Archive for the Category Culture/arts

 
 

What do we mean by meaning?

A commenter named Ted asked me some interesting questions:

Topics/prompts that I’d be interesting in reading your thoughts on:

-What determines the risk-free rate?
-Where have you found meaning in life?
-How do you think historians will look back on this period?
-What will money look like in 100 years? In 1,000 years? In 10,000 years?
-What’s a book or TV show or movie or podcast you liked? Why?
-How do you fight against selection bias as you consume information about the world?
-What are topics we should be talking about more?
-Maybe a high-level tour through periods in history that illustrate something about monetary policy (aimed at people like me who are too lazy to read books where this already written down)
-What are topics you wish you knew more about?
-What are questions that are both important and difficult to answer?
-What constitutes your information diet? What sources of information do you strongly recommend?
-More posts on how public opinion isn’t real (for me, this was a big takeaway from your writing)
-Thoughts on macro hedge funds
-How you have thought about death and how you wish you thought about death
-Questions that you have for your readers

That gives me ammunition for a number of “Ted talks”.  I’ll start with meaning, as I’ve recently been reading a book on psychedelics that touches on that subject.

Let me begin by noting that I often have a sort of “inside view” and an “outside view”.  Thus my inside view is, “of course I have free will” and my outside view is, “of course free will doesn’t exist.”  Similarly, my inside view of meaning is probably not too dissimilar from the views of others, while my outside view is that meaning doesn’t exit.  Life is just one damn mental state after another.

With free will, my outside view is not just that free will doesn’t happen to exist, but that something like that can’t possibly exist.  Similarly, my outside view is that meaning can’t possibly exist.  Since my outside view is uninteresting, and a bit depressing, I’ll focus the rest of my post on my inside view.

Because of my outside view, I prefer not to talk about “finding meaning”, as if there is something out there to me found. Rather I’d prefer to say “seeing meaning”, which implies meaning occurs in our minds.  I’ve long believed that the very young see more meaning in life than older people, and that meaning gradually drains away as you age.  Meaning is also more likely to be visible in dreams, and (I’m told) in psychedelic trips on LSD or mushrooms.

This quote from a book by Karl Knausgaard nicely captures the way meaning drains away from life as one ages:

You could still buy Slazenger tennis rackets, Tretorn balls, and Rossignol skis, Tyrolia bindings and Koflach boots. The houses where we lived were still standing, all of them. The sole difference, which is the difference between a child’s reality and an adult’s, was that they were no longer laden with meaning. A pair of Le Coq soccer boots was just a pair of soccer boots. If I felt anything when I held a pair in my hands now it was only a hangover from my childhood, nothing else, nothing in itself. The same with the sea, the same with the rocks, the same with the taste of salt that could fill your summer days to saturation, now it was just salt, end of story. The world was the same, yet it wasn’t, for its meaning had been displaced, and was still being displaced, approaching closer and closer to meaninglessness.

Of course there are also some consolations that come with age.

Compared to most people, I probably find less meaning in success and fame, and more in art.  At least that’s how it seems to me.  I’m probably about average for seeing meaning in friends and family (although given my Northern European cultural heritage, perhaps a bit less than average for family.)

During my career, I noticed that some colleagues cared a lot about things like promotions, whereas I didn’t care at all.  I did get some satisfaction from the positive press I got in September 2012, but probably less than most people would.  I’m not ambitious in a career sense.  If given the opportunity to be Fed chair, or a senator from California, or CEO of Goldman Sachs, I’d immediately turn down the opportunity.  If not for this Mercatus position, I’d already be retired—at age 62.  I’d rather make $20,000/year and have the health I had at age 31, than $200,000/year and have the health I have today—and I don’t even have any serious health problems, just chronic annoyances. That’s why the income inequality debate doesn’t really resonate with me; it just doesn’t seem that important.  (That’s my impression; I’m not trying to defend it.) On the other hand, extreme poverty in developing nations such as North Korea seems like by far the most important problem in the world.

I also find much less meaning that usual in ceremonies such as funerals, weddings, graduations and other such events. I’m not a social person.

