Filibuster Hypocrisy Is One Sided

Republican FilibusterThe way that the Republicans have behaved for the last five years in Congress has greatly limited their options in terms of voicing their disapproval of anything—according to them, they disapprove of everything. While the Senate Democrats were in the process of eliminating the filibuster, many on the right claimed that they would retaliate. They could, it was said, stop the Senate from getting normal work done. There was even concern that Ted Cruz would again act as Speaker of the House and get the Republicans there to misbehave. There was just one problem: Congressional Republicans were already doing everything they could to stop the the Democrats from doing anything.

As it was, the only action in Congress was appointments. The House acted as though they were the only branch of Congress and passed law after law that had no chance of passing the Senate. And Speaker Boehner refused to allow votes on popular bipartisan laws coming from the Senate—even ones that had been jointly negotiated. In the Senate itself, the Republicans filibustered any and every nominee as though Obama were offering them nothing but major figures in the Nation of Islam. So what exactly did the Republicans have up their sleeves to make Congress work even less? Other than some post offices not getting named, I don’t see anything.

That left the reaction to the Democrats’ filibuster change to a lot of finger pointing from the mainstream press. It has portrayed those on both sides of the political divide as hypocritical. The story goes something like this: in 2005, the Democrats wanted to keep the filibuster because they were in the minority, whereas the Republicans wanted to get rid of it then because they were in the majority; but now thing have flipped. Hypocrisy! I don’t see it that way at all. Yes, the Republicans are a bunch of hypocrites—at least publicly, because secretly, I think they are thrilled. The filibuster was not that bad back in 2005 when they thought they had to get rid of it. Now that it is far, far worse, they think it is important to keep.

The Democratic situation is not hypocritical at all. They wanted to keep it in 2005. They even made a deal to keep it that effectively meant that there was no filibuster except in name. Then, in 2009, when ending the filibuster would have been the most politically expedient things to do, the Democrats did nothing. As far as I’m concerned, that was a major mistake and I knew it at the time. But maybe I’m just cynical. I knew that the Republicans would do everything to stop the Democrats from enacting their policies. But the Democrats hoped for the best. Remember the administration thinking they would get 20 Republican Senators to vote for the Affordable Care Act? They ended up getting zero.

FilibusterDuring the years of the Bush Jr administration, the Democrats had actually brought the number filibusters down, all the way until 2007 when the Republicans became the minority party. Even though the Republicans still controlled the White House, Senate (Republican) filibusters doubled from the 2005 Senate (when Democrats were in the minority) to 2007 (when Republicans were in the minority). So there is no hypocrisy on the part of the Democrats.

Consider an analogy. It’s sunny outside, so you don’t use an umbrella. The weather gets worse and it starts to drizzle. Still you use no umbrella. The weather gets worse and it starts to pour. So you get out your umbrella and use it. That just makes sense. But the way the Republicans have acted, they use their umbrella when it is clear and drizzling. But when it is pouring, they put the umbrella away. These two approaches to rain protection cause many in the media to claim that both Democrats and Republicans are hypocrites because they changed their minds about umbrella usage. It’s just a silly way to look at things.

As Republicans have made the filibuster a worse and worse policy, the Democrats have come to think it is a bad thing. It is only the Republicans who seem to think the filibuster is a bad thing only when they are in the majority. I have no problem calling the Republicans hypocrites. But the Democrats are not—at least not on this one issue.

Two Great Humorists

Mark Twain

Winston Churchill was born in 1874. He may well be the most overrated man in the history of the 20th century. He was a warmonger from way back. He is kind of like John McCain if Iraq suddenly attacked us. Everyone would be saying that he was right all along. But he wasn’t and neither was Churchill. I’ve been meaning to write about Neville Chamberlain. [I did: Neville Chamberlain Was Right -FM]

He is seen as this wimpy guy who appeased Hitler. But the truth is that at that time, the military itself said that they were not ready to go to war. They needed another year. So he gave it to them. Did Churchill do a decent job of running the war? Sure, but not really any better than anyone else would have. So we shouldn’t hold him up as a great hero.

Some Writers’ Birthdays

On this day in 1667, the great satirist Jonathan Swift was born. Based upon his great works A Modest Proposal and Gulliver’s Travels, one would think that he was a flaming liberal. But he was actually a Tory. I’ll try to forget that going forward because his writing was mostly really great.

