Archive for the ‘in defense of’ Category

Why can’t everyone have beautiful things?

Unlike other areas of popular arts — film, music, etc. — where the barriers to entry have gotten lower and the price point has allowed for mass enjoyment, high art remains an area locked away in the homes of the rich and tucked into the sterility of the museum.

I can’t get a Rembrandt or a Rauschenberg to hang in my house, or if I did, it would cost a prohibitive sum. Sure, I could get a poster, but it wouldn’t have the depth or interest of the real thing, or even of a decent copy.

Thomas Kinkade was a philanderer, a hypocrite, and a sanctimonious jackass, but certainly if adultery, hypocrisy, and sanctimoniousness disqualify you for being a great artist, we wouldn’t have many to go around. His art, admittedly, was not the finest of anything — mostly the kind of cozy village scene or sun-dappled coastline that all middle Americans wished their communities looked like: equal parts Dickens, Grovers’ Corner, Hudson Valley School, and pastels (good Lord). It’s a particularly retrograde blend of lens flare and over-luminosity that feels to me like watching a JJ Abrams movie … with glaucoma and a pastel palette.

Yet, the art snobs who look at Kinkade with disdain ignore that Kinkade dedicated himself to a market that they had largely ignored — what the 99 percent actually want. Now, to be fair, Kinkade’s pricing system of tiered “limited editions” definitely created the same kinds of pricing and financing schemes that the housing bubble did, where “investors” believed (and still believe) that their paintings’ value will inevitably rise. But like predatory lenders and developers, he was addressing a demand unaddressed by the broader market — Americans wanted beautiful things that they could show off to people who entered their houses, and they wanted to look at beautiful things on a daily basis.

The art world refused to provide that, focusing on the Venetian Bienniale and “big art,” on skyrocketing prices for Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons and their titillating ilk. Much of the great art since the Renaissance was founded on a clientele of the small businessman and the petit bourgeois, from the local merchants who commissioned Dutch masters to paint their portraits to the tiny collectors dotted across Provence who picked up Cezannes and Van Goghs. Today, the art world has returned to the Renaissance-era patron, the super-client rather than the myriad horde.

Matt Yglesias has a schtick about lower-quality goods in higher-quantity, which raise overall utility and satisfaction. I don’t know if I always buy that argument, but in Kinkade’s case, he was producing an inferior good that was able to reach many more people, the store-brand art that you could enjoy in your home on a regular basis.

Kinkade was no saint, but he highlighted a problem with the way that visual arts in particular conceive of their purpose and their audience. Rembrandt and Warhol had no problem churning out work from a factory to give more product to a yearning populace. Instead, the art world of today is largely frozen in private collections and snooty museums, only occasionally glimpsed by the rest of us. Kinkade gave us art in the shopping mall, art through the mail, art a click away. Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Liechtenstein thought they were making mass art, but it was Kinkade who truly brought it to the masses. For that, he deserves our recognition, even if not our gratitude.

P.S. If you haven’t read the Susan Orlean piece on Kinkade, it’s worth the (long) read.

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OK, this will not be a full-throated defense. Instead, it’s more of a complication of the narrative being pushed by both Democrats and Romney’s Republican rivals. I hate to say that I’m agreeing with Michael Steele here, but I do agree that our moral qualms with Bain Capital and its business may end up implicating a lot of capitalism as a whole. (Unlike Steele, I don’t think this is entirely a bad thing, but let’s start here.)

Bain Capital, Romney’s company, has the M.O. of a lot of private equity firms: they invest in a variety of companies, lay off workers, slim down unprofitable assets, and groom them to be resold.

As with a lot of companies, if they can make more money elsewhere, they will. Capitalism is about making profits for individual companies, and we should expect companies to lay off workers if that makes the more profitable. Industries shift and costs fall elsewhere; that’s just the cost of capitalism. Each entity, acting in its own self-interest, makes decisions that impact the broader web of goods and services. Bain wasn’t playing the system, manipulating currency markets, or performing rent-seeking behaviors per se. Instead, it was just doing what one expects firms to do.

