Hamlet, Mary Cassatt, and the Robot Monster

Mary CassattThe great French landscape painter Hubert Robert was born on this day 1733. Inventor of the electromagnet and electric motor William Sturgeon was born 1783. Composer Richard Wagner were born in 1813. Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle was born in 1859.

The great Laurence Olivier was born in 1907. Most Americans probably remember him as the evil Nazi dentist Christian Szell in Marathon Man. Or for older people (or just lovers of old films), Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. And I most remember him in Sleuth. (Never, never, never watch the remake of Sleuth.) But Olivier is probably most important for his work in first bringing Shakespeare to the screen in a compelling way. I’m not that fond of his films, actually. I think Welles (who was widely criticized relative to Olivier at the time) is better and more cinematic. But there is no doubt that the man can act. Here he is doing that scene from Hamlet:

Phil Tucker was born in 1927. He was the director of a delightfully silly, but ultimately terrible film, Robot Monster. That’s the film where the villain is a guy in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet. It’s easy to laugh at, but Tucker got it produced and the film made a lot of money. Here is the trailer:

And Harvey Milk was born in 1930. He was one of the most important gay rights advocates ever. In San Francisco he is a legend. And he would likely be alive today if it weren’t for the unstable Dan White.

Bernie Taupin is 63 today.

The day, however, belongs to the great American impressionist Mary Cassatt who was bore in 1844. I don’t have a lot to say about her. Look:

The Child's Bath

Happy birthday Mary Cassatt!

Update (23 May 2013 12:52 am)

I just watched Robot Monster again. I take back “terrible.” It is actually an amazing little film. It has pretty much all of the problems of low budget films of that time, but it has a few positives. The acting isn’t bad. And it is truly bizarre in a delightful way. It is also filled with lots of unintentional gems like the whole marriage ceremony. I always love how movies of that time were filled with scientists who were very serious about their Christianity. Anyway, check it out if you get a chance.

Ryan Cooper Educates Michael Kinsley

Ryan CooperOver at Washington Monthly, Ryan Cooper wrote a nice, easygoing response to Michael Kinsley. As you may know, last week, Kinsley wrote, Paul Krugman’s Misguided Moral Crusade Against Austerity. In it, he tried to argue that the pro- and anti-austerity forces weren’t that much in disagreement. There were two problems with this. First, he made the major mistake of putting economics in a moral context. He made the critical error of writing, “I don’t think suffering is good, but I do believe that we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be.” Kinsley was particularly attacked for that by various great minds. I also attacked him.

The second problem with Kinsley’s article is perhaps even worse, although it hasn’t gotten as much attention. It is just not the case that the pro- and anti-austerity forces are largely in agreement. I discussed this last year regarding a debate of sorts between anti-austerian Paul Krugman and pro-austerian Niall Ferguson on Fareed Zakaria GPS. I wrote:

After interviewing both men, Zakaria came on alone to give his thoughts on what should be done. He said he agreed with both men. We should stimulate the economy now and work to close the budget deficit over the long-term. You can probably already see the problem here. Although he claimed that he agreed with both men, he only really agreed with Krugman. What Zakaria was proposing was exactly what Krugman had said. Ferguson didn’t say we needed to balance the budget eventually; he said we needed to do it now.

And this is what Kinsley wrote. It is what austerity apologists always say: the anti-austerians are right that we need stimulus now but the pro-austerians are also right that we need austerity later. That’s what the anti-austerians say!

Cooper rightly notes that what Kinsley is really worried about is debt causing inflation. If you feel a little marginal about this stuff, I suggest reading the article. It is short and, I thought, very clear. What I want to focus on is this supposed connection between debt and inflation that the austerians are so concerned about. Check out this graph that shows bond rates since 2000:

10 Year Treasury Bonds Time Series

Look at the extremes: 2000 and 2013. In 2000, our debt was low and getting lower. Yet the treasuries—the amount the federal government had to pay to borrow money—was high: almost 7%. In 2013, our debt is high and getting higher (although at a slowing rate). Yet the treasuries are low: about 1.5%. This is not an argument for federal debt causing high inflation. Of course, what’s really going on is that in 2000, the economy was doing great. The private sector was investing and thus there wasn’t a lot of spare cash around for borrowing. Now, the economy is doing poorly. The private sector isn’t investing that much. Instead, they are sitting on piles of cash looking for any safe way to use it. The safest way is in US treasury bonds.

