Category: Film

My Conversation with Douglas Irwin, audio and transcript

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.

The best films of 2017

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)

Wonder Woman

Paths of the Soul

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)

Thor: Ragnarok

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 top classic movies and books about American politics and DC.

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.

8. Contact.

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.

*The Square*

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.

*Thor: Ragnarok* a brief review, no real spoilers

They have licensed another Led Zeppelin song, there is a new Morgan Freeman figure, and befitting the director the film is drenched in Maori design and themes and to some extent Maori humor.

“Being Maori,” Waititi [the director] said, “it’s extremely important to me to have native presence on any film. (link here)

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 Tyler Cowen Guide to 10.5 hr layover in Los Angeles

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.

Basta!

Psychology and behaviorism in *Blade Runner 2049*

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.

*Blade Runner 2049* (some Straussian spoilers)

I hardly expected the movie to be so drenched in Tarkovsky (“The Zone” and Solaris, maybe a bit of The Sacrifice), and the now-famed sex scene draws from Bergman’s Persona.  Overall, the colors and palette were stunning, and the use of sound was as impressive as in any movie, do see this one in IMAX.  It hardly makes any concessions to the Hollywood vices of this millennium and indeed much of the Tysons Corner audience seemed to be baffled.

Think of the main plot line as showing a world where the Christ miracle is inverted and what that would have to mean for everything else.  Much of the plot is sprawling, some of the references are too heavy-handed or scattered (Moses and the Dalai Lama and Kafka and Star Wars 1-2 are thrown in for good measure, and few will grok the Galatians reference), and the whole thing could have been fifteen minutes shorter.  Still, this is a worthy sequel to one of the best movies of the 1980s or is that the 1990s?  Carla Juri steals the show, and furthermore it resolves the main plot puzzle of the original Blade Runner rather economically.

Also on the plus side, Adam Driver does not appear in this movie.

Slower turnover for songs and movies

From my email:

Hi, Mr. Cowen. I recently read The Complacent Class recently and enjoyed it. I’m writing because there’s an another example of American complacency that’s only come to light in recent weeks…

Specifically: the Billboard music charts..

Shape of You by Ed Sheeran last week broke the record for most weeks in top 10, with 33 weeks. The song it beat, Closer by The Chainsmokers and Halsey, set the previous record less than a year ago. http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/7948959/ed-sheeran-shape-of-you-record-most-weeks-top-ten

(And yet another song in last week’s top 10, That’s What I Like by Bruno Mars, currently holds the 8th-longest record on that metric — and potentially still rising.)

Meanwhile, Despacito by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber tied the all-time record with its 16th week at #1: http://www.billboard.com/biz/articles/news/record-labels/7942315/luis-fonsi-daddy-yankee-justin-biebers-despacito-ties-for

Meanwhile, the biggest country song in the nation right now, Body Like a Back Road by Sam Hunt, is currently in its record-extending 30th week at #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart: http://www.billboard.com/files/pdfs/country_update_0905.pdf

This did not happen in decades past. Look at the Billboard charts from the ’80s — it was a new #1 song almost every week!    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Billboard_Hot_100_number-one_singles_of_the_1980s

Just like how you describe in your book how people are moving less and want to stay in the same town where they were before, or how they’re switching jobs less and want to stay in the same job where they were before, people apparently just want to listen to the same songs they’ve been listening to already.

That is from Jesse Rifkin, who is a journalist in Washington, D.C. who writes about Congress for GovTrack Insider and about the film industry for Boxoffice Magazine.  Jesse sends along more:

And if you want links for statistical evidence, here are two — one about which movies have spent the most weekends in the box office top 10, the other about which songs have spent the most weeks in the Billboard top 10:

Why I am opposed to Netflix streaming

Reed Hastings, the Netflix CEO who co-founded the company long before “streaming” entered the popular lexicon, was born during a fairly remarkable year for film. 1960 was the year Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho astounded and terrified audiences, influencing a half-century of horror to come. It was a year of outstanding comedies (Billy Wilder’s The Apartment), outstanding epics (Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus) and outstandingly creepy thrillers (Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom—a close cousin of Psycho).

But in the vast world of Netflix streaming, 1960 doesn’t exist. There’s one movie from 1961 available to watch (the original Parent Trap) and one selection from 1959 (Compulsion), but not a single film from 1960. It’s like it never happened. There aren’t any movies from 1963 either. Or 1968, 1955 or 1948. There are no Hitchcock films on Netflix. No classics from Sergio Leone or François Truffaut. When Debbie Reynolds died last Christmas week, grieving fans had to turn to Amazon Video for Singin’ in the Rain and Susan Slept Here. You could fill a large film studies textbook with what’s not available on Netflix.

