Humor, Despair, and American Music Club

American Music Club - MercuryAt one time, I listened to little else but American Music Club. I still think they are one of the best bands ever. They are sometimes referred to as “sadcore,” which Wikipedia defines as having “bleak lyrics, downbeat melodies and slower tempos.” That’s not the greatest definition of the band, however. It is best to think of singer-songwriter and frontman for the band, Mark Eitzel, as a man who is drowning his sorrows but who hasn’t lost his sense of humor. A good example of this is the song “Lonely” off their 1988 album California. The refrain of the song is, “If I have to be this lonely, I may as well be alone.”

But the one AMC song that most haunts me is off their major label debut Mercury, “I’ve Been a Mess.” Here it is:

The first line is typical tragicomic, “Lazarus wasn’t grateful for his second wind.” Any time someone whips out Lazarus, you know you’re in for some fun. And of course Eitzel had to take a contrarian view of it. Everyone else thinks Jesus did his friend a great favor, but Eitzel thinks Lazarus was pissed off. But the whole verse brings the actual theme of the song in two parts:

Lazarus wasn’t grateful
For his second wind
For another chance
To watch his chances
Fade like the dawn and leave
I can barely tell you
Just how pale I get
Without you.

First he makes clear exactly why Lazarus is ungrateful. It’s just another opportunity to be disappointed. Then he moves, without any clear indication from either music or transitional lyrics, to the concrete first person narrative: he misses his lover and it is making him ill. That takes us to the very simple proclamation of the chorus, “I’ve been a mess since you’ve been gone.”

In the second verse, he comes back to Lararus. At this point, the metaphor is clear:

What were the first words
That crowd heard him speak
I’ll bet he was cursing at the sky
I’ll bet he wasn’t
Turning no other cheek.
And was there still hope and desire
Left in his heart
For the last word in love?

Again, this is very funny. He’s hammering so hard on poor Lazarus. You can just image a drunk rant, “I’ll tell you this! Lazarus probably just punched Jesus right in the face. And he’s right!”

Other than the repetition of the chorus, there is only the bridge, which is about as gin-soaked as anything AMC has ever done. In it, he returns to the first person:

Your beauty is just a slap in the face
That’s gonna bring me back to life
Back to another sky that’s blue
It’s gonna turn me into another
Great american zombie
So hungry for you.

As is traditional for a bridge, he provides us with a different way of looking at the rest of the song. There is that concern that once you have survived a breakup and become deadened to the ex-lover, seeing them again will start it all over again. So it circles back very nicely to the beginning. But he can’t resist ending with a joke. So he refers to himself (and thus also the risen Lazarus) as a zombie who is “hungry for you.”

Life may be hell, but it is nice to have company that understands that. And American Music Club is excellent company.

Did Paramilitary Approach to Law Enforcement Get an Officer Killed?

Sgt Tom SmithBack on the 21st, exactly one week ago, BART Police officers were searching a suspect’s apartment when one of them accidentally shot and killed another. Michael Maes, a 26-year veteran, shot Sgt Tom Smith, a 20-year veteran who was the head of their detective bureau. BART has defended itself, noting that in its 42-year history, this is the first officer to be killed on duty. Sadly, the same could not be said of BART customers. Regardless, it is a tragic accident.

The question is why it happened. All kinds of details have been provided. For example, we know the suspect was in jail. We know that Smith had particularly bad luck in that the bullet went through a gap in his body armor. There is even speculation that Smith surprised Maes, by coming through a different door than the crew had originally come through. I assume this means that Smith went out the back door without Maes noticing, and when Smith came back in, Maes was startled and shot. What we don’t know is a general overview of what happened, or how many officers were in the apartment.

Given that they were wearing body armor, I assume that the officers—quite rightly—were cautious entering the apartment. They couldn’t know that it wasn’t occupied. But once inside, they were performing a search. Why did one of them have his gun out? But even if it was during the initial entry, the whole thing screams out as another example of over-stimulated officers making mistakes.

This is a common problem with the police. When the adrenaline is pumping, officers are at their worst. This is what leads to unacceptable behavior like the Rodney King beating. And I assume that whether Smith was killed while entering the apartment or when he unexpectedly came through the back door or at some other time, the primary cause was that Maes was in an agitated state. This is not meant as any special criticism of him, but it might be some criticism of his training and police training in general.