If we don’t like it, we can try to ameliorate these decisions: better education systems, better unemployment benefits, better job retraining, more government jobs to which to shuttle some of these excess workers, etc. We may also build a system that makes companies contribute more to the costs of terminating workers. But the core problem itself — that private equity firms buy up (often failing) businesses, lay off a bunch of workers, and make a profit off of it — is a core problem of capitalism, not just of Mitt Romney.

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After Hank Williams Jr.’s comparison of President Barack Obama to Hitler (which, honestly, was less idiotic than the things he said afterwards to justify it), his contract with ESPN to open Monday Night Football ended. He promptly complained about his First Amendment rights, and was promptly ridiculed by various commentators.

Steve Benen sums up the overall sentiment:

In a statement, Williams said the network stepped on his First Amendment rights, apparently confusing the right to free speech with the right to an ESPN contract.

Yet, this is more complicated than the immediate facts suggest. Consider the response of country music’s establishment to the Dixie Chicks’ famous “ashamed” comments about George W. Bush. There was a massive concerted effort to crush their success, including radio stations that refused to play the Dixie Chicks’ music and assorted boycotts. The Dixie Chicks lost some endorsements, but not their jobs. And yet, the scrutiny and criticism they received definitely chilled the willingness of others to engage in free speech at a time when it was desperately needed.

Obviously, everyone was well within their rights to do this: endorsers had no obligation to sponsor the Dixie Chicks, and consumers had no obligation to buy their product. But employment rights in particular can often be an important hurdle to active political speech, and the fact that at-will termination exists for almost any job for any speech, no matter the content, creates chilling effects on free speech. If your employer can terminate you for your speech or associations outside of the workplace, even if done privately, you probably won’t feel like expressing certain views. For example, if your employer told you that your attendance of the “Occupy Wall Street” rallies would result in the loss of your job, would you do still attend? There are limited free speech exceptions to the at-will doctrine (notably whistleblower protections), but these are definitely the exception rather than the rule. Your employer in that situation would be almost completely protected. Even without state action, your company’s statement certainly curtails the kind of speech you feel free exercising.

The spirit of the First Amendment right to free speech and association is clear, but its application will always be muddy (the Supreme Court’s wacky jurisprudence on the First Amendment suggests as much). Maybe Hank Williams’s termination is just an example of the hard elbows in the marketplace of ideas. And Williams’s position was somewhat different — he was an independent contractor, and his role as entertainer theoretically put him in a kind of PR role for ESPN that he clearly bungled. But there’s no denying that the threat of loss of employment for one’s constitutional speech outside of the workplace setting can be damaging to the spirit of free speech.

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There’s plenty not to like about Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on the policy side, but I find the vitriol on the left (particularly from TPM) over Ryan’s high-priced bottle of wine at a restaurant to be as silly and trivial as the hullaballoo over John Edwards’s haircut.

Even if we accept the premise that Ryan’s wine purchase is normatively bad, we must ask why we find it normatively bad. Should our politicians not be drinking $350 bottles of wine while people are suffering? That seemed to be the original picture-taker’s point of outrage.

“We were just stunned,” said Feinberg, who e-mailed TPM about her encounter later the same evening. “I was an economist so I started doing the envelope calculations and quickly figured out that those two bottles of wine was more than two-income working family making minimum wage earned in a week.”

She was outraged that Ryan was consuming hundreds of dollars in wine while Congress was in the midst of intense debates over whether to cut seniors’ safety net, and she didn’t know whether Ryan or his companions was going to pay for the wine and whether the two men were lobbyists. She snapped a few shots with her cell phone to record the wine purchase.

OK, but let’s say Ryan had instead spent $700 on a big television set or a new iPad/Phone/whatever, what would we care? Maybe there are some things that we assume should be worth $700, and bottles of wine don’t fall into that category. But why shouldn’t they? A $350 bottle of wine may have all the hallmarks of decadence, but it’s hard to pin down what was so decadent about it, when compared to a techno-toy you’ll never use or a piece of furniture.

