Republicans Are Not for Smaller Government

Joni ErnstThe fact that Joni Ernst is a disingenuous fraud is not news. Many people have reported on her folksy lines in the response to the State of the Union speech. I think Michael Hiltzik dealt with it the best, Senator Joni Ernst Learned to “Live Within Her Means” — on the Taxpayer’s Dime. It’s not just that one speech, however. Her whole political career has been based on the cliche of growing up on a hard working family farm when times were tough. This is nonsense, of course. Ernst was born in 1970 — not 1920. This is a period when farm subsidies were good (as they continue to be). So it is no surprise that from 1995 to 2009 (the only period during which we have data), her extended family received almost a half million dollars of that sweet, sweet government welfare.

In this way, Ernst is entirely typical of her party. It is amazing to me that Republicans manage to get any traction at all by claiming that Democrats are divisive and wage “class war.” The Republican Party is committed to taking money away from the truly needy in the name of teaching them to “live within their means.” But they want to hold firm or even increase handouts for the affluent. And no, this is not just the reverse of the Democrats. The Democratic Party does have its targets, but they are mostly inefficiencies in expensive programs. As I’ve noted many times before, the programs that Republicans want to cut are almost exclusively ones that don’t cost that much money, because we are already fairly stingy when it comes to the poor and it doesn’t cost much to help them to begin with.

This highlights perhaps the most pernicious lie in American politics: conservatives want smaller government and liberals want bigger government. Leave aside the fact that Democrats really don’t care about the size of government — they simply want effective government. Do conservatives really want smaller government? Maybe in theory. They like the idea of getting government off the metaphorical back of Americans. But what they really mean is that they don’t want the government to get in the way of the rich doing anything that they want. If we passed a law saying that anyone who made more a $100,000 a year was immune to all government regulations (including taxes), the Republicans would have no platform except for a smattering of issues designed only to make the lives of the poor worse.

From a practical standpoint, Republicans have been the biggest spendthrifts of them all. That isn’t surprising, for as I noted, the things that the Republicans want to spend more money on are really expensive. This is why the deficit only gets bigger under Republicans (Reagan, Bush I, Bush II) and only ever gets smaller under Democrats (Carter, Clinton, Obama). I may be against deficit and debt obsession, but most Americans are not. And Republicans claim to care about debt and deficits, but all they really care about is cutting aid to the poor and middle classes. And as for taxes, check out, Reagan’s Legacy: Tax Cuts for Rich, Tax Hikes for the Rest.

What’s amazing is that people like Joni Ernst are allowed to go around talking about how we have to cut food stamps because the poor need a lesson about how to live within their means. She, and the whole Republican Party, should be widely mocked in the press. But apparently, our media think that “objectivity” requires respectful reporting on whatever delusions the Republicans are currently trafficking. I know if things were reversed and the Democrats were peddling nonsense in the name of helping the poor, the media would not report it respectfully.

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Anarchy on The Nightly Show

Larry WilmoreIs it the intention of Comedy Central to promote anarchy here in the United States? I’m not talking about revolutionary comedy or contrarian views. I’m talking about something important. I’m talking about map madness.

Thursday on The Nightly Show, Larry Wilmore focused on Cuba. As a result, there were two countries that had themselves displayed in map form. I’m not going to say anything. Just see if you notice anything that doesn’t make sense. You need to take the wide view, however.

First is Cuba, of course:

Nightly Show - Cuba

And next is China:

Nightly Show - China

One reason I liked The Nightly Show immediately was the south side up map that Wilmore has behind him. I like maps. I like how they distort reality. So it is nice to be reminded with different projections and different orientations. But if you are going to have a south side up map in back of you, you had damned well better have other maps similarly oriented. Both Cuba and China are presented north side up.

What the show is doing is not reminding us of our geographical delusions. Instead, it is creating anarchy!


If the show wanted to present maps in random orientations as if to say, “There is no up,” I would not have a problem with that. There is a difference between introducing chaos because the world is chaotic and maps are liars, and just making stuff up. But mostly, I just think that if you are going to play with people’s perspectives, you should really do it. Not that I’m serious about this. And The Nightly Show continues to show great promise.

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Virginia Woolf

Virginia WoolfOn this day in 1882, the great writer Virginia Woolf was born. Last year, I read her most famous novel, To the Lighthouse. I wrote at the time, “The language is quite beautiful — much of it as exact as poetry.” That’s about the highest praise that I can give to a writer. Of course, I also wrote, “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?’”

It’s surprising that Woolf isn’t more of an icon of literature. There seem to have only been three writers of the 20th century who were especially brilliant when it came to the raw technique of writing: Woolf, Stein, and Joyce. I know a lot of people love Woolf and Stein, but it is only Joyce who is truly a star. The contrast of Woolf and Stein is a good one. They are so different, their marginalization cannot be a coincidence. It’s sexism.

