Leaves of Walt

Walt WhitmanOn this day in 1754, neoclassical painter Andrea Appiani was born. The inventor of the Petri dish, Julius Richard Petri was born in 1852. Google created a cool little doodle for the occasion of his 161st birthday today. Check it out! Pseudo-impressionist Walter Sickert was born in 1860. “Positive thinking” proponent Norman Vincent Peale was born in 1898. Actor Don Ameche was born in 1908. One of my favorite actors, Denholm Elliott was born in 1922. And director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was born in 1945.

Clint Eastwood is 83 today. Actor Sharon Gless and quarterback Joe Namath are 70. Actor Tom Berenger is 54. Brooke Shields is 48. And actor Colin Farrell is 37.

With all due respect to Google, the day belongs to the great poet Walt Whitman who was born on this day in 1819. I’m not a huge fan of his work, but he was a great man. And I have a great affection for artists who just keep writing the same book all through their careers. The first edition of Leaves of Grass was only 95 pages, and the last edition was 438 pages. But mostly, he was a very good man in his own time and ours.

Happy birthday Walt Whitman!

157 Visits, Oh My!

Tucker CarlsonYou know me: I have a love-hate relationship with libertarians. But I have a hate-hate relationship with what I call “pretend libertarians.” These are people like Rand Paul who use libertarian rhetoric, but who are just conservatives. Another one of these people is Tucker Carlson. Don’t get me wrong: I like the bow tie. I’m big on any display (regardless of how minor) that shouts “Iconoclast!” But Carlson isn’t much of an iconoclast. And he isn’t much of a libertarian. He’s just a conservative apologist who uses libertarian rhetoric.

A lot of people were excited when he started The Daily Caller. A real Washington libertarian publication. Just check out that name, “The Daily Caller”! It makes you think of someone reading Common Sense in the public square. Libertarians love that shit.

But that’s not what The Daily Caller has been. It’s been just another conservative rag. In its defense, we will have to see the reporting coming out of it when a Republican is in the White House. But I don’t expect much. Carlson is a conservative first and foremost. If I were a as disingenuous as he is, I would say, “I’m not a liberal, I’m a socialist.” After all, there is much about socialism that I admire. But I am not, in fact, a socialist and it would be an insult to actual socialists to claim that I am.

Regardless, The Daily Caller is known for its attack-dog journalism. And thus far, it is all an attack on the left. So I don’t think much of it. (As libertarian publications go, Reason is probably the best.) So I wasn’t too surprised to see that the Caller was pushing the recent Obama “scandals” with excessive vigor. And on Wednesday it “broke” the story that the former IRS head Doug Shulman (once again: a Bush appointee) had visited the White House 157 times. Or rather: 157 times! And of course, Bill O’Reilly piled on, calling the visits a “smoking gun.”

Contain your shock that The Daily Caller would be wrong about the story. It was actually 11 visits and only 3 of them even included President Obama. The 157 “visits” were times that the Secret Service pre-cleared Shulman for meetings that he might attend—almost all of them regarding work on the ACA (Obamacare). So there is no story there. But in the future, don’t pay attention to any part of the supposed scandals until they’ve been vetted for a while. That’s especially true of conservative media, who want to beat this stuff like a runaway Walmart worker. And that includes The Daily Caller most of all.

Afterword

Andrew Sullivan, the man who brought Charles Murray and his The Bell Curve into the mainstream, and almost destroyed The New Republican as editor, had this to say about the The Daily Caller article:

I am sorry to give this crap any air. But it’s worth putting it out there if only to expose even further the toxic bullshit that Tucker Carlson now peddles under the guise of journalism.

Project much, Andrew?

History of Austerity

Austerity: the History of a Dangerous IdeaI just got around to reading Mark Blyth’s Austerity: the History of a Dangerous Idea. It is something of a revelation because it puts the modern economic debate into historical perspective. He starts way back at John Locke and his fear of the tyrannical state. Then he moves on to Hume and Smith who built on his ideas. John Stuart Mill managed to find the problem with where these guys were going in the land of fairies and elves known as libertarianism. But no one really paid much attention to Mill as the story unfolds.

All along the course of this thinking that leads to the modern proponents of austerity, there are a lot of good ideas. And many of the fears are justified. A good example is the Freiburg liberals in Germany during the 1920s. They claimed that the economic problems were based upon the fact that the legal system was corrupted by the use of private economic power. This has long been one of the linchpins of my argument against libertarianism and other forms of free market fundamentalism.

