Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

A Timely Quote from The Diamond Age

One summer, as he was living in Ames and working as a
research assistant in a solid-state physics lab, the city was actually
turned into an island for a couple of days by an immense flood.
Along with many other Midwesterners, Finkle-McGraw put in a few
weeks building levees out of sandbags and plastic sheeting. Once
again he was struck by the national media coverage—reporters from
the coasts kept showing up and announcing, with some
bewilderment, that there had been no looting. The lesson learned
during the Sioux City plane crash was reinforced. The Los Angeles
riots of the previous year provided a vivid counterexample. Finkle-
McGraw began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political
views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically
different, they were culturally as different as they could possibly be,
and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not
a subjective value judgment, merely an observation that some
cultures thrived and expanded while others failed. It was a view
implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never
voiced.

Written by Michael B. Duff

March 12, 2011 at 13:52

Posted in Books, Culture

Charlie Sheen’s UStream Adventure

Charlie Sheen’s inaugural vidcast may be the most effective anti-drug promotion ever filmed. Now we know the real reason Bree Olson bailed. She apparently saw the script in advance.

This video is an object lesson in celebrity failure, a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to follow Sheen into fame and fortune.

I don’t know where stardom starts, but it ends in Sheen’s Korner.

This is what it looks like when your family has abandoned you, all your real friends are gone, and there’s no one left to give you a reality check. You end up behind a desk in a seedy home office with nothing but your producer, your drug dealer, and your spare girlfriend to keep you company.

Everyone in that room was paid to be there. Watch the way they laugh at his jokes — the microsecond pause before each laugh — too loud, too long and too clear for the joke that preceded it. Watch the random, disconnected way everyone behaves, like they’ve been in Sheen’s orbit so long they don’t even have free will — stuck waiting for the next bit of random wordplay, as if the last one to laugh is going to have their allowance cut off.

This is what the end of the road looks like. This is the new face of #despair.

Sheen’s debut is particularly poignant because PUA philosopher Roissy had just finished anointing Sheen as the super-alpha, the gold standard by which all lesser men should be judged.

There’s no doubt that Sheen handled that interview like an alpha. But now, scriptless, directionless, surrounded by sycophants, all that manic energy is gone.

Sheen’s previous performance was a kind of combat, a kind of verbal judo, fought against an intimidated reporter who never stood a chance. But now, with no opponent in front of him, with no challenge to rise to, Sheen looks like what he is — a lonely old drug addict, sliding into middle age.

The sponsors will RUN, not walk away from him now, and his career is effectively over. He may still have an Ozzie-style comeback left in him, but that’s many years away, after he spends a long, painful stretch #winning rehab.

@charliesheen needs to send his next tweet from a hospital, and that gap-toothed enabler on his left needs to be in jail.

Written by Michael B. Duff

March 5, 2011 at 22:54

Posted in Gossip

Charlie Sheen takes his act to Twitter, but is it wrong to watch?

Subtitle for this one should be, “How to get one million Twitter followers in 25 hours.”

What’s the secret? Be Charlie Sheen.

Not content to be in the punch line of every joke on the Internet this week, Charlie Sheen took “winning” to the next level by starting a new account on Twitter. As I write this he has 1.2 million followers — including, regretfully, myself.

I felt a twinge of guilt as I clicked the Follow button yesterday because the act felt strangely personal, as if by giving Sheen this sliver of attention, I was actually contributing to the man’s downfall.

As I said on Facebook yesterday, “We’ve just given a suicidal narcissist a direct line into the lives of one million people.”

I think there are two distinct groups of people following Charlie Sheen today. Half the people wanted to be there for his first day on Twitter and the other half want to be there for his last.

Half of America wants to see him get better and the other half wants to watch him flame out.

Following a celebrity on Twitter is fundamentally different from reading interviews or watching them on television. Most media appearances are supervised by publicists who keep their celebrities on message and make sure they don’t drift too far from social norms.

Even most Twitter accounts are like that — sanitized, ghost-written lists of fluff churned out by assistants or carefully crafted by celebrities who know how to control their image.

But Sheen is playing without a net, so when the inevitable public meltdown comes, we’ll all have a front row seat. I’m afraid these million followers are going to be like another drug for Sheen, another source of manic energy, randomly prompting mood swings with every snarky comment.

