Category: Quotes
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Thomas FrankIn approaching this subject, let us first address the historical situation of the Obama administration. The task of [presidential] museums, like that of history generally, is to document periods of great change. The task facing the makers of the Obama museum, however, will be pretty much exactly the opposite: how to document a time when America should have changed but didn't. Its project will be to explain an age when every aspect of societal breakdown was out in the open and the old platitudes could no longer paper it over—when the meritocracy was clearly corrupt, when the financial system had devolved into organized thievery, when everyone knew that the politicians were bought and the worst criminals went unprosecuted and the middle class was in a state of collapse and the newspaper pundits were like street performers miming "seriousness" for an audience that had lost its taste for mime and seriousness both. It was a time when every thinking person could see that the reigning ideology had failed, that an epoch had ended, that the shitty consensus ideas of the 1980s had finally caved in—and when an unlikely champion arose from the mean streets of Chicago to keep the whole thing propped up nevertheless.

—Thomas Frank
Right-Wing Obstruction Could Have Been Fought: an Ineffective and Gutless Presidency's Legacy Is Failure

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Robert SamuelsonI understand someone like Josh Barro who is a conservative (Neoliberal?) and does usually act as an apologist for the Republicans. But I've never seen him intentionally misrepresent the facts. He has his ax to grind, just like I do. But he would never make a statement like, "Raising the minimum wage will cost jobs." He knows the data. The research on the subject is all over the place. I don't actually know where he is on that issue, but I know from experience that he's much more likely to say something like, "The studies are inconclusive. The truth is we don't know the effect; it will probably depend upon the time and place and the size of the increase." That's an honest man—or at least a man who is trying to be honest about issues that matter to him.

But as a result of being so honest, Barro is pretty much left out of Republican discourse. If you see him on television, it will be MSNBC and not Fox News. Because the truth of the matter is that to be taken seriously in the conservative movement, you have to be either ignorant or deceptive. This isn't because conservatism is inherently indefensible. But in this country, the conservative movement has gone off the rails. And actually, the Democrats have too: they are now halfway on the old Republican tracks, while the Republicans will soon be taking out homes a couple blocks away from the railroad. So in order to keep complaining about the same stuff conservatives are always complaining about, you can't be like Josh Barro. You have to cherry pick numbers in such a way as to completely deceive your readers.

And that brings us to Robert Samuelson at the Washington Post, where it doesn't ever matter what the numbers say, the United States economy is on the verge of collapse! Although wrong year after year, Samuelson still manages the headline, Budget Policy as Prayer. The CBO produced one of its long-term budget outlooks last week, and most people think it looks pretty good—better than it has in years. William Gale at The Brookings Institute provides a very middle-of-the-road assessment in, Six Takeaways from CBO's New Long-Term Budget Outlook. And his first point is, "The size of the budget deficit today isn't a problem, and it's not much of a problem for the next few years either."

Samuelson doesn't see it that way! He claims that, "Its themes are distressingly familiar." That's right: bread lines, roving biker gangs, no parties, no discos. You know the way it is. To give you an idea of just how bad it's going to get, Samuelson says, "Under favorable assumptions, the CBO projects deficits of $7.6 trillion from 2015 to 2024." Well, by favorable assumptions, we mean current law. You know: assuming that the Republicans don't take over the government, cut taxes for the wealthy, start a few more wars, and increase subsidies to every large corporation in the world.

The problem is that Dean "Pundit Slayer" Baker, actually read the report (pdf). While it is true that the CBO projects $7.6 trillion in deficits over the next decade, because of economic growth, this will cause the Federal Debt held by the public as a percentage of GDP to go up just four percentage points: from 74% now to 78% in a decade.

Now, I'm not going to lie to you, the CBO projects the debt to go up from 78% to 106% during the 15 years after that. But there are a couple of issues to bear in mind here. First is that even ten year forecasts are simply bad; 25 year forecasts are complete fantasy. And as Baker points out, the only reason the deficit is 74% now, is because of the financial crisis and the bursting of the housing bubble. In the first quart of 2008, it was 36%. Remember: that ain't Obamacare or any other new "liberal" laws, since they've all been paid for; that is reduced tax revenues and increased welfare programs because people are poorer. So if the Republicans would help the government to grow the economy instead of hinder its growth, we could see a boom that would cause our debt to GDP ratio to go down—way down.

But given that Samuelson seems to think that high debt is just going to kill us, Baker noted that there just isn't any evidence for that:

The projections show the debt to GDP ratio rising to 106 percent in 2039. That's not as high as the debt to GDP ratio that we saw at the end of World War II and still far lower than the 134 percent debt to GDP ratio faced by Italy today and the 244 percent ratio in Japan. Due to the fearful investors, Italy now has to pay 2.81 percent interest on its long-term debt and Japan has to pay 0.55 percent.