But maybe there’s some sign of malfeasance here. Representatives should not be accepting gifts from anyone, even a friend, with a high value. Again, though, this seems like relatively small potatoes compared to the excesses of lobbying junkets and the like. Besides, if Ryan split the meal 50-50 including the wine, any sign of malfeasance is slim to nil.

So what is it that’s so bad? The man had a bottle of wine. It was pretty expensive. So what? Plenty of us do expensive things all the time. Even people without much money will buy a lotto ticket every day, or buy a flight home for the holidays. The first thing that societies do when they get a middle class is to start loading up on luxuries, rather than dealing with malnutrition or sanitation. People would rather have a satellite dish than an indoor toilet. Does that make them decadent too?

My point is not to defend the rich for winning the class war. Unfortunately, rather than pointing out the fact that an astonishing number of Congresspeople and Senators are millionaires, or that the Bush tax cuts would benefit almost all Congressmen, etc., a focus on Ryan’s bottle of wine just looks petty. Ryan is reprehensible for his awful budget plan, not his decadent personal tastes. I don’t mind who buys an expensive bottle of wine, as long as he’s taxed through the ass for it.

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Being a scientist, I love to partake in experiments. And I have just finished one: not washing my hair for a month. Now, when you first tell this to people, they initially recoil and think this must be a terrible idea. After all, it must look greasy and gross and smell bad, right? Well, no. First off, I still showered each day. I just didn’t use shampoo, and instead would simply get my hair wet and run my hands through it. On three days during the month I used some conditioner. I’ve asked a few people – begging them to be honest if the answer were unfavorable – whether they noticed if my hair looked any different, and each of them said no.

There was a certain logic behind all this, so let me explain. The idea is basically this: each time you shampoo your hair, a detergent in the shampoo strips your hair of all its oils. Your scalp naturally produces oil, and its response to losing all its oil is to kick into hyperdrive and produce a lot of oil to compensate. And each day you typically continue the cycle, and you know from experience that if you do not, your hair will feel oily and gross. However, if you are willing to suffer through this adjustment period – which varies but might be two weeks or longer – your scalp will readjust, stop overproducing oil, and come into its natural equilibrium.

Various bloggers have tried this, and you can read about their observations here, here, here, and here. Reading through those posts, the results tend to be positive. The positives are that you’re not dumping potentially harsh chemicals onto your scalp, you save money, and some people report their hair being softer, shinier, and more healthy in appearance. The negatives are that it still can feel oily or gross to some people, and the adjustment times can vary a lot. For my part, I didn’t notice a huge difference. Except after I showered. Even now, which I am pretty sure is past the adjustment period, my hair still feels slightly weird/oily when the hair is still wet. However, once it dries it looks normal. Maybe a little shinier or softer, but still more oily than I am used to. Below are some cropped pics from before and then after.

Looks about the same, right? It’s been an interesting experiment. A big reason why people use shampoo – or do anything, really – is because we have been conditioned to our whole lives. It felt somewhat liberating to give it a try, knowing that most people would find the concept disgusting, yet simultaneously knowing that no one else probably knew unless I told them.

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To counteract our regular missives about why America is doing something badly or should be doing it better, Linus and I have decided to do a patriotic podcast in favor of things we love about America.


God bless America:

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OK, so this won’t exactly be a full-throated defense.

But with the Tour de France nearly upon us again, I wonder why we hate steroid use so much. After all, the reason that I know that Lance Armstrong was a phenomenal cyclist despite probably using performance-enhancing drugs, is because all the guys he beat were also on performance-enhancing drugs. The guys he beat were all doping, so at that point, it was a fair fight.

So rather than an affirmative defense, I’ll give rebuttals of the usual arguments.

It’s cheating: The rules are the rules; breaking them is wrong. Except when it isn’t. Whole sports have dedicated themselves to playing the refs in one way or another. Every era of baseball had some kind of cheating. Some legendary cheats are even celebrated as great moments in sports.

