This isn't meant to be a "my favorite X of the year" kind of list — just a collection of posts that I both enjoyed and happened to have saved for later.
In no particular order:
A smart, funny passage on the relevance of film criticism from Anthony Lane's collection of essays, Nobody's Perfect:
The primary task of the critic, (and nobody has surpassed the late Ms. Kael in this regard), is the recreation of texture — not telling movie-goers what they should see, which is entirely their prerogative, but filing a sensory report on the kind of experience into which they will be wading, or plunging, should they decide to risk a ticket. You may object to the films of Krzysztof Kieślowski, but, with their heavy filtration and cloud-bursts of sudden music, not to mention the wounded emotions that drift across the faces of their heroines, they could have been made by nobody else.
All of which is a way of saying that movies deserve journalism. This may sound obtuse, not to say indefensible, in the light of those unusual thinkers whose most fervid desire is to have their words reproduced on billboards across the land. Broadcasting from radio stations so local that the presenters might just as well ditch the microphones, stand on the roof, and shout, these superbly untroubled beings scorch the earth with indiscriminate goodwill. However hellish that Adam Sandler fiasco you just saw, don't worry; there'll be somebody in Delaware who is prepared to stand and tell the world, "Hands up for the flat-out funniest comedy since Father of the Bride! Adam Sandler is a laugh riot, hands down!" And there will be people at Universal who will plaster it on a wall; by an appealing coincidence, they will be the same people who flew the guy from Delaware to a junket in Atlantic City and then inquired gently for his assessment of Mr. Sandler as the new Jim Carrey. I once went to a junket and heard the assembled hacks complaining to each other about the water pressure in their hotel jacuzzis. I am as corrupt as the next man, but, I must admit, the notion that you could trim your critical opinions to accord with the fizzy water in which you recently dipped your ass had, until then, never occured to me, and it still strikes me as impractical today.
Nevertheless, I repeat: movies deserve journalism. Both involve a quick turnover, an addiction to the sensational, and a potent, if easily exhausted, form of communal intensity; books written about film are often devout and scholarly, but, unlike journalism, they bear almost no stamp of what it actually feels like to go to the movies. A review should give off the authentic reek of the concession stand; it should become as handy as that finest of nocturnal inventions, the armrest-mounted soda holder. This holds especially true for readers who have every intention of staying in, cooking dinner, and skipping the film altogether. When people tell me, as they frequently do, that they can't be bothered to see a subtitled picture (because it's too much work) or the latest and loudest blockbuster (because they know in their bones that it will be junk), what happens to the role of the movie critic? It should by rights be diminished; in practice, the reading of reviews, like a careful tracking of the weekend's grosses, seems to be growing into a perverse substitute for the act of moviegoing itself. The sheer, overhanging mass of cultural offerings is now so forbidding that the essay — literally, the attempt, like the attempt that a climber makes on the north face of the Eiger — has, if anything, reasserted its claim to be the sanest and most proportionate response. I know that sanity is not the first quality that one associates with film critics — one thinks more readily of of our Styrofoam complexions and, as for our hairstyle, Fie, 'tis an unweeded garden — but the fact remains that a reviewer who does his or her job, and who steers you away from bad art, is sane enough to save you eight bucks.
My thanks to Professor Charles Karelis, author of The Persistence of Poverty, for his excellent comment beneath my recent guest post at Psychology Today's Headcase blog. I'm reprinting the comment below, but first a recap and some additional thoughts.
My post focused on a 2008 study that Dan Ariely linked to a few weeks ago, and which found that premature deaths in the US are increasingly the result of bad personal decisions (rather than causes such as accidents or genetic diseases).
After explaining the study, I mentioned that some of these decisions are made disproportionately by people in poverty. This is where Karelis's book comes into play, as its main thesis is about how the decisions faced by the poor are different in nature than those faced by everybody else. I summarized his idea as follows:
If you have so many burdens in your life at the same time—joblessness, obesity, crime—then eliminating just one of them makes a difference so negligible that you'll simply choose not to address any of them.
