There Is No Debt Crisis

Fake Debt Crisis

The graph above is from Matt Yglesias. It is taken from information in a new book by Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. What it shows is something that Dean Baker talks about a lot: it is ridiculous to simply look at government debt. As he has pointed out a number of places, the federal government owns hundreds of trillions of dollars in land. If it wanted to pay off its debt, it could just sell a bit of it.

What the graph shows specifically is that since the country was founded, we have had more federal government assets than we have had debts. Even at the peak of our debt during World War II, we were producing more in assets. And that has continued all the way to today. As Yglesias writes:

The conventional way for debt scaremongers to measure the national debt is to compare gross public debt to GDP. But the normal way you measure the debt load of a business or a household is to ask for a net figure. Just because you have hundreds of thousands of dollars in mortgage debt doesn’t mean you’re a pauper. In fact it probably means you’re a rich person who owns an expensive house. It is of course possible to take out a large mortgage and then end up “underwater” because house prices decline, but it’s simply not the case that a large amount of gross debt is a sign of overextension. It’s typically a sign of prosperity and creditworthiness.

This is the graph we should all look at whenever the “problem” of public debt comes up. There is no debt crisis. There has never been a debt crisis. It is just a fear that conservatives use to force cuts on government programs for the poor and middle classes.

There is no debt crisis!

Herd Mentality on Shark Tank

Shark TankI just caught the very end of this week’s episode of Shark Tank. As you may have noticed in the past, I don’t care for the show. It provides a ridiculous view of how venture capital actually works. But more important, it mythologizes the rich and pushes the idea that the rich are entrepreneurs when usually they are anything but. The people presenting are entrepreneurs, but the people in the chairs are generally not, although some of them used to be.

The bit I saw tonight was a perfect encapsulation of the show. Some doctor was producing some kind of medical device that she wanted to market to the general public. She valued her company at $5 million. The most annoying of the “sharks,” Kevin O’Leary made an offer based upon his belief that the company was worth $3 million. After this, two other “sharks” made offers that went along with the $3 million valuation. The doctor stood firm on her valuation. At that point, one of the “sharks” that was not interested in investing told her that she was crazy not to go with O’Leary’s offer because clearly her company was only worth $3 million.

And how did this “shark” know that it was only worth $3 million? Because three of the sharks all believed it. Such is the nonsense of the “sharks.” They all see themselves as equals in one way: as rich people, they all feel that the entrepreneurs who are looking for venture capital should treat them as the gods they seem themselves as. How dare this doctor question the combined wisdom of the sharks!

There are two issues here. First, the doctor understands her company and the market far better than the “sharks”—none of whom is an expert in her field. And in the discussion, she argued that the company was worth more because in that field, most products fail long before they reach the point she had with her company. Effectively, she made the same argument that I make about the entrepreneurial process: the hardest part is the idea and making it work. From that point, it is just a matter of effective management. She’s asking for venture capital, not an angel investment.

The second issue is critical to why I despise the show. When O’Leary came up with his $3 million valuation, it wasn’t based on anything. He had no reason for thinking that. If she had valued it at $7 million, he probably would have “determined” that it was worth $5 million. And when the doctor pushed back on it, the only response she got was cant about investment risk, as though investors should get a huge return on their investments without taking risk. What’s more, there are two reasons why the other “sharks” jumped on the $3 million valuation. First, it’s just herd mentality.[1] Second, it was in their best interest in terms of negotiation. By grabbing it, they put themselves in a position to get a better deal on their investment. No one was going to say, “I think Kevin is totally wrong; your company should be valued at $7; I’ll give you the money you want, but I’ll take a smaller percentage of your company!”

When I see the show, I almost always hope that the entrepreneur will walk away. It usually is a bad deal. What’s more, I can see a lot of interesting ideas being turned into quick profits rather than solid going concerns. In this case, there was a happy ending: the doctor respectfully declined the offers. And the “sharks” were amazed that anyone would question their inerrancy. I think rather than “sharks” they should be referred to as “catfish,” because they are bottom feeders who prey on the dreams and desperation of the best that humanity is.

[1] Actually, at one point, another of the “sharks,” Robert Herjavec, offered to add half as much to O’Leary’s offer. It seemed to be a way of splitting the difference. But O’Leary immediately jumped in and said something like, “I still want 20% because I think the company is only worth $3 million.” Herjavec backed him up on that, but that wasn’t what it sounded like he was proposing. So there was clear indication that their valuations did not agree and were little more than WAGs.

