Atlas Shrugged: Part 1

I'm about to click on the first half of Atlas Shrugged in Netflix.  I don't know how long I'm going to make it into this movie, from what I've seen in commercials it looks like it's going to be unforgivably preachy.  But I'm also curious. It starts following a train in 2016, so, there's an optimistic view of the future of government oppression -- more public transportation.  We're out of gas and oil, so the trains are apparently a last resort.  But I'm betting the message of this movie isn't going to be "Trains are awesome."  In fact, one ends up derailing, apparently, right at the beginning because the tracks aren't maintained.

I was under the impression that the plot of this movie was supposed to be about government incompetence, but what it looks like is everyone-incompetence.  It's corporations responsible for the poorly maintained railroads.

It looks like the hero of this movie is a woman who proudly doesn't care about people, and the bad guy -- at least, the first bad guy we see -- is an executive who tries to avoid servicing monopolies and puts effort into areas outside his own backyard.  Pointedly, Miss Taggart, the heroic sociopath, is saving the day by going to a metallurgist who faces widespread criticism for his awful metal, who himself throws away appointment requests with people in a position to evaluate his work, on the basis that she studied engineering in college and is therefore qualified to decide that the metal is secretly perfect.

Reardon, the metal salesman, heroically squeezes as much money from her crisis as possible, and she explains that she doesn't have any emotions again.  He also heroically forgets his wedding anniversary.  He had already bought her a gift, though.  To celebrate the fact that he has a contract for his country.

I've gotten pretty sick of this, so I've decided to skip ahead.  I'm watching a YouTube video of a reading of the section of Atlas Shrugged everyone talks about -- the John Galt rant.

So... The point of this rant sounds like "Some of the rich people are the lynch-pins of the whole civilization, and without them everything falls apart."  And they're "On strike."

This ten-minute video cuts off in a way that suggests to me that it's not the whole rant.  But, if I may attempt to summarize:

(a.)  Popular morality is inherently destructive to civilization.  (b.)  The main premise of popular morality is 'people should be nice to each other, to the exclusion of themselves.'  (c.)  The alternative to popular morality is being rational, and (d.)  Rationality is inherently anti-kindness-to-others.

This argument sounds good, because all of its premises are really close to reasonable premises.  For example, take these alternate terms:  (a.) There are systems of morality that are destructive to civilization, (b.) One of the flaws these systems feature is an impulse of self-destruction in pursuit of others' welfare, (c.) We must therefore evaluate our moral systems through rational methods, and (d.) Reason doesn't come pre-loaded with any moral answers.

The conclusion of the first set of premises is "Everyone should be super-selfish, but think more than two hours into the future while doing so."  The doctrine of rational self-interest that is the main pillar of Ayn Rand's Objectivism.  The problem with that conclusion is that it argues there is a predetermined moral premise, that one should maximize one's material self-interest as determined by a zero-sum accounting of all the stuff that happens to exist at the time you're thinking this through.

The sort of similar, but much less overreaching, conclusion of the second set of premises is "A moral system that (a.) is interested in maximizing well-being for people, and (b.) is applicable to any given person who wants to pursue morality, should not have an actively negative effect on the well-being of its practitioners."  This doesn't fall into the same hole as the rational self-interest argument does, because it leaves the moral assumptions as they are -- assumptions that are outside the realm of reason -- but it doesn't therefore conclude "Thinking about morality is nonsense and no-one should do it."

Rand conflates acting against one's self-interest and acting in a way that serves the interests of anyone else.  It's obviously not inherently true, and fortunately it's also not true in real life, that there's nothing people can do that can improve both their own lives and the lives of other people.

I'd like to make it clear here, before I post this, that my point is that Ayn Rand is wrong; not that the inverse of Ayn Rand's philosophy is right, or that the philosophies she was arguing against are right.

So, this got away a little bit from watching part 1 of Atlas Shrugged.  But that movie kind of made me feel nauseous.  So, there's that.