We know, however, that most of the people who push economic austerity are not doing it out of concern for inflation. That is all a ruse. Instead, austerity and the fear of inflation is used to justify harming liberal policies. Of course, that’s not what’s going on with Kinsley. He’s just been fooled and frightened by those who want to destroy programs that Kinsley himself believes in. It’s sad.

Afterword

Cooper’s article is actually about a brand new Kinsley article where he defends himself against Krugman and his “attack dogs.” I thought a lot more of Kinsley before I read it. He doesn’t seem to understand that the reason everyone imputes bad motives to the austerians is that neither economic theory nor economic facts support their position. I hope that Cooper’s article will help in that regard. But I doubt it. In the new article, Kinsley spews a lot of nonsense that I would think he would be smarter than. I’m afraid he’s lost all perspective.

Update (22 May 2013 9:18 pm)

One more thing. Kinsley seems to think that his austerity obsession is okay, because he thinks that the way to balance the budget is to raise taxes. That’s sweet. But it’s also naive. Austerity is overwhelmingly a conservative movement. That means that if austerity wins the policy debate, we are going to get something like the Ryan Budget, not the Progressive Budget.

None of that really matters, however. The point is the austerity position is wrong. If Kinsley got his wish and we balanced the budget with tax increases, it would still hurt the economy. And that’s what all this about: what is best for the economy. And the austerians are provably wrong.

Fed Might As Well Have Single Mandate

Ben BernankeMatt Yglesias is very insightful about the Federal Reserve. Last year, he asked an incredibly important question, “If the unemployment and inflation rates were reversed, would the Fed do something about it?” The point is that the Federal Reserve has a dual mandate to keep both inflation and unemployment low. Yet all the Fed seems to care about is inflation. At the time he said that, inflation was 2% and unemployment was 8%. If it were the other ways around, the Fed would be working hard to cool the economy down. But they are perfectly happy with the way things were (and are).

There is some talk among conservatives that the Fed should have a single mandate: keep inflation low. The idea is that the Fed shouldn’t worry about employment at all. Note that this is an idea that is designed to help the rich. Inflation hurts people who have a lot of money. Unemployment hurts people who have to work for a living. By saying that the Fed should only worry about inflation, the conservatives are telling us everything we need to know about them: they are policy hacks for the rich.

But today, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar asked the Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke how the Fed would act differently if it did have the single mandate. Yglesias rightly noted that after much bobbing and weaving, the Fed chair said that he wouldn’t do anything differently. And that’s important, if not surprising. We have long known that the Fed didn’t seem to think that 8% unemployment was anything to worry about. After all, none of the members of the Fed even know anyone who is out of a job.

Even Bernanke notes that he currently thinks that inflation is too low. Well, his primary tool regarding raising inflation is gone: he can’t lower interest rates anymore. So the only way to raise interest rates is to convince the finance community that inflation is coming. And the only way to do that is to convince them that the economy is improving. So if Bernanke wants to bring inflation up, he should work on bringing unemployment down. But he’s not very interested in that subject.

I suspect that he thinks that the power elite (the only people who matter) will never attack him for keeping inflation too low. But I’m not sure that’s true. In the next 20 years (while Bernanke is still alive), important people may well look back and say, “That guy just allowed the crisis to go on and on, ruining the lives of millions of people. All because he was afraid of angering the bankers. What an awful person and central banker.” Regardless, I doubt it is as simple as he thinks. And future generations will look back at him as a failed Fed chair. Sometimes caution is a bad thing. We don’t want cautious fire fighters. We don’t want cautious central bankers in the wake of a terrible financial crisis.

“You Gotta Thank the Lord, Right?!”

God - Michelangelo“You gotta thank the Lord, right?!” Am I right?! Really! The Lord! You gotta thank him?! Right?! Right?!

As the tornado was bearing down on Moore, Oklahoma, Rebecca Vitsmun and her infant son were waiting it all out in their bathtub. But as Vitsmun watched the coverage on her laptop computer, she became convinced that the storm was coming right toward them. So she put her son in the car and drove off in the opposite direction. And they survived! But when they got back, the house was destroyed.