Three Nobels and a Funny Man

Paul KrugmanIt has been one year since Pope Benedict XVI resigned. I think that is hilarious. I don’t begrudge him, but if God really cared about who the pope is, why would he allow such a thing? Wouldn’t he just kill the old man and have things work the right way? As with most thing religious, it just doesn’t make sense. But there is no doubt that the new pope is a much better choice to head the Catholic Church. While I don’t think that Pope Francis is going to do anything radical, he has already started to reform a lot of the corruption that is in the church. And if Catholicism is to survive as a going concern, it must evolve. And I say that knowing, as many conservative Catholics seem not to, that the church has always evolved. Once upon a time, the Catholic Church did not believe that a fertilized egg had a soul. Now it does. Perhaps it will further evolve to the point of understanding that it doesn’t. Pope Francis could lead the Catholic Church forward; Pope Benedict could only have led it backwards.

Linus PaulingOn this day in 1901, the great scientist Linus Pauling was born. His work spanned a number of fields. He was, at base, a chemist. His first Nobel Prize was for his work on chemical bounds in complex chemical structures. According to Wikipedia, “His discovery of sickle cell anemia as a ‘molecular disease’ opened the way toward examining genetically acquired mutations at a molecular level.” This is why Francis Crick said he was the father of molecular biology. Later in his life, he became a peace activist. His work against nuclear weapons proliferation and testing won him a second Nobel Prize. He also had some controversial beliefs about the effectiveness of vitamins in combating cancer. But no one is right all the time. He was far greater than any man has a right to be.

Last year, the day went to the great actor Zero Mostel who was born in 1915. As I noted then, I especially like him because of the feud that he had with Mel Brooks (a well established asshole who isn’t capable of giving anyone credit for anything) during the shooting of The Producers. Here he is in the film:

Other birthdays: philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533); illustrator John Tenniel (1820); philosopher Ernest Renan (1823); screenwriter Ben Hecht (1894); pilot Jadwiga Piłsudska (94); actor Charles Durning (1923); actor Stanley Baker (1928); actor Gavin MacLeod (83); musician Brian Jones (1942); actor Bernadette Peters (66); actor John Turturro (57); and writer Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler (44).

The day, however, belongs to Paul Krugman who is 61 today. He is, as anyone who reads this blog knows, a great economist. His academic research was on deflation in Japan in the 1990s. That was perfect background for what has been happening in the west for the last seven years. The most important thing that he’s been saying since the start of this economic downturn is that inflation is not a problem. Slowly, it seems that liberal politicians have figured this out. Conservatives, of course, continue to think that hyperinflation is just around the corner. What’s really going on with conservatives is their belief that even the smallest amount of pain suffered by the rich is unacceptable. The truth is that if we doubled the current rate of inflation in this country, it would be a great thing for the working class. And it would not be that bad on the owning class. But given that the owning class also owns the political class, that will never be allowed to happen.

It is interesting that on this, his 61st birthday, Krugman also announced that he is leaving Princeton University to move to the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He says it is because his interests are now more in public policy than straight economics. Also, his life is more focused on New York. It still seems like an odd move, but I suspect City University is paying a lot for Krugman. Regardless, I like the idea of Krugman focusing more on public policy. I’ve always found his economic lecture slides kind of boring. But his outlook on the political environment is always insightful.

Happy birthday Paul Krugman!

Obamacare Helps the Poor and Sick

We Heart ObamacarePaul Krugman wrote a very interesting article earlier this week, A General Theory of Obamacare Fiction. Basically, he tries to given general advice to tell if any particular Obamacare horror story is true. But I think his article is a bit muddled, so I thought I would go through it here and try to make it plain.

There are two groups of people who one might say are losers with Obamacare. The biggest category are the rich. In general, they won’t lose out because of anything to do with their insurance. Obamacare is largely funded by a tax on very high income earning people. And as I’ve noted before, this is why conservatives hate Obamacare. So let’s not ever lose sight of this most important issue regarding the Republican Party and Obamacare. The reason they hate it is that it taxes the rich, but they understand that they can’t say that. People won’t be sympathetic to that cause.

The second group of people who might be said to be losers are young men. If they currently have catastrophic coverage—like something with a $10,000 deductible—they will now be forced to get a more reasonable policy and it will almost certainly cost more. But these kinds of policies are not generally the kind of things that poor people get. For poor young people, losing $5,000 in one year due to a medical problem would likely be enough to force them into bankruptcy. And extremely high deductibles are mostly only useful for people who are worried about protecting their assets, not their health.

