Opportunity Means Nothing

Matt YglesiasMatt Yglesias made a keen observation about the State of the Union address, Sorry, Equal Opportunity Isn’t Good Enough. It’s about how both Obama and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (in her “response” to him) focused on “equality of opportunity.” It’s true: people just love the idea of opportunity. It’s like motherhood: no one is against it. And as such, it is meaningless to talk about.

Yglesias focuses on the general idea that just because someone is born slow and stupid doesn’t mean they should be relegated to a short and painful life. There is something fundamentally wrong with that idea. Just the same, you don’t want to give everyone the same amount or a random amount of wealth. This would suck the vitality out of the society. Incentives really do matter.

The randomly distributed wealth example is a good one. I think it is more or less the system we now have. I know that conservatives want to think that money stays in certain families because of great genes. But that isn’t my experience. I find that people’s abilities are mostly due to their environments. Look at Bush the Younger. There is no doubt that born to poor or middle class parents, he would not be rich. Yglesias discusses the random distribution case and notes that it would provide bad incentives for people. That’s true. And I think we are seeing much the same thing in our economy. People don’t generally think, “I’m going to work hard at this entry level job because I want to be Bill Gates!” They think that the entry level job may lead to a reasonable life. But that expectation is looking more and more like wishing to become Bill Gates.

It does seem to me that Yglesias poses the question right. There are two things that we are trying to maximize: fairness and incentives. An economy where everyone gets the same would not provide anything in incentives. An economy that allowed a small group to get the vast majority of wealth would not provide fairness. We should look for something in the middle that provides both fairness and incentives. I don’t have the ultimate solution as to what that might be. I’m not even sure there is a single system. But one thing is certain: our society is tilted entirely toward the incentives.

What’s especially bad is that if Bill Gates were worth only $30 billion instead of $60 billion, I don’t see that he or anyone else would feel more incentivized to work. There is a point of inequality past which we don’t get any extra incentives. And we are well past that point in the United States and in the world. So our society could provide a whole lot more fairness without losing any incentives for the young up-and-comers. Truly, I think a 99% tax on wealth above a billion dollars would have no negative effects on the society. But clearly, less extreme measures wouldn’t.

I like Yglesias’ framing of the issue. But there is a deeper issue: there cannot be anything close to equality of opportunity when absolute equality is so far out of whack. This sets up a situation where the children of the rich get every conceivable advantage, even apart for actual cash payments. This is not a meritocracy. This is, as I’ve discussed before, inviting the poor in to play your Monopoly game after all the properties have been purchased. I wish we could cut the crap, but that seems unlikely. Conservatives argue about these issues the same way they argue about global warming. First they argue that there is no inequality problem. Then they argue that there is inequality, but the real issue is mobility and that is fine. Then they argue that equality just means laws that specifically stop people from doing something. Then they argue that mobility doesn’t matter. If they were honest, they would just admit that they like the way things are and they have no reason.

The bottom line to all of this is that talk of opportunity is a distraction. We all believe in it. Hooray! We don’t ever have to talk about it again. But if we really care about it—if we want to provide it to everyone—we need to do something about inequality. This isn’t class warfare. In fact, it is just the opposite. It is an effort to lessen class distinctions. Regardless, discussing opportunity without income and wealth inequality is just lip service. It means nothing.

Franz Schubert and Norman Mailer

Franz SchubertIn 1923, the great novelist Norman Mailer was born. It is kind of sad that he is remembered today more for being an egotistical jerk than a great artist. And indeed, he did have that whole Ernest Hemingway thing going on. But my take on him is that it was just his way of dealing with deep feelings of inadequacy. I heard him talk shortly before he died, and I still got that from him, even though he had calmed down a lot. Anyway, in addition to his novels, he was a wonderful nonfiction writer—arguably better than a novelist. Above all, Mailer was an interesting man who could express himself really well. In a world filled with fairly boring people who can’t string a sentence together, that’s saying something.

Two Arrested Development actors have birthdays today. Jessica Walter, who plays the matriarch of the family, is 73. Portia de Rossi, who plays the narcissistic sister, is 41. I’ve known for some time that de Rossi is married to Ellen Lee DeGeneres, who is 15 years older than she is! Who would have thought DeGeneres would be a cradle robber? But in her defense, she doesn’t seem any older. (Of course, I’ve never seen her up close…) Regardless, I love the show and these two actors are a big part of it.

