The Problem With “Terrorism”

Eric FreinI hate the words “terror” and “terrorism” and “terrorist.” They have lost all meaning. And even when the word “terrorist” had meaning, it was deceptive. Early in his career, Menachem Begin used terrorism as a tactic to achieve his political goals. Does that mean he was a terrorist when he signed a peace deal with Anwar Sadat? That is a conversation I’m willing to have. The problem is, that isn’t a conversation anyone in the mainstream media is interested in having.

So these words are just used as a kind of generic insult against people we don’t like. And, of course, it is generally a racial slur. Some would say it is a religious slur against Muslims. But the truth is that most Americans can’t tell the difference between a Muslim and a Sikh and a Hindu and even a radically nonviolent Jain. Truly, Americans are even likely to mistake Orthodox Christians for Muslims. It’s all “those” people — those foreigners who hate us for our freedoms.

Eric Boehlert over at Media Matters provided a good example of the problem with the word “terrorism,” A Cop Killing And A Beheading: How Fox News Picks And Chooses Its “Terrorism” Targets. It deals with the huge amount of coverage that murder suspect Alton Nolen has received on Fox News. Nolen was fired and then apparently committed a grisly murder, decapitating someone he had worked with. Nolen was also a Muslim, so Fox News has been all over it, calling the murder Islamic terrorism. Thus far, the FBI has found no evidence that it was an act of terror.

Alton NolenLet’s be clear here: terrorism is a military and political tactic. It isn’t just any heinous crime. The young man who shot all those kids and others at Sandy Hook was not a terrorist. He wasn’t trying to terrorize the region for some larger purpose. People do all kinds of terrible things without it being terrorism. On the other hand, Hamas’ generally impotent rocket attacks on Israel is terrorism. It is intended to create a climate of fear. (Note: I don’t think terrorism is necessarily any more reprehensible than the more “just” wars that wealthy peoples wage.)

But at the same time that Fox News and other right wing media outlets have been aggressively pushing the Nolen case, they have been mostly ignoring the case of Eric Frein, an anti-government extremist who shot two police officers (killing one), and who is still at large two weeks later. We can’t say for sure if this is an act of terrorism, but it is much more likely to fit the definition than what Nolen did. Boehlert described the man:

“He made statements about wanting to kill law enforcement officers and to commit mass acts of murder,” state police commissioner Frank Noonan warned the public at the time. Another official noted the shooter has a “longstanding grudge against law enforcement and government in general” dating back to at least 2006.

A friend was even more explicit. “He was obviously a big critic of the federal government,” a friend name Jack told CNN. (The friend did not give his last name.) “No indications of really any malice towards law enforcement in particular. Most of his aggression was (toward) the federal government.”

Sounds like homegrown, anti-government terrorism, right?

On that last point, I can’t really say. I know the type. It is the same kind of thinking that we saw from Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. I’m not really sure what it is that they are trying to accomplish. But there is no doubt about this: these acts are seen by their perpetrators as primarily political. So even if the intent is not meant to terrorize a population, it is a political act that does terrorize a population. Boehlert again:

Considered “extremely dangerous” and possibly armed with an AK-47, officials were forced to close local schools in fear Frein might attack again. Lots of businesses in the area were ordered to stay dark, and some US mail deliveries were suspended out of fear postmen might be exposed as possible targets for the shooter.

The point is that in the right wing media, a terrorist is (At best!) any Muslim who does or says something violent. Right wing extremists are almost never referred to as terrorists. Even the Oklahoma City bombing tends to be reduced to a horrible act perpetrated by bad people. If pressed, those on the right will admit that it was a terrorist act. But that’s an extreme bar. When white Christian guys kill 168 people, there is the reluctant admission that it is terrorism. But when a disgruntled ex-employee who is Muslim kills someone, it is terrorism until proven otherwise.

