November 29, 2008

The Apatovian Error

I saw Baby Mama for the first time over the Thanksgiving holiday; it was okay. There were some funny bits, particularly Steve Martin's "New Age guru by way of Steve Jobs" schtick, but the plot suffers from the same thing that has infected Judd Apatow's comedies and their imitators: We are given no reason why someone as educated and cultured as Tina Fey's character would ever associate with, much less choose to have a baby by, someone as completely the opposite as Amy Poehler's character. Much as Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen were paired off sort of inexplicably in Knocked Up, two people of opposite characters are thrown together, even though at least one of them can, and ought to, walk away. Yes, Baby Mama is a conventional buddy comedy, and you need something to get the laughs going, but it's still kind of hard to ignore, isn't it? If you're going to have smart people do stupid things, there should at least be some kind of story behind it.

Of course, this problem is an old one in comedy. Why, for example, does Alceste in The Misanthrope fall for Célimène? Is it because he really doesn't believe in his ideals? Is his hatred for society just a front? Is it just irrational? Alceste isn't a hypocrite, the way, say, Tartuffe is -- or is he? He at least struggles with his ideals, rather than cynically peddling them for personal gain. In any case, I think there's a lot of comedy to be had in exploring why people make choices they know full well aren't in their interests, but I haven't seen anything lately that goes in that direction.

Hopejacking, UK Style

To follow up on an older post, I see that the Gordon Brown and David Cameron's attempts to hopejack Barack Obama's election have not gone unnoticed by the British press:

The Battle of Obama is joined. Mr Brown and Mr Cameron, Labour and the Tories, are wrestling for the reflective boost that association with Mr Obama in the public mind could bring. Neither is likely to succeed.

First, consider the hope the Tories spy in Mr Obama’s hopemongering... It rests on a simple syllogism: Mr Obama offered change and Mr Cameron purports to; despite his lack of executive experience, Mr Obama won—so Mr Cameron is more likely to.


Mr Obama pledges to heal primeval rifts and repair the reputational damage done by a war he opposed. Mr Cameron is avowedly sceptical of grand plans. He often lurches from optimism into bitter moralising; his party supported the invasion of Iraq. His biggest problem has been to overcome toxic memories of previous Tory governments; Mr Obama’s has been to construct a public identity from scratch. Their political projects are radically dissimilar. Few Britons watching Mr Obama will instinctively think, fondly or otherwise, of Mr Cameron.

But nor is Mr Brown’s effort to co-opt Mr Obama likely to flourish... He implied that the American people had endorsed what is now his main contention: that parties of the centre-left are best qualified to cope with the downturn. America has morphed in his rhetoric from the source of economic evil to the fount of political wisdom.

The trouble with this analogy is not just that Mr Brown is a droning killjoy and Mr Obama is not. It is that Mr Brown is an incumbent where Mr Obama is an insurgent. Mr Brown has been at the apex of government through the years that incubated the economic woe. Few Britons listening to Mr Obama’s rhetoric will feel it vindicates their incriminated prime minister.

I find this whole process amusing; as if a light switch were flicked, America has gone from an object of near-universal disdain to one of near-universal aspiration, in the person of Barack Obama. It's a crude generalization, of course, but it's interesting to see how his election has, if only temporarily, short-circuited habits of mind concerning politics not just in the US, but worldwide.

November 25, 2008

Behavior and Energy Use

Interesting paper from ACEEE, giving a sociological perspective on how energy efficiency policies can be effectively implemented:
The United States can reap a wealth of cost-effective energy savings and reduce our contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions by providing the tools, technologies, education, information, and motivation needed to help all types of Americans change their energy consumption patterns and behaviors. Importantly, however, Americans are more likely to be successful in achieving these savings and in achieving them sooner if they are empowered by effective programs and policies that can help them to:
  1. see more clearly the size of our current energy service demands, how those demands are currently met, and the implications for ourselves, our neighbors, and our children,
  2. understand the range of energy options and choices from household to nation state,
  3. imagine what a different energy future might look like,
  4. prioritize social and governmental goals based on a long-term energy vision, and
  5. make smart energy choices for their own household, business, or industry.
This, I think, is key to building popular support for not just better energy efficiency, but the whole panoply of carbon-cutting tools -- from those that directly impact people's daily routine, e.g. increased mass transit ridership, to those that have a more diffuse effect, e.g. switching from coal to wind energy. It's all too easy to craft what seems like a perfect policy but not consider whether it will be a good fit for the affected populations. Transit-oriented development is great for New York, but maybe not for New Mexico. And even then, a lot depends on what regions you're looking at: Albany and Albuquerque may have more in common with each other than with the rural areas that surround both cities.

In any case, I would argue that climate policy can work in two directions: 1) change institutions, and 2) change behaviors, which is what the ACEEE paper is mainly concerned with. Changing institutions means adopting new mandates, technologies, taxes, etc., whereas changing behaviors means leading people to adopt new practices like, say, installing solar water heaters and finding housing close to transit. Both paths are necessary, but the latter may be a little dodgy, due to fears of engaging in social engineering. Of course, all public policy is social engineering when you get down to it; best, then, to do it in a way that meets broader goals while preserving individual autonomy. Libertarian paternalism, anyone?

November 6, 2008

They've Got a Crush on Obama

I've tried to express in my own way the meaning of Barack Obama winning the presidency, though I could easily spill several thousand words and still not get a definite hold of this strange moment we find ourselves in. I could try to describe what it means for this ultimate racial obstacle in America to be overcome, though others can and already have done it. I could discuss the prospect of a more liberal, more racially and religiously diverse America coming to prominence, or the end of conservative culture war politics, or any number of things. But for some reason, I think the meaning of Obama's victory is best embodied now in how even people an ocean away are reacting:

Gordon Brown and David Cameron have clashed in the Commons over the reasons for Barack Obama's US election victory.

The Conservative leader said the change offered by Mr Obama contrasted with Labour's offer of "more of the same".

The prime minister said Mr Obama had triumphed because he was a "serious man for serious times" and embodied "progressive" values shared by Labour.

Earlier both men and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg had united in praise of the Democrat Mr Obama's victory.

The BBC's political editor Nick Robinson said both Labour and the Conservatives wanted to associate themselves with the factors behind Mr Obama's success and absorb some of the political magic he displayed on the campaign trail.

(h/t hb123).