16 July 2011

James Marsh's "Project Nim"

James Marsh's new documentary, Project Nim, sensibly takes as a settled matter that the efforts to teach the chimpanzee known as "Nim Chimpsky" to sign did not result in evidence that chimpanzees could generate sentences or otherwise had much in the way of linguistic ability.  That's not what the film is about, though it makes this point in passing.

It is, though, a fascinating film.  And for me, it resonated with last year's must-see, Inside Job.  Both films document the prominence of the social and behavioral sciences in "our society" -- which I might specifiy, albeit inelegantly, as mass society with a dominant (if now tottering) professional-managerial class.

In any event, that professional-managerial class has attained and continues to attain its status through education, and as a result, it has provided material support for both higher education and a variety of research activities over the last century or more, roughly-speaking.

In this regard, one important thing about these two movies  -- "Inside Job" and "Project Nim" -- is that they give quite honest accounts of two disciplines that have thrived in this higher education and research complex (economics and psychology), and the verdict, based on these movies, is that both look really bad.  It is not just the ethical lapses and rationaliations thereof -- which in both films are cringe-inducing -- but, even more fundamentally, the evidence the movies give us that the supposed experts in these fields have surprisingly little expertise.

For my part, I welcome these films and plan to teach them.

13 July 2011

Why Republican Leadership is Getting the Willies

The Republican "establishment" is flailing around in search of some way to raise the debt ceiling, given the refusal of rank-and-file Republicans in the House to vote for any increase in it unless they get a significiant reduction in the federal deficit without any increases in tax revenues (which is to say, unless they get a significant reduction in the federal government, or more precisely the non-military aspect of the federal government).

We thus have Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell offering an absurdly convoluted plan to let the President raise the debt ceiling on his own, along with a NY Times op-ed piece advocating raising the debt ceiling authored by a politcal crony of George W. Bush.  (In an earler and less partisan era, we would have been presented with a photo-op of former presidents, "from both parties," lined up at the White House to express their unanimous support for raising the debt ceiling).

But why, in any case, are "establishment" figures in the Republican Party now fleeing from the position of the Republican caucus in the House? -- and fleeing from what is now, unquestionably, the views of the electoral base of their own Party?

Has McConnell suddenly developed a concern to make good policy, rather than score political points? 

Far more likely is that "friends" of his at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- or at the Business Roundtable -- have made a call to him and made clear that they find unaccpetable the prospect of default.

This is to say that McConnell and his ilk are really caught between a rock and a hard place at this point; or more precisely, they are caught between their voters and those who are their puppet-masters.

The Un-Noted, or The Policy Option Progressives Should Put on the Table in the Debt Ceiling Debacle

David Leonard, in today's NY Times, has a deceptively straight-forward piece about the debate over the debt ceiling, in which he states that the US cannot (i) maintain its social welfare programs, (ii) continue to have the world's biggest military, and (iii) also have distinctly low rates of taxation.  Something among those three, he tells us, has to give.

What's important about Leonard's essay is that he recognizes that there is a trade-off among these three elements--military spending, social welfare spending, and taxation--and not just the latter two.

By contrast, the negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders in recent weeks, and the public debate as well, have proceeded as if the trade-off is only between social welfare spending and taxation--with there being almost no mention of military spending.

Thus, even as Democrats in Congress have protested against any cuts in social security and medicaire as part of a deficit reduction plan, they have failed to put cuts in military-spending on the table.  They have failed, in short, to argue that we can and should reduce the deficit by shrinking the United States's over-sized military.  That--along with a more progressive tax system--is what progressives should be championing as the path forward.

That substantial cuts to the military budget have not even been on the table in these negotiations reminds us again how sacrosanct U.S. militarism has become--and how frightened Democrats are of ever appearing insufficiently hawkish.