Other birthdays: chemists Theodore William Richards (1868) and Irving Langmuir (1881); ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax (1915); architect E Fay Jones (1921); composer Philip Glass (77); the great comedy writer Connie Booth (70); actor Glynn Turman (68); actor Kelly Lynch (55); actor Minnie Driver (44); and singer Justin Timberlake (33).

The day, however, belongs to the great early Romantic composer Franz Schubert who was born in 1797. He was only 31 when he died—four less than Mozart. This is remarkable given the enormous amount of music he produced. He was one of the best melody creators ever, but it is a mistake to think that this is all he was. He was extremely innovative in his approach to harmonic structure, for example. But more to the point, his mature work is as good as anything that has ever been composed. Here is the Belenus Quartett doing his String Quartet in G major, which is a technical marvel as well as an incredibly beautiful piece of music:

Happy birthday Franz Schubert!

Rich Are Above the Law… Of Economics

Jamie DimonAre you ready for some more outrageous Wall Street banking behavior? You may have heard last week that JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon got a 74% raise. This is after the London Whale trade lost the company $6 billion in 2012. Then, last year, the company was fined $20 billion for financial misbehavior—also known as fraud or “stuff that would get regular people thrown in jail.” But Dimon got a huge raise. Hooray for capitalism!

Matt Taibbi wrote a great article yesterday, Jamie Dimon’s Raise Proves US Regulatory Strategy is a Joke. He noted that the “record” fine against the company didn’t make its board and top management repentant, but it did cause them to layoff 7,500 non-CEO class of line employees. And they froze the pay of the people who remained.

Taibbi goes into some depth about the problem. If we didn’t already know before, we should have known after the 2008 financial crisis: the CEO class does not run its companies in the long-term interests of those companies. Instead, they run them in the short-term interests of themselves. All the top people who caused the 2008 crisis went away with tens of millions of dollars. What does it matter to them what ruin they leave in their wake?

It would be one thing if these people were socially ostracized. That might make them less inclined toward their dirty dealings. But all of them do it. What’s more, no level of fine is ever going to make Jamie Dimon unwelcome on CNBC. These people are our royalty, so anything they do is acceptable, with a minor exception for a Bernard Madoff sort of scam. (Although even there, I think if Madoff had controlled the kind of money that JPMorgan Chase does, it might have been different.)

But I’m focused on that 74% raise. In my work life, I’ve had employers who were hugely impressed with my work. I’ve been given ostentation raises. But I’ve never gotten any raise even close to 74%. I’ve talked to people, and no one I know has ever gotten a raise like that. Supposedly, raises are given to stop an employee from leaving. But that clearly isn’t the case with Dimon. He certainly wasn’t going anywhere. It is just that people in our society assume that the rich are better and thus deserving of ridiculous compensation packages. And this is with Dimon already making gobs of money.

Of course, as Taibbi notes, JPMorgan Chase was “sending a message” to the justice department. Not only are they not cowed, but they are also willing to inflict a bunch of harm on innocent employees if the government messes with them. After six years of watching the bankers flip off the rest of society, it isn’t surprising. But it seems that the Obama administration is determined to be naive in these matters. A proper government would have thrown people in jail. Or at least tried!

The last five years have told the people of the United States everything they need to know about justice in America. If you reveal our torture program to the press, you must go to jail. But if you rip off people for billions of dollars, cause a financial crisis, and generally screw up the economy for a decade or more, you’re in the clear. In fact, you are probably rich and well respected!

American justice in action!

And the la-hand of the Freeeeee!
And the hoooome, of thhhhhe, braaaave!

If Global Warming’s Real Why Is It Cold?

Climate Change Is a HoaxI find it profoundly frustrating to talk about global warming. I don’t mind ignorant questions. Ignorant questions lead to informed clarity. What I hate are disingenuous questions. A common question that fits into both categories is, “If There’s Global Warming… Why Is It So Cold?” But I think most people now understand the difference between weather and climate. And they understand the difference between local and global. And they understand that global warming can cause unusual weather that we can’t predict. So when I hear that question, I now assume it is either just a global warming denier or it is someone whose thinking has been polluted by a global warming denier. Regardless, it is a question we must continue to answer.

