Warren Zevon and Many Others

Warren ZevonIt was a very good day for the world on this day in 41 AD. Roman emperor Caligula was assassinated that day. (Or maybe two days earlier; it was a long time ago.) Of course, he wasn’t assassinated because he was a horrible emperor. He was assassinated because he was planning to move to Egypt. This would put an end to the power of the Senate and the Praetorian Guard. So they finally killed him. He was only 28 years old. This is very important, whether you were an Emperor of Rome or are the President of the United States: the poor really don’t much matter. But if you lose the support of the upper class, you are fucked. You should act more like Emperor Hadrian, who was born on this day in 76 AD. He was no saint, but he managed to not get killed by his own people.

On this day in 1670, the English playwright William Congreve was born. I have not read any of his plays. Like too many people, there is a big gap in my English theater knowledge after Charles I gets offed by his own people. (Again: don’t anger your fellow rich!) Anyway, Congreve was a very successful playwright during his lifetime, known more for his comedies than anything. But it is one of his tragedies that we most remember him for, The Mourning Bride. There are two very famous lines from the play. It starts with, “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast…” Just to be clear here: it is “breast” and not “beast.” I think it is the word “savage” that has gotten the line so screwed up over the centuries. Think “savage” like “war weary” and “breast” like “soul.” The second line is, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” I think we all understand that one!

The Italian castrato Farinelli was born in 1705. You may well wonder why on earth I am mentioning him. After all, I’ve never heard him sing. After all, when I think of castratos, I think of Mozart in Amadeus saying, “I mean watching Italian opera, all those male sopranos screeching. Stupid fat couples rolling their eyes about! That’s not love, it’s just rubbish!” But there are two reasons. One is that Farinelli wasn’t just a castrato; he was the castrato. And also, when I wrote film reviews up in Portland, I was forced to watch the 1994 biopic Farinelli. I now learn that the film was not historically accurate. I can tell you, it is really not worth watching, although everyone was working very hard at it. Or maybe I’m wrong, I was young and it was a long time ago. But a film about a castrato that focuses on his sex life is just not a good idea for a film, even if the denouement was pretty good.

Singer-songwriter Ray Stevens is 75 today. I always thought that he was just a comedy songwriter, and indeed, he has done enough of that to have made a great career. But he is a pop music legend. Everyone knows one of his songs, “Everything Is Beautiful.” (I still wonder if he didn’t write it originally as a joke.) But I will always remember him for “The Streak,” which is not a great song, but it was a huge deal during my childhood:

Another great singer-songwriter, Neil Diamond is 73. When I was younger, I thought “Love on the Rocks” was pretty clever with its double entendre. Actually, I still think it is. It infinitely improves the rest of the whiskey-soaked lyrics, that normally I would hate. Like so much popular music of that period, it is really harmed by the synthesizer use. But let’s go way back, because Diamond did get unbearable after a while. Here’s a television (lip synced) performance of “Cherry, Cherry”:

Aaron Neville is 73 today. He has one of the best voices ever. I’m sure you know his megahit “Tell It Like It Is,” so here he is doing “Don’t Know Much” with Linda Ronstadt:

The great comedic actor John Belushi was born in 1949. I admire his work and I don’t think people appreciate just how subtle it is. Check out the following clip from Animal House. Really! It still amazes me that Chevy Chase became such a big star. As an actor, he has almost no skill, and certainly nothing compared to Belushi.

Kristen Schaal is 36. She is one of my favorite comedians. Like other similar comedians (Albert Brooks, Emo Philips, Sarah Silverman), she does delight in abusing the audience. But that kind of thing tends to the create the best stand-up comedy. As a personal service, however, I will not show you anything that involves her talking about her taint. This is a good example of her surreal take on the art form:

Other birthdays: philosopher Christian Wolff (1679); the surprisingly good composer, Prussian king Frederick the Great (1712); the great Russian historical painter Vasily Surikov (1848); the American novelist Edith Wharton (1862); blues pianist Tuts Washington (1907); actor Ernest Borgnine (1917); independent filmmaker Coleman Francis (1919); most likely the last remaining “munchkin,” actor Jerry Maren (94); physicist on every documentary that comes close to the subject in the last ten years, Michio Kaku (67); actor and teenage crush, Nastassja Kinski (53); gymnast Mary Lou Retton (46); and actor Matthew Lillard (44).

The day, however, belongs to the singer-songwriter Warren Zevon who was born on this day in 1947. He was one of my favorites when I was younger. I even went to see him once. It was after (or between) drinking. It was an excellent show with a surprisingly together X opening. Here he is doing one of my favorites of his later period, “Boom Boom Mancini”[1]:

Happy birthday Warren Zevon!

