Pass the Popcorn: The Wind Rises

August 4, 2015


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I hadn’t intended to time a review of Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, The Wind Rises, for the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb. But it turns out to be perfect timing.

Every scene of this movie is visually gorgeous, sometimes in a reserved way but often strikingly so. It is a fitting consummation of Miyazaki’s mastery of his medium. But it seems at first a radical break in content. It is the only Miyazaki movie that takes place in the real world – well, more or less the real world. He introduces a few fantastical elements, but they are limited to dreams and visions, and of course the somewhat fantastic aeronautical physics for which Miyazaki is so famous. When the characters are awake, they are living in the real world. The closest Miyazaki has ever come to the real world before was in his first film, Lupin III, and that hardly counts, both because its genre conventions take us well beyond the boundaries of the “real” world and because Miyazaki was forced to work within another author’s established universe. As soon as Miyazaki gained the freedom to make his own movies he leapt into the world of magical fantasy and never looked back – until now.

This is also his only movie that is concerned with real historical events. It is a heavily fictionalized account of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, who invented the Zero fighter plane and helped transform Japan from a comparatively primitive backwater into a global technology power. After the final scene fades, a title card appears informing us that the movie is a “tribute” to Jiro and to Tatsuo Hori, who wrote a short story from which this movie gets its title and from which it borrows core elements of its love story.


On a deeper level, it is almost his only movie where the real drama is in the writ-small world of one person. There are no epic quests here, no dispossessed princesses with magic amulets or gods warring to destroy humanity. Kiki’s Delivery Service comes close to this, but even Kiki discovers the meaning of her gift when she finds that she can use it to intervene in a major event. To find a movie as personal as this one in Miyazaki’s corpus, one in which no great fate rests in the balance of our hero’s actions, we must go all the way back to Totoro. But the Wind Rises goes even further than Totoro; here, our inability to change the really great historical events is actually central to the movie’s message.

Now I’m going to say something that may seem to contradict what I’ve just said. This is, at long last, Miyazaki’s political movie. Many of his works have had political themes; Miyazaki is well known as an environmentalist, a pacifist, and a former Marxist. But none of his previous movies was really a movie about those things. Only the shallow environmentalists think Princess Mononoke or Ponyo is really about environmentalism. Only the shallow pacifists think Howl’s Moving Castle is really about pacifism. Meanwhile, this movie – this highly personal movie that is all about one man, a man who knew he couldn’t stop war and therefore didn’t try – is the really pacifist movie.

And yet – contradiction looping back on contradiction – this pacifist movie actually argues that we can’t avoid politics, can’t avoid being part of our nations and the calling to make them great.

Okay, I’ve made this movie sound like a tangled mess. It isn’t. It’s quiet and still. The point only becomes confused when you attempt to express it in words rather than simply showing it in a story.

The whole point of the movie is to ask the great political question – what role does politics play in the meaning of human life? –  and give an answer that we Americans have always rejected with repugnance but which the whole rest of the world has always taken quite seriously, even when it disagrees with it. It is simply this: that it is a deadly mistake to look to our nations for justice, for they never deliver; but it is possible to look to our nations for identity and for opportunities to serve the world around us.


It would be flippant to say that the real message of this movie is “the men who built the horrible Japanese war machine were people too!” But that does come close to expressing it.

Our dreams are cursed. If we build our dreams, the things we build will be used for evil and destruction. Should we therefore not build? Give up dreaming? As one character puts it, “would you rather live in a world without pyramids?”

Jiro wants to build airplanes. He dreams of marvelous airplanes, far greater than any that have ever been built before. And the only way to build those dreams is to build warplanes for the military.

But here’s the catch. Jiro doesn’t only want to build better planes because they’re worth building in themselves. He also wants to serve his country – not the war machine, which is unambiguously horrible, but his people. They live in poverty and want. Hungry children are all around him. Japan is so backward that they use oxen to drag the prototype planes from the hangar to the test field.