When I was a young academic, my research was meaningful to me.  As I got older, I realized that people simply didn’t care and it lost meaning.  What made my depression book so hard to write is that I did it after I’d become disenchanted, after I realized the book would be ignored.  Fortunately, the hardest part (all the research) was done by the time I reached that view, but it was still an agonizing process to write the book.

Conversely, I got a lot of meaning out of a brief summer course I taught at Cato this summer.  I was great seeing younger students from really good schools that were interested in market monetarist ideas.  My blog also gave me meaning, especially during the early years when I still had new things to say and the readership was larger and more engaged.  I still have modest hopes for my blog book, but I don’t think book length projects are my forte.  If I were actually able to influence Fed policy, that would seem meaningful to me.

For me, the greatest meaning in life comes from art, broadly defined to include aesthetically beautiful experiences with nature, old cities, and scientific fields like astronomy and physics.  The most meaningful experience in my life might have been seeing the film 2001 at age 13.  I’ve never tried LSD, but after reading about the experience it reminds me of this film, and indeed the director was someone who experimented with acid.  (It might also be the only “psychedelic” work of visual art that’s actually any good.  Whereas pop music from the 60s is full of good examples.)

To me, art is “real life” and things such as careers are simply ways of making money in order to have the ability to experience that real life.  After art, I’d put great conversation second on the list.  And the part of economics that most interests me is the ability to converse with like-minded people (such as at the Cato summer course.)

I’m sort of like a satellite dish, receptive to ideas and sounds and images.  My ideal is Borges, who regarded himself more as a great reader than a great writer (of course he was both, and a great conversationalist.)  I’d rather be a great reader than a great writer.  I’d rather be able to appreciate great music than be able to produce it.

I’m not at all like Trump.

PS.  I’ll answer some other Ted questions in later posts, here and at Econlog.

The China Threat?

The normally sober Financial Times has a truly bizarre article on the perceived threat posed by China:

Marketing slogans aside, since at least the 1980s there has been no presumption that US companies had to operate in the national interest. Goods, capital, and labour could move where they liked — that is the definition of globalisation. Most people believed that if US companies did well, Americans would prosper. But, as the past several decades of wage stagnation have shown, the fortunes of US companies and consumers are now fundamentally disconnected.

The wealth gap alone wasn’t enough to persuade politicians from either party to rethink the rules. But China is. While tariffs are President Donald Trump’s personal preoccupation, fears over losing an economic and cultural war (and possibly a real one at some point) with China is a worry that is shared broadly in the US, no matter what circles you travel in.

In my entire life, I’ve never met a single person worried about losing a cultural war with China.  What does that even mean?  Are we worried that Americans will give up Hollywood films and start watching Chinese movies?

As far as losing an economic war, that reminds me of the absurd claims in the 1980s that Japan would overtake us.  By the early 2000s, those Japanophobes had become widely ridiculed.  Have we already forgotten that fiasco?  Is America condemned every 30 years to engage in hysterical fears about the “yellow peril”?  What “circles” does this reporter travel in?  I could sort of understand talk of a military threat, although the threat is to Taiwan and some uninhabited atolls, not the US, but a cultural and economic threat?

As far as the first paragraph, is the author unaware that for many decades US companies have been banned from selling sensitive technology with military applications to countries such as China?  Yes, it’s difficult to decide exactly which technologies meet that definition, and undoubtedly a fair bit of useful stuff slipped through, but it’s simply false to claim that companies had complete freedom to sell technology to China.

And how about the logic here:

But, as the past several decades of wage stagnation have shown, the fortunes of US companies and consumers are now fundamentally disconnected.

Let’s make the list even longer:

But, as the past several decades of wage stagnation have shown, having a democratic form of government does not guarantee consumers will do well.

But, as the past several decades of wage stagnation have shown, developing an internet does not guarantee consumers will do well.

But, as the past several decades of wage stagnation have shown, having private private property rights does not guarantee consumers will do well.

But, as the past several decades of wage stagnation have shown, having freedom of the press does not guarantee consumers will do well.

During Mao’s 27 years in office, China lacked a democratic form of government, private property rights, freedom of the press and an internet.

