D W Griffith Plus More Than Any Day Deserves

D W GriffithEight years ago, Evo Morales became the first indigenous president of Bolivia. He seems to have done a pretty decent job. He, of course, is largely dismissed as a socialist here in the United States. But then, so is the conservative created, free-market healthcare system we now call Obamacare. Morales, like pretty much all reasonable people, believes in a mixed-economy. You know what a mixed-economy is, don’t you? It’s the economy that the United States has always had! Wake up conservatives! Evo! Evo! Evo!

On this day in 1552 or 1554 (It was a very long labor!) Walter Raleigh was born. What, exactly was he anyway? I guess you could say that, very much like today, Raleigh was famous for being famous. It is interesting that he was put to death for political reasons. But I am mostly interested in him because of his relationship to Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe had written the poem, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” It is a very sweet poem that I’ve set to music. The poem was very popular, but the older Raleigh apparently thought it was childish and so wrote a response poem, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.” It’s a good poem, but it is very clear why were remember Marlowe today as a great poet of that period and we remember Raleigh for throwing his coat over a mud puddle for Queen Elizabeth—a story I feel is almost certainly apocryphal.

It’s a good day for Elizabethans! Francis Bacon was born on this day in 1561. (Short labor.) He is known today as the man who helped Christopher Marlowe who actually wrote all those plays people ignorantly attribute to “The Immortal Bard of Stratford on Avon.” Woody Allen explains all this in his short story, “But Soft… Real Soft.” Read the whole thing; it is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. If you want to know about Bacon, click his name above. Basically, he was a brilliant philosopher and scientist who was not beheaded, even though he only lived as long as Raleigh. Here’s Allen with some history about Bacon that I’ll bet you didn’t know:

We all realize Shakespeare (Marlowe) borrowed his plots from the ancients (moderns); however, when the time came to return the plots to the ancients he had used them up and was forced to flee the country under the assumed name of William Bard (hence the term “immortal bard”) in an effort to avoid debtor’s prison (hence the term “debtor’s prison”). Here Sir Francis Bacon enters into the picture.

Bacon was an innovator of the times who was working on advanced concepts of refrigeration. Legend has it he died attempting to refrigerate a chicken. Apparently the chicken pushed first. In an effort to conceal Marlowe from Shakespeare, should they prove to be the same person, Bacon had adopted the fictitious name Alexander Pope, who in reality was Pope Alexander, head of the Roman Catholic Church and currently in exile owing to the invasion of Italy by the Bards, last of the nomadic hordes (the Bards give us the term “immortal bard”), and years before had galloped off to London, where Raleigh awaited death in the tower.

The great Sam Cooke was born 1931. I don’t think I really need to say anything about his work. He was a great songwriter and an unforgettable singer. His death is still a mystery. I tend to think that it was as simple as some people tried to rob him, it got out of hand and they killed him. We will never know, but his murder not only deprived him of his life, it deprived the rest of us of unknown amounts of great music. Here is the only video I could easily find of Cooke actually performing live. It is a really good version of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which Cooke later wrote the great response song, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Other birthdays: the great French philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592); the great fetes galantes painter Nicolas Lancret (1690); the great Romantic poet Lord Byron (1788); Swedish playwright August Strindberg (1849); Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin (1869); blues guitarist Blind Willie Johnson (1897); the great Russian physicist Lev Landau (1908); four great actors: Piper Laurie (82), Bill Bixby (1934), Seymour Cassel (79), and the best of the bunch, John Hurt (74); crime novelist Joseph Wambaugh (77); singer and songwriter Steve Perry (65); the great filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (61); actor Linda Blair (55); and actor Diane Lane (49).

The day, however, belongs to the most important filmmaker ever, D W Griffith, who was born on this day in 1875. Oh, how I hate talking about him. How I wish he had never made The Birth of a Nation, so that I don’t always have to talk about racism. So forget it. He seems to have been a decent man with some real confusion on matters racial and historical.

But in terms of art, Nation was revolutionary. In many ways, his next major film Intolerance was equally so. It is interesting to watch the early films—including Griffith’s—as they slowly evolve until Nation, which is shockingly modern. Quite suddenly, Griffith offers the world the full pallet of cinematic syntax. And then in Intolerance breaks altogether new ground in terms of its editing.

