Sunday, November 08, 2009

A Serious Man

I've seen two movies in the last month: Zombieland and A Serious Man. This is pretty unusual for me as tickets are expensive, I am cheap, and movies are for the most part crap. However, these two were not. I liked Zombieland because it showed me how fundamentally American the Zombie myth is. I had previously contemplated how both Into the Wild and There Will Be Blood both were about how the American spirit is fundamentally misanthropic and hermitical. In one, a man hates all other people and wants to surround himself with material wealth to hold them out. In the other, a man hates all other people and wants to run away to be alone with his ideological purity. All America is here for the same thing: whether you are Jamestown or Plymouth, you are here to get away from the crush of Europe and those … people. Zombieland makes this all more literal. Everyone except your close loved ones (nuclear family) is a zombie. We hate our fellow Americans (only a little less than everyone), with a couple of exceptions for famous celebrities (who in turn should view us as a crush of deadly zombies, or else probably die or get zombified). This turns what I've said the Zombie Myth represents: fear of the humanity surrounding us constantly in modern civilization, into a representation of American style misanthropy (which always has exception for the nuclear family or their substitutes: this is the sin of the protagonists of ItW and TWBB that makes those movies tragedies instead of a comedy like Zombieland). I could go on, but this post is about A Serious Man.

Last week's Torah portion ends with the Sacrifice of Isaac. The linked Caravaggio painting was displayed in the climactic scene of the movie in Marshak's office, and it's gives insight to the Coen brother's meaning in this movie. Abraham, though not explicitly, is following the norms of the time in performing child sacrifice. This is something the Coen Brothers would be aware was referenced in the bible a number of times (exactly the sort of thing that sticks like glue to a teenage male mind bored in Hebrew School). His presumed natural urges not to follow through with this, and understanding this was a message from G-d, led him to break with norm, despite what his society told him. He accepted with simplicity the situation and did the simple thing: decided it was nuts and then carved up some ram.

But what does this mean: to "Conduct yourself with Him with simplicity and depend on Him, and do not inquire of the future; rather, accept whatever happens to you with [unadulterated] simplicity," as Rashi comments on Devarim 18:13. As the Coen Brothers see it, it is basically to be somewhat of a petulant child like Danny Gopnik.

This movie is an exhortation to not over-think, and to use your G-d given instincts when not in doubt rather than the advice of society. Danny of course, does this naturally like a child would: he smokes pot and curses (and is not malicious for the most part in his mischief, with the notable exception of stealing money that was already stolen: perhaps a comment on the Arab-Israeli conflict?). As part and parcel to this are two things: Do be appreciative of all that G-d provides, and Don't be too concerned about the consequences because they are unpredictable and usually turn out OK anyway. Be Happy, Don't worry.

Danny of course does this perfectly when he gets high right before he has to perform his aliyah at his Bar Mitzvah. And of course, rather than everything falling apart and going to hell as he stood and didn't do anything, things go kinda ok with somewhat of a bump and no one really notices. Everyone congratulates Larry and assume he takes much nachas from this occasion (and he does).

Similarly, all Larry's fretting over tenure is for naught (probably). Despite the issues going on and the forces aligned against him everything will turn out alright on that account. Indeed, Larry's only joy in the movie comes when he gets high himself while out of control of his primal instincts for other reasons.

Part of the reason that we can't rely on this common wisdom is that other people don't pay enough attention (a theme of Burn After Reading). This is touched upon when Larry goes to the three Rabbis. All three demonstrate great wisdom, yet all three don't tell Larry the things he needs to hear because they don't listen. The first should have told him to reject the situation with his divorce in some way, either get aggressive or try to reconcile. The second should have told him not to pay for the funeral of his wife's (probable) adulterous lover. The third refused to even hear him. But each of the three demonstrates wisdom: the first tells him to appreciate G-d's bounty, the second tells him not to demand answers (i.e. over analyze everything and worry). The third demonstrates that he is a child at heart.

If Danny is the positive role model in the movie, Arthur is the negative role model. Despite his brilliance, he is a shell of a man with no job nor lover nor children. He is a kind of soothsayer or diviner in that he is looking for a “probability map of the universe” to predict the future. This is exactly the prohibition that is discussed before and after the verse Rashi is commenting on in the chosen quote. He also complains, but that is to be expected. Everyone k'vetches, especially when the TV signal is coming in poorly. At the same time, he has much to be thankful for: he is a brilliant man who can mooch off his brother as long as he wants, and instead of being resented for this he is accepted and loved as a member of the family. Now if he could just stop working on his crazy divinations, he could make a good living as a professor.