But as much as I get the thinkers who brought us to today, I still scratch my head over how the austerians can continue to think that the economy is driven from the wealthy on down. If there are not consumers with money it absolutely doesn’t matter how much or how cheaply stuff can be produced. The economy is driven by demand. It’s also interesting that these same people talk about the power of the government, but don’t seem concerned about private economic power. They also have a kind of “control economy” philosophy where instead of the government in control (as is the case in communism), it is the “job creators” who are in control. Any reasonable observer would be concerned about public and private power.

Blyth shows in sometimes exhausting detail that austerity is not only morally wrong but that it simply doesn’t work as it claims to. Although he maintains a fairly objective tone throughout the book, he comes out swinging in the conclusion:

This book has examined the case for austerity as both a sensible economic policy and as a coherent set of economic ideas, and it has found austerity to be lacking in both respects. Austerity doesn’t work. Period.

In the last part of the book, he predicts the way forward. He thinks we are going to get higher taxes on the rich and that the recent Fiscal Cliff deal is just the beginning:

So we are talking taxes, which no one likes. But since I found out that in 2010 I paid more taxes than the General Electric Corporation—really, I did, and so did you—I’m willing to give financial repression a chance. Yes, it will greatly limit my opportunities to buy and trade exotic derviatives and engage in international financial arbitrage games, but you know what? I’m willing to give it up. After thirty years of all the gains and all the tax cuts going to the people who brought us the bubble, payback is coming. Not because of Occupy Wall Street and not because of my personal preferences, but because it’s so much easier and more effective to do than it is to enforce self-defeating austerity that it’s bound to happen.

He continues to explain why it is right to tax the rich:

But there is plenty of room to tax the top because of the bailouts. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. After the 1929 crash income inequality and financial-sector pay declined sharply relative to ordinary earnings, but this time they did not, so taxing now is simply taking the bailout back to the taxpayer. This idea does not just resonate with progressive circles in the United States.

That’s an argument that I’ve long been making. We have had a governing infrastructure that rewarded the rich exclusively over the past 35 years. While we’ve enacted laws that have made the rich richer, we have also asked them to pay less and less in taxes. It is time to reverse that. Raising taxes on the rich is not a question of class warfare. It is a question of class survival. And truly, the rich should understand that better than anyone.

I’m going to have to read Austerity: the History of a Dangerous Idea a second time to get clear on all the economic movements. A lot of the material was brand new to me. But even with the one go, I learned a lot. Plus it was a pleasant read. At his best, Blyth is an amusing and breezy writer. And for anyone who wants to know how we got to such dysfunctional economic policy, it is a must read.

No More Confederate General Bases!

Robert E. LeeLast weekend, Jamie Malanowski wrote an amazing OpEd over at the New York Times, Misplaced Honor. I didn’t know this, but 10 United States Army bases are named after Confederate generals. Look, I don’t have it out for the south. In fact, I have almost nothing but fond memories of my time in the south. But all the Confederate flag waving and related activities have got to stop. We can all admit that the Civil War was a tragedy and that most people were innocent of anything other than being caught up in an unfortunate event. What we can’t do is pretend that the south had cause to leave the Union. The people of the Confederacy were traitors. At that is above all true of the generals.

As Malanowki wrote, “Would we have a Fort Rommel? A Camp Cornwallis?” Of course not! And that is not to say that Rommel and Cornwallis weren’t anything but noble men. But even if you don’t wish to say, as I do, that Robert E. Lee was in fact a traitor,[1] we do not name military bases for people who fought against us in war. There are ways to honor men like Lee without naming our bases after them.

And we are not just talking about men who deserve respect like Lee. Bases are also named after vile men. Henry Benning, for example, wasn’t a reluctant warrior; he actively pushed for succession, demagoguing fears that Lincoln would push to abolish slavery. John B. Gordon was an early head of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. And George Pickett was even accused of war crimes, although in the Obama-style “look forward” philosophy of the time, he was never tried.

It is an outrage that we have military based named after these men. It is now 150 years since the Civil War. We need to stop trying to sooth ruffled feathers over our most destructive war, which was waged against us for the most vile of reasons. Imagine what it says to our African American soldiers that they should be stationed at a base named after one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan. It seems to me that we should be far more concerned about their feelings than those of white southerners who think that the Union was wrong to have stopped their rebellion.

The only way to get past the Civil War is for all of us to admit that the right side was the Union side. We are now all Americans. The Confederacy was never a real nation. The Civil War was a great tragedy, but some good things came out of it. And we should all be proud of that. As Americans.


[1] For the record, I admire Lee. I think he is one of the great tragic heroes of our nation. But taking up arms against the United States is an act of treason. And because of Lee’s brilliance, unthinkable extra men died. If he had headed the Union army as Lincoln wished, the war probably would have been over much sooner and there would have been far less loss of life.

