Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Lady Bird: But what does this movie say about ME?

Peeps, I am old. Not old like OLD, CAN YOU HEAR ME ALRIGHT?, but old enough to have my life depicted in a period film. Is that the benchmark for middle age? I realize my age on a near-daily basis now that I teach people who are, effectively, permanently 20. But it still "wrecks me" (a phrase I recently learned from my students) that the movies find my youth to be suitable material for a nostalgic coming-of-age film. My youth. I am a nostalgic artifact. Like Rory Gilmore, Lady Bird is exactly my age. High school class of 2003 represent. However, Gilmore Girls was a contemporaneous production, whereas Lady Bird is...ughhhhh...a nostalgic period film.

Anyway, the Self-Importants love Greta Gerwig and all the films Greta Gerwig is connected with, including even Damsels in Distress and Mistress America, and also almost all the films Noah Baumbach makes even though yes they're pretty repetitive (but it's a good theme!), so my normative evaluation of this movie is completely predictable and not of any interest.

So let's talk instead about the politics. The movie is about The Youth in the early 2000s, a time when The Youth had nothing significant to pay attention to but themselves, but to themselves they were exquisitely attentive. (Lady Bird overlooks the ubiquitous online diaries for public consumption which Miss Self-Important of course never had...10 versions of and none of those became this blog ahem.) Perhaps this does not reflect well on us, but as Lady Bird notes ("I wish I could live through something"), these were not dramatic times unless you were in New York in September 2001. So the movie is about the perennial subject of peacetime dramas, finding yourself. But since it's not terrible, it's more specifically about valuing the given vs. the chosen.

Lady Bird thinks she hates everything about herself at 17: her name, her hometown, her Catholic school, her lowly social status. The problem with these things is that they're arbitrary, imposed on her by her parents (especially her mother). So she decides to change these things by choosing alternatives: she renames herself something absurd ("Is that your given name?", the theater teacher asks her, and she replies, "Yes, it was given to me by me."), she applies to colleges in New York without a clue as to where that even is, she openly defies Catholicism, she invents a persona to befriend the rich girl in class. The problem, as she realizes by the end, is that all her choices were just as arbitrary as the given things, and no more lovable simply for being chosen by her. At the end, she asks a guy at a party whether he believes in God, and he dismisses the proposition as stupid in a way she would've agreed with five minutes ago, but now she's struck by the irony of such insouciance: "People go by the names their parents give them, but they don't believe in God." So she reconsiders the value of self-assertion against givenness. Maybe her real name isn't so bad, and Sacramento has some charms, and even Catholicism... Look, you know things are heading in a dangerous direction when a character is poised to embrace Catholicism.

But, despite this quite conservative epiphany about the self-constituting value of given things, Lady Bird never really turns right, because it can't quite condemn youth culture, even as it can't really embrace it. Youth culture is depicted as the promise of a lot of potentially exciting experiences (first love! sex! drugs! prom! going away to college!) that in the end are not nearly as exciting as they appeared, but disappointment is no reason to reject it. Anyway, there are no grounds to reject youth culture even if you wanted to. It just exists, ubiquitously and without plausible alternatives, and our task is to adjust to it. What you're supposed to learn, what constitutes "growing up" in this movie, is that, while there remains no way of knowing who you are or what you want except by experimenting with experiences, you have a duty not to cause harm to others in your experimental pursuit of experiences. Of course, you already understood the harm principle as a child, but what you didn't understand was the scope and subtlety of "harm." You learned not to bite and hit and taunt, not to cause overt harm. But the task of adolescence is to understand that causing harm also encompasses causing distress to those individuals to whom you have, for largely unchosen reasons, heightened obligations - your parents, your friends. Only once you understand this expanded version of the harm principle, as Lady Bird does after arriving at college, can you pursue your serial experiences and experiments in living in a responsible way. There will necessarily be disappointments along the way (science tells us that most experiments fail), but so long as you're taking responsibility for yourself and respecting the rights of others (including their rights not to be harmed by you), you are on the right road to...something. Well, the audience is satisfied enough by the time the movie arrives at this conclusion not to worry whether it's really conclusive or whether Lady Bird's road leads anywhere. Her life has only just begun! The future is unknown! The roads before her as yet untraveled! And so on.

Only I worry about it because, as I said, Lady Bird is now me. My life has not only just begun, a bit of my future is known, and several roads have already been traveled since 2003. And I would like to suggest, from a point in the less open future, that serial experimentation in pursuit of culturally pre-formulated experiences undertaken in light of an expanded understanding of the harm principle is never going to stop being disappointing.

