F W Murnau

F W MurnauOn this day in 1888, the great German filmmaker F W Murnau was born. He started in film right around the time when it had come into its all as an artistic medium. And his films are always quite beautiful to look at. He had a great eye. But he is best known for the mood of his work — he is one of major figures in German Expressionistic cinema. And like others in that movement, he was very interested in horror. This first film was based upon The Picture of Dorian Gray. He later did adaptations of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Faust.

He is best know, however, for his horror classic, Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror — one of the first true horror films. Of course, like all of his films, he never got the rights to make the film. And in this case, it brought legal action from Bram Stoker’s widow. As a result, the film never had the chance to be commercially successful. But it is considered a classic today. All prints of the film were supposed to be destroyed. Luckily, one was saved.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of many of Murnau’s films. His first six films have been lost except for some minor fragments. And three of his later films are lost. This includes one he made in Hollywood, 4 Devils — which is thought by film historians to have been one of his best works. In all, he directed 21 films and nine of them are lost — almost half! That’s shocking for a major filmmaker of such a late date. And these are all feature films — 50 minutes and longer.

Still, you can find many of his films on the internet: Nosferatu, Faust, Tabu. And that’s a lot more than you can say for a lot of people. There are many whose films exist but no one cares enough to release them or put them online. I especially recommend checking out Tabu, because it shows a different side of Murnau than we normally see and you get a good feel for his keen visual sense.

Happy birthday F W Murnau!

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Welcome to Your One Corporation Government

American Corporate Flag

Dean Baker brought up an important issue today, New for Washington Post: Politicians Don’t Always Tell the Truth and TPP Is Not a Free-Trade Agreement. Primarily, he’s talking about the likely reason that Obama is pushing the TPP and TTIP, “President Obama is trying to get more business support for the Democratic Party.” But I’m more focused on just how awful these deals are.

As Baker has noted many times in the past, these are not “free trade” agreements. The two agreements involve nations in Asia (TPP) and Europe (TTIP) with which we already have pretty much free trade. What these agreements would do is make it very easy for business to contest local, state, and federal laws in newly created tribunals. Here is the key that ought to cause a shiver down the spine of all sentient beings, “Their rulings could not be over-turned by domestic courts.”

You know all the right-wing loonies who are always worried about the one world government or the imposition of sharia law? Well, that’s all nonsense. But this here is a very real threat. As I discuss a great deal on this blog, what we have to fear is the business community. Conservatives are constantly worried that it is the government that is oppressing them. But that isn’t the case at all. Our biggest threats come from private corporations with the government backing them up.

And that’s what we see with the TPP and TTIP. This is a very clear attack on national sovereignty. And this is why people like Obama want a quick vote on this — fast track authority. Because they know that a careful analysis of it will kill it. This is just another way for the business community to gain more power over us. I can’t say exactly how it would all work. No one can because these treaties have never been made public. But it is quite likely that what they would eventually mean is that local minimum wage laws were illegal. And local environmental laws were illegal. And local zoning laws were illegal.

I’m I going too far? I doubt it. Things that seem beyond the pale in one step are often totally acceptable in two steps — much less a hundred. Let me give you an example. In the 19th century, the idea of drug laws was preposterous and clearly unconstitutional. But by the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of taxing drugs and then using the power to effectively make drugs illegal was acceptable. And before long, the government just made laws that never would have been allowed a century earlier.

So going home to the house located a few meters from a new fracking operation after losing your only shot at justice in the TPP tribunals shouldn’t sound too far fetched. Because if we don’t work against it, it will become reality. This is an area where we really do have allies on the right. Of course, after Fox News starts pushing it, I can’t say. The black helicopter crowd isn’t hard to manipulate. As long as a Democrat is pushing the TPP and the TTIP, they will doubtless be against this move. But once President Cruz is pushing it, all bets are off.

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Don’t Worry America: Obama Consults Iron Age Religious Texts!

Obama CopeOn Christmas eve, Politico published a terrible bit of journalism, Oh Come All Ye Faithful? Its contents are summed up in its subtitle, “Obama rarely seen in church, but advisers say his beliefs remain strong.” A lot of people seem to be hung up on the article because there is an implicit criticism. But I think it is offensive on a whole different and more general level. But it is something of a criticism.

In particular, the article provides a bit of quantification of the religiosity of president. For example, it noted, “In all, Obama has gone to services on about 6 percent of the Sundays of his presidency and just once on Christmas Day, in 2011, which also happened to be a Sunday. George W Bush, by contrast, went to church on close to 30 percent of Sundays during his eight years in office.” One could — in fact, should — counter this by noting that there was nothing especially Christian about Bush. He was a big Tim Tebow (Matthew 6:5) kind of guy in the way he constantly broke with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

But this is the definitional American religious disease. It is one of the reasons I have so low an opinion of religion faith in this country. It seems so much about posing. Christians are fond of talking about their “personal” relationship with Christ, but it always strikes me that this personal relationship is awfully public. And nothing is more public than politicians who constantly talk about their faith. I am convinced that such acts not only speak to the hollowness of their faith in God but also in their faith of the belief of those listening.