Bing Has More Images!

Bing NoI swear, this is the last time I’m going to write about Bing. But they advertise so much, it is hard to keep it out of my mind. And one thing I noticed was that whenever they showed a screen shot in a commercial, the side that won (the Bing side, of course) had a lot more images. That got me thinking: maybe all Microsoft is doing is providing more images on their search pages. That would probably be enough to convince people. After all, I’ve already noted that Bing is a much improved search engine; it isn’t as good as Google, but it’s close. It seemed likely that “almost as good as Google” plus lots of images would make most people think the results were better.

So I took the Bing It On test. And unlike last time, I took it many times: between five and ten times. And all I did was choose whichever search results had the larger number of images. And the results were pretty clear: Bing won 80% of the time. Now obviously, I can’t say for sure that Bing is generally winning these head to head challenges simply because it includes more images. But one thing is certain: even the most charitable judge would have to admit that Bing is not distinctly better than Google. Thus, why would Microsoft risk embarrassment if it were measuring opinions of search results which are vague at best?

As it is, the test filters out a number of display attributes. It could have filtered out images as well. But that would have likely produced a tremendous number of null results. So I suspect they did a lot of research to figure out how they could beat Google in such a test, created pages that would appeal to people, and then put out the “challenge.” This is not about search results.

Afterword

Don’t get the impression that I’m a big fan of Google. I have major problems with the company. And I am forever looking for search engines that are better. Thus far, nothing is close. Microsoft has the resources to compete with Google. But rather than, say, increase their database to Google size, they try to play this game and convince people that they are a better search engine. I will dump Google in an instant if something better comes along. But Bing is not it. Not yet, anyway.

Killing Lincoln Again

Lincoln - Bullet to the Head

I saw this sign a couple of months ago at our local movie theater. At the time, I didn’t know what to think. Did the theater management think that it was was cute: putting Bullet in the Head right below Lincoln? Or were they just clueless? At this point, I lean toward “clueless.”

I’m curious if any of you have any ideas on the issue. But remember: this is Santa Rosa.

Bringing Up Howard

Howard HawksThat humanitarian award guy Irving Thalberg was born on this day in 1899. Voice actor Mel Blanc was born 1908. Benny Goodman was born a year later. Playwright Joseph Stein was born in 1912. Planet of the Apes director Franklin J. Schaffner was born in 1920.

Star Trek guest star, Michael J. Pollard is 74 today. Not Brian Piccolo, Gale Sayers is 70. Here is the maudlin theme from Brian’s Song, “The Hands of Time”:

Actor and playwright Stephen Tobolowsky is 62 today. Another Star Trek alumni Colm Meaney is 60. The Clash drummer Topper Headon is 58. (I wrote about him earlier today without even knowing.) And Moon director Duncan Jones is 42.

The day, however, belongs to director Howard Hawks who was born on this day in 1896. He made so many great films, it is hard to list. Here are just a few: Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But he also directed one of my very favorite movies—one that I often watch to cheer myself up: His Girl Friday. For all I know, he was a horrible human being. But barring some genocide I don’t know about, his work makes up for everything. That sounds bad. I don’t know anything bad about him. Really.

Here is the trailer of His Girl Friday:

Happy birthday Howard Hawks!

Another Republican, Obama?

James ComeyI have had major problems with the nomination of James Comey to head the FBI. But now I’m not sure. You see, today Glenn Greewald wrote, “James Comey is far from the worst choice to lead the FBI.” That’s probably about equivalent to most people saying, “James Comey is the best person we could realistically get.”

Of course, Greenwald wrote that after an article blasting Comey for two very troubling actions while working for George W. Bush. The biggest one is that Comey was the guy who signed off on the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program. You probably remember that. It was big among liberals at the time. I was outraged. Of course, the Obama administration has been no better. In fact, the Obama administration followed the Bush lead by giving all of the phone companies immunity. Well, it was Comey who signed off on that, claiming that it was legal.

Also of concern: Comey signed off on the use of torture. Of course, he was against it and repeatedly said so. But in the end, he did it. That doesn’t exactly speak to the mainstream narrative that he’s a guy who stands up for principle. I’m sure you know the story of him fighting with Alberto Gonzales over something that was so illegal even Comey disagreed with it. If not, here is Rachel Maddow last night gushing about it:

But my problem with James Comey doesn’t have to do with any of this. I figure Comey probably isn’t a bad choice for the job. But just like with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, “Is no Democrat good enough?” I understand that as often as not these days, Republican bureaucrats are more liberal than Democrats. But I don’t like the optics. And I especially don’t like them with regards to security and military positions. It makes it look like Republicans really are better at these things than Democrats. In a fundamental sense, this means that Obama really doesn’t care about his party. And that’s a bad thing at a time when Republican politicians care only about theirs.