The truth is that Samuelson will do anything to push his policy preference, which is to slash Social Security and Medicare. And there isn't much of a Social Security problem at all. There is a Medicare problem, but that is due primarily to the fact that we pay twice as much as other advanced countries for our healthcare. And even Medicare isn't looking as bad as it was a few years ago. Plus, there are lots of ways to deal with any shortfalls in these programs: we could raise the Payroll Tax cap and make that tax slightly less regressive. But that is exactly the sort of thing that Samuelson wants to avoid.

Samuelson writes pretty much this same column once or twice a month. He is always freaking out that we are going broke. Today is just special because it shows that even when the data are positive, he's still freaking out. He carefully pulls out data and quotes from the CBO report to make his case. There is no way that he is unaware of what he's doing. His intent is to deceive his readers. Robert Samuelson is a liar, which should come as no shock because most conservatives are liars.

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Simon Wren-LewisThere are a lot of loony ideas in economics. The reason, I think, is because even though a particular economic policy might not be best for the economy overall, it can be very good for a particular group. And when that group is rich and powerful, there are going to be a lot of people using all their brain power to justify why such a policy is really good for everyone. But in the macroeconomics world, there really are only two serious approaches to fix an economy that is under performing. The first is for the government to spend extra money to increase demand and thus get the economy moving again. Much of this kind of stuff happens automatically: unemployment insurance works this way. We call people who believe in this kind of intervention in the economy Keynesians.

Whereas Keynesians look at propping up economic demand, the second group looks at propping up economic supply. They do this with money flow. By allowing businesses to borrow more cheaply, they will invest more and expand, thus putting money into the economy. We call people who believe in this kind of intervention in the economy Monetarists. They tend to be a more conservative lot than the Keynesians.

Matt Yglesias is always saying that if you want to help poor people, give them money. This is a response to neoliberal and conservative policies that want to do everything indirectly. Rather than just give an unemployed person money or a job with the government, we give a tax break to employers, hoping they will hire the guy. This is kind of how I see the Monetarists. I think what their real fear about the Keynesians is that more government spending will lead to higher taxes. That is a big concern. But the main thing is that the Monetarists just seem to have an ideological problem with the government spending money.

So there has been a small argument between Monetarist Nick Rowe and Keynesian Paul Krugman. And while Simon Wren-Lewis has nothing but nice things to say about Rowe, he makes a really important point in an article yesterday, What Annoys Me About Market Monetarists. And it gets right to the heart of the liberal-conservative divide in this country. (I don't mean to say that Rowe is a conservative; I don't know; and these days, the thinking of people like Rowe are considered terrible by conservatives; so even if he is a conservative, he isn't a crazy one.)

To understand why I do get annoyed with MM [Market Monetarism], let me use another car analogy. We are going downhill, and the brakes do not seem to be working properly. I'm sitting in the backseat with a representative of MM. I suggest to the driver that they should keep trying the brake pedal, but they should also put the handbrake on. The person sitting next to me says "That is a terrible idea. The brake pedal should work. Maybe try pressing it in a different way. But do not put on the handbrake. The smell of burning rubber will be terrible. The brake pedal should work, that is what it is designed for, and to do anything else just lets the car manufacturer off the hook. Have you tried pressing on the accelerator after trying the brake?"

The point that Wren-Lewis is making is that Keynesians don't say that only fiscal policy will work; they believe in monetary policy too. It is just that when monetary policy isn't working, Keynesians believe fiscal policy should be used. The Monetarists are rigid and I think it all comes down to ideology. They don't want to use government spending so they come up with reasons why government spending would be terrible. (Again: Wren-Lewis isn't talking about Rowe here—just the Monetarists generally.)

My take on American politics is that conservatism has ossified into a strictly ideological movement. So when approaching any problem, they start with a long list of things that can't be done. For example, if they are looking at inequality between school funding, the solution cannot be federal funding to equalize them. Instead they push more testing or ending teacher tenure or neoliberal policies like providing tax incentives to manufactures to give computers to low income schools.

Liberals, on the other hand, are open to all policies. That is, for example, how we got the conservative healthcare reform law now known as Obamacare. But even on education policy, I don't see liberal resistance to the elimination of tenure as not being open to the idea. It is rather that elimination of tenure has little is anything to do with helping children, and everything to do with the conservative desire to destroy teachers' unions.

It seems that even a reasonable academic like Nick Rowe falls into his own kind of false equivalence. He seems to think that just because Monetarists are against fiscal policy, that means Keynesians are against monetary policy. But that's not true. It goes along with the claim by conservatives that they want small government as an end in itself. (They don't actually want small government, but that's what they claim.) Thus they assume that liberals want big government as an end in itself. That's simply not true. We want certain things to be done, and it really does matter to us if it uses a little government, a lot of government, or no government.