That’s when CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer showed up. He interviewed the young mother and asked what any objective journalist would, “You gotta thank the Lord! Do you thank the Lord? For that split-second decision?” Vitsmun seemed a bit uncomfortable. “I’m, I’m, I’m…” she stuttered. And then, giving him a big smile said, “I’m actually an atheist.”

So I guess that split-second decision had more to do with watching the news and making a rational decision rather than, say, getting telepathic advice from Odin.

Here’s the clip. It is a lot of fun for two reasons. First, of course, is the very awkward Wolf Blitzer. Second, is the wonderfully bright and happy atheist

In a broader context, this is a horrifying instance of journalistic malfeasance. Blitzer is hectoring this poor woman. In fact, he first says, “You gotta thank the Lord!” Vitsmun says in a very meek voice, “Yeah.” It is only when he pushes her that she decides to make an issue of it. And good for her! This is one of the few times that a journalist is completely nailed for his cultural prejudices. It’s great to see.

It might have been interesting if Blitzer had asked the song, “You gotta thank mom, right?!” Damned right!

Racist Election Officials

Let People VoteI’ve heard it said that we are the world. I’ve even heard it said that we are the children. And lest we forget: we are the ones who make a brighter day, so lets start giving. The problem is that this is total bullshit. We are parochial; we act like children; we are the ones who make everything worse, so let’s just give up. If there is a choice we’re making, it is whether we should focus on helping only ourselves or on hurting others. We normally split the difference.

For example: racist election officials. These people are not trying to be awful human beings. It is just that being awful is our way. It worked for our fathers. And our fathers’ fathers. But not to labor the point: and our fathers’ fathers’ fathers’ fathers.

A group of three graduate students performed an experiment to judge just how awful election officials are. The three — Julie Faller, Noah Nathan, and Ariel White — are undoubtedly awful in their own ways. But the experiment was pretty cool. They created two characters: Greg Walsh and Luis Rodriguez. Then, they sent out email from the two accounts they created for these guys. The email asked for information about what kinds of voter identification they would need at the polls. The only difference in the email messages was that one was from a very white-sounding name and the other from a very brown-sounding name.

The study was a bit more complicated than this. If you want to know more, check out Dylan Matthews’ article on the subject. But all you really need to know is that the election officials were more likely to just ignore the email from Rodriguez. What’s more, when they did reply, the responses were “likelier to be non-informative, less likely to be ‘absolutely accurate,’ and even less likely to take a friendly tone.”

Other researchers have found the same thing regarding people with black sounding names. I don’t think this means that people are blatantly racist. But we are less in control of what we think and do than we normally assume. I know what it’s like to get a lot of email from people you don’t know. And it is easy for stuff to get lost or to at least put off dealing with email. In my case, the only bias I’ve noticed is that if someone writes me a long letter, I will often take a much longer time getting back to them. But it is entirely possible that other factors affect me in more subtle ways.

But this study has made me wonder about my name. Whether people recognize “Moraes” as a Latino name or just some bizarre “other” name, it could affect how people look at my email. Maybe I should change my name. How does “Craig Johnson” sound?

Inhofe’s Hypocrisy Not Subtle

James InhofeYesterday over at Post Politics, Rachel Weiner and Matt DeLong reported on the difficult position of Oklahoma’s two Republican Senators with regard to aid for the victims of the Oklahoma City suburb tornado. The problem is that both James Inhofe and Tom Coburn voted against aid for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Somehow, the Oklahoma tornado is “totally different.”

Of course, the coverage of this clear bit of hypocrisy is apologetic in tone. Inhofe, for example, supposedly voted against Sandy relief because it was filled with pork. “Everyone was getting in and exploiting the tragedy that took place.” This is in contrast to Inhofe himself who did the moral thing of letting the Sandy victims suffer. But the fact is, Inhofe can’t say that any tornado relief wouldn’t be filled with pork either. But that doesn’t matter.

Politicians always have “a very good reason” for voting against popular proposals. What Inhofe is signaling here is that he will vote for tornado relief. Regardless of pork or any other problems with the bill, he will find that the good outweighs the bad. And the same exact thing is going on with Coburn.

