Results for “straussian reading”
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Deuteronomy and complacency

A few of you have been asking me about the Straussian readings of The Complacent Class.  One of them refers to Deuteronomy 4:25-26:

“When you have had children and children’s children, and become complacent in the land, if you act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything, thus doing what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, and provoking him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you will not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed. “

Here is external commentary on the passage: “It may be surprising that the result of complacency is not atheism but idolatry.”

Best movies of 2016

45 Years, British drama about a creaky marriage.

The Boy & the World.  A Brazilian animated movie, it actually fits the cliche “unlike any movie you’ve seen before.”  Preview here, other links here, good for niños but not only.  Excellent soundtrack by Nana Vasconcelos.

The Second Mother.  A Brazilian comedy of manners about social and economic inequality, as reflected in the relations between a maid, her visiting daughter, and the maid’s employer family.  Now, to my and maybe your ears that sounds like poison, because “X is about inequality” correlates strongly with “X is not very good,” I am sorry to say.  This movie is the exception, subtle throughout, and you can watch and enjoy it from any political point of view.  It helps to know a bit about Brazil, and it takes about twenty minutes for the core plot to get off the ground.  Links here.

Cemetery of Splendor, Thai movie by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, here is a good review.

City of Gold, a documentary with Jonathan Gold doing the ethnic food thing in Los Angeles.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an original movie, mostly about race, full of cinematic allusions (LOTR, First Blood, Smash Palace, classic Westerns, Butch Cassidy, Thelma and Louise, so many more) and Kiwi finery as well.  None of the reviews I read seem to get it and I don’t want to send you to any of them.

The Innocents, how did those Polish nuns get pregnant?

Maggie’s Plan, a fun comedy, not at the top of this list but intelligent comedies are a dwindling species.

Hell or High Water

Ixcanul, a Mayan movie from Guatemala, might this story of an unwanted pregnancy be this year’s best movie?  Here is one useful review.

Sausage Party, beyond politically incorrect, I kept on thinking I would get sick of the stupid animation and yet I never did.  I remain surprised they let this one play in mainstream theaters.

Sully.  He should have turned the plane around immediately under any plausible calculus, and he didn’t, so you have to give this movie the Straussian reading.

Weiner is a splendid movie with many subtle points, including in the philosophical direction.  In another life, Huma Abedin could have been a movie star.  She has exactly the right mix of distance and involvement, and she dominates every scene she is in, even when just sitting quietly in the background.  Um…I guess she is a movie star.  Starlet.  Whatever.

Difret, an Ethiopian legal drama.

Andrei Tarkovsky, Ivan’s Childhood (reissue).  This is one of Tarkovsky’s worst movies, and yet one of the best movies in virtually any year.

American Honey

Sky Ladder

The Handmaiden, by Park Chan-wook.  Imperfectly eroticized violence, but beautiful nonetheless.

Arrival

Elle, by Paul Verhoeven.

Nocturnal Animals, by Tom Ford.

The bottom line

My top picks are Ixcanul, American Honey, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Cemetery of Splendor, and Sky Ladder, with Arrival being the best mainstream Hollywood movie.

Heath Responds to Tabarrok

Joseph Heath has written an interesting and thoughtful comment on my review of his excellent book Enlightenment 2.0 (fyi, we have never communicated but it turns out that Heath is a long time reader of MR.). Samuel Hammond concisely summarized on twitter part of Heath’s response:

In reply to @, Joseph Heath shares the dire Straussian reading of his own book: The US is Rome burning

Quite accurate but I want to focus on a different point.

Finally, Tabarrok suggests that I am “too sanguine about the role of politics.” I thought I was being fairly pessimistic about politics. I think the nub of the disagreement between Tabarrok and myself on this point – and certainly the basis of our major differences of political ideology – is that I am much more sanguine about the role of the state than he is. This is not the same as being sanguine about democratic politics. For example, he points out that:

In a large electorate, no individual’s vote is likely to change the outcome of an election. As a result, it doesn’t pay to be informed about politics nor to think about politics in objective and rational terms. Consider an individual who spends time and effort to be informed about politics. What does this individual receive in return for their investment? The same thing as the uninformed individual. Since better information doesn’t lead to better consequences, it doesn’t pay an individual to be informed.