The follow video answers the question, “If There’s Global Warming… Why Is It So Cold?” In addition to answering the question, the video shows the difference between global warming deniers and the scientific community that overwhelmingly accepts global warming as a fact. The scientist interviewed is not willing to say that the polar vortex is the result of global warming. She says that it is consistent with it, but that’s as far as she will go. Because evidence matters to her.

On the other side, there is nothing but propaganda. I’ve been shocked at what global warming denier scientists (some of whom, like Fred Singer once did good work) are willing to say. The cherry-picking on that side of the debate is an embarrassment. But most of the scientists are not like Singer; most are “scientists”—people with a science background who have spent their whole career working in conservative politics. So when you hear about that small percentage of climate scientists who don’t except global warming, that’s pretty much who they are.

This is why I don’t even like talking about the issue. But I’ve very glad to have this video to send around:

Afterword

See my article It’s Raining, But Not for Long, for a discussion of how different conservatives think about global warming. It is a progression. Every time their argument becomes untenable, they simply come up with another one.

Otzi, the Iceman, Cometh a Long Way

Otzi or OetziLast night, I watched a great NOVA episode, Iceman Murder Mystery. It tells the story of the natural mummy Otzi, a man who died 5,300 years ago in the Austrian Central Alps. He appears to have died fairly directly from an arrow that was shot into his back. After that, he either died from the resulting fall, or someone helped by beating on his head. It is amazing how much we know about the man. For example, we know that he had brown eyes and suffered from Lyme disease.

One part of the episode bugged me. Everyone involved just assumed he was murdered. I don’t see it that way at all. Now the great thing about these kinds of investigations is that you can come up with an endless number of theories to suit the facts. Indeed, I think it would make a great writing exercise to take the facts and create a narrative to explain it. I have a number of stories, some of which are epic in scope. He was, after all, 45 years old—he could have traveled a long time to get to that mountain that he died on. But I also have a very simple narrative.

Two words: hunting accident. We know that the diet of the man included cultivated crops as well as Alpine ibex, a large species of goat. So I figure Otzi was a member of a hunting party. It had to be fairly large. The ibex can weigh 200 pounds or more. His body was found at 11,000 feet—two miles above sea level. So the party would have to slaughter the goat and then carry the meat back down the mountain, along with all of their gear. Regardless, you don’t hunt ibex alone. I figure, they were on a hunt and an arrow was carelessly released with tragic consequences.

Otzi AxThe reason I like this explanation is that it explains why Otzi was left with all of his stuff, including a very valuable copper ax. When the rest of the party found that Otzi was dead, they were forced to leave the body there. I like the idea that they buried him under rocks (the ground would be frozen) at the scene, and out of respect, they left him with his stuff. Or it could be that they panicked and ran back down to the village. Or, as my father suggested, maybe there were only two of them and the guy who killed Otzi went down to get help so they could bring the body back to the village for burial, only to be unable to find him on return.

The main thing is that all the talk of murder makes it sound too much like a Chalcolithic Columbo episode. The scene of the crime was many miles from the villiage. Otzi had had a very large meal within an hour of his death. All his stuff was left with him so that no one would discover the murder. It sounds far fetched. And as we know from modern life, accidents are far more common than crimes. These were not recreational hunters with high powered rifles. They would have to chase down these ibex and get close. It would involve a lot of logistics, with people getting in each other’s way. Getting hurt and even killed would not be all that unusual.

I will admit, however, that I want it to be an accident. I never want to think that one human intentionally kills another. I know that it does happen. But I want to think that Otzi was killed in a work related accident. I don’t want to think that fate preserved his body for 5,300 years just to remind us of the worse things about us. But I encourage you to watch the episode. It is only 53 minutes long and it is really really good. Regardless of why Otzi died, we see the best of what we humans are in the work done to figure out his life and death by the hundreds of people involved with him over the years.

Afterword

The standard style on this website is just to replace non-standard English character with the standard English character. So “Otzi” ought to have an umlaut over the “O.” Normally, this would mean the name would be Oetzi in standard English. I don’t know what I should do about this. I am using “Otzi” rather than “Oetzi,” even though I think the latter is probably better.