To start with, Intolerance takes place during four points in time spread out over thousands of years. But this is all intercut—the story is not told linearly. Then on top of that—on the microscale—we see parallel editing exactly as we see it today. Here is a very short (26 second) example. We see three different locations: the jail cell, the scaffolding, and the line cutters behind the wall on the scaffolding. Griffith cuts between them to provide the sense that they are all happening at the same time. They still teach this stuff to kids in film school, 98 years later!

Happy birthday D W Griffith!

O’Reilly, Krugman, and Visceral Hatred

Bill O'ReillyMy favorite economist Dean Baker alerted me to a conservative talking point that I didn’t know about. People go around claiming that Paul Krugman called for Alan Greenspan to create a housing bubble back in 2002. And now Krugman claims that Greenspan was wrong to allow the housing bubble to continue. What a hypocrite! Ah yes, there is nothing like a good conservative talking point, especially when it is based on a comment made sarcastically.

Back in 2002, Krugman did indeed write, “To fight this recession the Fed needs more than a snapback; it needs soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment. And to do that, as Paul McCulley of Pimco put it, Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble.” As Baker points out, his sarcasm was not only clear in the article itself, two weeks later, “Krugman wrote a column explicitly warning about the dangers of a housing bubble.”

About two years ago, I wrote, Satire is Dead. Well, I should have said that sarcasm is dead too. But at this point, it appears that not only is sarcasm dead, it will be used against you in the conservative media echo chamber. Actually, I’m afraid it is broader than that. Internet culture very much sorts for this kind of (non) thinking. I’m sure that 99% of those who quote the line have never bothered to read the article. Conservatives just know that Krugman is wrong the way that liberals just know Bill O’Reilly is wrong. There is a difference, of course. Krugman really does know what he’s talking about, although that certainly doesn’t make him always right.

Paul KrugmanThis gets to my fundamental beef with politics. On one side of the debate you have Noble Prize winning economist Paul Krugman. He’s actually quite careful and more conservative than I am. But the main thing is that he’s a serious thinker. On the other side, you have Bill O’Reilly. He’s a professional ranter—an entertainer. Is that an unfair comparison? Do you think maybe I should compare Krugman to Greg Mankiw? Well, for one thing, I don’t think the conservatives look much better with his “Sunshine Keynesianism,” where Keynes was basically right about stimulus, except when a Democrat is in the White House. On the other side, Rachel Maddow makes O’Reilly look horrible too. Regardless, when it comes to visceral hatred that each side has, Krugman and O’Reilly sum it up.

But purely on a policy level, think of Avik Roy and Austin Frakt. Roy is a conservative healthcare policy wonk and Frakt is his liberal counterpart. Except: not really. First, Roy is an apologist not a wonk. He doesn’t use numbers to figure things out, he abuses numbers to make his partisan points. I don’t even especially know that Frakt is a liberal. It’s just that everyone assumes he is because “facts have a well know liberal bias.” He just seems to want a system that works and doesn’t really have a strong opinion about how to get there.

Last night, I caught a little bit of the Bill O’Reilly segment where he had on a preacher who talked about how Obamacare was softening us all up for the End Times. O’Reilly said something like, “Liberals want big government.” No! Conservatives supposedly want small government as an end in itself. (They don’t actually want small government, of course.) But liberals don’t really care about the size of government. We don’t believe in big government as an end. We believe that the society should take care of certain things and this tends to create a relatively large government.

Avik RoyBut I suspect if conservatives created their perfect government and liberals created theirs, the liberal government would actually be smaller. Because what conservatives want from government costs a lot of money. It doesn’t cost much to feed the poor, but it costs a lot to feed the military industrial complex. Most conservatives are still angry that we don’t have the kind of army we had during World War II when it was 10% of GDP. That doubling of the defense budget would more than make up for the liberal programs they would get rid of. So just there, they would have an even larger government than the one we now have. Liberals could pay for their increased spending with military cuts. And would.

So not only do I have to listen to conservatives say they want a small government when they obviously do not. I also have to listen to them say that I want a big government. The actual Democratic Party is as invisible to conservatives as Barack Obama was in Clint Eastwood’s RNC presentation. But the thing is, I think that I can see the Republican movement for more or less what it is. Being sort of economically minded, I even agree with some things that used to be part of their ideology. But maybe I am just as blind as they are. I don’t think that Avik Roy, for example, thinks he is lying with numbers. Just like that guy who was so certain that the End Times had come that he spent all of his money on a billboard, I’m sure that Roy has convinced himself that the free market is always right and it is absolutely the best way forward on healthcare. Could my commitment to egalitarianism and equality have made me just as blind?