What bothers me about this case is how it generalizes. In the long ago past, a “probation search” would have been done without much ado. But now we have a paramilitary approach, with guns drawn and officers in body armor. That breads the feeling that what the officers are doing is very dangerous—much more dangerous than it actually is. It helps to put them into an agitated state where mistakes are made. We really ought to look at these unnecessary tragedies and think about what our changing policing efforts are doing to us and the officers themselves. I’m not at all certain that they are making us safer and they certainly didn’t make Sgt Smith safer.

Rian Johnson Delights and Disappoints

BrickI’m am fond of the film The Brothers Bloom. It is a mess of a plot with a totally inappropriate ending.[1] But there is so much to like in the film that it triumphs nonetheless. But even more than that, it is a film that has made me want to check out other things that writer-director Rian Johnson has done. And last night, I did just that by watching his first feature film, Brick.

I try to stay away from being a film ombudsman. My opinions about film are not representative of what other people think. What’s more, my opinion about a film can change dramatically over the course of a short time. But above all, I don’t think it helps anyone to say that a film is good or bad. I could easily write bad reviews for my very favorite films—and vise versa. And the problem is greatly increased when dealing with a work that is trying to do something different.

Brick is such a film. Johnson put Dashiell Hammett into a high school. It is idiosyncratic to say the least. This is especially true because the film is more an homage to the books than it is to the film noir of the 1940s and 1950s. There is no softening of edges here. As a result, the film is very smart and often hilarious. The problem with it for me is that I never got past the conceit of it.

This is especially true of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has to speak some of the most silly dialog ever:

No, bulls would gum it. They’d flash their dusty standards at the wide-eyes and probably find some yegg to pin, probably even the right one. But they’d trample the real tracks and scare the real players back into their holes, and if we’re doing this I want the whole story.

It is all played totally straight. If anything, the performances are too extreme. But Johnson never lets the viewer forget the absurdity of the film. At one point, Gordon-Levitt’s character is badly beaten and nearly killed by the drug kingpin’s henchman. After everything is worked out, the kingpin, who still lives at home, has his mother give cereal and juice to Gordon-Levitt. Before leaving, the mother kisses the kingpin on the cheek and he says, “Thanks, mom.” High concept stuff.

And I think it all works. It is certainly what Johnson was trying to do. And he shows a surprisingly firm hand for a rooking feature film director. But it is entirely an intellectual experience. There is absolutely not a single character in the film that the viewer can care about, because in a very real way, there are no characters in the film. There are just archetypes from the genre. So the ending is just an intellectual exercise of wrapping up a plot that I didn’t care about involving characters I didn’t believe in.

Still, I watched the whole film because it was engaging. In addition to it being a loving and twisted love letter to a genre I like, it was visually interesting—far more so than the noir films themselves. Johnson clearly worked very hard on this, because he has very little to work with in terms of production design. The cinematography by Steve Yedlin was very good, and surprisingly consistent for such a cheap film. But more than this, I thought the framing of shots was particularly good. I don’t know who was responsible for that—probably Yedlin and Johnson together. And the editing helped a lot, although the jump cutting sometimes annoyed me.

In the end, Brick is something like “the best student film ever made!” And that’s a good and bad thing. Having now seen Rian Johnson’s first two feature films, I don’t think I’m any closer to understanding his work. To some extent, I think people have given him a lot of money to play in his sandbox without much thought for who might be interesting in what he produced. That’s certainly the case with Brick. The savage editing required for The Brothers Bloom is another. But there is no doubt that Johnson’s creative flashes are superior to the vast majority of Hollywood directors. I’ll have to check out his newest film Looper.

Afterword

This has nothing to do with the film, but I can’t get it out of my head. “The clothes she wears, the sexy ways, make an old man wish for younger days…”


[1] The problem is not that Stephen dies. The problem is that the rest of the film doesn’t prepare for it, either in terms of plot or theme. There is a bit of foreshadowing, but that is about it. The ending also doesn’t make practical sense.

Cuomo Hides Economic Conservatism With Liberal Social Policy

Andrew CuomoI saw on The Daily Show that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently said that “extreme conservatives” don’t belong in the state. This has caused a firestorm in the right wing media. It’s a great moment for them. Conservatives always knew that liberals were non-inclusive snobs and now they have the proof. It’s typical of the Ring Wing Outrage Machine, and that’s probably why whole thing happened over two weeks ago without my noticing it.

