Devil in a Blue Dress

Devil in a Blue DressThe film Devil in a Blue Dress was recommended to me. It is freely based upon the Walter Mosley novel. And it manages to do something that it quite interesting. It is a very funny comedy pretending to be serious film noir. In that way, it really brings back memories of The Big Sleep. But that film is too much part of creating the style to be self-aware of being part of the style. And that is the delight of Devil in a Blue Dress.

The film tells a compelling story of Easy, a black homeowner in 1948 Watts. He is out of work and getting desperate because he’s two months behind on his mortgage. And in walks a friend of friend with a job to find a missing white woman. Before long, Easy is a suspect in two murders. When his violent friend Mouse shows up to help, things just get more complicated. But it all works out in the in. It’s a comedy, after all. A dark ending just wouldn’t work because even though the material in the film is dark, the tone never is.

There is something really nice about watching characters who understand that they are in a movie. Don Cheadle as Mouse is perhaps best at pulling this off. His performance is so breezy that it is easy to forget that he is playing a psychopath. Similarly, Jennifer Beals as the title character (Daphne Monet) brings an otherworldly feeling to the part that makes her transcend the femme fatale she clearly is. I’m divided about Denzel Washington’s Easy. He has many great and funny lines. But his is the only character that seems to be taking the plot seriously. And maybe that is what makes the whole film work: Easy the the true believer in a world of characters who are all in on the joke.

Devil in a Blue Dress is also beautiful to look at. The cinematography and art direction are superb. It’s surprising that it didn’t get a bunch of awards. But that may just be due to the fact that Hollywood doesn’t believe in giving out awards for films that weren’t financially successful. It’s like they’ve taken Ayn Rand’s philosophy to heart and think that something can only be good if it is popular. Regardless, the film is worth watching just for the technical details: beautiful, professional, artistic movie making.

The other thing about the movie is that it is interesting from a sociological standpoint. Primarily, the film highlights the racial divide that is less distinct today, but still clear. There is the obsession with interracial sex, the disinterest of the white police in the murder of a black woman, and so much more. But there is also a lot of intraracial interactions that are of great interest. This is seen a lot as Easy and Mouse go around interrogating people. But the best example is also probably the high point of the film for me. Easy has figured out that Joppy has been playing him for Daphne Monet. Joppy says, “She is something else, man. You know what I’m saying?” Easy knows exactly what he’s saying and leaves shaking his head with tears in his eyes. I think that scene says more about sexual politics and the relationships between men than you are likely to learn in a whole sociology course.

I do find it surprising that the film wasn’t a big hit. It stars Denzel Washington and Jennifer Beals. It’s a fun and funny movie. It’s an interesting whodunit. What’s not to like? But maybe it is bit too much of an adult film. After all, the critical issue in it is that Easy needs to pay his mortgage. What’s more, he is hardly your typical movie hero. He seems always to be the last one to learn what everyone else (except Mouse) already knows. And then the film ends with the simplest of wisdom, “All you’ve got is your friends.” That’s the kind of thing that makes old guys like me weepy and makes the young mock. So maybe Devil in a Blue Dress was always destined to just be a good rental. But that’s a lot more than the vast majority of films.

Why Obamacare Is So Complex

Jared BernsteinJared Bernstein wrote a very insightful article over at the Economix Blog, The Path to Complexity on the Health Care Act. As a member of the administration during the development of Obamacare, he accepts a lot of the blame for it being complicated. Well, perhaps “blame” is not the right word, because he thinks he was right. Basically, he claims that being able to say that people could stay with their current plans was essential to the law’s success. And I get that. But I think there is something deeper going on that he doesn’t realize.

Think back to 2010. Although it was true that those with employer provided health insurance could (and still can) keep the coverage, people didn’t think that at the time. All we heard at the time (except those of us who trolled the wonkosphere) was that this was a government takeover of healthcare. There were going to be “death panels” to kill off granny. The American Revolution ended in defeat on 23 March 2010! (A date which will live in infamy!) I think it is fair to say that the American public knows very little about Obamacare, but most of what they do know is conservative propaganda.

To me, it is clear: Obamacare is so complicated because the Democrats tried to get the Republicans to sign onto it. And not one of them voted for it! So while I do think that the Democrats (in particular our current president) were hopelessly naive in how they handled healthcare reform, the true villains are the Republicans. The Democrats started with a Republican bill—written especially to appeal to them because this was the bill that for two decades they’d been trumpeting as the “conservative approach” to healthcare reform. That bill was already very conservative and complicated. But in the name of making the bill more to their liking, the Republicans got the Democrats to change it—making it even more conservative and complicated. That’s why we have this complicated bill!

