Sunday, April 29, 2012

Simplest argument for central banks to target money income

The economic school that Lars Christensen named market monetarism, and whose blogging doyen is Scott Sumner, argues that monetary policy should be based on targeting NGDP (nominal GDP, GDP in money terms).

It is based on the equation MV = Py (= NGDP):

Money supply x Velocity  = Price level x output.

Nick Rowe has advanced three clever arguments for monetary policy targeting NGDP here.

The simplest argument I can think of for NGDP targeting is that people have expectations about their future income and the future (average swap) value of money. The worst thing one can do, for the level of economic activity, is to make people nervous about their future income but confident in the future value of money. For then they will hold onto their money, depressing the level of economic activity. Which then reinforces poor income-expectations, and so the pattern continues. (The higher the level of current indebtedness, so the higher existing claims on people’s income, the more this will be so.)

Thus monetary policy that provides an anchor for income expectations (by targeting NGDP) both avoids that danger and still provides some anchor for price expectations, since they will be bounded by the income expectations. (Given that prices will rise by no more than the gap between income and output.)

Conversely, providing an anchor only for price expectations provides no anchor for income expectations and runs the risk of exacerbating any fall in transactions as money supply, and so income, follows output down. Hence inflation targeting is inferior to income targeting.

Or, to put it another way, what matters to people is not merely prices, but prices x transactions (i.e. income). The purpose of money is to facilitate transactions. If you worry only about the (average swap) value of money you can end up frustrating the use of money to facilitate transactions. And a monetary policy that frustrates the use of money to facilitate transactions is not doing its proper job; worse, it can thereby cause considerable social harm by driving down the level of economic activity.

ADDENDA  Inflation expectations in the US are very low.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Taxation is not (necessarily) theft

This is based on a comment I made here. (It is a little bit of a work in progress, as I have updated it over the course of the day.)

That taxation is coercion does not mean that taxation is theft.  Taxes as a compulsory levy to enjoy more expansive use of one's property rights does not make much sense as a notion of theft if it leaves people better off. In other words, if it enhances one enjoyment of various rights, it is hardly a violation of them. Taxation is then part of a compulsory exchange (taxes for services, notably protection) rather than merely a taking. All those folk who are not anarcho-capitalists subscribe to some version of this view.

Of course, it is possible for taxation to be theft, if it is merely for the gain of a ruler and his or her agents without any commensurate benefits. But, while that may be true in part (and historically almost always was, in part), it is almost never true in whole because it is in the interests of a ruler to provide certain protections in order to both gain more revenue and enjoy more benefits from existing revenue. And the longer the time horizon of the ruler, the more true that tends to be. (Which is a benefit for hereditary rule over more uncertain forms of autocracy.)

Whenever there is collective action, there is politics in the weak sense. If one or more agents habitually defer to another, you have domination. But rulership proper rests on the existence of the compulsory exchange of taxation. If it is not an exchange, if it is merely a taking, then it is banditry; but see previous comments about ruler incentives. After all, the perception of some compensating benefit reduces enforcement costs.

Of course taxes can fund violation of rights. And interest politics is about makimising the returns of the compulsory exchange for you or some group you belong to. While normative politics is about maxismising the overall net benefits from the compulsory exchange. But if you do not understand that taxes are usually part of an exchange, for entirely rational reasons, however compulsory, you do not understand the nature of taxes.

We are stuck with the paradox of politics: we need the state to protect us against social predators but the state itself is the most dangerous of social predators. This is a paradox that can never be resolved (for reasons which I discuss here), only managed more or less well.

Friday, April 27, 2012

About infrastructure

This is based on a comment I made here.

Infrastructure (roads, power, water, rail, ports, airports) is typically a network good or a hub for networks. As such they provide benefits that are not necessarily captured by the network provider. Hence, private providers are likely to underprovide infrastructure. Indeed, infrastructure provision was a major feature of government expenditure up to around the middle of the C20th.

A notable long-term trend in public policy is that the state was better at infrastructure when it was not trying to do quite so much. The problem is, at least in part, that, with the huge expansion in government income support from the 1960s on, infrastructure is also competing with welfare, education, health and related spending much more than it used to.