Regardless, even this second group is not going to fly as a source of hard luck stories designed to vilify Obamacare. For one thing, healthcare policies for young men are now and will continue to be rather cheap. So even doubling the cost of insurance from $100 per month to $200 doesn’t have much shock value. You can see the reason why the Republican Party is not going to this well for their outrage stories.

What this all means is very simple. Suppose someone comes to you with a story, “Person A is being screwed by Obamacare!” Unless Person A is a young man or a very wealthy person, the story is nonsense. And thus far, the only story that falls into that category is Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ claim during her State of the Union response about Bette in Spokane. In that case, Bette seems to be rich. She is at least rich enough that she wouldn’t use the state exchanges to save at least hundreds of dollars per month on her health insurance, simply because of her ideological rigidity.

Or you could just wait a day or two after any Obamacare horror story comes out to see what is actually going on. Because the stories always collapse after the smallest amount of journalistic digging. But as Krugman notes, it isn’t necessary to wait for the facts. We know how Obamacare works. It harms the rich and healthy a small amount in order to help the poor and unhealthy a lot. So a poor middle-aged woman dying of cancer will be helped by Obamacare. If someone says otherwise, they are lying.

Good and Bad From Terry Fator

Terry Fator: Live from Las VegasLast night, after watching The Painting, I searched Netflix for “Terry Pratchett,” probably because it was Richard Coyle’s birthday and he had starred in Going Postal. There were no Pratchett related films, but Netflix offered me, Terry Fator: Live from Las Vegas. If you don’t know him, Fator is a ventriloquist who won Amerca’s Got Talent. I knew him from the documentary Dumbstruck. And since watching it, Google offers me ads for his Las Vegas show all the time.

As usual, Netflix’s rating system was dead on. It’s “best guess” rating for me was 3 stars, while the average rating was 3.8 stars. At first, I thought this was odd. Fator is a ventriloquist, after all. I love ventriloquists and puppets. But reflecting on it a moment, I had to admit that I wasn’t that impressed with Fator. He is a passable ventriloquist and not much of a puppeteer. What he is, however, is an exceptional singer and impersonator. So it wasn’t too surprising that Netflix thought I would be lukewarm on it.

What I wasn’t prepared for was just how uncomfortable Fator is on stage. This isn’t unusual for a ventriloquist. But given that he doesn’t even try to do puppetry, much of the show is frustratingly static: man standing with puppet. The show actually gets substantially better when Fator does a song himself, even though he’s still far from relaxed.

A bigger problem for me is that the show is not well written. The bits are tired with very little wit—most of them are variations on old jokes. And it is painfully clear that they are just meant to kill time in between songs. I suppose that would be fine if I enjoyed the songs more. But most of the time, the songs just seem weird to me. Why is the guy singing while holding a puppet? But sometimes it does work, as in his final number, a duet of “What a Wonderful World” with his turtle doing a rather weak Kermit the Frog voice and Fator doing a passable Louis Armstrong. At least there is interaction in the routine.

Ultimately, Terry Fator provides an act rather similar to Jeff Dunham. There’s no doubt that Fator is distinctly better than Dunham. But both acts appeal to lowbrow tastes. Dunham is marginally more funny, but Fator has the musical numbers and is technically far better. And as a show in Las Vegas, that’s fine. On video, it just sits there (like Fator and his puppets) and is marginally interesting but hardly entertaining. I think this clip shows Fator at his best and worst:


I know it is a matter of taste, but I continue to come back to the far less popular Dan Horn. Horn is by far the best puppeteer I’ve ever seen working as a ventriloquist. He’s also one of the better ventriloquists and his material is strong. But ultimately, when I watch him, I think I’m watching two people up on stage. The weirdness I feel while watching Fator’s awkward performance simply isn’t there with Horn. That’s not to put down Fator. And I can see why Fator’s act fits in rather well in Las Vegas in a way that Horn’s would not. But the two performers show the vicissitudes of fame. Here is just a taste of Dan Horn:

Politics and Ontology in The Painting

Le Tableau - The PaintingAndrea wrote a teaser of an article over at ALE Designs about the 2011 French film, Le Tableau. In America, the film is called The Painting and so shall I from now on. It tells the story of a group of figures in an unfinished painting. There are the self-proclaimed leaders of the painting, the Allduns, so called because they are “all done.” Then there are the bourgeois called the Halfies, who are not quite finished, some of them only barely so. And then there are the forgotten people, the Sketchies.