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John Cochrane Denies Inequality and Reality

John CochraneIt seems that über-conservative economist-like substance John Cochrane gave a little speech at the Hoover Institution last Friday. He made the typical argument that inequality isn’t bad. And just like the good conservative that he is, he spent a fair amount of time arguing that the poor are poor because they are morally inferior. He didn’t put it that way, of course. He said, “A segment of America is stuck in widespread single motherhood, leading to terrible early-child experiences, awful education, substance abuse, and criminality…”

What’s interesting about this is that this is exactly what the aristocracy has always said about the poor. The fact is that they’ve pretty much always had causation backwards. Poverty creates all kinds of problems. It rarely works the other way around. Drug addiction is far more likely to be the result of living in poverty rather than the cause of it, although clearly there is a feedback loop. Cochrane wants to dismiss the plight of the poor by calling them unworthy, as if he were Yahweh, passing judgement on the people of Sodom. It doesn’t seem to ever occur to Cochrane that maybe he had an advantage in life; maybe he’s a professor at the University of Chicago because his father was.

Regardless, Michael Hiltzik does an excellent job of crushing Cochrane’s arguments. And I do mean arguments, because he isn’t really making a case. He’s just throwing everything out there. Everyone’s getting ahead, so inequality doesn’t matter! The poor in this country are doing better than the poor in the Central African Republic, so inequality doesn’t matter! African Americans are living longer, so inequality doesn’t matter! I highly recommend reading Hiltzik’s article, Watch a Conservative Economist Try to Wish Income Inequality Away.

I was most struck by one things that he mentioned early in the speech:

Suppose a sack of money blows in the room. Some of you get $100, some get $10. Are we collectively better off? If you think “inequality” [Note the scare quotes! -FM] is a problem, no. We should decline the gift. We should, in fact, take something from people who got nothing, to keep the lucky ones from their $100. This is a hard case to make.

Hiltzik dismisses this because he says that income inequality is not about how a windfall (Literally!) is divided. That’s true. But there is a more basic problem here. This is a false analogy. Over the last four decades, we have seen a wind blow through the economy. Some people have picked up a whole lot of money, most people have picked up nothing at all, and some people have seen the the money they had blown away. This is the same thing I discussed regarding Milton Friedman in, Rich Kid Guilt. In the documentary I was discussing, Friedman said that inequality didn’t matter because all people were getting richer. I wondered what Friedman would say if he were alive today to see that the rising tide is most definitely not lifting all boats.

At that time I had thought that he would use his remarkable mind to come up with excuses. And one does see this a lot with conservative economists, pouring over the numbers to show that, in fact, the middle class really has seen a tiny increase in incomes. The fact that it is open to debate shows just how rough that argument is. But there is no question since 2010, during which time the median income has decreased while the mean has increased: that means those at the top have seen their incomes go up, those in the middle and bottom have seen their incomes fall.

But John Cochrane doesn’t even make that argument. He just lies: everyone is better off! And note that he is one of the great conservative economic thinkers. And he’s totally immune to evidence. And he will never be embarrassed, because he tells the power elite what they want to hear. Of course, real economists just laugh at him. But that won’t stop him from helping to destroy our republic.

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Conservative Thinks Constitution Means Something Different Because “They Should Have Used” Different Language

Russell PearceWhen the Fourteenth Amendment was written, it was written to give credit to the African Americans, recognize them. The way it should be. It was after a terrible Supreme Court decision, called the Dred Scott decision, that did not recognize them as humans virtually — it was outrageous. Well the Republican Congress said we’re not putting up with that. And it was written “born, naturalized, for whom we have jurisdiction.” It’s been hijacked. We have a path to citizenship and it’s not breaking into the country. The Fourteenth Amendment was never intended to be used the way it’s used. It was intended for those… Did you know that when the Fourteenth Amendment was passed in 1866 and ratified in 1868 it did not recognize the American Indian as citizens? And reason was because they were born on a reservation and members of a tribe and they were concerned about that jurisdiction language of the Fourteenth Amendment…

That was written by the same Congress that wrote the Civil Rights Amendment in 1866 that was a response to the Dred Scott decision. And then that same Congress that wrote the Civil Rights Amendment 1866, which has similar language but a little different that makes it very clear, and they should have used that same language. That same Congress that wrote the Fourteenth Amendment because they wanted to give the Civil Rights Amendment Constitutional protection, which I think was the right thing to do. They made it very clear in the debate on the floor.

—Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce
John King USA

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Jimmy Carter, a Better President Than We Deserve

Jimmy CarterIt is hard to believe, but Jimmy Carter is 90 years old today. Like any president, he is a mixed bag. For one thing, he was the proto-New Democrat. He was very good on most issues, but when it came to the economy, he was pretty conservative — at least for that time. Now conservatives would have to come up with new ways to describe them. “Double plus bad communist double socialist plus plus Marxist”?

But he still has a bad reputation — especially among conservatives. About the worst thing a conservative can say about a Democratic president is that he is like Carter. This is a remarkable thing and shows the total lack of knowledge among conservatives. In terms of foreign policy, he negotiated that little Nobel Peace Prize winning Camp David Accords. This not only has kept the peace between Israel and Egypt for 35 years, it is also the last really helpful thing we’ve done in the region. Of course, he also did things I don’t like. He ended Nixon’s détente policy and revved up the Cold War. Conservatives should love this, of course. But they don’t, mostly because they don’t even know about it.

On the economy, it was Carter who appointed Paul Volcker to the Federal Reserve and it was Volcker’s policies that ended stagflation. It also was a major factor in making Carter a one-term president. And the end of those policies was what cause “morning in America,” which pretty much everyone alive thinks was due to Ronald Reagan’s policies. (In fact, Reagan’s policies made the economy worse.) Carter also deregulated the airline industry. Again: this is something that I think was a mistake, but something that conservatives should love.

One thing that everyone should love is that Carter is a man of integrity. While it is true that during the early part of his political career, he was less than forthright about his beliefs against segregation, it is hard to fault him. An increasing percentage of Republicans are just fine with segregation. And as president, he was quite good. And since being out of office, he has often acted as the conscious of America. He has been very clear of his criticism of Republican and Democratic administrations — and rightly so. I don’t remember him ever being far off the mark.

Jimmy Carter

In the end, conservatives especially, but everyone generally, tends to give Carter less respect than he deserves. And it is really all because he didn’t win a second term. There is also this feeling — which is totally ridiculous — that if only the smiling Ronald Reagan Action Hero™ had been president, there would have been no oil crisis (even though it started under Nixon), there would have been no stagflation (even though it was going strong under Ford), and there would have been no Iranian hostage crisis (even though it was the result of decades of bad American policy in the country). I am so sick of all of this.

Above all, I’m sick of how ignorant Americans are about their history. If you want to hate Carter, then hate him for what he actually did and not how you remember feeling during his presidency. The same thing happens to Reagan in the opposite way. People felt so great in 1983 when the economy was booming because of Paul Volcker that now they “know” that Reagan was a great president. Well, he wasn’t. He was one of the worst president in the last century. Carter was one of the better ones. Yet as we head straight into climate catastrophe, I still hear conservatives scoff at the solar panels that Carter put on the White House and how cool it was when “manly” Reagan had them taken down. As I watch the American empire fray and disintegrate, I can’t help looking at us and not thinking we don’t deserve it. I can’t say that Carter was a better president than we deserved in in the late 1970s, but he is certainly a better president than we deserve now.

Happy 90th birthday Jimmy Carter!

See also: Jimmy Carter Is Not Dead

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“One Hundred Ways” as Romantic Advice

James IngramTo some extent, you have to hate Quincy Jones. He’s one of those massive talents who seems to rub it in your face. Okay! We get it! You’re better than we are! But I suppose that is made up for by the fact that he provides us with such great music.

In 1981, Jones released the album The Dude. It’s not a great album. But you might see it is the ur-Thriller. Much of the sound of the album is very much what Jones would create for Michael Jackson the following year. None of the songs are written by Jones — in general, he didn’t write much on his albums. He depended upon songwriters he often worked with like Rod Temperton. And the singers included a variety of people, especially Patti Austin.

But the album is particularly notable because it is the debut of James Ingram who sang the two hits off the album. And those two songs kind of sum up 1981 for me. (Or 1982?) The reason I’m thinking about it is that stupid Apple iPhone commercial that features “Just the Two of Us.” It was a huge hit in 1981 — three weeks at number one.

The strange thing is that the two James Ingram songs that I thought were so big were not. The first was the “Just Once” by Mann and Weil. It’s a fine song, but it kind of annoys me. It only reached number 17 on the “Hot 100.” The other did a bit better: “One Hundred Ways” made it to number 14. The thing is that I think it is just a wonderful song and I never get tired of it. It is one of the most romantic songs ever written. And Ingram is fantastic on it and the production is that perfect light jazz infused rhythm and blues.

