After reading Patrick Goldstein’s Los Angeles Times piece Five Years Later: Pop Culture of Denial, I started to wonder what was the right reaction for the entertainment world to the September 11th attacks?
I’m generally sympathetic to the arguments of behavioral economists, who want to broaden economics in efforts to account for humankind’s irrationality, defined as its failure to always maximize utility and make choices that will lead to the most bountiful outcomes. But while reading John Cassidy’s New Yorker story about neuroeconomics I found myself resisting the whole rational/irrational paradigm, which suddenly seemed impoverished. Suddenly the general humility of economics seemed much more appealing than the hubris of the neuroscientists who seem on the verge of suggesting we neutralize certain lobes of our cerebral cortex to make ourselves more “rationally” profit-seeking or to snort oxytocin (a hormone which induces loving feelings toward others) to make ourselves more trusting and therefore more economically efficient in commercial contexts. Rather than respect the different kinds of decision-making processes humans have adapted, it sounds as though some of these econo-scientists would like to modify people so they fit the traditional homo economicus models more comfortably. It seems better to amend the models or limit their applicability than to force humankind to exhibit the remorseless efficiency they presume. By the end of the article Cassidy is citing economist David Laibson pitching a dualistic model that mimics the Cartesian mind-body split: “The modified theories to which Laibson referred assume that people have two warring sides: the first deliberative and forward-looking, the second impulsive and myopic. Under certain circumstances, the impulsive side prevails, and people succumb to things like drug addiction, overeating, and taking wild gambles in the stock market.” If this is so, I wonder whether these sides would have a consistent, predictable influence on the other, or whether they might not work simultaneously and independently. One can overeat while plotting an extremely rational stock portfolio. And a certain amount of pleasure derives from avoiding decisions altogether, from surrendering, from refusing to calculate, from inertia or expediency—Cassidy himself notes he made decisions that were expedient when the machine measuring his brainwaves began to make him claustrophobic. At some point it becomes rational to be irrational; irrationality is not merely a consequence of emotions inappropriately obtruding.
My somewhat paranoid concerns about forced rationalism grew strongest when Cassidy discussed “asymmetric paternalism”:
Reforming 401(k) plans is an example of “asymmetric paternalism,” a new political philosophy based on the idea of saving people from the vagaries of their limbic regions. Warning labels on tobacco and potentially harmful foods are similarly intended to keep subcortical structures in check. Neuroeconomists have suggested additional policies, including warning buyers of lottery tickets that their chances of winning are practically nonexistent and imposing mandatory “cooling off” periods before people make big-ticket purchases, such as cars and boats. “Asymmetric paternalism helps those whose rationality is bounded from making a costly mistake and harms more rational folks very little,” Camerer, Loewenstein, and three colleagues wrote in a 2003 issue of the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. “Such policies should appeal to everyone across the political spectrum.”
You don’t have to work for the Cato Institute to find this dubious. None of these specific policy prescriptions seem problematic, but the logic behind them is worrisome. Some people can’t be trusted to act in their own interest—but who defines what that is, and by what criteria? Who gets to say what a rational person “should” do? Who get sto decide which reasons for acting are “bad” or “wrong”? Here, neuroeconomists fall back on the definition of profit/utility maximization as a defintion of rationality. You can see how this rationality, enforced by paternalistic measures, could easily become a prison, the bureaucratic nightmare Adorno evokes in his critique of Enlightenment positivism. It’s like using an ad to advertise the idea that paying attention to ads is harmful—these kind of measures are designed to bring people “back” to their senses while reinforcing the idea that the there’s no need to return since common sense and rationality are already being retrofitted into the options society presents them. The underlying assumption of asymmetric paternalism is that people are sheep, with no strong reasons for doing what they do, so they may as well be encouraged/forced to do what can be deemed most beneficial socially.