Lucy Maud Montgomery was born in 1874. She is the writer of Anne of Green Gables, and its many sequels. I really liked them when I was younger. But in retrospect, only the first book was any good. Still, it is a classic. And she is a very important children’s author.

The comedy writer and songwriter Allan Sherman was born in 1924. He was a very funny guy, but everyone knows him from this great song:

Other birthdays: Enlightenment philsopher John Toland (1670); composer Carl Loewe (1796); political activist Abbie Hoffman (1936); director Ridley Scott (76); playwright David Mamet (66); and actor Mandy Patinkin (61).

Mark Twain

The day, however, belongs to the great American humorist and novelist Mark Twain who was born in 1835. When I was a kid, I loved his work. His stories were genuinely funny and Tom Sawyer was a great adventure story that I read a number of times.

It never seemed like his work was old-fashioned. I tend to think of him as that Cervantes of his day. The voice that comes across is very much the same. I’m sure a dinner party with them would be a very amusing experience.

Since there is no video of Twain talking, the closest we can get is Hal Holbrook’s one-man show, which I loved listening to when I was a kid, but got to see live about a decade ago. I brought my wife with me. She loved it, but she admitted that going in she thought it was going to be the most boring thing in the world.

Here is the great man doing the greater man:

Mark Twain was also an atheist — or at most a Deist. He clearly didn’t buy into the silliness of the Christian faith. Here is a great quote from him about The Fall:

He was an unfair God; he was a God of unsound judgment; he was a God of failures and miscalculations; he was given to odd ideas and fantastic devices…

He commanded Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; To disobey could not be a sin, because Adam could not comprehend a sin until the eating the fruit should reveal to him the difference between right and wrong. So he was unfair in punishing Adam for doing wrong when he could not know it was wrong.

Happy birthday Mark Twain!

Mark Twain imagine is in the public domain via Max Pixel.

Thematic Problems in The Heat

The HeatOne of the things I was looking forward to on Thanksgiving was watching The Heat with my family. I didn’t know anything about the film except that it starred Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, both of whom I like. The beginning of it was typical enough. Bullock plays FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn, a very capable person with no people skills at all. Think: Miss Congeniality, but much less likable. I figured she’d learn through the course of the movie to be a decent human being. I was wrong. Soon we meet McCarthy’s character: Boston Police Detective Shannon Mullins. She is quickly established as a woman who has no regard for the law in her pursuit of a man trying to get a prostitute and another who is smoking a joint.

Here’s the thing. Even I can get into a movie like Dirty Harry, because the cop is being an asshole in pursuit of a serial killer. This shtick doesn’t work in a comedy when the “bad guys” are unfaithful husbands and kids getting high. But Mullins is worse than that. There is a whole tiresome back story about how she sent her own brother to prison because he was on drugs. She justifies this to her family by saying, “Well none of you got him off the streets!” That’s really amazing. Prison is probably the worst place to get someone off drugs. For one thing, there are plenty of drugs in prison. But more important, after people have felonies on their records, they don’t have a lot of employment (or many other) choices. So after getting out of jail, her brother is likely to be thrown in with the same people he was with before. And this turns out to be exactly what happens in the movie. (Of course, there is no realization in the film that Mullins “solved” her brother’s problem in the worst way.)

Another extremely repellent aspect of the movie is how it dumps all over FBI interrogation. The FBI has the best system for doing interrogations and they are highly successful. But in our pop culture world where 24 is how real men interrogate, the FBI system is wimpy and ineffective. It depends upon rapport-building and also what’s called tit-for-tat. There is a wonderful example where “one terrorist surrendered valuable information in exchange for a heart transplant for his child.” But in The Heat, being an asshole was always the key. They don’t need no stinking effective negotiation techniques!

The film goes on to have exactly the villain you expect. In terms of the “police story” aspect of the film, it is just a series of cliches from movies, but mostly television shows. And at the very end, the villain acts totally stupidly as though all he wants to do is kill the lead characters and doesn’t need to worry about then being arrested. It also uses the myth that air embolism will kill you. This is injecting air into the blood stream. It will kill you, but it would take about a hundred full syringes of air to do it. Regardless, if you managed to succeed at that, the two cops who had been shot to death in the same room would probably raise red flags.