But I’m curious how Cuomo defines “extreme conservatives.” It is very telling. They are people who are anti-choice, anti-gay, and pro-assault riffle. What stands out there is that there are no economic issues. That doesn’t surprise me, of course. In general, liberalism in the United States is defined by these kind of social issues. And Cuomo is the ultimate example of the New Democrat. On economic issues, he’s a Wall Street marionette.

I’m almost to the point of giving up. The Democratic Party has ceded so much ground on economic issues that it is now a conservative party. It is true that the Republicans now hold economic views that would fit right into a Bizarro comic. But this is what happens when the “liberal” party takes over the position of the conservative party. There is no ideological oxygen on the right and so its policies have become brain damaged.

I don’t so much see the conservative positions Cuomo mentioned as all that extreme. At least they have a reasonably large constituency, unlike many of Cuomo’s Wall Street economic policies. Gay rights is great, but I have to say, the Democrats are only about ten years ahead of the Republicans on the issue. There are still a lot of conservative Christians who have a problem with it for religious reasons—or so they’ve been told. Regardless, this absolutely will not be an issue in 20 years.

Abortion is a very similar thing, although the argument against rights is a whole lot stronger. Regardless, no one likes abortion. Americans’ opinions on the issue are nuanced to say the least. So again, there are a lot of people who are anti-choice. And a smaller, but still large, set are absolutists. As with gay rights, I think these opponents are profoundly misguided. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist—even in New York.

The assault weapon issue is just laughable. We have a huge gun problem in this country. But that problem is with handguns, not assault rifles. The focus on them is the Democratic Party desperate to do something about guns and thrashing about looking for any legislation that they might be able to pass. Look, if we liberals want to do something, we should be talking seriously about what needs to be done and not making largely symbolic legislation that motivates conservatives to come out and vote against us.

I’m sure that among the Wall Street bankers with whom Cuomo spends a lot of time, these issues are beyond the pale. But that doesn’t make them extreme. What Cuomo is doing is what New Democrats have been doing for decades: signally that he is liberal with selected social issues to distract from his economic conservatism. That’s the real story about what Cuomo said, not that such anti-gay politicians don’t fit in with New York voters. That is largely true of the bright blue state.

The 20th Century Goes With Seeger

Pete SeegerI just got word that Pete Seeger has died. Even though he was 94, he looked like he was doing great. So I’m a little surprised. It seems like the 20th century is finally over. Is there any other icon left?

I’ve embedded a video below from a concert a little more than 20 years ago at Wolf Trap. He’s performing his song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” which he wrote almost 60 years. It seems like the song has always been around, just like he has. But then, that is true as far as my life is concerned.

He will be missed.

Ayn Rand Would Have Loved Tom Perkins

Ayn RandToday at Political Animal, Ed Kilgore wrote, Atlas Whined. In it, he discusses “venture capitalist Tom Perkins much-mocked letter to The Wall Street Journal comparing people like him to the persecuted German Jews .” And he notes that Ayn Rand would be very disappointed with such “fearful titans.” He notes, “How could she worship the Creative Capitalist if he’s cowering in his mansion?”

This is not entirely correct. Rand was very angry at the “business leaders” of her day. They then, as they had for generations before, believed that in order to stay in good standing in polite society, it was necessary to give money back to good causes. A good analogy is the way that Hollywood stars now have particular charitable causes that they support. To Rand, this screamed, “Altruism!” She wanted them to get rid of what she saw as hypocrisy.

The business community of today would be a great improvement from her perspective. What’s more, half of the political spectrum now says that by pursuing their own self interest, business owners are doing a great service to the society as Job Creators. The depth of Ayn Rand’s economic knowledge was the same as her philosophical knowledge (shallow), so she saw this as a direct outcome of her philosophy.

The truth is that the Perkins whine about the 1% being vilified by the collectivists could be taken right out of one of her essays. She would agree with Perkins and say what he wrote was only self-defense. What, after all, is John Galt’s speech, but an eight hour whine about how all the “takers” don’t understand the beneficence that all the “makers” are bringing to them? And of course, in Atlas Shrugged, that is the case. In the real world, it simply isn’t. (See Property Right for a short introduction.)