On the other hand, the movie could also point in a different direction, though it never does this explicitly. If what is given is arbitrary and therefore of questionable value, but you discover that what is self-chosen is also essentially arbitrary because you had no coherent reasons for choosing except the desire to make a choice, then you might be moved to wonder, what's required to make a non-arbitrary choice? Are there coherent reasons or standards that would lead to a good choice? And then of course you'd become a philosopher. Just like that! Anyway, I trust that you get my point.

In conclusion, in this movie, we were kids. And now we have kids. That is a jarring thought when exiting a dark room in which you had just been immersed in your own adolescence for two hours.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Conversation 2

Mr. Self-Important: Do you know where milk comes from? What animal makes milk?
Goomba: Mama!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

What's good on the internet

"The Picture in Her Mind" - A nice defense of Joan Didion against the tedious complaints about her "offenses against good political taste," including her failure to embrace the great truth of feminism. We also watched the new documentary about her on Netflix, but it was not very good. Didion is clearly a person who should be read, and not watched.

"How to Hire Fake Friends and Family" - This guy, who runs a company that hires out actors to pretend to be client's parents and spouses, etc., is extremely reflective. I am most perplexed by his claim at the end: "The happiness is not endless, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without value. The child had a father when she needed him most. It might have been a brief period, and she might know the truth now, but she had a meaningful experience at that time." Is that right?

"How Trump is really changing things" - The original article is gated, but this is a good write-up.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


Goomba: Mama go work!
Me: Where does Mama work?
Goomba: Campus!
Me: Yes, and what does Mama do there?
Goomba: Eat pizza!

Monday, November 13, 2017


Some book reviews from the past few months, at Law & Liberty and The Hedgehog Review. The former about whether Rousseau's Second Discourse is compatible with modern anthropology and evolutionary biology and the latter is about weird sex, so I leave it to you to decide which is a better use of your time.

Friday, October 13, 2017


The best economic histories of the United States, especially of the early republic and Civil War periods, but also later if really good? Particularly useful would be histories of central banking, tariffs, other federal government interventions.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Basic economy

I unknowingly bought "basic economy" tickets for a flight recently by failing to realize that this phrase, introduced only days before I made my purchase, meant something much worse than "regular" economy. In case you are not yet familiar with this new delight, allow me to explain: "basic economy" is a new, discount airline class on all the major carriers which permits you to save about $40 on your flight, in exchange for giving up your overhead bag space and your ability to select a seat in advance, as well as relegating you to Boarding Group Dead Last. At the same time, in a move worthy of Marx, the price of previously regular but now "main cabin" economy has increased to levels higher than it was prior to the class division that created this new flying proletariat, despite the fact that the service has not improved in any way.

The question I have though is this: why stop at basic economy? The idea of air travel as an a la carte experience has a lot more potential. For example, why not allow passengers to give up their seats entirely and occupy a "standing room only" class in the back of the plane for a further $50 reduction in fare? And $20 more for waiving bathroom access? Another $15 to go without any food or drink? For agreeing to fly crammed inside an overhead bin, you can get $200 off your flight! And if we open up the cargo hold to passengers, an entire world of steerage-class possibilities awaits.

For my particular flights, which are regional and which I'm taking alone, I think that the negative effect of my negligence will be minimal. There are no middle seats on the regional jet, and there aren't even enough people on the flight to divide us into nine boarding groups, so boarding in Group 9 is effectively no different than boarding in Group 2. I did have to check my bag though, which is a pain. But I can see how this booking error would've resulted in catastrophe had I been flying with my family, especially on a longer flight. And since I will have to do so in eventually, I will of course be required to pay more for my non-upgrade upgrade in order to be able to sit with my own kid. 

On the other hand though, perhaps what airline travel really needs more of is toddlers assigned to random seats apart from their parents. A few such experiences on trans-continental flights may be just enough to incite a passenger-led revolution that will dissolve all former class divisions.

Friday, September 15, 2017

On learning one's native language

It's a fascinating process to watch. Goomba is now almost two and has a lot of single words and a few pat phrases like "out, daddy" and "more, please," but putting words together in new ways poses all kinds of problems. In August, she learned about cars and trucks and buses, and become obsessed with pointing them out whenever we saw one, which is really quite often when you live in a house on a street in America.

We have a bus stop right in front of our house, so buses were a special attraction, and once school started, I pointed out to her the different between city bus ("see-bus") and school bus ("shoo-bus"). This was very exciting! She would chant see-bus and shoo-bus all day to herself, whether in the presence of buses or not. And then we came across a new form of transportation: the firetruck. However, because she was so enthralled by buses, she couldn't wrap her mind around the idea of this big, red bus being called a truck. So it became known as "firebus." And she sat in her carseat happily chanting "firebus firebus firebus" for days in spite of my continual response "no, fireTRUCK." Then, after a week of firebus, she finally switched to firetruck (actually, something more like "firetuck").

