Sunday, July 18, 2010

One-Liner of the Day

The Dark Knight is, to a surprising degree, a film about politics by other means: Its antagonists wrestle over the public mood like Victorian novelists over the soul of a virgin.

From Christopher Orr's reveiw of The Dark Knight.

One-Liner of the Day

The Dark Knight is, to a surprising degree, a film about politics by other means: Its antagonists wrestle over the public mood like Victorian novelists over the soul of a virgin.

From Christopher Orr's reveiw of The Dark Knight.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sex Diaries

New York Magazine has an interesting, weird, and rather prurient feature called the "Sex Diaries," where each week a random reader submits an account of his or her sexual experiences during the week. Last year they got a journalist to read through all 800 pages of collective entries and write a summary-cum-exegesis. And it's amazing. And very true to my own experiences of the psychological backdrop of dating. Go read it.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Michael Lewis on AIG

Just found this Michael Lewis Vanity Fair article on what, exactly, happened in AIG Financial Products during the housing boom and bust. Goes into detail about what caused the subprime blowup, what institutional factors inside AIG allowed it to happen, and why it was probably AIG FP's fault despite the fact that everyone inside was acting in good faith.

Fun fact: the AIG FP employees invested something like half their income back into AIG. The single guy probably most responsible for the blowup invested almost all of it. Financially, they were all incentivized to look to long-term gains--contrary to the usual narrative about the crash from, well, almost everyone. They just screwed up.

(hat tip Conor Friedersdorf's roundup of 2009's best journalism).

Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Latest In a Line

Of classical groups performing songs that were never meant to be done that way:

Monday, April 26, 2010

Political Axes

Or "Why I'm Not A Left-Liberal."

There are two interesting posts today I want to comment on. The first is Yglesias's post on what he considers the real I-banking scandal: the brute existence of extremely wealthy people.
It’s greedy, absurd, and morally indefensible for talented people born in favorable circumstances to be dedicating their lives to accumulating huge sums of money in order to engage in lavish consumption.

Never mind how they got the money, he says; there's something basically gross about people being that wealthy, especially if they're sitting around and making that a goal.

I read this post and thought it aptly summarized my major disagreement with Yglesias: inequality bothers him, and I see it as totally morally neutral. Inequality can have bad effects, and sometimes it's generated unjustly, and we should make sure everyone has the minimum to get by semi-comfortably, but I have no problem with the existence of rich people, or even absurdly wealthy people. I sort of consider it a feature of the system.

But this was all crystallized by Noah Millman's excellent post on trying to develop a better way of classifying political viewpoints. He divides political views into three axes:

  • Liberal/Conservative: Conservatives trust and defer to authority; liberals distrust authority and want to give more freedom of maneuver to individuals. Authoritarianism and old-school Papal Infallibility Catholicism are conservative, while hippies and libertarians are liberal.
  • Left/Right: the Right wants to reward success, however that's defined, while the Left wants to protect people who wind up on bottom. If you want to reward businessmen or make sure we retain incentives to create, you're Right; if you want to make sure noone falls too far, you're Left, and the Difference Principle may be the best-encapsulated description of Left politics.
  • Progressive/Reactionary: a Progressive generally thinks things are getting better, a Reactionary thinks they're getting worse. Regan-fetishizing Republicans and Great-Society-fetishizing Democrats are Reactionary, while traditional Marxists and anyone who points to the steady disimpoverishment of Africa is a Progressive.

I think this is really insightful, though certainly not the end-all of political descriptions. In particular, Millman asserts that new-school libertarians like Julian Sanchez and Will Wilkinson, with whom I identify myself, are liberal right-wing progressives, while Yglesias is a liberal mildly left-wing progressive.

We new libertarians, I think, tend to sympathize culturally and philosophically with a lot of the claims of left-liberals in the Yglesias mold. But we worry more about the possibility of cutting off growth than we do of a few more people slipping through the cracks at the bottom. I'd definitely agree with the claim that things like social safety nets are really really important. But I want to make sure to minimize the impact they have on incentives to create and generate economic growth. And I'm willing to sacrifice a lot of safety net strength to preserve that growth.

Wilkinson would respond here, I think, that generating wealth for all of society is the best way of benefiting the folks at the bottom. Which I agree with. And which is, of course, exactly the point: we're worrying more about increasing the upside than minimizing the downside. And Yglesias does the reverse. Which is why inequality and extreme wealth bother him, and not me.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Don't Judge a Cover by its Book

So apparently young adult novels with Twilight-esque covers are the Next Big Thing. Dozens of badly-written novels about teenage girls and the vampires who love them, ensconced in minimalistic covers with flowers on the front.

But if you buy such a book with expectations of truly crappy teen romance, you may be sorely disappointed. I was going to say life imitates art, but it seems the PA guys were a few months late.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A blind spot

Every time I read an article on the obesity crisis, or public health, or food policy, or really anything involving the theme that Americans eat too much, I have a very strong gut reaction that the writer is crazy and has no idea what he's talking about. On reflection, I think it's probably more accurate that I am crazy and have no idea what I'm talking about.

I am, depending on perspective, either blessed or cursed with an impressively large metabolism; at various points in my life I've averaged about 5000 calories a day, with a stable weight, a slim build, and low cholesterol. My major complaint about American restaurants is that the portions are so small; with a few exceptions (the Cheesecake Factory serves portions that are precisely the right size), I leave restaurants still hungry unless I've done something silly like order two meals. (Or bring a date; my last girlfriend and I averaged two meals between the two of us).

Consequently, whenever I read a comment like Michael Pollan's "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," my immediate reaction is something like, "there's just no way to get a full meal out of plants. It's almost impossible to feel full after a meal with less than half a pound of meat in it." And for me, that's more or less true. But I should stop projecting onto the other 99% of the country.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Concert etiquette

Ran across an excellent speech by Alex Ross, who writes on classical music for the New Yorker. He addresses an issue I've had for a long time: where did the (quite frankly insane) norms about behavior at classical concerts come from? Why can't we applaud excellent solos? A modern orchestra performance is more reminiscent of a wake than of a music concert.

The change seems to date to shortly after the turn of the twentieth century; Ross seems to blame Wagner and his attempt to make a spiritual experience out of music performances. Read the whole thing--it's an excellent rant on a neglected topic.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The Mind of a Jihadi

An old article, but I just got around to reading Renouncing Islamism by Johann Hari. It's a profile on British Muslims who were once radical jihadis, then renounced the Islamist movement and are trying to build a liberal counter-movement within Islam. Fascinating reading. I was particularly intrigued by this bit on identity crises:

As children and teenagers, the ex-jihadis felt Britain was a valueless vacuum, where they were floating free of any identity.

Ed Husain, a former leader of HT, says: "On a basic level, we didn't know who we were. People need a sense of feeling part of a group – but who was our group?" They were lost in liberalism, beached between two unreachable identities – their parents', and their country's. They knew nothing of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or the other places they were constantly told to "go home" to by racists.

Yet they felt equally shut out of British or democratic identity. From the right, there was the brutal nativist cry of "Go back where you came from!" But from the left, there was its mirror-image: a gooey multicultural sense that immigrants didn't want liberal democratic values and should be exempted from them. Again and again, they described how at school they were treated as "the funny foreign child", and told to "explain their customs" to the class. It patronised them into alienation....

Without an identity, they created their own. It was fierce and pure and violent, and it admitted no doubt.