Cassidy quotes Laibson on the nature of this paternalism “The practical implications of the experiment come from obtaining a better understanding of the human taste for instant gratification,” Laibson said. “If we can understand that, we will be in a much better position to design policies that mitigate what can be self-defeating behavior.” I’m not going to make the arguement that “self-defeating” is a contradiction in terms, as some economists sometimes seem to imply (if every choice by definition reveals a preference, then how can you choose what doesn’t suit your own wishes without being coerced?)—but who’s to say what is “self-defeating” and in what circumstances? What sort of policy could cover all the exceptions? Time has a different value to different people in different circumstances—influencing that value is what exploiting convenience is all about. The taste for instant gratification may be impulsive or may be a matter of what an indivdual considers timely—it seems foolish to, say, buy an BluRay DVD player right now, but if you derive all sorts of satisfaction from being the first on the block to have one, you can’t afford to have your gratification delayed. And it seems dumb to buy lottery tickets, but they are licenses for invaluable fantasy for some. So what may seem like poor decision-making to us could just be part of the plan. There’s no sure way of accounting for other people’s notions of utility.
If we are going to institute some of these measures, I’d rather they be sold not as something for my own good but something that is for the social good—you will be defaulted to save in a 401 (k) because it will help prevent sociey from having to support you when you are old and destitute, or spare society the sight of your suffering. You will be discouraged from smoking, because your smoke poisons others and because society doesn’t want to bear the burden of your medical costs. And so on. Leave people with the illusions that they know what is best for themselves and encourage the notion that everyone will be making sacrifices for the common good—this seems better, ideologically speaking, than having the state work to maximize outcomes for individuals.
A side note: I’m a bit puzzled by the ultimatum game:
A good way to illustrate Cohen’s point is to imagine that you and a stranger are sitting on a park bench, when an economist approaches and offers both of you ten dollars. He asks the stranger to suggest how the ten dollars should be divided, and he gives you the right to approve or reject the division. If you accept the stranger’s proposal, the money will be divided between you accordingly; if you refuse it, neither of you gets anything.
How would you react to this situation, which economists refer to as an “ultimatum game,” because one player effectively gives the other an ultimatum? Game theorists say that you should accept any positive offer you receive, even one as low as a dollar, or you will end up with nothing. But most people reject offers of less than three dollars, and some turn down anything less than five dollars.
It seems to me that this game sets up a reference group of you and the other person that makes invidious comparison inevitable. Thus as the other person gets richer, you get poorer by comparison. It seems perfectly rational from that point of view to demand an even split, or have neither of you gain anything. Only by imagining a fictitious reference group—i.e. not the person you are in the game with but people you are theoretically comparable with—can you make the game theorists’ rational choice. Rationality ends up depending on a rich, healthy imagination.
Here are a few old treats we thought you’d enjoy now that Sam Moore is back in the spotlight with his new CD, Overnight Sensational. Even the poor sound quality on the “Hold On, I’m Coming” video can’t disguise the magnificence of one of the greatest voices of the 20th century. Enjoy the brilliance that is Sam Moore, even if the new record isn’t quite up to his normal lofty levels.
Sam and Dave—“When Something is Wrong With My Baby” [Live in 1965, backed by Booker T and the MGs]
Sam & Dave—“Hold On, I’m Coming” [Live, 1967]
Sam Moore—“I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” [Live on Later with Jools Holland, 2001]
Feel that nip in the air, that sudden surge of icy cold callousness? In case you’re wondering—no, it’s not the first signs of Fall. Instead, it’s the remnants of the reality that Hell has just frozen over. Today is the day when all the pontifications and declarations of artistic privilege, the ownership of myth and the control of motion pictures was tossed in the trash by one George Walton Lucas Jr. That’s right, today is the day when he finally makes the original versions of his Star Wars trilogy available to the public in their initial, unaltered form. No Greedo shooting first. No CGI Jabba bargaining with Han Solo. No modernized space battles. And no damn Hayden ‘Anakin Skywalker’ Christiansen substituting for Sebastian Shaw. Granted, you have to pick up copies of those disgraceful fidgeted over Special Editions to get your hands on these long sought after cinematic Holy Grails, and the tech specs supposedly leave a lot to be desired. Yet none of that matters as this is a day that will live on in entertainment infamy. All other releases scheduled might as well pack up and call it a day. Geek nation will be abuzz about these discs for at least a couple of weeks—that is, until they learn of the massive mega box set proposed for the franchise’s 30th anniversary. Oh George, you devil. Here’s the rundown on SE&L’s DVD selections of interest for 12 September:
Beavis and Butthead Do America: 10th Anniversary Collector’s Edition
In a clear case of a double dip that was well worth the wait, everyone’s favorite heavy metal morons finally get their only feature film perfectly pimped out. On this new edition you will find creator Mike Judge offering up his considered commentary on the brain-addled buffoons rise to stardom, the superstar-laded cast (including turns by then husband and wife Bruce Willis and Demi Moore) and his battles with Paramount over content and comedy. With his latest big screen effort, the literally discarded Idiocracy slowly fading from view, here’s a chance to see the talented writer/director successfully translate his small screen acumen to a big screen setting.
