"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for April, 2011

I Hate Economics

I dislike economics.  By this, I do not mean that I dislike economists.  I’m sure that some of them are quite charming in person.  I dislike the field of economics.  I think that as a whole, the field is bad for the human race and for the planet.

What’s wrong with economics?  Everything.  Economics makes incorrect predictions, promotes bad policies, devalues the human spirit and the natural environment.  Those are bad consequences of economcis.  In order to understand why economics has such bad consequences, we should look at its foundations.  Economics has bad foundations: bad premises, bad types of logic, even bad definitions.

Bad definitions?  Yes.  In most areas of thought, definitions aren’t a big problem.  Even if we’re arguing with somebody who thinks that global warming is a hoax, at least their definitions of ‘global warming’ and ‘hoax’ are right; it’s only their connection of the two that’s wrong.  If we’re sparring with somebody who thinks that Barak Obama was born outside the United States, we at least have a common definition of the word ‘born’.  But in economics the definitions are all wrong to begin with.

Consider recessions.  We all know recessions, right?  We know what they are.  Well, what exactly are they?  The definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of negative growth.  Why is that the definition of a recession?  Why not one quarter of negative growth?  Does the official definition match up with the economic reality that we all experience every day?  I would argue that it does not.  Sometimes we all know that the economy is going into the tank, yet we still aren’t officially in a recession.  Consider that in 2007, everyone could tell that the economy in the United States was going downhill.  The only people who couldn’t tell it were the people who are supposed to know these things: government bureaucrats, politicians, academic economists, and corporate bigwigs.  All through late 2007 and early 2008 there were plentiful warning signs.  Bear Stearns went belly up.  So did Indymac.  Yet the people who are wise and knowledgable in economics kept insisting that things were all right.  Consider what Robert J. Samuelson wrote in the Washington Post in November of 2007:

Don’t believe all the hype about the “credit crunch.” … It’s supposedly suffocating the economy. True, big banks and investment houses have suffered multibillion-dollar losses on “subprime” mortgages and related securities. But except for housing — where lending has collapsed — the effects on consumers and businesses have so far been modest.

Got that?  Ignorant nay-sayers may insist that this so-called ‘credit crunch’ will have serious consequences for the economy, but we intelligent folks know better.  Things are going just fine, and you can trust us to manage things well.

Only when major corporations started crashing on a daily basis in September of 2008 did they finally acknowledge that the recession was here.  Then they retro-actively went back and declared that the economy had been in recession since fall of of 2007.  These people have granted themselves the power to rewrite the past.  The more important point is that they don’t define recessions in a way that corresponds to economic reality.  In fact, if you plumb the term’s origins, you’ll see that it was invented largely to mislead.  The word “recession” was first applied to economic conditions in the first decades of the twentieth century, where it generally replaced more clear words such as ‘downfall’ or plunge’.  Here is a usage from The Economist:

The material prosperity of the United States is too firmly based, in our opinion, for a revival in industrial activity — even if we have to face an immediate recession of some magnitude — to be long delayed.

And when did The Economist write that?  Fall of 1929.

Chesterton on Advertising

“It is really not so repulsive to see the poor asking for money as to see the rich asking for more money.  And advertisement is the rich asking for more money.  A man would be annoyed if he found himself in a mob of millionaires, all holding out their silk hats for a penny; or all shouting with one voice, “Give me money.”  Yet advertisement does really assault the eye very much as such a shout would assault the ear.  “Budge’s Boots are the Best” simply means “Give me money”; “Use Seraphic Soap” simply means “Give me money.”  It is a complete mistake to suppose that common people make our towns commonplace, with unsightly things like advertisements.  Most of those whose wares are thus placarded everywhere are very wealthy gentlemen with coronets and country seats, men who are probably very particular about the artistic adornment of their own homes.  They disfigure their towns in order to decorate their houses.  To see such men crowding and clamouring for more wealth would really be a more unworthy sight than a scramble of poor guides; yet this is what would be conveyed by all the glare of gaudy advertisement to anybody who saw and understood it for the first time.  Yet for us who are familiar with it all that gaudy advertisement fades into a background.” – G. K. Chesterton

There is something unlikable about advertising.  Regardless of where it is and what form it takes, regardless of whether it’s tasteful or gaudy, advertising still makes things a little bit worse.  This is clear enough from the fact that people often ban advertising around their own homes when they can.  Some states such as Vermont have banned billboards.  Politicians in Maine are currently debating whether to allow them.  Other places have limited advertising on a smaller scale, and the logic behind such decisions is obvious.  Nature is pretty and cities can be beautiful, but littering either one with billboards makes them ugly.

