Some Thoughts on To the Lighthouse

To the LighthouseI finally got around to reading Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse. When I was about fifty pages in, I was extremely close to giving up. Woolf writes the first part of the book in limited third person. But the perspective is constantly shifting, and she provides almost no concessions to the reader. So at the beginning, I was reading along seeing things from Mrs Ramsay’s perspective and suddenly… What? When did William Bankes show up?! And I realized that without warning, Woolf had changed perspective to Lily Briscoe.

But after a while, I was able to just flow with it. A big part of it is just getting used to it. The language is quite beautiful—much of it as exact as poetry. So there is always that to appreciate. But about halfway through the first section, many of the characters come to life. Despite myself, because I knew I was doomed to disappointment, I became very interested in the Bankes and Briscoe characters and their relationship. That kept me reading most of all. But my predicted disappointment was not disappointed. Bankes is not in the rest of the novel and hardly mentioned.

The second section of the book is totally different. It is written in third person omniscient. It is very short and Woolf seems to delight in killing off her characters. In particular, Mrs Ramsay dies, even though she was the main character in the first part of the novel. And this sets up the final section of the novel that goes back to shifting perspectives, but in a much more rigid way. In it, Mrs Ramsay is arguably still the main character, since the memory of her hangs over everyone and everything.

It all goes back to Andrew Ramsay’s explanation to Lily of what his father’s philosophical work was about, “Think of a kitchen table then when you’re not there.” So Mrs Ramsay is the kitchen table: we are with her in the first section and we are not in the last section. What’s interesting about this is that the effect of Mrs Ramsay is only implicit in the remaining members of the Ramsay home. It is only Lily Briscoe for whom Mrs Ramsay is explicit. In fact, Lily seems almost obsessed with her.

The novel ends with the Ramsays finally making their long delayed trip to the lighthouse and Lily finally finishes that painting that has been eluding her since the beginning of the novel. And that’s it. Basically, To the Lighthouse is a novel featuring two days separated by a decade. And it is about how that first day affects the second and all the people experiencing it. As to what it means, that is harder to say.

Woolf seems a bit uncertain about it too. On the one hand, long after her death, we see that Mrs Ramsay still has an enormous impact on life. On the other, Lily’s epiphany is that the purpose of her art is the ephemeral feelings of accomplishment at rendering her vision. I suppose that’s about right. Life is both about now and then. In as much as the novel has an opinion on the future—on hope—it is negative.

Throughout the novel, I was sad. This doesn’t seem to come as the result of anything specific. There is just an overwhelming feeling of dread from beginning to end. It’s like beneath the words, Woolf is whispering to the reader, “Soon you will die and all you will have to show for it is the fun you had along the way. And you aren’t having much fun, are you?” To the Lighthouse is distinctly not fun. But I see why it is considered a great novel. It is edifying. And maybe it will help me to have more fun in my future presents.

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Jacques-Louis David

Jacques-Louis David - Self Portrait - DetailOn this day in 1748, the great French painter Jacques-Louis David was born. He is one of the greatest of the neoclassical painters. Unfortunately, his reputation has been tarnished because of his involvement with the French Revolution. This attitude is especially strange in the United States. Certainly things got out of hand. I’m not in favor of killing people and certainly killing Louis XVI was counterproductive. But no one today who is concerned about this regicide seems terribly concerned about the low life expectancy of the poor.

What I found most interesting in the Wikipedia discussion of David’s involvement with the revolution was its tone of surprised that David would be involved, “It is uncertain why he did this, as there were many more opportunities for him under the King than the new order…” Really?! Based upon this theory of psychology, people only do what it is in their best economic interests. This sounds like it was written by some economist from the Chicago school. It’s pretty clear David believed in the cause, how ever much it was mismanaged.

Regardless, we should give David credit for even surviving. His two notable revolutionary friends, Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilien de Robespierre, both died rather young as a result of their revolutionary acts. He was eventually exiled, although Louis XVIII offered him a royal position as an option because, you know, a great painter is hard to find. Instead, David moved to Brussels. That alone should explain why he was involved in the revolution: because he believed in it. He lived, worked, and taught in Brussels until his death in 1825.

Here is David’s great painting The Death of Marat, done shortly after Marat’s assassination:

The Death of Marat - Jacques-Louis David

And to show you just how great he was throughout his life, here is his last painting, Mars Being Disarmed by Venus, which he completed at the age of 76:

Mars Being Disarmed by Venus - Jacques-Louis David

Happy birthday Jacques-Louis David!