This highlights the fact that the Republican Party could not care any less about the poor and middle classes in this country. I reported this morning on their approach to lead poisoning: they don’t care. When it comes to 11 million people living in a shadowy no man’s land: they don’t care. And when it comes to healthcare: they don’t care. Sure, they’ll propose conservative alternatives to liberal legislation; but the moment the conservative alternative becomes the legislation, they abandon it. This tactic is fully explored in Winner-Take-All Politics: they would love to help that poor, it is just that this particular bit of legislation (whatever it might be) just isn’t quite right.

Still, I can understand that having “keep your current healthcare” was a good selling point. At least, it would sound good in a television interview. But the truth is that everyone I know hates their health insurance. So what Bernstein is really saying in his apologia for the complexity of Obamacare is really kind of what I’m saying: the Democrats were always playing the game using the Republicans’ ground rules. Clearly, the positive, liberal approach would have been to say, “Everyone hates their insurance and we are going to get rid of your insurance company and replace it with an institution that doesn’t have an incentive to deny you care.” I think most Americans would have been very open to that message. And the rest would have said the same thing: they’re going to kill granny!


There were various ways that the government could have dealt with the insurance companies. My favorite would have been for the government to simply buy them out of business. That would have worked out fine. For one thing, they really aren’t that valuable. But they could have pocked the cash and stayed in business. All countries with single payer health insurance have a private insurance industry. The rich aren’t going to accept “Medicare for all.” They will want their own very expensive and private healthcare. So there would still be money to be made. There are other issues, of course. The government would have had to do something for the people who were put out of work by the suddenly much smaller insurance industry. But that wouldn’t have been that costly either. I just don’t see the problem with this. As it is, we are all paying in a very big way for the government not taking the insurance companies out the primary healthcare system. Instead, we directly funded them with tens of millions of extra customers who are federally mandated to buy their horrible products.

P. D. Q. Bach

Peter SchickeleOn this day in 1698, the great French mathematician Pierre Louis Maupertuis was born. He invented the principle of least action. This later led to one of my very favorite things: the Hamiltonian formulation of mechanics. But because I am nothing if not merciful, I will spare you any further mention of it. Except that you could read the Wikipedia page on the subject, assuming that your differential equations and tensor calculus are strong. Yes, yes, moving on…

Later, but still in France, the great neoclassical painter Paul Delaroche was born in 1797. The American expressionist Lyonel Feininger was born in 1871. The great architectural photographer Berenice Abbott was born in 1898. Actor James Cagney was born in 1899. Comedian Phyllis Diller was born in 1917. She only died last year at the age of 95.

Gordon Gould, inventor of the laser, was born in 1920. Of course, it might have been Theodore Maiman who invented the laser. I’m sorry I missed his birthday, which was back on 11 July in 1927. These guys represent a good example of something I talk about all the time: ideas are in the air. That doesn’t mean that great people don’t discover them, but in most cases, the people who become rich and famous are not smarter or harder working than the people who did the same work—at times even earlier. What it really demonstrates is that our system for rewarding creative work is all screwed up. But I will leave that discussion to another time.

And jazz guitarist Mary Osborne was born in 1921. Here she is doing a medley:

Two fine actors are 78 today: Diahann Carroll and Donald Sutherland. David Hasselhoff is 61 today. I hate his work, but he still seemed like a nice guy when he was a judge on whatever show that was he was a judge on. There is nothing wrong with being a bit slow! The Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel is 59. She isn’t evil the way, say, most Republicans are. But still, what she and Germany generally are doing in Europe is very bad. It makes me think, and this sounds worse than I intend, “Maybe that whole Nazi master race stuff wasn’t an outlier.” The truth is that Germany is pushing a lot of suffering on the rest of Europe, mostly because they think they deserve it. The Germans are just so much more noble than the other countries—forget all about those German bankers who made bad loans, it was all those poor borrowers who were to blame! I take it back. No birthday wishes for Merkel!

The day, however, belongs to composer Peter Schickele who is 78 today. He is best known for his comedy recordings as P.D.Q. Bach—itself a very funny name. Here he is with “New Horizons in Music Appreciation” that is incredibly funny:

Happy birthday Peter Schickele!

GOP See No Lead Paint Problem

Danger Lead PaintAs you ought to know, lead is a very dangerous chemical. Children exposed to it—mostly due to lead paint—have lower IQs, greater learning disabilities, and more behavioral problems. As Kevin Drum reported in February in Mother Jones, America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead. The reason that people are pretty certain about this link is that crime just kind of shot up in the 1960s and then shot down in the 1990s. And we know it wasn’t because of more enforcement (Giuliani’s famous crackdown on the squeegee men) or economics or drugs or any of the more esoteric explanations like legal abortions.

The main thing about this is not that the lead explanation is certainly right. The fact is, like any scientific explanation, it can be shown to be wrong. But there are a lot of data supporting it and it is currently a highly regarded theory. What’s more, even if lead has nothing to do with crime, getting it out of our lives (especially the lives of children) is a very important goal. We don’t need more stupid and ill-behaved people. So what is the government doing?