[1] The song is fundamentally about the title fight between Ray Mancini and Duk Koo Kim. I don’t agree with Zevon’s take on it. Mancini seems to have been devastated by Kim’s death. But he is right that a lot of people were hypocrites about it.

Universality Won’t Protect Entitlements

Means TestingThere is more out of the American Prospect/Democratic Strategist forum on entitlements. The last time I brought this up, it was to say, Democrats Work to Sell Out Liberalism. But today, I am here to agree in large part (although I still don’t think the whole self-negotiation is a good idea). Ed Kilgore wrote, The Case for Greater Means-Testing of Retirement Programs. This, unlike the last article, seems to have gotten my fellow liberals a bit upset.

The big liberal argument against this is that if you make Social Security and Medicare just another welfare program rather than an entitlement, it will be open to cuts just the way welfare programs always are. But I don’t think that’s a reasonable assumption. Let’s start with the fact that it wasn’t a Republican who ended “welfare as we know it.” What’s more, even as entitlements, conservatives still attack the program. In fact, the very word “entitlements” have been successfully redefined by the right wing from “things we all pay into so things we are all entitled to” to “programs for those ‘entitled’ moochers.” I don’t see how universality helps to protect these programs.

What does protect these programs is the fact that they go to a lot of old people. Regardless of how hardy an 80-year-old man may be, all of us but the sociopaths (A growing demographic!) think that we ought to be taking care of him. But I will admit, a conservative may come along who gives retirees that “Welfare Queen” treatment. But that’s going to work regardless of whether the program is universal or not.

A couple of commenters point out that if you just got rid of the payroll tax cap, pretty much all of our problems would be solved. I totally agree with this and I’ve been arguing for that for years. But that effectively does the same thing that means testing does. The program may still be universal, but now it is just an old-fashioned tax. The cap prevents it from being one, even though no one I know ever reaches it. But politicians can’t be ignorant of how special the program is in this regard.

Let me be clear: I don’t think means testing is a good idea. The biggest problem is that it really doesn’t save any money unless you start defining “rich” as people who make $40,000 per year. The inequality in Social Security and Medicare is in the amount paid into it, not the benefits people get out of it. But the argument that we can’t talk about means testing because universality makes the programs untouchable is just wrong.

Debt Ceiling and Not Very Bright Guys

John BoehnerAs I mentioned briefly yesterday, the Republicans are again threatening the Debt Ceiling and the global economic disaster that goes along with it. Jonathan Chait makes a nice catch about the issue this morning, House Republicans Make Saddest Hostage Threat Ever. His main point is that everyone knows they are unwilling to “shoot the hostage” and so everyone knows it is a fake threat. I’m not sure I agree with that.

What he noticed, however, is interesting. He quotes a Wall Street Journal article on the recent threats that has Illinois Representative Pete Roskam saying, “[A] clean debt-ceiling increase cannot pass the House.” Chait responds:

A clean debt-ceiling bill can’t pass the House, you say? Then how come a clean debt-ceiling bill passed the House three months ago by a vote of 285–144? And how come, nine months before that, a clean debt-ceiling increase passed the House by the same margin? The Journal reports on the demands being hopefully floated by various Republican factions without mentioning at any point that the House did in fact raise the debt ceiling without policy concessions the last two times.

This is most likely not some kind of conspiracy to give the Republicans cover. Instead, it is just a reporter trying to make a boring story a little less boring. I agree with Chait, the threat is meaningless in terms of actual plans of the Republican Party. But there is still a very important story here that will always be around as long as we have the current political climate and this really stupid law.

Hostages get shot all the time when no one intended to shoot them. Of course, Congress is not made up of a bunch of common criminals. Ha! That was certainly true for a very long time. And then in 1979, we got the brilliant “Gephardt Rule” that made spending automatically raise the Debt Ceiling. Everything was good until a bunch of criminals took over the Republican Party in 1995. You may remember that one of the big guys in that group was—Oh, what is his name?!—John Boehner. And the Republicans Party has only gotten crazier since then—to such an extent that Boehner now looks like the grand statesman rather than the crazy ideologue that he is.

Let me remind you of a little film history:

Right after this line, “Deep Throat” talks about how things “got out of hand.” Well, in addition to being crazy, the modern Republican Party politicians are comprised of of people who can charitably be called “not very bright.” This is, after all, the party that holds up Paul “I was B-student in math” Ryan as a brilliant thinker.[1]

The only thing more dangerous than a guy who thinks he’s smarter than he is, is a crazy guy who thinks he’s smarter and saner than he is. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the modern Republican Party!

[1] I do not actually know what Paul Ryan’s grades were in math. He strikes me as the kind of guy who did reasonably well in math up through algebra, struggle in early calculus and collapse at vector calculus. He also doesn’t show any signs of the kind of creativity required to be good at differential equations. His entire career has demonstrated how the sloppiest of thinking will be taken seriously, as long as you are conservative enough.