This can't be said enough: liberalism is practical. Liberals are not trying to turn the United States into a socialist utopia. This is in stark contrast to conservatives who are ideological. They are trying to turn the United States into a utopia, although they disagree as to whether it would be a theocracy or an anarchy. This difference between the ways that liberals and conservatives see policy is our fundamental problem. Liberals can't compromise with conservatives who won't even consider any ideas outside their tiny ideological box. And as we saw with Obamacare, even when liberals do squeeze into that tiny ideological box, the conservatives make the box even smaller.

And if fairly reasonable Monetarists can't agree that when monetary policies aren't working, we should use fiscal policies, how can we possibly get Ted Cruz to admit that tax loopholes for oil companies ought to be closed?

Krippendorf's TribeLast night I watched Krippendorf's Tribe the 1998 filmed version of Frank Parkin's almost unrecognizable novel of the same name. Since it first came out, I've been a defender of the film. It certainly isn't great art—or art at all. It is just a silly film that doesn't try to be anything else. And I think it works rather well in that regard.

As a result, I've never been very clear what critics hate so much about the film. Last night, I showed it to my father, and like me, he found it very silly and fun. So I thought I might revisit the film's fairly consistent bad reviews with a trip over to Rotten Tomatoes.

I was surprised to find that a lot of the reviews were little more than complaints about the bawdy humor in the film. This in itself is kind of a strange complaint. The film is rated PG-13. ParaNorman was only rated PG, and it not only has sexual innuendo but scary scenes as well.

I think that film critics are usually at their worst when reviewing comedies. The thing about comedies is that the viewer brings as much comedy to the experience as the film. Ask any stand-up comedian. They will tell you that routines that work brilliantly on Friday nights often die on Tuesday nights with their small, scattered, and mostly unhappy audiences. (Why else does someone go out to a comedy club on a Tuesday?) There are a lot of comedies that don't work for me, but other people find hysterical. Who am I to say that a film isn't funny when others find it so? And can I really be trusted? If I had seen the same movie a day earlier or a day later, mightn't I have found it funny?

Of the reviews, the only one I found that I thought was reasonably useful was Madeleine Williams' review at Cinematter. She starts the review, "Krippendorf's Tribe is a formula comedy. Done poorly, formulaic comedies might seem to signify the downfall of American cinema. However, every now and then one emerges, like Krippendorf's Tribe, that actually works." I think that's about right: it does what it tries to do, although I have my problems with the film that I will get to later.

For pure film critic arrogance and uselessness, however, you can't beat Eric D Snider. Before I get to discussing his review of Krippendorf's Tribe, let me give you a general overview of him. In general, his reviews are short and sloppy. But he used to write a column over at called, What's the Big Deal? In those rather longer articles, he discussed famous and significant films and why people care about them. There, he actually spends some time and does a really good job. In fact, in these articles, I think he does what film critics ought to be doing. But I also suspect he's seen those films more than once.

So I'm not saying that he's an idiot or that he doesn't know what he's talking about. And clearly, people like short articles by people they consider film ombudsmen. But that very idea is what leads to things like his review of Krippendorf's Tribe. It goes along very much with part of the tag line for his site, "Snide Remarks." But it hardly matters; he may be an extreme example, but what he writes is very much what passes for film reviews today. He starts:

In order to find Krippendorf's Tribe funny, you must agree with it on one fundamental principle: Penises are funny.

Perhaps this is where we part ways. In general, penises are funny. But you could take out all of penis humor from the film and you would still be left with a lot of humor. There is no doubt however, that there is a fair amount of sexual humor. There is nothing especially right or wrong about that. Not that it matters, because Snider isn't actually that interested in the subject. It is just a clever—and highly misleading—way to start and end his review.

If you do not hold that truth to be self-evident, there is no hope of your enjoying this movie. Also, if you are above the age of 9, there is no hope of your enjoying this movie. It's a film aimed at kids that is too lewd to be viewed by them.

If the film really is aimed at kids, it has a funny way of showing it. Kids wouldn't get most of the humor. I'm afraid that Snider is mistaking a film about a family for a family movie. He clearly knows the film is rated PG-13, but apparently he doesn't know what it means.

Only the people at Disney could come up with such a quandary, and it is Disney (through its Touchstone Pictures division) that inflicted this live-action trainwreck upon the world. Surely Walt spins in his cryogenic chamber when he hears of thoughtless movies like this one being made, movies that obsess over genitalia as though they were fleshy, bulbous deity.

This is brilliant! Touchstone Pictures is a brand that Disney uses. According to Wikipedia, "[Touchstone] typically releases films that feature more mature themes and darker tones than those released under the flagship Walt Disney Pictures label." I appreciate the shout out to the "Walt Disney's not dead" urban legend, but it doesn't belong anywhere in this review.

