Second Thoughts About Silver Streak

Silver StreakLast night, I sat down and watched Silver Streak. I was kind of excited actually. I hadn’t seen the film since I was in high school. And much later, I read a screenwriting book by Syd Field. In it, he talked a lot about the film and clearly thought that it was a great script. Even at the time, I thought that was a stretch. I didn’t recall it as much more than a vehicle for Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. So I was interested to see what I had missed.

The short answer to that query is, “Not much.” But I see why Field liked it! It is very well structured. The first act ends with Wilder getting thrown off the train. The third act starts with Wilder and Pryor jumping off the train. What’s more, the second act is divided into two parts by Wilder—Can you guess—getting removed from the moving train. I’m not saying that the script is bad because of this. But I’m also not saying that the script is good because of this.

What most bothers me about the script is that it goes for realism and yet is full of plot holes. I don’t mind all the cute coincidences; that’s totally in keeping with style of the film. I don’t even mind that Pryor’s character clearly was supposed to leave at the beginning of the third act, but was brought back because he is absolutely the best thing in the movie. But I do mind that the FBI acted stupidly throughout the film so that there was a film. And I do mind that the villain doesn’t have anything close to a plan that would allow him to get away.

Basically, Devereau kills the professor to get the Rembrandt letters because they will prove that two paintings that Devereau purchased are forgeries. So his plan is to substitute a lookalike for the professor. Okay. The professor’s picture is on the book and obviously his publisher and other people would know, but I can accept it. But when things go wrong and Wilder finds out, they just try to kill him and leave his body on the train. Under the best of circumstances, no one is going to be allowed off the train until the police search everyone and everything. Of course, that isn’t the only murder. And at the end, we have Devereau running around with a rifle shooting cops in helicopters. Yeah, those snobby art collectors are know to be very good at gun play.

All of that wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the totally illogical behavior of the feds. When the agent who is on the train gets killed, the first thing the authorities would have done is check him for ID and they would have found his badge. And then, they could have just waited for the train to stop at a regular stop, got on board and taken Devereau and his men into custody. After all, they were the only people on board with guns!

I can appreciate what Colin Higgins was trying to do in the screenplay. But I don’t actually think it works. The first act is a romance. The second act is a comedy. The third act is action. And that first act is the killer because that’s the one that gets you into the mood of thinking this movie will have something to do with reality. Contrast that to another Arthur Hiller film, The In-Laws, which is preposterous from the first minute. Of course, the film works because Wilder and Pryor are great together. But this film is going a very long way out of the way to have a good second act with these characters.

There is another problem with the film for modern audiences. It is sexist and racist. The two women on the train are apparently sex starved. And the heroine is consistently a prop who can only moisten the foreheads of men who have been clubbed. Blacks in this universe are either AMTRAK employees or Pryor, who plays a petty criminal. In fact, even after the train crash, he steals a car and goes on his merry. The one exception to this was still a stereotype: the shoeshine man in the train station. He was, however, part of a very telling moment. Wilder is in the bathroom having put shoeshine on his face and is now trying to learn how to walk in rhythm to the music. The shoeshiner comes upon him and says, “You must be in pretty big trouble, fella. But for God’s sake, learn to keep time!” In our segregated society, that’s very true. In general, a white guy would equate “trouble” with “bad guy.” The black guy knows that trouble doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. This is, of course, a lesson that more and more white people are learning each day.

I understand that I’m focusing on the film’s failings. The truth is that the second act is really good. And if that’s what you want, you should watch Stir Crazy. It has the advantage of being silly from beginning to end.

Ross Douthat’s Weird Idea of Compromise

Ross DouthatRoss Douthat’s last column was about—Wait for it!—how the decline of marriage is causing income inequality, More Imperfect Unions. But that’s really just the pretext. The actual point of the article is to complain that liberals are not willing to look at evidence, the way he and other conservative “reformers” are. It’s a funny claim, given that not only have liberals yielded on some of this nonsense, but the Democratic Party actually passed legislation. A large part of “ending welfare as we know it” was about reforming the social ills of the poor that were supposedly holding them back from becoming nice middle class people.

