Friday, May 27, 2011

Converting Mamet: My Views Included, Too

David Mamet is one of my favorite writers, in any form, and one of the three or four greatest American playwrights. I own several collections of essays by Mamet and already have The Secret Knowledge on my wish list. Glengarry Glen Ross stands alongside Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams' early works (Plays 1937-1955) as reflections of our aspirations and our failings. If I could sit down and chat with any living writer about the craft, it would be Mamet. And he'd probably say something along the lines of: Tell a good story.

That's why I like Mamet. He tells a good story, without pretense of "art" or blatant appeals to the "MFA elites" of the two coasts. Mamet's characters speak to the audience — and the audience is everyone. The characters speak in harsh, incomplete sentences peppered with profanity. His plays are a mix of passion, anger, and, sometimes, despair. Yet, they are also far enough from "reality" to offer a break from the daily routine. Mamet doesn't aim for realism, he aims to be interesting.

And therein lies the problem for the academics, the "Coast" liberal elites, and the chattering class. Mamet doesn't write for them, even when they read into his works their beliefs. The elite don't like the United States, at least not what they perceive as the ignorant, bigoted, superstitious (religious), sweaty, disgusting masses that keep us from achieving Utopia. Damn those rednecks, grease monkeys, ditch diggers, cowboys, and other morons too dumb to know what's good for them.

Now, David Mamet is coming down on the side of those middle-America workers. He's speaking out, too, about his transformation from politically correct artist to… whatever David Mamet is now. Whatever that is, it isn't a liberal elite anymore. He discussed this transformation, which is explored in The Secret Knowledge, with The Weekly Standard.
Converting Mamet
A playwright’s progress

MAY 23, 2011, VOL. 16, NO. 34
BY ANDREW FERGUSON, The Weekly Standard
It's safe to say most Broadway celebrities, from the stars on stage to the playwrights behind the words (the "book" writers and the librettists), few names would want to be profiled by The Weekly Standard. I'm guessing there are far fewer "non-liberals" behind the boards than in Hollywood. One playwright I know has said, "The more obvious the progressive themes, the more likely you are to win an award. Subtlety won't win awards."

The "conservative" approach to writing is to be as progressive, as far to the "left" as possible. Democratic socialism sells. Be "European" and Utopian. That is the "sure bet" when you want someone to read a script. Only the truly daring writer would attempt to push any story deemed to reflect even the slightest libertarian or (gasp!) conservative values.

Yes, daring is now anything suggesting those silly traditional American notions of individualism, capitalism, and personal responsibility. Any real artist knows life isn't fair and competition is evil. (Obviously no one competes for those little award statues. Right? And no one competes to fill the seats in a theatre, either.)

America the evil. Capitalism the inhume. Religion, outside the New Age and Indigenous Faiths, is ignorant superstition. Corporations are managed by Satan's minions.

What happened when David Mamet decided to challenge the orthodoxy of the arts? He apparently decided there's no better place to challenge the "America Sucks!" attitude than at a major private (and therefore privileged) university. It must have been those American evils that produced a place like Stanford, after all. Mamet entered these hallowed halls of learning to share The Secret Knowledge of life:
His fame was enough to fill the stalls of Memorial Hall at Stanford University when he came to give a talk one evening a couple of years ago.


Higher ed, he said, was an elaborate scheme to deprive young people of their freedom of thought. He compared four years of college to a lab experiment in which a rat is trained to pull a lever for a pellet of food. A student recites some bit of received and unexamined wisdom—“Thomas Jefferson: slave owner, adulterer, pull the lever”—and is rewarded with his pellet: a grade, a degree, and ultimately a lifelong membership in a tribe of people educated to see the world in the same way.

“If we identify every interaction as having a victim and an oppressor, and we get a pellet when we find the victims, we’re training ourselves not to see cause and effect,” he said. Wasn’t there, he went on, a “much more interesting .  .  . view of the world in which not everything can be reduced to victim and oppressor?”
I'm sure there were numerous victims in the audience. After all, the lecture halls of Stanford are filled with victims of American capitalism and traditional values. The university was built by a railroad baron, a captain of industrial exploitation. I'm sure the students and faculty present would never accept the benefits offered to them by the estate of Leland Stanford.

