Monthly Archives: November 2015

Tomorrowland

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Despite being little more than a collection of clichés and preachy feelgood platitudes in a visually stunning cinematic wrapper, Tomorrowland gets a couple points for attempting to counter SF’s, and humanity’s, apparent fetish for visions of self-destruction and apocalyptic doom with a message of optimism and hope.

Tomorrowland tells the story of Frank and Casey, two dreamers bound by shared destiny to save humanity from itself and fulfill the promise of the utopian dream that was revealed to them in the titular city beyond the realm of time and space.  The filmmakers had lofty intentions, but the film’s message is so diffuse and its emotions and characters are so superficial, it ends up being another example of high spectacle that’s low on meaningful content. 

We meet young Frank Walker as he travels to the 1964 World’s Fair with his homemade jet pack in hand to present to judge David Nix.  Though he escapes scrutiny from a yet unformed Homeland Security surveillance apparatus despite carrying a suspicious bomb-like device, Nix is unmoved by his invention since it doesn’t work. Frank insists that it’s valuable because it will teach kids that “anything is possible”.  After this setback, we’re subjected to a highly implausible flashback of a hardass father who’s highly critical of his budding engineer son. You know.  You probably hear it all the time. “My goddamn kid and his fascination with SCIENCE!”

Right off the bat, the film is not only asking us to believe that his father (i.e. toxic masculinity, patriarchy, penis = bad) would disapprove and actively discourage his interest in science and engineering, but empathize with a hero who makes a device whose sole purpose is to inspire hope. And he showcases his creation at the very same World’s Fair which, besides the space program, also happened to showcase another notably hope filled vision of the future, The Great Society. Not because he’s passionate about science and building things. Not because it’s something that will be sold in the marketplace and used by the masses. Not because he wants to drive down the marginal cost, employ people and build a company.

No. The sole purpose of the device is to inspire hope.

Wow, Frank. That sounds remarkably like the thinking of a politician and not a capitalist. 

He is eventually joined by Casey; the daughter of a NASA engineer who dreams of traveling the stars herself. At the outset of the film, she’s arrested for sabotaging the demolition of a NASA launch site which employs her father. Though we’re meant to see this as evidence of Casey’s rebellious nature, her concern for her father’s welfare as well as her scientific and mechanical expertise, it’s also pretty sad that the film asks you to view the sabotage of equipment used to dismantle state property as evidence of a forward thinking, contrarian youth.

We are presented with scenes from Casey’s classes where she’s bombarded with pessimistic doomsayers. Naturally, her English teacher is teaching downer literature like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. On the one hand, it’s nice that Brad Bird is acknowledging that the public school establishment is inculcating cynicism and apathy, but he’s also feeding us another dumb and increasingly ubiquitous cliché; the plucky young female protagonist who wants to “fix it” and is totally into science.  It’s not like this character lines up with a political agenda or anything.  That’s right, folks. Public schools are crushing the optimism of our female youth and totally discouraging civic engagement.

Their lives intersect because Athena, a robot from Tomorrowland, recognized their scientific acumen and optimism and deemed them suitable candidates for admission to the city of the future.  A city where the most creative people could work without interference from politicians, bureaucracy, “greed” or other unnamed impediments.  Apparently, the revolutionary future that awaits us requires abandonment of the profit motive just as Comrade Marx taught us.

Frank was exiled from Tomorrowland and lives a life of seclusion surrounded by an astonishing quantity of technology. He has pulled a Hari Seldon and apparently calculated the destruction of civilization with mechanical precision. Frank sees that Casey’s optimism alters the inevitability of civilization’s demise and they set out to change the future.

This “anything is possible” line is basically the central theme of the film, and it is simultaneously the film’s weakness and strength. It’s great that Brad Bird wanted to offer a hopeful vision for humanity, but the film never really tries to define the action and behavior that contribute to such widespread cynicism and apathy nor does it clearly define virtuous action.  It asks you simply to accept that hope and optimism are sufficient all by themselves.