Conservative Concessions

Douthat starts with conservative concessions that he doubtless thinks are major. He says that conservatives ought to admit that mass incarceration and “creative destruction” have “often made it harder for low-income men to find steady work.” (They have also made men with steady work unable to support a family, but Douthat doesn’t seem interested in that issue.) But the only policy recommendation he has is maybe a bit more along the lines of the earned income tax credit. So he, a supposed conservative reformer, is offering up less than the bare minimum here. There is no discussion of unions, which have been effectively destroyed thanks to the work of conservative US government policy. And somehow the decade’s long attack on the middle class is going to be reverse by subsidizing minimum wage pay checks? I hate to be the bringer of bad news, but the government already subsidizes minimum wage work. And this is a subsidy not of the worker but of the employers.

It gets worse. He claims, “Right now, I think some conservatives—though not enough Republican politicians—are willing to concede these points.” If by “not enough Republican politicians” Douthat means “none at all,” then I’m with him. I’m sure that Douthat can point to a handful of politicians who might give lip service to this. But when it comes down to it, who in Congress is willing to redistribute even a penny to the poor? As Jonathan Chait has pointed out recently, even the couple of policy initiatives designed to encourage marriage just take money away from one set of poor people to give it to another. This isn’t serious policy.

(This is something that really annoys me about “reformers” like Douthat. They are forever claiming that plans like Rubio’s are serious when they are just for show. I’ll admit that when it comes to immigration reform, Republicans have put forward some actual plans. But when it comes to doing something about the poor, the Republican Party is only interested in looking like they are doing something. And even if they backed something like Rubio’s plan, it would hardly be a compromise: taking from one group that they don’t care about to give to another group they don’t care about.)

Liberals Won’t Compromise

But that’s all preamble. After talking about what little he thinks conservatives need to concede, Douthat gets to his real point, which is that while the conservatives are looking at the evidence and changing, those liberals have just ossified:

But I don’t see a readiness among liberals to make any concessions of their own, beyond the minimal acknowledgment that all things being equal, two parents are often better than one.

I think reason that Douthat doesn’t see a readiness among liberals to make any concessions is that they don’t think conservatives are serious. Liberals are open to policies that will encourage marriage. But it doesn’t help liberals to talk about this kind of stuff publicly when people like Douthat are only pushing the “marriage is the cure for poverty” narrative because they think marriage is a good in itself. We have an observation: income inequality is very high and it is getting worse. Solution: ban abortion! So the solution to a huge social ill is exactly the policy that conservatives always want. There are very real reasons for liberals to disregard the conservatives on this matter. But liberals are willing to discuss this stuff. I’ll come back to this later.

Conservatives Aren’t Offering Anything

The biggest issue here is that Douthat has defined conservative concessions so vaguely without any actual policy ideas that they mean nothing. Then he contrasts them with very explicit policy: limit abortion and eliminate no-fault divorce. I think that Douthat is disingenuous on the former and misinformed on the latter. He proposes making second term abortions illegal. But 90% of all abortions take place in the first term. So is this really going to do anything for marriage or is it just a way to pander to the Republican base that thinks that all abortions and many forms of birth control out to be outlawed?

As for no-fault divorce: I don’t especially see the problem. This is not a huge issue for liberals. The main concern is that woman in abusive relationships will not be able to get out of them. According to the Stanford Business School study comparing states with and without no-fault divorce, having it reduced suicides in women by 20%, murder rate of women by a small amount, and domestic violence by 33%. So liberals aren’t ignoring the facts, as Douthat claims; they are just focusing on different facts. But as long as there are safeguards to protect women in these situations, I don’t see a major problem. (Or is Douthat arguing that keeping women in abusive relationships is a social good?) I certainly don’t see liberals completely closed off from discussing this issue.

It is interesting that the party of “freedom” is so interested in depriving people of freedom. I understand in abortion because social conservatives believe that the fetus’ rights are equal to or greater than the rights of the mother. But no-fault divorce?! It may well be that it is a social ill that is keeping the poor in poverty. But there can be no doubt that it is a great deprivation of individual rights. After all, marriage is a contract. If people want out of a contract, what gives the state the right to stop them? Modern conservatism doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Liberals Are Willing to Compromise

My position is that economic policy trumps most other things. So I’m willing to talk about anything. And so are others. What I’m not willing to do is offer up a ban on second term abortions in exchange for taking money away from single parents to give it to married parents. A compromise is when you give something in exchange for getting something. And if the best that conservative “reformer” Ross Douthat can do is provide regrets about past policy and the idea that maybe a little redistribution would be okay, then what exactly is the conservative movement offering? I can tell you: nothing.