Krippendorf's Tribe stars Richard Dreyfuss, who at one point won an Academy Award, though I think he subsequently traded it for cocaine in an alley. He plays James Krippendorf, an eminent anthropologist whose wife recently died, leaving him with three kids you may have seen in other movies: the Sullen Teen, the Brilliant Boy and the Adorable 5-Year-Old.

That's a low blow to Dreyfuss, whose drug problem predated the review by over two decades. What's more, he's done much fine work since then. Of course, Snider can't even be bothered to say there is anything wrong with Dreyfuss' performance; he just implies that he's a bad actor.

His characterization of the children is, not surprisingly, quite wrong. The "Sullen Teen" (Natasha Lyonne as Shelly) has taken on the responsibility of running the house since dad has been an emotional wreck. The "Brilliant Boy" (Gregory Smith as Mickey) is smart, but that isn't the only thing he is. And the "Adorable 5-Year-Old" (Carl Michael Lindner as Edmund) is so scarred by his mother's death that he refuses to speak out loud. I'll admit, these are not characters of the depth one would find in a Dostoyevsky novel, but Krippendorf's Tribe is a screwball comedy.

As the film begins, James is harassed by an aggressively perky college student named Veronica (Jenna Elfman) who wants to be on his research team. She also casually reminds James that 1) he was given a research grant of $100,000 two years ago; 2) he has wasted all the money on candy and gum; and 3) he is supposed to give a lecture and report his findings TONIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Nothing like all caps and 14 exclamation marks to make your point! But here he gets a number of things wrong. Veronica was once Krippendorf's student, but is now on the faculty of his school. We learn that he had a research grant of $100,000 and that he has used it all just living, but not from Veronica. Details like these get lost when you've tuned out to a movie, which means that Snider tuned out five minutes into it.

How could James have forgotten all of this? Easy. He is the world's stupidest man.

No. He forgot it because (a) he still hasn't gotten over the recent death of his wife; (2) it is a screwball comedy; and (3) if he had started a month earlier it wouldn't have changed anything. Snider thinks the whole cast of characters are the "world's stupidest people," as we will shortly see.

Well, he's in quite a pickle now, isn't he? It is difficult to sympathize, for surely no one with capacity to read these words is dumb enough to waste $100,000 of grant money and forget what he was supposed to be doing with it. Do you suppose that every time James bought something expensive, he thought, "Oh, yeah, all this money. I guess I should go do some research with it, shouldn't I? Ooh, look, a shiny thing...!"

This is over thinking the film, but I must admit to having similar concerns, given that I used to be research faculty. For one thing, when a scientist gets a research grant, he isn't just handed a check. The money is distributed through the academic institution. There is a budget. Money goes to different things. But at least a third of that grant would have gone for Krippendorf's salary, to allow him time off from his teaching duties. I'm sure this was a problem in changing the novel to the film.

But I still think Snider is wrong to say that such a thing couldn't happen. People get themselves into all kinds of problems, especially after a tragedy like the loss of one's wife. And to demand that kind of plot realism in a film of this nature is ridiculous. I'm sure Snider has never made similar comments about Bringing Up Baby. (Note: Snider doesn't like Bringing Up Baby, either; but only because he doesn't like Katherine Hepburn's voice—such the depth of his analysis.)

Anyway, he does the only thing you could do in this situation, which is to fabricate a New Guinea tribe and attribute a lot of interesting social customs to it. For the tribe's name he comes up with Shelmikedmu, based on his three children, Shelley, Mickey and Edmund.

How could he name a tribe after his own kids and not have anyone notice the connection and thus realize his work is a sham? Easy. They are all the world's stupidest people.

In fact, he did have other options; he just chose to lie because Krippendorf is a lovable rogue. The "Shelmikedmu" is only obvious to viewers because we are shown how he comes up with the name. No one would notice this similarity to his children's names because they don't sound the same and no one at the college would even know the children's names. The problem here is not stupid characters but a reviewer determined to find fault in a film.

One person doubts him, though. This is Ruth Allen, a rival professor played by Lily Tomlin, who possesses in her left buttock more class and talent than the rest of this movie combined. (The same goes for David Ogden Stiers, of whom Disney must have incriminating photos, perhaps involving livestock, in order for him to appear in this film. It also goes for Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, who plays Krippendorf's mother-in-law and who subsequently appeared in Norm Macdonald's Screwed [Actually, it is the directorial debut of the brilliant screenwriting team Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski], which makes me wonder if maybe she actually died several years ago and is merely being propped up in strategic locations, Weekend at Bernie's-style.)

Interesting that both Lily Tomlin and David Ogden Stiers have more class than the rest of the film. Logically, this is impossible, but whatever. I thought Tomlin did a good job with Ruth's aristocratic disdain, but I thought they could have lost the monkey, which isn't used to any comedic effect except for one fart joke. Elaine Stritch (who died at the age of 89 just last week) was very good as the boozy grandmother. Stiers played his part well enough, but it isn't enough of a part to have a strong opinion about.