In a climactic scene between Nix, Frank and Casey, they are shown a fantastical machine which broadcasts tachyons from humanity’s presumably inevitable future doom. Once again, we’re presented with another shopworn cliché in cinematic SF; a doomsday device which can only be dismantled by our protagonists.  The bit about the tachyons is a neat speculation that apparently has some actual foundation in particle physics, but the overall idea is pretty tiresome. 

Upon making this realization, Nix delivers the following monologue which reveals the meat of what the film is attempting to address.

Nix: Let’s imagine… if you glimpsed the future, you were frightened by what you saw, what would you do with that information? You would go to the politicians, captains of industry? And how would you convince them? Data? Facts? Good luck! The only facts they won’t challenge are the ones that keep the wheels greased and the dollars rolling in. But what if… what if there was a way of skipping the middle man and putting the critical news directly into everyone’s head? The probability of wide-spread annihilation kept going up. The only way to stop it was to show it, to scare people straight. Because what reasonable human being wouldn’t be galvanized by the potential destruction of everything they’ve ever known or loved? To save civilization, I would show its collapse. How do you think this vision was received? How do you think people responded to the prospect of imminent doom? They gobbled it up like a chocolate eclair! They didn’t fear their demise, they re-packaged it. It could be enjoyed as video-games, as TV shows, books, movies, the entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse and sprinting towards it with gleeful abandon. Meanwhile your earth was crumbling all around you. You’ve got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation. Explain that one! Bees and butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, algae blooms. All around you the coal mine canaries are dropping dead and you won’t take the hint! In every moment there’s the possibility of a better future, but you people won’t believe it. And because you won’t believe it you won’t do what is necessary to make it a reality. They dwell on this terrible future and you resign yourselves to it for one reason, because that future doesn’t ask anything of you today. So yes, we saw the iceberg and warned the Titanic. But you all just steered for it anyway full steam ahead. Why? Because you want to sink! You gave up! It’s not the monitor’s fault, that’s yours.

While this monologue is great because it criticizes the fetish for nihilism and asks individuals to take responsibility for their own apathy, it’s also remarkably half-assed, timid and tilted towards the alleged evils of consumer culture and almost completely devoid of any meaningful criticism of the actions of the state. The film never really makes a firm commitment on what constitutes virtuous action or what constitutes morality. The main impression with which I was left was that government scientists are the optimists and dreamers and the study of science all by itself will edify humanity.  Never mind that the government is spying on you, turning faraway countries into smoking craters, contributing to a culture of corruption, incarcerating people by the millions, killing unarmed citizens and seizing property.

Apparently, none of these things are worth mentioning.  But that English teacher who assigned 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 is creating too much damn pessimism. God forbid anyone question the actions of the government. 

In the final scene, we get a montage of new recruits for Tomorrowland.  Naturally, it’s a rainbow of multiculturalism and gender equality. Part of me thinks it’s great that Hollywood is so committed to creating new role models and presenting such an “inclusive” vision of the future, but lately, the crusade for social equality in every media form has become tedious, predictable, hamfisted and positively irritating.

I have come to expect big Hollywood films to glorify the state and its subsidiary social agendas of climate change, multiculturalism and feminism and this was certainly no exception.  Despite the flaws, there’s an attempt at a noble message beneath the shallow platitudes and candy coated veneer.  Unfortunately, I think this film will end up “feeding the wrong wolf” as Casey would say.

Economics in One Lesson

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This book holds a vaunted status amongst libertarians and not only does it live up to its reputation, it’s a damn shame that this isn’t the go-to text for anyone seeking a rational and clear-headed approach to economics. 