Chainsaws, Film, and Tobe Hooper

Tobe HooperOn this day in 1627, the great scientist Robert Boyle was born. He did a whole lot of stuff (hence “scientist”) but he is mostly known for Boyle’s Law. This is the observation that the pressure of a gas is inversely proportional to its volume. In chemistry, we normally learn this as a subset of the ideal gas law: PV = nRT. So as you can see, this is Boyle’s Law when temperature is held constant: PV = k. Anyway, I long for the days when all of this was new and exciting and I worried about the difference between ideal and real gases.

The great mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange was born in 1736. He did many amazing things with math that I only vaguely understand. But I mostly love him because of Lagrangian mechanics. And you know me: anything that makes classical mechanics more fun is a wonderful thing. I’m just a crazy like that. Of course, it is only with Legendre’s work that it all gets crazy fun. But we’ll have to go into that later.

The great Scottish poet Robert Burns was born in 1759. I’m very fond on him to a large extent because of his political beliefs. I think they were, at base, very much like those of Thomas Paine, although I’m very aware just how broad a generalization that is regarding both men. But he was also a great lyricist. How can you not love something like “A Red, Red Rose”:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry…

The great Etta James was born in 1938. It is hard for me to believe that she’s been dead for two years now. Here she is doing “I’d Rather Be Blind” at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1975:

Other birthdays: the great Dutch Golden Age painter Govert Flinck (1615); philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743); the great writer Somerset Maugham (1874); another great writer Virginia Woolf (1882); bluesman Sleepy John Estes (1899); the real Sybil, who almost certainly didn’t have multiple personalities, Shirley Ardell Mason (1923); and the great medium distance runner Steve Prefontaine (1951).

The day, however, belongs to Tobe Hooper who is 71 today. He is best know for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of that film. But when it came out, everyone expected great things of Hooper, because young independent horror filmmakers often go on to do great works later. Hooper, not so much. Mostly, he’s just gone on to make other horror films. And I think that’s great. Making horror films is a great thing to do. And Hooper has made some really good ones, including the megahit Poltergeist. I think he will be appreciated a lot more in 20 years than he is now (unlike Sam Raimi). I mean, after watching the following trailer for Spontaneous Combustion, how can not want to see it?

Happy birthday Tobe Hooper!

Libertarian Theory and Practice

Sam SederThe following video from the Majority Report is really good and very funny. Sam Seder has a standing “libertarian challenge” where he encourages libertarians to call in and discuss issues. At first, when I heard libertarians call in, I thought the show must be screening for stupid people, but I don’t think that’s it at all. Anyone calling up a radio show is at a distinct disadvantage because they aren’t professional talkers. What’s more, Sam Seder is a very smart and knowledgeable guy. He is also quick-witted and funny. So it is no surprise that by the end of the call, the libertarians come off sounding crazy as they back themselves not so much into a corner as into non-existence.

But I think there is a special aspect of libertarianism that creates this problem. When I was a libertarian, all my libertarian friends would come to me with theoretical questions. The truth is that they never seemed to get the philosophical basis of it. They were attached to libertarianism for reasons other than theory. Most often this was just good old American rugged individualist mentality. My feelings on the matter were quite different.

I felt trapped in libertarianism. Theory seemed to dictate that I believe in a political philosophy that I really didn’t like. As a result, when I got into arguments with non-libertarians, I made absolutely no practical claims for it. I was completely willing to admit that the kind of policies that came from it would create an overall terrible society. That didn’t mean I won or lost arguments—I don’t think I did either. I think people went away for the conversations thinking I was so mired in theory that it didn’t make a lot of sense to talk practical matters with me. But at least I was reasonably internally consistent. Eventually, I saw that the problem was not so much my reasoning but the assumptions I was making.

Libertarians more generally accept the theoretical foundations because they’re used to reading people who looked at it the same way I did. But the only reason they are reading someone like Friedman is because they already think that libertarianism will create a better world. Thus we get the Sam Seder kind of debates. The libertarian will start by making a practical claim for his beliefs. All hope is lost at that point. Libertarianism is a theoretical system and it needs to be defended on that basis. On a practical level, a libertarian approach sometimes points the way to better policy. But that is the best you can say about it.

The caller in this clip tries to argue against the minimum wage. The argument he starts with is that it will destroy jobs. This is not a libertarian argument! The libertarian argument against the minimum wage is that employers and employees should have the right to enter into any contracts they want. I can demolish this argument because it has hidden assumptions about freedom that employees do not have in the modern world. But it doesn’t matter because when it comes to public political debate, no one is interested in theory. A perfect theoretical system is nice for people like me, but the question ultimately is whether or not the theory will make things better or worse. So even if the caller had started with the theoretical argument, it would soon have become practical.