Woolf, of course, struggled with depression her whole life. And her eventual suicide would be romantic if it weren’t so tragic, and if I didn’t have a pretty good idea of just how violent it probably eventually was. As Stevie Smith noted, having suicide as an option is a great blessing because we know that we can end whatever pain we are in. So it isn’t surprising that some people choose the option, and I am not going to second guess them. But it is always sad.

Happy birthday Virginia Woolf!

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Is Homer Simpson Bi-Curious?

Humanity's Achievements

This is a screen capture from a recent episode of The Simpsons, “The Man Who Came to Be Dinner.” It’s a good example of the density of the comedy that the show produces. In the episode, Homer is explaining to aliens on another world the great achievements of humanity. This image is only on the screen for a couple of seconds. And if I hadn’t paused it, I would have missed the best joke in it. The one joke that everyone gets is, “Free Refills” and “Did I mention ‘Free Refills’?” It’s so Homer! And so is the utter laziness of “Pre-mixed Peanut Butter and Jelly.”

I’m not quite sure how to take “Ringo Starr’s All Star Band.” I assume that it is a reference to the fact that Ringo Starr is embarrassingly bad. He really has no talent and never has had any talent. He did, however, star as himself in an episode in the second season, “Brush with Greatness.” But this had to do with a teenage crush of Marge, and nothing to do with Homer.

“Instant Replay in MLB” is very silly. I think it may well kill the game. I’m not a sports fan, but I like the snark on the issue.

What I didn’t notice at all was the fourth item, “Grindr.” I had no idea what it was, so I looked it up. According to Wikipedia, “Grindr is a geosocial networking application geared towards gay, bisexual, and bi-curious men.” I’m sure the writers just loved that one! It’s so great to throw in the middle of Rupert Murdoch’s empire. And the idea of Homer being bi-curious is funny as hell.

The Simpsons still has an unbelievable amount of vitality even 26 years on. It really is amazing.


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When “Responsibility” Is Irresponsible

Paul KrugmanThe terrible thing is that Europe’s economy was wrecked in the name of responsibility. True, there have been times when being tough meant reducing deficits and resisting the temptation to print money. In a depressed economy, however, a balanced-budget fetish and a hard-money obsession are deeply irresponsible. Not only do they hurt the economy in the short run, they can — and in Europe, have — inflict long-run harm, damaging the economy’s potential and driving it into a deflationary trap that’s very hard to escape.

Nor was this an innocent mistake. The thing that strikes me about Europe’s archons of austerity, its doyens of deflation, is their self-indulgence. They felt comfortable, emotionally and politically, demanding sacrifice (from other people) at a time when the world needed more spending. They were all too eager to ignore the evidence that they were wrong.

And Europe will be paying the price for their self-indulgence for years, perhaps decades, to come.

—Paul Krugman
Much Too Responsible

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A Vague Sentence in Unhitched

Unhitched - Richard SeymourEarlier this month, I published a brief except from Richard Seymour’s Unhitched. It was about how one of Christopher Hitchens’ primary complaints against religion was how it was used to oppress women. But Hitchens himself was a complete sexist who wasn’t keen on women’s rights. It didn’t seem controversial. Hitchens’ sexism and anti-choice beliefs were very well know. As usual, Hitchens was never shy about sharing his views on such objective topics as the lack of funny women. But a couple of days ago, I got an email from someone asking if I had a reference to what Seymour had referenced. And then soon after, I got the another email (emphasis in original):

I found it in a 1989 issue of The Nation and the argument is 100% the opposite of what Mr. Seymour asserts. Perhaps more research should be done before excerpting the works of someone who either has not read the originals, or has and has decided to fabricate an argument out of misused quotes.

Before getting to the meat of the issue here, this is clearly an extremely silly (yet angry) person. Assuming that an error was found, that hardly counters the point at hand. Basically, all Seymour is saying is that Hitchens was a sexist with anti-choice views. this is true. What’s the big deal here? So I dived into the quote and realized that the problem must stem from the following sentence:

He also had a record of opposing certain reproductive rights for women, suggesting that society should “claim a right and an interest” in the fate of the unborn child and therefore might limit abortion access to any woman who “is the victim of rape or incest, or if her mental or physical health is threatened” as part of a “historic compromise” offering in return a health service with free contraception and an adoption service.

My email person clearly misunderstood this sentence. It is an entirely reasonable mistake. I have found Seymour to be a rather unclear writer. So I pointed out that the problem was Seymour’s use of the word “any” when he should have used “only.” With “any,” it is possible to read the sentence as meaning that Hitchens was against a rape/life-of-the-mother exception (which is untrue) or that those were the only exceptions that was in favor of (which is true). With “only,” the sentence is clear and correct.