Another wrinkle is that the rise of permit raj's in land use in the second half of the C20th undermine a fundamental incentive to publicly provide infrastructure. Much of the point of the state providing infrastructure is that (unlike the private sector) it can gain revenue from increased land value and production: it can tax the positive externalities infrastructure provides. Unfortunately, a much cheaper and easier way to generate increased land tax, etc revenue is simply to engage in land rationing (Krugman's Zoned Zone) and reap higher land/property/capital taxes. (And, not coincidentally, makes developers a great source of political donations.) This both raises the cost of infrastructure (by driving up land prices) and lowers the incentive to provide it.

Add in "infrastructure is evil" environmentalism, which turns NIMBY (not in my backyard) into BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone) and you have factors undermining infrastructure provision that are at least as important as any push for privatisation.

On which point, there is a long history of infrastructure provision wavering back and forth between public and private provision, depending on which set of policy pathologies have been most saliently problematic in the preceding period. Many countries have gone through a period when public provision/production pathologies were most salient, hence the swing to private provision, including of infrastructure.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

About Austrian economics

I find Steve Horwitz, along with George Selgin (prominent advocate of free banking and supporter of a productivity norm [pdf] for monetary policy), the most accessible of contemporary Austrian school economists as they are both clear writers who seek to engage with those who are not of their school and are refreshingly free of the nastiness that so many Austrian school commentators seem prone to. (Little, if any, of what I have to say in the following applies to Selgin and some applies to general tendencies in Austrian commentary rather than Horwitz.)*

 Horwitz has written a very useful paper on Hayek and Keynes’ different understanding of capital. Points that strike me reading the paper, and particularly Horwitz’s presentation of the Hayekian/Austrian concept of capital, include: (1) The Austrian view of capital is over-impressed by differentiation, as when Horwitz writes:
What is central for the Austrian theory is that capital is not homogenous; capital goods are not perfect substitutes for one another. Any given good can only serve in a limited number of production plans, and it is not possible to create any given production plan out of any capital goods. Goods are not infinitely substitutable, and not all goods have the requisite complementarity necessary to be part of any particular production plan. This emphasis on the “heterogeneity” of capital distinguishes Austrian capital theory from many of its predecessors, especially those, most obviously Knight's “Crusonia plant” or Solows “shmoo,” that viewed capital as a homogenous fund of resources from which equally useful “ladles” could be applied to any production process
Yes, once resources are allocated to specific capital, they are difficult to shift to other uses. Nevertheless, the ongoing process of allocating resources to creating capital is important in its own right. Capital is not homogeneous (neither is labour; something which seems to figure rather less in Austrian analysis) but there is enough flow of resources in an economy that heterogeneity is not all there is to grapple with.

 (2) Thus, there is, in the Austrian approach, a somewhat “frozen” view of capital: that it can be difficult to reallocate, does not make it impossible. As Horwitz notes later in the paper, the loss of value in capital no longer allocated to its original use measures how difficult but not impossible it is. Conversely, heterogeneity of labour would suggest that labour markets also have adjustment delays and constraints, which sits rather poorly with Austrian confidence in fully flexible wages if there were no regulatory interventions.

 (3) At the same time, there is a perfectionist view of markets, that there is a “correct” arrangement of capital. As when Horwitz writes:
... the capital structure and the process of monetary calculation that drives it is the fundamental coordinating process of the market economy. Fitting those pieces together as correctly as possible, in response to knowledge and incentives produced by the pleasurable and unpleasureable beeps of profit and loss, is what ensures ongoing economic coordination and growth.
Yes, profit and loss direct resources to more valuable uses, but the notion of a single “correct” outcome glides over a whole lot of issues about incentives, constraints, information flows, etc. Yes, the “pieces” have to fit together, but they are constantly being created and replaced, with a fair bit of “good enough” going on because of various constraints, varied incentives, information asymmetries, etc.