In addition to the physical ugliness of advertising, there is also the moral ugliness.  A lot of advertising these days is just plain nasty, catering to our worse moral instincts in all kinds of way.  Some ads urge us to view ourselves as better than others or to put material things before people, while others use sex exploitatively or do other bad things.  Perhaps worst of all, ads downgrade anything that they do touch.  When a French telecom company made ads using speeches by Martin Luther King and Lou Gehrig with slight digital alterations, they necessarily cheapened those speeches.  The more you see a famous person or a beautiful scene exploited in that way, the less you can take the original seriously.

So that’s why I dislike i.  But the funny thing, as Chesterton points out, is that we generally view advertising as a vulgar, lower-class product.  Of course you tend to see more ads in lower-class places.  Posters are littered all over every wall in the more dismal urban areas and billboards pop up along the poorer rural routes, but it certainly isn’t the poor people who choose to put them there.  It’s rich people who choose to put them there.   Even when small businesses run by relatively poor people do advertise, they usually do it in a tasteful and restrained way.  Not so the rich.  They just want to smear their logos and slogans everywhere without regard to aesthetics.  Does Nike really need to put its ‘swoosh’ on every single object in the universe?  Does GEICO have to saturate the airwaves with its cavemen?  Of course not.  But the rich people who make the decisions at these big companies don’t lose anything from doing such gaudy ad campaigns.  They’re not the ones who have to put up with the ads a few feet from their windows.  They live in ritzy condos or inside gated communities.  It’s only the poor who have to put up with all this panhandling by the rich.

Who wants to see the sequel to Hoodwinked?

I don’t.  As my theme at the moment seems to be movies that I’m not planning on watching, Hoodwinked Too!: Hood vs. Evil fits the bill perfectly.  I can spot several problems with that title.  The exclamation mark is extraneous and distracting.  Replacing “two” with “too” in a sequel title is old hat.  And if there ever was any humor to be had from naming a villain “Evil”, the Austin Powers franchise certainly wrang that towel dry years ago.  So in summary, I will not be watching the sequel to Hoodwinked.

I did watch the original Hoodwinked, though, and I liked it.  It’s my understanding that most people did not.  It got less than fifty percent on the tomato meter and I doubt that more critics have ever used the words “post-modernist” and “deconstructionist” while reviewing an animated kids’ movie.  In point of fact, Hoodwinked is post-modernist and deconstruction, but in a good way.

The movie begins at the end of the Little Red Rding-Hood story, when Red encounters a wolf badly disguised as her grandmother, a woodsman breaks into the house screaming like a maniac, and then the police–who are bears, frogs, and other animals–arrive and arrest everybody.  (Yes, that’s not quite how I remember the story going either.)  Then the police interrogate them and each character tells their story.  Red talks about how the wolf stalked her through the woods, but then the wolf turns out to be an investigative reporter looking into a rash a goodie-recipe thefts.  And so forth.

But the point is that the movie was really funny.  As evidence for this, I submit the following video:

That, if you want my opinion, is genuine entertainment.  The entire conception of the movie is genuinely smart, unlike numerous other kids’ movies that only think they’re smart.  The interplay among the various perspectives really did require some cleverness on the part of the filmmakers.  There were neat references to everything from Loony Tunes to Indiana Jones.   However, it’s a trick that can only work once.  There are only two possible paths for a sequel.  Either it can try to be even more clever, in which case it would have to be ridiculously complicated, or it could abandon the original premise and do something else, in which case what’s the point?

It’s Easter!

Actually it isn’t, at least not according to the official timers.  It’s 11:14 PM in the eastern time zone as I write this.  According to Jewish tradition, however, a day actually starts at sunset and lasts until the next sunset.  The Jews as we all know were very wise, and it’s demonstrated by the fact that they came up with an excuse to start every holiday a few hours early.  Today we can time the beginning of the holiday by the ancient Jewish tradition and the ending by modern timekeeping and thus actually stretch the length of the holiday out a bit.  So with that said, it’s Easter!  Start the party by enjoying one of the greatest Easter hymns:

I first heard this hymn while attending Easter service at a Methodist Church in Sperryville.  They told me that it was written by Charles Wesley, and that we Methodists should take pride in the fact that folks all over the world were singing our song today.  The truth is actually a bit more complicated.  There are ten stanzas in total, though most hymnals only contain five or six.  Three of the stanzas come from an old Latin hymn that existed long before Wesley’s time.  He does get credit for translating them into English and adding the other seven, so the hymn is really a collaborative effort, Catholic and Protestant, old and new.  I might even say that it’s symbolic of how the truth of the resurrection transcends boundaries.

The lyrics in their entirety can be found here, with music: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/c/t/l/ctlrisen.htm

Good Friday reflection

It’s not really Good Friday anymore, but nonetheless I will reflect.  I went to my church’s Moravian service today.  What is a Moravian serivce.  As service of readings from the gosepl interspersed with hymns, and nothing else.  No sermon, no eucharist, no intercessory prayers.  The lecter reads a scripture passage, we take a few minutes to contemplate on it, we sing a verse or two from a hymn, and then we move on to the next passage.  Today’s readings, not surprisingly, were all those covering the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus.