Texas woman has two sets of identical twins at once; CNN covers

I started watching CNN while I was having breakfast today, because there wasn't anything good saved on my DVR and I didn't want to watch Kitchen Nightmares.  I don't see much non-fictional-script based TV apart from Fox, which is what my parents watch, so I didn't realize how disappointing the institutions Fox imitates are.

The story

It was actually a pretty cool story, so I want to start with that.  A woman in Texas had a set of fraternal twins who both divided into identical twins, resulting in four children.  They named the kids alphabetically by birth order, Ace, Blaine, Cash and Dylan, and thematically after Las Vegas, in keeping with their two year old son, Memphis.

The birth-order naming scheme sounds to me like a recipe for insecurity and conflict, but I can't reasoonably claim to be sure about that.

About CNN's coverage of the story

My major criticism of this story comes from this section, similarly expressed in the video clip:

Identical twins result when a fertilized egg splits into two embryos. Twins occur in about 2% of all pregnancies, according to the University of Pennsylvania Health System. Of those, 30% are identical twins.

The odds of having two sets of twins at once is about 1 in 70 million, Dr. Alan Penzias, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School, told ABC News. Attempts by CNN to reach Penzias on Tuesday were not immediately successful.

I think there might be some sort of selection bias in the kinds of doctors who talk to the press.

Obviously, 1 in 70 million is a number that guy pulled out of his ass, unless ABC just did some back-of-an-envelope math based on the true things he said.  If we take the numbers he listed, and assume that the events: having fraternal twins, one twin splitting, and the other twin splitting, are all entirely separate events, with no related causes at all, then you do get odds close to 1 in 70 million.

If, for one obvious example, the event that caused one zygote to split was the same event that caused the other zygote to split, the odds are closer to 1 in 10 thousand.

Here are those numbers next to each other, in monospace, so you can see how big a difference there is:

70,000,000
10,000

The actual odds, insofar as they could possibly be established, is probably somewhere between those two.  Those odds are also kind of a pointless thing to report on, but if they must, they could at least aim for a more critical approach to statistics.

That story was followed up with a blatantly prejudicial teaser titled "Michael Jackson's Son Gets a Job," then a commercial by a mother who said her kids hated her before she got her teeth whitened.

About CNN

News organizations set the standard for the quality of discussion in the community they serve.  That's why it pisses me off that CNN is failing this badly.  It shouldn't be easy to spot obviously misleading or false information in any given story I'm not an expert in, but it is.  I was writing more than I was paying attention in the next few stories, but it was clear I didn't just get lucky -- CNN clearly sets a very low standard, to the point that I think they're actually stigmatizing critical thought and complex evaluation.

I hear the argument that TV-based informational content is inherently reductionistic and trivializing, but there are hundreds of examples to the contrary -- examples where creators make it clear when they're simplifying,  examples where they clearly, fully explain the relevant context, examples where humor is used sensibly in relation to the content, so it doesn't obscure the points.  Those examples are all from the last week, and they're all from YouTube channels that get these poitns right consistently.

Granted, those are all on YouTube.  But I don't think you can seriously argue that there's anything inherent about network news that makes it impossible to do what people on YouTube do, some of them in their free time.  What you can argue is that there are economic forces preventing them from moving on past their decade or two of mistakes.

I think the appropriate response to that is for good journalists to abandon the industry.  Maybe we can talk Google into offering more grants for professional journalism on YouTube?

The easy narrative vs. the complex reality of America's financial issues, in short

(via Wil Wheaton) In his NY Times blog, Paul Krugman writes:

OK, joking aside, this is important. Republicans have invented a history in which it has been fiscal irresponsibility all along — and far too many centrists have bought into the premise. The reality is that we had low debt and no fiscal problem before Reagan; then an unprecedented surge in peacetime, non-depression deficits under Reagan/Bush; then a major improvement under Clinton; then a squandering of the Clinton surplus via tax cuts and unfunded wars of choice under Bush. And yes, a surge in debt once the Great Recession hit, but that’s exactly when you should be running deficits.

The point about the fake history that expunges the Clinton years is that it turns the budget into a story in which nobody is at fault because everyone is at fault, and the problem is a generic issue of runaway spending. No, it isn’t; we would have come into this crisis with very little debt if the GOP hadn’t always insisted on tax cuts.