The ManWhile watching the film, I was reminded of a great comedy The Man with Eugene Levy and Samuel L Jackson. In that film, Jackson plays the McCarthy part: he is really not likable. But instead of teaming him up with a straight laced cop who gets poisoned by his influence, he is teamed up with a sweet, morally heroic dentist. In the end, it is Jackson who learns valuable lessons about life. And this is the fundamental problem with The Heat. The characters start off being unlikable and end up even more so.

This is not to say that the film isn’t funny. McCarthy is funny despite the material. But it isn’t nearly as funny as it would have been if the script had done anything to make me feel that the characters were redeemable. Bullock, on the other hand, was miscast in this film. She puts in a fine performance, but it never seems to gel, and she doesn’t have much to do in the movie other than be outraged and finally won-over by McCarthy.

Look: it would be different if there weren’t real cops acting like they were above the law. But I read about them every day of the week. Hundreds of thousands of people’s lives are destroyed every year by this kind of behavior. So when I see it being held up as an ideal, it gets my back up. Things I would normally find amusing I just bristle at. And that was especially true after the negotiation scene. My advice: rent The Man


Of course, The Heat received generally good reviews from the “critics” and did huge box office. The Man was panned by “critics” and did almost nothing at the box office. But I predict that people will quickly forget The Heat. For one thing, how long will it take before people get tired of Melissa McCarthy’s one character act. (Identity Thief was pretty good, but it was exactly the same thing.) For another thing, The Man ages well, and I think it’s silliness will appeal more as people’s preconceived notions about Samuel L Jackson fade away.

Update (5 April 2014 6:01 pm)

I mistakenly wrote above that Eugene Levy’s character in The Man was a dentist. He was actually a dental supply salesman.

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The Future of Obamacare

Josh MarshallJosh Marshall presents a very optimistic take on the future of healthcare reform, A Realist’s Take on Obamacare. He offers four reasons for this. First, the law is going nowhere until at least 2017 when a Republican might be in the White House. This is the response to the conservative belief that if the Republicans just held their breath long enough and destroyed enough of America, Obamacare would just go away. Well, maybe Obamacare will go away. But even if our next president is Chris Christie, I don’t see him dumping the plan. It is exactly the kind of conservatism that he believes in. So we’ll see, but only in another three and a half years.

Second, the insurance and medical industries are completely vested in its success. To me, this is the ultimate argument against repeal of Obamacare. The liberal complaint against the healthcare reform from the beginning was that it was a great big wet kiss to the whole healthcare industry. The hospitals didn’t want to get stuck with unpaid bills from the poor and the insurance companies wanted more customers. And let’s face it: Obamacare effectively turns insurance companies into a kind of private utility where they are paid just because they exist. In our new system, they are nothing but middlemen scraping off a cent or two from every healthcare dollar spent. I wish I could get in on that. And they are going to be none too willing to give up on that gravy train.

Third, there are huge numbers of people who are going to very happy with Obamacare: people on expanded Medicaid, people who couldn’t get insurance at all before, and people who are getting cheaper or better insurance. So what we have now is about 85% of the population currently on plans (through employers or the government) who will not see things change at all. Then we have about 13% of the population who have no insurance at all who will be getting it. Then we have perhaps 2% of the population who will have to trade in their placebo policies for something that works. So let’s lay that out:

85% No change!
13% Completely Good Change!
 2% Mixed Change…

Marshall’s fourth reason is kind of vague. Basically, he thinks that Obamacare is a well designed law and that as time goes on, it will work even better. In other words, the truth will out. The design is such as to provide near universal coverage and keep costs down. It’s funny to watch people like Avik Roy pull out Switzerland and claim that’s the system we should have. It is always the same thing: what we ought to have is something—Anything!—that isn’t what we have. But as free market systems go, Obamacare is about as good as it gets. So Marshall is right: the law will work.

The biggest problem with Obamacare going forward is the fact that half of the states are not expanding their Medicaid programs. This is nothing more than conservative spite—an attempt to harm President Obama politically with the added benefit of harming the working poor. But I don’t think this will be an issue for very long. These conservative lawmakers are simply wrong about the harm they are doing. First, they aren’t really hurting Obama. As the system works in Blue State America, it will be trumpeted as a success by the media, because most of the media are in the big blue states. Second, and most important, not expanding Medicaid is bad for the states. They are foregoing free money that would stimulate their local economies. Their hospitals are still going to have to treat poor people who will not be able to pay the bills. And as a result of that, healthcare premiums in these states will be higher than they would normally be. So it isn’t just the poor who are harmed in Texas. It’s Rick Perry too.