I pointed this out to my email person, who responded, “Garbage.” I wasn’t expecting anything better. Hitchens, more than anyone in the New Atheist movement other than maybe Sam Harris, has extremely protective fans. It’s actually funny. One sees the same thing with Ayn Rand fans. So these people who don’t believe in God tend to deify these secular heroes. Hitchens can’t be a deeply flawed but brilliant writer. He has to be perfect and thus people like Richard Seymour must be destroyed — regardless of what assumptions they must make about an awkward sentence.

Still, the point of this article is to highlight the interesting ambiguity of the sentence, not the silliness of a true believing subgeniuses. And I do think it is fascinating that a single synonym change can make all the difference in the world in the meaning of a sentence. It is also terrifying. What it means is that we could all use a great editor. And as in the case with my email person, understanding is largely dependent upon the goodwill of the reader.

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John Belushi

John BelushiOn this day in 1949, the great comedic actor John Belushi was born. He was a very subtle performer, even if his characters were not necessarily. He’s probably best known for his character of Bluto in Animal House. There is also his work on Saturday Night Live. Good luck finding that on the internet. The first season was 40 years ago. It is cliched, but still true, to note that society has sped up. A performer or writer can make a fortune in a single day. Yet our copyright system gets slower and slower. Belushi’s SNL material won’t be in the public domain in my lifetime, even though it should have been at least 20 years ago.

It’s not surprising that Belushi died so young. He was out of control, like most people would have been at his age with his fame. It is sad that people focus so much on his death, however. As if that’s what defines his life. I read Bob Woodward’s pathetic biography, Wired. Belushi’s life should not be viewed through the prism of his death. And all his work should now be in the public domain. Just saying.

Well, here’s a video clip:

Happy birthday John Belushi!

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Stanley Kramer Soiled Me With His Cynicism

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad WorldThe other night I watched It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World — Stanley Kramer’s almost three hour long, hundred star comedy. I saw it on television when I was very young. And I remembered it as being somewhat funny. But mostly, I didn’t remember much of it at all — just the scene where Sid Caesar and Edie Adams are locked in the hardware store, and the scene where Spencer Tracy and Dorothy Provine figure out what the “big W” is. Otherwise: not much. But it is a classic and I’m especially interested in how comedy ages.

Because the film is so long, it has an intermission after an hour and a half. And it is a good dividing line for the film. From my perspective, the first section is near perfect. The action and comedy all work. In fact, it looks easy. And this is with some actors who I really don’t like (Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney). But the second section goes to hell. Well, that isn’t exactly true. The first half hour of the second section is very good. But the last forty minutes of the film is a real slog.

About the only thing that I took away from William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade was that a third act should be resolved as quickly as possible. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World breaks this rule of thumb in a big way. The ending goes on and on and on. It culminates in a ridiculous sequence when all the male leads are stranded on a very high fire engine ladder. It is excessive for no real purpose. And looking at it over fifty years later, the special effects are terrible. This is made even worse by the fact that other effects earlier in the film were rather well done.

On top of all this, the film has a very dark ending where every major character is in jail and all the men are also in traction. But it does go along with the overall — incredibly cynical — take on human nature. According the film, all people are greedy and selfish and, as a result, irrational. Still, if everyone is guilty and the only difference is that some of us encounter temptation, then how can any of us deserve to be punished — given that we would all do the same thing in those circumstances.

This is a thematic problem that I have with a lot of modern narrative art. I know that a lot of my friends think of me as something of a Pollyanna. But I think that people are a good deal more decent than we give them credit for. My friend Will likes to point out that most of the politicians that he hates — like Bush the Younger — would probably be great neighbors. I think he’s right. It’s generally external factors that set us against each other. In the film, it is just greed.

But there is more. The police are onto the group of treasure hunters from the very beginning. But it seems, through most of the film, that somehow everything will come together. But it doesn’t. Instead, the film is like watching the universe expand until it tears itself apart. There is no feeling of resolution. We just watch these people behave badly for hours and then get punished. It’s not so much bad as pointless. And it poisons the earlier parts of the film that were entertaining.

There are two exceptions from the rest: characters who weren’t just motivated by greed. First, Spencer Tracy as the police captain. He’s actually driven to his bad behavior by various forces in his life. It is hard to blame him. And then, as though the filmmakers just wanted to make it all the more painful, his major complaint is addressed, but he doesn’t learn of it in time. The second character is Dorothy Provine as Milton Berle’s wife. She’s the only one who learns anything — namely, that chasing after the money was a big mistake. She too has a pitiable life. But there is no redemption or escape for either character. In fact, things go the worst for Tracy — even though he is one of the least guilty.