The only thing that Ayn Rand would quibble over is that venture capitalists like Tom Perkins even make the case that they are Job Creators. She would prefer them to understand her philosophy that says that people should only look out for their own self-interest. (See Enlightened Self Interest for her all-purpose caveat.) But yelling at liberals and calling them Nazis? That was Ayn Rand’s stock-in-trade.

Mozart and Carroll

MozartOn this day in 1832, the great writer Lewis Carroll was born. This two Alice novels are still wonderfully fun to read. And you should go and do that! What bothers me is that most people think of him as some kind of pedophile. Even if he had actually been one, that wouldn’t change the work. But I accept the “Carroll Myth” theory that basically says it is all nonsense. Regardless, we have the books.

Other birthdays: scholar Richard Bentley (1662); landscape painter Arkhip Kuindzhi (1841); portrait painter John Collier (1850); labor leader Samuel Gompers (1850); composer Jerome Kern (1885); philosopher Arne Naess (1912); bluesman Elmore James (1918); actor James Cromwell (74); singer-songwriter Kate Wolf (1942); Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason (70); one of the most dangerous men in the nation, John Roberts (59); comic book legend Frank Miller (57); actor Bridget Fonda (50); actor Alan Cumming (49); comedian Patton Oswalt (45); and flutist Emmanuel Pahud (44), who in celebration of the day will perform a little Mozart for us:

The day, however, belongs to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who was born on this day in 1756. I know that most classical music fans think that I’m a neanderthal, but he is my favorite composer. I’m very fond of other composers, of course. I quite like much of Schubert, Debussy, most Les Six, and a great deal of the later twentieth century. And, yes, I like Beethoven, but I often find him exhausting. To me, Mozart is the sweet spot between the intellectual excesses of the Baroque period and the emotional excesses of the Romantic period.

The thing, though, is that I continue to find Mozart transcendent. Like the D major flute concerto above. It was originally the Oboe Concerto in C major, but Mozart got a job to write a couple of flute concertos, so he just reworked it. It is some of his weakest adult work. Yet every time I hear it, it delights me. That’s Mozart the hack. I still think he was at his best with opera, probably because of his love of the theater.

But I’m afraid that I talk about his operas too much. So here is his G Minor Symphony. It encapsulates half of Beethoven’s career:

Happy birthday Mozart!

Class Distinction in The King’s Speech

The King's SpeechI finally got around to watching The King’s Speech last night. It is a very good film. It looks great and the acting is flawless. It is that most unusual of films: a character-based narrative. The plot only matters in so much as it motivates the characters. And the two primary characters are really interesting. I wanted to know more about them. When the film ended, I wanted another hour. In an age when I think most films are an hour or more too long, The King’s Speech was a delightful change.

The film tells the story of stuttering Prince Albert (eventually King George VI) and his work with speech therapist Lionel Logue. According to everyone else, they form a friendship over this work. I don’t see it this way. They form a relationship. Friendships require some kind of equality. For example, people don’t have friendships with their pets. There is no doubt that Albert is fond of Logue, and apparently closer to him emotionally than he is to any of his friends. (Although Albert claims to not having any friends.)

The whole power dynamic is exactly what we see in The Madness of King George between king and Dr Willis. In that film, King George III tells Willis at the end not to look him in the eye because he is no longer the patient. Willis was necessary to George for a certain period of time—just like a coachman. But there is never any question that George is royalty and Willis is not, regardless of how useful he may be.

The exact same dynamic goes on in The King’s Speech. But it is so much more richly rendered than in The Madness of King George. This is primarily due to the fact that Albert was not insane and because of the kind of work he required. But over and over, Albert makes clear their distinction. This is especially apparent two-thirds through the film when the king learns that Logue has no formal training. Logue has never claimed to have had formal training, and in the film, he seems to be Albert’s last option—all the well-credentialed speech therapists having been tried. But Logue’s success with Albert doesn’t seem to matter. It is again: class and class alone.

All of this probably makes Albert seem like a horrible person, but he is not. He is quite sympathetic. I don’t blame a man for believing what he’s been told all his life: that he was born better than other men and they are rightly beneath him. What’s more Colin Firth plays him with such barely controlled anger and terror that it is impossible not to feel his pain. What’s more, within the cultural straight jacket of his upbringing, Albert seems to be a decent man. If you have to have a king, he is a better man for the job than most.