Anyway, the movie tries to pawn Prof. Allen off as a bad guy simply because she doubts our hero—who is lying, you'll recall, which makes doubting him a fairly reasonable thing to do. But live-action Disney films deal in simplistic, moronic terms. The main character is always a hero, and everything he does is right. By process of elimination, anyone who opposes the main character is a bad guy. If Disney made a film about Adolf Hitler, 1) it would be a musical, and 2) you'd be expected to believe the Allies were mean for picking on cute li'l Hitly (voice of Nathan Lane).

This is rich! Snider is complaining about heroes being definitional, and yet he gave the truly mediocre Marvel's The Avengers a rating of B+. I will say no more about this, other than to suggest you read my review of that film, Marvel's The Despots.

That's right: Ruth is the "heavy." But it isn't because she doubts our hero. It is because she is a thoroughly unlikable character. From the very start, she wants to see Krippendorf fail. It is typical academic politics, but the man has recently lost his wife and deserves a little understanding. But the moment he's back, she's there to pounce. In that way, she's very much like Snider himself, so I can see why he thinks she is unfairly vilified. (And actually, she is given a good ending because she's shown to be ethical; she doesn't want to admit that Krippendorf appears to be right, but she does.)

Krippendorf not only lies to his colleagues, but involves his children in it. Sullen Teen wants nothing to do with his scheme, but Brilliant Boy and Adorable 5-Year-Old are both more than happy to help Dad perpetrate fraud and embezzlement. They build a New Guinea Shelmikedmu set in the backyard and create video footage of the non-existent tribe, including a circumcision ritual. (The leader of the tribe—impersonated by James [Krippendorf] himself—wears a penis sheath, too. This means that in virtually every scene of the movie, there is a phallic symbol or reference of some kind. Gay porn doesn't refer to penises as much as Krippendorf's Tribe does.)

I'll won't try to psychoanalyze Snider's penis obsession. The truth is that the tribal leader doesn't show up until the second half of the film, so the penis sheath is simply not in "virtually every scene of the movie."

The family working together (eventually joined by Veronica, becoming the new mother figure), is the emotional core of the film. Krippendorf has got himself into a bad situation and the family bails him out. Also: it is not Krippendorf, but his older son who suggests the idea. And while his daughter is not happy about the situation, she reluctantly does help out until the end, when she fully embraces the need to save the family. Perhaps if Snider had allowed the film to unfold for him rather than deciding it was terrible and marking down every time he saw a penis sheath, he might not have missed the emotional core of the film.

In the end, Krippendorf's massive web of lies and deceit brings the family together, as even Sullen Teen pitches in to aid Dad in selling his soul to Lucifer and setting a fine example for the kids. Not to spoil anything, but he gets away with it all. There is never any comeuppance; he never has to admit it was all a fake. In fact, he gets a new girlfriend out of the deal, though the thrill of that victory is no doubt lessened somewhat by it being Jenna Elfman. The message to our youth? Lying is fine, as long as you can get away with it. Also, penises are funny. Hooray!

Yes, the lovable rogue gets away with his crime. How terrible is that?! We've never before seen that in a PG-13 film! And the kids learned that protecting those you love—even when they make mistakes—and making the best of a bad situation is more important than being ideologically rigid and dedicated to pieties that don't make the world a better place. Also, all the work Krippendorf did in creating the Shelmikedmu was to show that a society could be created that reflected his own life. So it isn't like the work was a total sham. This point is forcefully made in the film.

But he just couldn't finish his review with attacking Jenna Elfman. And the attack wasn't even on her acting but rather on suitability as a mate for Krippendorf. And then he comes back to his main point that he doesn't think penis are funny. All told, I think Freud would have had a field day with his review. But I won't go there.

I will say that for a successful website that specializes in movie reviews, Snider uses Krippendorf's Tribe for nothing more than a rant about how he doesn't like sexual humor (or didn't on the day he saw the film), in which he missed several important points about the movie. It is typical of why I say I don't like movie reviewers.

On the other hand, there are real problems with Krippendorf's Tribe. And Roger Ebert, in a mixed review, nailed the biggest problem, "Comic momentum threatens to build up during a late scene at a banquet, where the university's aged benefactor unexpectedly discovers the secret of the fraud. But the movie can't find that effortless zaniness that good screwball comedy requires." Watching it, I can just imagine what the Marx Brothers would have done with it. I would disagree, however, that in this particular scene the film can't find the zaniness; I think it doesn't even try. The scene instead is used only as a plot device to make clear that Krippendorf and Veronica really are in love with each other.

