A Good Day to Die Already!

A Good Day to Die HardThere are two contrasting scenes at the beginning of A Good Day to Die Hard that perfectly encapsulate what is wrong with the American action film genre. The first finds John McClane in a taxicab in Moscow. The cabby learns that he is from New York and starts singing “New York, New York.” When McClane gets out of the cab, the driver tells him the ride was free because McClane let him sing.

The second scene is soon after. The first car that McClane stole to follow his son (so they could talk) has been destroyed due to his reckless driving that (although unseen) must have resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of serious injuries to people whose only crime was to drive in the same city as this American asshole. He tries to get a car to stop for him. No one will. (Would you?) So he throws himself in front of one car, making the driver slam on his breaks. The driver gets out of the car and yells at McClane in Russian. I don’t speak Russian, but he was clearly saying something like, “Are you crazy?!” McClane wants none of it. He punches the guy and then says something like, “Don’t you know I don’t have any idea what you’re saying?!” With the driver unconscious in the middle of the road, McClane steals his car and drives off.

These two interactions demonstrate the noble and angry savage archetypes. The cabby was childlike. He didn’t need money; all he needed was someone to listen to him sing! He is, of course, the Good Russian. The other guy was angry that some asshole jumped out in front of his car. How dare he? Didn’t he know that McClane was an American? You don’t question Americans! And you sure as hell don’t speak Russian to them! If they want to steal your car, you smile and hand them the keys. You’re grateful! They’re Americans, after all! This guy, of course, was the Bad Russian.

This is what I hate about American action films. There is this idea that America is Good, True, and Right. What’s more, everyone should just know that. There is no understanding that other cultures may have their own pride. What’s more, they might be unhappy with things that the United States government has done to them. And in A Good Day to Die Hard there is a perfect symbol of this in the form of a jailed Russian billionaire. The US was a big reason that Russia moved recklessly towards a market economy that allowed most of the people to be robbed at the expense of unscrupulous billionaires.

Let me step back. Even apart from all the vile politics in this film, the best thing you can say about it is that it is short. All the other “Die Hard” films were over two hours. A Good Day to Die Hard was an hour and a half. Yet, it is long even at that. There isn’t much to the plot of the film. It is mostly a number of action scenes separated by some of the lamest dialog bits I’ve ever seen. Credit has to be given to Jonathan Taylor, the second unit director. He actually had a larger camera crew than the first unit. I figure that 60% of this movie was shot by the second unit.

The plot itself would have been great if this movie had been released in 1990. That’s because I remember being totally fooled by the plot twist in Die Harder. This film uses the same device and I saw it coming from an hour away. I’d warn you about upcoming spoilers, but really: how could anything spoil this film for you more than the film itself? It starts with a woman bad “guy.” The billionaire has to get his daughter out of Russian. What are the odds that the woman we’ve seen is the same as his daughter? And then, it turns out that the father and daughter are in cahoots! Who could have predicted it? Answer: Steven de Souza and Doug Richardson, who wrote Die Harder.

The film also had many of my most hated action film problems. 1. The bad guy didn’t care about the lives of his henchmen. Apparently, bad guys don’t have to worry about loyalty or anything. And why should they? The good guys don’t either, even if they don’t just blow up dozens of their friends on screen. 2. The bad guys are just vengeful for no particular reason. Rather than trying to get away, they go on suicide missions. 3. John McClane, despite lots of delays, still manages to get to the final scene almost as fast as the Mi-26 helicopter—which have a cruising speed of 158 miles per hour. 4. When they are alone, Russians speak English, unless they are minor characters, in which case they speak Russian. It is very confusing! 5. And…

God damn it! The flames of a fire are not what harm you. It is the heat. In a big explosion, if you are just outside of the fireball, you are still dead. And yet, John McClane manages to not even get his shirt burned. Of course, this kind of nonsense is found throughout the film. According to it, you can fall without harm, as long as you keep breaking through floors. There are so many times in this film that the characters would have died, it was just silly.