The "unexamined wisdom" is what some professors call "critical thinking" —meaning the students now agree with progressive ideas, so they must be brilliant thinkers. Don't confuse the faculty member in his sandals and white socks with the idea that the university wouldn't exist without capitalism. Or that other great universities were founded to promote religion and traditional values. Don't be absurd! Real ideas are the domain of leftist radicals.

Though he rejects the beatification of victim, this isn't to suggest that Mamet glosses over the failings of power. He doesn't celebrate greed and pettiness, but he also understands the worst of human traits have nothing at all to do with political views or ideals. Humans are, in general, dominated by the worst scoundrels amongst us. That's history and that's our present. Humanity sucks, not America.
Mamet himself has never been a political playwright or a dramatist of ideas, being concerned with earthier themes—how it is, for example, that everyday conflicts compound into catastrophe. His plays were heavy with a tragic view of human interaction. They depicted, as he put it, people doing despicable things to each other, moved by greed or power lust or some nameless craving.
Of course, critics and scholars have always tried to assign political views to Mamet — as they do most creative artists. But, as I admitted earlier, most playwrights and other artists are leftists. The problem is, they are public leftists, private capitalists. Playwrights, in particular, talk of their art as being a political act. Is it really? Or is the political a marketing tool?
The Secret Knowledge begins with a parricide—a verbal throat-slitting of the leftwing playwright Bertolt Brecht, father to three generations of dramatists, especially those who, like Tony Kushner or Anna Deavere Smith or Christopher Durang, make agitprop the primary purpose of their art. For most of his career Mamet revered Brecht too: It was the thing to do. The reverence came to an end when he finally noticed an incongruity between Brecht’s politics and his life. Although a cold-blooded—indeed bloody-minded—advocate for public ownership of the means of production and state confiscation of private wealth, he always took care to copyright his plays. More, he made sure the royalties were deposited in a Swiss bank account far from the clutches of East Germany, where he was nominally a citizen.

“His protestations [against capitalism] were not borne out by his actions, nor could they be,” Mamet writes. “Why, then, did he profess Communism? Because it sold. .  .  . The public’s endorsement of his plays kept him alive; as Marx was kept alive by the fortune Engels’s family had made selling furniture; as universities, established and funded by the Free Enterprise system .  .  . support and coddle generations of the young in their dissertations on the evils of America.”
I know it's hard to believe: artists engage in marketing. (Shhhh. Don't let the secret out.) Yes, we often write and create those works that will… sell. If I don't sell my works, I don't have income. If I don't have income, I can't treat myself to all those high-end products that good progressives love as status symbols. The irony of shopping for organic food, eating at over-priced "natural" restaurants, and driving hybrids that require batteries more toxic than Love Canal: spending more money than other people to prove you don't care about earning money? That's logical.

But, one does have to be part of the artistic, intellectual tribe to be successful. The contradictions are ignored, because they'd be painful to admit. Then again, Mamet seems to thrive on painful emotional situations.
And then Mamet thought some more, and looked in the mirror.

“I never questioned my tribal assumption that Capitalism was bad,” he writes now, “although I, simultaneously, never acted upon these feelings.” He was always happy to cash a royalty check and made sure to insist on a licensing fee. “I supported myself, as do all those not on the government dole, through the operation of the Free Market.”

He saw he was Talking Left and Living Right, a condition common among American liberals, particularly the wealthy among them, who can, for instance, want to impose diversity requirements on private companies while living in monochromatic neighborhoods, or vote against school vouchers while sending their kids to prep school, or shelter their income while advocating higher tax rates. The widening gap between liberal politics and liberal life became real to him when, paradoxically enough, he decided at last to write a political play, or rather a play about politics. It was the first time he thought about partisan politics for any sustained period.
Glad I don't have this problem of Talking Left and Living Right. I admit I'm an entrepreneurial capitalist. I want to create things and ideas. I then want to sell my creations — for as much money as I can within the marketplace. And when I have money, I am going to do with it what I want. I'll probably give a fair amount to causes I support (how liberal of me!), but I want to determine which charities and why. I'm going to pick "winners and losers" — just like Stanford, Carnegie, and Getty did.