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Romney in ’16? Republicans Have No Good Ideas

Mitt Romney - NopeRamesh Ponnuru is one of the best conservative writers around. He beats Josh Barro because (1) Ponnuru is an actual conservative and (2) he is, frankly, a better writer (but let’s give Barro a few years; he’s still young). That doesn’t mean I agree with him much. He is very conservative. But unlike most conservative writers, I believe that he is serious in thinking that conservative policy really is good for everyone and not just his class. As a result of this, I was not surprised when yesterday he wrote, Romney? Again? Please Stop.

His main argument for not bringing back Romney is that the Republican Party really needs a candidate who doesn’t so clearly despise the middle class. According to Ponnuru, especially given that the Democrats are likely to offer a candidate with a very long resume, the Republicans should offer a contrast. “That argues for a candidate who offers fresh ideas and a chance for the public to turn the page.” I agree: that would be a good thing to do. But who might that candidate be?

Today, another Reformish Republican, Reihan Salam was out with an article, Romney 2016! When Ryan Cooper put together his ratings of the conservative reformers, Reihan Salam scored almost as high as Ramesh Ponnuru. And his great idea as a reformer: Mitt Romney.

His argument is shockingly bad, but telling. First, he mentioned the preposterous contention made by Tagg Romney that his dad only ran in 2012 because there were no good candidates. Yeah right: it was altruism that caused Mitt Romney to run for president in 2012. Salam took this at face value and then argued that the Republican field is going to be bad in 2016 too. Hence: Mitt Romney needs to save his party again! (For an alternate theory, see Charlie Pierce, The Return Of The Speechwriter.)

As ridiculous as this notion is, there is something to it. I think it is that Salam knows that regardless of what happens, the Republican primary voters are not going to let anyone more reasonable than Romney get the nomination in 2016. And I think he’s right. That brings us back to Ponnuru’s idea of the Republicans running “a candidate who offers fresh ideas.” Even if the Republican Party had such a candidate (and they don’t), he would never get the nomination.

I think the Republican Party should go all in for 2016. It looks like the economy will hold and Hillary Clinton will get the Democratic nomination. If that’s the case, the Republican Party is sure to lose the general election that year. If I were part of the Republican establishment (and both Ronnuru and Salam are), I would recommend going with a firebrand like Ted Cruz. That way, the base could get their primary delusion out of their system. There wouldn’t be more rationalizations, “If we’d run a real conservative he’d have won!”

Salam made a shockingly bad comparison between Romney in 2016 and Reagan in 1980. If Ted Cruz lost badly in 2016, then that might open up 2020 for Romney. Maybe the appropriate comparison is between Romney in 2020 and Nixon in 1968. G Gordon Liddy is still kicking; maybe he could help Romney with that. Now he might offer some fresh ideas!

H/T: Ed Kilgore

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Why Europe Is More Open to Bad Economic Policy

European Union FlagPaul Krugman has been writing quite a lot about Europe recently. Like a lot of us, he’s very unhappy about how Francois Hollande has rolled over for the German austerity cabal that forcing counterproductive austerity on the rest of the EU. But this morning, he wrote, Austerity and the Hapless Left. In it, he noted that Hollande is hardly unusual—the left has been quite unliberal when it has come to dealing with this Greater Depression. But here’s the key: in the United States, the left has been better than in Europe.

Krugman asked why it was that the left in America was being more reasonable. His best reason was, “American liberals have been toughened up by the craziness of our right, and in particular by the experience of the Bush years…” I think that is largely correct. Here in the United States, the right has so clearly gone off the deep end that no one takes them seriously. They are clearly immune to facts.

In Europe, the right sounds much more reasonable. In fact, what they sound like are America’s own Very Serious Centrists. And this goes along with what I’ve been saying for years: self-styled centrists are really just (often) social liberals and (always) economic conservatives. The problem in this country is that the extremism of Republicans allow these people to claim the middle ground.

Look at what the conservatives in Europe are doing: they are forcing countries to cut their spending but they are also requiring them to raise taxes. I know that we liberals generally have a good opinion of taxes because we know they are necessary to fund proper government functions. But raising taxes in a depressed economy is a bad idea. Regardless, this obsession with spending cuts and tax increases is what the supposed Serious Centrists Simpson-Bowles have been pushing in America, pretty much forever.

The irony of this situation is that the Republicans are providing liberal cover against these policies. If the Republicans were not so extreme, the United States would likely have worse (that is: more conservative) economic policy—what Europe now has. But I think it is important to remember that all these supposed centrists are anything but. They are pushing policies that would be horrible for the country. They are the conservatives in Europe who are keeping the people of that continent in pain. And America, bless her soul, has the craziness of our proto-fascists to thank (thus far) for our marginally better economic policies.

