Anniversary Post: the Spanish Speaking Wars

Mexican–American WarToday, we get a twofer. On this day in 1846, the Mexican–American War started. And also on this day but in 1898, the Spanish–American War started. Okay, that’s not exactly true. In 1846, the first battle of the Mexican-American War — the Thornton Affair — took place. Effectively, Mexico had declared war two days before. The US Congress didn’t declare war until 13 May. The US Congress actually did declared war against Spain on 25 April 1898. Spain had declared war two days before.

What I think is interesting about these wars is that growing up, I didn’t really know what the difference was between them. They were just these minor wars fought against Spain in different countries. Well, that’s not exactly true. Mexico was independent from Spain by that time. But it was close enough. And more important, these wars weren’t minor. Tens of thousands died in both.

Spanish-American WarThe Mexican-American War started after years of tension following the Texas Revolution in 1836. And specifically, there was a dispute over where exactly the border was. The war became much broader than this, and Mexico ended up losing almost all of what is today the western United States. Just the same, I think this would have happened regardless. The history of Texas shows this: the Texas Revolution really wasn’t a revolution. It was more Americans flooding into the territory, staging an armed revolt, and eventually becoming a state.

The Spanish-American War was pretty much just the end of the Cuban War of Independence. It is definitely a war that we shouldn’t have fought. Basically, the Democrats and various business interests pushed President McKinley into it. The sinking of the USS Maine certainly added fuel to the fire. No one knows for sure the cause, but one thing is for sure: Spain didn’t want the United States entering that war. So I suspect that it was just an accident that was used — just like today — as an excuse for those who thought they would profit — politically and economically — from the war.

Both of these wars could have been avoided. But the push for war is strong. There is something about humans that makes us want to lash out rather than reflect. And one thing is very true: it is a lot easier to whip up people into a frenzy of anger and fear than it is to calm them. And the ultimate geopolitical outcomes are more or less what all parties knew they would be — bigger, better equipped armies almost always beat smaller, less equipped armies. But in the process, people die. Lots of people.

We mark the anniversaries of these two unfortunate wars.

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Obama and Obamacare Approval Only Going Up

Don't Tread on My Obamacare

Jonathan Bernstein pointed out something truly bizarre the other day, Americans Will Love Obamacare in 2020. But I’m almost certain that he’s right. You see, I’ve been of the opinion (In part because of arguments Bernstein himself has made!) that Obamacare is never going to be popular because it is so elusive.

The problem is that most people who get Obamacare don’t know it. A large number of them get Obamacare in the form of the Medicaid expansion. So these people see themselves getting healthcare from the state — not the federal government — much less Obamacare itself. And then another really large number of people get their healthcare from private insurers through the healthcare exchanges. Well over half of them are subsidized directly by Obamacare, but they aren’t alerted to this fact — they just pay less (often a lot less) for their insurance. So why should anyone “like” Obamacare; the main things they “know” about the law come from a very large disinformation campaign from conservatives over the last five years.

But as I discussed the other day, Obamacare approval ratings are going up. In fact, even since then, we have news that Obamacare is for the first time in two and half year above water: more people approve than disapprove. So what’s with that? Is the people learning? Well, probably not.

But Bernstein has a really compelling idea: it is all about Obama’s approval rating. As I just discussed, people really don’t know what Obamacare is or how it affects them. So in their minds, Obamacare and Obama mean more or less the same thing. As it is, earlier today, I clicked on a link that I thought was about Obama that was actually about Obamacare. So it is easy enough to mistake them, even if you are very clear on the distinction.

Now Obama’s approval rating could go down. It might very well! But one thing we know from experience is that the approval rating of presidents goes up after they leave the White House. George W Bush’s approval rating reached a low of 32% according to Gallup (it went much lower in other polls). But by mid-2013, it was back up to 49%. Things are going to be even better for Obama. How do I know? Because conservatives can’t manage to maintain any Republican Party talking points unless they are constantly being reminded by Fox News and company. It is hared to find a conservative that doesn’t think pretty highly of Bill Clinton now. They wonder why they hated him so much in the 1990s.