I couldn’t agree more….Indeed, the sort of considerations that motivate Tabarrok’s enthusiasm for making decisions through betting markets are, I would guess, quite similar to the ones that motivate my own enthusiasm for cost-benefit analysis. The key difference is that Tabarrok (and Bryan Caplan) tend to assume that democracy gives “the people” much greater control over the behaviour of the state than it actually does. In the background there is, I suspect, a somewhat public-choicy picture of legislation as a complex process of preference-aggregation. By contrast, I follow Ian Shapiro in thinking that we need to get past these sorts of “general will” theories of democracy.

There is one point in the last chapter where I say what I really think, but again, it might easily be overlooked. So let me just say, for the record, that I was also dead serious when I wrote the following paragraph (and that it comes closest to summarizing my considered view):

It is important to recognize that modern democratic political systems involve a delicate compromise between, on the one hand, the desire for public control of decision-making and, on the other hand, the need for rational, coherent policy. Democracies need to be democratic, but they also need to work, in the sense that they need to produce a state that effectively discharges its responsibilities. Thus they have a variety of institutional features that allow them to function even when the democratic public sphere is completely degraded. They do so largely by shifting power and control away from elected representatives toward experts. Even in the United States, where this is difficult to do, one can find examples all over. The most obvious example is the enormous role that the Supreme Court has played in making decisions that, in most other democracies, would be left to the legislature. But one can see it in other areas as well, such as the amount of autonomy that government agencies have or the increased use of cost-benefit analysis in public decision-making (338).

So if you want to know what I really think, it’s that we are not going to be able to fix the problem of increased irrationalism in politics — at best we will be able to limit its most toxic effects. As a consequence, the legislature will increasingly become a sideshow, with the two other branches of the state assuming more and more of the responsibility for actually governing.

Heath has hit on an important similarity and difference in our views. We are both skeptical about democracy as a way of making rational, coherent policy. But in response to the defects of democracy I want to devolve more decisions to the individual and the market while Heath wants to centralize more decisions to the state and expert bureaucracies.

One of the reasons that I oppose the extension of democratic politics into every aspect of modern life is precisely that in trying to do too much, democracy delivers incoherence, gridlock and frustration, forces that eventually undermine its own legitimacy. I worry about democratic legitimacy because I see democracy as a check and balance on Leviathan (while Heath sees it as a check on government by experts).

The legislature has become a sideshow. But I worry, because the more Congress is held in contempt the greater the support for a bold executive that takes charge, makes decisions and gets things done. Under these pressures, executive power has grown not just in the United States but also in Canada and Great Britain (on this theme see F.H. Buckley’s The Once and Future King.) But for all its faults, the legislature and the rule of law are more conducive to liberty than the executive and the administrative state. Legislators are satisfied with reelection and a bit of pork but executives hunger for greatness and in so doing they promote the real dangers, idolatry, the centralization of power and war.

In short, I worry that the pathologies of democracy drive the demand not for rational, technocratic government but for Caesarism.

Hayek on Mill and the Mill-Taylor Friendship

That is the newly published volume 16 of The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, edited by Sandra J. Peart.  Of course this is splendid from beginning to end, including Peart’s introduction, the letters, Hayek’s commentary, and assorted documents, and the book even contains three very nice poems written by Harriet Taylor.

Is Hayek here blaming Taylor for moving Mill in a collectivist direction?  Is that the Straussian reading of this book and the reason why Hayek did it?

If there were a phrase for “one step above and beyond self-recommending,” this volume would get it.

Tuesday assorted links

1. What kind of deflation is coming to Spain?

2. Johnny L. Matson, editor.

3. I say it is cruel to kick your robotic dog.  (Please note that the associated video is disturbing, though safe for work.)

4. Will we see law firm IPOs?

5. Is it hard to reform disability insurance?  I say wanting to do so is step one.

6. Via Greg Mankiw, a Kuznets heir is selling his Nobel Prize.

7. Six Straussian readings of Fifty Shades of Grey: “Grace’s name is clearly a nod to Alec Trevelyan, James Bond’s antagonist in GoldenEye and the defining cultural representation of post-Cold War Russian treachery in the Anglo-American mind.”