Hazlitt builds his case by taking the central fallacy found throughout mainstream economics revealed in the Bastiat parable, That Which is Seen and that Which is Unseen, and proceeds to apply it to each realm of economic life. By applying this logic, he demonstrates how the various manifestations of government intervention squash, pervert, distort and destroy wealth, savings, and positive incentives to work and produce.  

Stated very simply, the lesson is this: the effects of economic policy cannot be evaluated in terms of its effects on one group, but on all groups. 

It is astonishing that these fallacies persist, but it is even more astonishing that they are accumulating increasing strength and are being accorded cultish deference. 

Hazlitt covers all the bases in his analysis. Starting with the one-two punch of the fallacy of destruction as economic incentive followed by a withering exposé of the production disincentives resulting from taxes, Hazlitt covers automation, subsidies and loan guarantees, tariffs and trade quotas, industrial policy, price fixing, rent control, minimum wage, and inflation.

The opening chapter alone exposes the perverse obsession with destruction as an economic incentive that persists to this day.  When you’ve got major publications like Rolling Stone peddling the insufferable moronic blathering of Jesse Myerson which openly praises rioting as some kind of economic boon, it’s fair to say the broken windows fallacy has mutated into an ugly article of faith.

The chapter pertaining to the rise of automation is particularly fascinating since fantasies of a “post-labor” economy are gaining traction in the media. People seem to envision a world in which robots displace human labor operating under an assumption that there is a finite amount of work to be done in the first place. Or perhaps fail to grasp the role price floors on labor may have played in hastening the creation of the automation in the first place. 

On the issue of free trade, Hazlitt argues progressives are correct to be suspicious of free trade agreements like the TPP and NAFTA, but are mistaken to attribute any benevolence to the very idea of a managed trade agreement in the first place even if it’s cloaked in gauzy rhetoric about workers and the environment.

Just what the government planners mean by free trade in this connection I am not sure, but we can be sure of some of the things they do not mean. They do not mean the freedom of ordinary people to buy and sell, lend and borrow, at whatever prices or rates they like and wherever they find it most profitable to do so. They do not mean the freedom of the plain citizen to raise as much of a given crop as he wishes, to come and go at will, to settle where he pleases, to take his capital and other belongings with him. They mean, I suspect, the freedom of bureaucrats to settle these matters for him. And they tell him that if he docilely obeys the bureaucrats he will be rewarded by a rise in his living standards. But if the planners succeed in tying up the idea of international cooperation with the idea of increased State domination and control over economic life, the international controls of the future seem only too likely to follow the pattern of the past, in which case the plain man’s living standards will decline with his liberties.

His analysis of minimum wage is as elegant a refutation of minimum wage as I’ve ever read.  He argues that the minimum wage is more correctly viewed as a minimum price law.  If the price of labor is artificially raised, the price of production is raised. Populist politicians always attempt to sell minimum wage law as a boon for low skill labor and ignore the adverse effects.  Sadly, the fervor for this boondoggle remains as strong as ever.

The most potent analysis by far is the section dealing with inflation.  As we enter our 10th year of ZIRP administered by our allegedly benevolent overlords at the Fed, the ill gotten gains and economic perversions abound while politicians beat the drums of hate and envy in order to draw more support for further expropriation as a corrective. 

Economics in One Lesson is a timeless classic and the lesson contained in its pages burns with even greater urgency. It’s easy to look at the current state of affairs and despair, but Hazlitt ends with an optimistic note. The principles for which Hazlitt fought are indeed proliferating, but the voices agitating for socialism grow louder. The best defense against the lazy and callous recriminations of apparatchiks and statists is this righteous lightsaber of reason left for us by a Jedi master of economics. 

That Jeff Daniels Monologue from The Newsroom Rebutted

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First off, I have to give credit where credit is due.  Despite the fact that he’s little more than a propagandist for the left, Aaron Sorkin is a talented writer.  He has a great flair for soaring rhetoric and this monologue is a testimony to his abilities. 

That said, this is propaganda disguised as monologue and there’s a lot to unpack.