 (4) The emphasis on the role of money in economic calculation is somewhat one-sided, as when Horwitz writes:
What guides this process of plan formation, deconstruction, and reconstruction is monetary calculation. In a market economy where capital goods have money prices, those prices enable entrepreneurs to prospectively formulate budgets and retrospectively calculate profits and losses. Budgets based on those prices are what enable entrepreneurs to decide which capital goods will effectively serve as complements in an integrated production plan. After that plan has been executed, profits and losses signal owners of capital whether or not the plan was successful, which enables them to decide whether the uses of capital were, in fact, sufficiently complementary to continue. If not, then the money prices of other capital goods provide the information necessary to engage in another round of calculation and budgeting to see what sorts of capital goods might serve as substitutes for pieces of the failed plan.
Yes, the various “swap values” of money (for goods and services) matter, but what entrepreneurs are really interested in is expected income; that is, price x transactions. It is not that there is no concept of demand/expected income in the Austrian analysis, it is that, at crucial points in the argument, price is emphasized to the extent that transaction levels, and so income expectations, disappear from view. (David Beckworth has a nice post connecting collapsing transaction levels, and so income expectations, as reported by business survey respondents, with the economic downturn in the US; or, to put it another way, it’s the level of transactions,... .) Price is not a perfectly flexible lever; particularly given the different time scales between stages of production, to use Austrian language, and constraints in labour markets.

 (5) Following on from (4), the fundamental role of money in an economy is to facilitate transactions, including across time. The typical Austrian emphasis on money-for-calculation, and presumption of state monopolies as over-suppliers of money, leads to an obsession with inflation and the risk of hyperinflation. (Hence my comment that an internet Austrian is someone who has predicted 10 of the last 0 bouts of hyperinflation.) As a matter of historical fact, deflation (and unexpected disinflation) can be much more destructive of economic activity than inflation. Both inflation and deflation interfere with money as a means of economic calculation, but deflation (and unexpected disinflation) also drives down income/economic activity, which makes is much more destructive. But the Austrian view of business cycles is so focused on finding reasons for busts in the previous booms (those money over-supplying central banks) that it, in effect, blames the effects of deflation on previous inflation. Yet inflation and deflation are equally monetary phenomena, one is not causally dominant over the other. 

[Read the rest at Skepticlawyer or at Critical Thinking Applied.]

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Suffer the little children: the burden of culture

A description of what confronted a Commonwealth officer in the Northern Territory during the Pacific War (1941-5), when thousands of service personnel passed through the Northern Territory:
… once you introduced a European or Asian father any child of that liaison had any rights as an Aboriginal extinguished at birth. They were not classed as Aboriginal people by the Aborigines …
… the Aboriginal midwives were well aware of the problems that could exist through a woman have a half cast[e] child and in this respect particularly in the Centre where Aboriginal children were born over a hole in the ground where a fire had been lit and when the child was born green leaves were thrown on the first so the child was smoked at birth. Also if the child was of light colour the Aboriginal midwives just grabbed a handful of ashes out of the fire and placed it over the nose and mouth of the child so that the child didn’t live. The child was then taken away from the camp area and buried 99% of the time under a small ant hill. This was just levered up with a yam stick and the body placed underneath and then put back in place and the area swept so that no one could tell where it was or anything else.

The author apparently made two attempts to give evidence to Sir Ronald Wilson’s Bring Them Home enquiry, and was both times refused. (Like the report’s use of the word ‘genocide’, Sir Ronald later publicly admitted that was a mistake.)

While the narrative of celebrity achievement is a universal exception, as an Older and Wiser friend of mine has pointed out, there are two permitted narratives about indigenous Australians among what Judith Brett calls ‘the moral middle class’: victims or Noble Savages. Which narrative does the above fit? And if neither, why is there anything morally righteous about writing those nameless, culturally euthanized children out of history?

Fetishising indigenous cultures is not remotely the same as understanding them. And, without understanding, what is moral judgement worth? Indeed, what is moral about wilful blindness?

Forager constraints

Hunter-gatherer desert cultures have to deal with an enormously constricting environment. There has to be a brutal pragmatism about such cultures if those who live according to their precepts are going to survive from generation to generation; let alone for thousands, indeed tens of thousands, of years.