The best films of 2014

I found this to be a diffuse year in movies, one where old-style mainline releases lost their grip on a lot of multiplexes and opened up the market for more quality and diversity than we have seen for a long time.  My cinematic self came away from the year quite happy, yet without a clear favorite or a definite sense of which movies will last the ages.  Here are the ones I very much enjoyed or otherwise found stimulating:

The Invisible Woman, the secret love life of Charles Dickens.

Particle Fever, reviewed by me here.

Le Weekend, brutal tale of a vacation and a marriage collapsing.

Under the Skin, Scarlet Johansson in Scotland, to say more would be spoilers.

The Lunchbox, resembles an old-style Hollywood movie about a correspondence romance, yet set among the Indian middle to lower middle class.

Viola, an Argentinean take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, condensed into 65 minutes.

A Touch of Sin, Chinese, brutal, it did not see mainstream release in most cities, I saw it in London.

Godzilla, Straussian review by me here.

Transformers 4, reviewed by me here.

Obvious Child (under the Straussian reading only)

Ilo, Ilo, a movie from Singapore about a Filipina immigrant.  And I had the best dark chocolate gelato I’ve had in America, right after watching it at the Angelika pop-up.

The One I Love, an excellent movie about mind games, love, and commitment.  This was perhaps the most clever movie of the year and also the most underrated.

Skeleton Twins

Lucy, the energy and style overcame the absurdity.  That gives Scarlett Johansson two for the year.

Fury, an old-style WWII movie with Brad Pitt, there is a good David Denby review here.

Interstellar, my review is here, here is one Straussian reading.

Of that whole list, for favorites I would pick Fury as #1, along with Touch of Sin.  Both of them need to be seen on a large screen.

For TV, the Modern Orthodox Jewish dating show Srugim was a clear first, this year I didn’t watch many movies on video but thought Terence Malick’s 2012 To the Wonder had been underrated.

The new Godzilla movie, *Godzilla* (minor spoilers in post)

I know I am late on this one, but I thought it was pretty damned good, well above expectations.  I feel comfortable placing it in the top five Godzilla movies of all time.  The visuals are spectacular but not overdone, and it pays appropriate homage to its sources, including the Japanese original but also Hitchcock’s The Birds.  The movie also treats nuclear weapons use with the moral seriousness it deserves, which is rare these days.

And is there a Straussian reading?  Well, yes (did you have to ask?).  The film is really a plea for an extended and revitalized Japanese-American alliance.  The real threat to the world are the Mutos, not Godzilla, who ends up defending America, after the lead Japanese character in the movie promises the American military Godzilla will be there as our friend (don’t kill me, that is not a major spoiler as it is telegraphed way in advance).

The Mutos, by the way, are basically Chinese mythological dragons, and an image of two kissing Muto-like beings is shown over the gate of San Francisco’s Chinatown three different times in the movie, each time with greater conspicuousness.  The Mutos base themselves in Chinatown in fact.  Note that the Mutos can beat up on Godzilla because of their greater numbers, but as for one-on-one there is no doubt Godzilla is more fierce.  And the name of the being — Muto — what does that mean?  I believe loyal MR readers already know, and apologies for reminding you.  General Akira Muto led the worst excesses committed by Japanese troops during the Rape of Nanjing, perhaps the single biggest Chinese grievance against The Land of the Rising Sun, and thus the beings are a sign of the Chinese desire for redress and revenge.  Unless of course the right military alliance comes along to contain them and save the world…

The references to Pearl Harbor and the Philippines are not accidents either.

Stephen Williamson has doubts about ngdp targeting

Do read his entire post, it is full of content and difficult to excerpt.  I would make a few points:

1. A reasonable range of monetary regimes may not matter so much under good times, but we are choosing the regime for the occasional very bad time when a strong response is needed.

2. Williamson’s points about the instability of seasonal ngdp are good, but arguably considering seasonal cycles renders all or most macro theories somewhat incoherent.  Given the extreme agnosticism we should then end up in, what is a good policy rule?

3. I believe overnight financial markets could adjust to a variety of reasonable regimes, and indeed the evidence across nations appears to confirm this.

