Chuck and Abe

Charles DarwinSid Caesar is dead. Unlike a lot of old icons, I actually knew that he was still alive. He was 91. As I get older, I am more and more aware that I’ve died a thousand deaths. When you get into your 90s, are you still the same person? What I’m getting at is the old joke/observation about an ax that has its handle changed and then its head changed. There’s a continuity there, but at the end, it isn’t the same ax. Anyway, Caesar was a funny guy—a bit broad for my tastes, but still funny. It is sad for his family, but the rest of us have all his movies and bad video tape of his shows. He ought to be able to rest in peace; he lived a worthwhile life.

On this day in 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born. He was a very impressive man who did a lot of good. I think that it makes perfect sense that he is such a hero to Barack Obama. I tend to see them very similarly. Neither were especially ideological. Lincoln had greatness forced on him by totally unreasonable southerners. Obama had mediocrity forced on him by totally unreasonable southerners. There are a lot of similarities. The kicker is that Lincoln’s secretary was named Obama, and Obama’s secretary was named Kennedy Lincoln. You can’t make this stuff up! Oh, wait, I guess you can.

Other birthdays: German physicist Heinrich Lenz (1804); novelist George Meredith (1828); labor leader John L Lewis (1880); Russian painter Marie Vassilieff (1884); theoretical physicist Julian Schwinger (1918); great film director Franco Zeffirelli (91); quiz show guy Charles Van Doren (88); actor of sorts Joe Don Baker (78); musician Ray Manzarek (1939); musician Michael McDonald (62); Pretty Good Privacy creator Phil Zimmermann (60); comedian Arsenio Hall (58); and actor Christina Ricci (34).

The day, however, belongs to Charles Darwin who was born on this day in 1809. I could write a whole book just bouncing around things that I associate him with. One example: I was working a Church-run computer lab last night. And in the other room a tutorial session was going on. I noticed that one of the tutors was carrying around a book with a title something like, “Evolution is a Myth.” I thought, “Great. And that’s the tutor!” That isn’t to say that one can’t be a perfectly fine tutor of math while holding such a ridiculous belief. But still, it doesn’t bode well.

A big issue with Darwin is that even most people who accept natural selection don’t really understand it. It is a shockingly simple but powerful idea. You know, I tend to be pretty hard on Richard Dawkins around here. But his books on evolution are really great. I highly recommend them. But by far the biggest honest misunderstanding is that somehow, all species are evolving into us. By this theory, alligators are not as evolved as monkeys. But that’s an honest mistake. The biggest deceitful misunderstanding is that we evolved from chimpanzees. By this logic, animals evolve and then some just stop. So animals were evolving into chimps and then some of them stayed that way but the better ones struggled on and became us. Now, I’m not saying that people don’t actually think this, but it is almost always the result of religious disinformation.

One thing that annoys me about Darwin is how many atheists use evolution to argue God doesn’t exist. That is such a pathetic argument. It does, of course, argue against Creationism. But we really need to be clear about what we are doing. I think it is sad that for both atheists and theists alike, evolution has become theological. It isn’t. It’s science. The only way that it is at all theological is in that many theists get their science from religious texts. Beyond that, we should let it rest.

Happy birthday Charles Darwin!

George Will’s Convenient Libertarianism

George WillOver at The New Republic yesterday, Isaac Chotiner writes, George Will, Tea Party Tory. The article walks a thin line that will make both George Will lovers and haters happy. It discusses Will’s “evolution” from Tory to libertarian. And it doesn’t pull any punches as when it notes the erroneousness of Will’s claim that the global temperature has not raisen in the last 15 years. Still, I find the article more or less a whitewash of Will.

George Will is generally my first example of how it is easy to be a conservative pundit. As long as you don’t drool, everything is fine. And it’s funny to me that people like Will and David Brooks complain about liberal elites and their pseudo-intellectualism, but that is a better description of them. Regardless, for the umpteenth time: if Will were a liberal, the best he would be doing is teaching at a small state college. He certainly wouldn’t be working at the Washington Post and on broadcast television.

But you do have to give one thing to Will: he knows where his bread is buttered. That is well on display in this recent turn to libertarianism. Of course, like all conservatives, I’m sure that Will always saw himself as a libertarian. The great thing about being a libertarian is that you don’t have to do anything about social injustices, but you get to feel good about yourself in that you would never partake. For example: you don’t think the government should do anything to facilitate equal rights for minorities, but you would never treat another person differently because of their skin color.

So why is George Will all gung-ho about libertarianism now? That couldn’t be more obvious: he sees the conservative movement going in that direction. He’s already seen conservatism in America go from Toryism to radicalism. If he is to stay relevant, he either has to go libertarian or fascistic. And we know that fascism isn’t really fitting for his personality. So libertarianism it is! Or at least, the kind of wishy-washy libertarianism that some in the Republican Party have embraced.

In the end, it is the same old conservatism. Libertarianism in the Republican Party is just a patina to give their “worship the rich and screw the poor” politics the look of a consistent ideology. For example, he’s tentatively in favor of cannabis legalization but not for the legalization of other drugs.[1] Libertarians argue, “You have a right to do whatever you want to your own body!” Republican “libertarians” argue, “You have a right to do whatever you want to your own body, as long as we’ve decided that it is okay for you!” A communist would argue exactly the same thing.

