My Crush on Isabelle Carre

Isabelle CarreOn this day back in 1779, the great Irish songwriter Thomas Moore was born. James Bond author Ian Fleming was born in 1908. Most people aren’t aware of it, but Fleming wrote the children’s book Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. It was published in three small volumes, but is basically one book. Fleming died shortly before the first volume was published. The film based upon the book is only vaguely related to it. Basically, they took the idea and the characters and created a new story. The screenplay was by Roald Dahl who is a much better writer than Fleming. Just saying.

On this day in 1910, the great blues guitarist T-Bone Walker was born. He is best remembered for writing one of the classics of twentieth century popular music, “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad).” It seems that everyone has done that song at one time or another. Here he is doing it:

And human example of what I am talking about regarding guns, Wendy O. Williams was born on this day in 1949. At 44 she tried to kill herself with a knife. At 48 she tried with drugs. The month before her 49th birthday she got hold of a gun. There’s no backing out of that. It’s sad. Here she is with The Plasmatics doing (appropriately enough) “Butcher Baby”:

My childhood basketball hero, Jerry West is 75 today. Gladys Knight is 69. Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Patricia Quinn is also 69. And silly doctor Patch Adams is 68.

Also 68 today is one of the greatest pop musicians and songwriters of all time, John Fogerty. In the following clip, Bruce Springsteen says, “He’s the Hank Williams of our generation.” That’s about right. And here are the two of them doing perhaps my favorite Fogerty song “Fortunate Son”:

Creator of For Better or For Worse, Lynn Johnston is 66. And so is long-bearded bassist Leland Sklar.

Normally, the day would have gone to John Fogerty. But I have a crush. So the day belongs to the beautiful and talented Isabelle Carre who is 42 today. I only know her from one film, but just look at that face above: it makes you glad to be alive. (Of course, I don’t see many people smiling these days, so I’m a sucker for a smile.) The film is Romantics Anonymous, and here is my favorite scene:

Happy birthday Isabelle Carre!

Friendship Vs. Society

Fast and FuriousMatt Yglesias has some insights into the Fast and Furious films. I’ve only seen the original one, but that’s all that’s really necessary. The film has an interesting theme that I have always found compelling: friendship trumps all. The question the film raises is whether the main character owes more to his friends than he does to his oath of office. Generally, movies either find a way to have it both ways or they ignore the issue altogether. But it’s an important question, “What would you do for your best friend?” Would you help him cover up a murder? A rape? A white lie?

Yglesias presents this in the context of economics. This kind of attitude is most associated with “low trust” societies. If you can’t trust the society at large, it makes sense that you would latch more strongly onto your personal relationships. It also looks like high trust societies grow faster. That’s not surprising. Economic transactions require a certain level of trust. If you know that a product will work as advertised, you will be more likely to buy it. Another thing that should surprise no one is that the level of trust goes down as income inequality goes up. On the simplest level: people become more segregated. What’s also true is that everyone knows that life is unfair; the more unequal it is, the more they see just how unfair it is.

What’s more interesting than these two unremarkable observations is what we get when we combine them: income inequality causes economic growth to slow. You would think that the rich would worry about that. Of course, you would also think the rich would worry about revolution but they never do. There are other reasons why income inequality will cause economic stagnation. For example, a very rich person can only spend so much. And demand is what drives the economy.

I thought this discussion of friendship was interesting for different reasons. When I saw that the government was going after the friends of the Tsarnaev brothers, I was really mixed. On the one hand, I don’t think I would help a friend cover up a murder. On the other, I think our society should applaud friendship. I don’t like the idea of everyone becoming some kind of government robot. That would be a society that I don’t want to live in. I felt the same way when the Unabomber was ratted out by his brother. That’s not to say that I condone murder, but loyalty is a value too. As I said, I accept turning in murderers. But anyone who would turn in a friend for tax evasion is not much of a friend.

The best society is one where strangers can trust each other. But that doesn’t take away from the need for loyalty in our personal relationships. And I don’t think society should celebrate those friends and family members who do place the collective above them. We should have mixed feeling about it. It should be seen as a decision (Even if an easy one!) and not just automatic as though of course everyone turns in his brother when he does something wrong.

The New Season of Arrested Development

Arrested Development Season 3Peter Queck and Bhaskar Sunkara provided me with my first review of the fourth season of Arrested Development. And they managed to put just about everything I hate about “criticism” into one article. Their fundamental problem with this recent material is that the producers of the show have changed its structure. Before, all plot lines were cross cut. Now, they are related in a way that doesn’t have a catchy phrase to describe them. But I can explain: each episode is told from a different character’s perspective. Thus, we commonly find out later that some story of character X was going on just off screen from when we first learned about character Y’s story.

Queck and Sunkara claimed that the cross cutting situation was “communism” and that the new structure destroys that. Leaving aside the strained metaphor, they seem not to understand the very basics of storytelling. Season 4 is no less integrated than Season 1. It is just integrated differently. More or less we could say that the cross cutting of the first three seasons was extended to be episode long. Thus in episode 1, we watch Michael’s story. In episode 2, we watch George’s story. They are happening at the same time. That is, in fact, cross cutting.

These guys also attacked the third season episode “S.O.B.s,” which I consider one of the best of the entire series. It lampoons the entire television industry in a wonderfully self-referenced, postmodern way. It is the most “inside” episode of a most “inside” television show. Their problems with the episode call into question how much they are even capable of meeting the show on its own terms. And that, as most of you know, is my biggest problem with critics: the pretense that their way of engagement is the only way. It’s fine to dislike something but it is not fine to complain that you thought it should have been something else.