One more thing: Uranium. Weapons grade Uranium is 99% pure. Do you know what fuel grade Uranium is? It is 3% pure. The idea that someone is siphoning off Uranium from a nuclear power plant for sell in the weapons market is laughable. What’s more (and this was the same idea in the dreadful The Expendables 2) the idea that there is a billion dollars to be made selling illegal Uranium is ridiculous. The truth is, there isn’t much of a market. Terrorist groups, even well funded ones, just don’t have that kind of money. If someone were really smart, as the villain in this film is, he would steal bearer bonds or gold bullion—not fucking Uranium that would almost certainly get him killed if he tried to sell it.

I could go on. Do I need to? This film is even bad by action movie standards. Above all, however, it is offensive to our non-American friends and it perpetuates the worst stereotypes about America. At one point, a bad guy says that he hates cowboys. After watching the film up to that point, I had to agree. Yippee-ki-yay, my ass!

Deficit Opinions Should Change

Michael TeslerMichael Tesler, a political scientist over at Brown, wrote a guest post at The Monkey Cage, Who Cares About Budget Deficits? Basically, the entire article is the graph below, which I altered to make display better here. It shows two things. First, it shows that the better informed partisans are, the more likely their opinions will follow those of party elites. By “informed” we simply mean the more they pay attention to the news; it might be (and often is) a very bad source of real information. Second, it shows that since 2007, Republicans have become very concerned about the deficits and Democrats have become much less so.

The natural assumption here is that Democrats are more worried about deficits when Republicans are in power and vice versa. This is certainly the case. I’ve noticed this with politicians. I haven’t, however, noticed it so much with rank and file partisans. And look at the graph: news consumption had almost no effect in 2007. I think what we are seeing in 2011 is due to a real public argument that has been going on these last four years.

Should the government run deficits after a recession? The answer to this, regardless of party, has always been (for my lifetime, anyway), “Yes!” That’s what Bush’s tax cuts were all about: stimulating the economy. The truth of the matter is that the Democrats in these cases are right. In 2007, we should have been reducing the deficit: the economy was good and unemployment was as low as 4.4% that year. In 2011, we should have been increasing the deficit: the economy was poor and unemployment was at 9% for most of the year.

This is a point that most people miss. For example: Matt Yglesias. Not all budget deficits are created equal. As John Maynard Keynes wrote in Collected Writings, “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.” So if we look at the facts of the situation, the Democrats were right to change their views on the deficit and the Republicans were wrong.

I accept the first fact about this graph: it does indeed show that the more of a news consumer one is, the more one is likely to develop a partisan slant. But the second issue is not proved by these data at all. Indeed, if they show anything along these lines, they show that Republican thought is getting more and more removed from reality.

Opinions of Deficit 2007-2011

Zero Mostel

Zero MostelNinety-eight years ago, Zero Mostel was born. I always loved seeing him in movies. He was especially charming in The Producers. And when I read, years later in When The Shooting Stops … The Cutting Begins, that Mostel and Mel Brooks had a feud going throughout the filming, it only made me love him more. (Note: Mel Brooks is a well documented asshole.)

Another great film that I have seen dozens of times is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The film has a great cast, but I can’t imagine it without Mostel. Mostly, he just did his shtick. But like most comedic geniuses, he was also a good actor who did what was appropriate. His performance in The Front is downright subtle. The fact that he was blacklisted makes it all the more poignant—as does his death soon after the film’s release.

But what I will always associate Mostel with is Fiddler on the Roof. He wasn’t in the movie and I never saw him on stage. But when I was young, I loved Broadway musicals and I listened to every original cast album I could get my hands on. One of my favorites was Fiddler on the Roof. Here is Mostel performing “If I Were a Rich Man” at the 1971 Tony Awards:

Zero Mostel died much too young, but he left us quite a legacy.

Canoodle

CanoodleI’m a pretty clueless guy in a lot of ways. So when I saw the following CTV News blooper, I immediately felt a kinship with the poor news anchorman. He was talking to the weather woman and mentioned that they might “canoodle” before she presented her forecast. She was shocked, “We’re not going to be canoodling… What?!”

Meanwhile, a producer off screen is yelling something along the lines of, “Canoodling means to make out, you dolt!” So the anchor smiles (he has a very nice smile) and says, “Oh, I thought canoodle meant ‘chat.'” By this time, the weather woman is laughing uncontrollably. But the unflappable anchor continues on, “Astor, you lucky there’s a producer in my ear or I would have carried that on and on.”