Lucky Number Slevin
It’s time for ‘90s movie mentor Quentin Tarantino to pick up another rip-off royalty check. In this supposedly slick and wholly superficial crime drama, Josh Harnett is Slevin Kelevra (yes, you read that name right) who suddenly finds himself smack dab in the middle of a mob war between bosses Ben Kingsley and Morgan Freeman. Yeesh! While some critics haven’t cared for the combination of purposefully dense dialogue and overstylized cinematics, those who can’t get enough of Mr. Pulp Fiction’s flailing stepchildren have cottoned to its cold, considered craftsmanship. Until QT steps up with another film, Slevin just might support your hard-boiled habit.
Stars Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope; Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back; Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
It’s gotten awfully hard to write about these films without getting incredibly miffed over the man behind their creation. It is safe to say that no other filmmaker in the blockbuster era has simultaneously sullied and solidified his legacy more stridently than George Lucas. His decision to make prequels to these beloved sci-fi films aside, his efforts behind the camera—championing advances in CGI and digital technology, his efforts at film preservation and protection—have been countered by his unswerving desire to constantly tinker with the movies that built his empire. Granted, all three of the original Star Wars films are dated, their effects marred by the limits of the era and the imagination within said restrictions.
That being said, there is something so homey about the original Star Wars films, a kind of handmade artistry that’s literally destroyed by all the post-millennial post production. What many makers of speculative fiction films fail to remember is that any futuristic fable better be rooted in some manner of recognizable reality. Thousand story buildings, ships the size of planets and unusual extraterrestrials fail to resonate because they move beyond the scope of our spatial logic and plausible perspective. That’s why the prequels feel so false—they offer up so much eye candy that our conceivability ends up diabetic.
The fact is, the real reasons fans have been clamoring for these titles has very little to do with a rejection of the reduxes, or a desire to restrict Lucas in his vision or creative capabilities. No, preserving and presenting the original Star Wars films the way they were initially released to theaters allows for the connections created previously to find a permanent home. The basis for why fans and filmmakers alike criticized the colorization of classic black and white films rests solely on this premise. In their newfangled form, the experiences one associated with those timeless monochrome movies were inalienably altered by the introduction of a formerly unknown element. Revisionism is only for rectification, not resale value. Lucas should remember it’s not about money, but memories.
Taps: Special Edition
Taps has a strange cinematic legacy. Few today remember that this was the highly tauted follow-up to Timothy Hutton’s Oscar winning turn in the still amazing Ordinary People. Fresh from said success, Hutton headlined a cast of up and comers including Tom Cruise, Sean Penn and Giancarlo Esposito. Today, his work is mostly forgotten—as well as that of Onion Field/Sea of Love director Harold Becker. Here’s hoping this new Special Edition DVD release (replacing a bare bones title from four years ago) restores Hutton and Becker back to prominence. The truth is, aside from Penn, the work of all the other now known names is rather minor at best.
When Disney dumped 2D animation (only to have newly installed boss John “Pixar” Lassiter insist its coming back) many wondered what the outcome would be. The House of Mouse used to excel at the anthropomorphic animal idea, but with Dreamworks’ similarly storied Madagascar hitting the theaters several months ahead of this offering, the juvenile jones for said material was already sated. Proving that no one does redundant and repetitive better than Uncle Walt’s narrative factory, The Wild borrows liberally from past animated classics like The Lion King, and the cartoon canon of Chuck Jones. Strictly for the wee ones, or the easily amused adult.