A great comparison has always been between Carter and Reagan. Carter is a man who takes his religion very seriously. As a result, he did not talk about it very much. Reagan was a prototypical cultural Christian: for him, religion was a cultural signifier and little else. But he — and not Carter — was the man who made ostentatious religious displays critically important in American politics. It shows the shallowness of American Christianity that the vast majority of Christians think this is a good thing.

But that gets to the heart of what is so offensive about the Politico article. What it is really concerned with is pacifying the nation. “Don’t worry America!” it says. “Obama is a true believer who uses the Iron Age writing of our holy book in solving our Space Age problems!” It greatly disturbs me that Obama can only be trusted to make the right decisions if he’s getting those daily devotionals on his BlackBerry. And for reassurance, Politico asks people like Joel Hunter, “a Florida megachurch pastor.” He is one of “Obama’s two closest religious advisers.” I don’t think that any association with a megachurch would qualify one as a great theological thinker. His other “adviser” is a Pentecostal minister. For those who don’t know, Pentecostals are very much part of the “born again” movement. Think: Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

You don’t need intelligence. You don’t need skills. You don’t need empathy. All you need is a good, very public, relationship with an Iron Age myth. That’s what makes a great president. Just ask Politico.

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Jains Versus Christians

Sam HarrisThe Jains preach a doctrine of utter nonviolence. While the Jains believe many improbable things about the universe, they do not believe the sorts of things that lit the fires of the Inquisition. You probably think the Inquisition was a perversion of the “true” spirit of Christianity. Perhaps it was. The problem, however, is that the teachings of the Bible are so muddled and self-contradictory that it was possible for Christians to happily burn heretics alive for five long centuries. It was even possible for the most venerated patriarchs of the Church, like St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, to conclude that heretics should be tortured (Augustine) or killed outright (Aquinas). Martin Luther and John Calvin advocated the wholesale murder of heretics, apostates, Jews, and witches. You are, of course, free to interpret the Bible differently — though isn’t it amazing that you have succeeded in discerning the true teachings of Christianity, while the most influential thinkers in the history of your faith failed? Of course, many Christians believe that a harmless person like Martin Luther King Jr, is the best exemplar of their religion. But this presents a serious problem, because the doctrine of Jainism is an objectively better guide for becoming like Martin Luther King Jr, than the doctine of Christianity is. While King undoubtedly considered himself a devout Christian, he acquired his commitment to nonviolence primarily from the writings of Mohandas K Gandhi. In 1959, he even traveled to India to learn the principles of nonviolent social protests directly from Gandhi’s disciples. Where did Gandhi, a Hindu, get his doctrine of nonviolence? He got it from the Jains.

—Sam Harris
Letter to a Christian Nation

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How the Fed Enforces the Status Quo

Federal ReservePaul Krugman has written a couple of blog posts about David Beckworth. I know what you’re thinking, “Why would Krugman be writing about soccer? Or is he writing about the Spice Girls?” Don’t be an idiot like me: it’s Beckworth, not Beckham. He’s an economist of sorts. In the first post, Krugman was impressed that Beckworth agreed with him about the limitations of monetary policy when interest rates are already hanging around zero. But in his second post, Krugman grumbled because Beckworth seemed to be backtracking.

The argument that Beckworth is making is really interesting, even if Krugman’s argument is valid. Beckworth’s argument is that fiscal stimulus can’t really help the economy either. He claimed that any stimulus created by the government spending money would be offset by the Fed raising rates. Krugman countered that this isn’t true in the current situation where the Federal Reserve has consistently been unable to keep inflation as high as its (ridiculously low) inflation target. When it comes to this, I think there is an easier way to counter Beckworth. Basically, he’s just making the argument that there is never anything the government can do to fight economic downturns. So why bother?! That’s a typical conservative conclusion in search of an argument.

But there is something to be said for Beckworth’s argument in a general sense. In regular times, the Fed stands guard over the wealth of the power elite. If the economy starts to really take off — most especially in the form of workers actually earning more money for a change — the Fed raises interest rates to slow the economy down. The only time in the last four decades that we have seen a substantive improvement in the earnings of ordinary workers was when crazy heterodox Fed chairman Alan Greenspan went against what all the economists said.