Maybe it is because I had never heard the word “canoodle” before either. Or maybe it is because the word has such a sweet meaning, “To kiss and cuddle amorously.” But I think the whole thing is charming as hell.

Is Ben Bernanke This Clueless?

Ben BernankeLast year, Matt Yglesias made one of the best political observations I’ve ever heard, “If the unemployment and inflation rates were reversed, would the Fed do something about it?” The point he was making was that the Fed is overly concerned about inflation. For the last four years, we have lived with unacceptably high unemployment while the Fed has worked to keep bond rates negative. It is madness and it speaks to elite thinking. Ben Bernanke seems to be saying, “No one I know is unemployed, so it must not be a problem. On the other hand, everyone I know has lots of money and they would be hurt by even a little inflation.”

Yglesias was back yesterday, pointing out a ludicrous boast that Bernanke made at the hearings, “My inflation record is the best of any Federal Reserve chairman in the postwar period”! Yglesias concedes that this is true—but only because we’ve had a pretty good economy since World War II. There weren’t any depressions. And again, he is able to cut right to the core of the matter, “No sensible person would look at America’s economic performance in the 1929-1933 period and say ‘man, they did a great job of fighting inflation.'”

There are two issues here. First, in a depressed economy it is a trivial matter to keep inflation low. So it is no great accomplishment for Bernanke to have done this. Second, allowing inflation to rise would have been a good thing. In fact, that is Ben Bernanke’s job. The Fed has a dual mandate: keep inflation low and employment high. Now these two things work against each other: rising employment pushes inflation up and and lowering employment pushes inflation down. So the Fed needs to balance these interests. Unfortunately, Bernanke hasn’t balanced them at all. He has done everything he could to keep inflation low and almost nothing to boost employment.

In the decades ahead, I’m sure that historians will look back at Bernanke and judge him very harshly. I doubt that he will be ranked below Greenspan. (How could he be?!) But whether because of cowardice or callousness, he has done a remarkably bad job for the country, but a great job for the bankers.

Campaigns Don’t Much Matter

Morris FiorinaAfter Obama’s underwhelming performance at the first general election presidential debate, I was depressed like most liberals. But after two and a half days, I ebullient. What happened? The Jobs Report came out and unemployment had dropped below 8% for the first time in years. You may remember that I was not the only person to think that this was a big deal. Many conservatives suggested that the BLS was faking the number to make Obama look good. Whatever. But the point is that I (and others) knew that Jobs Report completely overshadowed the debate performance, even if it wasn’t obvious at the time.

I bring this up because Molly Ball wrote an interesting article this afternoon, 5 False Assumptions Political Pundits Make All the Time. I can’t resist a headline like that, because I’m always on the lookout for ways that I might be embarrassing myself. Of course, in this case, it just showed how brilliant I am.

The article discusses a paper by Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina. The five false assumptions are: (1) the electorate is not “polarizing,” it’s “sorting”; (2) candidates change more than voters do; (3) independents aren’t partisans; (4) “division” is easy to overstate; and (5) campaign ads really, really, really don’t make much difference. Assumption (3) is not all that strong. We know that most independents tend to be either Democratic or Republican. All he’s saying is that people who call themselves independent really are more independent than those who pick a party. That seems pretty obvious to me and hardly worth noting.

It is assumption (5) that I found most interesting, and it is what takes us back to the debate performance and Jobs Report. What seems very clear to me (I discussed this a little about Stuart Stevens the other day) is that campaigns don’t matter much. It is all about the politicians make their case for their preferred policies. But as we know from assumption (2), people don’t really change their opinions. In any national election, if everyone voted, the Democrat would always win. As a Democrat, the main thing I care about regarding elections is that lots of people get out to vote. (Otherwise, I care that all we do is nominate moderates!)

During the period leading up to the November elections, I knew that the economy was doing better. It wasn’t doing a lot better, but it was clear that we were heading in the right direction. Once that very strong Jobs Report came out, I was pretty sure that Obama had the election in the bag. It wasn’t that the report made Obama look good (and thus the conservatives screaming made no sense). It was what the report said about the economy. I think it comes down to the fact that poor people especially tend to not bother voting if they feel things are going badly. Regardless, take away all of Romney’s gaffs. Take away the poor convention. Take away Obama’s two good debates. Take away Hurricane Sandy and Chris Christie. Obama would still have won that election.