But the caller did start with the practical. He then, of course, went to the theory. But in his case, the theory wasn’t about contracts and freedom. It was economic theory that supposedly proved that if you raised the minimum wage it would cost jobs. Just supply and demand! It was a classic example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. It isn’t just supply and demand. It is actually quite complicated and that’s why in general we don’t find much evidence to support job losses because of modest increases in the minimum wage. But what I especially like in this video is the denouement where the caller, having changed the argument from practical to theoretical, changes the argument to the ultimate technical issue: the quality of Sam Seder’s mic!

The video is over 20 minutes long and it is quite enjoyable. But the libertarian’s argument can be summed up quite simply, “I just know that it is bad to raise the minimum wage because it will cost jobs.” He never made that case, but even if he had, that wouldn’t end it. Is job creation the only good in our society? Isn’t the loss of a few jobs a price worth paying so that those who do have jobs can live in dignity? I’m not sure what the caller would have to say about that. I know there is no libertarian theory to guide us on that point. And that’s the big problem with libertarianism.

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.

Eisenstein and Manet

Sergei EisensteinThe Twenty-fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified on this day fifty years ago. It made poll taxes illegal on the both the state and federal levels. I think it is really interesting given that the voter ID laws are exactly the same thing: a way to make voting something that must be earned instead of a right so as to disenfranchise the poor. But I feel sure that if it ever got to the Supreme Court (UPDATE: see Rick Fine’s excellent comment and links below), somehow the five conservative justices would see it in a whole different light. But you will have to forgive me. I’m sick and grumpy.

On this day in 1832, the great painter Edouard Manet was born. Although considered an impressionist, he was more the proto-impressionist. He is probably the most important artist in the move from Realism to Impressionism. I really admire his work, and I would include more details and an image if I were feeling better. Maybe I’ll update it tomorrow.

Other birthdays: big handwriting John Hancock (1737); French writer Stendhal (1783); physicist Ernst Abbe (1840); the great mathematician David Hilbert (1862); physicist Paul Langevin (1872); comedian Ernie Kovacs (1919); actor Chita Rivera (81); actor Sonny Chiba (75); actor Rutger Hauer (70); and TV’s MacGyver, Richard Dean Anderson.

The day, however, belongs to the great filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein who was born on this day in 1898. After having Griffith yesterday, I hate to give Eisenstein so little attention. He is best known for Battleship Potemkin, although he made a number of other important films. I am a great admirer of October: Ten Days That Shook the World. But my admiration isn’t with regard to it as a propaganda film. To be honest, I’ve always thought that aspect of Eisenstein’s work was over-intellectual, and I don’t think anyone really understood without having it explained. But it is an immensely powerful film, even today.

Here is one of the most famous movie scenes eve, the Odessa Steps from Battleship Potemkin. It is both amazingly suspenseful and it makes its point as clearly as one could in film:

Happy birthday Sergei Eisenstein!

Our Dirty Wars Ultimately Harm Us

Dirty WarsYou may remember my 95-5 rule: 95% of the problems in the world are caused by 5% of the people. This comes from my experience that the vast majority of people just want to live their little lives and be left alone. So it is a very small number of people who get us into wars and otherwise perpetrate acts of social disease—even though most of them use a pen rather than a rifle.

This afternoon, I haven’t felt much up to working because of some flu I have. So I laid down and finally watched Jeremy Scahill’s documentary for Dirty Wars on Netflix. I’ve read part of the book, so I knew what I was in store for. That’s probably why I’ve put off watching it for so long. I wasn’t much more than a few minutes into the film before I was sad and angry.

The film brings to mind a narrative film based upon actual events, The Battle of Algiers. In that film, the French win the battle but lose the war. They kill the “bad guys” but in so doing create so many more enemies that within five years they had literally lost the war. That is, above all else, what Dirty Wars is all about. You can leave aside all the immorality of what we continue to do. In the end, we will lose this war.

This is how empires fall. I don’t believe our protection has anything to do with why we are killing people all over the world in dozens of countries we aren’t technically at war with. Instead, we are doing it to assert our dominance. If you watch the hawks over on Fox News, you will see that none of their arguments are really about safety. They are about sending out some kind of message to the world that America is a badass country. That seems to be an end in itself.