So you can bet that after four years of Hillary Clinton or, even more, one of the Republican loons, that Obama is going to look pretty damned good (not because he was necessarily better but because he will be out of politics). Bill Clinton left office with a 42% approval rating. As of 2012, it was 66%. I expect that Obama will be up around 60% by 2020. And what that most likely means is that Obamacare will be up there too. And the longer he is out of office, the harder conservatives will have to work to remember what all the fuss was about. Did they really go crazy over birth certificates? Did they really think he was a Muslim? A socialist? An America hater? It will all seem like a vague dream.

And as a result, people will have fond thoughts about Obamacare. It will bring back memories of when politics wasn’t so divisive!

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The Clinton Political Expedience Myth

Matt YglesiasPresidential elections are really important. It matters a lot whether Hillary Clinton becomes President in 2017 or whether a Republican does. But there just isn’t all that much going on in the actual campaigns. Except, that is, in the minds of campaign journalists:

For anyone who wondered what kind of economic message Mrs Clinton would deliver in her campaign, the first few days made it clear: she is embracing the ideas trumpeted by Ms Warren and the populist movement — that the wealthy have been benefiting disproportionately from the economy, while the middle class and the poor have been left behind. And the policies Mrs Clinton is advancing, like paid sick leave for employees and an increase in the minimum wage, align with that emphasis. But now, the former secretary of state must convince voters that she is the right messenger for the cause of inequality, not simply seizing on it out of political expedience.

Try to imagine a voter who is aware that Hillary Clinton has made inequality a key campaign theme, who agrees that this is the issue that should be the focus of policymaking in 2017-2020, who is aware of Clinton’s policy proposals to combat inequality, who agrees with Clinton’s policy proposals to combat inequality, and who yet decides not to vote for her because she thinks Clinton has adopted this all out of expedience.

Why would that happen?

—Matt Yglesias
Matt’s Newsletter: Paternity Leave Edition

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Productivity Growth Won’t Help Workers

Jared BernsteinOne of my biggest problems with the way that my fellow liberals talk about economic debate is that they don’t understand that different people mean different things by the same words. So now we see that Republicans are talking about “economic inequality.” Should we be excited about this? No. To them, the big solution to economic inequality is the same solution that they have had to every economic issue for the last forty years: cut regulation and taxes. Doing this will supposedly increase economic growth and that will in turn increase middle class wages. There are just two problems here: the first and second claims.

For years now, I’ve been ranting about how we need to stop talking about productivity growth. We are now in our fifth decade during which workers have seen little to no gain from productivity growth. How many more decades do we need before people will accept that the rich have rigged the political economy so that they get the vast majority of gains? Really, as a nation, we are living in a fantasy. People seem to think that if we just get rid of all labor unions and worker protections, the rich will reward workers with a piece of the action. It doesn’t work that way. The only reason that workers had a piece of the action before was because of labor unions and worker protections.

I’m always pleased when an actual economist comes out with a paper that backs up what I’ve long been saying. On Tuesday, Jared Bernstein put out a paper, Faster Productivity Growth Would Be Great. But Don’t Count on It to Raise Middle Class Incomes. The secondary part of his argument is that we just aren’t going to get the kind of growth that we saw in the 1960s. This is actually a big Republican lie. Every time one of them comes out with a big old tax cut for the rich, they claim that it will cause the economy to grow at some absurd rate like 5%.

But the main point is that we have no reason at all to think that productivity increases would be shared. He provides a version of a common graph that looks at productivity growth and median family income on the same graph with the same (percentage) scale. Between 1947 and 1973, both increased by a bit less than 100%. But between 1973 and 2013, productivity increased by over 100%, while median family income has gone up only 13%. And notice that even this is deceptive. During the first period, most families had only one person working outside the home. Now most have two. So it is possible to see that 13% increase in family income as coming not from productivity increases but by simply working more.

Bernstein is very careful, of course. I don’t have to be similarly restrained. What we see is that even since 1973, the divergence between productivity growth and median income has increased. This is entirely to be expected from a political, rather than economic, perspective. The more money the rich have, the more political power they have to tilt the economy in their direction. But just on a practical level of solutions, Bernstein has the right idea:

None of these points should deter us from the pursuit of faster productivity growth, but that unfortunately remains somewhat of a black box for economists. On the other hand, raising the minimum wage, pursuing full employment through fiscal and monetary policy, boosting collective bargaining, and other such interventions have all been shown to raise the pay and bargaining clout of middle- and low-wage workers. Whatever the pace of productivity growth, measures like these are a lot more likely to lift the incomes of the middle class.