It’s tempting to suggest people watched the first two-thirds of the film. But I don’t think that works. Ultimately, you want an ending and whether you put yourself through the final half hour of tedium or not, you only get a “stop.” But the film might be enjoyed just to watch for the roughly fifty cameos. Or if you really think all people are awful and they deserve to be punished, maybe you will love it. As for me, I feel like I did more than waste three hours. I feel like I got soiled.

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Adam Smith on Mistaking Wealth for Wisdom

Adam SmithThis disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.

We desire both to be respectable and to be respected. We dread both to be contemptible and to be contemned. But, upon coming into the world, we soon find that wisdom and virtue are by no means the sole objects of respect; nor vice and folly, of contempt. We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent. To deserve, to acquire, and to enjoy the respect and admiration of mankind, are the great objects of ambition and emulation. Two different roads are presented to us, equally leading to the attainment of this so much desired object; the one, by the study of wisdom and the practice of virtue; the other, by the acquisition of wealth and greatness. Two different characters are presented to our emulation; the one, of proud ambition and ostentatious avidity. the other, of humble modesty and equitable justice. Two different models, two different pictures, are held out to us, according to which we may fashion our own character and behaviour; the one more gaudy and glittering in its coloring; the other more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline: the one forcing itself upon the notice of every wandering eye; the other, attracting the attention of scarce any body but the most studious and careful observer. They are the wise and the virtuous chiefly, a select, though, I am afraid, but a small party, who are the real and steady admirers of wisdom and virtue. The great mob of mankind are the admirers and worshippers, and, what may seem more extraordinary, most frequently the disinterested admirers and worshippers, of wealth and greatness.

—Adam Smith
The Theory of Moral Sentiments

H/T: Stumbling and Mumbling.

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Police Shootings Only News if on Video

Police ShootingSteven D over at Booman Tribune alerted me, Unarmed Black Man Shot By Cops, Again. It is about Jarame C Reid who was killed during a traffic stop in Bridgeton, NJ — in which he was just the passenger. It happened back on 30 December, but it is getting attention how because the police dashboard camera video was just released. And it shows that Reid was shot while he was apparently unarmed with his hands raised over his head.

I’ll be honest: I haven’t watched the video. I’m not going to watch the video. Things like that are extremely upsetting regardless of the circumstances. But according to all the reporting, the video is clear. Steven D added, “You can hear anxiety, anger and fear in the voices of the police…” And I figure that’s what happened here. Police, like all people, get themselves worked up. Emotionally, they are on a hair trigger and unfortunately, they have guns. This is not to apologize for the officers, but I can well see how such a thing could happen without the officers being psychopaths.

What bothers me in all this is that the shooting was not really a story for three weeks. There were witnesses who said that Reid was shot while unarmed and with his hands up. But that didn’t much matter — especially after Michael Brown, and what was a farce of a grand jury and the resulting media narrative that claimed that such eyewitnesses were lying, when they were contradicted only by the officer and one clearly deranged racist who almost certainly wasn’t there. So I can understand why the media is reluctant to report on yet another case where the police kill an unarmed black man who had his hands raised.

Is this where we are as a society? Can the police kill any black man with a crowd of ten thousand witnesses, and have it be no story? That is: it is no story unless there is video footage of the incident? That certainly seems to be the case. Certainly, Eric Garner’s death would have been nothing at all if it hadn’t been for the video. And even with the video, there was no indictment. And I seriously doubt there will be an indictment in Reid’s case. Because it can’t be the officers’ fault because it is never the officers’ fault because they were afraid and their jobs are so dangerous. Also: a police officer’s word is always golden because they would never lie — not even when it is very much in their interests to do so.

We have a really bad situation in this country. And it is bizarre. The same people who are convinced that they must hold onto their guns or Obama will send the black helicopters after them, believe that local law enforcement officers are above the law. But even apart from these freaks, white America needs to wake up. This may be primarily a problem in minority communities where it seems that the police are constantly in fear of their lives. But that kind of thing grows. Nothing I’ve seen indicates that the police will stop being pussies. With every police shooting, all we hear is about what heroes most officers are and how dangerous their jobs are and how we should just be happy they don’t go door to door killing the first born son of every family.

So I understand how it happens that police officers allow situations to escalate, become fearful, and then use deadly force. But I don’t think that makes it acceptable. It’s like how abusing children can make them violent adults. I understand, but that doesn’t excuse it. I still think murderers should be punished. As a society, we can’t continue to excuse misbehavior and incompetence on the part of our police. The stakes are too high.

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