So I’m with Josh Marshall: the future of Obamacare is bright. And the stragglers will catch up once they see that their spiteful political “messages” mean nothing other than that their states are harder to manage and their economies are more depressed. In the end, the conservative ideologues will look like idiots. (But they’re used to that.) And Obamacare will be that thing no one knows how we ever did without.

Keep your stinking government hands off my Obamacare!

Billy Strayhorn and Art from the Shadows

Billy StrayhornOn this day in 1803, the great physicist Christian Doppler was born. He is the man who explained the Doppler Effect. This is what you hear when a train passes by you. As it approaches, the frequency of the sound is high and while it moves away from you the frequency of the sound is lower. It’s really simple: as the train approaches you, the sound waves get bunched together and so they have a higher frequency. Think of a guy on top of a train throwing baseballs at you every second. They would hit you more than once a second as the train is approaching and less than once a sound as the train departed.

Doppler wasn’t looking at this problem at all. He was looking at stars. He noted that if a star was moving toward us, its color frequency would be higher and thus bluer; if it was moving away, it would be be redder. It would take Einstein’s work 52 years after Doppler’s death to fully work out the theory.

The great film director and choreographer Busby Berkeley was born in 1895. He created such iconic musicals that his name has become a descriptive term. I always assumed he was gay, but that was really silly. You can tell by the way he shoots women that he loves them. And plenty of them! He was married six times! Here is “We’re in the Money” from Gold Diggers of 1933:

The writer C S Lewis was born in 1898. He is best known for The Chronicles of Narnia. I’m not a big fan. But I’m really interested in his Christian apologetics. Some time ago, I came up with an idea, Jesus: God or Nut? The idea is that Jesus claimed (or at least heavily implied many times) that he was God. So he was either God or some deluded guy. Well, I later found out that Lewis made this exact same argument in favor of Jesus being God. I guess the idea is that no reasonable person could claim that Jesus was insane. Personally, a man who walks around telling people the end is nigh has more than a few screws loose.

Other birthdays: naturalist John Ray (1627); the first female physics professor at a European university Laura Bassi (1711); philosopher Andres Bello (1871); composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797); Russian Neoclassical painter Alexander Brullov (1798); neurology pioneer Jean-Martin Charcot (1825); Rocky’s crazy mother Jackie Stallone (92); the great musician John Mayall (80); actor Diane Ladd (79); musician Chuck Mangione (73); the great wrestler Jerry Lawler (64); comedian Garry Shandling (64); the great filmmaker Joel Coen (59); comedian Howie Mandel (58); actor Andrew McCarthy (52); actor Don Cheadle (49); and actor Tom Sizemore (49).

The day, however, belongs to the great jazz composer Billy Strayhorn who was born on this day in 1915. He is closely aligned with Duke Ellington and it is sometimes hard to decouple them. Strayhorn is the ultimate artist; he didn’t especially want recognition. And there are clearly times where he should have got full credit but only got partial or none at all. But there is no doubt that he needed Ellington who really did treat him well. Here is the man himself playing “Take the ‘A’ Train”:

Happy birthday Billy Strayhorn!

Tradition Is Turkey’s Last Hope

Turkey: Eat BeefPeople sometimes ask me why I cook with chicken so much. I think it is a stupid question. You might as well ask why someone eats bread or rice. Chicken is the easiest meat to cook with because it has relatively little flavor. Other meats need to prepared in such a way that compliments their distinct flavor. I think of other meats as I do broccoli. Have you ever noticed how broccoli isn’t generally used in soups? It’s flavor is too distinct. You really have to cook especially for it, whereas potatoes or cauliflower go in pretty much everything. Ditto for chicken. And as someone who likes making sauces, chicken is just easy.

Chicken is also cheap. Pretty much all beef, pork, and sea foods are more expensive than boneless chicken breast. Ground beef is slightly cheaper. So why not cook with chicken? In general, I don’t see the need to try different meats. After all, I am always doing something different with it. It isn’t like it is fried chicken every night. (It is actually pretty much never fried chicken. And it is only chicken about twice a week anyway.)

I am not alone in this respect. According to data collected by Matt Yglesias, Americans eat almost seven times as much chicken as they do turkey. He notes:

Every Thanksgiving a tedious debate erupts on the Internet between joy-killing trolls who argue that turkey is a bad food to eat, and sentimental liars who claim to think turkey is delicious. But you can actually just look this up. Not only is turkey not delicious, nobody thinks that it’s delicious. The numbers don’t lie.