Hunter-gatherer—that is foraging—cultures have to control fertility: a control which has to all the more strict the more constraining the surrounding environment is. Children are burdens, having to be carried and fed, to be taken on with due care.
A process whereby young girls are married to older men, and their widows are married to young men, transfers knowledge between the generations, commits the younger to support the older, and keeps fertility rates down. It is functional in an environment where not being functional means starvation.

Strictly controlling who can marry whom provides genetic protection, embeds children in a protective network and binds folk together in known patterns. Cultural selection when the non-functional means starvation selects brutally for what works.

Mixed parentage children had no place and no place means an unsupportable burden. The rules that led to the above behaviour make perfect sense under the constraints of desert foraging. Twins, for example, would be culled for the same reason.

Of course, even in the 1940s, those constraints no longer operated. But the culture had not yet shifted. It did later; once non-Aboriginal partners were seen as not-forbidden, instead of not-permitted, mixed-parentage children became much more acceptable.

The culture fetish

But this is where the fetishing of culture comes in. Cultural practices and outlooks that make perfect sense under the constraints of desert foraging make none at all in a society of industrial (or even post-industrial) prosperity. If the welfare of indigenous Australians is the measure, then their cultures must change. If fetishising them as noble savages with morally pristine cultures is what folk are about, then dysfunction is an embarrassing reality which indigenous Australians-as-victims can be invoked to hide from.

[Read the rest at Skepticlawyer.]

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

An ambiguity in production functions

I had never given much thought to production functions, a standard way for economists to formalise thinking about production, until a rather frustrating discussion with commenter Martin on Scott Sumner's Money Illusion blog provoked me into thinking about them a bit more and I came to realise there is an ambiguity in production functions. Or, at least, an easy way to be misled about them.

The standard production function is the Cobb-Douglas production function:


▪ Y = total production (the monetary value of all goods produced in a year)
▪ L = labor input
▪ K = capital input
▪ A = total factor productivity
α and β are the output elasticities of labor and capital, respectively: values that are constants determined by available technology.

The ambiguity is what do we mean by input? It is easy to think of the input as, for example, machinery (capital) and workers (labour). But that is not true. You can have all the machinery and workers you like, but if they are not actually doing anything, there is no production.

The inputs are the using of the machinery and the labour: the capital and labour services. Measuring total amounts of capital and labour available may tell us something about total production capacity, but they do not tell us anything about actual production. The function itself is about use, not capacity.

And the using of the capital and labour involves all sorts of extra complexities. How efficiently are they being used? How well allocated are they? What incentives to use them efficiently are operating? What information flows are operating? What risks are being generated? How are they being managed? Yes, total factor productivity (A) (aka the Solow residual) is part of the function but, as Wikipedia correctly says, the Solow residual “is a question rather than an answer”.

In running a firm, having the capital and labour is merely the first step. The difficult bits are in directing and managing their effective use. Which is then an iterative process, as capacity is accumulated or dispensed with according to what comes out of said use. Nor, as Yoram Barzel points out, can the boundaries of a firm be captured by a production function. Firms engage in all sorts of activities that are not merely applying labour to capital for some specific output.

One cannot produce something from nothing; but merely having something, merely having capital and labour, does not tell us what is produced, how well and to what value. Hence the failure of “just add capacity” (typically capital) analyses of, and policies for, economic growth.

Production functions are not independent of institutional frameworks, they are deeply and profoundly embedded in them. But if one is misled into thinking production functions are about capacity, rather than use of such capacity, it is easy to be misled about that.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Suffer the little children: the burden of God

Just when I thought I had a full grasp of the moral depravity that is suicide bombing, another level of horror is revealed. Al Qaeda’s preferred target group for recruiting suicide bomber is—orphans.