Plenty of innovations were first viewed as some form of cheat, such as the slam dunk in the basketball (which was then banned for a number of years by the NCAA). And rule-breakers and cheaters, from Bill Belichick to Ty Cobb to Karl Malone, are celebrated for their toughness, will to compete, etc.

Competition is all about finding an edge; why are PEDs any different?

Sure, it’s cheating, but how is it different from all the other cheating? Which leads us to…

It cheats the fans: Does it really? Fans love big hits, long homers, and fast cyclists. The Tour de France never had higher ratings than when a probably doped-up Lance Armstrong beat off his equally doped-up rivals. Regardless of whether or not Manny Pacquiao uses blood-doping, he’s the most exciting fighter in a generation. Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California, despite being a confessed steroid user. Additionally, we like watching dirty players — Karl Malone’s elbows and Bill Romanowski’s head hits.

Besides, what about all the other new-fangled training equipment? Is that cheating the fans out of the “pure experience” as well? If a tennis player is using a super-racket or a swimmer is using high-tech fast swim gear, is that cheating the fans, too? Who doesn’t like seeing world records broken?

They’re dangerous for players: This is probably true for most PEDs, particularly anabolic steroids, which have notable health risks. But you know what else is dangerous about high-level competitive sports? Everything.

Football players get hit in the head. A lot. And it causes lifelong brain damage. But that’s fine; we’ll still cheer it on from the sidelines.

Has anyone seen Muhammad Ali lately? Anyone gone to a NASCAR race lately?

PEDs are dangerous for players, but are they notably more dangerous than the sport itself?

But think about the children!: Professional athletes are role models, and therefore, if they participate in risky cheating behavior, kids will too.

But professional athletes do all sorts of things that we wouldn’t want kids to do. Sure, we admonish them for it, but they are still treated heroically. A DUI is way riskier to the general public than an individual use of steroids, and yet, a DUI won’t get you the same kind of suspension.

Maybe it’s the connection with the sport itself that makes it dangerous. Kids want to get better at the sport and will risk their bodies to get there. Again, though, how is this worse than all the risks they take with their own bodies playing the sport. Injury rates for high school sports are quite high; notably, injury rates in competition are much higher than in practice situations. High-school coaches, as committed to winning as anyone, will push kids to work harder and risk their bodies for the game. These rates only go higher and higher as we get to the collegiate and professional levels.

If we really wanted to protect the children, we would direct them away from high-impact high-risk sports and towards low-impact low-risk sports (cross country skiing for everyone!).

But that’s not what we do.

It’s not fair to other players: This may be the most compelling argument to me; after all, what about the other players who don’t use steroids? Isn’t it unfair to them to watch their counterparts succeed while they toil in mediocrity? Indeed, the greatest victim of the steroid era might have been Ken Griffey, Jr., who hit like a machine but had to stay in the shadows of the juicers. This led him to take additional risks on the field, which further led to his series of injuries and decline.

Again, though, players are already doing everything to get an edge: regiments of personal trainers, every supplement short of performance-enhancing drugs, state-of-the-art training facilities, etc. Say a player decided he did not want to get reconstructive knee surgery because of the risk involved, and would retire instead. He would also be choosing not to use a dangerous technology to achieve an edge and stay competitive. What separates him from a player who takes the surgery and continues his career?

Part of being a professional athlete is having a marginal advantage over your opponent. An athlete chooses which risks to take and which to refuse, but PEDs are only one of many such risks that athletes consider. And richer athletes from richer teams tend to have more resources to win than poorer athletes from poorer teams. The inequity of PEDs is just an extension of the inequity of all sports spending.

Then, why does it feel so wrong?: This is the really the question that bugs me. I mean, I hate the juicers too. I want to see strict anti-doping policies. And yet, even in sports with the strictest anti-doping policies, there’s still doping (see: Contador).

PEDs are just a part of the culture of winning. We may not like them, but they are a natural outgrowth of getting the edge to win. And who doesn’t love a winner?

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