Netflix’s selection of classic cinema is abominable—and it seems to shrink more every year or so. As of this month, the streaming platform offers just 43 movies made before 1970, and fewer than 25 from the pre-1950 era (several of which are World War II documentaries). It’s the sort of classics selection you’d expect to find in a decrepit video store in 1993, not on a leading entertainment platform that serves some 100 million global subscribers.

The bottom line is that streaming rights are expensive, whereas for shipping around DVDs the company can simply buy a disc.  Alternatively, you could say that the law for tangible media — such as discs — is less infested with special interests than the law for digital rights?  What does that say about our future?

Here is the article, via Ted Gioia.

Those new service sector jobs

Plastic surgeons who give you Vulcan and elfin-like ears:

Of course, looking naturally elflike is not everyone’s goal. Luis Padron, 25, who owns a cosplay business in Argentina, said he has spent over $35,000 in surgeries and procedures including skin lightening, nose surgery and hair removal for his sylvan shape-shifting. His look has been influenced by Katherine Cardona, a contemporary illustrator specializing in fairies, and Sakimichan, a gender-bending fantasy digital artist.

Padron plans to change his eye color to violet using an intraocular implant procedure in New Delhi (not approved by the Food and Drug Administration) because “it is the color of magic, fantasy, dreams and imagination,” he said. The idea is on point, elfishly speaking, when you consider that Bloom, who wore blue contact lenses in the Tolkien film, once described elves as “incredible angelic spirits who create and appreciate great beauty.”

To complete his elflike transformation, Padron is planning a heart-shaped hairline implant and PRP scalp injections in Beverly Hills, California, because “elves have long hair,” he said. He is also planning more plastic surgery in South Korea, including Adam’s apple reduction, jaw reshaping and limb lengthening, and plans to finish his look with ear pointing surgery, which he calls “the cherry on top.”

Waiting time for ear pointing, however, is over a year, and over 40 percent of elf-ear wishers don’t have the right cartilage to perform the modification, Von Cyborg said. Black was one of the lucky ones.

Here is the full story.  Should this be subsidized or taxed?

My Conversation with comedian Dave Barry

Here is the transcript and audio (no video).

We discuss what makes Florida special, why business writing is so terrible, Eddie Murphy, whether social conservatives can be funny (in public), the weirdness of Peter Pan, how he is so productive, playing guitar with Roger McGuinn, DT, the future of comedy, and much much more.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If I look at old slapstick, it doesn’t seem funny at all. Intuitively, you would think slapstick, being only physical, would have a much longer half-life. What I find funny is very culturally specific references. Now, am I strange?

BARRY: Well, not about slapstick. When I was a little guy, I maybe thought that the Three Stooges were kind of funny but that stopped a long time ago. Some physical humor is still funny to me. Abbott and Costello were pretty physical, but they were funny without being slapstick. Just hitting each other in the nose and going, “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk” never struck me as funny at all. I have forgotten the second part of your question.

On different comedians and what’s not funny anymore

COWEN: You mentioned Abbott and Costello. If you’re willing, I’ll talk about a few comedians, or mention a few, and you can tell me what you found funny with them, didn’t find funny.

Let’s start with Abbott and Costello. Favorite of my father. I’ve watched almost all the movies. As I kid, I didn’t find them funny, but I actually started to find them funny in retrospect after having watched a bit of Seinfeld and Larry David. What’s your take on Abbott and Costello?

BARRY: Yeah, I can see the connection there. It more relies on you letting it — the humor — slowly develop and the characters themselves being the humor without coming right out and saying what’s funny about it: The one who never understands what’s going on, the one who’s always losing his patience with the other one. The first, maybe, three or four times, it’s just mildly amusing. But after a while, when you see it coming, that becomes very funny to you.

It’s very rare to find that kind of patience in humor anymore. I don’t think the audience is as generous as it used to be, allowing humor to build the way it did in an Abbott and Costello sketch.

COWEN: And is Abbott or Costello funnier to you? Abbott being the straight man.

BARRY: Yeah, I think Abbott is funnier.

COWEN: I think he’s much funnier.

Most of all, I was impressed by Dave Barry as a managerial force for his own career.  Again, here is the link.