The whole movie hinges on a relationship between Ramo (an Alldun) and Claire (a Halfy). And this leads to a journey with Ramo and Claire’s best friend Lola, a Halfy, and Plume, a Sketchy. Their quest is to find the Painter and ask him to finish the painting so that the class distinctions will be ended. The Allduns, for example, argue that the Painter loved them most and that’s why he finished them. This is a retarded notion, but no more retarded than the idea that there is something natural about paying people billions of dollars just because they are especially good at stock trading.

The Allduns from Le Tableau

What happens from there doesn’t much matter. What is important is that the film moves step by step, always getting more interesting. This is truth both in terms of the plot and the theme. What also happens is that the characters get deeper and their relationships expand. The one exception is Ramo and Claire. The screenwriter, Anik Leray, seems to go along with Shakespeare’s theory that young people in love are too boring to dramatize. But that’s just fine here, because the other characters are more than enough fun.

The Painting is more interested in ontological questions than in political questions. But I suspect the filmmakers would say that they are connected. After all, a lot of people turn to God to answer questions about injustice and evil. And just as in life, the characters find that they must answer these questions for themselves. And in the end, there is a social revolution that is brought on primarily by the Sketchies. It’s very sweet, even if it isn’t a solution that would work outside of the world in the painting.

As Andrea noted in her article, it is a beautiful film just to watch. There is much of Modigliani in the work, and as regular readers know, I’m somewhat obsessed with him. Apparently, the director, Jean-Francois Laguionie, wanted to set the period of the painter in the 1920s. So he was thinking of painters around that time including Chagall, Matisse, Derain, Bonnard, and Picasso. I see all that except Picasso, but his work is so varied, I’m sure that is simply my deficiency. But it is so much more than that, even though that is enough.


I will now briefly discuss the ending of the film. If you want to watch the film yourself, skip this part and come back to it when you have because I’m interested in what anyone has to say about any part of the film. I could easily spend all evening talking about it.

Continue reading

John Steinbeck and Three Others

John SteinbeckIn 1807, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born. I’m not a big fan of him, but there is no doubt that he was talented. Edgar Allan Poe, although at first an admirer of him later became his harshest critic. I don’t think it is widely know, but during his lifetime, Poe was known almost exclusively as a literary critic. People were not terribly interested in his fiction. Anyway, Poe correctly predicted that Longfellow’s work was derivative and would not live on. The main thing anyone knows is “Paul Revere’s Ride” and not because of its literary merit. But Poe was aware of his talent, having written that Longfellow was “a determined imitator and a dexterous adapter of the ideas of other people…” But Longfellow seems to have been a much nicer man than Poe. In the end, that matters a great deal more.

The great writer Irwin Shaw was born in 1913. I dedicated the day to him last year. I wrote:

About a year ago, I spent a couple of weeks with his Short Stories, Five Decades. It reminded me of when I first started writing about 25 years ago. I became obsessed with his short story “The Eighty-Yard Run.” I read it again and again. It tells the story of a man’s life from one day in high school that he looks back on as the pinnacle: an eighty-yard touchdown run during football practice. It is perceptive that Shaw used this example. In one way, anyone can understand that doing this would make a boy feel very good about himself. Life is like that: relatively little things can put on shine on life. But another way of looking at it is that it is pathetic. It is high school and it isn’t even a game—just a practice.

All of Shaw’s work is filled with unspoken truths. No one ever seems quite able to communicate what they think and feel—even to themselves. Everyone is left with the vague sadness that you think life is really all about when you are young. Of course, as you get older, you learn first hand that this is exactly what life is about. The one thing we all share is regret about everything. Shaw conveys this idea with an expansive collection of characters and their stories.

The great script writer Peter Stone was born in 1930. He is probably best known for writing the great screenplay for the film Charade. But he also wrote Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? as well as the very lively script for Sherman Edwards’ 1776. Here is the wonderfully silly trailer of the wonderfully silly Chefs:

Other birthdays: the man who killed Christianity as a vibrant religion, Constantine the Great (272 AD); Russian realist painter Nikolai Ge (1831); jurist Hugo Black (1886); historian Arthur M Schlesinger Sr (1888); actor Joanne Woodward (84); actor Elizabeth Taylor (1932); activist Ralph Nader (80); actor Howard Hesseman (74); actor Timothy Spall (57); Sid Vicious’ murdered girlfriend Nancy Spungen (1958); and actor Richard Coyle (42).

