Little Britain

Little BritainAndrea suggested that I check out the BBC sketch comedy series Little Britain. She said it was funny, but also crude. She had no examples to delight me with how amusing it was, but she went to some length to gross me out. She’s like that. I don’t have much tolerance for this; I’m still freaking out over the 5 seconds of “two girls one cup” that some coworkers tricked me into seeing. (I have been told it gets much worse, but defecating into a cup is more than enough for me.) Little Britain has nothing this disgusting, although it does have, for example, painting with feces.

I got bored and checked out the series. I found it quite amusing and there was really nothing offensive in it. But it doesn’t stay that way, which I want to discuss. Matt Lucas and David Walliams create an amazing array of characters. In fact, for the first couple of episodes, I thought there were four actors. Matt Lucas is so convincing as a woman that when he plays a transvestite, they put a mustache on him. One of his impressive female characters is Marjorie Dawes, a woman who runs a “Fat Fighters” meeting. She uses her position to belittle the members, mostly for being fat even though Marjorie is too, but also an Indian woman, Meera, who speaks perfect English but who Marjorie claims she can’t understand. The following video is a good example of how Little Britain uses the same joke over and over but still manages to be funny; this is a compilation of interactions between Marjorie and Meera:

As awful as Marjorie is, there is a distinct difference in her character starting in the second season. She becomes so mean that, for me anyway, it stops being funny. The second season pushes the comedy to a new (and for me lower) level. Quite suddenly, Little Britain is filled with crude humor. Suddenly, every episode has at least two vomiting scenes. We get to see an adult man breast feeding from his mother and grandmother. A very lazy romance novelist in the first season, Dame Sally Markham, turns into Bubbles DeVere, an obese woman who uses her sexual “charms” to avoid paying for time at the Hill Grange Health Spa. All of these bits are funny at times, but there is far too much gross for my tastes.

My understanding is that the series only got more popular as it got more harsh and disgusting. I don’t claim to speak for the masses. But I do think the first season is well worth checking out.

Drugs for Us and Guns for Them

Other than the fact that I don’t like the comment about how many troops died, because modern warfare normally kills a lot more civilians than troops, this is a very good cartoon. It explains the economics of our relationship with Mexico: they send us drugs and we send them guns. We get the better of that deal.

Plutocrats

PlutocratsI just read Chrystia Freeland’s new book Plutocrats. I know her from her repeated appearances on Up with Chris Hayes. And I have to say, my reaction to the book is the same as it is to her: what a muddle. Plutocrats really isn’t clear what it is trying to say. Intellectually, it can see that the rise of the super rich is a bad thing, but it is simultaneously almost worshipful of these people. But that might be okay all by itself. I do not have a problem with the vagaries of the human soul. But there is little in the way of new information. Inequality is more extreme the further you go up in income; many of the super rich are “self made” and yet are working to make it harder for others to achieve similarly; the super rich have a separate world in which they life. These are well established facts.

She is strangely sympathetic to these people. She notes their high stress and hard working lives. This is really too much and seems designed to keep open her access to all the plutocrats who took to time to talk to her about their very difficult lives. But please! It is ridiculous to think that a rich man’s self-imposed work life is anything like the very real problems faced by a poor man who has no choice. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking and apologizing for the super rich does not belong in any book that wants to be taken seriously as a study of income inequality.

There are parts of the book that work, although even they don’t have the snap that one would get from Jeremy Scahill or Michael Hastings—two men unafraid of offending their subjects. In the last chapter of Plutocrats, Freeland discusses the rise of La Serrata in 14th century Venice, which she compares to our current system where after the super rich rise, they pull up the ladder from those above. This is a big problem, but it is hardly the worst. Our system is set up so that the poor do far worse than their abilities and work justify while the rich do far (almost unimaginably) better than their abilities and work justify. This is not an issue that Freeland seems to be much interested in.

But she does know the basics. I do like that she understands that there really is no difference between the supposedly good plutocrats like Steve Jobs and the supposedly bad plutocrats like Lloyd Blankfein. She writes:

More important, the difference between the good guys and the bad guys is smaller than we might like to think. Inclusive and extrative societies are very different, but the economic elites within them are driven by the same imperative to make money and win competitive advantages for themselves and their companies. Trying to slant the rules of the game in your favor isn’t an aberration, it is what all businesses seek to do. The difference isn’t between having virtuous and villainous businesspeople, it is about whether your society has the right rules and policing able to enforce them.