Jiro knows that he and his team of builders can help catapult Japan out of the economic ghetto. They can feed the hungry children of Japan by building planes – planes that will be used to bomb the children of China.

The idea that Jiro could go build beautiful planes for some other country is not even considered. First, because all countries are viewed as monstrous. How much better would it be to make planes for China, or any other nation? If they’re not the aggressor now, they will be someday. But there is also a sense of duty to one’s own country. Jiro feels responsible to the people of Japan. We cannot escape who we are and where we come from.


The pacifist nationalism of The Wind Rises ultimately fails to persuade; at least, it didn’t persuade this American. Like most Americans, I think the nation must be made to deliver justice. You can’t remove justice from the political sphere; to put it another way, no matter how beautiful your planes are, it matters whom you make them for. Despite this film’s best efforts – and they are impressive – one cannot escape, or at least I cannot escape, the feeling that Jiro is fleeing from responsibility. Refusing to make planes for a war machine is one of the ways we serve our country.

The attempted tragedy of this movie – we must build our dreams even though they’re used for evil – fails because it is trying to escape from an even deeper tragedy: That the demands of justice are uncompromising and inescapable, that we do not have the option of building planes and then sighing with regret that they’re used for a war of aggression.

We cannot have our cake and eat it, too; we cannot hate or regret injustice and at the same time hate or regret politics.


The attempt to do so leads in the darkest directions. Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel Magic Mountain is invoked explicitly in this movie. Hans Castorp himself briefly appears and laments the evils that are arising in the world, wistfully declaring that we can sometimes find a “magic mountain” in our lives where we can forget those evils and find healing – but the evils will always remain. Like that book, The Wind Rises confronts the big questions of the 20th century and is ambiguous about the answers.

But we cannot pretend we’re still in 1924. In The Wind Rises, Castorp doesn’t leave the “magic mountain” to march off into the trenches of WWI; he flees town one step ahead of the secret police. Mann could get away with ambiguous mysticism in 1924, but we who know what came next must not leave things where he left them.

Toddler Technocracy

July 27, 2015


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my article on why the endless expansion of government’s role in childrearing, at the expense of the family, is something we ought to be concerned about:

Rounding up toddlers into the nurseries of the all-providing, all-benevolent state is certainly good for public employee unions, but is it good for the state and its children? Fully 76 percent of Oklahoma’s four-year-olds are in government pre-K. The average U.S. state has only 23 percent….

The whole idea of pre-K, like the idea of Kindergarten before it, is (as the Germanic name suggests) a product of the technocratic European social welfare state….Believing he could use his superior scientific understanding to improve the early development of children, Friedrich Froebel created the world’s first Kindergarten in 1837. He theorized that children would develop better if given more opportunity to socialize with peers rather than with their families and others. American admirers of the European technocratic experiment were quick to follow suit; in 1856, the first U.S. Kindergarten was founded less than an hour’s drive from where I live in Wisconsin.

I argue that the technocratic view of the world that makes endless expansion of pre-K seem like a step forward is dangerous – dangerous not only to social equality but to the moral foundations of the social order. Not that pre-K by itself will destroy these things, but it is a symptom of a deeper problem.

As always, I welcome your thoughts!

Pass the Popcorn: They Came to Help Because of Sadness

July 22, 2015

They came to help

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

For the second time ever, it’s a Pass the Popcorn too big for JPGB. If you liked my 21 word review of Inside Out, you’re going to love the 4,000 word review. Spoiler: Pixar saves American culture.

It Depends on What the Meaning of “Testing” Is

July 9, 2015

Bill wagging finger

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Lots of really good back and forth about NCLB testing and the federal opt-out over the past few days, in response to Matt’s posts. I just want to step in and point out something that seems to be getting lost in the discussion.