Let me rephrase what Firoina said: Campaigns really, really, really don’t make much difference.

Moraesesque

Paul KrugmanBen Bernanke spoke before the Senate yesterday. And as much as anyone can tell, given that only people who work at the place can fully comprehend “Fed Speak,” he seemed to be saying that we shouldn’t worry about the deficit right now and that we could use some stimulus. And you know who that sounds like? Well the man himself knew what it sounded like. This afternoon, Paul Krugman wrote, “Ben Bernanke’s testimony today was highly Krugmanesque.”

I could, of course, could note that this is a good thing. It doesn’t matter to a wacko Republicans who want to abolish the Federal Reserve because… Well, just because. (Fiat money! Inflation! And don’t forget: Greece!) But it ought to matter quite a lot to supposedly liberal thinking Democrats. That didn’t stop democrat Joe Manchin spending all of his allotted time trying to get Bernanke to admit that the debt really was the biggest threat to our nation. Bernanke wasn’t buying it and so I hope more and more people will see that we have much bigger fish to fry. Like jobs!

But I’m not here to talk of the need to fix the US economy. I’ve done that many times before. I’m here to talk about “Krugmanesque”! The man coined a term for himself! And really: there is definitely something very distinct about what Krugman says, but not how he says it. And to be fair, that’s all he was saying. But if Krugman can coin his own term for himself, then so can I.

My question is: what does Moraesesque mean? Given that I am a ranter and not a Nobel Prize winning economist, the term must apply to my style. And I can think of no better example of Moraesesque than when I talk about Avik Roy:

You fucking conservative lackey. I want to rip off your scrotum and suffocate you with it. Cock sucking plutocrat bastard!

Yep. This is the one I’ll be remembered for! Just like Ed Wood and Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Roberts Has Long Hated the VRA

Chief Justice RobertsSomething I really hate is how John Roberts is held up as some model of reasonable conservatism. I’m sure he will go down in history just like William Rehnquist: a man who is extremely conservative but is said to be reasonable because the people who came after him were even more extreme. In the case of Roberts, Samuel Alito provides all the breathing room he could want.

Today, the Supreme Court is hearing a challenge to the Voting Rights Act. All the conservatives justices (except Thomas who never says anything) were very aggressive in their questioning. In particular, Roberts asked, “Is it the government’s submission that citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?” This goes right along with what has become standard operating procedure for the conservatives on the court. This isn’t a question; it is polemics in its purest sense. The question is not about citizens, although I suspect that yes, they are more racist. The bigger question is if there are systemic aspects of these systems that perpetuate racism in how voting is done. And after this last election where all kinds of clearly racist attempts were made to finesse the election, these questions shouldn’t even need to be raised.

In fairness, the real question here is whether we should keep assuming that areas that were once overtly racist should be held to a higher standard. Should they have to get preapproval from the federal government before they change their voting laws. I wish we were going in the other direction: moving toward making all local governments get approval before changing the law. The way it now works, some place makes it harder for minorities to vote; they are slapped down about it later; but that doesn’t change the skewed election results.

John Roberts has a long history of being against the Voting Rights Act. He was a big part of the Reagan administration’s push to weaken the law. Adam Serwer wrote the history of this, Chief Justice Roberts’ Long War Against the Voting Rights Act. In it, he details how Roberts argued that the federal government should have to prove the law changes were intended to be racist. In other words, it’s all good as long as some governor doesn’t say, “This law will keep them darkies from voting!”

It’s very sad, but Roberts clear undemocratic opinions are typical of conservatives everywhere and increasingly the elite everywhere. At the hearing today, the conservatives seemed to be very concerned about how democracy worked and indicated the need for them to step in and fix its problems. We’re not talking about stopping mob rule. Instead, Scalia noted that the law was so popular that the legislators didn’t feel free to vote against it. What a terrible thing, right? Representatives actually listening to their constituencies? What’s next: the rule of law?!

Don’t be surprised if the important Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is struck down. In fact, don’t be surprised if the whole act is struck down. This court has shown an eagerness to make decisions that are far broader than the question at hand. It used to be that the court calmed a more excitable legislature and executive. Now, the court is the more excitable. And democracy is in great danger.