Obviously, I don’t think so. But consider this. Ideologically, like most liberals, I’m not wedded to particular solutions. As I talk about a lot around here, we liberals are a very pragmatic people. What’s more, why is it that Avik Roy seems to have to adjust his thinking about healthcare policy every six months and I don’t? It isn’t because he’s thinking about it all the time and coming up with new things. He’s just covering his flank. Since his policy preference is ideologically driven, he has to adjust every time someone says, “You know, that isn’t quite the way that the Singapore system works.” What’s more, liberals don’t move the goal posts the way conservatives do. We have their conservative healthcare reform. But now it is socialized medicine! After all, it is pretty much what Avik Roy wanted BO (Before Obama). Why did it take him four years to get to the point of admitting that maybe Obamacare could be okay if we make some changes to it?

My answer: conservatives and liberals have a different outlook on life. And a big part of the conservative outlook on life is intellectual rigidity. I undoubtedly am wrong about many things but I do consider new information and change my opinions. Conservatives, in general, do not. And someone like Avik Roy uses his very capable intellect, not in fixing mistaken beliefs but in preserving them.

Democrats Work to Sell Out Liberalism

The End Is NearEd Kilgore provides a very nice service over at the Political Animal blog in providing a good overview of what is happening in politics throughout the day. And even though I’ve always know that he is a New Democrat, he hasn’t manage to really annoy me until yesterday. That’s when he started writing about the American Prospect/Democratic Strategist forum on entitlements. He quoted approvingly the following from Henry Aaron, “With opposition to social insurance more intense than in decades, progressives need to consider carefully what extensions of social insurance they want to seek, what redesigns of the current system they should entertain, and what cutbacks in the current system they might tolerate in exchange for high-priority gains.” That’s a winning strategy there, my New Democratic “allies”!

But it sounds kind of familiar. Actually, very familiar. Isn’t that exactly what the Democratic Party has been doing for the last 38 years? Isn’t that what Obama seems to be best at: bargaining with himself? It’s weird, but I don’t remember any major meeting of Republicans where they discuss what kind of military cuts they’ll take in exchange for tax reductions on the rich. Maybe that’s because as fucked up as the Republican Party is, they at least support what their base believes in. In fact, the Republican elites are actually more conservative than their base. But with the Democrats: no.

This has been going on for forty fucking years! The Republicans take a step to the right so the Democrats follow. This is not because the people keep moving to the right. What seems to have happened is that economic liberalism has been defined out of existence. But the fact remains that the poor vote liberal, and the more poor the terrible economic policies make, the more people will vote for the Democrats. But there seems to be no economic liberalism left in the party at the elite level.

Now liberalism is all about social issues: abortion-choice and gay rights. That does not bode well for the Democratic Party. Abortion will continue to be an issue, but in a generation, gay rights will not. Is that what our entire two party system is going to be about: abortion? And given how well the Democrats have done protecting their former economic agenda, in 2034 the big debate will be whether the “morning after pill” should be legal. Great job guys! Who do I write the check to?

Let me be clear: all this New Democrat and the old Democratic Leadership Council bullshit is nothing but the power elites trying to push the Democratic Party to the right on economic issues. They are fine with the social issues because they do not really care about the social issues. Just like the Republican elites. The Koch brothers don’t much care about abortion so long as their taxes stay low and they can destroy all unions. Regardless, the rich can always move or send their pregnant daughters to Italy for an abortion. Even if the Democrats win all their social battles, it won’t mean much to the people in the new banana (“Finance!”) republic we’ve allow this country to become.

There Will Be No GOP Reform for 2016

Jonathan ChaitRoss Douthat is back with another one of those articles where he pretends that the Republican Party is “moderating.” And that means that Jonathan Chait had to write an article where he mocks Douthat but strangely agrees with him. They are both wrong. So let me sort this all out.

On Sunday, Douthat wrote, At Last, Conservative Reform. That title is hilarious because that describes at least six columns a year for Douthat. He can be forgiven to some extent, since he doesn’t write his own headlines. But that headline is totally accurate. Douthat notes that at the end of Bush’s term in office, conservative policy “wonks”[1] had run out of ideas. I might note that all their previous ideas had run the economy into the ground, but I’ll leave that for now. Once Obama got in office, said wonks like Yuval Levin (!) got to work and came up with lots of “new” ideas. But they weren’t real as long as nationally known politicians weren’t championing them. But now they are! Or at least Douthat thinks that.