Real Corporate Tax Reform

E. F. SchumacherAh, corporate tax reform! Pundits all around love to talk about it. Those on the right love to shout about how we have the highest corporate income tax in the advanced world. (They never tell you that we have one of the lowest effective corporate income taxes in the advanced world, but we’ll leave that for now.) Liberals love to opine about how we could replace the corporate income tax with something that was fairer. But it gives me a snorgasm or worse! Whenever I hear the words “tax reform” put together, I think, “Lower taxes on the rich and raise them on the poor.”

There is a fundamental problem with corporate taxes. Corporations have lots of money that they can spend (Tax free!) on accountants and lawyers who work to find ways to avoid paying taxes. It has always seemed an unsolvable problem. But not all the really smart people are working to reduce taxes on corporations. Some time ago, the great economist E.F. Schumacher came up with a great idea. Dean Baker explains:

Suppose we give companies the option of giving the government an amount of non-voting stock (I would suggest something like a 30 percent stake) which would be treated exactly like the company’s common stock, except without the voting privileges. This means that if the company distributes profits to the shareholders through dividends, then the government’s shares get the exact same dividend. If it buys back 10 percent of its shares, then it also buys back 10 percent of the government’s shares.

This is brilliant. There is no way for the corporation (and by extension it owners), to avoid paying taxes. Anything the corporation could do to avoid showing profits would anger the share holders. If they are going to get paid off, there is no way to avoid also paying the government. That’s the kind of system that we need. If you think about it, it is a way to approach corporate taxes the same way we approach regular employee taxes: when payment is made.

Of course, I can imagine what conservatives would say about this. “This is a government takeover of business!” But it isn’t. These would be non-voting shares. It is just a mechanism that allows for the efficient collection of taxes. And that’s the real reason that conservatives would hate it: because big businesses would hate it. Note that the current corporate tax system is worst for small companies, who generally do pay the 35% even while the average rate paid (because big companies often pay little or nothing) is only 12%. But there is perhaps even a bigger problem with the plan: its simplicity. Simplicity puts accountants and lawyers out of work. And to some extent, it puts politicians out of work as well.

As Baker says, “It is something for the rest of us to think about.” But this is very frustrating. There are a lot of really good policy ideas that are perpetually off the table. We can’t have anything that would upset the status quo. And so we are stuck with a government that represents the cutting edge of two centuries ago.

Sardoodledom

Victorien SardouLadies and gentlemen: Victorien Sardou. He was a very popular playwright of the end of the 19th century in France. I have not read any of his plays, but as far as I can determine, he was good at his craft. But I can well see why other playwrights might not like him. He understood the art form perhaps a little too well. And that can get in the way. I often feel that way about Steven Spielberg, who understands the art of film making so well that he produces a lot of really effective dreck. Sardou was know for his big dramatic climaxes. He wrote them first. Then he figured out what conflict would lead to that. Then he wrote the play. It isn’t the most organic approach to narrative art, but it is used to one extent or the another by all practitioners.

One playwright who didn’t like Sardou was George Bernard Shaw. He wrote of Sardou’s play La Tosca, “Such an empty-headed ghost of a shocker… Oh, if it had but been an opera!” That’s not a compliment. And indeed, the plot of the play is melodrama at its worst. And within 3 years of its premiere, Giacomo Puccini wrote an opera based upon it, Tosca.

Later, while reviewing another of Sardou’s gems, Marcelle, Shaw coined a new word, “Sardoodledom.” Most people will react to this word as this young spelling bee contestant did:

I’ve found two competing definitions for the word. The first is from Merriam-Webster (it is behind a pay wall):

Sardoodledom: mechanically contrived plot structure and stereotyped or unrealistic characterization in drama.

That does seem to be what Shaw was getting at. But Wikipedia provides a broader and probably more useful definition:

Sardoodledom: well-made works of drama that have trivial, insignificant, or morally objectionable plots.

I find the “morally objectionable” aspect of this particularly interesting. Sardou focused most of his attacks on the middle classes. Maybe that is to be expected, he was himself middle class. But I don’t get much of a sense that he ever went after the rich. Maybe that’s just self-preservation. But later in his career, he was at liberty. Regardless, I don’t think that was the problem that Shaw had with Sardou. But you’ve got to hate a man a lot to coin a term to describe his work that is as silly as “sardoodledum.”