He is certainly overstating this for effect. For one thing, I know that Andrea claims to really like turkey. And it is certainly true that part of the reason we don’t cook more turkey is that it’s a pain. They are big and who needs that much food except on Thanksgiving and Christmas? And turkey is more expensive. But it is also true that if turkey were distinctly better than chicken, people would go to the trouble of preparing it.

When I think about the dishes I usually make with chicken, they are things like cashew nut chicken and chicken pot pie. I rarely make a whole chicken, although chicken stuffed with saffron rice is really great. Only one dish I make is even associated with turkey: chicken tetrazzini. I don’t think this has to do with the fact that turkey parts aren’t commonly sold. I think it works the other way around. There is nothing special about turkey. So given the choice of buying smaller chicken parts for less money and larger turkey parts for more money, people go with the former.

So when it comes to America’s kitchens, the turkey stays around for one reason only: tradition. And if that works for people, great. As for me, I don’t need to hassle with a big bird that mostly tastes like the chickens that I cook with on normal days. On special days, it should be something like beef with a red wine demi-glace. But since I’m not cooking today, I only get the beef. But at least it isn’t turkey.

Let’s Pardon More Humans Not Turkeys

Wild TurkeyLook at that fetching bird! Do I want to harm a feather on its body? Of course not! Especially after what happened to my chicken Fred. But what’s with this tradition of presidents pardoning turkeys? To begin with, a pardon implies a crime. What did these turkeys ever do to deserve a death sentence? Perhaps it is a good metaphor for our society where punished crime is mostly something you are born into. Born poor and black? You may need a pardon before you are through. Born rich and white? Forget about it! You’re untouchable.

Yesterday, President Obama pardoned a turkey named Popcorn. I think we can all agree that no animal with a name should ever be killed and eaten. But Obama noted that the pardoning of Popcorn was not one of the important jobs of a president. I might take exception to that statement. After all, much of what a president does is provide photo opportunities for the press. We don’t have any royalty to do that job here, so he’s stuck with it. And he knows this. He even prepared a joke for the event.

But it bothers me. Obama seems to take his obligation to pardon turkeys a good deal more seriously than he takes his job to pardon human beings. As Think Progress notes, Obama has increased his pardons from zero last year to 17 this year. “But those few pardons did not change his record of the lowest clemency rate in modern history.” Obama is also the deportation king. He is also the drone civilian murder king. If I agreed with him about any of these policies, he’d be my hero. As it is, not so much.

Looking back on the history of turkey pardons, we naturally land on the conservative icon Ronald Reagan. He didn’t actually pardon any turkeys himself. But at the end of the Iran-Contra scandal, he was asked if he would pardon the criminal Oliver North. Reagan deflected the question by joking about pardoning some turkey named Charlie. Most likely as a result, George Bush Sr started the tradition the first year of his term.

So we can see the whole turkey pardoning business as an example of how the media get sidetracked from important business to trivial photo opportunities. The Iran-Contra Affair was a very big deal. I have absolutely not doubt that both Reagan and Bush were involved in it. And it represents a far worse crime than anything that Nixon ever did. Yet it came to nothing. And it made Oliver North, who absolutely should have been tried for treason, into a conservative hero. But then, being a conservative hero comes pretty cheap. All one have to do is publicly shit on everything that America is supposed to stand for.

I don’t mean to suggest that Obama has done anything so terrible—at least to Americans inside US borders. But his record is far from stellar. And I am really tired of hearing people apologize for him. Somehow he just can’t be liberal because he’s black or because he used drugs or because he’s a Democrat. (That’s a great irony in US politics: conservatives can’t be liberal because they’re conservative; but liberals can’t be liberal because then people might accuse them of being liberal. The horror!) Regardless, Obama is fooling himself if he thinks he will go down in history as a great president. People might point to Obamacare. But like with Johnson, they will be scared away from his conservative governance and the bad economy. And no one will care at all about the turkeys.