Chait responded with, I Have Seen the Future of the Republican Party, and It Is George W Bush. It provides a really good rundown of just how good and serious these ideas are:

The New York Times‘ Ross Douthat lists a few in his most recent column: Senator Mike Lee endorsing family-friendly tax reform and more lenient sentencing, and Marco Rubio endorsing more generous tax credits for low-income workers without children…

The weakness of these plans is that, because they add on to the existing party agenda rather than try to replace it, they don’t fully make sense. For instance, Rubio claims his tax credit plan is deficit neutral, which means his proposal to redirect more tax credits to low-income workers without children would have to come out of the pockets of low income workers with children. Or else he’d have to break his vow and add to the deficit. Lee’s tax reform likewise has no real numbers, for the same reason: the math does not work.

Chait suggests a new avenue for the Republicans: a return to Bush! He says that what really makes the Republican proposals sound so vile to any but the conservative hardcore is that they insist upon balancing the federal budget. If they just give up this idea, they can have unpaid-for tax cuts for the rich, unpaid-for wars, and have a little left over for unpaid-for pandering to the middle class. And most important: they won’t have to make life any worse for the poor.

Let me be very clear on this point: this is what the Republicans will do if they get back in power. This is what the Republicans always do when they get back in power. Of course, this is not what they say they will do. And I think Chait tries to pull a fast one by saying that Bush the Younger walked back the Republican austerity agenda during the 2000 campaign. Of course he did! The federal government had a budget surplus. But what did Reagan run on 1980? Balanced budget. (Along with a 30% tax cut, of course; because you can have it all if you are a Republican!) What did Bush the Elder run on in 1988? Balanced budget. And then the Republican base got mad at him for doing something about it.

In general, voters (Not just the conservative ones!) like the idea of a balanced budget. But they don’t like the reality of it. They don’t like cuts to the entitlements or the war machine or basically anything but “foreign aid,” which is less than 1% of the federal budget. What’s more, they don’t like tax increases, although in recent years, the middle class has been so badly squeezed that they are more and more comfortable with a “soak the rich” policy. (A “soaking” is now defined as an increase in the top marginal tax rate of 4.6 percentage points.) But the people will vote for a candidate who promises the impossible and then borrows like mad once in office.

The problem is with the Republican base. There really is a change there. During the 2016 Republican primary, I don’t believe that they will go along with a softening of the intolerance rhetoric. Mitt Romney didn’t talk about the makers versus the takers because he especially wanted to. He did it because the base eats it up. It is who they are. They want to be told the world is divided into the good and bad. They are the good who contribute (even though they usually come from states that take more from the government than the produce in taxes). And those are the bad people who just take and take and take.

After what will then have been seven years of nonstop hysteria about the budget deficit, I don’t think that the base will turn on a dime and decide to support a candidate who says that the budget isn’t a big deal. Yes, politicians will be able to do that. Chait correctly notes that Cheney went from “deficits don’t matter” to “debt crisis” with the ease of a ballet dancer. But there are consequences for political rhetoric. Look at the huge increase in attacks on LGBTs in Russia right now—that didn’t happen in a vacuum.

Once the Republicans choose a candidate for president, he (And I do mean he!) might be able to walk back some of the red meat that was necessary to get the nomination. But Mitt Romney did try to do that. There is only so much you can do. However, it is really important to remember that Romney didn’t lose because of his extreme views or the 47% comment or any of that. He lost because the economy was doing okay. If there is an economic crisis in mid-2016, almost anyone the Republicans run will have a very good chance of winning. And that would be a catastrophe.

You may remember that I disagree with Thomas Frank that the Republicans intentionally wreck the government so that liberals, once back in power, will have to spend their time cleaning up the mess rather than enacting liberal policy. The important word there is “intentionally.” The fact remains that Frank is right that this is what Republicans do. And if the Democrats lose the White House in 2016, we will repeat the cycle all over again, but not with a budget surplus and a strong economy.

So for the umpteenth time, there will be no Republican “reform” in 2016. If they start losing off-year elections, then the party will start to change. But until then, it is going to mean more pandering to the base and fratricide. There is nothing to the minor and vague reforms of Rubio and Lee. There will be no re-ignition of “compassionate conservatism.” There will just be more of the same.

Afterword

Chait says that he wants a better Republican Party because regardless they will eventually get back in power. I totally agree. But things like “compassionate conservative” are all for show. There was nothing that distinguished the two Bush presidencies other than the fact that the second one was managed much worse. So I want a better Republican Party, not better Republican rhetoric.


[1] There really are no conservative wonks.