Why do I want control? Because government is run by people. Those same lousy Homo sapiens that run businesses or hide amongst the clergy. Mamet knows people are flawed, so why trust them any more in government than in some other organization? Mamet is from Chicago. I never understood Big Government Liberals™ from Chicago or New York City. Hello? Do you know your cities' histories? Well, Mamet does… and he knows government is all about power.
The belief that government is essentially a con job run by con artists comes naturally to Chicagoans. In Chicago, where Mamet was born not long after the Second World War, the natives simply assumed that politicians were in the game to enlarge their own power—which was fine, so long as everyone else got his piece too: a ham at Christmas, a fixed parking ticket, a job in the Department of Sanitation for a dipso brother-in-law. For Mamet this bit of innate Chicago wisdom has only been reinforced in Santa Monica, the leftwing, paradisiacal community where he has lived since 2003. It’s the same game in Santa Monica as in Chicago, except with an unappetizing lacquer of self-regarding piety from the pols. Not long after moving to the city, Mamet undertook his first foray into civic activism, when the City Council revived a 60-year-old ordinance and tried to force Mamet and his neighbors to cut the hedges around their homes, in accordance with a newly articulated “public right to the viewership of private property.”
David Mamet is now a heretic. He's challenging the assumptions underlying most theatre since the mid-nineteenth century: theatre should promote Utopian socialism in its various forms. From "Workers' Theatre" in 1920 Germany to the "Teatreo de La Raza"in 1970 Los Angeles, theatre troupes have been home to idealistic leftists. At least until the street theatre stars become real stars with million dollar homes in Malibu.
After reading The Secret Knowledge in galleys, the Fox News host and writer Greg Gutfeld invented the David Mamet Attack Countdown Clock, which “monitors the days until a once-glorified liberal artist is dismissed as an untalented buffoon.” Tick tock.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Why Politicians Should Read Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel laureate in economics, and a behavioral psychologist by trade. His specialty is "hedonics" — which is a fancy way of stating that he wonders what makes us happy (and sad) as humans. If you believe that economics is often the pursuit of happiness or pleasure, you can immediately see the importance of Kahneman's research.

Many of us find "pleasure" (emotional reward) in obtaining a perceived bargain, according to Kahneman and other researchers. Unfortunately, what we perceive as a bargain isn't always so. I've known "coupon clippers" who would buy items for "half price" — but these were items they'd never normally purchase. Our reward impulse is not logical and reasonable because it is an impulse, not careful consideration of the variables involved.

Economists used to believe in the "rational consumer" and the "rational seller." Both are statistically accurate in the macro, but at the micro level these theories are flawed. We see the limits of rational thought in economic bubbles, but we also see them in simple bargain hunting.

Kahneman found that people will make an effort to purchase a $15 item on sale for $10. The math is simple and the percentage obvious: "Save 30%!" That sounds impressive and it is if the $5 is not offset by the higher costs of attainment, such as driving a greater distance for the sale price.

But, we don't make the same effort when a $150 item is on sale for $140. After all, the saving is "only" 7%. We don't perceive the savings of $10 as being more than the $5 savings — even though it clearly is more savings in raw dollars. A truly rational consumer would seek out the $10 savings more than the $5 savings. So why don't we feel the same "pleasure" from the greater savings?

The simple answer is something I heard satirist Willie Geist state on CNBC: "People think they understand piecharts. They don't get graphs with all those lines and numbers. Big 3D piecharts, like USA Today prints, are simple."

There you have it. We understand percentages. Big slice of pie versus small slice of pie. The actual size of the pie? We don't instinctively recognize the importance of context. Saving a third of pie? That's impressive. Saving three fortieths? Incomprehensible to most people.