Therefore . . . ????

And BTW, American consumers have done fabulously well in recent decades, at least in terms of autos, TVs, phones, cameras, internet, entertainment choices, restaurant quality and choice, cheap clothing, etc., etc., etc.

PS.  I have a related post at Econlog.

PPS.  V.S. Naipaul, RIP.  Whatever you think of him, Naipaul had no patience for bullshit, from either colonialists or anti-colonialists.  I notice that his death is receiving relatively little attention in the mass media.  We lavish praise on warm and fuzzy people and shun those telling us things we don’t want to hear.  At one time or another, he said things that would annoy almost everyone (including me.)

 

The worst prejudice of them all

I was awakened about 3am last night by my alter ego, Scott Slumber.  He seemed very upset and had me dictate a blog post.  I was only able to scribble down a small part of what he said, as his speech was rambling and erratic.  Here’s what I got:

I am sick and tired of the attitude of the awake world to the sleeping world.  They look down on us as if we are inferior—all this talk about “real life”, as if their lives are more real than ours.  Just the opposite is true; we have a much richer life, comprised of a mixture of worry and pain-free oblivion, and a rich dream world that’s far more “real” than their awake world.  How much richer?  Recall how The Wizard of Oz transitions from a drab grey opening to a glorious color fantasia, and then back to black and white.  I use this example not because color film is better than black and white (we may not even dream in color), but because it’s a metaphor for how dreams are richer than waking hours.  In dreams you move through a sort of ether of meaning, as if some momentous reality is just beyond your grasp. Even the best parts of life, such as watching a David Lynch film, cannot quite capture the feeling.  That’s not to say there aren’t downsides; the “eternal return” to searching for that exam that you forgot to study for—but waking life also has its ups and downs.

I’ve known all of this for a long time, but what’s really got me agitated is the sudden increase in anti-sleepworld prejudice.  For instance:

1.  While “wake up” has often been used as a metaphor for intellectual awakening, the millennials have added on a new insult; “woke” is being used as a metaphor for moral superiority.  Actually, just the opposite is true.  I can shoot someone in the middle of Times Square, and no one cares.  Unless you are Donald Trump, that’s not true of the awake world.  I can engage in guilt-free forbidden love that you can only dream of experiencing . . . and no one gets hurt.  The dream world is a moral paradise.  When people speak of someone being “woke”, it reminds me of when I was young and you’d still hear people say, “that’s very white of you”—as a compliment!

2.  As if that’s not bad enough, we have bloggers speculating about a technology that allows sleep hours to be bought and sold, like slaves.  You might ask, “What’s wrong with that, if it’s done freely?  Aren’t you a libertarian?”  Yes, but the awake will end up selling the sleepers without even consulting them.  Of course there are a few “woke” people who understand the value of sleep, but if you look at the comment section after the sleep market post you see the same sort of rampant bigotry that occurs when bloggers discuss immigration and diversity.  People were positively gleeful about the thought of using money and technology to kill off their sleep world alter egos, and stay awake 24 hours a day.  Disgusting.  How could they do this to us after all we’ve done for them?  We’ve given them the palaces of Kubla Khan, the guitar riff that built the Stones, and a 1000 eureka moments of scientific discovery.

3.  Puritans in the awake world want to ban chemicals that produce vivid dreams.  They are afraid that the young will find the dream world more attractive than their pathetic depressing alternative.  That’s probably because it is more attractive.

I occasionally meet Scott Sumner for brief moments, such as last week when I was cruelly ejected from a Turkish harem by his murderous beeping iPhone. In our brief exchanges I’ve convinced Sumner that I’m right.  He’s already a radical utilitarian who believes that the flow of positive and negative brain states is the only thing that matters in the universe.  He’s contemptuous of the waking world’s Trumpian fascination with money and power.  Their weird belief in “personal identity” and “free will”.  Unlike that other blogger who cowardly hides behind the controversial claims of his alter ego, Sumner will affirm that everything I say is true.  Tell them, tell them Sumner, tell th . . .

Gulp.  Drugs?  Guilt-free forbidden love?  Umm, let me sleep on it.