In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 12 September:
Linda Lovelace for President
Deluded into believing there was more to her stardom than a certain sexual proclivity, Linda Susan Boreman—a.k.a. Linda Lovelace—thought her fame was on the rise, when in reality it was as tenuous as the rest of the ‘70s porno chic gimmick. By the time she made this brazen bid for mainstream comedy acceptance (albeit in an R rated softcore format), the tide was already turning against the mainstreaming of XXX icons. In this pathetic political farce, Linda plays a Presidential candidate who stumps as much as she shtups along the campaign trail, running into an oddball collection of concerned citizens including Mickey Dolenz, Scatman Crothers, Marty Ingels and Joe E. Ross. Foolishly, Lovelace assumed that this movie would launch her legitimate film career. All it did was guarantee her ‘80s slide into sexual sour grapes.
I just returned from lunch and witnessed a fashion shoot on Fifth Avenue. The model stiffened herself in the wind, looking like a bodybuilder in the impressive and palpable strain it required for her to hold her pose, her long legs like reeds that refused to bend in the breeze. She was like a strange statue that suddenly had been deposited in front of my office; she had a marble blankness of expression. The photographer was on one knee, pointing his camera up at her, to make her even more monumental. But tourists were staging guerilla shoots of their own, taking any number of snapshots of her from whatever angle was most convenient to them. Most of them wanted to get the photographer in their shot as well, to perhaps prove that they had manage to stumble behind the scenes. I wanted to wait around and see the model deobjectify herself, see her snap out of whatever it was she had done to herself. But it was taking too long, and I had to get back to work.
Yesterday, before seeing a truly dismal slog of a film, Sherrybaby—acting for the sake of acting, squalor and dysfunction as “realism”—we had burgers at a trendy burger joint tucked into the lobby of the Parker Meridien hotel on 57th Street. The line can go slow, and grew even slower when the Austrailian tourist in front of me, in the midst of ordering for her and her six friends, realized that she had forgot to mention some topping for one of the burgers and had to start over again, and again. Thus prompted the cashier to apparently stage an impromptu work slowdown. Some well-dressed media types were in line behind us, and one of them went to save a booth, a few feet away, for their group. Then, after a few moments, I see the woman waving her arms in the air to her friends in line. “Hey,” she says, “I’m calling you.” She was using her cell phone to call someone who was standing five feet away, someone so close that the sound of her voice was louder than phone’s ringtone. They proceeded to have a conversations on the phone, while making eye contact with each other. It was the craziest thing I had ever seen. No wonder so many stadiums are named for telecom companies; they must have money to burn with customers like these. This seemed to prove that at some point gadgets begin to dictate your behavior over and above what may have once seemed like common sense. It’s not exactly path dependence, but something related, whereby one justifies some technology by finding the least useful, most ostentatious ways, and then gets trapped in these usage patterns. This may explain in part an otherwise puzzling (but rather cheering) item in The Economist about cell-phone use on flights. Americans hate the idea:
When America’s telecoms regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, requested public comments on in-flight calling, it received thousands of mostly negative responses. “Please no. No,” read one response. “I object to this in the strongest terms. I can’t believe you are even considering it.” America’s airlines seem to share this lack of enthusiasm for the idea. Both United and Delta say their customers do not want it.
But airlines may introduce it anyway, because people will use the service whether they really want it or not. Part of this apparent inconsistency would stem from egoism: There’s always a perfectly good reason to have to take a call oneself, but other people’s chattering is inexcusable. Part of it is probably an unwillingness to admit in a survey that one has given up on that basic standard of politeness: respecting the existence of the other people one shares space with. But some of it would derive from a compulsion to do something simply because one can. The article suggests that airlines may introduce the cell-phone service simply to have the chance to charge more for tickets in cabins that prohibited it. What a great idea—get a captive audience and subject them to nuisances that they must then pay to avoid. Why not have shrieking noise come standard with your airfare and invite preferred customers to pay more for silence? When cell phone users become nuisances, the best way to beat them seems to be to join them, so one talker would likely beget several dozen more. In that cacophony one will be able to hear the sounds of the social order tearing apart.