The Ever Clear Mark Eitzel

Mark EitzelOn this day in 1882, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born. As you probably know, I don’t do politicians. But FDR wasn’t a politician; he was leader of the free world for 12 years. I’m not a huge fan on the man. (I’m much more a fan of his wife.) I think of him the way that I think of Barack Obama: he was the best president we could reasonably expect. The fact that he was so much better than Obama gives you some idea of just how much our politics has disintegrated.

Computer scientist Douglas Engelbart was born in 1925. He died last year. He is known for having invented the computer mouse, an invention he got no royalties for. I won’t get into the politics of that, because I know what conservatives would say; rest assured, I have a counter argument. But the main reason I mention Engelbart is that he’s dead. How can the inventor of the mouse be dead? Well, there is this:

The World Chess Champion Boris Spassky is 77 today. He still has a FIDE rating of 2548, which is damned good for a man in his late 70s who seems more interested in the good life that chess has allowed him than chess itself. He is the guy who Bobby Fischer beat. But Spassky was a great player who wasn’t a total freak. There is a lot to be said for that. Looking back, I tend to think that Fischer was not as dominant as he appeared. I think that all of Fischer’s bad behavior at the beginning of the tournament had a bad effect on Spassky. I really hate the way that Fischer behaved. And to a large extent because of that, I have a soft spot for Spassky. And face it: if you got to choose which life to lead, it would be Spassky. I’d rather have a great life and be remembered as a great chess player than have a tormented life and be remembered as one of the best chess players.

Dick Cheney is 73 today. I was going to give the day to him. But then I checked and saw that I had not give the day to Hitler on his birthday. Does this mean I think Cheney is is bad as Hitler. I actually do, but in a different sense than you might think. I believe that there are lots of megalomaniacs around today who under the right circumstances would have been Hitler. And just the same, had Hitler been born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1941, he would have turned out very much like Cheney. Certainly we can all admit that Hitler’s megalomania would not manifest in modern America by an explicit genocide. He would probably be a conservative who claimed that the poor deserved to die of hunger and lack of medical care. It’s a mistake to get too hung up on Hitler. There are plenty of evil men around America today who are well respected and well rewarded. Dick Cheney is one of the best examples of this.

Other birthday: trumpet player Roy Eldridge (1911); film director Michael Anderson (94); film director Delbert Mann (1920); comedian Dick Martin (1922); actor Dorothy Malone (89); actor Gene Hackman (84); actor Vanessa Redgrave (77); singer-songwriter Marty Balin (72); documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield (66); comedian Brett Butler (56); and actor Christian Bale (40).

The day, however, belongs to singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel who is 55 today. I just wrote an article about one of his songs, I’ve Been a Mess. So I’m not going to add a bunch. The main thing about him is that his songs are deeply felt but with a great sense of humor. There is no better example of this than the American Music Club song “Hula Maiden.” And I got smashed on the beach. Yeah, I was thinking of you… That’s brilliant.

Happy birthday Mark Eitzel!

The Rich Are Afraid of Democracy

Howard BealeYesterday was Paddy Chayefsky’s birthday. That got me thinking about the movie Network. That’s the film where just-fired longtime news anchor Howard Beale gives his farewell to the viewers and goes on to rant, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” It’s a sentiment that pretty much everyone can identify with. The world is not fair and if you focus on on it, it is bound to make you angry.

It is the ultimate example of populist rage. And so it isn’t surprising that the rich might be afraid of it. This morning in Politico, Ben White wrote, Why the Rich Are Freaking Out. As he put it, “The nation’s wealthiest, denizens of the loftiest slice of the 1 percent, appear to be having a collective meltdown.” And why? One example: “Residents of Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side say the progressive mayor didn’t plow their streets as a form of frosty revenge.” The heart bleeds for these people!

It reminds me of when I was first driving. My greatest fear was that I would get a traffic ticket and my insurance rates would go up. That is the kind of thing you worry about when you basically have nothing to worry about. Now I worry that the police will arrest me for looking at them wrong as I walk down the street. Other people worry that my government will drop a bomb on their houses. It’s all relative and I don’t blame the rich for freaking out over such little things. But that doesn’t mean anyone else should care that the lives of the rich are so great that they see revolution behind every snowplow delay.