Testing of all students (other than those that get an opt-out) is not the only kind of NCLB-related testing. NCLB also required all states, for the first time, to participate in the Nation’s Report Card. NRC participation created the “academic transparency” Matt is looking for, but without raising any concerns about opt-outs, because it’s given to a representative sample of students rather than to all students. If you want to measure how states are doing at serving subgroups of students, this can be done by testing representative samples of those subgroups via the NRC.

My position is that the feds should not throw huge piles of money at schools, but if they’re going to do so (and it seems nothing can stop them) they can and should require the kind of “transparency” NRC provides without pushing states to test every child – and also without interfering with states’ ability to test every child in public schools if they wish to do so. Testing a representative sample of students provides “transparency” without forcing any particular child to take the test.

Unfortunately, the Common Core people have destroyed the bipartisan consensus for “transparency” of even the NRC kind, because now all testing has become suspect. Well done!

John Maynard Keynes for the Higgy

April 14, 2015


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Last year, when commenter Allen nominated John Maynard Keynes for the highest (dis)honor known to man, the Higgy judges expressed skepticism on grounds that politicians corruptly manipulate the economy with or without the convenient excuses provided by Keynesianism. However, the judges reserved final judgment on Keynes’ Higgyworthiness because a full case had not been made.

I hereby offer a full case, on three grounds:

  1. Corrupt political manipulation of the economy has been greatly increased as a direct result of Keynes’ influence.
  2. Keynes did far, far worse things than simply give politicians a convenient excuse to corruptly manipulate the economy. 
  3. On both the above counts, Keynes not only worsened the world, but also met the more specific Higgy qualification of having “arrogant delusions” that “self-righteous proclamations” improve the world. 

Point One: As Paul Johnson documents in Modern Times, in the first half of the 20th century there was an unprecedented shift in the politics of corrupt collaboration between political and business elites. Previously, such collaboration occurred episodically, when some serious crisis arose and it could be justified as an “emergency measure.” Hence the big expansions of corrupt government manipulation of the economy occur in tandem with wars, depressions, and financial panics. After each crisis passed, however, pressure would mount to roll back these manipulations and restore the natural order. These rollbacks were never 100% successful, of couse, but in most cases far more than 50% or even 75% successful. Consider Coolidge’s rollback of Wilson’s autocratic WWI measures. 

But after WWII, everything is different. We have entered a whole new world. Corrupt government manipulation of the economy is now normalized. It is universally expected that political and business elites will get together in smoke-filled rooms and determine our fate for us. This is simply the way we live now. True, the more extreme wartime measures like rationing were recinded, and without the war as a justification the further growth of political control of the economy was greatly slowed. But, however slowly, that growth did continue. The political ground had permanently moved. The old world of merely episodic corrupt manipulation was gone; a new world of permanent, normalized corrupt manipulation had arrived.

This was almost 100% attributable to Keynes, for reasons that will become clear in Point Two.

Point Two: To understand the significance of Keynes, it is necessary to set aside our immediate policy concerns (fighting over the latest stimulus package or “economic plan”) and appreciate his role as a world-historical figure of the first rank. He revolutionized the entire discipline of economics, and by doing so, had a dramatic impact on the social order as a whole.

From classical Greco-Roman philosophy through the Patristic Era, the Middle Ages, early modernity and the Enlightenment, the study of economic phenomena was a subset of moral philosophy. It was always grounded in moral assumptions about human nature. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, the Salamanca School, the Reformers, Locke, the Physiocrats and Adam Smith, though they had different moral views in some important respects, were agreed that the purpose of studying economics was to help align economic activity with virtue and right purposes – encouraging productive, thrifty, efficient, flourishing behavior, often with a particular interest in extending opportunity to the poor; and opposing greed, sloth, irresponsibility and (above all) injustice. The professional scholar of economics was par excellence the opponent of corruption and abuse of power. 

Over the course of the 19th century, however, this was changing. Especially in England, prominent economists increasingly expressed a desire to get out of the ethics business and abandon the fight against corruption. They wanted to do something that is impossible, and would be irresponsible if it were possible – to describe the world without evaluating it, to be morally neutral, to refrain from calling injustice unjust without being implicated as its accomplices.