The other problem with the movie is that the denouement comes out of the blue. There was not a single part of the film that allows the viewer to see the end and think, "Oh! That's what that was all about." Instead, the ending seems abrupt and tacked on. What's more, given that the happy ending is completely dependent upon the daughter, her character should have been better developed. She has a few really good scenes, but none really involve her father.

But the issue at hand is not whether Krippendorf's Tribe is a great film. The question is whether the film works on its own terms. And I think it does, although not spectacularly. But it is wrong to simply dislike the film and so write an article that takes potshots at every aspect of it, other than de rigueur shout outs to a couple of supporting cast members. The film—Any film!—deserves better. And Snider's review doesn't much engage with the film anyway. He simply states sexual humor to not be funny, nitpicks the plot, and casts aspersions on not the two leads as actors, but as people. It's just a pathetic effort that says everything about him and nothing about the movie. And that's not even a film review; that's just an arrogant rant about a movie he decided not to like.

Category: Birthdays
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Ernest HemingwayOn this day in 1899, one of the greatest American novelist Ernest Hemingway was born. When I was younger, I was quite fond of his work. To my young boy mind, he seemed to establish what it was to be a man. That's most especially true of Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises. There was something very poignant his sexual dysfunction along with his drive to still be around women. But looking back on the book now, it seems a very immature view of men, which doesn't necessarily mean it isn't true. But it certainly doesn't present anything like the male ideals that Homer provided for the ancient Greeks.

What still moves me as much today as it ever did is his style. I still remember this one sentence from A Farewell to Arms that is so simple and yet evocative, "I looked back and saw the three cars all climbing, spaced by the interval of their dust." That's like poetry and Hemingway's fiction is probably the most lyrical of the 20th century writers. There's no doubt that Gertrude Stein was a master of language, far exceeding Hemingway. But she is such a master that I find her difficult to read most of the time. And based upon pure writing, I think Hemingway was better than both Fitzgerald and Steinbeck.

But here I am at 50 and I still read Fitzgerald and Steinbeck. I even occasionally read Stein. But Hemingway: never. Part of that is having read a good too much of Hemingway when I was younger, but the same could be said of Steinbeck. What Hemingway always lacked, and this became clearer and clearer as I got older, was what Fitzgerald and Steinbeck had in abundance: great characters and a humane worldview.

Hemingway's work seemed to be limited by his own personal demons. He was afraid to allow his own humanity to be shown in his work. That's why I think his mostly solitary The Old Man and the Sea works the best of his fiction—because it is more mythic and even spiritual. The me, it is an allegory for life. It doesn't really matter that he got the marlin back safely. The essence of life is the journey, not the destination or the trophies. It would have been interesting to see him have developed in that direction, but instead, it stands like Orson Welles' F for Fake: a great work never built upon.

The last couple years of his life, Hemingway seems to have suffered from hemochromatosis—the accumulation of iron in the body. This caused him to deteriorate mentally, if not physically. It led to him twice being "treated" with electroshock therapy, which made his mental state even worse. Regardless, he eventually killed himself. It's sad, because I think he had a lot to offer as an older writer. With his clarity of vision and careful style combined with wisdom, he might have done really great things. Then again, it might just have been a lot more gossipy trash like A Moveable Feast. But he could have had more important things to say. Isn't it pretty to think so?

Happy birthday Ernest Hemingway!

Category: Quotes
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Making MoneyThat was the trouble with slow people. Give him a fool any day. Slow people took some time to catch up, but when they did they rolled right over you.

—Terry Pratchett
Making Money

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Term LimitsI made the mistake of posting a kind of silly comment on a Google+ political post. That meant that I got updates on every comment made to the post and it wasn't pretty. And I wasn't interested. It was a comparison of Obama and Bush the Younger, and as you can imagine, there wasn't a great deal of thought on either side. But one person on the Republican side made a comment about the need for Congressional term limits, and I lost it: I replied. I actually went out of my way to be nice, so no one responded. But it got me thinking about the issue of term limits and I figured that now is as good a time as any to explain my thoughts on the matter.

In general, terms limits are something that appeals to both conservatives and to people who don't think much about politics. The reason is that it is built on the idea that governing isn't a skill; anyone can do it! Well, we in California got a chance to try that out. We made Arnold Schwarzenegger governor for four years. Say what you will about the man, he is smart and capable. And he was a disaster. Then in came Jerry Brown—a career politician—and he showed how it is done. Politics is a skill. And we need as many skilled professionals in government as possible.

Imagine having the equivalent of term limits for auto mechanics. After eight years—generally when someone has finally become really good at his job—we don't allow him to fix cars anymore. That would make no sense. Yet that is what we do with politicians, even though they get better at representing their constituencies over time. Yet, in the recent Mississippi Republican primary, a big argument against Thad Cochran was exactly that he was good at bring federal money back to his state. That's nonsense!