4. Scott for one would definitely admit the all-importance of eliminating interest on reserves.

5. I would add a Straussian reading of ngdp targeting: “The Fed won’t ever do it, because they don’t like to tie their hands.  But talking about it may steel their will, and give them a policy rationale, when more expansionary action would be desirable.”

Oddly Williamson does not consider what I consider to be the strongest objection to ngdp targeting, namely that in times of extreme crisis, when loan markets are collapsing, it may force the central bank into a dangerous-and-not-really-output-restoring ratio of currency/credit to meet the ngdp target.

On the off chance that Scott writes a reply to Williamson’s critique, I will link to it in due time.  Update: Here it is, I read it after writing my post.  It is interesting to compare our responses.

Assorted links

1. Emily Chamlee-Wright is to be provost and dean at Washington College.

2. NBA geography.

3. A Straussian reading of Tabarrok’s Launching the Innovation Renaissance, by the excellent Eli Dourado; “Launching the Innovation Renaissance represents Alex Tabarrok standing athwart history, yelling “Back up 800 years!””.

4. Guns don’t kill people, cannonballs do.

5. The language that is German, a response to Michael Lewis.

6. Farmer woman carrying dynamite home.

Three on Launching

1. The excellent Reihan Salam writes, “Tabarrok’s Launching the Innovation Renaissance is my favorite manifesto in years. In a better world, it would be the roadmap for the U.S. center-right.” Small steps towards a much better world, Reihan!

2. A truly Straussian Straussian Reading of Launching the Innovation Renaissance.

3. I will be speaking at Inventing the Future: What’s Next for Patent Reform at AEI in Washington, DC on Wed. March 14, 12:30-2:00.

*Wall Street II*

It was not a great movie but it was better than I had been expecting and I am glad to have seen it.  Moral hazard was explained — well, and using that term – numerous times.  The central role of leverage behind the crisis was stressed, as were the political economy elements.  The movie was chock full of economics, to a remarkable degree, albeit in an unbalanced fashion, especially when it came to explaining "speculation."  The film very well captured the feeling of sick dismay which unfolded with the events of the financial crisis.  As an inside joke, they had a wonderful silent stand-in for Geithner.  In this movie men don't seem to care about women very much, not even for sex.  The Charlie Sheen cameo was my favorite moment, as it rewrites one's understanding of the first Wall Street movie and raises broader questions about the motivations of "good" people.  The female lead was flat; I suspect this was poor execution although a Straussian reading will attribute that to a brilliant savaging of her character.  I wished for a different ending.  A comparison with the parent film shows that New York has become less interesting.

The Show So Far

MR has many new readers, especially since the financial crisis, so I thought I would offer this brief guide to what we are all about.  Plus one of the readers, under "requests," asked for a foundation statement for this blog.  Here, in six easy steps, is "The Show So Far":

1. Luring Alex to lunch.

2. A "public choice" and indeed Straussian reading of Star Wars.

3. Alex ponders immortality and it changes his life.

4. When to say "I Love You".

5. The economics of relativity.

6. Alex explains the difference between Tyler and Alex.

For this New Year I remain thankful to have what I consider the very best readers in the world.

Collective action problems with testing and vaccines

About testing, Megan McArdle writes:

The high rate of false negatives means that testing provides the most protection when it’s deployed at the population level. At the group level, it’s only a weak, adjunct tactic to other precautions. And at the individual level, it’s borderline useless.

it depends on the test of course (I think she is too negative on the individual test), but the general point is well taken.  So basically, in the Straussian sense, one might wish to exaggerate the private (and social) benefits of testing.

Alternatively, consider vaccines.  If thousands of people use a vaccine early and it goes badly, that might lead to adverse publicity for vaccines in general.  If only one person uses a vaccine early, and keels over dead, probably it goes unnoticed.

So for vaccines in the early, still quite unsafe stage, the Straussian might wish to exaggerate the risks, to limit the number of those trying it (whether on grey or black markets or flying to China, or whatever).  All the more reason to talk up testing.

Once vaccines are confirmed as safe enough, there are increasing returns to spreading the vaccines in a particular area.  One person getting vaccinated won’t materially lower R, but half of the community being vaccinated will drive R well below one, allowing most economic activity to resume normally.