As a whole, the Congress and President Obama decided to cut funding for lead remediation. Because of Sequestration, we have cut funding for this extremely important program by 5% from $120 million this year to $114 million. But that is apparently not good enough for the House Republicans. Yesterday, they passed a budget that cut funding down to $50 million. Regardless of what you think of all this, you must understand how shortsighted these cuts are. They will be overwhelmed simply by lost economic productivity in the future because of our stupider workforce.

This morning, Ed Kilgore made a great point about this. Republicans are very big on fighting crime. Here they are gutting what is likely a good crime fighting bill in the name of reducing the federal budget by less than 0.002%. It’s crazy. He concludes that it is just the Republicans’ “stubborn lack of interest in any crime-fighting strategy that doesn’t involve guns and prisons.” There is certainly much to that. So much of the Republican policy platform comes down to a contest of who has the biggest dick. Educating poor kids will help reduce crime, but it isn’t macho so they aren’t interested. Ditto with lead remediation.

But the problem is bigger than this. I know that I have a bad attitude toward conservatives generally—or at least what passes as a conservative today. But when I think of lead in paint, I remember a PSA from my childhood that showed a small black child sucking on the lead paint covered wood around a window. It had something to do with programs for removing lead from living areas. To me, the image has endured as heartbreaking. I suspect that the current House minority has the same image in their minds. But instead of “heartbreaking” they think “undeserving.”

Kevin Drum goes even further, “Of course, lead removal programs mostly benefit poor people and non-whites, and the Republican Party has made it extra clear lately that they don’t care about either group. I guess the only real surprise here is that they didn’t cut the program to zero.” But I don’t think that’s quite it. I don’t think they are actively trying to cause brain damage in poor children. They just don’t care. Besides: they can zero it out later.

Immigration Reform Is Dangerous for GOP

Scared RepublicansJohn Stanton wrote a very interesting article over at Buzz Feed, No, Congressman, You Probably Won’t Lose Your Job for Voting for Immigration Reform. But I think he has missed the larger issue. He argued that that there isn’t going to be big money in the Republican primaries against House members who vote in favor of immigration reform. That is certainly true. Most of the big money in the Republican Party is in favor of immigration reform. The problem is with the base that largely votes against their own economic interest in the name of other things—one of which is a generalized dislike of brown skinned people.

It is true that in a general sense, Republicans are supportive of some kind of path to citizenship. According to a recent Basswood Research poll, there is 65% support among people who at one time or another have voted in Republican primaries. But when you look a little deeper, you see that older white people, the bedrock of Republican primaries, are clearly against any path to citizenship. Despite their claims to being fiscally conservative, they have no problem throwing hundreds of billions of dollars at border security. But normalizing undocumented residents, which would save the country money, is right out. These people really think that the dark hoards are coming for their stuff and they want to stop that from happening.

Even still, immigration reform shouldn’t be that big a deal. But it has come to represent far more than just another policy. All the talk in the Republican Party about the “real America” is wrapped up in this issue. That’s what the new southern strategy is about. That’s what the de rigueur support for foreign wars is about. (We’re number one!) And that is what immigration is about. As I’ve noted before, despite what they sometimes say, Republicans are not just against illegal immigration; they are against legal immigration too. The immigration issue is a big part of the Republican war to protect the real America.

But think about this on the micro scale. There are always lots of well connected people who would like to become members of Congress. (I hear they have a great dental plan!) An incumbent only has to leave a small wound. In a campaign, that wound can be torn open. It can be used to paint even a radically conservative person as slightly to the left of Nancy Pelosi. It’s like I often mention: I don’t have a problem finding common ground with most conservatives. It is only if Fox News or campaign advertising is pushing a particular line that conservatives lose all perspective.[1] And House Republicans should open themselves up to this for what reason? Because people outside their districts really care about the issue? That just doesn’t make sense.

As good as Stanton’s reporting and analysis is, I’m afraid it is still part of the Happy Horseshit Caucus (HHC). It’s too focused on national trends and the mistaken idea that the Republicans really care about national elections. The facts are that Representatives have much to lose and little to gain by supporting immigration reform. We’re seeing some movement in the Senate, because red states are slowly turning purple. But in the House, there are purple states that are overwhelming represented by Republicans. They currently have little to fear from a general election and much to fear from a primary.

I don’t like this any more than any other liberal—including all of the HHC. But it doesn’t help to keep pretending that Republicans don’t have completely rational reasons for how they behave. We can’t control Republicans and we shouldn’t try. We can, however, destroy them. And the first step in doing that is to fix our own party. The constant pandering to ever more conservative demands from the Republicans only makes matters worse. We will eventually get immigration reform when the make-up of Congress is better. We will not get it by insisting that Republicans really should be for it.

[1] Democrats act the same way. But for some reason, the conservative movement is far better at whipping up its base into a frenzy.