Other than Danny, the goysha neighbor is also a positive role model in some ways. Though the neighbor's good life is less explicitly portrayed than Danny's, Larry seems to have a longing for the life of his goysha neighbor when he is gazing at them from his back yard or roof, or noticing them coming back from a school day hunting trip. Notably the neighbor is portrayed as wearing the exact same outfit as his son in each scene where they are both visible, and usually doing the same thing as his son is doing. This is symbolic of the child like simplicity of the neighbor. “The line is the poplar!” screw whatever the law books say, that is something a child could understand, no reason to over think it. Whether this is a fair portrayal of the goyim is another story: I have reason to believe that they are more complex but in different ways than Jews, so the complexity is less apparent (I still think we would edge them in raw amount of complex over analysis in any fair comparison, though). I am less sure of it, but the idea of helping others because it couldn't hurt may be partially illustrated by this character in the scene where he backs up Larry while somewhat threateningly handling a monkey wrench during Larry's confrontation with the Korean.

So if the message of the movie is to accept with simplicity what we are presented with, and to ignore the advice of others when contradicted by our instincts because that advice was probably given without proper attentiveness to the particulars of your situation, what light does this shed on the opening scene of the movie? Clearly this means the wife was wrong in following what others told her, both about the existence of dybbuks and the death of Fivesh Finkel's character. While we shouldn't be disappointed with a lack of answers, which G-d does not owe, we sometimes do get an answer after all.

So really the Coen brothers seem to be saying: Be a petulant child; demand F-Troop come in clearly. Sometimes G-d will not be able to accommodate your request, but he is really busy trying to do a whole lot of things, many of which indirectly or directly benefit you. However, sometimes he is able to get around to it if you're persistent. In the mean time, be thankful for all you already have.

Sunday, November 09, 2008


Hope may be the strongest force in the universe; Barak Obama will need a lot of strength because he is the focus of so much of it.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Educational Testing and Foreign Aid

I've been neglecting my blogging for a while now and I'll have more to say about that soon. I just had an idea that I didn't want to escape back to G-d's storehouse, so I am going to jot it down here.

What if we pay foreign aid to a developing country to help fund a program that monetarily rewards young people for good performance on some sort of test on fundamental human capital accumulation, such as a math test or possibly an English test. With enough funding this could potentially become an important source of income for households in the very and ultra poor category, it could help establish a culture of learning and potentially interrupt a cycle of poverty in a developing country.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Spree Killers

The recent spree killing at Virginia Tech has sparked a wave of speculation as to what causes the “recent phenomena” of spree killings, sometimes with reference to school spree killings.

Any such attempt is doomed to failure. The only difference between recent occurrences of spree killings and much earlier occurrences is possibly the ability and willingness of the media to detect and transmit information about them. Ever since humanity has been in the presence of multiple firing small firearms and effective police enforcement, men (and it seems exclusively men, providing strong supporting evidence to a Larry Summers view of sex differences) have resorted to killing sprees due to a combination of frustration, stupidity and insanity.

However, before the invention of effective law enforcement (by which I mean the application of radio technology to the coordination of law enforcement) a potential spree killer could possibly vent his frustration in a violent line of "work". In the late eighteen hundreds a person who may have been a spree killer today could potentially have gotten frustrated, killed a bunch of people, picked up some cash after, then runaway to a potentially long and successful career as a stage coach/ ferry boat/ small town bank robber.

Consider the case of John Filip Nordlund, possibly the earliest case of a modern spree killing. Apparently he was the second to last person to be executed in Sweden. He fits what could be called a “profile” of spree killers (though from my exposition, it should be clear that the idea of a “profile” is ridiculous) in that he was professionally unsuccessful as well as ostracized since childhood. In addition, because he had a reasonable chance at escape he was captured alive, at which point he made statements similar to other spree killers with regard to their motivation: a generalized dislike of society (supposedly he uttered “This was my revenge on humanity!” upon arrest). Also because he had a reasonable chance at escape, his mass murder was structured as a ferry robbery. Because he was a “robber” some may not consider him a true spree killer of the recent type, however this is the mistake made by everyone who considers spree killing the result of modern cultural influences. As the prospect of escape and survival decreased with the increasing effectiveness of law enforcement, some of these criminals were dissuaded because robbery could no longer form the basis of a somewhat stable living, however others who were in robbery simply to indulge a desire to kill may have simply dropped the robbery pretense.