So the Straussian will wish to exaggerate the private (and social) benefits of getting the vaccine, at least once a certain security is present about vaccine safety.

That is a lot of Straussian tightrope walking to be done!

Why We Can’t Have Nice Things–Elon Musk and the Subways

In New York it costs billions of dollar per mile to build new subways, a price far higher than anywhere else in the world. That’s one reason why Elon Musk’s The Boring Company has been anything but. Even if hyperloop technology doesn’t pan out, Musk’s goal of reducing tunneling costs by a factor of ten is laudable. The Boring Company purchased a tunnel boring machine in April of 2017 and incredibly has already completed a two-mile test-tunnel underneath Hawthorne, LA! Awesome, right? Well, some people just can’t be happy.

“[I]nvaders are coming from underground” proclaims Alana Semuels in a big story in The Atlantic. The title and splash page indicate the theme:

When Elon Musk Tunnels Under Your Home

The billionaire is drilling for futuristic transit under Los Angeles. He didn’t have to ask the neighbors first.

Billionaires are undermining your home. And democracy! Grab your pitchforks! Yet dig a little deeper underneath the lurid headline and the actual complaints are–dare I say it–boring.

I talked to a dozen people who live along the tunnel’s route, and most said they hadn’t witnessed any extra noise or traffic. But none had been informed ahead of time that a private company would be digging a tunnel beneath the street.

But what about all the displaced people?

As the tunnel neared completion, disruptions to the community increased. The company bought another building, this one on the corner of 120th Street and Prairie Avenue, for $2 million, according to public records, to allow for the extraction of tunneling equipment. Adrian Vega had run a cabinet business in that building for 18 years. When his landlord sold the building, the Boring Company came in and offered Vega’s company, Los Vegas Kitchen Cabinets and Doors, extra cash to get out in three months. Vega took the money, and asked for even more time from the Boring Company, which he was granted. But he couldn’t find another space; since moving in August, his business has been closed and his customers don’t know that he’s moved, he told me.

…Shunyaa Turner lives in a small house on 119th Place with his wife and two kids. He said that in the past year, they’ve had to battle more pests, such as raccoons, mice, skunks, and opossums, which they’ve never seen before. He isn’t sure if this is related to the digging; the Hawthorne airport has also been doing more construction as it gets busier, so the animals could have fled from there. He and his wife said they’ve also noticed more cracks in their impeccably maintained walkway.

…The initial document also claimed that the test tunnel would not involve digging under private property, but that, too, has changed—though the company has now bought all the private property it is tunneling underneath. The company has also closed a lane of Jack Northrop Avenue, a street on the other side of SpaceX headquarters

In the author’s own words:

Meanwhile, in Hawthorne, the company that promised its transit test projects would be completely unnoticeable by the community has since uprooted a small business, purchased a house, and closed a lane of traffic indefinitely.

The horror.

The whole framing of the piece is ass-backwards. Semuels is correct that:

[this] would have been unimaginable in a higher-income neighborhood. Indeed, when Musk tried to build another underground tunnel in a wealthier neighborhood in West L.A., residents quickly sued. The project got tied up in court, and [died].

In comparision:

The CEQA allows residents 35 days to push back against granted exemptions…in Hawthorne, the 35-day window passed with little fanfare.

But unfortunately Semuels takes the posh, lawsuit-loving, NIMBY crowd as the appropriate normative standard and any deviations from that as suspect and indicative of the power of billionaires to run roughshod over other people’s rights. Instead, the Boring Company, the Hawthorne city government, and the people of Hawthorne should be applauded for their sensible, forward-thinking, and optimistic approach to new ideas. Bravo to Hawthorne! Hawthorne: Where the future is being made!

I do give Semuels credit, however. She writes honestly so that one can see the real story behind the false frame and she even tips the audience to the correct (Straussian?) reading in her final clever paragraph.

Vega [the owner of the cabinet business who was paid to vacate] has nothing negative to say about the Boring Company—he just blames himself for agreeing to be out so quickly. Nothing like this had ever happened to him before, so he didn’t know what was fair. Nor did he know how hard it would be to set up a new store—the process of getting new city permits, he said, is a lengthy one, and he can’t find a way to cut through the red tape.