They also commit the “not funny” sin. We all do this from time to time. Their problem is not just with the fourth season but with the third as well. Of it they wrote, “The quality of the show in the third season seemed to actually track its increasingly tenuous prospects, rolling out gags and characters more cruel, tasteless and grotesque than funny while circling a comedic black hole of self-reference.” Well, some of find the black hole of self-reference very funny. And I thought the fourth season rarely missed on a gag. And it isn’t like there isn’t a lot of stuff that would have fit very well in the first season.

Take for example, the scene where Lindsay and Tobias are sitting with a real estate agent. He asks if they have children. Lindsay says no, and Tobias doesn’t contradict her. As usual, they are both hoping that the agent might be interested in them sexually. After much very funny dialog, Lindsay admits that they actually do have a daughter. Tobias laughs uncomfortable, “Yeah, I should have caught that.” The camera pulls back and reveals their daughter Maeby was just out of frame. She says, “I could have spoken up but I just wanted to see if you guys got there.” As Zoidberg says, “Now that’s funny!”

But there was one part of their critique that I thought was dead on: the show is much less friendly. It is like the producers see the world in a much more negative light. And in that way, the show was not as much fun as it used to be. Clearly, that’s what the producers wanted, however. Part of it, I think is that George Michael and Maeby have grown up. George Michael especially is more an actor than a reactor. And he’s not nearly as nice a kid as he was. But what else could happen? He’s a Bluth, after all. The biggest change, however, is Michael who is far worse than he was in the first three seasons. But this is in line with his character arc. He got much worse over those first seasons. But now you can definitely see why he can’t seem to find a steady girlfriend.

Other characters have changed in various ways that don’t relate to the changed tone of the show. George’s brother Oscar is played quite differently (and I think better) by Jeffrey Tambor. Lucille is about the same, but I thought the writing could have been a bit more crisp. The Funke family is the same. G.O.B. is more or less the same, but it’s not clear where the producers are taking him. I’m hoping for a soft landing on that one, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Anyway, I wouldn’t count the opinions of a couple of guys who didn’t like season three of Arrested Development. Unless, of course, you didn’t like season three. But mostly, their review came down to the usual, “They didn’t do what I wanted them to.” Exactly how good the fourth season is will depend upon the upcoming feature film. I think that will color how we see this new season in the long run.

Afterword

Some people may be wondering how I justify my generally savage discussions of action films. These are cultural critiques. I always admit that the films are competently produced. The point is that these kinds of films are pernicious propaganda. My effort is to point out some of the ways they go wrong. This isn’t any different than a physicist critiquing the science in a film. And of course, I’ve done that too.

Low Taxes Exacerbate Inequality

Dylan MatthewsDylan Matthews reported today on research by Alvaredo, Atkinson, Piketty, and Saez on taxes and income inequality. They looked at the change in the top income shares since 1960 and compared it to the change in the top marginal tax rate. And not surprisingly, they found a very strong correlation. For example, in the United States, the top 1% of earners have seen their share of total income go up by a staggering almost 10 percentage points. Meanwhile, the top marginal tax rate has gone down by almost 50%.

Here is the graph:

Income Shares vs. Marginal Taxes

The article put forward a couple of explanations as to why this is. The conservative idea is that having lower taxes makes rich people work harder and for productivity to grow. If that’s the case, why was growth so great under Clinton who raised the top tax bracket and so poor under Bush Jr who lowered the top tax bracket? There really is no evidence for this theory; it is all just the conservatives’ desire to justify their anti-tax mania.

The middle ground is that lowering taxes causes the rich to do less tax avoidance. That is to say that the rich aren’t actually richer, they just look richer on the books. This doesn’t explain much because it is simply not the case that the rich aren’t richer. Also, Matthews pointed out that if you include income from capital gains (the main way to avoid income taxes) the results of the graph above hardly change.

That leaves the liberal explanation. Matthews only mentioned one part of this: the rich have more money and this gives them more political power. This is undoubtedly happening. And it isn’t even limited to campaign contributions. It is just that the richer people are, the more parties they can give and the more politicians see them as “the right kind of people” who ought to be helped. What’s more, let’s not forget that our politicians are the rich.

Another important aspect of this is that lower taxes on the rich incentivize inequality. A company makes profits. Those profits could be used to reward the work force with raises (or bonuses). Or the company could invest in infrastructure. Or the company could distribute the profits to the owners. The lower the top marginal tax rate, the larger the incentives to distribute profits. This is more or less the same mechanism as found in the conservative explanation. But instead of the rich working harder, the rich just take more money from the lower classes.

In the end, I’m sure that this correlation is due to all of these causes and more. However, I think that my explanation is likely the strongest of these factors. There is a related factor, however: the “greed is good” mentality. The truth is that social forces kept greed in check for a couple of decades after World War II. But that really started to fall apart in the 1970s. Then we got the Reagan years where policy made a bad social phenomenon even worse. A big part of Winner-Take-All Politics discusses the fact that income inequality is not just a question of taxes. That’s clearly true. But it is wrong to think that taxes can’t be used as a mechanism to mitigate the problems of income inequality. There are direct and indirect effects. And we are clearly seeing this in the graph above.

The only real question now is if we live in a democracy. In general, I don’t think we do.