I understand the corruption issue, of course. But that isn't solved by term limits; that's solved by taking money out of politics and not turning our politicians into corporate whores. If anything, term limits make politicians more dependent upon campaign money. At least established politicians have high name recognition. But what conservatives are really concerned about is "ideological corruption." What they don't want is for politics to be politics. They want politicians to stay ideologically pure so that no compromises are ever made. This is not the problem what most people worry about.

What's more, inexperienced politicians are more dependent upon lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). So the question really is, who do you want writing your laws: career politicians and their own trusted support staff, or special interest groups who are totally unaccountable. Additionally, politicians who know they are out after two terms (or whatever), have a huge incentive to do special favors for people who can give them good paying jobs after they are out of office. And yes, yes, yes! This problem too already exists, but term limits would only make it worse.

Above all, the problem with term limits (and I'm against them even for president) is that they are anti-democratic. They are a way of limiting the voting choices of other people. Congress is rightly disliked. But most people are pretty happy with their own members of Congress. So there isn't a single reason that Congress is disliked; in fact, the reasons are largely completely at odds with each other. Republicans don't like Congress because the Democrats control the Senate and Democrats don't like Congress because Republicans control the House.

The way I see it is that I want representatives who work for the interests of my district and my state. If voters in Mississippi feel differently, that's fine: throw the bums out. But making me throw out my representatives just because you think they are bums sounds a lot like tyranny to me. But even if it isn't quite that bad, it is anti-democratic and it promotes bad government.

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Martin LongmanI'm very fond of Martin Longman. He is an excellent writer and commentator. But he is having a bad day today over at Political Animal. First, he completely misread Ron Fournier's recent National Journal article, "We Don't Suck As Much!" a Motto Your Party Can Honestly Embrace. Longman actually gave Fournier credit for making some progress on false equivalence, The Democrats are the Least-Lousy Party.

Fournier had written, "To those on the far right and far left who will accuse me of 'false equivalence,' I beg your pardon and say, OK, the other side sucks a bit more. Feel better? The rest of us don't." Far from making progress, Fournier is embracing false equivalence. He's saying that's something that only extremists think about and all the good people like himself in the "middle" know that the Democrats and the Republicans are equally bad.

What I find interesting is that false equivalence coming from Fournier is an indication of just how bad the Republicans are. As you can see from his Wikipedia page, Fournier is a consistent Republican with a history of bashing Democrats from a supposed centrist position. One commenter called him a "Republican apparatchick." I don't think that's quite right, because apparatchicks didn't pretend to be disinterested centrists. Fournier is something far more loathsome. And the fact that the best he can say is that "both sides suck" shows he doesn't have anything real to complain about the Democrats nor anything good to say about the Republicans.

So Longman messed that up. It happens. Doing a blog is a lot of work, and as the "weekend guy" at Political Animal, I don't think he gets an editorial help. And to be fair, Fournier's article does claim that on the boarder crisis, Obama was "a little less bad than the Republicans." But the point of the article is broadly: both parties are exactly the same! After I read the article, I was just going to discuss Fournier with a hat tip to Longman. But then I read a later article.

Longman wrote, Movement Conservatism is Dead as a National Ideology. This is where we get into dangerous territory. As I discuss a lot around here, Ted Cruz or even Michele Bachmann could become president under the right economic conditions. Many liberals were thrilled when the Republicans nominated Reagan in 1980 because of his extremism. The truth is that the Republicans could have nominated anyone that year and he, she, or it would have been elected.

This is why I found it so upsetting when Longman wrote:

Both John McCain and Mitt Romney might have won the presidency if they had been allowed to run as moderates, but they both had to sacrifice that label to win the nomination.

No. No. No! There is absolutely no way that any Republican could have won the presidency in 2008. The economic conditions for a Democratic victory in 2008 are the best of all races back through Carter-Ford in 1976. And that's just because I haven't looked any further. The case for 2012 is not as strong, but it is still quite strong. Romney's problem was not that he ran as a movement conservative; it was that he ran on the economy. If you are the challenger and the economy is improving, you don't run on the economy. See Lynn Vavreck's The Message Matters for details.

What most bugs me about this idea that the Republicans might have won if only they had moderated their views is what it implies about the Democrats. Now I've been reading Longman for a long time and I know he doesn't think this, but it implies that the Democrats have won the presidency because they have moderated. The standard line is that Clinton and Obama won because they are New Democrats—you know, economically conservative Democrats. And this just isn't the case.

Just look at how stupid the Democratic Party is. In 1980, when the economy said the Republicans were certain to win, they nominated their most conservative headline candidate. In 2008, when the economy said the Democrats were certain to win, we nominated a milquetoast moderate. And what do we get for not sticking it to the Republicans as they stuck it to us? Cries of "Socialism!" and "Tyranny!"