For me, however, there is one great man in this film and it is not the king. Logue is a fascinating character. He is an amateur actor who loves Shakespeare. There is a funny bit in the film where Albert’s wife tells Albert that he ought to check out Logue because, “His approach seems rather different.” This cuts directly to Logue auditioning for an amateur production of Richard III. It is rather bad, but very much what you would expect from a speech therapist who loves the words more than theater. He is the sort of man that many would ridicule, but he is blinded by his love of it. And as a result, he is a greater man than any of his detractors. Geoffrey Rush completely captures this nerd-aspect of the character without ever letting it slip into a type. I thought the performance was even more impressive than Firth’s.

The supporting cast was also quite good. Helena Bonham Carter as Albert’s wife was very good. Derek Jacobi is wonderfully pretentious as the Archbishop. Michael Gambon as George V does great delirium, but let’s face it: I’m just in love with his voice. But the standout performance was Guy Pearce as Edward VIII. No one is quite so good as Pearce is at doing subtle arrogance. It is just perfect for Edward. It would have been easy to sympathize with Edward. After all, he abdicates the throne so he can marry the woman he loves. But Pearce gives him that extra something that just makes you want to punch him.

Ultimately, I would have rather had a play with the two characters and maybe a small supporting cast. And as I think is clear, I’m far more interested in Logue than the king. But the filmmakers weren’t interested in making a play focused on Logue. Given what they were trying to do, I think it is a perfect film. It works on every level.

Afterword

Looking at the actual historical figures, the class differences are even greater. Again, I don’t doubt that the men had real affection for each other. But they were not friends. The royal family was and still is the clearest example of our ridiculously arbitrary social system.

“Please, Sir, I Want Some More”

Oliver TwistOh, how America, day by day, becomes what conservatives most desire: the Dickensian utopia where the rich are treated as titans and the poor know their place.

This morning, Jonathan Chait reports, Obama’s Plan to End Discrimination Against the Long-term Unemployed. Chait seems to be reasonably impressed. But as plan’s go, I file it along with things like the plan to impress a a rich man by befriending his dog and other Horatio Alger myths.

The situation for the long-term unemployed is indeed bad. As Chait shows in a graph from a new study, recently unemployed people with no experience in a particular field are four times as likely to get a call back as long-term unemployed people with experience. What’s going on is simple enough to explain. Employers just assume that if someone has been unemployed for a long time, there must be a reason. And this creates a feedback loop where the longer someone is unemployed, the harder it is for them to get a job.

Obama’s plan is to have major employers commit to not discriminating against workers in this way. And sure, even bringing up the issue is a good thing. The more people know about their biases, the better they can manage them. But it is weak tea. It reminds me of Oliver Twist saying, “Please, sir, I want some more.” But in this case, it is, “Please great and powerful Job Creator, give me at least a chance to compete against people who don’t have any of my skills.”

This touches on a broader issue with American business. In my experience, businesses would much rather hire fools and incompetents than hire one of those weirdos with skills and brains. Conservatives always claim that the government is bureaucratic, but in my experience, corporate America is even worse. What they want above all is nothing that will upset their little worlds. So despite the fact that we constantly hear that there are jobs out there but people don’t have the skills for them, the truth is that employers don’t really care. That is crystal clear when unskilled workers are called back far more than skilled workers over an issue as vague as the amount of time unemployed.

Of course, I don’t blame Obama. Actual policy to improve the economy can’t pass Congress. But fobbing off responsibility of aid for the unemployed to the rich is hardly the answer. But as answers go, it is the ultimate conservative approach: let the poor go cap-in-hand to the rich and beg like the servile dogs they are. But the long-term unemployed are not children. They are adults. Many of them are 50-somethings—middle managers and other skilled workers who any civilized society would value as the backbone of the middle class.

“Please, sir, I want some more.”

An Enjoyable Adult Melodrama

A Late QuartetLast night after my less than thrilling Silver Streak adventure, I decided to watch A Late Quartet. This is unusual for me. The film is barely a year old, and I find myself more and more trying to go back and pick up gems that I have missed from the past. But this film called to me, probably because the story centers on an established string quartet. That meant at least the music would be good. What’s more, it allows for all kinds of fun with theme and metaphor. And after Silver Streak, I needed something a little more, well, adult.