What it all comes down to is that these guys didn’t want money going to the constituencies of their enemies. It isn’t even arguable: money for Oklahoma is good; money for New York is bad. And as long as the media pretend that these Senators’ claims are real, they will continue to use these ridiculous arguments. When a politician would love to vote for a bill but just can’t for reason X, it means that he doesn’t want to vote for that bill. And that’s fine! But the media should not accept his bullshit excuse.

Heckler Not About Hecklers

HecklerNetflix kept pushing a documentary named Heckler on me. So I finally watched it. I’m curious about the phenomenon. It is very strange to me that people go out to see a comedian and then decide to interfere with the show. I understand they are usually drunk, but I still don’t get it. So I was quite interested in what people had to say on the subject. And the 15 minutes of this film that is about hecklers is quite interesting. The rest of the film is an attack on “critics” and a plea for understanding that performers have feelings too.

I write about performance art a lot. And I always try to approach a work on its own terms. It is stupid, for example, to complain that Without a Clue is silly, as some critics have. Yes, it is silly! That’s what it is. Complaining that a work is not what you wanted it to be is not criticism. And that is sadly what most of what we call “criticism” is. But in the case of Heckler, I feel the filmmakers tricked me. They claimed to make a film about hecklers when it was really about criticism.

Having said that, it isn’t as though I’m against watching a film about criticism. I think the state of film criticism is deplorable. And Heckler does a reasonable job of this. It doesn’t talk about what I think are some of the worst aspects of criticism. And it implies that a critic savaging an independent filmmaker who is just getting by is no worse than savaging George Lucas. But okay: the film works well enough.

I do not, however, think that Heckler succeeds in making its argument. In fact, the filmmakers even seem to know this. The film follows Jamie Kennedy (who is also a co-producer) as he confronts a number of online critics who have savaged him films in the past. At first, I felt sorry for the guy. But after a while, it was clear who the real bully was. The people who were attacking him were minor critics, some of them not even professional. Kennedy, on the other hand, has a net worth of $6 million. And he seemed particularly upset that people had panned Son of the Mask—a film with an $87 million budget. I have no opinion of the film since I haven’t seen it. But I’m not terribly sympathetic to a millionaire who worked on a big budget film and got bad reviews.

At the end of the film, Kennedy takes all of his reviews over the years and throws them on the ground. Then he has two obese women in bikinis set them on fire and the three of them walk away, wrapped around each other. When I saw that I almost lost it. Really?! That’s the final point of the film? Luckily, that was not the end of the film, although I have a hunch it was originally. After this scene, Internet film critic Devin Faraci comes on and says, “Well, I guess it’s really nice that people who make a lot of money for fucking around in front of a camera get an opportunity to really complain about the people who have to sit through the stuff that they make. And, of course, it’s always nice to have big, fat ladies at the end of your movies. Burning your reviews—congratulations. I guess that there’s some kind of real catharsis going on there. Hopefully, that’ll carry through to Malibu’s Most Wanted 2.”

Of course, maybe I’m wrong about what the filmmakers thought. Right after Faraci’s comment, the music started with the lyrics, “Hate is all around…” But Faraci’s take is my own. Kennedy is a whiny man who deserves very little sympathy. And in general, the complaints about critics were that they were too harsh and too absolute in their judgments. That’s pretty funny coming mostly from stand-up comedians whose stock and trade are absolute and extreme opinions about the world. Critics often work in hyperbole for the same reasons: they are trying to entertain.

Most of the other stars interviewed were substantially better than Kennedy. Arsenio Hall really stood out as someone who had a good perspective. So too did Louie Anderson, Patton Oswalt, Bill Maher, and Paul Rodriguez. But there was nonetheless, far too much whining. There was also a bizarre section of the film regarding Uwe Boll’s boxing matches with critics. The whole thing did little more than strengthen stereotypes of Germans as brutes. What’s more, it reminded me of an SNL skit where a caveman learns the secret of fire. Everyone says he’s smart. The alpha male kills him and then says, “Now I smart!” I’ve never seen any of Boll’s films, but his boxing skills don’t make me wish to see them.

The biggest problem with critics is the power they have over small independent films. They have little impact on big budget Hollywood films like Son of the Mask. And I think that the real power that critics have should be challenged and they should be held accountable. One bad review of a small film in the New York Times can destroy the film’s chances for a decent distribution. Given these very real stakes, the minor complaint that stars get their feelings hurt seems like a waste of the opportunity to make a film.