The interesting thing is that Greenspan showed that unemployment could get down to below 4% without causing inflation. But the actual real world experiment hasn’t changed the thinking of economists. I still hear economists claiming that inflation below 6% is going to cause inflation. I know that things change over time. But 6%? Really?! That’s extreme. Things haven’t changed that much. But this is why I think it is better to think of economists as religious apologists than as scientists. But instead of arguing on the literal truth of the Bible, they argue for whatever is best for the power elite.

So in good times — or moderately good times — the Federal Reserve really does have the power to kill any recovery that democratically elected officials might be able to facilitate. And that really doesn’t speak well for us. It means that what hereditary “rights” did for feudalism, the Fed does for modern capitalism. And capitalism hardly needs such help! But with the Fed, it makes it substantially harder to break the established bonds of the power elite. It’s not just the fact that money makes money and that’s why you are best off being born rich. It is also that the most important economic entity in the entire world is there to enforce the status quo.

But just like we tell children fairy tales to make them behave, we tell ourselves comforting myths about meritocracy in America. But it is time to put away childish illusions and look at the cold reality of modern America. Then maybe we can change it.


See also: The Myth of the NAIRU and Its Purpose

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Charles Olson

Charles OlsonOn this day in 1910, the great poet Charles Olson was born. He is one of my very favorite poets. He has a style that if very much like the beats but without all the all the nonsense that goes along with them. Even Allen Ginsberg tends to annoy me within the span of even a short poem. So Olson expanded on the works of the earliest of the modernist poets — writers I admire like William Carlos Williams and most especially Ezra Pound.

I most know Olson because of the poem “The Kingfishers” — you can read it at Poetry Foundation. But Olson’s greatest work is probably The Maximus Poems. It is his attempt to channel Pound — a man he owed much to artistically and nothing to politically. It was explicitly following The Cantos. But if you prefer, it is also something like Williams’ Paterson.

Shockingly, there is actually some video of Olson reading. Here is “Maximus To Gloucester, Letter 27 (withheld)”:

Happy birthday Charles Olson!

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Image Inconsistency in Rocky and Bullwinkle

Rocky and BullwinkleAs regular readers know, I am a huge fan of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. I learned how to be a real man from Rocky — voiced by the beautiful and talented June Foray. And Bullwinkle is the prototype of all my close friends. (Oh, I’m kidding!) But most of all, I learned my philosophy of life, and I am very serious about this: it is much better to be lucky than smart. Most people throughout the world understand this philosophy, but Americans are strangely ignorant about it. They foolishly believe (despite all evidence including that from their own lives) that the world rewards talent and hard work. (Of course it does — as long as you are lucky.)

But all the time growing up, there was one thing that bothered me: animation inconsistencies. The show was produced in the United States. But all the animation was done in Mexico — an early example of outsourcing. And as is often the case in such situations, communication was not great. And it resulted in sequences that were clearly done at different times with little knowledge of each other. As a kid, the part that really bugged me was Rocky’s jump into the tub of water.

It starts with an image of a pool of water and the camera tilts up the ladder to a diving board where we see our plucky hero. But you can see it is very large pool — much wider than it is deep. We watch Rocky as he flies through the air. Then the image cuts to Bullwinkle, who is leaning against what is clearly a different water container — a tub now, not a pool. And this is very important because Bullwinkle could never have moved that pool around. See what I mean:

Bullwinkle tub

But there is another one that has bothered me a lot more as an adult. In the opening of “Aesop and Son” the titular characters are brunets. But once the story starts, they are blonds. As a brunet, I find it vaguely offensive. I’m sure the title sequence was created first. You can just imagine some executive saying, “Can’t we make those characters look more American?!” And by “American” he meant, “Someone who would fit right in at a a meeting of the Aryan Brotherhood.”

Aesop and Son

This is all due to the fact that The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show was made on a shoestring. And that is part of its charm. The animation is clunky. The writing is idiosyncratic. And they go together. Some of the visuals are inconsistent and some of the puns are unforgivable. “Parole out the barrel”?!

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Was It Really G K Chesterton Who Said…

G K ChestertonI’ve been having a bit of a problem about G K Chesterton.

He was a great English writer around the turn of the 20th century. He is probably best known for his Father Brown mysteries. But he was more of what we think of as a public intellectual. He wrote about a great many things. And he influenced generations of writers. As diverse a collection as C S Lewis, Marshall McLuhan, and Neil Gaiman were all profoundly influenced by him.

I tend to think of him as a conservative thinker. But at this point, that phrase — “conservative thinker” — seems mostly a contradiction. But there was a time when this was not necessarily the case. It is, after all, possible to respect tradition and yet be open to change. I don’t think he was incorrect when he wrote, “He is a very shallow critic who cannot see an eternal rebel in the heart of a conservative” — although I’m aware that a lot of conservatives think this without cause. Chesterton, however, was a close friend of George Bernard Shaw. The two of them apparently had wide ranging discussions during which they rarely agreed. I’m sure they disagreed about religion (Shaw was an atheist of my variety and he was a Christian) and religion (Shaw was a socialist and he wasn’t even keen on democracy).