The thing that really struck me is how sentimental the left is for what it perceives as its glory days. I’ve read and heard a gazillion snarky commentaries deriding conservatives for their Reagan nostalgia, but I don’t see a whole lot of difference between that kind of pining for bygone times and this.

The other thing that’s very interesting about this monologue is that it reveals how modern liberalism uses cynicism and shame to promote its own brand of inverse nationalism.  He’s openly denigrating overt expressions of positive nationalism, but he’s using this reproach to elicit sympathy for expressions of nationalism and state policy that he believes are more worthy of national pride.

The problem with the monologue is twofold; his characterization of “freedom” is in and of itself a straw man and he consistently conflates individual achievement and economic freedom with state policy. 

Yes, it’s true that Canada, Japan, UK, Italy, Spain, Germany and Spain have freedom. But it’s relative just as it is here.  In addition to forking over a giant chunk of your earnings, anyone starting a business is going to have to contend with a giant tangle of laws and bureaucratic nonsense in order to keep the lights on.  By these measures, some of those countries are freer than ours, some much less so

He bemoans low academic achievement, but says nothing about whether it’s a good idea for the state to monopolize public education and doesn’t acknowledge that perhaps this is the problem that’s contributing to that outcome.

He laments the incarceration and poverty rates, but doesn’t say anything about how the welfare state, the criminal justice system, the police state and the public school system collude to contribute to these outcomes. 

He lashes out at outsize military spending and the meager household income metrics, but says nothing about the Federal Reserve. 

He talks about how “we” built the greatest economy in the world.  Individuals built the greatest economy in the world, Aaron. I’ve been pretty successful at selling my skills in the private sector, but I haven’t really built anything. 

Furthermore, hearing Sorkin rhapsodize over the achievement of American capitalism feels both wildly disingenuous and highly selective.  After all, this is the guy who’s built a career romanticizing and glamorizing fictional politicians and portraying capitalists as conniving, manipulative degenerates. 

And is there anyone in the contemporary Democratic political establishment who will say anything even remotely charitable about the market economy nowadays?  The hands down favorite amongst progressives in the current presidential candidate field has both refused to identify as a capitalist and has built a career waving the banner of socialism. The apparatchiks of the academic, activist and pundit class certainly aren’t singing the praises of capitalism either.  Of all the the lines in this monologue which reek of falsehood, the stink of this one is the most foul. 

He claims “we struck down laws”, but I’m really hard pressed to think of the laws to which he refers.  Despite the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, DOMA has not been repealed. The PATRIOT Act is still on the books.  The NDAA authorization passes every year without a peep of opposition. The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria continue without so much as a token gesture of dissent from the left. 

He alleges that “we cultivated the greatest artists”.   It’s a partially true statement in that we have a relatively free market which has produced a rich diversity of art and media from which to choose, but I detect a small tinge of collectivist pride in that statement.  Everyone knows that taste is subjective and that the artists that people revere as “great” will vary with each individual.  If anything, this is one realm where he should drop the annoying preaching and start praising the virtues of free speech and free markets.  Those principles have contributed very directly to the diversity and richness of our culture and art. 

But perhaps the most interesting lines are the ones which say that we “acted like men” and were informed by “great men”. I’m both surprised and disappointed that feminists didn’t storm social media to deliver a fauxtrage beatdown on Aaron Sorkin for being such A DYSGYSTYNG FUGHYNG PYG!  Personally, I don’t have a problem with the statement since, by and large, it’s true.  Were there important women in history who contributed to philosophy, politics, and commerce? Absolutely.  This does not change the fact that the major historical movements of war, politics, philosophy, commerce and exploration were made, in fact, by FUGHYNG PYGS.  

Ultimately, he’s appealing to our inner greatness and capacity for morality, generosity and compassion.  This is laudable.  Unfortunately, he’s tying these virtues to an institution whose virtues are dubious to non-existent.