The four primary characters are about to start the 25th season as their world famous string quarter, The Fugue. The group formed with three students and one of their teachers, cellist Peter Mitchell, played by Christopher Walken. He is having trouble playing and soon finds out that he has Parkinson’s disease and so decides to retire. How exactly the quartet will proceed with a replacement for him is the critical question. And, of course, things get all screwed up. The second violin, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and viola player, Juliette (Catherine Keener), are married with a grown daughter. But Juliette once was involved with the first violin, Daniel (Mark Ivanir). That doesn’t lead to the obvious conflict. The emotional core of the film is Robert and his feeling that he is second violin in both the quartet and his marriage.

Obviously, there is far more to the film. Each of the four parts are interrelated just as in a quartet. Or perhaps a quintet because the daughter (Imogen Poots) is very important. But she is mostly reflective of the others—almost a narrative device to show Juliette when she was that age without the dramatic noise of flashbacks or similar devices. Anyway, to get a good idea of the tone, look, and sound of the film, watch the trailer:

It is nice to see a film that at least tries to appeal to adults. But I’m not sure to what extent it succeeds. The film exists on two levels at once. Emotionally, all is right. I don’t know the extent to which this is owed to the actors, but I do think it is some of the best work that any of them have done. On another level, however, the plot is hackneyed melodrama. But maybe that’s brilliant, because in my experience, most people’s love lives are very much like hackneyed melodrama. I don’t know quite what to think about that. Ultimately, the plot doesn’t matter.

It also panders a bit. Again, this may be brilliant or at least not such a bad thing. But the primary theme of the film about the necessity of emotional adjustment and the health of relationships is made concrete through dialog twice. In general, I don’t like themes being forced upon me. I’m able to work out my own meaning. But those bits of dialog are some of the best in the film. The writers are at their best when they are being explicitly intellectual. It is hard not to join in their enthusiasm, but I’m left feeling locked into their way of viewing the film, and the evolution of thought is one of the fun things about the best films.

In the end, I don’t think A Late Quartet is a great film. It is, however, a great attempt to make a piece of art. In addition, it was satisfying in the way a well prepared meal is, regardless of the excesses or eccentricities of the cook. And that is a whole lot more than I normally get from a film.

Jules Feiffer and More!

Jules FeifferOn this day in 1911, the physicist Polykarp Kusch was born. Along with Willis Lamb, he demonstrated the magnetic moment of the electron was greater than the theoretical value. This caused a whole bunch of changes in quantum electrodynamics. I have no idea how one would go about such a feat. But then, experimental anything has always amazed me. I was lucky if I could get through an afternoon in the lab without breaking something.

Paul Newman was born in 1925. He’s a good example of something we don’t talk about very much. Most of the great old stars got to where they were because they were born pretty. Don’t get me wrong: I think Newman was an excellent actor. But I think that is maybe a quarter of what it takes to be a star. Other film geeks and I may love Eli Wallach. And he is a better actor than Newman was and at least as charming on screen. But he wasn’t as pretty. Newman was pretty.

Political activist and writer Angela Davis is 70 today. She was a convenient bogeyman for conservatives in the 1970s. An admitted communist! I don’t know much about that. She general makes rather good points that one is unlikely to hear in normal discourse. I know her mostly from the excellent book, Are Prisons Obsolete? I highly recommend it!

The great celloist Jacqueline du Pre was born in 1945. She died of multiple sclerosis at only 42. Even more sad, she gave her final public performance at the age of 28. Nonetheless, she is still considered one of the greats. Here she is at 17 doing the Intermezzo from Enrique Granados’ opera Goyescas:

Other birthdays: singer Maria von Trapp (1905); sportscaster Bob Uecker (79); actor Scott Glenn (73); playwright Christopher Hampton (68); film critic Gene Siskel (1946); David Strathairn (65); singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams (61); guitarist Eddie Van Halen (59); singer-songwriter Anita Baker (56); and comedian Ellen DeGeneres (56).

The day, however, belongs to the great cartoonist Jules Feiffer who is 85 today. He is most associated with The Village Voice and I love his work. He was one of the most distinct editorial cartoonists of my lifetime, and he has a wonderfully twisted wit, as you can see in the following cartoon:

Coned Explainers

Happy birthday Jules Feiffer!