But this all depends upon us living in an actual democracy. A democracy is about a lot more than voting. But even on the voting front, the United States is showing that you can have apparently “free and fair” elections and still not offer the people any real choice. What’s more, we are now so far removed from the time when workers shared in the fruits of our economy, and most people don’t think anything is wrong and in need of fixing.

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Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Criminal Justice Sickness

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev flipping off a security cameraI wasn’t going to write about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s flipping off of a security camera. I’m against the death penalty, but the state does far worse things all the time than it would do if it decides to kill him. But then I saw the video from which the photo was taken. And it is clear that the photo should never have been allowed into evidence. It is a total distortion of what Tsarnaev was doing. This, my friends, is why we can’t have nice things. This is why law enforcement is able to use pseudoscience to convict people. This is why police officers almost never even get charged for killing innocent people. This is why after years of appeals, the state still kills innocent people. Because our system is not about justice. It is about establishing who has the power and who does not. Justice just doesn’t matter.

You know how you go to the the DMV to get your picture taken for your driver’s license? And in almost all cases, it just looks bad and generally weird? But you know that this is not how you look all the time. As you are moving from one expression to another, your face does all kinds of strange things. But we don’t notice this as we look at each other because it is fluid — we see the context. Well, that is exactly what happened to Tsarnaev in the picture above. Compare it to the 36 second video from which it was taken:

Given that video, does this look like something that CNN should have described as, “He glares into the camera defiantly, his middle finger raised in a profane salute.” But at least CNN is right: that is kind of what the single image looks like. The real problem here is the judge who allowed the photo into evidence. It is prejudicial and totally distorts what was actually going on: he was checking out his image in the only mirror around. Further, it allowed the prosecution to claim that it showed an unrepentant Tsarnaev. But it doesn’t show that at all. It may well be that Tsarnaev is unrepentant. But that photo sure doesn’t show it.

Glenn Greenwald nailed it when he wrote, “It was, explicitly, the prosecutors’ intent to provoke exactly this reaction: this one photo, standing alone, was designed to produce a visceral, bottomless contempt for Tsarnaev which even disgust at his actual crime could not achieve.” This doesn’t seem like a real trial to me. It seems like a kangaroo court. If the judge had decided that Tsarnaev is to die before the trial even started, he should have just announced it. But of course, he wouldn’t. Because he, like pretty much everyone else in the criminal justice system, is determined to make it appear neutral, even while it isn’t in the vast majority of cases.

As for the other side of this is: so what? What if Tsarnaev was doing just what he appears to be doing in that photo? Suppose it is clear that he thinks the Boston Marathon bombing was great, that he wishes he had killed more, and if he ever gets out he will kill everyone. What does that prove? I’ve never understood this part of the criminal justice system. Jeffrey Dahmer became a Christian in jail. Did that take away from the heinousness of his crimes? Was his conversion even real? I think the answer to both is, “No!” But it does matter to the courts.

And what it shows about the courts is how it is all about power. Sparing the lives of people who come to court and repent is very much like the fake confessions of Stalin’s show trials — or any number of other scenes like them that show up. It doesn’t matter than the confesser actually believes what she is saying. It is like a religious rite: yielding officially to power. And that is the business of a sick institution — be it a terrorist group, or the United States of America’s criminal justice system.

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Morning Music: Ramones

RamonesI think a lot of people think of Ramones as a New Wave band rather than a punk band. This is odd, given that New Wave as a thing comes much later. But okay: Blondie dates back as far, and an argument can be made that they are New Wave. Really though: I don’t even know what New Wave is. Punk is not a form of music, but an attitude toward it. And one could even say that it doesn’t mean all that much because punk was just the embrace of what was always rock: the FUBU of music.

There is no question, however, that Ramones were better able to create perfect pop music gems than any other band of that era — including Blondie. What’s amazing to me is that Ramones never had a top ten hit in the United States. Is it any wonder I complain about pop music? If you can’t love Ramones, then you just don’t like pop music. And if that is the case, why are you even reading this?!