One thing I paid attention to was the mentions of beatings and floggings, particularly how not special and noteworthy they were.  Indeed, at that time it was just common sense that anyone who was arrested would be beaten.  It would happen before, during, and after the trial, if they were lucky enough to get a trial.  This type of torture was not considered a punishment or a part of the legal procedure as much as simply a means whereby the authorities demonstrated their absolute power.  I noted how, even when Pilate was leanings towards releasing Jesus, he still offered to throw in a little bit of flogging, apparently because that’s what governors were supposed to do. [Luke 23:13-16]

Nowadays, in the United States, we have rules about how prisoners must be treated when they’re arrested.  We don’t use beatings or other types of torture, we don’t mock them, we don’t spit on them, at least when we’re following the rules.  This is certainly quite different from how it was done throughout most of history.  It’s quite different from how it’s done in many countries today.  So as we go through Holy Week, we should remember to see the face of Jesus in all victims of police abuse and humiliation at all times and places.

Chesterton on my new Avatar

THE DONKEY

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

I have an avatar. It’s a donkley. I took this picture while riding my bike in Rappahannock County.  I passed a farm where three donkeys were grazing in a pen and they were so cute that I had to take some pictures.  The avatar is one of them.

You’re probably wondering why I chose a donkey.  Isn’t that a somewhat unusual avatar?  I simply couldn’t bring myself to choose anything else.  Picture of myself?  I’ve found it remarkably difficult to get a good picture of myself.  Movie, TV, or video game character?  I don’t attach myself deeply to anything in pop culture, so that wouldn’t really represent me.  Lolcat?  I don’t find them amusing.

Last night I was sorting through my pictures and I happened upon this shot of a donkey.  I thought to myself, why not?  After all, it’s a statement of my politics and my religion, not to mention my preference for living in a rural area.  Best of all, it ties in nicely with this poem, which is one of Chesterton’s most famous ones.  As he aptly points out, the donkey is a bizarre-looking creature.  It’s not nearly as elegant as a horse, nor as productive as a cow or sheep.  Yet the donkey has played it role in world events even so.

With that said, let me now offer you some more donkey pictures.

How George R. R. Martin did not change my life.

My last two posts dealt with the Atlas Shrugged movie.  Now that that’s gone down to box office defeat, I can deal with another motion picture project that I’m not watching based on a book that I cared deeply about in college but haven’t thought about in years.  That would be A Game of Thrones.  The book is the first in a lengthy fantasy series by George R. R. Martin.  The series began airing on HBO last Sunday.

What is A Game of Thrones about?  I used to know.  If you had only asked me six or seven years ago, I could have lectured you about the origins of House Fossoway, the motivations of Varys the Spider, the meaning of the prophecies in Bran Stark’s dreams, and many other such things.  Yes, I was a fanboy in my day.  Now I no longer am.  I can vaguely recollect the outline of the plot but that’s it.

So let me recollect.  I recall that during my teenage years I ceased leisure reading almost entirely.  Then, during my sophomore year of college I began reading science fiction and fantasy once more.  The book that brought me back into the fold–I’m not ashamed to admit this–was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  After that I started visiting the local public library and picking out novels at random.  Some were good, such as James Stoddard’s The High House.  Some were bad.  Eventually I decided to seek out advice on what the really good stuff was.  The two most popular authors were Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin.  I read the first; his stuff was dreck.  Then I read the second and it was just … so … awesome.

Martin’s books were packed with great lines.  For example, a character in the middle of battle sees some enemies soldiers approaching and says, “Those are brave men.  Let’s kill them.”  This is a great line.  Don’t ask me to explain why, but teenage boys can identify great lines when we read them.  Characters died in Martin’s books.  This was important.  I thought, for some reason, that major characters never died in other fantasy novels.  Now I know this to be obviously untrue.  And the series was huge.  There were hundreds of characters, dozens of warring parties, and whole continents on which the story could unfold.  Having more of everything obviously made the series better than its competitors.  I couldn’t quite say why, but I knew it to be true.

As you might guess, I eventually grew out of Martin and his novels.  I began to think that great prose should be intelligent and meaningful, rather than just being witty insults and death threats.  I started to suspect that far from being original and ground-breaking, Martin’s series was actually rather dull and cliched.  I began to wonder whether quality of characters and events mattered more than quantity.  It seems that I bailed out at just the right time.  According to internet scuttlebutt, it seems that Martin has all but stopped working on the series halfway through, so thousands of dedicated fanboys may never get the ending they were promised.

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