Much of the concern that the rich feel comes from the Occupy Movement. But they never struck me as particularly angry. The group from the last few years that most exemplifies Howard Beale is the Tea Party Movement. They are the angry ones. They are the hysterical ones. They are the revolutionary ones. If we should be concerned about social disruption, it is the Tea Party and not Occupy that the rich should focus on.

People tend to forget what happens after Beale gives his big populist scream therapy session. First, of course, he becomes a big populist star. But increasingly, Beale talks about corporate control. This causes the rich to freak out, so Beale is taken to see the network’s chairman who, lit as though he were God, convinces Beale to preach the new world order where the little people don’t matter. Instead of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” it is “I’m mad as hell and there is nothing I can do about it.” So Beale is turned from a populist into a corporate mouthpiece. Unsurprisingly, rating slide and so the network assassinates Beale on the air.

There is a connection here to the Tea Party. Of course, the Tea Party was never populist. The group was basically a corporate creation. If it hadn’t been for Fox News and hate radio pushing it, it never would have gotten off the ground. That’s to say nothing of all the money that the Koch brothers and others put into it. And above all, the Tea Party didn’t start because of the bailout of the big banks. It was only after the government tried to help homeowners that the group started. So the Tea Party was never populist.

But in the beginning, they sounded populist. But very quickly, they became nothing more than a mouthpiece for the Republican Party. Now they are for the common conservative definition of economic freedom, which is just the idea that the rich should be able to do whatever they want. Constraints caused by poverty or private businesses are simply defined out of existence. They believe in the theoretical freedom to get rich and once rich to do whatever they please. It’s like they follow that evil bearded Spock in “Mirror, Mirror” with the philosophy: the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many! (“I have been—and always shall be—your enemy.”)

Thus the rich do not fear the Tea Party Movement, regardless of how marginal they are with their rhetoric about armed rebellion and their embrace of gun culture. They do fear the Occupy Movement, regardless of how bureaucratic they are with their economic policy reports. But that’s the thing. Howard Beale is not the real threat that the rich fear. They aren’t worried about an armed rebellion. They are worried that the people might wake up to the unacceptable level of inequality that we face. They are worried that their taxes might be raised a little bit.

This is what’s behind the anxieties of the rich. To them, closing the carried interest loophole would be Kristallnacht. Maybe it’s already happened. Maybe that was what last year’s increase of the top marginal tax rate to 39.6% was. Regardless, they don’t fear populism; they fear democracy.

My Partner the Ghost

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)When I was perhaps 8 years old, I saw a television show one Sunday evening. It was called, My Partner the Ghost.

Basically, it was a show about two private investigators. The twist was — What a surprise! — one them was a ghost. So it was basically like The Rockford Files, but it was funny and British. I loved it. Really. I was so excited — it was the best thing I had ever seen. So I tuned in the next week… But it wasn’t on. So I showed up the week after… Nope. It never reappeared.

Television in the 1970s

Now for you youngins out there, this was in 1972 or 1973. All we had to guide us through the entertainment bonanza that was network television was a weekly magazine called TV Guide. It contained all the local listings.

I supposed that I could have gone through it line by line and looked for My Partner the Ghost. But I didn’t. Or maybe I did. I don’t remember. I do remember my profound sadness in missing out on what was the best show ever.

In general, I have a really bad memory. But some information has stuck in my brain with a tenacity that makes no sense. And over all these years — Four decades! — the title of the teasing television show stayed with me.

Rediscovering My Partner the Ghost

For no reason that I can explain, the show came back into my mind. I thought, “At the very least, the entertainment overdose that is the internet must offer a Wikipedia page and some clips from the show.” Indeed. It offered that and more!

When I searched for “My Partner the Ghost,” Google offered me a Wikipedia page to Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). I quickly found that this was the original name of the series.

It was changed to the “ghost” title for distribution in America. I think that was a good choice. I can appreciate the original title now, but as a kid, it wouldn’t have made any sense. Plus, it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. And “Hopkirk”? What the hell?! I’ve never heard that name in my life. Anyway, “My Partner the Ghost” has the exact same sound as “My Mother the Car” — a very American title for a very American show.