Standing in the Shadow of Berry Gordy

Berry GordyRandy Newman is 70 years old today. As a movie composer he is middling. But as a singer-songwriter, he is great. His first couple of albums are just great. Two in particular, were very important to me: Randy Newman Live and Sail Away. Later, he lost me, but there is no doubt that he is great. I remember seeing him live when I was in college. Before doing the song “My Life Is Good,” he remarked, “This is unfortunately autobiographical.” I believe him; he’s always struck me as a dick, but one who has a sense of humor about it. Here is one of my favorite of his songs, “Last Night I Had a Dream.” I love the evocative anxiety dream about the impending break up. “I said, ‘You know what my name is.'” It gives me chills. (Also: great guitar part by Ry Cooder!)

Hooray! Dick Morris is 65! Hopefully, we will never again have to hear him make pathetically obtuse electoral predictions. A mainstay of last year’s election coverage on Fox News, Morris was a big guy in the Clinton White House. What more do you need to know about conservatism in the New Democratic movement?

Judd Nelson is 54 today. A big happy birthday to him! Look, I thought it was very funny when Bill Maher made a joke about how Reagan was the movie star equivalent of Nelson. But the truth is that this is unfair to Nelson. He is actually quite a good actor. And while Reagan was only ever a B-movie star (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) Judd Nelson really was a star when he was young. And of the “brat pack,” he has gone on to have one of the best careers—an actor’s career. So it’s all fine to throw his name out because he isn’t the big star he once was. But the man deserves our respect. And he gets mine.

Jon Stewart is 51. He really has found his place at The Daily Show. Because here’s the thing. He wasn’t a very good stand-up comic. He was okay. But really, Jerry Seinfeld seemed edgy next to him. I’m not saying he wasn’t funny. And I know that my younger sister was rather fond of him. But it was never clear to me why anyone would pay money to see him. But he took The Daily Show that was pretty good under Craig Kilborn, and turned it into something great. Here is his take on the conservative media freak out about Obama’s Thanksgiving address two years ago (you remember: when he didn’t mention God):

Sam Seder is 47. He’s a comedian of sorts. But mostly, he is a political observer. He does the daily podcast The Majority Report. At this point, there is no one I agree with as reliably as him. What’s more, he is as out of it about pop culture as I am. He often makes literary references that I’m totally in tune with, but which his (younger) producers kid him about. What’s the big deal?! We are in our late 40s. We’re supposed to be out of it and interested in more enduring works of art.

Other birthdays: the great poet William Blake (1757); philosopher Friedrich Engels (1820); anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1908); singer-songwriter Bruce Channel (73); actor Ed Harris (63); actor Martin Clunes (52); and model Anna Nicole Smith (1967).

The day, however, belongs to the great Berry Gordy who is 84 today. As the founder of Motown Records, he is arguably responsible for more joy than any other person in the 20th century. Usually, people like him don’t get recognized. He’s the semi-sane guy in the center of a creative hurricane. Think: Kermit the Frog in The Muppet Show. And just like Kermit, Gordy is a creative guy: a songwriter and producer. In fact, before Motown, he co-wrote a number of hit songs, including the great Jackie Wilson song “Lonely Teardrops.” In fact, let’s listen, shall we?

The story of Berry Gordy and the history of Motown Records has been told much better than I could, notably in Motown 40: The Music Is Forever. Here is the start of it:

Happy birthday Berry Gordy!


Here is a nice playlist “100 Greatest Motown Songs.” Great Thanksgiving music!

No Economic Lessons from Star Trek

Star TrekOh my! Matt Yglesias is back to talking about Star Trek, The Star Trek Economy: (Mostly) Post-Scarcity (Mostly) Socialism. It is based upon some recent work by another unapologetic nerd Rick Webb, The Economics of Star Trek, which is ridiculously long for such a silly article. Is it unfair of me to note that they are way over-thinking this stuff? Well, it cannot be any worse than the pain I felt from pulling my hair out reading this stuff.

It isn’t that these aren’t smart guys with interesting ideas. But as someone who has attended two—Count em: two!—Star Trek conventions, I know that nothing they have to say hasn’t been thoroughly discussed inside the bubble. The Star Trek universe is basically a socialist construct. There is no money and everyone has everything they need. But, Webb notes, “There is absolutely, obviously, still private property in the Federation.” Yes there is. There is Picard’s family winery. There is Sisko’s Creole Kitchen. There is Quark’s bar.