Try as they might, however, these would-be neutral technicians could not find a way to extract themselves from the ethics business. A century of efforts to invent a paradigm of economics not beholden to morality bore no fruit.

And then came John Maynard Keynes, and the Keynesian Revolution.

Where before economists had defined the purpose of their discipline as encouraging the ethical production of wealth and well-being, Keynes taught them their purpose was to help people gratify their immediate desires – whatever those happened to be. Where before economists took self-sufficiency (producing more than you consume) as normative, Keynes taught them “the paradox of thrift” and trained them to despise the old rule that households and nations must live within their means. Where before economists took it for granted that our goal was to leave the world better than we found it, Keynes taught them that “in the long run we’re all dead” so we don’t need to worry what kind of world we leave to our grandchildren.

And where before economists thought their policy recommendations were constrained by the limits of justice, which compelled us to be concerned about the problem of corruption, Keynes taught them to treat human beings as merely irrational animals – bundles of appetites – without a transcendent dignity that needed to be respected.

Point Three: At this point you might be tempted to say Keynes isn’t Higgy material in light of the Sarnoff Codicil, which holds that the Higgy should not go to those who intend to make the world worse and succeed. It should go to those who intend to improve the world and fail – or, more specifically, to those who have “arrogant delusions” that “self-righteous proclamations” improve the world.

But Keynes passes this test with flying colors. He intended to improve the world – he had a detailed and well worked out philosophy of utilitarian materialism, and believed he was replacing the reign of superstition and barbarism with a new era of beautiful technocratic progress. He was a constant, nonstop fount of self-righteous proclamations. And all his asperations failed. The new, post-Keynes economics does not work as empirical science. It does not work as a practical guide to policy, either. And it has created sociological conditions that will, in the long run, destroy it. Keynesianism today is in the same state as Marxism in the Soviet Union in about the 1970s or so; it is a politically convenient god to whom all must still bow, but longstanding suppressed doubts about the god’s power to deliver the goods have hardened into permanent cynicism. The downfall may still be 20 years away, but it is coming.

John Maynard Keynes richly deserves the Higgy.

Image HT

The New School Choice

March 31, 2015


(Guest Post by Greg Forster)

The new issue of OCPA’s Perspective carries my article on how more recent school choice programs are moving us slowly but surely closer to universal school choice:

The huge wave of new school choice programs enacted in 2011-13 went far beyond earlier programs in expanding student eligibility pools, providing larger vouchers, and reducing unnecessary regulations on participating schools. Education savings accounts, probably the best program design yet devised, have been enacted in Arizona and Florida; as I write, new programs have just been approved by legislative chambers in Virginia and Mississippi. These programs, while still limited in eligibility, give parents much more control over education dollars than traditional school choice.

I argue there are both educational and civic reasons to embrace universal choice:

Two of the great pillars of our country are equal rights and freedom for diverse beliefs. Neither of these pillars is consistent with a government school monopoly, nor with the educational oligopoly of limited school choice.

A monopoly or oligopoly exists by stamping out the rights of challengers in order to protect the privileges of the powerful. When educational entrepreneurs are denied the right to start new schools on equal terms with dominant providers, all of us lose. A society where the education of children is controlled by the few is a society that doesn’t respect equal rights.

And the education of our children is at the very heart of how we all live out our most central beliefs about life and the universe. Our country can never fully live up to its commitment to freedom for diversity until we undo the monopolization of education. Part of the reason we created the government school monopoly in the 19th century was bigotry and a childish fear of religious diversity. It’s long past time we, as a nation, grew up. Let’s leave those fears behind us, in the nursery of our national history.

Huckabee Sinks to a New Low (Yes, It’s Possible)

March 6, 2015

Shameless Huckabee

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Over on Hang Together, I declare shenanigans. Everybody grab a broom!


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