I can’t tell if the show was a success or not. It only ran for one season, which in those days meant 26 episodes. But it may have just been intended that way. It is certainly the case that it has been shown a lot since. What’s more, I wonder that a failed series would have been exported to the United States.

Regardless, it seems to be popular to this day. It has, for example, a fan site. And the Wikipedia page has a complete listing of episodes with full summaries — something you can’t say for My mother the Car.[1]

As Charming as Ever

Last night, I found the first episode — “My Late Lamented Friend and Partner” — so I watched it. It isn’t great, but it is a solid show — especially for the time.

What’s more, I know why 8-year-old Frank loved it. Marty Hopkirk (the ghost) is very much like me: a bit too excitable, bordering on childish, persistent to the point of annoyance. It’s kind of funny, actually. Not many boys would look at the character and think, “That’s what a man should be!”

Regardless, I found the show to be charming. And I’m very curious to see where the show goes from the pilot, which you can see in the following video:


Afterword

My Mother the Car is renowned for being one of the worst television shows ever made. I’ve never seen it, but I assume this is not a correct appraisal.

There is a tendency for some authority to announce that, for example, “MacArthur Park” or “A Horse With No Name” is the worst song ever. And then people parrot that back. In the early 80s, I remember reading in some magazine that My Mother the Car was the worst television show ever. It just became a thing.

I will admit, I don’t think much of Jerry Van Dyke. But the show was created by Chris Hayward and Allan Burns who created The Munsters and Dudley Do-Right from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. What’s more, Burns went on to create The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda with My Mother the Car writer James L Brooks.

Regardless, maybe the show was terrible. But even so, that would also make a certain group of people love it. So I think there is genuine affection for My Partner the Ghost.

The Only Founding Father Who Matters

Correction: Thomas Paine was not born on this day in the modern calendar. His actual birthday is 9 February 1737.

Thomas PaineOn this day in 1923, the great screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky was born. I don’t generally think that we can look to the Academy to spot great work. But in Chayefsky’s case, they probably did pick his three best films for Best Screenplay: Marty, The Hospital, and Network. They are all great films and that is mostly due to the scripts. Actually, I always thought the casting was bad in Marty. Betsy Blair is too plain for Ernest Borgnine?! Borgnine should be happy that dogs don’t run from him in fear!

Other birthdays: philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg (1688); opera composer Daniel Auber (1782); great composer Frederick Delius (1862); painter Julio Peris Brell (1866); composer Havergal Brian (1876); actor W C Fields (1880); surrealist painter Colin Middleton (1910); stained glass artist Marcelle Ferron (1924); writer Edward Abbey (1927); the great Motown bass player James Jamerson (1936); actor Katherine Ross (73); puppeteer Paul Fusco (61); actor Oprah Winfrey (60); diver Greg Louganis (54); actor Heather Graham (44); and actor Sara Gilbert (39).

The day, however, belongs to the great writer and political theorist Thomas Paine who was born on this day in 1737. He is best know for having written Common Sense, which remains the biggest selling book in American history relative to the size of the population. But it isn’t for this that we ought to remember him. The Age of Reason, his attack against organized religion, and Christianity specifically, is even more relevant today than it was then. It is especially because of his article “Agrarian Justice” that I most admire him. In it, he argues for a guaranteed income—an idea so radical that even today it is considered beyond the pale. Nonetheless, I now see it is a necessary salve to the institutional inequality of modern economies.

Another thing I like about him is that he was so good at getting into trouble. Even Common Sense had its domestic detractors. John Adams, who agreed with the conclusions of the pamphlet, said it was “without any restraint or even an attempt at any equilibrium or counter poise, that it must produce confusion and every evil work.” Rights of Man was largely an attack on Edmund Burke and the very idea of hereditary rule. It would have gotten Paine hanged had ever returned to England. And then after narrowly escaping getting his head chopped off in France, he only made it back into America thanks to then President Jefferson. By that time, the religious people hated him for obvious reasons and now the Federalists hated him for Common Sense, even though the existence of the country was doubtful if not for how the book galvanized the people.