As one Pakistani political activist writes:
We have observed that most of the suicides bombers are orphans who are less than 17 years old. These vulnerable children are being used as the main tool for terrorism.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi Interior Ministry has announced that:
Al-Qaeda has over the past two years used 24 children to carry out suicide bombings in Iraq, the director of military operations for the Interior Ministry, Abdelaziz Mohammed Jasim, told pan-Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat.
In Somalia, a 13 year old orphan reports on how he was recruited to be a suicide bomber.

Adoption vacuum
Sharia increases the opportunity for jihadis to recruit orphans because it has usually been interpreted to bar adoptions (though a form of guardianship, or khalat, is permitted). Without adoption as an alternative in most Muslim countries, there is a larger pool of vulnerable recruitment targets in orphanages for al Qaeda and its ilk to recruit as self-activating bombs.

It is not surprising that Sharia should be resistant to adoption. Sharia arose in a society where lineage was crucial: the role of daughters was to breed sons for the lineage (hence the propensity for cousin marriage, so they “breed in”). If there is no living parent, a child’s status as “asset” for the lineage is much weakened. And permitting adoption would open up the risk that they become “assets” to another lineage. (As ever, Philip Carl Salzman’s analysis is a necessary starting point for understanding the social dynamics of Islam’s home region.)

There is a push to re-interpret Sharia to permit adoption, part of the general tension between Islam and modernity which has done so much to shape the contemporary jihadi outlook. (Which is not to say that jihadis are merely some modern phenomenon; it has been a recurring feature of Islam that it produces violent “purification” movements—after all, what was the Prophet himself after he took over Medina if not the leader of a violent religious purification movement?)

Use of orphans as a potential political asset is not unique to al-Qaeda. It was widely rumoured that the Romanian Ceaușescu tyranny sought to recruit orphans as loyal secret police operatives. Though not strictly orphans, the Kim dynasty that owns North Korea uses its illegitimate progeny in a similar fashion.

To use orphans as suicidal military assets is, however, rather more distinctively a jihadi activity. Iran used children en masse during its war with Iraq (which makes the regime’s current public angst about plummeting fertility grimly ironic). Child fighters have been a feature in Africa’s horrors and the Tamil Tigers used both child fighters and suicide bombers. But to specifically target orphans for recruitment—indeed, as your preferred source of suicide-bombers—seems a new, vile twist.

But we come back to the point about lineage. Orphans are cut off from family: this makes them both more vulnerable to recruitment and means they come with fewer entanglements. Being no lineage’s “asset”, their loss has fewer social resonances.

Loving death
Of course, part of the horror of using orphans is precisely their vulnerability. The Somali lad telling of how his jihadi recruiter/mentor offered him purpose and love missing from his life is repellent reading. The horror from so using children comes from the violation of innocence and the sense of life thrown away so early. But that assumes one loves and reveres life. This is not a feature of the jihadis.

[Read the rest at Skepticlawyer or at Critical Thinking Applied.]

Friday, April 13, 2012

Trust, network and framings

Scott Sumner and Noah Smith have been having an argument about China and culture. Scott's original post was here, Noah replied, Scott replied to that. This is a comment I posted on both blogs.

My general working principle is that culture-as-explanation is the last refuge of the analytically bereft.

The success of the overseas Chinese in SE Asia can largely be explained by trust and networks. (Think Jews in the diamond trade.) You get linked dialect or even common-ancestral-village networks where reputation information flows very speedily. In a situation where the default attitude of rulers to commerce was to fleece it, and the general environment was low trust, networks of trust extending across rulerships had strong advantages. Their success was also more acceptable because it was not threatening to local rulers (Chinese could not aspire to political office).

One sign of this is that the overseas Chinese are not nearly as economically important in high trust societies. The overseas Chinese do fine in Australia, but not extraordinary in the way they do in SE Asia.

(Michael Backman wrote a report for DFAT's East Asia Analytical Unit years ago Overseas Chinese Business Networks in Asia which covered this.)

Chinese culture has been agrarian, with cities and commerce for a long time. The necessary framings are built into people's outlooks.

Which is the point where I will concede culture matters. Folk coming from a hunter-gatherer culture lack the relevant framings and have real difficulties adjusting to modern commercial-industrial life.