To summarize: spree killers are not a result of any aspect of modern culture. Before the advent of multiple fire firearms, a person could not go on a shooting rampage (obviously). Before the advent of police radio, a spree killer was practically indistinguishable from a robber.

A clear implication of this reasoning is that prohibiting firearms will reduce the occurrence of spree killings. Even so, a more complete weighing of the costs and benefits of such a policy would be necessary, the occurrence of spree killings being an insignificant and negligible factor in all likelihood.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Price Level and International Trade

Dani Rodrik can't quite wrap his head around how international trade reduces inflationary pressure.

Basically he argues that since exporting something means additional demand, doesn't that mean that prices go up?

How can the price level go up form international trade?

It can't. For concreteness, I use Rodrik’s example of Argentina and the US in Beef. International trade causes Argentina to export Beef to the US.

US consumers pay in dollars. Those dollars are exchanged for pesos at some point. If the Argentine Beef producers turn around and buy equal international value of Other Stuff from the US then prices in pesos in Argentina for Other Stuff will fall but Beef will remain the same.

If the Argentine Beef producers try to save it instead of spending it there will be inflation, however this inflation will simply be due to the over-saving of the Beef producers (inflationary investment glut).

If the Argentine Government gives out pesos in exchange for dollars, and then spends those dollars on American goods, the price level in Argentina will rise because the price of Beef rises in pesos and the price of Other Stuff remains the same (assuming the same government domestic consumption). However in this case there exists inflationary fiscal pressure from the government (it is minting currency).

Friday, April 13, 2007

Divided Government Theory of Policy Change

Many people argue that parlimentary systems are able to change policies faster because there is a unified governmental body making decisions (there exists a single "veto player" in the language of Tsebelis).

I think the Iraq surge may be an example of a policy that could possibly be more easily pursued under divided government:

Assume for a moment that both Democrats and Republicans want to pursue a counter-insurgency strategy as recommended heavily by Petraeus and Mattis (and heavily promoted by TPM Barnett). This strategy obviously has heavy political costs; consider point number one:

The more you protect your force, the less secure you are
However, under divided government, it may be possible for both sides of the political spectrum to effectively share blame for these costs while giving up no relative advantage (i.e. since the costs are shared approxiamately equally, no relative loss is incurred).

Under the current trajectory of the policy it seems likely that the Republican executive is attempting get the legislature to sign off on this change in strategy (which in fact really requires no additional troops or legislative invlolvement beyond the status quo) by creating an artificial new circumstance which will require the legislature to make a new choice of exercise of its veto power. By failing to exercise this veto power the legislature could be portrayed as offering tacit support to the policy. It seems that the Republican executive will be successful in forcing this tacit approval since there will be a very public crisis costing Iraqi and possibly American lives (depending on the foolishness of the Republican executive and the responsiveness of the American Public to the deaths of Iraqis) which will only have a short term solution coming from tacit legislative approval of the new strategy.

This was not possible under the Republican unified government of 2005-2007 because it would require the political right to bear sole responsibility for the costs of the new policy.

The key is the abilities of either branch of government to precipitate a crisis that can only be solved by the (non) exercise of the veto power of the other branch. Normally the legislative branch has the upper hand in that it can set the agenda of national discussion by passing bills and sending them up to the white house. This is a case where the opposite is true.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Ed Glaeser and Daron Acemoglu

These are your economists.

And these are your economists on blogs!

Any questions?

Political Appointees

Steven Teles over at the Mark Kleiman blog responded to this post from Sanford Levinson over at the Open University blog. Sanford is arguing that political influence on the bureaucracy is bad, Steve is pointing out that ideological appointees solve a principal agent problem. Steve concludes with this question:

This is, in part, an institutional problem--how do you ensure that the executive branch does not overweight its political strata with ideological hacks?
His answer is that the Senate should ensure a more publicly beneficial balance of ideology and technical expertise. This then begs the same question, reformulated with the addition "and the Senate" after "executive branch".

The real solution is that the degree to which ideology should be isolated from bureaucracy is inversely related to the degree to which you believe the democratic practices in place support the policies which are in the public's best interest.

Of course, any individual's belief in the efficiency of Democracy in supporting the public benefit is likely highly influenced by whether the party currently in power is one more ideologically aligned with their own views.