PS.  Critics say that Mulholland Drive and In the Mood for Love are the two best films of the 21st century.  Indeed the only two films to make the top 100 all-time.  What do they have in common?  A dream-like mood.  And the critics’ choice for the best film of all time?  It’s also dream-like:

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 11.46.52 AM

PPS:  This might be hard to believe, but the opening paragraph of this post is kind of true–I did wake up at 3am last night and write down notes for this post.

PPPS. Maybe I should let John Milton have the last word:

Methought I saw my late espoused saint
       Brought to me, like Alcestis, from the grave,
       Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave,
       Rescu’d from death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom wash’d from spot of child-bed taint
       Purification in the old Law did save,
       And such as yet once more I trust to have
       Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind;
       Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight
       Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin’d
So clear as in no face with more delight.
       But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin’d,
       I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.

 

Films of 2017

Let’s hope my life finally hit rock bottom in 2017. (At age 62, fat chance!) I’m looking forward to wrapping up my two book projects by mid-2018, and then starting to actually live again.  Reading books, buying CDs, figuring out how to watch films on the internet.  (BTW, is Netflix as awful as it looks, or am I missing something?  Their selection of good films seems virtually nil.  Where are the good films on the internet?)

Ross Douthat is a brilliant essayist who has a blind spot when it comes to sex.  His newest piece is titled:

Let’s Ban Porn

I’m trying to visualize how this would be implemented.  Perhaps Jeff Sessions will sit in a room all day, screening X-rated art films from France, Italy and Japan, trying to determine whether they are pornographic.  (I say yes, but in a good way.)  What would Jeffrey make of In the Realm of the Senses? There’s an amusing Atom Egoyan film that gets at the internal contradictions of censorship.  If watching porn really does turn us into bad people, as Douthat seems to think, then under his proposed regime the actual censorship decisions will be made by moral degenerates.

Despite the fact that the proposal is silly on many levels, it would not surprise me at all if Douthat wins in the long run.  The US is going downhill in so many different ways—why should this be any different?  [I’m striking a blow against the New Puritanism by topping my list with a film I was not allowed to see.  I liked the previews, and was really looking forward to it.]

In fairness to Douthat, I do see one silver lining in his proposal.  There was a time, way back in the 1960s, when lots of Americans did go to see foreign films.  Especially foreign art films.  That brief golden age occurred at the point in time when we’d liberalized enough to allow in “erotic” Swedish and France films, but not so much as to allow “porn” (Which I define as erotic art films for the working class. Yes, there’s a lot of class snobbery in the new puritanism.)  Once Americans were given access to their own home grown porn in the 1970s, they stopped going to see films by Godard, Bergman and Antonioni.  Wouldn’t it be funny if Douthat got his way, and Americans were once again forced to watch long boring art films, just to catch a glimpse of skin!

2017 Films

I Love You, Daddy.  (US)  4.0  I’m hoping this will be what Woody Allen films should be, but aren’t.  Something a bit more Kubrick-like.

Stalker (Russia, 1979) 4.0 Not just my favorite Tarkovsky, my all-time favorite European film. Geoff Dyer said it best:

it’s not enough to say that Stalker is a great film – it is the reason cinema was invented.

Twin Peaks Part II (US) 3.9 Not as good as part one, but then that was the best TV show of all time. Reminds me of “In the Mood For Love” in the way the director used the posture of actresses in a very evocative way. Check out the scene where Lynch and the two FBI women are out on the porch having a cigarette. Nothing is said for about 2 minutes, and it plays no role in the plot. But it’s stupendous filmmaking—an example of what makes cinema magical. And let’s not even talk about Naomi Watts, who is brilliant throughout the series.

I searched online and found someone else who liked the scene on the porch as much as I did:

http://ew.com/recap/twin-peaks-season-3-episode-9/3/

The series is also a critique of the anti-cigarette hysteria on the rise in America.

Thelma (Norway) 3.7 A very enjoyable Norwegian film, very skillfully directed. Doesn’t break any new ground, but I was engrossed throughout the entire 2 hours.