The song was written by songwriter Kathy Wakefield, producer Ben Wright, and Tony Coleman, who I believe is a drummer and King Coleman’s son. All of this is just by way of introduction. I love the song. And here is James Ingram on Soul Train lip-syncing to it:

Point of order: this is probably not the best romantic advice. If you do “find one hundred ways” you are most likely to spoil her and look desperate. Everything in moderation, my friends. It is true that, “Being cool won’t help you keep a love warm.” But being too warm will make love overheat. On the other hand, in my experience, most men tend to error on the side of coolness and lack of engagement. And in the end, maybe you don’t want to be in a relationship where you have to play these games. Maybe the song is right and you should just show what you feel. That’s the right thing to do. But don’t blame me if she leaves you for a guy who is cooler and doesn’t let the violins play.

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Bernie Sanders and the Political Revolution

Bernie Sanders[W]e need a political revolution in this country and that’s not just rhetoric. What I mean by that is that we need — and a president certainly can play a very, very important role in this — we need a massive change in citizen participation and in political consciousness. There was a poll that just came out I think yesterday. Gallup tells us that… I believe it is 63 percent of the American people cannot name which parties control the US House and the US Senate. So you have consciousness so low, a significant majority of the American people who are very concerned about what’s going on for themselves and their kids, they don’t know who controls the House and the Senate. They can’t name which party controls both bodies. You have what the political scientists tell us is a situation where in this coming election, 60 percent of the American people will not bother to vote. That means 70-to-80 percent of low-income workers and young people will not vote. So before you can talk about changing America, you have to change the political consciousness and the way that people relate to the political process.

Now, there is a group that relates very strongly to the political process, [and] that is the billionaire class that is now prepared to spend many hundreds of millions of dollars to elect candidates to represent their interests.

So you ask me, what can a president do? The main thing, I think, that the president can do is understand that no kind of progressive agenda can take place unless the American people are involved in that struggle and are prepared to put real pressure on the establishment to make it happen. It’s not going to happen in back rooms. It’s not going to happen in White House negotiations. If students, for example, want to see the cost of college go down and want to see their very high levels of debt be significantly reduced, they’re going to have to take it up with the members of Congress. They’re not doing that now. If low-income workers want to see the minimum wage raised, it cannot be a situation where only 20 percent of low-income workers vote. They’re going to have to be actively involved. That’s what a president can do…

What I am telling you, as somebody who likes Obama and respects Obama, is that the key mistake that I believe he made, and it’s perfectly understandable, is he got into office, and he said, two years after he was in, “I’m gonna sit down and negotiate with the Republicans. I know I can’t get everything. We’ll work on some kind of compromise.”

What he didn’t catch on to is that the Republicans had no intention of compromising with him and they have no intention of compromising at all. They have an agenda. It is an extreme right wing agenda backed by the Koch brothers and other billionaires, and the only way you defeat that right-wing agenda is when the American people rise up and demand real change. It can’t be done within the confines of Congress. It has to be part of a strong and active grassroots movement.

—Bernie Sanders
Longterm Democratic Strategy Is “Pathetic”

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Romney Won’t Take Responsibility for Saying the Poor Won’t Take Responsibility

Mitt Romney - NopeIt seems to me that Mitt Romney is the failed presidential candidate who will never go away. Really: he’s not in office, why is there still so much news about him? I really don’t know. Just the same, I still find him fascinating because he is sort of the perfect Republican. And in a recent interview story by Mark Leibovich, Romney came up with a new excuse for his “47 percent” comment. It’s interesting that the comment was about how the poor wouldn’t take responsibility for themselves. But every couple of months, Romney comes up with a new reason why he isn’t responsible for what he said.

Romney said that he had just be asked a long and rambling question. He continued, “My mistake was that I was speaking in a way that reflected back to the man. If I had been able to see the camera, I would have remembered that I was talking to the whole world, not just the man.” Okay. So his mistake was not knowing that there was a hidden camera? If he knew he was being recorded, he would have be more truthful? The mind boggles.