The day, however, belongs to John Steinbeck who was born on this day in 1902. He is probably my favorite novelist. He grew up in a wealthy family. Of course, that was during the robber baron days when inequality wasn’t as bad as it today. So he wasn’t out of touch. In fact, he worked at nearby ranches during his summers where he was introduced to migrants and others who weren’t working as just a summer job. It is easy, however, for a person like Steinbeck to not see the problem. Doing a crummy job voluntarily and temporarily while you wait to enter Stanford University isn’t that bad. But the experience did have a profound impact on his life. And we see that in books like The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row.

Steinbeck is a great writer in terms of raw storytelling ability, but certainly not better than William Faulkner. Yet I never think it is a good idea to go read some Faulkner, even though I greatly admire him. But I read at least some Steinbeck every year. Even as harsh as his stories sometimes are, I always find them edifying. Steinbeck’s point of view is eternally the same as mine: humanistic. He always understands his characters and sympathizes with them, even when they aren’t sympathetic. That’s the way I look at the world—or at least try to.

Happy birthday John Steinbeck!

Obamacare Surcharge

Obamacare Surcharge

The image above comes to us from Jonathan Chait, who does not have as much fun with it as you might expect, Obamacare-Hating Restaurant Now Charging Obummer Tax. Gator’s Dockside is a sportsbar chain with 21 restaurants in northern (conservative) Florida. And they have put a sign outside some of their restaurants that reads, “The costs associated with ACA [ie, Obamacare] compliance could ultimately close our doors. Instead of raising prices on our products to generate the additional revenue needed to cover the costs of ACA compliance, certain Gator’s Dockside locations have implemented a 1% surcharge on all food and beverage purchases only.” And you can see the extra 20¢ “ACA Surchar” on the receipt above.

In one way, this is hilarious. You can imagine some owner calling into Rush Limbaugh, “You wanna know what I’m gonna do! I’m gonna charge my customers an Obamacare surcharge and see how all those moochers like it!” But in a more fundamental way, this is very sad. It shows that one can own a successful business and not understand the first thing about business. It makes me wonder if such business people are just lucky. There must be some fraction that fall into that category.

From a business perspective, customers don’t care what the cost is of your doing business. If the cost of hot dogs went up, it is most likely that the owner of Gator’s Dockside would not raise the price. He would instead just eat the loss in profits. If the cost increase was particularly large, he might raise prices—at least eventually. What he would not do is put a sign on his door that read, “The costs associated with Chili Cheese Dogs have gone up. Instead of raising prices on them to generate the additional revenue needed to cover the increased costs of Chili Cheese Dogs, Gator’s Dockside has implemented a 1% surcharge on all Chili Cheese Dogs.” That would be ridiculous. No customer cares. If they saw a sign like that, they would think, “What a whiner! Just serve me my Chili Cheese Dog and shut up!”

With Obamacare, it is far worse. In this case, they are admitting that they don’t care enough about their workers to provide them with health insurance. When the government steps in and makes them, they don’t deal with it. They don’t find ways to be more efficient so they can absorb the cost. No, they whine about it and shove it off on the customer. They make a big public spectacle of themselves so that everyone knows that they don’t value their workers or their customers.

Also, it is important to remember that prices are not set by costs. There is no doubt that almost all of that $2.49 for an “ice” tea is profit. Gator’s Dockside charges that much because that’s the amount that maximizes their profits. If the same number of people would be willing to pay $2.52 (1% more) for it, why are they not charging that? The very idea that the difference between staying in business and going bankrupt is 1% is ridiculous. This isn’t an iron mine! And if Gator’s Dockside really is that inefficient that they barely make a profit for a $2.49 “ice” tea, then it is best that they go out of business and yield the market to a business that can do better.

Of course, it is highly likely that this is all just a stunt. The 1% surcharge sounds too convenient. I doubt Obamacare is costing this company anything at all. This is probably yet another conservative who just doesn’t like the idea of Obamacare and so is making a protest. People are allowed to use their businesses any way they like. But this is a bad business move. Roughly half of the Gator’s Dockside customers are Democrats. And the vast majority of all their customers just don’t care.

I’ll tell you how this all plays out. Eventually they take the signs down and remove the surcharge. And everyone will forget that the owners of Gator’s Dockside are hateful, but ultimately silly people. What won’t happen is that this catches on and restaurants all over start adding an Obamacare surcharge. Remember, the new healthcare law is just one of many laws that business owners must follow. How about a “FDA Making Sure Your Beef Isn’t Bad” surcharge? Or a “Zoning Ordinance So the Roof Does Crash Down on You During Your Meal” surcharge? Or a “Police So You Aren’t Murdered by Roving Gangs While Walking From Your Car” surcharge? The only thing that is different from these ridiculous surcharges and the ACA surcharge is that those have been around longer.