100 Years of Irwin Shaw

Irwin ShawOne hundred years ago today the great writer Irwin Shaw was born. About a year ago, I spent a couple of weeks with his Short Stories, Five Decades. It reminded me of when I first started writing about 25 years ago. I became obsessed with his short story “The Eighty-Yard Run.” I read it again and again. It tells the story of a man’s life from one day in high school that he looks back on as the pinnacle: an eighty-yard touchdown run during football practice. It is perceptive that Shaw used this example. In one way, anyone can understand that doing this would make a boy feel very good about himself. Life is like that: relatively little things can put on shine on life. But another way of looking it is that it is pathetic. It is high school and it isn’t even a game — just a practice.

All of Shaw’s work is filled with unspoken truths. No one ever seems quite able to communicate what they think and feel — even to themselves. Everyone is left with the vague sadness that you think life is really all about when you are young. Of course, as you get older, you learn first hand that this is exactly what life is about. The one thing we all share is regret about everything. Shaw conveys this idea with an expansive collection of characters and their stories.

Shaw is kind of a guys’s writer. Most of his characters are men. He still does an excellent job with female characters but he never provides the kind of depth that he often does for his men. There are certainly similarities with Hemingway — especially at his best in The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea. But Hemingway is notably weaker. His female characters speak of a man who only ever had much contact with women through prostitutes. And there is a great deal of insecurity in his work, as though he were trying to prove he was a real man. With Shaw, there is no such problem — men just are what they are without editorializing.

Shaw has also written a lot of plays and novels. He got his start writing for radio. I can’t speak to any of that. He had some notable popular successes as with his novel Rich Man, Poor Man. I recommend checking out his short stories.

Afterword

There are a few other notable birthdays today. Peter Stone would have been 83 today. He was a playwright who also wrote some notable screenplays like Charade. Joanne Woodward is 83 today. She starred in one of my favorite movies, They Might Be Giants. And Elizabeth Taylor would have been 81 today. She was known for being Elizabeth Taylor.

Ralph Nader was born in 1934 on this day. Chelsea Clinton, 1980. Peter De Vries, himself quite a good writer, was born on this day in 1910. He wrote some fun novels.

Oh yeah: some guy named John Steinbeck was born on this day in 1902. I’ve heard that he wrote some novels or something. “Angry Grapes”? “Bitter Prunes”? Something like that.

Boehner’s Paradox of Power

What Will John Boehner Do?Jonathan Chait came out this morning and said what we all know in our hearts: John Boehner’s position on the Sequester is a teeny-tiny jobs program. Or to put it more bluntly: he doesn’t care about 700,000 jobs that will be lost if the Sequester stays the law; he only cares about one job: his own as Speaker of the House. I don’t think this is the only thing that is going on, but there is much to it. After all, a bipartisan plan could make it through the House; it is just that Boehner won’t allow the vote. And that just makes the national brand of the GOP that much worse.

This is another example of the paradox of power. Boehner has basically taken his career hostage. He now has quite a lot of power. He could cut deals with the White House that are great for the Republicans and then, with the help of House Democrats, he could get them enacted. But if he does that, he will surely lose his speakership. And thus the paradox: he has power only so long as he doesn’t use it.

Something like this goes on with every politician in the country. They make concessions for power. But they never really use the power (in the way they had wanted to when they started anyway) because they are trying to get more power. Or, as with Boehner, they are trying to hold onto their impotent power. Or, as with Obama, they’ve been so thoroughly assimilated into the system that they can’t imagine doing anything other than perpetuating it. If you think about it though, there is a whole lot of assimilation at all levels of government. If there weren’t, suicide rates among politicians would be very high because of the paradoxical position they place themselves in.

Chait thinks that Boehner will eventually accept a deal. I’m not keen to see this happen. I fear that Obama will be so eager for a deal that he will give away huge cuts in entitlement programs in exchange for rich people’s tip money. And what will be even worse will be watching liberal pundits dance in the streets, “Obama made Boehner cave!” The actual deal won’t matter. And then ten years from now, the loopholes will all be back, but the cuts will live on. So I’m almost hoping that Boehner continues to keep his power rather than use it.