In other words, Jobs and Blankfein are doing exactly the same thing and if you changed them around there would be no difference. I would go further. I find it constantly aggravating that people hold Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in such high regard. The (wrong) idea is that these are men created great things that we all benefit from. The truth is that the little good these men did is swamped by the things they did that harmed progress. And the things they did to harm progress are what made them “great men” and what made them household words. Certainly Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds did far more to improve all of our lives than either Gates or Jobs. And yet, only the computer geeks will have even heard their names before. And why is that? Because they didn’t make any money and they certainly aren’t plutocrats.

Plutocrats is a lively and even fun read. Chrystia Freeland is a good writer. But like many writers, she is a bit too in love with her subject.

Cone of Silence

Buck HenryThe Cone of Silence was a recurring comedic idea used in the Get Smart comedy series of my youth. It is ostensibly a device that lowers over two people so that they can have a private conversation. The joke is that it completely doesn’t work: the couple inside cannot hear each other but those outside can. The standard performance (as seen in the video below) involves someone on the outside relaying messages between the pair inside who cannot hear the other. This is silly stuff. And about the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Even after all these years.

The gag was invented by series co-creator Buck Henry. It is comic genius, but there were many writers who did a lot of stuff with the idea. In one episode, Chief asks Smart what he found out about KAOS headquarters. Smart insists that Chief lower the Cone of Silence. This is something that Chief is always reluctant about doing because it never works. Anyway, he does so. The Chief again asks what Smart learned. “Nothing,” Smart tells him. Good thing that information didn’t get out!

In the end, my favorite take on the Cone of Silence is the simplest as in the following clip:

Jerry Brown’s Liberal Bona Fides

Jerry BrownYesterday, Reuters reported the next California budget will be in surplus. The article goes out of its way to make Jerry Brown into a hero. Not only has he balanced the budget, but he is fighting those spendthrifts in the legislature who want to to bring spending back up as much as possible. Now, the obvious reaction to this is to applaud him. But not so fast!

I have been a big supporter of Brown over the years. But he isn’t perfect. What’s more, he suffers from what I am coming to think of as “Democrat’s Disease”: the desire to be remembered as a politician who was “above politics” and “responsible.” But is running a budget surplus in the middle of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression really the responsible thing to do? Now is the time when the California government should be doing all it can to stimulate the economy. Normally, state governments don’t have that much power in this way. When they do, they should use it.

Digby has a slightly different take than I do, but it is equally valid:

So, what we have is a typical Democratic chump who sees his “legacy” as being the wonderful leader who left a surplus when he left office. We’ve seen that movie before. It came out only a little over a decade ago. And what’s the plot? The Democrats preside over the creation of a recovery and surplus and burnish their “fiscally responsible” bonafides by cutting vital programs and emphasizing “saving” their surplus rather than restoring those services. The Republicans then ride into power on the promise that they would hand out hundred dollar bills like candy in the form of tax cuts. (“It’s yer Muneeeeee!) And the next thing you know we’re back in deficit and it’s time to start cutting even more. The Republicans usually let the Democrats do this dirty work because well … cuts are unpopular. Tax cuts aren’t.

She goes on to point out that in the end, the Republicans will still tar Brown as a “tax and spend liberal” because he did, after all, raise taxes. It is amazing that Democrats do this kind of thing over and over and over again. But I think this comes from the fact that Democrats who make it to high office aren’t all that liberal when it comes to economics. And this is why I think more and more that we liberals really need a new party. Because I for one, care first and foremost about economic issues. The social issues can sort themselves out after we get a slightly more egalitarian society.

So overall, I’m pleased with Brown’s management of California. And after Schwarzenegger’s governorship, it should be clear to all that governing really is a skill and we really do want professional politicians. One would think this would be obvious. You would never prefer to hire a plumber who has neither experience nor education. But now that Brown has shown that he is a great governor, maybe its time to brandish his liberal bona fides.