Here is the band back in 1977 at CBGB. The vocals are mixed a little low. They do some of their classic songs: “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” “Beat on the Brat,” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.” Joey says that they are going to play a couple of songs off Rocket to Russia, but only one of those is. The others are off Ramones.

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Anniversary Post: Library of Congress

Library of CongressOn this day in 1800, the United States Library of Congress was established by the Adams administration with a grant of $5,000 “for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress” and for renting and decorating a room. It’s grown a bit beyond that today. But the basic idea is very good — typically, it was one of James Madison’s. This used to be an idea that wasn’t controversial. You know: Congress needs to know stuff.

For most of our history, we saw Congress accruing more and more things to help it do it’s work — most especially staff. But in recent decades, this has been cut back. You know, we can’t spend actual money! As a result of this, more than anything else, our laws in Congress are now primarily written by lobbyists. This is even more true at the state level. This is what we in the business call “short sighted.”

So Congress (and other legislatures) don’t have to pay direct costs to get legislation written. Instead, it pays thousands of times more to special interests cutting in special deals for themselves, which both cause them not to be taxed as much and to be given more money directly. Ever wonder why Exxon and GE never seem to pay taxes? They’re just getting paid back for all the help that they provide Congress!

There is no doubt that today, the Republicans would never agree to fund the Library of Congress. The party, and the conservative movement more generally, has become totally anti-intellectual. This is what happens when your ideas just don’t stand up to scrutiny and you are unwilling to do anything about your bad ideas: you just ignore everyone who isn’t ideologically committed to your ideas. I understand why one would be a conservatives. I do not understand why one would support the Republicans at this time. It just isn’t rational.

Happy birthday Library of Congress!

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Depression and City Lights

City LightsI’ve been really depressed recently. And as anyone who is a fellow sufferer knows: there is no reason. It is just, as a friend once put it to me, as though you are living in a world of black and white; and sun never comes out. As a result, I’ve been trying — in vain — to cheer myself up with much cinematic comedy: Wallace and Gromit, Monty Python, and most especially Charlie Chaplin. Tonight, I watched City Lights for probably the first time in thirty years. There are reasons why I’ve avoided it for so long.

I disagree with most critics. I don’t think it is the high point of Chaplin’s career. I think that both The Gold Rush and Modern Times are better films. The main problem with City Lights is that it has some distinct dead spots. I think the fact that it is an incredibly compelling story has made viewers miss the fact that a number of bits just don’t live up Chaplin’s best work. What’s more, I really do think that Virginia Cherrill as the flower girl is weak. In fact, her performance is so poor that the viewer wouldn’t know what to make of the ending if Chaplin hadn’t directed it well by focusing on the continued holding of hands.

All that said, City Lights is a fantastic film. By the end of it, I was sobbing. Like everyone, I assume, I very much identify with the tramp. What is so special about him is that he isn’t all good. He’s lazy. He’s often dishonest. But most of all, he’s self-important. He thinks rather highly of himself, as is represented here by his interactions with the newspaper boys who mock and shoot spitballs at him. Yet we forgive all these sins because ultimately, the tramp is a decent person.

A wonderful expression of this is near the end of the film. The tramp has just absconded with the rich man’s money. (It was given to him, but justice is as rare in a Chaplin film as it is on the streets of Ferguson.) He gives her money for the rent and money for her eye surgery. But he pockets one bill — I assume a hundred dollars. This is his tendency. He looks out for number one. But in the end, the better angels of his nature win out. And I think that’s universal. It seems to me that every time someone has complimented me for doing something nice, I’ve always wanted to blurt out, “Yeah, but I almost didn’t do it!” Because that’s true. My instincts are not evil, but they are also not the best of who I am.

Of course, the true brilliance of the film is found in an early scene where Chaplin manages to establish the blind flower girl thinking that the tramp is a rich man without a word. It starts with, once again, the tramp being anything but upright. Rather than cross the street like normal people, he just walks through the cars — in the door on one side and out the door on the other. It’s funny, and it’s been used by a lot of people since, but here it is used primarily to establish the sound of the door closing so that the girl thinks he is getting out of his own car. Of course the real brilliance comes on the exit when the tramp buys a flower, and while waiting for his change, a wealthy man gets in his car and goes. She thinks it is the tramp disregarding his change.