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The Meaning of the Ending of They Might Be Giants

They Might Be GiantsI went to do a Google search of one of my very favorite films, They Might Be Giants. Since I didn’t want information about the band, I added a space and was about to enter, “Film.” But Google offered me, “Ending.” It was only then that I realized that what most people don’t like about the film is its ending. And that is probably because they don’t understand it. So I thought I would take a moment to explain it.

For those of you who are not familiar with the film, it is about Justin Playfair—a respected judge who goes crazy after his wife dies. He now believes he is Sherlock Holmes. His brother is being blackmailed by some very unsavory guys in a bad car. So the brother is trying to have Justin committed so that he can control Justin’s fortune. As a result, psychiatrist Dr Mildred Watson is sent to observe him. Once Justin finds out that she is “Dr Watson,” the two of them are off with Watson being pulled further and further into Justin’s delusion.

The ultimate question that the film addresses is whether Justin isn’t Holmes. He certainly acts like Holmes. Regardless, a society that insists upon everyone believing whatever everyone else believes is tyranny. (Not that science and economic policy should be based on such delusions!) At one point, in exasperation, Watson tells Justin, “You’re just like Don Quixote. You think that everything is always something else.” And he responds:

Well, he had a point. Of course he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant.[1] That’s insane. But, thinking that they might be, well… All the best minds used to think the world was flat. But what if it isn’t? It might be round. And bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what might be, why we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.

With such big ideas, it isn’t surprising that many people watching the film get lost in it. But the ending isn’t primarily about the theme but rather about the plot. And the plot is primarily a love story. For Holmes and Watson to truly find love, one of them must change. There are two possibilities. There is the sterile version where Watson “cures” Justin of his delusion. That’s not interesting in addition to going completely against the themes of the film. So they go the other way where Watson fully accepts Justin’s delusion.

There are three points in this transition, and it all takes place in the second half of the film. First is when Watson comes back after abandoning Justin for the evening. When she returns, it is as a doctor, but one committed to engaging with her patient. Second is when Watson and Justin have dinner at her apartment. He is grazed by a bullet (Justin’s brother’s blackmailer has decided to hurry things along by killing Justin). Watson thinks he is dead and for the first time refers to him as “Holmes.” The third is at the very end of the film.

Justin and Watson stand in the park, waiting for Moriarty to arrive on horseback. At first, Watson can’t hear the horse galloping toward them. And she so wants to. But then she hears it. And she sees Moriarty approaching. Their love is finalized. The end:

Afterword

The film is thematically rich and I’ve only touched on it here. There are any number of currents that run through it. However, the plot is primarily concerned with Watson and her evolution of thought.


[1] This is incorrect. Don Quixote thought the windmills were giants when he saw them from far away. After getting dashed to the ground by one of the windmill sails, he knows that they are windmills. He assumes that his magician nemesis changed the giants into windmills just to deprive him of the glory of destroying them. Don Quixote uses this kind of logic throughout the books.

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Hillary’s Spam About Ferguson

Hillary ClintonOh do we get spam around here! And much of it is of a very generic nature. For example, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such probing insight on this topic. This is a subject I am very interested in. Thank you so much for your insights on this most interesting topic. You are an excellent writer about this subject.” The only thing that is different is that most spam is in pidgin English. They might as well write, “This is automated spam. No human is looking at this page. But please allow us to put our spam links on your page!”

In the realm of politics, one expects better. That’s why Hillary Clinton’s comments about Ferguson were so disappointing. Charlie Pierce nailed the essence of it this morning, “What she said appears to have been written by nine consultants, eight people from marketing, seven lawyers, six ESL valedictorians, and Mark Penn.” (Penn is a pollster long associated with the Clintons.) It is an example of saying nothing really carefully. Here is my favorite part:

We saw our country’s true character in the community leaders who came out to protest peacefully and worked to restrain violence, the young people who insisted on having their voices heard, and in the many decent and respectful law enforcement officers who showed what quality law enforcement looks like, men and women who serve and protect their communities with courage and professionalism, who inspire trust rather than fear. We need more of that, because we can do better.

I think my spammers could do better:

I stand her today outraged at outrageous things. Just the same I am happy about the happy things. Motherhood should be respected. America is the greatest nation on earth. Let us strive to be better. Let us also strive not to be worse. Let us strive in the ways that each of us agree is the proper striving way. And let’s get rid of injustice; it has no place in the justice system. And by “injustice,” I mean whatever it is that we, in our hearts, take injustice to be. And finally: motherhood!