Most modern economists are stuck debating models that assume one of two things:
  1. The consumer and seller are rational, generally, and markets will self-regulate over long periods of time despite minor fluctuations.
  2. The market is unfairly biased towards the deceptive seller, and only the government can help ensure the market functions properly.

Neither is entirely true. The government is operated by… people. This means it is as irrational as the marketplace, if not more so. Federal budgets are still spending and allocating resources. Politicians are as flawed as any other consumers. That is why we hear politicians make the mistake of other consumers: "That (whatever) is only a small percentage of the budget." Piechart thinking. Instead of real dollars, politicians slip into the piechart mentality.

Why would government be even less rational than the free market? Because the financial costs are hidden so well from us as individuals. The politicians turn to percentages when convenient, to real dollars when those are more persuasive. You want something to sound expensive, use dollars. You want a program to sound cheap, use percentages or the "per day" cost to each taxpayer. Politicians use lots of games to make us feel better about spending money.

And government cannot regulate business any better than it manages federal expenditures. Why is that? Because the emotional reward of enforcing laws and "protecting the public" is often irrational. We perceive risks poorly, so government ends up spending time and money regulating actions that aren't that costly overall. We reward politicians for making unreasonable, but impulsively appealing, choices.

Too many imagine government is above and beyond human psychology. In the end, a government of men and women is going to have the same organizational behaviors found elsewhere. Idealists wish it were different, but it isn't. Piecharts win, rational thought loses.

I honestly don't know anything of Kahneman's politics, though I should research the matter. I am impressed with his works, which appeal to my notion that we can't easily model markets because human nature is so illogical.

Many behavioral economists and hedonic psychologists are "liberal" or "progressive" — they seek to tailor political messages and actions in ways that appeal to our impulses. For some of us, this raises ethical questions about manipulating others. But, many scholars argue that all human interactions are "manipulation" to achieve desired goals. I don't agree, but the argument is an important one to understand.

Books you might consult on behavior and economics:

My Economic Foundations with Book Links

I am a believer in "behavioral economics," and am convinced human nature is neither rational nor predictable at the individual level. The "Austrian School" of economics, which is closer to my views on economics than any other general school, suggests that mathematical models in economics generally overstate the predictability of humans. I am seldom stunned or shocked when economic predictions are "unexpectedly" off the mark. Too many economists are convinced they conduct "science" when they are closer to the randomness of human psychology. I dislike generalities, but mentioning the Austrian School helps place my views in some context.

Note: I have argued and will continue to argue too many "sciences" should have some other label. It would be best to simply call these disciplines "studies" than sciences. Economics is one such field. I love it, but is it science? Not like physics is a science. One reason the Austrian School is considered "on the fringe" today is because it admits to uncertainty.

Like most influenced by the Austrian School, I do not reject all modeling, economic pattern theories, and statistically based research. It is a mistaken assumption to dismiss modern economists with Austrian foundations as "non-scientific" if by that you want to imply a lack of intellectual discipline. To date even the best "scientific models" of economic behavior have demonstrated fallibility. Sadly, too many politicians, economists, and social theorists have a misplaced faith in economics.

It is convenient for "mainstream" economists to dismiss Austrian theorists as "unscientific" — a clear insult — instead of addressing the underlying arguments of libertarian-leaning economics. Economists on the left and right pretend to scientific certainty, a conceit or self-deception that leads government economists to make some of the most outlandish forecasts (predictions), which inevitably are off the mark.

Again, I do not pretend to be a purist wedded to any one school of thought. Economics is too complex to believe there is one true predictor of economic patterns and overall systems. But, if you are reading this blog you will find I am not a Keynesian. I'm much closer to Friedrich Hayek. You won't find purity on this blog, but you will always find a defense of freedom and choice.