"The People's Bailout"

I've seen this mentioned a few times, but I've only just gotten around to checking out what it is, via Cory Doctorow on Boing Boing.  It turns out, you can buy up outstanding debts -- this is what debt collectors do (I guess the idea is the original company figures they aren't getting paid, so they cut their losses selling the debt at a massive discount).  Those debt collectors, in David Rees's words, "hound debtors to their grave trying to collect." The People's Bailout is a variety show that's taking place this November in New York, raising money from the Rolling Jubilee, buys debt just like debt collectors, for pennies on the dollar.  That's it.  The debt collectors have a second step, extracting the money from suffering people.  The Rolling Jubilee just buys it up and abolishes it.  The debt goes away, forever.

They explain in a youtube video:

It's my understanding that the economic system we work in requires ever-expanding debt -- money is made, loaned to the government at interest, the government loans it to the people at interest, and the people loan it to each other at interest, and to cover all that accruing interest, we have to print more money...

It seems to me like there has to be some point where we just accept that not all the debts are getting paid -- and this seems like an awesome way to do it.  We can dial back the impact of debt on people's lives, and if we can bring down the costs that get those people into debt in the first place (cheaper education, available food, housing and healthcare, etc.) we can keep the civilization we seem all to want, without creating a self-destructing underclass (and, by extension, a self-destructing civilization.)

These people are on my list for potential future charity debt listings.  I'm looking forward to seeing where this goes.

The Fiscal Cliff

The Washington Post has written about the serious political and economic risk that's coming on January 1st of next year if the American government doesn't do something about it -- their article is called Recession imminent if 'fiscal cliff' on tax hikes, budget cuts not averted, CBO says.  I love the Washington Post's headlines.  They're so rarely insane and hyperbolic. Meanwhile, the rest of the media is calling it Taxmageddon.

In its report Wednesday, the CBO warned that the nation would be plunged into a significant recession during the first half of next year if Congress fails to avert nearly $500 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts set to hit in January.

The massive round of New Year’s belt-tightening — known as the “fiscal cliff” or “Taxmageddon” — would disrupt recent economic progress, push the unemployment rateback up to 9.1 percent by the end of 2013 and produce economic conditions “that will probably be considered a recession,” the nonpartisan CBO said.

This issue was brought up in the comments of this blog, a couple weeks ago.  Commenter 12Centuries responded to my post, Barack Obama's Tax Calculator:

Well this is actually not true. It’s propaganda from a campaign site, and people assume there will be zero bias? The analysis is ignoring many factors. On January 1, (called Taxmageddon in the media, google it) taxes are scheduled to go up for 114 million middle class families by an average of $1,600 when a number of tax cuts expire.

A typical middle class family of four would see its taxes rise by $2,200 on those factors alone.

In addition, EVERY one of the existing income tax brackets will be ratcheted up, starting with the lowest 10% bracket, which will be hiked to 15%. The 25% bracket will jump to 28%; the 28% bracket will go to 31%; the 33% bracket will be replaced by a 36% bracket and the 35% bracket will soar to 39.6%.

On top of all that, the tax calculator on Obama’s website doesn’t take into account a single drop of the new healthcare taxes, as the administration doesn’t consider them to be taxes, although the Supreme Court does, and you’ll still have to pay for them on your tax return.

THAT is accurate. Don’t believe the hype.

Now, that commenter was wrong.  It's not hype or propaganda for a tax calculator which compares two tax plans to present the results based on the assumption that those tax plans are instituted.  She or he did, however, correctly point out that the media is calling it Taxmageddon, and that it will be very bad if it happens.

Personally, I think the responsible thing for the Obama administration to do is to let it happen -- unless Congress is willing to let them pass a sane tax policy.  The economic policies that the Republican party treat as dogma have been proven, for decades, to not work.  It's better for the American people to suffer the short-term problem of their refusal to create a sane spending plan than to cave to their demands, and institute policies that would help sustain the long-term decline of America as a country of significance.