It bothers me that conservatives try to appropriate Paine. Glenn Beck even published his own version of Common Sense (Glenn Beck’s Common Sense), with the subtitle, “The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine.” This is nonsense. Paine wasn’t against government; he was against government that didn’t work for the people. He would have been appalled at the conservative view of government where its only purpose is to help the rich. That wasn’t Paine.

Of course, mostly Paine is just ignored. In grammar school, I was taught about Common Sense and then Paine was never mentioned again. Now all we know are the the presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson. Not one of them was the man that Paine was. Two of them were major slave owners. And the other was a royalist. It’s almost as though we were an aristocracy, the way we honor only men who had such ostentation power. No person from the Revolutionary War era stands as such a great example of our country’s ideas. There ought to be a day named after him.

Happy birthday Thomas Paine!

The Rich Know Less Than You Do

Peter SchiffLast night on The Daily Show, Samantha Bee did a segment on the minimum wage. In it, she talked to investment banker Peter Schiff. He perfectly captures the essence of the patient aristocrat explaining the way the world works to the silly commoner. You could almost hear him sigh as he laid out the conservative narrative against the minimum wage, “There’s a law in economics—supply and demand—that’s something that you learn in Econ 101. If you increase the price of something you decrease the demand. And wages, that’s the price of labor. The higher you make the minimum wage, the more jobs are going to be destroyed.” You see, it’s a law! Except, it isn’t. Our economy is far more complex than that. The actual data indicate that it would at most cause minor job losses and at best create jobs.

Schiff goes on to imply that if you doubled the minimum wage, it would double the price of a hamburger. In the past, I would just pass off what he says to his keen desire to believe the fairy tales that support his ideology. But more and more I think the real problem is that rich people just aren’t that smart. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that they don’t think deeply about these issues. They grab onto a very simplistic narrative that happens to tell them that they deserve their $70 million net worth, and that is the end of their thinking.

Matt Yglesias wrote a great article following on the stupid Tom Perkins letter to The Wall Street Journal, Stop Listening to Rich People. He says:

But the larger issue here is simply that the letter is extraordinarily stupid. Its author, successful as he was in business, was still perfectly capable of writing an extremely stupid letter to the editor. The political and historical analysis contained in the letter is stupid. But beyond that, the idea of publishing it was stupid. Anyone with the slightest sense of public opinion would recognize that the analogy is offensive and counterproductive. There is simply no viewpoint on economics or American politics from which writing this letter was anything other than stupid. And yet Tom Perkins, a very successful businessman and co-founder of one of the most important VC firms in the world, went and wrote it anyway…

Every once in a while a Perkins comes along and says something so egregiously dumb as to be mocked by everyone. But it’s not the egregious idiots who do the damage; it’s the excessive deference paid to the unremarkable mediocrities. But the next time the elite get together to discuss the affairs of state, keep Tom Perkins and his ridiculous analogy in mind.

The deference is the killer. There’s an interesting contrast. Hollywood stars also have opinions on policy. And they get a certain level of attention paid to them. But Obama never meets with them to discuss policy. And the funny thing is that since actors know that they are not experts, they are more likely to know what they’re talking about than are business people. Otherwise, there is no more reason to think a businessman would have insights into policy than an actor or, for that matter, grocery clerk.

I’m not saying that successful business people are stupid. But in my experience, they are rarely brilliant. In business, I think an over-abundance of brains can be a distinct liability. It makes a person less decisive and more easily bored. But let’s face it: economics isn’t that hard. It is not beyond any of these people to understand that the labor market is a monopsony and so simple ideas about supply and demand just aren’t valid.

But if I were drowning in cash, I might not care either. I might just latch onto any convenient theory that said that I was great because I was rich and the poor sucked. All of that is to say that I might have a much worse understanding of the macroeconomy than I do now. But if I were rich, people would listen to me and think I made sense, even though my ideas would be worse. We really are a culture in crisis and Peter Schiff (Who is pushing gold!) is a symptom.

‘Job Creation’ Means Anything to Everyone

Obama CopeI watched the State of the Union address last night. It was typical of such speeches: a hodgepodge of policies that sound more like a pep rally than a policy speech. And given the political realities, how could it be anything else? We don’t have a parliamentary system were the party in control can actually get stuff done. So what we get is a lot of pretending. It may well be why in America we don’t do things so much as we appear to do things.