The Croods Has Something to Say, I Think

The CroodsLast night, I watched the 2013 animated feature The Croods. It’s an amusing and fun but ultimately forgettable film about a family of cavemen and their journey from fear to curiosity. Or something. It is kind of hard to say because the film only plays around with a plot.

The story focuses on Grug, the father, and Eep, his discontented teenage daughter. Grug believes in the old ways, which are basically that doing things as you always have is the best way not to get killed. This is summed up very well at the beginning of the film when Grug tells the family a story, “Tonight we’ll hear the story of Krispy Bear. A long time ago, this little bear was alive. She was alive because she listened to her father and lived her life in routine and darkness and terror. So she was happy! But Krispy had one terrible problem: she was filled with curiosity. And one day, while she was in a tree, the curious little bear wanted to climb to the top. And no sooner than she climbed to the top, she saw something new… And died!”

At the end of this story, the son, Thunk, says, “I will never do anything new or different!” But the family is forced to do something new because it seems that they are living on a volcano that is quickly becoming active. Or at least that’s what I assume is happening; it is never really explained. Along the way, they hook up with Guy, a creative young man who knows the secrets of fire and puppets. Plus, he has a pet sloth named Belt, who might as well be a puppet. So he’s the smart and creative hero of the film. He contrasts with the rather dim but good-hearted Grug.

The whole clan make their way to safety and learns valuable life lessons along the way. Fair enough. But the film shows all the advanced thinking on gender roles as an episode of Leave it to Beaver. This is not helped by a stream of mother-in-law jokes, even if they are funny. But most of all, the main character is supposedly Eep, the girl who wants more out of life than simply not dying. However, after Guy shows up, she spends most of her time mooning over him. This is often adorable, but not exactly what I would want my children (that I don’t have) watching.

The biggest problem I had with The Croods was getting over its absolutely ridiculous portrayal cavemen as stupid and fearful. Humans have long been alpha predators. There are few creatures who we need fear, and only a couple who see us as prey. At one point, the family catches a ride on a mammoth, but it never occurs to them that they might kill and eat it. But then, none of animals make much sense either. The animals are all very creatively rendered, but aren’t anything the earth has ever seen. As a result, I spent much of the film wondering if we weren’t on another planet or something.

I fought through all of these concerns, though. Ultimately, however, I think the filmmakers would have been better off restricting themselves to something a little more grounded in reality. What they ended up with was a universe of creatures that were too fanciful. They didn’t create a unified whole the way that Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland did. The problem is likely related to the fact that the cave area terrain is realistic. Later in the film when they are in the jungle, the whole thing looks rather like Wonderland, and as a result, works.

Ultimately the film is a romp and as such, it is rather fun. But it doesn’t rise to the level films like ParaNorman and Frankenweenie. And that’s a shame because the animation itself is really good. I was very impressed with the water and wind and fire effects. And the faces conveyed far more emotion than is normal in animated films. What’s missing is a compelling character focused plot. Instead, the film just meanders from sequence to sequence. Almost randomly, Grug and Guy have a meeting of minds and work together. Guy seems to to become attracted to Eep at a certain point in the film, not because he sees anything in her but because the writers got tired of pushing the “Eep coming on too hard” jokes. And given that there is nothing constraining the universe of the film, the whole “road trip” aspect of the film is nothing but an intellectual exercise. We don’t know where we are going and the road to get there runs from Mad Max to Alice in Wonderland to Lord of the Rings.

But I enjoyed it. How could I not? It’s a very pro-puppet movie. And it’s all very sweet and has a number of very funny bits in it. And I liked all the characters, especially Grug, who is voiced perfectly by Nicolas Cage. But I wanted more. And with a budget of $135 million, the least they could have done is work a little harder on the script. That’s over twice the cost of ParaNorman and three times the cost of Frankenweenie. But there are worse things, like most live action Hollywood films. And I can’t complain too loudly about any film that tries to celebrate intelligence and open-mindedness.

Camp’s Budget Another Giveaway to Rich

Dave CampDave Camp has a new federal budget reform proposal (pdf) that is making a lot of liberals weep with joy. This is simply the result of how the Republican Party has gamed the system. After decades of absolutely unreasonable proposals like the Paul Ryan budget, when someone comes along with a budget that isn’t completely delusional, liberals stand up and applaud.