Deepak Lal's division of culture into its material and cosmological aspects (pdf) (short summary here) captures this element (and why language groups can seem to matter: they come with attached framings).

What you call 'culture' I tag as trust, networks, and framings. More analytically tractable.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

We love Joss Whedon

Because of this.

There is also Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Serenity. (Dollhouse, not so much.)

I have a particular soft spot for Serenity. Not merely because it is a fine SF film, but because it such a fine anti-utopian film. Mal's speech [spoiler alert] is a great moment:
Somebody has to speak for these people.
As sure as I know anything, I know this. They will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten, they will swing back to the belief that they can make people better. And I do not hold to that.
In one of the special features in the Australian release of the DVD, Joss Whedon says of the film that it explores:
where the Utopian vision stops. Because whenever you create some kind of Utopia you find something ugly working underneath it.
Utopianism is always evil, because it is always a war against people as they are in the name of people as they should allegedly be; it is alway an assault on the core of being human. The utopian aim justifies utter unscrupulousness (because the goal is so wonderful and noble that any means are justified), utter arrogance (because the anointed just know how things should be while any resistance just proves how benighted and inadequate such folk are) and complete control (since otherwise how is one going to be able to remake folk who, as inferior versions who fail to realise their own inferiority, obviously shouldn't get a say). It is hardly surprising that the utopian urge has left nothing but misery and disaster in its wake.

Joss's anti-utopian realism creates a coherent moral structure for the plot of Serenity, with all those themes working out and driving the story. That actions have consequences, that the dark in the human soul is real, are two guiding principles of his art. (Hence his anti-utopianism.) But he also creates vivid characters, great stories and sparkling dialogue.

Joss is even great in what he inspires, as in the classic Buffy versus Edward. (Because real vampires don't sparkle: yes, that was completely gratuitous Spike action. Here's more, from the classic Once More With Feeling, the Buffy-the-Musical episode. I am also fond of the Angel puppet episode Smile Time. Which gives us yet more gratuitous Spike action. Because we love Joss because he is willing to go there, and pull it off.)

But we come back to where we came in, loving Joss Whedon because of this.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Monday, April 9, 2012

Not a free speech issue

If a private publication sacks a writer because they do not wish to be associated with his declared opinions, this is not a free speech issue. It is a branding issue, it is an employment issue, but it is not a free speech issue.

This is particularly true of a publication that is explicitly ideological in its role. (Using ‘ideological’ in its most general sense of having an explicit normative view of the world.)

The publication in question is the National Review, the premier magazine of American conservatism founded by the doyen of postwar conservative movement writers and activists William F. Buckley Jnr.

The author who was sacked was expatriate British journalist and writer John Derbyshire. He was sacked for this article in Taki’s Magazine.

If Derbyshire were to be prosecuted for publishing the article, that would indeed be a free speech issue. But National Review deciding that it does not wish to be associated with particular opinions, that is a matter of branding, of ideological identity, not free speech (as is, for example, being claimed here).

Colour awkward
The politics of race are endlessly fraught in the US and deciding that American conservatives are ipso facto racist is a common conceit among American liberals (using 'liberal' in its peculiar American usage) and folk further left. (That sometimes reaches the level of deciding that conservative support for black figures, such as Condi Rice, Justice Thomas or Herman Cain, is itself a manifestation of racism.) Without getting into the history of American conservatism and race, there are certainly historical reasons why the National Review might have some sensitivity on such matters.

There are also generational shifts. Younger conservative activists are post-civil rights folk. They accept civil rights as a positive feature of American history and a usually very against revisiting opposition to civil rights: young conservtive bloggers actively campaigned against Senate Majority leader Trent Lott after his implicit endorsement of Strom Thurmond’s opposition to civil rights, which led to Sen. Lott’s resignation as Senate Majority Leader.

Either way, the National Review’s decision makes perfect sense. Particularly when leading the ideological assault on a serving black President.

Probability wrong
So, what’s wrong with Derbyshire’s article?

A pretty standard thing: a statistical tendency is not a defining characteristic. It is perfectly true that the homicide rate among black Americans is much higher than it is among other Americans. This is primarily a problem for other black Americans.