Brian Beutler hit back on this at New Republic today, Mitt Romney Blames His “47 Percent” Comment on a Donor. Paul Ryan Blames… Mitt Romney. That title refers to the fact that Paul Ryan now says the comment was wrong, but he still (along with the whole of the Republican Party) sees the world that way. That’s the fundamental problem. The video wasn’t a big deal because everyone was surprised that Romney would say such a thing. The video was a big deal because no one was surprised. They already knew this was exactly what Romney thought and the video was just a handy example of it.

Beutler noted that the question Romney got was neither long nor rambling. The guy just asks how Romney can convince people that they have to take care of themselves. And after losing the election, Romney claimed that it was because Obama was giving poor people free stuff. This clearly shows that Romney really did think that half the nation were a bunch of moochers. What I’ve always found funny but also shockingly offensive is that Romney pandered far more than Obama.

One of the biggest attacks Romney made against Obama was that he took $716 billion away from Medicare. And what was Romney going to do? Give it back! And what was the biggest thing in Romney’s budget? His $5 trillion in tax cuts going mostly to the very wealthy. But in Republican-think, giving money to your constituencies is not giving them “free stuff.” Giving “free stuff” only applies when it is given to “those” people. Romney’s tax cuts were worth more than total Medicaid spending. But those poor parents who got free checkups for their kids were being bought off. Billionaires were not.

The final word about the “47 Percent” comment comes from Romney, himself. I’m sure over time, he will change his explanation as it becomes clear to him that he said far more than he meant to in this interview. Romney really thinks that there are a whole bunch of loafers out there in America. And he thinks that the only distinctly progressive tax in the United States is the one that defines such people. Note that he didn’t talk about sales taxes or state income taxes or payroll taxes — all of which the poor pay in abundance. No, he picked the one tax that is reasonably fair in the United States. And so the video shows what he actually thinks about his fellow Americans. We all understand that he wouldn’t have been so blunt if he had known non-millionaires were watching. We don’t like Romney, but we don’t think he’s an idiot.

The issue in the United States is not people who don’t take responsibility for their lives. The issue is people like Romney who want to take responsibility for things they didn’t do. He won’t admit the fact that his success is mostly luck. He was born reasonably intelligent. He was born into a rich family. He was sent to good schools. He knew lots of people who could help him out in life. Even at Bain & Company, Romney didn’t see the opportunity with Bain Capital. He only started it because his boss gave him the deal of a lifetime to start it: not only would he get his old job back if he failed, the company would cover for him so it didn’t reflect badly on him. Romney is the one with the responsibility issue. And now he’s trying to push responsibility for his “47 percent” comment onto some anonymous donor, who regardless totally agrees with Romney about what they see as the moocher class.

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(My) Democratic Freak Out!

United States SenateThere has been a lot of bad polling news for Democrats in the Senate recently. In fact, the Princeton model’s daily forecast yesterday had the Democrat’s chances of holding the Senate in the low 20 percents. It’s come back up to 39% today, but The Monkey Cage is down to 23%. Generally, however, the models are right about where they were two months ago with the Democrats having about a 40% chance of holding the Senate. Should we freak out? Of course not. But we should prepare ourselves for a less than sunny election night, at least as far as the Senate goes.

Nate Silver wrote an excellent article, Senate Update: When Should Democrats Panic? His main point is that people tend to think in terms of trends and waves, but that’s not what’s happening at all. There have been some good polls for Republicans in the last week or so, just as there were some good polls for Democrats a month ago. It doesn’t mean that the polls are going to get better and better for the Republicans.

Another important point is that this is a bad year for Democrats based upon the “fundamentals.” Yet the Democrats are generally doing better than expectations. This is actually a very big issue for me. I’m okay with the Republicans taking over the Senate. For well over a year, I’ve known there was a very good chance of this. But what I dread is watching the election results coming in and hearing pundits say things like, “Well this just shows that the people are unhappy with President Obama’s policies.” Or, “When all is said and done, America is a center-right nation.” Or, “Liberalism is dead.”

No! No! No! This is an election where the vast majority of Senate seats up for election belonged to Democrats — most in red states because the Democrats had a shockingly good year in 2008. What’s more, Democrats are poised to have a rather good year in terms of governorships. Of course, these facts won’t matter. I know that on election night, I will be seeing people say these things. It’s what they always say because nuance is not allowed on television.