Camp is a typical Republican piece of work. You can look at his positions and right down the list he is pure: anti-choicer, climate change denier, Social Security privatizer. And he’s been pushing for more welfare “reform” because he’s afraid single mothers aren’t working hard enough. Remember in Republicanland, it is only important for rich mothers to stay at home and raise the kids.

As noted, the budget is not all bad. It gets rid of the carried interest loophole. It also imposes a fee on big banks for the government’s implicit too-big-to-fail insurance. And after finding that he just could not make the numbers in his budget add up with his preferred top marginal tax rate of 25%, he changed it to 35%. So those things are okay, but I would hardly call them good. The carried interest loophole is a travesty, but it is not big: just $2 billion per year. We should charge the big banks for their safety net (however, breaking them up would be better), but as Dean Baker points out, Camp’s fee is an order of magnitude less than what the banks are getting in return. As for admitting that he couldn’t make the 25% tax rate work, that isn’t saying much on its face and as we will see, it doesn’t actually say anything at all.

Jared Bernstein has an excellent discussion on the Economix blog, The Promise and Pitfalls in a Tax Reform Plan. He focuses on Camp’s “timing gimmicks.” These are ways that Camp made his budget reform bill revenue neutral for ten years—the period over which budgets are scored. For example, “The corporate rate is phased in slowly, so revenue losses occur outside of the budget window.” This means that the federal budget would be okay for ten years and then the deficit would explode causing Republicans like Camp to scream for cuts to entitlements and welfare for the poor.

It has other aspects that I don’t like. He gets rid of our current seven tax brackets and replaces them with two: 10% and 35%. The truth is that we need more tax brackets, not less. Republicans always claim that they do this to “simplify the tax code.” But if you have ever done your taxes, you know the easy part is looking up your taxable income in the table. The hard part is determining your taxable income. So reducing the number of tax brackets isn’t about simplifying anything. It is rather about getting to a flat tax. And Republicans are for a flat tax because they want to shift the tax burden off the rich and onto the poor.

Camp’s proposal isn’t about budget reform at all. Instead, it is yet another Republican plan to “starve the beast.” Clearly, Dave Camp is smart enough to know that he had to throw in a couple of bones to the Democrats. But they aren’t great bones and they are supported by more reasonable conservatives anyway. Otherwise, the proposal is just an attempt to get what Republicans always want: lower taxes on the rich. The word is that Camp worked for years to try to make his budget work with a top tax bracket of 25%, so you can see what his actual priorities are. And he only managed to make the 35% number work with a bunch of tricks.

So don’t be fooled: Camp’s budget is just a proposal to lower taxes on the rich and starve the government of funds. It is a typical Republican proposal; it just doesn’t sound as crazy as usual.

Christopher Marlowe and Two Singers

Christopher MarloweToday is the anniversary of the birthday post. I made it! But the truth is that it evolved over time. At first, I just focused on a single person and then went on to do multiple people. The format we have today is probably only about six months old. I think I would like to go back to the single narrative, and I’ll start that on the first of March. Sometimes that will be a regular article and other times it will just be a paragraph. I’m not going to sweat it. And most of all, we will continue my usual style of using birthdays to go off on tangents. If you want to read biographies, there’s always Wikipedia and the local library.

Fats Domino is 86 today and still performing. He was the first person ever in the birthday post. Basically, it was just a video of him performing “Blueberry Hill.” Here is his first hit, “The Fat Man”:

Johnny Cash was born in 1932. He did some great work, but he is wildly overrated. But the world would be a poorer place without “Folsom Prison Blues.” I especially like when he performed it on At Folsom Prison. After the line “But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” the prisoners cheer. It’s horrible and humorous at the same time. I think some people miss the pedagogical point of the song. Oh well. Here’s Cash on television four years later doing it to screaming teen fans:

Other birthdays: the great novelist Victor Hugo (1802); blue jean tycoon Levi Strauss (1829); cowboy showman Buffalo Bill (1846); actor Jackie Gleason (1916); actor Tony Randall (1920); art director Dante Ferretti (71); singer-songwriter Mitch Ryder (69); and musician Jonathan Cain (64).

The day, however, belongs to the great Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe who was baptized on this day in 1564. His best known play is Doctor Faustus. This is a shame because in many ways, it is his weakest. I think the reason people still do it is because it is fun to stage. When Orson Welles directed the play in 1937, he let fly all of his interest in magic and turned the play into a magic show. But the language in Doctor Faustus is still very strong. I would say that Marlowe was a far more consistent writer than Shakespeare in that regard.