We thought she was interested in the category of things that go - logical! - but it turns out that she's more interested in expanding the newly-discovered categories of "bus" and "fire." She wants to know about every kind of bus, and also every kind of fire. From firetruck, we get fireplace, fireflies. We also have to discuss fire itself (which makes me nervous).

Eighteen months really marked a magical mental leap. It was like her mind reached out grasped a big new chunk of the world and ingested it (big proportional to her size; she's still got a lot of world left to ingest), and she suddenly understood and could communicate all kinds of new things. She's been like a qualitatively different creature ever since. I now recommend 18 months as the best turning point to all my friends with younger babies.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Buying influence in the university

One underlying fallacy behind arguments like this is that but for the money they get from donors, academics (or, journalists, writers, artists, etc.) would be writing about and arguing for entirely the reverse of what they now say. They are either natural intellectual blank slates, people with no ideas or opinions of their own arrived at from their own study and reflection, or, in this case, they are natural socialists. But dangle a few Koch dollars in front of them, and they will bust out into a libertarian free-market dance. Since academics and universities have no private interests of their own, if we can eliminate private funding from higher education, we eliminate private interest with it. And what's left behind is unconstrained "free" thought:
The more thinking is directly subsidized, the less it is actually free—which is to say, empowered to range where the relevant thinkers please, without any worries about a funder’s intellectual preferences. Private money for academia comes with a cost—especially when the funders are corporations, even if the beneficiaries are putatively liberal.
Public money, we are asked to conclude, comes with no such "worries" about "a funder's intellectual preferences," because democratic and legislative majorities have no "intellectual preferences" to foist on the beneficiaries of their largess. They fund immense state university systems purely for the satisfaction of empowering "thinkers" to let their thoughts range freely and would be perfectly content if, say, every product of these institutions elected to become a professional philosopher, or better yet, an anti-democratic revolutionary. The only actors in our regime motivated by private interest are rich people.

Let us try to imagine, instead, how it is the academics who are getting the better of the donors. In reality, academics come with a lot of pre-existing convictions, stronger ones than the average person's (though not necessarily wiser) on account of the immense intellectual energy they've devoted to cultivating them. Unlike donors who've made fortunes selling doo-dads or maybe other people's money, academics have only one thing to sell - their ideas. And they can hardly get anything for them on the open market. They make nothing in royalties because no one buys their $150 books, and they publish all their articles that no one reads for free. But along comes some rich guy who's willing to hand them millions of dollars to produce and publicize the very things they've been slaving over in obscurity for so many years. This rich guy has agreed to forego all the potential interest and dividends he could earn by investing the same money in something actually lucrative, and to let them use it instead for completely money-losing ventures like putting on conferences and teaching classes and hiring post-docs. Moreover, the rich guy is not himself a scholar, so he doesn't really know or care how the sausage is made, just so long as the scholars he funds keep on saying the sorts of things they've always said, which he likes but probably does not fully understand (or else he'd use his moneyz to become a scholar himself). His money alone can't force more people to read or agree with the things the scholars write, but it can make their writing of these things much easier and more comfortable for them. Which is to say, so long as the scholars keep on doing the work which they previously did very assiduously for minimal monetary rewards, they will get big monetary rewards from a guy who has devoted himself to amplifying their influence without really understanding their work. Is the donor buying influence, or are the scholars selling donors a bill of goods?

Obviously, it's not that bad for the poor rich guy because he believes that academic influence matters, and maybe it even does, so he may be getting his money's worth. But these sorts of condemnations of private money in higher ed never seem to consider that academics have ideas and interests, very strong ones, that often precede any offers of private money to pursue those ideas and interests. You can't create a libertarian or a liberal or any other kind of ideologue by picking a professor out of a hat and handing him a check. Libertarian donors fund scholars who are themselves libertarian, liberals fund liberals, and so on, and scholars seek out like-minded funders on the same principle. Donors don't want to change scholars' minds by funding them; that would be even more inefficient than funding scholarship in the first place. So if "buying influence" is not really about paying people to advance your ideas, but paying people to keep advancing their own ideas which you agree with, then what is the problem? Is it substantially different from donating money to universities to use for other purposes, like building a new dorm or hiring faculty or even to use for whatever purpose they elect?