Mark Cina at The Hollywood Reporter says Sheen’s Twitter account is a kind of publicity stunt, organized by a celebrity endorsement firm called Ad.ly. Comedian Patton Oswalt is saying the account is a fake, ghost-written by a service.

Perversely, these accusations are making me feel better. That implies there will be a level of editing here, a layer of cynical insulation between the audience and the star. Does using this spectacle for commercial gain make the situation more depressing, or less?

At first glance this is just another celebrity train wreck, but Spiked Online editor Brendan O’Neill has a different take. In his Wednesday Telegraph column he characterized Sheen’s outburst as a heroic stand against “the therapy police.”

O’Neill’s column was a real eye-opener for me because the average observer looking at our society would say we have no guiding principles at all. We pay lip service to the moral standards of our fathers and grandfathers but we treat most infractions with a wink and a nod.

The media brings us tales of promiscuity, drug use, binge drinking and destructive behavior as if it was all a kind of circus staged for our amusement. Sheen’s high-octane partying has inspired a kind of shameful awe, with the subtext that “all men would do this if they could.”

Our society is willing to tolerate any kind of self-destructive behavior from celebrities, as long as they’re willing to go on Oprah and apologize for it later.

O’Neill says by refusing to accept the diagnosis of mental illness, Sheen is committing the only unforgiveable sin.

“In his refusal to speak their lingo,” O’Neill says,” to play their game, to do what all celebs in his situation must do these days – arrange to be interviewed by Hello! so that they can be photographed weeping while confessing to having suffered a mental breakdown – Sheen is rebelling against the super-conformist modern narrative of weak individuals who need to be saved by psycho-priests. They won’t forgive him for this.”

I would take this one step further and note that the language of moral judgment has been replaced by the language of psychological diagnosis.

Charlie Sheen may be taking drugs, cavorting with prostitutes, risking his life and putting his kids in danger, but we’re not allowed to judge him. We can’t hold him up as a cautionary tale and condemn him as a moral failure. We have to understand him and encourage him to “get help.”

I worry that of these new million Twitter followers, half of them are celebrating Sheen’s lifestyle and the other half have tuned in to watch him die. I worry that Sheen is on his way to becoming a kind of stoner folk hero, and I worry that by subscribing to his Twitter feed, I’m deriving entertainment from the destruction of a human life.

Do these thoughts make me a hopeless prude? Probably. But there’s something very “Roman empire” about the way the mob is embracing Sheen’s lifestyle — celebrating his antics in the arena while they wait for the axe to fall.

Written by Michael B. Duff

March 4, 2011 at 12:19

Posted in Columns, Culture, Twitter

Tax cuts won’t solve the problem

Republicans are celebrating (prematurely) now that Obama seems to be on board with preserving the Bush tax cuts.

I believe that tax cuts are always good, but doing something good for the economy is not the same as fixing the economy.

A friend of mine said recently that Keynesianism is a religion. Paul Krugman is using an unfalsifiable argument when he defends money printing and government stimulus. Sure, our predictions were wrong and unemployment is getting worse instead of better, but imagine how bad it would have been if we had done nothing.

Now Republicans are in exactly the same boat with tax cuts. Obama has called their bluff. They got what they wanted and preserved tax cuts for the “rich,” but what if the economy doesn’t improve?

What will the Republicans say? “Well sure, our predictions were wrong and unemployment is getting worse, but imagine how bad it would have been if we had let those tax cuts expire.”

Same unfalsifiable argument, same blind faith.

Tax cuts are really just another kind of stimulus. You can argue that private stimulus is more effective than government stimulus but even if we grant that, it misses the point.

The economy is not struggling because we lack “liquidity.” Demand for credit is going down, not up. There’s no monetary “shortage” out there. The problem is malinvestment. The succession of bubbles we’ve had in tech stocks, real estate, and bond markets have shifted the focus of the economy to things that cannot produce sustainable profits.

We have too many construction workers, too many bureaucrats and far, far too many real estate and finance professionals performing jobs that do not generate real wealth.