I’m not sure that watching Chaplin when I’m depressed is a good idea. It does make me feel good in its universality and the ultimate sense of goodness. But things always work out for the little tramp in ways they just don’t in the real world. And that lays heavy after the film is over.

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A War By Any Other Name

Charles PierceI’ve always thought of the drone war in terms of the melon vendor and the guy in the goat cart on the other side of the road. There’s an al Qaeda operative buying a melon from a vendor. Meanwhile, a guy with a goat cart comes up the other side of the road. Suddenly, here comes death from above. The terrorist is dead. So is the melon vendor. So is the guy in the goat cart on the other side of the road. They’re all blown into equally tiny bits. How do we think the families of the melon vendor and the guy with the goat cart are going to take this? We create a desire for retribution with which our grandchildren may have to cope. And we may never know the names of the melon dealer or the guy with the goat cart, the way we now know the names of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto. We may never know the name of the melon dealer until his grandchild blows up an airplane. And none of that should be surprising because that’s also what happens when you make war, any kind of war, in a place.

—Charlie Pierce
Drone Wars: Oops, They Did It Again

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Swing State Voter Regret Is Killing Me

Scott WalkerI keep reading really annoying bits of news. This one is about Scott Walker, but it doesn’t matter. I read the same basic thing about all kinds of Republicans, “A new Marquette Law School Poll finds Governor Scott Walker’s job approval rating has fallen to 41 percent, with 56 percent of registered voters in Wisconsin saying they disapprove of how he is handling his job as governor.” This always makes me blurt out, “Then why did you vote for him?!” Well, in part, it is that only six months ago, the wise people of Wisconsin thought differently, “In the previous poll, in October 2014, Walker’s approval among registered voters was 49 percent, with 47 percent disapproving.” But really: has anything he’s done been a surprise?

Oh yes, I know: he signed the “right to work” law that he always seemed to be saying that he wouldn’t sign. But there was never a question about that. And then there is his horrible budget — necessitated by his by his conservative policies. But again: this is not a surprise. Scott Walker wasn’t transformed into some horrible creature when he woke up on 5 November 2014. This is the man that the wise people of Wisconsin — the ones that are so unhappy with — voted for.

Rick ScottI’ve notice recently that a lot of my articles end with something like, “But what do you expect when only conservatives vote?” And similar sentiments. I do believe that I’m going crazy. I need to install a punching bag next to my computer just so I can get through the day. My level of frustration is clearly having a negative effect on my life. Just the same, the level of sensibleness on the part of the average American is having a deadly effect on this country. And I’m going right along with the country, the world, and the shoreline in Florida.

Speaking of which, we see that Rick Scott way back in February was not liked the people in his state, “Scott has a negative job approval rating, with 42 percent of voters approving of his performance and 47 percent disapproving.” But he still managed to win re-election last November from the wise people of Florida. Again: on 5 November 2014, he was not more horrible and scary and fit for a Wes Craven film. He was the same guy. He wasn’t hiding who he was. He was quite clear. Although I will give the wise people of Florida this: Charlie Crist wasn’t much of an alternative.

It is at times like these that I regret having stopped using expletives on this blog. Because I could really use some right now! But here is the thing. When I was a kid, I was a true believer in America. In a lot of ways, I still am. I’m far more of a patriot than a million conservative pretenders like Scott Walker, Rick Scott, or literally hundreds of others that I could name off the top of my head. But I can deal with it. I can watch as my county is destroyed even while being nominally a democracy. What I cannot take is seeing my country destroyed while the rest of my countrymen stand by and complain about the bastards that they elected just a couple of months earlier.

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Fundamental Republican Problem: Competence

Chicken and EggI’m sure you know the story about the guy who goes to the doctor and says, “My brother thinks he’s a chicken.” The doctor says, “Why don’t you have him committed?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” I think that story relates to Republicans’ increasing difficulty winning elections. Yes, I know: 2010 and 2014. But they only do well in these off year elections because no one shows up. Slowly, the entire Republican base is dying off and the Democratic base is growing up and, hopefully, starting to take voting more seriously. But I don’t think this is all about bigotry as many claim. I think it is about eggs.