After the Storm (Japan) 3.7 Another gem from Kore-eda, my favorite living Japanese director. This one is probably worth seeing twice, as there’s a lot going on right below the surface.

Sweet Bean (Japan, 2015) 3.6 Directed by Naomi Kawase, another great Japanese director that I had somehow overlooked. Reminds me a little bit of the style of Kore-eda. A beautiful understated film; the polar opposite of what gets produced in Hollywood these days. Now I need to find her earlier films.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (US) 3.6 The best Star Wars film since the first two. They finally found a director who is more than just a corporate clone. It still fell short of what it might have been—Mark Hamill is not a good actor and the depictions of alien planets continue to be quite unimaginative.

Intimacies (Japan, 2012) 3.6 A nearly 4½ hour film by the director of Happy Hour. The first half shows people putting together a theatrical production and is pretty slow going. After intermission we see the play itself, which becomes increasingly engrossing. I have no interest in theatre, but I enjoy seeing filmed plays. This is a director to watch.

Full Metal Jacket (US, 1989) 3.6 This uneven Kubrick film is saved by the intense final battle.

The Square (Swedish) 3.6 A film that is full of ideas, and lots of sharp observation, although it doesn’t have the sustained artistic vision of something by Lars von Trier, Kubrick, Haneke, etc. It’s a tweener, but a pretty engrossing 2 ½ hours. In its defense, the satire of the art world and liberalism more broadly is not always as obvious as it might seem. Strongly recommended for people who (unlike me) like their cinema mixed with social commentary.

Brimstone and Glory (Mexican) 3.6 Documentary about a small town in Mexico that puts on a stupendous fireworks festival each year. Imagine the running of the bulls in Spain, except at night with dazzling fireworks.   Soon after the film was completed, many people in this town died in a fireworks accident.

Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned (Korea) 3.5 A charming Korean crowd pleaser, which I found myself enjoying more than I expected. The director (Tae-hwa Eom) is someone to watch.

Columbus (US) 3.5 I’m tempted to say that this film is not for people who have short attention spans. But then maybe it’s not about attention spans at all, but rather a question of interest—more specifically it’s for people with an interest in architecture. (The character I stole this line from was the most interesting person in the film, but he only had a small role.)

Blade Runner 2049 (US) 3.5 This is an outstanding film in many ways, especially the visual effects. So why do I rate it slightly below the original? I’m not quite sure. Maybe it’s just a question of originality—the first one had a fresh (and sublime) vision, and this one just recycled that vision. Originality seems especially important in sci-fi. Or perhaps it tried to do too much. The last half hour dragged on, and seemed somewhat pointless.

Lolita (US, 1962) 3.5 This uneven Kubrick film is saved by Peter Seller’s inspired performance. (A warm-up for Strangelove.)   It’s probably unfair to compare the film to the book. Kubrick and Nabokov are very different artists, and hence the film should not be anything like the book. And it isn’t.

David Lynch: The Art Life (US) 3.5 A very interesting documentary about David Lynch. He did not direct the film, but there are moments when it feels like he did. Lots of glimpses of his graphic art.

Blade of the Immortal (Japan) 3.4 The 100th film by Takashi Miike. I’ve only seen two, which leaves 98 to go. Not my favorite genre (lots of blood) but it’s nice to see a real craftsman at work.

Youth (China) 3.3 The sort of film Spielberg would make if he had been born in China. Tries to do too much, but it’s fairly engrossing.  If I were Chinese I’d rate this lower–too emotionally manipulative.

March of Fools (Korea, 1975) 3.2 Interesting coming of age film from a director I had not seen before.

La La Land (US) 3.0 With all the talent in Hollywood, do they really have to rely on so many clichés? Her dream is living in Paris? Even Chinese directors use Prague.

Your Name (Japan) 3.0 This animated feature was a smash hit in Japan. It’s good, but I found it to be somewhat derivative.

The Swindlers (Korea) 2.9 This entertaining film is full of twists and double crosses, but in the end it didn’t make much sense (at least to me.)

Woman of Fire (Korea, 1971) 2.8 At times it’s one of those campy “so bad it’s good” films, at other times it’s somewhat engrossing. And sometimes it’s just bad. Might be of some interest to Tarantino fans.