H/T: Sarah Kliff

Family Guy Rush Limbaugh Whitewash

Brian - Family GuyI recently came upon a 2010 episode of Family Guy, “Excellence in Broadcasting.” It tells the story of Brian (the dog) and his transformation from a liberal atheist to a Rush Limbaugh sycophant. What most offended me at first was the whitewash of Limbaugh himself, who does the voices for his own guest starring character. I’m really tired of this kind of thing. Conservatives are unacceptably offensive when talking to their fans. But the moment they get into the mainstream, they pretend that they aren’t really the bigots that their fans love. That’s totally understandable. People like Limbaugh live in a strata of the country where people may be economically conservative, but where sexism, racism, and homophobia (all linchpins of Limbaugh’s appeal) are unacceptable. What is not understandable is why liberals like Jon Stewart and Seth MacFarlane allow conservatives to run their cons.

But after thinking about it, the worst thing about this episode was not Rush Limbaugh. It was Brian. The denouement was that Limbaugh explained to Brian that he wasn’t really a conservative. Brian, like all liberals, has to be for the underdog and so when Obama got in power, Brian felt compelled to become a member of the now minority party Republicans. This is too offensive regardless, but coming from a “liberal” show it is shocking.

The theme here is one that Rush Limbaugh pushes on his show every day: conservatives think but liberals just feel; conservatives have reasons for what they believe but liberals are just touchy-feely; conservatives are fact based and liberals pretend the world is something that it is not. And indeed, in the episode, Brian is all of these things. He apparently dislikes Rush Limbaugh but has never heard his show or read any of Limbaugh’s books. He just somehow has the feeling that Limbaugh is bad, I guess because of all the bad portrayals of Limbaugh on TV. (Like this one on Family Guy.)

Clearly, Brian has no intellectual mooring. So even if the Republican Party is still controlled by a bunch of really wealthy and powerful people, Brian has no problem thinking that they are the underdogs. What’s more, we know from other episodes that Brian is quite liberal. Obama is far more conservative than he is. So the natural liberal position for Brian to take would be to start screaming that Obama is too conservative. In other words, Brian should be like me.

It’s always a mistake for shows like Family Guy to try to do something that is politically even handed. It ends up whitewashing people who really are vile. It denigrates one of their most appealing characters. And it makes a farce out of the actual political conflict discussed.

End the Filibuster Now!

FilibusterThere is a story that is probably apocrypal that The Clash drummer Topper Headon told Joe Strummer, that if he (Headon) weren’t in the band, he might be able to kick his heroin addiction. So Strummer fired him.[1] The point of the story is something along the lines that Headon was asking for some bitter but necessary medicine. Although I doubt that was the right medicine for the situation, I think it is often the case that good behavior is encouraged by a lack of options. For example, being ugly makes monogamy much easier.

I bring this up because of the Senate filibuster. It will eventually be eliminated. And it must be. This has nothing to do with partisanship. The Senators simply cannot control themselves when it comes to this minority tool. Just look at this graph:

Filibuster by Party

There is a psychology to this. When Republicans are in the minority, they push up the use of the filibuster. When the Democrats are in the minority, they tend to continue filibustering at the previous Republican level. This will not end. But even more important, I believe the Republicans have now taken the filibuster to the point where it cannot get worse without effectively shutting down the Senate. And that means that the moment the Republicans are in the majority, they will end the filibuster.

I’ve argued this before. But what I think is important now is that the Senate has become post-norm. It has become all about rules. The filibuster is from a time when norms ruled—when a handshake agreement meant something. But now, we have a Republican Party that will do anything the rules allow. And we have a Democratic Party that accepts whatever the Republicans do as the new normal. There is no way that this gets wound back up.

For the good of both parties, we must remove the filibuster temptation. It is like a drug. And that is especially true of the Republicans. What’s more, it impedes their efforts at reform. As long as they can get their way with dwindling minorities (this goes along with gerrymandering and voter-ID laws), they won’t worry about appealing to the majority. We must end the filibuster.

Afterword

Norm Ornstein wrote an article over at National Journal, Parties Prepare to Reverse Rhetoric on ‘Nuclear Option’ for Judicial Nominees. He argues that the best thing would be for the Republicans to return to regular order. I agree! My problem is that this kind of pie-in-the-sky talk only delays the inevitable. The Senate cannot handle the power of the filibuster. At some later time when normal order has returned, then the Senate can look at using the filibuster. But now it is all bad.


[1] This doesn’t make a lot of sense. Headon was a member of the band through its most popular period. Financially, he was set up for life. On the other hand, Strummer was kind of an asshole, and it does sound like him.