It is true that more American whites are murdered by blacks than blacks are murdered by whites. But if a minority group has a much higher homicide rate than a much larger group, it is to be expected that more members of the majority will be murdered by members of the minority than vice versa.

So, Derbyshire has a point then? No, Derbyshire is a statistical illiterate. The chances of any particular black person being a perpetrator of homicide is extremely low. A propensity to violence is not a defining, or even a likely, characteristic of any given black person; particularly a black person who is not young and male. But even a young male black is far more likely to be no risk than high risk. (Their high incarceration rate has everything to do with the insane war on drugs—the systematic, and grievously failed, attempt to deny people dominion over their own bodies—very little to do with any tendency to violence.) Indeed, young black males are far more likely to be the victim of homicide than a perpetrator any white person is.

Even if one accepts a genetic explanation for higher rates of hyper-aggressiveness in African and African-migrant populations, it is still not a likely characteristic of any given African or person of African descent. (Yes, I know we are all ultimately of African descent; I mean descended from folk who were not part of the prehistoric out-of-Africa diasporas.) It is Derbyshire citing averages, when the issue is likelihoods, that demonstrates his statistical malfeasance.

Focusing on someone’s blackness is not focusing on a risky characteristic. It is actually very bad advice to give a young person.

Which is another reason for National Review to sack Derbyshire.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer and at Critical Thinking Applied.]

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Conan: a lament

I wanted to like the latest Conan film. I loved Robert Howard's original stories, I enjoyed the Milius-Schwarzenegger film. Watching Jason Momoa with his shirt off beating up bad guys was something I wanted to do.

But the actual film was a serious disappointment. Rewatching it recently (yes, I bought the DVD -- it has Jason Momoa with shirt off, even gratutious butt shot), I tried to work out what went wrong. The actors are fine, the production values are fine, the action sequences work.

The problem is the writing. It is utterly pedestrian. There are no memorable lines. The 1982 film had a series of memorable dialogue sequences:
Crom is your God ...
... This you can trust ...
... What is best in life? ...
... There comes a time when the gold loses its lustre, when jewels no longer glitter ...
... I am the wellspring from which you flow ...
... Flesh is strong ...

By comparison, I live, I love, I slay and I am content is the best the latest version can manage. There is also no humour. Pedestrian, monotonal writing creates a story you just don't care about much. No matter how energetic the hero, winsome the heroine, disturbing the witch-daughter or ruthless the villain--a villain that has neither mystery nor pathos. He loves his dead wife, but this is just a floating fact, with no emotional engagement. There is nothing remotely emotionally challenging or engaging about the villain, so you just don't care.

This is not Stephen Lang's fault, it is the material he has to work with. What makes Magneto such a great villain is you get where he is coming from, and it has emotional resonance. Lord Blackwood has mystery and menace. Loki is coping with one damn thing after another (and an insufferable bigger brother). (And he's Loki, he just has to go there.) Thulsa Doom had grandeur and manipulative emotional depravity.

Stephen Lang's Khalar Zym is given so little emotional resonance to work with, I had to look up the name of his character. If the villain is an emotional dead zone, so is the film.

In welcome contrast, John Carter of Mars is a wonderful action romp; an excellent adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs's original Mars books. The one significant change is, where in the original books John Carter falls asleep on Earth and wakes up on Mars, and this is never explained, the film not only provides an explanation but turns it into a major plot feature. And we get Mark Strong as a villain, always a plus.

I gather the critics have not been kind: but they generally don't get genre anyway. John Carter is a film worth seeing on the big screen.

ADDENDA: Conan was a financial flop at the box office. John Carter is doing significantly better at the box office.

Prince of Persia did much, much better at the box office than Conan: how John Carter ends up is not yet clear, though IMDB users rated John Carter the better film than Prince of Persia.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Blatant internet plug

My brother's wife sells t-shirts made from hemp and organic cotton. I can testify that they are very comfortable.

She also makes great kimchi, but only for family and invited guests :)