A big part of this is the political rhetoric we use. Especially on the right, it is perpetually vague. My favorite example of this last night was when the president said, “But the budget compromise should leave us freer to focus on creating new jobs, not creating new crises.” I know what he means. When liberals talk about creating jobs, they mean infrastructure spending, job training, tax incentives for businesses to hire. There are all kinds of things, but they mostly cost money. When conservatives talk about creating jobs, they mean cutting taxes on the rich and regulations on business.

Of course, what the conservatives want has nothing to do with creating jobs. Tax cuts for the rich have very little effect on the economy and if they are matched by cuts to other programs, they actually have a negative impact. Cutting regulation in a depressed economy is just a way to make businesses more profitable—it doesn’t do anything to encourage hiring. A depressed economy is the perfect time to force businesses to clean up their factories and plants because it will create jobs. Cutting taxes on the rich and regulations on businesses are things conservatives always want to do because they consider them ends in themselves.

The point is that politicians of any political flavor can go around and talk about creating jobs without any sense of cognitive dissonance. Most ordinary people don’t think of tax cuts for the wealthy as a jobs program, but this is a matter of faith on the right. That’s why I think liberals are ill advised to talk in vague terms. It’s similar to the healthcare debate, where every couple of months some conservative wonk will say, “The Republicans do too have healthcare reform ideas!” And they list them and then it is clear that Republicans have no healthcare reform ideas.

None of this is to say that Obama’s speech was bad. He did mention a number of specific things that I quite liked: research funding, patent reform, the ridiculousness of $4 billion in subsidies to the oil companies each year. And it compared well to Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ speech. She said that of course the Republicans have plans to address income inequality, “Republicans have plans to close the gap—plans that focus on jobs first without more spending, government bailouts, and red tape.” So they have unstated plans that don’t cost any money and won’t require anything of the private sector. What could this be? Oh, that’s right: cutting taxes on the rich and regulations on business. You know, “Job creation!”

Alan Alda but it Should Be Ernst Lubitsch

Alan AldaOn this day in 1887, the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein was born. He is especially known for his performances of Chopin, so here is Nocturne Opus 9, No 2:

The great film director Ernst Lubitsch was born in 1892. Despite the fact that he died at the age of only 55 of his sixth heart attack, he managed to make some of the best comedies of the 1940s. These included: The Shop Around the Corner, Heaven Can Wait, and one of my very favorites, Carole Lombard in her last film, To Be or Not to Be. Here is the beginning of the film:

John Banner was born in 1910. He was the actor in Hogan’s Heroes who played Sergeant Schultz. But if you go back to television throughout the 1950s and 1960s, you will see him here and there. He made the show work. Without him, you have Nazis on one side and the Allies on the other. And as much as identify with the Allies, all they do in the show is go around blowing up people who are mostly just caught in the middle. Schultz was the heart of the show. He is the perfect example of what I call the 95%: people who just want to live their lives.

Singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan is 46. Here is her music video for “Possession”:

Other birthdays: composer Gregor Werner (1693); philosopher Vladimir Solovyov (1853); William S Burroughs Version 1 (1857); novelist Colette (1873); theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874); painter Jackson Pollock (1912); puppeteer Harry Corbett (1918); musician Cash McCall (73); evil pastor Rick Warren (60); the great journalist Michael Hastings (1980); and actor Elijah Wood (33).

The day, however, belongs to writer, director, and actor Alan Alda who is 78 today. I’m not that fond of him as an actor, but he’s perfectly fine. And there is nothing noteworthy about his directing. But he really is a damned good screenwriter. He wrote some of the best episodes of M*A*S*H as well as a number of good films. The Seduction of Joe Tynan is almost creepy given many of the political scandals we’ve lived through since. I suppose nothing ever changes. The Four Seasons is a beautiful script, although it could have been a play. I still have a guilty love of Sweet Liberty. I know that in a fundamental way, the film doesn’t really work. But you do get to see Lillian Gish on film at 91. (She’s wonderful in it!) The big problem is that I don’t think Alda is really the guy to write satire; he’s seems too nice and disinclined to offend. Anyway, it’s too bad he doesn’t seem to write and direct anymore.

Happy birthday Alan Alda!