If you haven't read Hayek, you should. I also suggest reading Ludwig Heinrich Edler von Mises' works (Socialism, in particular). Then again, I believe in reading everything you can so you can appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of various economic theorists. You cannot understand modern economists without reading Keynes or Milton Friedman, for example, two opposites whose theories have shaped modern governmental policies. Though I don't respect him as much as I once did, you must also read Paul Krugman if you want to understand economics and politics in the United States.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Conservatives 'Give' Lower Grades? Nonsense!

Today, on Inside Higher Ed, I read the following nonsense disguised as a meaningful study:
Red Grader, Blue Grader
May 20, 2011
Republican professors and Democratic professors presumably produce different outcomes when they enter the ballot box, but what about when they record grades?

A forthcoming study finds that there may be notable differences. Democratic professors appear to be "more egalitarian" than their Republican counterparts when it comes to grading, meaning that more of the Democratic grades are in the middle. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to award very high grades and very low grades.

Another key difference is that black students tend to fare better with Democrats than with Republicans.
This is utter and complete nonsense for a simple reason: the professors do not teach the same types of subjects. Numerous studies, including the one reporting these results, have found that self-identified "liberals" dominate the humanities, while "conservatives" and "libertarians" are more likely to teach in business, health care, and engineering fields.

As Inside Higher Ed acknowledges:
Party registrations were used to identify professors' political inclinations, and the faculty at this university leaned Democratic, especially among humanities professors.
I'm sorry, but grading in the humanities is not the same as grading in the sciences or business courses. Business, science, and engineering majors are more likely to take "objective" tests -- math exams are not essays about your feelings. Imagine a computer science teacher considering the "difficult background" (as one of my colleagues describes it) of minority students. Oh, wait, computer science is all about math and understanding empirical test results when executing code or a chip design. Computers don't care about your family history, no matter how inspiring your story might be.

From a 2007 post, I wrote:

I'm sick of being told I'm not a liberal because I'm somehow from an inferior background. Even if that's not how it is intended, that is precisely the sense one gets reading "The Social and Political Views of American Professors," a draft paper by Neil Gross (Harvard) and Solon Simmons (George Mason). The paper is an example of why a libertarian, who does not fit neatly into a stupid five-point scale, is left feeling like a rebel.

On page 26 of this paper, we have the following table:

Political orientation (percentages)
Extremely Liberal9.4
Slightly Liberal18.1
Middle of the Road18.0
Slightly Conservative10.5
Very Conservative1.2

This scale alone tells me nothing. And the authors' assertions that there are more "moderates" in academia than radicals doesn't account for the many professors I know who imagine themselves "centrists" but are liberal by my standards. Self-identification is, to be blunt, generally useless unless you are only concerned with self-perceptions and not actual societal implications.
Only 19.7 percent of respondents identify themselves as any shade of conservative, as compared to 62.2 percent who identify themselves as any shade of liberal. By contrast, the last time this question was asked on the ANES survey, 31.9 percent of respondents in the general population identified themselves as any shade of conservative, while 23.3 percent identified themselves as any shade of liberal.
Then again, the authors argue that professors are somehow better at self-identity. Sure enough, on page 34 of the report we read a quote from a 1976 study, "[P]rofessors' opinions should be more highly structured and interrelated than those of most groups outside the university" (Ladd and Lipset).

Give me a break! Professors are not better at self-observation and self-awareness. You can find studies revealing just how poor everyone is at self-evaluation, regardless of social class, education, and other factors. I recall a great article I read in Scientific American on the "Egocentric Myths" we create about ourselves. We image everyone is just like us and views the world through our eyes. It's human nature, and I don't think professors are above human nature -- they just think they are.

Where do I fit in the above scale? Nowhere? And I already know that I'm a minority in education, even if I never complete my doctorate.