The thing is, Shakespeare was a slightly later writer than Marlowe. And as such, his plays are less poetic than Marlowe’s. If you watch a Marlowe play, you can actually hear the poetry. That isn’t often the case with Shakespeare, whose poetry is more like natural language. As a result of this, many scholars claim that Shakespeare is better. But playwrights after Shakespeare, like John Webster and Thomas Middleton, wrote in an even more natural style. None of them wrote anything like what one would consider natural dialog, however. So for my money, it is better to have poetry that sounds like poetry rather than vaguely stilted dialog. I recommend checking out Derek Jarman’s filmed version of Edward II. It is very good.

Unfortunately, Marlowe barely lived to the age of 29. He got in a fight and ended up being stabbed in the eye. This has caused some amount of speculation. He was awaiting trial for heresy. It was not the first time he had been arrested; Marlowe lived a colorful life. But given that he had done some spying for the court when he was at university, people speculate that he was “gotten rid of.” And it could be. Then again, Marlowe ran with a rough crowd, and it is easy to imagine them all getting drunk and ending up fighting. I tend to go with the more obvious theory. Of course maybe Marlowe faked his death and then went on to write Shakespeare’s plays for him!

(For the record, there is the ultimate reason why we know that Marlowe didn’t write Shakespeare’s plays: their styles are nothing alike. If there is one thing that all these years of reading and watching and memorizing Shakespeare have taught me, it is that Shakespeare repeats himself a lot. He has very definable cadences. He reuses the same phrases. His wit is quite distinct. Marlowe is nothing like that. I wish people would stop reading about these conspiracy theories and just read some of the actual playwrights. All of this discussion would go away.)

The following are two brief scenes from a production of Doctor Faustus at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. The first scene is standard, in all versions of the play. The second scene is from the later version of the play and may or may not have been written by Marlowe. Regardless, the company has changed the scene a lot to rather good effect.

Happy baptismal day Christopher Marlowe!

Twit Say Twat Means Twaddle

Bob FitzSimmondsThis just in from The Virginian-Pilot, VA GOP Official Apologizes for Genital Slang “Error.” If you are like me, you are mighty eager to know what that genital slang error was. But don’t go looking to the “respectable” The Virginian-Pilot to tell you what it is. They apparently don’t print such nasty words. (They did, however, provide an image at the bottom of the article.)

It all happened yesterday night. It seems that Representative Frank Wolf is retiring. So there are lots of people trying to get the Republican nomination for the seat. One of them is that strange creature known as a woman, Barbara Comstock. When a political commentator publicly supported Comstock and talked about how strong Republican women are (Unlike Democratic women who are a bunch of wimps?!), the Virginia Republican Party Treasurer Bob FitzSimmonds took to Facebook to have his say. This is exactly how The Virginian-Pilot quoted him:

I have nothing against Barbara Comstock but, I hate sexist (expletive).

They added, “One definition for the word he used is a vulgar term for female genitalia.” Oh, what could it be?! Could it be “cunt”? That would be great! Or vajayjay? Actually, the Online Slang Dictionary lists about 150 names, many of them quite colorful like “quivering mound of love pudding.” (Don’t ask me!) It only becomes clear in an update where FitzSimmonds is quoted saying that he thought the word meant “twaddle.” So if you guessed “twat”—Ding, ding, ding!—you’re a winner!

What is clear is that FitzSimmonds didn’t know what “twat” means. His sentence didn’t make sense with “twat” and it does with “twaddle.” But look at that picture above. That’s our man Bob. He can’t be any older than I am. Yet he makes the kind of mistake that a very un-worldly 80-year-old might make. And that photo? Notice the unusual but entirely bad framing? That’s from his Facebook page, although I cropped it to make it not look so bad—the original went far out to the right where we get to enjoy a blurry background. The man is out of touch.

But he is entirely typical of his party. I don’t have a problem with the word “twat.” While it is true that it is a synonym for “vagina,” it is more commonly used to describe an idiot. The content of what FitzSimmonds was saying, however, is quite offensive. His problem seems to be that anyone would talk about women as a class. What FitzSimmonds is really going for is something akin to Stephen Colbert’s routine about not seeing color. This is generally what powerful groups say. Whites say, “You blacks are being racist for talking about race!” And FitzSimmonds is saying, “You women are sexist for talking about sex!”

What I think is that FitzSimmonds is something I closely associate with “twat”: he’s a twit. And as far as I’m concerned, he is one of the top choices for the 2014 Upper-Class Twit of the Year award:

H/T: Political Wire