real question, in my mind, is which of these captures the unique way in which Washington is the world’s epicenter for extreme productivity (don’t laugh) in the areas of economics, public policy, law/lobbying. What is special but also sometimes despicable about DC area culture? Might this be a mix of Contact and No Way Out? I’ve yet to see anyone fully explain the DC micro-culture, as extreme and hyper-specialized as that of say Hollywood or Silicon Valley.
By the way, all the movies you thought I forgot to mention I didn’t, rather I don’t like them.
I didn’t like The Square at first, because I initially believed the filmmakers were taking the Swedes entirely seriously, and that it was pretentious windbaggery. Instead, the main theme is that the Swedes are incapable of dealing with others who do not share their premises. The film touches upon issues of immigration, gypsies, Muslims, terrorists, Putin, sexual liberation, contemporary art, YouTube, crucifixions over social media, how trust decays, and more. It’s not “alt right” or objectionably racist (the Swedes and indeed the Westerners more generally are the real target), but most of all it is critical of mainstream liberalism and its inability to see outwards. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes, but American critics have been quite indifferent, I would say oblivious. It is hard to think of a current movie with more brilliant scenes, or that is more appropriate for 2017. The deployment of Elisabeth Moss from The Handmaid’s Tale is mind-blowing.
Korg had a Maori accent, not surprisingly because the director himself played Korg; he is also Jewish from the maternal side. You can spot indigenous Australian and Maori actors throughout the movie. The spaceships are named after classic Australian Holden car brands. Democracy is not on the agenda, however, and the warrior ethic is more South Pacific than Nordic. Don’t get me started on the Ponaturi, Maori goblins of a sort. I’d love to hear an expert on East Bay legends analyze this story.
One of the most fun and interesting movies of the year, although the mainstream American reviews seem oblivious to these broader connections. Sadly, I didn’t have the knowledge to pick up on all the Marvel Easter Eggs.
The first love of the very talented team at Tilapia Films that produces many of our videos at MRUniversity isn’t economics (I know, hard to believe) but making documentaries. Their latest, Rodents of Unusual Size, has a world premier Nov. 15 in New York at DocNYC. It’s bound to be great, check it out! Tickets here.
That is a reader request, here goes:
I sometimes describe L.A. as the world’s best city to live in, but one of the worst to visit. Nonetheless you have some pretty good options. With half a day, make sure you have a rental car with the appropriate soundtrack(s). If you start from LAX, pick one road to drive east on, another to head back east to west — how about Sunset and Pico? Wilshire? Stop and walk as you can, convenient parking is often available. Use Jonathan Gold to pick the right eating places, perhaps Thai and Mexican? Veer off a wee bit and visit the La Brea Tar Pits, or for a longer trek Watts Towers. Time the sunset for Griffith Park. Deemphasize “Downtown” but consider the new Broad Museum for contemporary art. Work in a beach walk at Santa Monica or Venice, preferably the former. See a movie. See another movie. Avoid Beverly Hills. The truly ambitious can drive all the way down Western Ave. and stop for Belizean food along the way to that chapel at the very bottom of the road.
From my email, by Jason N. Doctor:
You provide a good perspective on Blade Runner 2049. In addition to the biblical references and themes, I was also impressed by the psychology and philosophy of mind references:
1) After every event where he eliminates a replicant, “K” must take a cognitive interference test similar to those used most recently by Sendhil Mullianathan and Eldar Shafir to study the effects of economic scarcity on cognition–but to test if killing a replicant heightens his emotions by perhaps putting him in a moral quandary.
2) On the door to his apartment, some graffiti reads “F*** off Skinner”. This seems odd in its prominence. B.F. Skinner developed, to an extreme, John Watson’s radical suggestion that behavior does not have mental states. Skinner’s ideas shutout discussions of whether or not machines could support mental states. Of course, rational economics by similar methodologic scruple ignores mental states.
3) The movie promotes the idea that there is no computation without representation. Ana de Armis’ character formulates mental symbols in her relationship with K and behaves in accordance with interdefined internal states (we can’t predict some of her actions directly from stimuli). We are led to believe that she qualitatively experiences real love (though we cannot know) . In irony, one of these mental symbols involves a longing to be a “real girl” by means that are unrelated to the mind-body problem. She wants to being taken off the network, so that she can be in one place, just as are neurophysiologic organisms.
>All in all, the movie legitimizes the notion of (hardware agnostic) mental representations and takes a fairly hard stance in opposition to behaviorist constraints on psychological explanations. So it is a critique of behavioral psychology and indirectly rational economics.