There is a reason for this: Gene Roddenberry was not a deep thinker. Let us consider Quark, because it is the best example of the problem. He is a Ferengi, a stupid race that is obsessed with money. Roddenberry wanted to make a point about unregulated capitalism. But this created characters who are so one-dimensional that they stood out even in the simplistic word of Star Trek. According to Wikipedia, “Ferengi culture is so devoted to unregulated capitalism that concepts such as labor unions, sick leave, vacations, or paid overtime for workers are considered abhorrent, because they would interfere with the exploitation of workers.” If that’s the case, the Ferengi would have no workers. Everyone would be independent contracts. (This is, by the way, what conservatives today are calling for without realizing it.)

Star Trek is above all genre storytelling. It not only needs salons for people to gather in, it needs proprietors to stand behind the bar are be wise (Guinan) or funny (Quark) or sweet (the Bar Waitress in Star Trek III). Similarly, occasionally our intrepid heroes will have to hire an independent ship as Bones tries to do in that bar scene in Star Trek III. And that gets to a very important truth about making television series: regardless of where you start, the day to day needs of producing 24 shows per year will back you into a corner. In the end, you will need an apologist of greater ability than William Lane Craig to make any sense of it.

So is there anything we can learn about potential economic systems from Star Trek. No. It’s just a fantasy. Start with a time when there is no scarcity. And put on top of that the hierarchical system that we have today. What do you get? A mess! And the idea of the end of scarcity is ridiculous anyway. At one time, just having enough to eat and a fire to sleep near was the good life. Now I think I’m suffering if the house gets below 60 at night. And what about that wine that Picard’s brother makes? Are you telling me that transporter beams (which would kill you) that can recreate perfect human beings could not store the information of great wines to be dispensed whenever? Please! Picard’s brother had a winery because a screenwriter had a good idea for a story.

In fairness, Yglesias’ apologia for the Star Trek economy is much better than Webb’s. And he is right: in an economy where everyone is given what they need, everyone is in a position to do what it is they want—to self actualize. And if we must think about it, that is probably the way to do it. But there are larger problems: a lot of people who work on starships do a lot of grunt work. (Why? Because they are basically submarine stories!) And they rarely get to “go ashore.” Why would they do that? It makes no sense. But then Star Trek, bless it’s heart, makes no sense.


Also: I have a problem with Picard’s tea. First, if one could have any tea, who would pick Earl Grey? I saw Stewart lecture at a Star Trek convention, and he went out of his way to ask fans to stop sending him Earl Grey tea. He said he really wasn’t fond of it. Of course! No one who is into tea likes Earl Grey. Yes, I will drink it. It was clearly put in the show by some American who had no real knowledge of tea. So he thought, “I can’t use ‘English Breakfast,’ because it sounds odd. How about ‘Earl Grey’? That sounds English without pushing the point too much!” Second, there is his instruction, “Earl Grey. Hot.” What does that mean?! Does he sometimes order it, “Earl Grey. Luke warm”? And what temperature is “hot”? Earl Grey should be steeped at 90°C. Everything else is so exact in Star Trek—like Spock’s tired, “We will arrive in approximately 9.4236719 hours.” But not here. Well, I guess “hot” is good enough for tea—at least when you’re an American television writer with no real experience with the stuff.

Libertarians Just Don’t Like the Poor

20131127-shawnfremstad.jpgShawn Fremstad has been writing over at CEPR Blog and putting out some great stuff. I recommend checking him out. But right now, I want to focus on an article he wrote last week, Paul Ryan Getting Advice on Poverty Policy From K Street Organization that Receives Most of Its Funding From Government. As you can tell from that headline, Fremstad is following in the sarcastic and snarky footsteps of Dean Baker.

The article gets at the hypocrisy of conservatives when it comes to government funding. In a larger sense (not discussed in the article itself), it comes back to this myth that conservatives want smaller government. For the umpteenth time: conservatives want big government that keeps the poor in check and sends the rich big checks. In fact, if you went line by line through the budget of what conservatives want to pay for and what liberals want to pay for, the conservatives would end up costing a lot more. It is cheap to help the poor; helping the rich is very costly.

But I was very struck by the following bit of information about the libertarian CATO Institute:

Two more general things about those “78 means-tested programs that have cost the federal government $15 trillion since 1964.” First, this conservative talking point, which comes from the Cato Institute and is slightly mistranslated in the WaPo piece (it refers to both federal and state expenditures), is extremely selective in ideological terms. For example, Medicaid is on the Cato list, but not federal tax expenditures that subsidize employer-provided health insurance and cost more than Medicaid. Expenditures on Medicaid mostly help working class children and parents, the elderly, and people with disabilities, while subsidizing employer-provided health insurance mostly benefits people in the top 40 percent of the income distribution.