Like I said, Martin Longman is an excellent writer and commentator. But he's only human (despite his image above). He just had a bad day.

Update (20 July 2014 8:05 pm)

Longman noticed my tweet. I still don't know how that happens. Anyway, it turns out that yesterday, he wrote, My Day Could Have Gone Better. It is about his mistake of buying baseball tickets for his son and him, but for the wrong day—a work day. And so it ended mostly with sitting in traffic. It sounds a lot worse than discovering my little article. But how bad could this article be when I twice refer to him as an "excellent writer and commentator"? Dave Weigel should get such plaudits!

Category: Politics
Posted by: Frank Moraes
We Are Doomed!This morning, Jonathan Chait wrote, Why Optimism Is Still America's Greatest Strength. Basically, I agree with him. Cynicism and pessimism don't generally lead to reform. But a mixture is important, because there is a dark side to optimism; it can cause complacency. I want to talk about optimism from a different perspective, however.

The traditional conservative take on liberals is that we are pessimistic and think America is weak and evil. I think this is kind of a contradiction. For one thing, evil in the weak doesn't really matter. I think that the United States is extremely powerful and that we often use that power to do great evil. But I am surprisingly optimistic about the future. Most of the time I think that the arc of history bends toward justice. But for the last almost four decades, it has been bending decidedly toward injustice.

On the other side, the conservative take on themselves is that they are optimistic and think America is powerful and good. But this isn't really true of conservatives—today anyway. In particular, they only think we are strong in terms of our military. I guess that is to be expected, because to a conservative, power is only manifested in terms of bending others to your will. Regardless, they do not think we are powerful when it comes to anything else. In their eyes, America will always be less than some mythical America they apparently got from watching Leave It To Beaver.

What's more, they are permanently pessimistic on the domestic front. Crime is always out of control, regardless of how much it falls. The Federal Reserve is powerless to help the economy, but it just might destroy it. We can't take care of the poor because we are too far in debt. (Note: we are never too far in debt to fight another unnecessary war.) We can't provide anything even close to equality of opportunity because rich children must be given better schools than poor children. In the conservative mind, we can't do anything because times are bad and they are only getting worse.

The weird thing is that they are right to think this. Any given conservative is just a snapshot of the movement at a particular time. But if you go through American history, you will see that the conservatives lose basically every battle they fight. A conservative may be someone who stands athwart history, yelling, "Stop!" But history mows them down and moves on to younger conservatives yelling stop about something else. Conservatives were for the monarchy. Conservatives were for slavery. Conservatives were against women voting. Conservatives are always on the wrong side of history.

So conservatives are right to be pessimistic. As I've written elsewhere, "Conservative opinion only has a shelf life of a generation." Today they celebrate Martin Luther King Jr, but at the time they hated and feared him and claimed he was a communist; they were at best apologists for Jim Crow. (And don't bring up liberal Republicans from the past, because the parties used to not line up that well ideologically.) But as Corey Robin has argued at great length, conservatives will always be against expanding rights and so will always see the country slipping further and further from their ideal.

Of course, it is the conservatives who are always out there chanting, "We're number one!" And that has always struck me as the kind of thing done by really insecure people. And I think this is why. Barring a fascist takeover of the United States (and I won't rule it out), history will continue to run them down. And in addition to everything else, they'll have to pretend that, "Of course I was always for same sex marriage!"—and everything else they were against when it mattered.

20 Jul 2014: Max Liebermann

Category: Birthdays
Posted by: Frank Moraes
Max LiebermannOn this day in 1847, the great German painter Max Liebermann was born. I'm actually not that fond of his work. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I'm not that fond of his impressionism, which often strikes me as bad Manet. His portraits are rather interesting. And his one religious painting indicates that he really should have done more historical painting, although it wasn't really the thing at the time.

If you want to be an artist, it really does help to have rich parents. I'm not talking Fred Koch rich, of course; that seems to just create spoiled brats who think the world ought to kneel down before them like David and Charles Koch. But high bourgeoisie, which gives you a good and worldly education, decent connections, and not so much money that you think it is all that matters. That's exactly what Liebermann got, and perhaps somewhat more. He also had the advantage of being born in Berlin and not Texas.

Below is Liebermann's one religious painting, The 12-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple With the Scholars. It caused quite a stir at the time. I guess it was blasphemy for a Jew to paint Jesus? Regardless, he didn't like the uproar and never again did anything terribly exciting—and he had over 50 years to go.

The 12-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple With the Scholars - Liebermann

Liebermann died at the age of 87 in 1935. By that time, the Nazis were in power. So even though he was quite famous, no mention of his death was made in the media. Over a hundred people came to his funeral, even though it was apparently illegal. It was only 1935, after all. The Nazis hadn't fully systematized their hate. So Liebermann died at the right time.

Happy birthday Max Liebermann!

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