So George Will V 2.0 is out and he’s all for libertarianism? That means nothing, other than that he is following trends in the conservative movement. And this is what he has always done. It’s all that popular conservative pundits ever do. It’s why they are popular. And when the pretend libertarianism of the Republican Party peters out, George Will V 3.0 will be there to appeal to the new trend in movement conservatism.

[1] This really is the ultimate example for libertarians. If you believe that people have an absolute right to their own bodies, then you believe anyone should be able to grow poppies in their backyards, extract the morphine, produce heroin, and use it. Anything else means that you want to tell other people how to live their lives. But as I’ve noted before: even most “real” libertarians are all about telling other people how to live. A great example of this is how libertarians (almost to a man) want to stop businesses have having union shops. Voluntary contracts are great, but only when libertarians agree with them. Ugh!

Russia, Sixteen Tons, and Inequality

Sixteen TonsLast week, I wrote about the Russian police doing “Get Lucky” at the Olympics. It was mostly just an opportunity to snark at the complicity (Or more!) of Russian law enforcement regarding the country’s anti-gay laws. But Will send me a Yahoo! article, “Get Lucky” and 5 Other Mind-Blowing Covers by the Red Army Choir. I have to say, there is nothing particularly mind blowing about any of the songs, unless you think that no cops can sing.

But one of the songs really stands out: “Sixteen Tons.” The truth is that I think it is a great song regardless of who does it. And thematically it is brilliant. Popular music, then as now, reflects the interests of the power elite. That’s why the vast majority of songs are about love: it appeals to everyone without questioning the status quo. Listening to the radio, you would think that no one needs a job—they just need a nice girl or boy to love them. That’s why I’ve always hated, “All You Need Is Love.” What nonsense.

The idea of the Red Army Choir singing “Sixteen Tons” is itself funny, given its communist history. Even today, after the Boris Yeltsin years of “free market” reform where a small number of well connected business people managed to steal most of the nation’s resources, Russia has slightly less income inequality than the United States. So I like the irony of the very screwed up Russian establishment singing our own song to us.

When it was written in 1946, “Sixteen Tons” was looking back on the bad old days. At that time, inequality was lower than it is today and on a downward trend. Now it continues up and up. And although we no longer have people effectively enslaved to the company store, the overall picture for Americans is as bad or worse.

So enjoy the spectacle of the Russian police singing “Sixteen Tons.” It is very clear in this song that the lead singer does not speak English. And he sings with a wonderful East European accent. It sounds very much like Dracula singing. It is too bad that he doesn’t wear a cape. The truth is that the song is about how capitalist vampires suck the blood of workers. “Hurt at sweek an a bach ats trong!”


The common conservative line about low wages is that workers don’t have to take a particular job. They are “free” to do whatever they want. Note that this is exactly what conservatives were saying when people lived in company towns and became enslaved there, “Well, they didn’t have to take the job!” And that was actually more true then than it is now. I get really tired of conservatives always seeing how silly their argues used to be, but never able to see that for the present.

Why Do Concerts Cost So Much?

Beatles Concert

Matt Yglesias dug up a great bit of data about The Beatles’ first tour of American 50 years ago: the tickets were really cheap. As you can see in the advertisement, tickets ranged from $2 to $4. Adjusted for inflation, this is $15 to $30.

This is really interesting. At that same time, movie ticket prices were about $1 (roughly $8 today). So seeing a live show was about twice the cost of seeing a movie. Intuitively, that seems about right. But today, a big headline show will cost you at least four times that much, and often much more than that.

The reason for this is that movie ticket prices have remained pretty flat in real dollars. The cost of a ticket in inflation adjusted dollars in 1967 was $8.38. In 2012, it was $7.96. In general, that is how things work: the cost of things decreases over time. Clearly, that’s not the case with live concerts.

Now, I can come up with numerous reasons for this. But the most obvious to me is that the big name music acts are already rich. They don’t need to perform live, so they charge a lot when they do. Going along with this idea is the fact that theater ticket prices don’t seem to have gone up. While it is true that Broadway shows are expensive, they always were.

Meanwhile, the price of recorded music has gone down. That’s largely because total volume has gone up. As much as I used to think that the music industry was becoming more open to mid-level acts, that’s not true. It is still a winner-take-all market, where a lot of professional quality bands have to work very hard just to survive.

What I find most interesting about this all is that live shows are no better now than they were when I was a kid. In fact, there is a nauseating trend in rock concerns to include video and other pre-recorded content. And while the shows may be live, they are entirely scripted—many acts might as well be lip-syncing. Of course, I’ve never cared for big shows. I feel like I would be better served by a disc or a concert film at a fraction of the cost. There is a certain magic to seeing great performers at little venues. Two concerts come to mind: Jane Siberry at the Cotati Cabaret and Steve Forbert at Mount Hood Lodge, where a snowstorm caused a total of ten people to be in attendance. Even a performance at a good venue like the Greek Theater can’t compete with that.

I think the reason that the public puts up with these ridiculous concert prices is that live concerts have come to be seen as events. The last big concert I went to was Kid Rock (who has some notion of the pricing problem, even if he puts on a ridiculous show). Watching the people, it was very much like the state fair. Everyone came very early and had picnics. And very few seemed all that involved in the concert. People shelling out hundreds of dollars to see The Rolling Stones are not doing it because they think it is going to be an awesome experience. They just want to be able to say that they saw Mick Jagger before he was confined to the wheelchair.