We have to regroup, refocus and retrain. Trillions in bad debt needs to be recognized, restructured and discharged. Hundreds of banks need to fail, thousands of mortgages need to be discharged and hundreds of executives on Wall Street need to go to jail.

Tax cuts are great, but tax cuts can not fix the fundamental problems with this economy.

Picture the economy as a big bucket with a small hole in the bottom. You’ve got a water hose that represents cash — money, liquidity, stimulus, tax cuts, whatever. Good investment stays in the bucket and raises the water level, bad investment leaks out of the hole.

You notice the water level in your bucket going down and you panic. You grab the hose and sure enough, the water level rises again, as long as you keep pouring water/cash into the bucket. But this action does nothing to patch the hole. You’re still leaking money out the bottom. In fact, when you add money into the system, velocity increases and the leak gets worse.

Congress comes along and has to make a choice. Are we going to let these tax cuts expire and reduce the flow of water into the bucket, or are we going to let things continue as they are?

Expiring the tax cuts would hurt the economy, i.e. reduce the total amount of water in the bucket, but they would also reduce the amount of bad investment leaking out the bottom. Allowing the tax cuts to continue will preserve the current rate of flow into the economy, but will do nothing to fix the fundamental problem.

Somebody needs to stand up and shout, “Hey! You’ve got a hole in that bucket!” and find a way to patch it. (In real life, this person is Ron Paul.)

But instead of listening to these people, politicians are arguing amongst themselves. Republicans say, “We need to cut taxes and pour hot water into the economy!” Democrats say, “The government needs to spend more and pour cold water into the economy!”

The only time they agree is when they get together on TV to shout, “Shut up, you idiots! The bucket’s fine! We’re just not getting enough water from the hose!”

This is the basic premise of the Austrian Business Cycle. Our efforts to patch the bucket may disrupt things and lower the total water level for a time, but the whole system will be healthier when we’re done. The repairs will be messy, but the repaired bucket will hold more water in the long run.

So no, I’m not expecting tax cuts to fix the economy. Honestly, I was hoping the Democrats would repeal them. This would serve two purposes. First, it would cause a surge in unemployment and provide evidence that tax cuts for the rich finance jobs for the poor. And second, they would force a lot of marginal companies to go bankrupt and help deflate the stock bubble on Wall Street.

We’re at the point where we must abandon our current tasks so we can focus our attention on better ones. Cutting interest rates and preserving the tax cuts encourages people to stick with the (failed) course they’re currently on.

A tax increase could provide a much-needed reality check to people who are currently addicted to easy money, reducing the “water level” so much, ordinary voters might even notice the hole in the bucket.

It’s a uniquely perverse way of looking at tax policy, but this is the world we live in.

So what should we do? Increase interest rates and stop the crazy flow of money that is making this problem worse. Free money from the Fed is encouraging all kinds of distortions in the market, to the point of rewarding blatant corruption. It must be stopped before things can get better.

The question is, will we stop it voluntarily, or will we have sanity imposed upon us, by a bond market that doesn’t believe our promises anymore?

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 11, 2010 at 00:00

Posted in Politics

links for 2010-12-10

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 10, 2010 at 23:21

Posted in Uncategorized

links for 2010-12-09

  • Presents Austrian economics to high school students using "mainstream" language that will prepare them for college.
  • Operation Payback is facing a little payback of its own. First Twitter closed the pro-Wikileaks hacker movement's account. And now we hear the Feds are shutting down some online discussion of Operation Payback attacks.
  • "The last time my father left, for real this time, the legal document that came to define our relationship decreed that I had to go there every other weekend. I'm not especially good at being told what to do, by anybody, and neither is he, so when I'd go to the trailer he lived in to angrily serve out my sentence he was rarely ever there. I did what any eighteen year old would do in this situation: I took advantage of his deep roster of top shelf liquor, perused his library of intense VHS erotica, and played darts. I would also take huge stacks of his CDs home to pawn. At the time, I felt like we were more or less coming out even. The upshot of all this, aside from the fact that it makes such a heartwarming Christmas tale, is that I learned Darts is actually a really good game."

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 9, 2010 at 23:01

Posted in Uncategorized

links for 2010-12-08

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 8, 2010 at 23:01

Posted in Uncategorized