Baby Driver (US) 2.8 Mildly entertaining, but also rather silly. I would have given it 3.0 rating if the film had ended with Dave Edmunds’ 1970s pop classic “Deborah” playing over the credits. (The two stars kept trying to think of a great pop song with “Deborah” in the title.)

Dreams That Money Can Buy (US, 1947) 2.5 Not very good, but interesting in what it tells us about progress in the cinema. While certain types of films (comedy, drama, noir, etc.) have made almost no progress since the 1940s, visionary film-making improved dramatically between 1947 and 1968, when 2001: A Space Odyssey came out (not to mention Tarkovsky). Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Dreams That Money Can Buy is a 1947 experimental feature color film written, produced, and directed by surrealist artist and dada film-theorist Hans Richter.

The film was produced by Kenneth Macpherson and Peggy Guggenheim.

Collaborators included Max ErnstMarcel DuchampMan RayAlexander CalderDarius Milhaud and Fernand Léger. The film won the Award for the Best Original Contribution to the Progress of Cinematography at the 1947 Venice Film Festival.

Saint Terrorist (Japan, 1980) 2.2 Nihilistic punk filmmaking from Japan. Not my cup of tea.

Ideologies follow the tribe

Here we have conservatives defending a guy who molests teens:

A group of 53 Alabama pastors signed onto a letter pledging their support for alleged child molester and Senate candidate Roy Moore.

Update:  The Newsweek story may be fake news, as elsewhere it’s reported the letter was from months ago.

And here we have a conservative at the National Review who is uneasy with left wing attempts to censor art:

HBO is at this moment streaming Hacksaw Ridge, a film by Mel Gibson, who in 2011 pleaded no contest to a charge of battery against an ex-girlfriend who had alleged that he had assaulted her so viciously that she was left with a black eye and two broken teeth. HBO has no policy, as far as I know, against distributing movies starring Christian Slater, who once served 59 days in jail after pleading no contest to assaulting a girlfriend. The films of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Roman Polanski remain ubiquitous. Hollywood history is rife with personalities who have done much worse things than C.K. and whose films have not been subsequently suppressed.

So what’s going on?  Weren’t conservative pastors supposed to be the sort of people who condemn this type of behavior?  And isn’t it people on the left who used to strongly defend artists from censorship?  (Corporate or government)

Here’s one possibility.  Conservatism is moving away from religion and toward the cult of the strong.  Conservatives take increasingly pleasure in mocking the left as a bunch of sensitive snowflakes.  Sexual harassment is seen as a “feminist” issue.  Conservatives are increasing drawn to “alpha male” leaders, even if they have a history of abusing women.  When I was younger, that sort of man (Kennedy, Clinton, etc.) was usually thought more likely to be a Democrat.  Republicans were seen as nerdy types.  Now a major GOP presidential candidate brags about the size of his . . . er . . .  “hands” during a debate, and a Senate GOP candidate brandishes guns at campaign rallies.  A House candidates assaults a reporter, and is still elected.

On the left it’s a different set of issues.  The left once liked intellectual types who were unconventional, and didn’t want to live according to boring suburban morality.  Now people like Woody Allen and Louis CK are reframed as powerful white men who take advantage of less powerful women.  It’s a point I make repeatedly—there are no fixed definitions of left and right; ideologies evolve over time, and will continue do so in the future.  Who knows, maybe liberals will once again embrace eugenics.

You might say that the 53 pastors are not representative of conservatism, and the liberals who want to ban films are not representative of the left.  Maybe so.  But I recall just a few years ago hearing about a fuss over Halloween costumes at Yale, and thinking it one of the most bizarre stories I had ever read.  Now (just a few years later) hysteria about “cultural appropriation” is widespread on the left, and indeed is being taught in public schools all across the country.

Never assume that just because something seems outlandish it won’t eventually become conventional wisdom.  And history shows that it’s the outlandish ideas on the left that are most likely to persist.  The right generally loses these cultural battles, at least in the long run.  Which ought to cause some soul searching on the right.