Of course, I’m well aware that there are all kinds of economic issues too. In one village that we destroyed with a cruise missile, part of the debris is a camera lens that had been on that missile. I can’t imagine that the people working in the factory that made that lens even know that they have been a part in murdering a bunch of innocent civilians. And that means we are all culpable, regardless of how much we might not like to admit it. Most of us aren’t directly involved. And most of us aren’t making a fortune while knowing that the enormous profits support such great harm. But we are all pulled in—all soiled by it.

The innocents we are killing just want to live their lives—they are part of the 95%. But they are caught in the middle of a war that really has nothing directly to do with their lives. Or at least it doesn’t, until an attack by one side or the other makes it part of their lives. And we are pushing ever and ever further with this “war on terror,” making more and more enemies. But in the end, I doubt we will be defeated militarily. I suspect we just won’t have the money to continue. The more a society focuses on the military, the less it has to support the rest of the economy.

A change will come. But as always, it will most harm the innocents here. The people who have profited from more and more of these covert wars will be sitting pretty. The 5% always is.

Sean Trende and the Next Two Elections

Sean TrendeOne of my favorite conservatives is Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics. I usually disagree with him on substance, but he’s a good and honest number cruncher. And yesterday, he did a whole lot of crunching, Obama’s Job Approval Points to 2014 Trouble for Democrats. As is typical of him, he has put a conservative spin on what’s actually in the article.

Basically, all he’s saying is that if Obama’s approval rating stays at 43% or goes lower, the Republicans will almost certainly take control of the Senate. But as I wrote about last July, there was always a good chance of the Republicans retaking the Senate. I put it at 50-50. What’s more, I think that Obama’s approval rating really has reached its nadir. It seems mostly due to the problems with the healthcare exchanges. And now that the Republicans are posturing for another Debt Ceiling fight, I suspect his approval will bounce back up—at least a bit.

Regardless, according to Trende, the worst case scenario for Democrats is that in 2015, the Republicans will control 55 seats in the Senate. And the best case:

If Obama’s job approval does bounce back—which is exactly what happened in 2012—there’s a reasonable chance that Republicans could walk away from this cycle with just a handful of pickups. As we’ll see in the next article, that could have major implications for 2016.

And the Republicans need to pick up six seats to control the Senate. We will see. But the more important point is that it really means very little for the Republicans to get control of Senate in the 2014 elections.

As promised, this morning Trende published his second article, Why the 2014 Senate Races Matter So Much. Again, the headline is a distortion. What he means is that if the Republicans don’t make major progress in the Senate in 2014, it is almost certain that the Democrats will get control back in 2016 and even possible they will get another filibuster-proof majority. As I discussed last month, the Democrats will only have to defend ten seats—all of them in blue states—and the Republicans will have to defend 24 seats, of which 7 are in blue states. It is definitely important for the Republicans to get a running start if they don’t want to face a catastrophe in 2016.

Trende does have an annoying tendency to provide a lot of data that can’t be easily summarized. For example, he provides a table with the number of Senate seats the Republicans have after the 2014 election and then provides columns for the cases where a Republican and a Democrat are elected. The bottom line is that it looks bleak for the Republicans. Even taking the very worst case scenario where Republicans have 55 seats and a Republican wins the White House in 2016, the Democrats still have a 27% chance of taking back the Senate. On the other side, if the Republicans only start with 51 seats and a Democrat is elected president, he predicts a 94% chance of the Democrats taking back the Senate. I think both of those numbers are actually low, but you get the idea.

He concludes:

As you can see, if the GOP wins a bare majority in 2014, the odds are very, very good that the Senate will revert back to Democratic hands in 2016. In fact, if GOP gains are confined to the “traditional seven” Democratic races (the three open seats and the four incumbents in states Mitt Romney carried), they’re still favored to lose the chamber two years later. On the other hand, if Republicans get to 54 seats, their chances of retaining control are very good, and given the horrific playing field for Democrats in 2018, they would be extremely unlikely to lose it that year.

Perhaps of more interest, if Republicans gain only a seat or two, a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in 2016 is at least plausible. If Republicans break even or lose seats—and remember, no one thought that Republican losses were plausible at this point in 2012—a filibuster-proof Democratic majority might even be likely in 2016. A year good enough to net Democrats six or more Senate seats would probably given them control of the House as well, giving them an unlikely trifecta for the second time in eight years.

If that happened, it sure would be nice to have something other than a New Democrat in the White House. But I don’t think that’s likely, unless Clinton turns out to be a very different president than her husband. That’s possible, but unlikely.

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.