EJ Dionne wrote an interesting article recently in The Washington Post, Can the GOP Learn From California? It is about how California went from a swing state just a couple of decades ago to one of the bluest of states. According to the article, this is all about bigotry — especially the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 so loved by then governor Pete Wilson. But I really wonder about that. Californians have never really had a problem with bigotry. After all, Proposition 187 won by an overwhelming majority: 59-41. And Reagan and Bush Sr both won the state.

E. J. DionneI think that the bigger problem is just that the Republicans are incompetent. People everywhere are willing to vote for racists if they think the racists will do right by them. Remember: Bush won the state using the infamous Willie Horton ad. And Prop 187 was six years after that. The problem is that Republicans have gotten a reputation for not being good at their jobs. And they aren’t! Even worse: they don’t seem to care about being good at their jobs. And they don’t! I’m sure the only California Republican Congressmen you’ve ever heard of are Kevin McCarthy and Darrell Issa. McCarthy — who represents Bakersfield — is against any action at all on global warming. If there is one thing that legislators from California should care about, it is global warming. But McCarthy just cares about drilling more oil. And Issa, of course, is just a freak — and a flat out climate change denier. These are not serious men. They are ideologues who are dedicated to the interests of the rich.

I’m not suggesting that the bigotry of the Republican Party doesn’t hurt it. The lesson of Lee Atwater’s “Nigger, nigger, nigger” comment is that bigotry changes over time. And it is becoming more and more clear modern bigots need to come up with even more subtle dog whistles. Of course, a big problem is that the Republicans have gone backwards and allowed rather direct bigotry to creep back into their lexicon. And it isn’t so much that the voters of America disagree or, in any event, have a problem with it as a practical matter. But they do have a problem with being associated with it. The point of dog whistles is that they provide plausible deniability. Being in favor of deporting honor students in the name of the “rule of law” just doesn’t provide much cover.

If Republicans could actually deliver the goods, they could overcome this. But Obama beat Romney in 2012 by a shocking margin of 60-37. And I think Romney’s anti-immigrant stance has been way overstated. He was for self-deportation. That was a dog whistle to the immigrant community, “I’m not going to do dick!” But it was kind of hard to take Romney’s economic policies seriously when they are the same as the ones Republicans were pushing in 1980. Then, the top marginal tax rate was 70%. When Romney was running, it was 35%. In the meantime, average Americans had seen no improvement in their lives. But yet another tax cut for the rich was going to help?

Another problem with the focus on Republican bigotry is that it is pretty much all they have. Look at the states that Romney won. It’s a map of the deep south and those other states where the racists have gone and the Klan still lives:

Electoral Map 2012

How long are those states going to vote Republican if the party doesn’t constantly assure the voters that as bad as its policies are, at least it will always proclaim the white race supreme? Not long. And the idea that the Republican Party could change its image is ridiculous. Even the most outspoken Republicans for change only want to do the bare minimum — and to hold their noses while they do it. If the Republicans really want to start winning elections outside of huge economic downturns, they should start governing like they actually thought it was a worthwhile endeavor. Until then, they won’t deliver the eggs.

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Morning Music: Jay Z

Hard Knock LifeIt is not just because I’m a middle aged white man that I know so little about hip-hop. The universe of music is large, and I tend to push backwards, even while new music piles up. But many years ago, I heard a hip-hop song that used what I could clearly hear was was “It’s a Hard Knock Life” off the original cast album of Annie. You could just hear Andrea McArdle’s powerful voice ringing out above the chorus. And the hip-hop song was probably my first indication that there really was something different about the music.

I decided to look up the song last night and I found out that it was by Jay Z. Understand: pretty much the only thing I know about him is that he’s married to Beyoncé (who I also don’t know anything about), and that they are friends of the Obamas. Oh, and I know that they are hugely wealthy and popular. So it is a little embarrassing that the song that really impressed me almost two decades ago turns out to be someone who is so widely admired that his net worth — even without Beyoncé — is over a half billion dollars.

Just the same, I have nothing against artistry and craft. And all this money is due to the fact that we have a broken intellectual property system combined with a really effective distribution system. Clearly, he ought to be rich. Just not as rich as he is. But he’s a whole lot more deserving than Bill Gates. Windows 2.01 doesn’t age like this:

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