From my perspective, a neutral result should have been Republicans getting 53 or 54 Senate seats — which is still quite possible. Most of the models are now predicting 52 seats. If that comes to pass, the reporting really ought to be that the Republicans did poorly. It’s funny that when it comes to something like presidential debates, the commentariat are totally focused on how well the candidates do compared to expectations. But when it comes to elections, it is only the absolute numbers. If the Republicans end up ahead it means the country has turned right and if the Democrats end up ahead, the country has turned left.

If the Democrats do manage to maintain control of the Senate, the reporting should be along the lines of, “In a year where the Republicans had every structural advantage, they failed to succeed. This does not speak well of the party during this election cycle.” But instead, it will mostly be pitched as a wash, with some even claiming it is a big win for the Republicans because they picked up five seats.

As always with elections, this one will all come down to how many Democrats manage to show up to the polls. Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien at The Monkey Cage wrote an informative article about this last week, Why Likely Voter Polls May Be Misleading. As I pointed out just after the 2012 election, a lot of polls were wrong because of their “likely voter” screens. Only 87% of those who said they were sure to vote actually voted, and more surprisingly, 55% of those who said they were unlikely to vote did vote. Now 2012, was an on-year election, so it is different but the same thing goes on.

The article at The Monkey Cage noted that most of the recent shift in the polls toward the Republicans is not about people changing their minds; it is about the polls providing data on likely voters. Registered voters are still polling the same way. This is potentially cheerful news for the Democrats. Supposedly, the Democrats are spending big money on “get out the vote” efforts. So if they really do succeed at this, the final composition of the Senate might not look that bad.

But I won’t be shocked if the Republicans have 54 seats in the Senate next year. We’ll get through it. There is no reason to freak out.

Le freak n’est pas chic!


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Forgotten Film Legend Lewis Milestone

Lewis Milestone Reading All Quiet on the Western FrontOn this day in 1895, the great film director Lewis Milestone was born. He was one of “those” directors. You know the kind: directors who did consistently excellent work but who are never really held up as great. People like Michael Curtiz. Meanwhile, people write dissertations about Alfred Hitchcock, even though the main thing I think about him is that his films never looked very good. I don’t get it.

One reason that Milestone may not have quite the reputation he deserves is that he worked his way up in the Hollywood system. As a teenager, he emigrated from the Ukraine. While serving in the army, he worked with the Signal Corps making short films like, “The Toothbrush” and “Posture.” (Really!) After that, he went to work under Henry King and eventually William Seiter, as editor, writer, and assistant director. And he made his debut as writer-director in 1925 with, Seven Sinners — a wacky silent comedy about a couple of thieves who rob a house, only to find that three other groups are doing the same thing. It sounds like a lot of fun, but good luck finding it anywhere.

Milestone is best known for making one of the greatest war films ever, All Quiet on the Western Front — for which he won an Academy Aware for Best Director, not that it means anything. When he is remembered, it is as a great director of war films. There were others such as Edge of Darkness, A Walk in the Sun, and Pork Chop Hill. But he was so much more than that. He did it all and he did it well. He directed an excellent version of The Front Page, a couple of Steinbeck stories (Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony), and even musicals like, The General Died at Dawn Anything Goes.

But in the 1950s, Milestone was “graylisted” — never called before Congress, it was generally believed that he was a commie sympathizer and so he found it hard to find work. I figure it actually all goes back to All Quiet on the Western Front. Real Americans, then as now, are supposed to love war all the time. So he was forced to work in television and in England. Eventually, he came back with Pork Chop Hill. Then he made the hugely successful Ocean’s 11. And then, he made the mistake of taking over for the great Carol Reed in the troubled production, Mutiny on the Bounty. (For the record, I quite like the film. I think the problem with it is that films often get reputations before they are released. Check it out if you haven’t seen it. In addition to everything else, it is gorgeous.) It lost money and he basically never worked again in feature films. (He was hired to direct a couple of films but was quickly replaced.)

He went back into television for a while and then retired — living another 16 years pretty much forgotten. He was, after all, old. And who in Hollywood wants to be around old people? He was brilliant. And who in Hollywood wants to be around brilliant people? And Hollywood owed him a lot. And who in Hollywood wants to be around someone they owe things to?