But my problem has nothing to do with Chesterton’s beliefs. He is a highly quotable guy. In fact, in my copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Chesterton appears on three pages with 30 different quotations. But the following one attributed to him in the pilot episode of Ripping Yarns is not there:

It is hard to nail down the quote, because even the director in this skit (Terry Jones) isn’t consistent. But I assume that this is the quote, “The follies of men’s youth are in retrospect glorious compared to the follies of old age.” It’s a great quote. I want to use it. But I think that it wasn’t Chesterton. And even in the skit, Michael Palin says, “I think it was…” So maybe they just figured that Chesterton had the kind of intellectual oomph they were looking for.

But I can’t seem to find the quotation anywhere except by people who got it from Ripping Yarns. Is it possible that Palin and Jones wrote it? The sentiment sounds eternal — like it is found somewhere in the Old Testament. At the same time, the sentence structure is lovely. But I don’t like feeling ignorant on this point. So if anyone knows anything, please let me know.

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Keynes the Boogeyman of Conservatives

John CochraneI was really depressed when I saw John Cochrane’s OpEd in The Wall Street Journal Monday, An Autopsy for the Keynesians. It wasn’t because it was totally wrong. But it is that. Ask Paul Krugman, Commies Like Me. Or Dean Baker, John Cochrane Versus the Keynesians, #23,127. Or Brad DeLong, If You Had Told Me Twenty Years Ago That the People The Wall Street Journal Put on Its Op-Ed Page Would Only Get Less Hinged as Time Passed… Or Noah Smith, Commie Commie Commie Commie Commie K-Keynesian. Or Frances Coppola, The Gullible Economist. Or Barkley Rosser, More Piling On Cochrane. I’m used to Cochrane writing absolutely stupid things.

What depressed me was that his article was so entirely typical of what we get from conservative economists who have done good work in the past. Or at least I think they’ve done good work in the past. People who know about such things certainly seem to think so. I don’t much pay attention to Cochrane. I’m much more focused on Greg Mankiw — probably because I better understand his economic work. But none of it matters because when they start talking policy, all their knowledge goes out the window. Earlier this year, Mankiw was arguing that of course the rich deserve everything they can because Robert Downey Jr starred in Iron Man 3. More recently, Cochrane was making the argument that inequality doesn’t matter because… single motherhood or something. When these jokers make policy arguments, they aren’t doing economics. They are simply pushing extremely tired arguments in favor the aristocracy that have been made for hundreds of years.

What bothers me is that none of these people ever pays a professional price for being out pushing the interests of the power elite. People will still look back on work they did in their 20s or 30s and note how professional it was. Sure, the economics blogs will attack them if they are pushing their vile apologetics in a venue that has a high enough profile. But there won’t be any good dinner parties they will miss because of this behavior. In fact, it will likely be the opposite. And no one will snub them at a conference and no one will fire them and no one will refuse to publish their books.

Of even greater concern is that these people will be eagerly sought in the next Republican administration. We know that of Mankiw. And we also know that his policy beliefs are entirely dependent upon who is in the White House. So if President Cruz calls him for economic advice, I’m know that Mankiw will be a Keynesian. And I’m sure that Cochrane will do the same thing. Because regardless of what he may rant around in The Wall Street Journal, he will do what they all do when it comes to practical matters: he will turn to Keynes.

So we are left with a situation where writing total blather in major newspapers makes these guys much more likely to go into government. And once there, they will be forced to grapple with actual practical economics. They will, of course, push the usual supply side nonsense loved by conservatives everywhere. But they will also have to admit that, yes, Keynes was right — not that they will say so in public. Because when it comes to the conservative audience — most especially including the politicians — Keynes isn’t an economist to be argued about; he’s the boogeyman.

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The Fanatical Type

Eric HofferThough there are obvious differences between the fanatical Christian, the fanatical Mohammedan, the fanatical nationalist, the fanatical Communist and the fanatical Nazi, it is yet true that the fanaticism which animates them may be viewed and treated as one. The same is true of the force which drives them on to expansion and world dominion. There is a certain uniformity in all types of dedication, of faith, of pursuit of power, of unity and of self-sacrifice. There are vast differences in the contents of holy causes and doctrines, but a certain uniformity in the factors which make them effective. He who, like Pascal, finds precise reasons for the effectiveness of Christian doctrine has also found the reasons for the effectiveness of Communist, Nazi and nationalist doctrine. However different the holy causes people die for, they perhaps die basically for the same thing.

—Eric Hoffer
The True Believer

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