Even by their own definition, libertarians aren’t libertarians when it comes to actual policy. Libertarians are for people being able to enter into voluntary contracts, but they are somehow against labor unions. They are against coercion, but only when it comes from the government. And as we see here, they ignore welfare that helps the well off, and focus like a laser on welfare that helps the poor. I would put the word “libertarian” in scare quotes, but I would have to do that basically every time I used it because I don’t know of a prominent libertarian who fits the definition.

This all takes me back to why I originally left the libertarian movement. (It was later that I stopped being a libertarian.) What, in the end, do libertarians stand for but making the rich richer and the poor poorer? Take education, for example. They believe there should be no public education. Well, if they really wanted a society where everyone was judged by their works, they would want a level playing field. But rich parents can give their children advantages that are insurmountable for the children of the poor. And to libertarians, this is just fine because—What?—the government isn’t the one causing this immoral inequality.

What Fremstad shows in that quote is that libertarians are just a particular kind of conservative apologist. They are for most of the conservative policy, they just have a different approach to justifying it. But if you scratch the surface of their arguments, they fall apart. They come down to: the rich are better than the poor so we should do everything we can for them. Or to put it more bluntly: fuck the poor. And that’s their right. But it doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep calling them out about it, because they really are self-deluded. Their moral thinking is repugnant.

Bruce Lee and Jimi Hendrix

Jimi HendrixOn this day in 1874, the historian Charles A Beard was born. He was a progressive who saw the history of America through the lens of class conflict. This view has fallen out of favor. But his idea applied to the founding of the country seems correct. He argued that there were two revolutions. First, there was the revolution that we all know and love and that is immortalized with singing and a bit of dance in 1776. But there was a second revolution about who should rule. There were those who wanted at least a proto-democracy, as advocated by people like Paine and Madison. And then there were those who wanted a new aristocratic rule, as advocated by people like Adams and Hamilton. I think we can all agree that the results of that revolution are much more a muddle compared to the whole England business.

Beard is also know for his four sentence “lessons of history.” They are more poetic than useful, but I think I glean some insight from it.

Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad with power.
The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small.
The bee fertilizes the flower it robs.
When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

Martial arts expert, actor, and hunka hunka burning love Bruce Lee was born in 1940. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of his movies. They are fun but that’s about all. He was, however, a fascinating man with the kind of jumble of beliefs that come being very smart but effectively an amateur intellectual. And I think those the very best kind of people. He was very interested in eastern philosophy of the Krishnamurti kind. But he was also quite clear about his atheism. He was only 32 when he died and as far as I’m concerned, we still don’t know why. The cause of death was cerebral edema (accumulation of fluid in the brain), but I don’t think it is likely to been because of the medication he was on. It’s sad. He should still be with us.

Other birthdays: astronomer Anders Celsius (1701); playwright Fanny Kemble (1809); science fiction writer L Sprague de Camp (1907); author James Agee (1909); illustrator Josh Kirby (1928); film director Kathryn Bigelow (62); Bill Nye the Science Guy (58); and author David Rakoff (1964).

The day, however, belongs to the great guitarist Jimi Hendrix who was born on this day in 1942. Was he really the great guitarist in all history as Rolling Stone would have us believe? Well, I don’t know about that. But he is one of the greatest. And he was also a fine songwriter. And he was a great showman. When you get right down to it, his guitar playing is just blues with a fantastic ear for beautiful melodies. What I think really threw him into another category is his use of the wah-wah pedal. You can really hear it on “Voodoo Child” here in Woodstock:

Happy birthday Jimi Hendrix!

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Just Say No to an Economy of Exclusion

Pope Francis53. Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “disposable” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised—they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers.”

54. In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

—Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio)
First Apostolic Exhortation: Evangelii Gaudium

Normally, I don’t comment on these and even here I have nothing to add except that it is hard not to love this man. What he says is very much what I’ve been saying the last few years: our economic system kills. He has a more expansive view, of course—as you would expect. The Catholic Church must really be worried about its image to put this thoughtful man in charge. And it isn’t about what he believes; it is about what he emphasizes. I’m sure he’s against abortion. But he rightly sees that (1) poverty is a bigger problem and (2) abortion has been way over-emphasized for the last 30 years.