Clinton made this public statement at the Nexenta OpenSDx Summit. Nexenta is a data storage company in Silicon Valley. And Clinton was paid to be there. How much? I think she gets about $50,000 per speech. But it isn’t really about the speech. It is about Nexenta getting in good for the person most likely to be the next President of the United States.

On the positive side, this generic reaction—almost three weeks in the making—really shores her political reputation. It was spineless and presented for business interests she will be beholden to. That’s the very definition of a New Democrat. Get that woman a presidency. Or, as she might say, “Get that woman the job that we, in our hearts, can all agree is the right thing that we believe she should be doing. And motherhood! America!”

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The Films of Preston Sturges

Preston SturgesOn this day in 1898, the great film writer and direct Preston Sturges was born. It is best to think of his as a writer, although his films were energetically shot and edited. But his scripts are really some of the best ever. He wrote exclusively comedies that are generally considered screwball. And they were very often that, but I think that is a bit tight a fit for what he did.

His first film as writer-director was The Great McGinty. It tells the story of Dan McGinty, a man who rises through the ranks of the state’s corrupt political system to be governor. Along the way, he marries his secretary because he needs to be married for appearances. The problem is that he falls in love with her, decides to be honest, and has his political life fall apart. It is one of my favorite films. Here is a great scene with the political boss (Akim Tamiroff) explaining to McGinty (Brian Donlevy) why he has to get married:

Sturges next film is equally silly but more conventional, Christmas in July. Then came one of his best, The Lady Eve. It stars Barbara Stanwyck as a con arts who falls in love with her mark played by Henry Fonda:

And then came what is widely considered Sturges masterpiece, Sullivan’s Travels. I’m not that fond of it, but I do love Veronica Lake. It tells the story of a famous comedy director who wants to travel the nation undercover and find out what life is like for the poor souls who aren’t famous movie directors. Eventually, he actually finds trouble and learns important lessons about life. The film is mostly interesting for a few references to it in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Palm Beach Story is perhaps the perfect screwball comedy. It is silly in the extreme with a wonderfully preposterous ending. It is a whole lot of fun:

Sturges next did one of the most bizarre films ever, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Basically, it is all one big exercise in making a film about premarital sex without getting stopped by the censors. But it is well worth checking out. Betty Hutton in the lead is irresistible. And Akim Tamiroff and Brian Donlevy reprise their roles from The Great McGinty in it.

After that came another excellent film, Hail the Conquering Hero. Sturges made a couple of films after that but I won’t talk about them because (1) they are generally not considered all that good and (2) I haven’t seen them. I highly recommend getting, Preston Sturges—The Filmmaker Collection. It includes all his major films with the exception of Morgan’s Creek.

Happy birthday Preston Sturges!

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Could Democrats Keep Senate?

Sam WangIf asked, most people would say that Nate Silver had the most accurate prediction of the 2012 election, but that’s not true. Silver actually mis-predicted at least one Senate race. It was Sam Wang who was perfect in 2012. Wang is a neuroscientist at Princeton University and the head of the Princeton Election Consortium. He was one of the first people to aggregate election polling, starting back in 2004. And he currently gives the Democrats a 70% chance of holding onto the Senate.

This came as a bit of a shock to me. I’ve been following 538, The Upshot, and The Monkey Cage models, and they all are very bullish on the Republicans taking control of the Senate. For example, The Upshot currently gives the Republicans a 65% chance. So what is going on?

The difference in the predictions is based upon the kind of models. Wang’s model is based entirely on polling data. As far as I know, The Monkey Cage is based entirely on fundamentals like the state of the economy. The Upshot and 538 models are a combination of the two. The truth is that the fundamentals suck for the Democrats. But as Wang noted today:

Across the board, Democratic candidates in the nine [competitive] states above are doing better in the polls-only estimate than the mainstream media models would predict. This is particularly true for Alaska, Arkansas, and North Carolina. In these three states, Democrats are outperforming the expectations of the data pundits.

Of course, all of this could change. But the truth is that the election isn’t that far away: just over two months. One would think that if things were going to turn, they would have done so by now. But we haven’t seen any indication of that. But I know that I what to believe Wang’s results. Regardless, even his 70% Democratic probability result finds the most likely Senate makeup to be 50-50. The polls with the fundamentals have the Republicans controlling it 51-49. So the models are not all that different. It just shows that there is a lot of uncertainty. At this point, it doesn’t make much sense to get too excited or too depressed.