As Mike Konczal explained in a great post last year, Karelis posits that solving the first of many problems brings very little satisfaction, or "utility" in economic speak. The problems that remain are so many, varied, and painful that someone in poverty will hardly notice. But if the first problem does get solved, then solving each additional problem would bring increasing satisfaction, as the issues become fewer and more manageable. This is an idea that reverses the traditional economic utility function, which predicts diminishing returns for additional goods. But the point is that because solving the first problem brings such little satisfaction to someone in poverty, it won't be worth the effort to get started. "Hence the persistence of poverty," Konczal writes. (That's an extremely simplistic overview, so do read Konczal's full post for more depth, or better yet buy the book.)
Anyways, the book generated additional discussion within the blogosphere (see also Tyler Cowen in 2007), with mostly favorable reviews. But some reviewers noted that although the book's ideas were intriguing, they hadn't been tested and consequently there didn't seem to be much evidence for them.
In my post at Psychology Today, I wondered why it hadn't been investigated. Despite the discussion of utility, along with Vaughan Bell I understood Karelis's theory to be as much about psychology as about economics. And I closed my post by suggesting that if social scientists were going to design new experiments and conduct new research about personal decision-making (as Ariely recommends), they should keep Karelis's theory in mind. In other words, this seems like a situation where it's not necessarily appropriate to isolate psychological influences from socioeconomic ones, as they might interact with each other in complicated ways.
Karelis writes below that the rationalist paradigm of economics needn't be discarded for his critique of the utility function to hold, and he also responds to the notion that his theory is unproven. I thank him again for the comment and reproduce it here in full:
From the author of the Persistence of Poverty, cited in these posts. My book doesn't link the life-shortening decisions discussed by Ariely (smoking, overeating) to the utility function I hypothesized. That extrapolation seems to have been made first by Ezra Klein in his Washington Post blog, and it was carried further by Mr. Coates in his Atlantic blog and by Andrew Sullivan in his blog. But though I didn't make it in my book, I find the extrapolation very plausible. After all, it takes discipline to resist many of these life-shortening activities. They're like work, or maybe you could even say they're a kind of work. So--on the rationalist paradigm of human behavior, which has been too much disparaged by behavioral economics, in my opinion-- the prudent decision will be taken if and only if the accompanying rewards are perceived as being greater than the effort required. What my hypothesis adds here is that for poor people, whose plates are heaped high with troubles--the felt relief brought about in the short run by losing a few pounds or breathing easier as you climb upstairs will be hardly noticeable. What's one or two fewer troubles on a plate heaped high with them? So we need not embrace the (in any case distasteful) hypothesis that poor people suffer from limited time horizons in order to explain the failure to resist these life-shortening temptations.
As for the question whether my book is "empirically confirmed," I would respectfully contend that my critics have a paradigm of "the empirical" that over-relies on laboratory evidence and under-weighs the question of which among competing theories offers the simplest explanation of undisputed facts about human behavior, such as the greater obesity, alcohol consumption, and smoking among the poor; and I'd add that positivist economics has a double-standard when it comes to introspective evidence. The conventional wisdom about the utility function rests on little else besides introspection. Take down your intro econ text and look if you doubt it.
In the course of a long, thoughtful post on the complications involved in dealing with unemployment, Felix Salmon writes:
But if workers at places like Wal-Mart start being paid a decent living wage, that is surely a significant improvement on where we are now. And if we raise the minimum wage to a point where employees are less likely to quit and more likely to learn reasonably high-level skills, that will help get us to Richard Florida’s promised land. Without unions and minimum-wage laws, corporations compete on who can pay the least. With them, they compete on who has the best employees and they invest significantly in those employees. Which is exactly what we want, especially since raising the minimum wage is unlikely in and of itself to increase unemployment visibly.
A respectful quibble. How do we know that with a higher minimum wage, employers will "compete on who has the best employees" and "invest significantly in those employees"?
It seems just as possible that employers would react by doing one of the following, or some combination thereof:
These probably read like libertarian talking points. But my impression it that the issue of the minimum wage's impact on employment and wages is more sharply debated by economists than was implied in Salmon's post, though it's likely that the kinds of changes typically proposed by legislators are small enough to have only have a marginal effect.
Regardless, I've never seen the argument that employers react to higher minimum wages by increasing their investment in human capital. I'm not saying Salmon is wrong about any of this, but I'm genuinely curious to know what the evidence is for it.
UPDATE: Thanks to Felix for responding here.