Arbitrary and Inequitable Distribution of Wealth and Incomes

John Maynard KeynesPaul Krugman quoted John Maynard Keynes, who in his 1936 masterwork The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money wrote, “The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.” This is the kind of statement that drives conservatives crazy. How can he say that? Doesn’t that man know anything about economics?! But it is dead on, of course.

The main problem I have with economic conservatism generally is that it simply assumes that the market correctly picks winners and losers. But that isn’t even true if you accept that the winners and losers are correct. We have a political system that allows the winners to continue to enrich themselves through political favors. In fact, it is hard to find a rich person who has not made a very large amount of money directly from government contracts and various forms of special treatment.

My biggest problem, however, revolves around who the winners and losers are. It isn’t because I disagree with who ought to win and who ought to lose, although I certainly do disagree. My problem is with conservatives’ general unwillingness to admit that we have a society that selects for a certain kind of winner. And there is a reason that they are reluctant to admit this. Doing so has policy implications. If different political and economic structures select for different kinds of people, it does not justify the enormous amount of inequality in the world, because the distribution is largely an outgrowth of how the game is set up.

Kevin O'LearyYou probably saw the story last week, World’s Richest 85 People Now Worth Same Amount as Poorest 3.5 Billion. And you probably saw the followup, Reality TV Star Kevin O’Leary: It’s “fantastic” That 85 People Have More Wealth Than 3.5 Billion. O’Leary is typical of conservatives who think that all that is stopping a small town boy in Somalia from becoming rich is the lack of enough really wealthy people in distant lands to look up to. Now it would be one thing if those 85 people started off as a random sample of the world’s population, but of course, they don’t.

Consider Mr. O’Leary himself. He was born into the middle class in Canada where everyone gets basic medical care and education. After getting his bachelor’s and MBA from public universities in Canada, he started a business. Of course, his mother had $10,000 to give him to start the company. That in itself is a huge advantage. But the company was a success. It was, not surprisingly, doing nothing more than packaging up freeware and shareware that other people who had real skills created. Still, I don’t doubt that O’Leary is a smart and capable manager. But his success is owed to two very big things: his many and continuous environmental advantages, and luck.

O’Leary is estimated to be worth $300 million. But it just so happens that at this very moment, I am working with a brilliant young man on a high tech start up. It is, even now, far beyond anything that O’Leary could ever do. And we do hope that some day we can make some money with it or at least leverage it into a job. But we don’t look up to people like O’Leary, much less Carlos Slim Helu. People like that aren’t innovators. They are people who take the innovations of people like my partner and monetize them. To a large extent, we do the work just to see if we can.

But our society does not reward us a great deal for our work and initiative. And the more “advanced” our economy gets, the more that’s true. In fact, you can see it every week on O’Leary’s own show, The Shark Tank, where actual entrepreneurs stand up in front of a bunch of rich people and try to get money. Like most “reality” shows, it seems totally fake to me. What’s more, it doesn’t have much to do with how venture capital works. But it shows the way the game works: capital gets huge rewards, even though there is actually a lot of capital floating around with nothing to do. What the rich really want are safe investments that pay a lot of money. And we have a system set up so that they generally can get just that, even though that’s not supposed to be how it works. Seeing the show, I’m often struck with the fact that the “sharks” in the chairs are usually passing judgement on their betters.

It provides a great example of what’s wrong with our society. It is often the case that one of the “sharks” gets offended when one of the presenters turns them down. I’ve even seen one shark be offended on behalf of another shark, “You mean you’re going to turn down his offer?!” How dare they! Because in the world of the conservative, the rich aren’t just rich, they are better. And so they spin this yarn of bullshit about the “free” market and its magical powers. Thus, it isn’t necessary to provide actual opportunity to everyone. All they have to do is provide the example of the “Great 85” or the “sharks” and their wise beneficence. But the truth is just as Keynes pointed out. We have an economy that is an “arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.”

Afterword

Just to be clear: I am not saying that bringing an innovation to maker is worthless. Not at all! But our society rewards that part of the process as though it were the hardest or most elusive part. But it isn’t. Everyone knows that it isn’t. But that has been the way that the system has been set up, and so people accept it as the way things ought to be. But it is a choice. Unfortunately, it is a choice that keeps making the already rich richer. If Kevin O’Leary had to come up with a great new idea for a business, I think he would be stumped.