Happy birthday Lewis Milestone!


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Demigod Bill Gross Never Was

Bill GrossIf you follow the financial news, you are well aware that Bill Gross has left Pimco. In general, I do not follow the financial news, because it makes my brain hurt. But I’m well aware of Bill Gross. He’s a big bond trader with a huge reputation. I’ve never really understood it. People like him are never wizards. They are smart people, but usually depended upon a huge amount of luck. Let’s consider that for a moment, shall we?

The way bonds work is kind of weird because they work the opposite of the way that stocks do. Let’s suppose you have a stock and you think the stock price is going to go up. Then you hold onto it so that when it is worth more, you can sell for the higher price. But a bond just pays you a set amount of money. So if you think bond rates will go up, you want to sell. Let’s suppose you have a bond that pays you 2%. If you think the rate of new bonds will go up to 4%, you should sell your 2% bond now so that you can buy the new higher paying bonds when the rate goes up. That’s the kindergarten overview, which is about as much as I know. But it is enough to understand the politics.

Back in February 2011, Bill Gross decided that all of our government debt and the end of quantitative easing was going to cause US Treasury bond rates to go way up. If you follow economics at all, this must sound very familiar. Ever since Obama moved into the White House, conservatives have been screaming that the government is going to have to pay oh so much more to borrow money because… Well, to be honest, no one really has any good reasons for why this would be the case. For most people, it is just an excuse to do what they always want to do: cut Social Security. Bill Gross may be a smart guy, but I’m sure that he heard all of this. Or maybe he listens to Rush Limbaugh every day. I don’t know.

Regardless, at that time, Pimco’s Total Return fund had as much as 22% of its money invested in US Treasuries. Gross got rid of it all. The 10-year rate was then 3.7%. So Gross was betting big time that the rate was going to go up. It didn’t. Within eight months, the rate was down to 1.8%. (These are straight rates, not inflation adjusted.) It was around this time that Bill Gross wrote his angry column, The Ugly Side of Ultra-Cheap Money. You see, the problem wasn’t with his lack of understand of economics, it was those meanies at the Federal Reserve were keeping money too cheap.

This makes no sense. People either buy bonds or they don’t. And the quantitative easing that the Fed was doing was having at best a marginal effect on the economy anyway. But no matter. What’s really interesting is that Gross seems to think it is more important that people like him continue to make ridiculous sums of money rather than people like you and me have actual jobs. That is after all the trade-off. Most people would rather have jobs. But the super rich would rather get a great return on their bonds. Tighten that money supply so that people who already own things can make even more money off them!

But I was really struck by a couple of things in a column by Michael Hiltzik today, How Bill Gross and Pimco Got Too Big for Each Other. The first is just that what Gross did with Pimco is not that surprising, if you look at what happened to US Treasuries, “Since its launch in May 1987, the yield on the 10-year US Treasury bond has fallen from 8.61% to 2.52% and bond prices have risen commensurately.” Again, I don’t doubt that he’s smart and very good at his job. But as with most things, aren’t there at least a million people on the planet who would have done as well or better given his opportunities? That isn’t something I say because he works in finance. I’d say the same thing of just about every job.

More interesting is just what a weird person Gross has turned into:

At Pimco, the peculiarities of the 70-year-old Gross’ personal management style were beginning to overshadow his storied success as an investment manager. This was exposed by his widely remarked squabbling with Mohamed El-Erian, the economist who served as co-chief executive and co-chief investment officer with Gross and was once regarded as the latter’s heir-presumptive. El-Erian left Pimco earlier this year.

In the wake of El-Erian’s departure, stories leaked out about Gross’ imperious behavior — traders were forbidden to speak to him or even make eye contact on the trading floor, the Wall Street Journal reported. He brooked no discussion or debate about his trading strategies and became hostile to rising talents on the floor.

He didn’t want the little people making eye contact with him? That’s disgusting, but entirely typical of the super-rich. Gross was apparently paid $200 million per year. He has a net worth of over $2 billion. Here in the United States, we don’t have an aristocracy. He have “job creators.” Except they don’t create any jobs. And those like Bill Gross do everything they can to destroy jobs.

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