My anger become more pronounced when I reached page 38 of the study. Using the 2004 elections to measure political views isn't smart: look at the choices. Already, I think using 2004 as a metric is flawed. I know I voted against someone, not for anybody in the last two presidential elections. Here, I quote, with full credit going to these researchers:
What are the social characteristics of those professor who voted for Bush in 2004? Evidencing the fact that the "what's the matter with Kansas" phenomenon (Frank 2005) may be at work inside the university as well as outside of it, the most distinguishing characteristic of academic Bush voters is that they come from lower social class backgrounds on average than do non-Bush voters. [...] But leaving race and ethnicity aside, we find that 39.5 percent of academic Bush voters described their families as having below average incomes when they were 16 years old.... What's more, only 35.9 percent of professors who voted for Bush had fathers who completed a BA degree or higher, as compared to 51.1 percent of professors who did not vote for Bush.
My reading of this: Professors who didn't have to overcome as many barriers are liberal, while those of us who struggled from poverty are more likely to think people should learn to work hard and not depend on the government. Sure, my parents couldn't afford to buy me an Ivy League prep education, with test-preps and tutors. I ended up attending a great private university and two public universities, working hard to do well. I think other people can and should work just as hard.

The reference to Frank's book, What's the Matter with Kansas, is also a bit of liberal nonsense. I won't critique Frank here, but suffice it to say, following his "reasoning" the only logical choice is liberalism. Rich liberals? They have an interest in helping others. Poor conservatives? They need the help. See? Liberalism is the only "reasonable" philosophy. Frank's argument excludes any potential defense of conservative or libertarian values. Sorry, but many of us do believe there are logical and defensible explanations for libertarianism. But, we must not be "smart" according to the elites.

As for the fact few professors are conservative at "Elite, PhD Granting" universities (9.8 percent of faculty), maybe this reflects the biases of these institutions? Maybe people like me don't feel comfortable on the campus of an elite school where we would have few like-minded colleagues. Our views are certainly not going to be popular, so we'd have to prove ourselves several times over to gain acceptance.

On page 40 of this report we read:
The table indicates that self-identified Marxists are rare in academe today. The highest proportion of Marxist academics can be found in the social sciences, and there they represent less than 18 percent of all professors (among the social science fields for which we can issue discipline-specific estimates, sociology contains the most Marxists, at 25.5 percent). In the humanities and social sciences, about one quarter of professors consider themselves radicals or activists.
Wait, let me emphasize this: "Marxists are rare… less than 18 percent" in one discipline — and up to 25 percent of sociologists at elite schools! I'm sorry, but when nearly 1 out of 5 are Marxists, they aren't rare. You won't find a libertarian teaching "Marxist-feminist critical theories of media." Not going to happen.

But then why are there more conservatives at community colleges and non-elite schools? Because we can survive in those places where the basics still reign supreme, where Marxism isn't dominant in the humanities. We find ourselves at universities and colleges where we can teach and not try to deal with political atmospheres that are, by their nature, fighting our very core beliefs.

Of course, academic research continues to insult "Republicans" because that's one way to prove you belong among the elite. Group think wins again.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Office of Management and Budget Employees to Push to Unionize - Political Punch

This is a bad idea on just too many levels:

Office of Management and Budget Employees to Push to Unionize - Political Punch
Asked for comment, Kenneth Baer, OMB communications director, told ABC News that the Obama administration “is a strong supporter of the right of workers to organize. It is up to the people working at any bargaining unit to decide if they want to join a union or not. Whatever the decision of these employees may be, we are committed to working together to serve the President and the American people.”
Public sector unions are unlike unions in private industry. Union employees would be analyzing federal expenditures, which often involve unionized employees. The potential conflicts are numerous. Federal unions donate to political campaigns, electing the very men and women the unions then "bargain" with -- not a good system. At the turn of the last century, New York state had to limit the power of New York City politicians because union bosses and politicians had created a patronage system.

We're building a new, equally foul, patronage system. Don't pretend politicians supported by unions won't try to cater to those same unions.

Federal civil service law offers numerous protections most union contracts don't guarantee. What issues are leading the increased move to unionize federal workers? Normal competitive pressures do not exist in government.

I'm a member of two unions and will probably join a third within the next few years. But, these unions negotiate in private, competitive industries. Also, I'm not in a standard step-and-ladder compensation system: I am paid based on the demand for my work.