Update (29 August 2014 4:24 pm)

I just checked, and The Monkey Page model that a month or two ago had the Senate going Republican with an 80% chance, now gives the Republicans only a 53% chance. FiveThirtyEight can’t seem to be bothered to update their model more than once a month. Daily Kos gives Republicans a 55% chance. It is only The Upshot that gives the Republicans a big chance: 65%. That’s interesting.


H/T: P M Carpenter’s Commentary

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Inflation Concerns Are a Good Way to Destroy Labor

Alan BuddThe nightmare I sometimes have, about this whole experience, runs as follows. I was involved in making a number of proposals which were partly at least adopted by the government and put in play by the government. Now, my worry is as follows – that there may have been people making the actual policy decisions, or people behind them or people behind them, who never believed for a moment that this was the correct way to bring down inflation.

They did, however, see that it would be a very, very good way to raise unemployment, and raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes — if you like, that what was engineered there in Marxist terms was a crisis of capitalism which re-created a reserve army of labour and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since.

Now again, I would not say I believe that story, but when I really worry about all this, I worry whether that indeed was really what was going on.

Alan Budd
Margaret Thatcher’s chief economic advisor


Quoted by Cheltenham & Gloucester Against Cuts, who note that the inflation rate was the same when Thatcher came into power (1979) as when she left (1990). This is true, but inflation in the UK has been highly volatile. One thing is for sure: inflation was hardly tamed by her policies. And given that, what was the point? I think we all know that inflation is generally used as a reason to justify policies that help the rich and hurt the poor.

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To Tax Corporate Income or Not to Tax

Jared BernsteinJared Bernstein and Dean Baker are friends and collaborators. But they’ve been having a public debate on the issue of the corporate income tax. Bernstein has argued that we need to keep the corporate income tax because it brings in important revenue revenue, and getting rid of it would be a huge regressive tax cut, because it is mostly the rich who pay it. Baker argues that it is a bad tax that gives corporations huge incentives to avoid it. He even noted in his characteristically amusing way, “The question is, how much will a company pay to avoid paying $100 in income taxes? The answer is up to $99.99.” If you want to read the exchanges, start with Bernstein’s last post, My Last Word on Dean B and Corporate Taxes. You can work backwards from it to his original article in The New York Times, Cutting the Corporate Tax Would Grow Other Problems.

Dean BakerThe discussion is mostly over details and emphases. Not surprisingly, I agree with both of them. They are both brilliant and keen observers of the economy. But it does bring out what I think is a bit of a problem with Baker’s thinking: he doesn’t take into account political realities enough. My favorite example of this is his notion that we don’t need to worry about fewer workers per retiree for the funding of entitlement programs because of increasing productivity. The problem with this thinking is that for the last four decades, productivity has become entirely decoupled from wages. The way that the entitlements are funded, this represents a big problem.

Baker understands this, of course. If you haven’t read it, you should read the book he wrote with Mark Weisbrot, Social Security: The Phony Crisis. That book is 13 years old, yet all of the phony arguments they destroy are still very much still with us. So Baker would counter my argument about productivity with something like, “Of course! My point is that the problem is that productivity is not shared with workers, not that we need a bunch of people working to support retirees.

The maddening thing about this is that he is (as usual) totally right. The problem is that pretty much all economic problems go away if we could just re-couple wages and productivity. I’m concerned that his is often a dangerous way of talking if we aren’t clear about it. And Baker, brilliant guy that he is, often doesn’t hammer home the issue of wages and productivity because it is so obvious to him.

The argument with Jared Bernstein is similar. They don’t really disagree on the matter. Bake is right: the corporate tax doesn’t bring in that much money and it could be replaced with another targeted tax on wealthy people. Bernstein response is basically: yeah, right! This all reminds me of the push by conservatives to lower the corporate tax rate, but keep the amount collected the same by eliminating loopholes. An obvious reaction to this is: if you are bringing in the same amount, why do it? There is an argument to be made that it is fairer. But I think the real reason is that the corporations think they would end up paying less. After all, it is hard to reduce the base tax rate; it is easy to get loopholes put back in.

I think we see the same thing with the idea of eliminating the corporate tax. It is certainly the case that there would be a whole lot more people lobbying on behalf of making the replacement tax less, than there would be on behalf of making it more. So in the end, it would not be offset and so would be a big tax cut for the rich. Just the same, Baker is right that the corporate income tax is a terrible tax. We really ought to replace it. I just don’t see a political climate that would allow that to be done properly for at least a decade—and maybe a lot longer than that.

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