Describing a libertarian beneficiary of libertarian funding, Johnson claims that,
The problem is the way he has been able to leapfrog the entire customary governing structure of a university and, via his wealthy friends’ emoluments, enjoy a coronation as the equivalent of university dean. If aspiring political philosophers want some of the post-docs, fellowships, or conference presentations Schmidtz’s center can lavish on them, they obviously need to gain Schmidtz’s favor; Schmidtz’s favor, in turn, relies upon that of his benefactors. If students are not libertarians, they are likely to modulate their views. And as for the true believers, the financial and professional support they find is enviable.
This assumes that "the customary governing structure of a university" is itself a shining example of disinterestedness, and that this fellow Schmidtz is the only game in town for professional advancement. If there were no jobs in philosophy for non-libertarians, then we might say that the "need to gain Schmidtz's favor" to advance is a problem for the discipline. But that's never the case. If you don't like Schmidtz or the work he does, you can apply instead to dozens of other equally narrow positions and funding opportunities which in turn exclude the topics and approaches that Schmidtz favors. However, because academia is the last feudal regime in the West, under "the customary governing structure of a university" that is apparently so great, you always need to gain someone's favor to get goodies like post-docs, fellowships, and conferences. Getting rid of outside funding will only diminish the number and variety of asses available to kiss, but it will do nothing to render ass-kissing unnecessary.

Johnson even admits that there is nothing in principle wrong with advancing the libertarian arguments that the Kochs like, since "such provocations can be quite salutary in philosophy, a field that ruthlessly questions all presuppositions." The problem, he claims arises when provocations are
"incentivized by private money with the explicit aim of passing laws. Zwolinski’s price-gouging piece, for example, includes a handy appendix listing states with anti-price-gouging statutes. I don’t recall John Rawls helping out readers by categorizing state tax policies in terms of how far they run afoul of the Difference Principle."
This seems to be a distinction between (laudable) abstract "provocation" with no political or legislative goals such as Rawls's Theory of Justice, and (corrupt) "provocations" concrete enough to translate directly into laws. But Rawls did aim to influence laws, in a much bigger way than Zwolinski, so much bigger that a list of all those that run afoul of his principles would've required its own book. A rich liberal in the 1960s who wanted to advance redistributive welfare programs through philosophical arguments could not have done better than to promote Rawls, even though nothing he wrote could be turned directly into legislation. Inversely though, sinking money into an academic article for the purpose of securing the passage of a pro-price gouging law is probably imprudent. At least if you hire a lobbyist, he will have direct connections to legislators, which is a lot more than one can say for peer-reviewed philosophy journals. Worse yet, a great deal of academic research, even that which is indirectly or even publicly funded, is about narrow and concrete topics whose conclusions can easily be translated into particular laws. Empirical research almost by definition is concrete like this, and there are entire schools of public policy which pursue research designed to inform legislation. So in the end, a categorical distinction between the kind of research that private money issues in and the kind that "free thought" produces can't be sustained.

So long as academics depend on paychecks, the "free thought" Johnson seeks will never be possible in universities. It takes the greatest naivete or willful ignorance to think that getting a paycheck from the state immunizes scholars against external "influences" on their research, whereas getting one from someone who agrees with their work and wants to subsidize their instincts is a distortion of freedom. State legislatures demand "relevance" and economic growth, not to speak of whatever other local priorities - economic and ideological - their constituents may value. The "customary governing structures" of universities undermine Johnson's "freedom" even further - you must study what your disciplinary superiors deem valuable using the methods they prefer to find employment in the first place, and you must be sufficiently prolific and influential in the study of these things to convince these same superiors to let you keep your job. Private funding mitigates these pressures by opening up the universities to study that legislatures don't want to subsidize (often for good reason), and those to which prevailing fashions and academic and disciplinary hierarchies are indifferent or averse (sometimes with good reason, sometimes not).

It's true that, woefully for Johnson, there aren't currently many socialist or far left philanthropists funding the kind of research he finds congenial. (Which is apparently ok, because "obvious solutions don’t need research.") Indeed, restricting private funding of higher education because, at the moment, such funding disproportionately comes from conservatives, libertarians, and liberals, while reinforcing academic hierarchies in the humanities and social sciences, which at the moment favor the left, seems to be very much in keeping with a certain kind of private and partial interest that is not so different from the motivations of the Kochs, et al. But the political views of "the donor class" and the fashions of academia are contingent things, subject to change and even reversal. If such reversal were to transpire, private funding may turn out to be the last bastion for socialist and leftist thought, as a certain libertarian philosopher once pointed out.

Meanwhile, there is nothing fundamental about private funding that makes its recipient intellectually unfree, just as there is nothing fundamentally liberating about public funding. It's the self-supporting philosopher, the Thales who uses his knowledge to make a killing in olive oil futures and depends on no funds from anyone who is properly free in the Johnsonian sense. But those people don't become professors in the first place.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Identity crisis

Guys, I just got contacts and I don't even know who I am anymore. That's also sort of literally true because I can't really see that well, and everything (including, importantly, my own head) looks concave and HUGE.