Grant Wood and Lots of Songs

Grant WoodI just got word that Ralph Waite has died. You probably know him as the father on The Waltons. But more generally, he was a character actor—undoubtedly the most fulfilling kind of actor one can be on the screen. But I have long admired him for a film I’ve never seen. In 1980, he wrote and directed the film On the Nickel. It is the story of a ex-drunk who gets lonely for his old skid row drinking buddy. So he goes and finds him and stuff happens. Like I said, I haven’t seen the film, but it looks like an inspiring work. I do have mixed feelings about it. I’m not fond of people romanticizing drug addiction. On the other hand, the film clearly shows the drunks as more than the sum total of their problems. My hope for it is that it is as good as They Might Be Giants. And that is very good indeed. Here’s the trailer:

On this day in 1910, William Shockley was born. He is best remembered as the co-inventor of the transistor. So he is one of fathers of modern electronics. But he is most remembered for his beliefs in eugenics and racial differences in intelligence. The thing about all of this is that intelligence tests are a mess. I’ve discussed this a bit with regard to Jason Richwine and the Flynn effect. But regardless of the science, what we see with Shockley is racism dressed up as science. It just goes to show that you can easily be brilliant in one field and clueless in another.

And now, if you don’t mind, we are going to have a little musical interlude. There are a number of musicians with birthdays today. I don’t have a lot to say about any of them, so I’m mostly just going to present some songs. The first musician is Tennessee Ernie Ford who was born in 1919. Yesterday, I wrote about the Red Army Choir singing “Sixteen Tons.” That was a whole lot of fun, but it was Ford who had a mega-mega-mega-hit with the song. So get those fingers snapping, because here we go:

Peter Tork is 72 today. He was the member of The Monkeys who wasn’t all that cool with it. He was also the one with red hair. Here he is doing Goffin and King’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday”:

Peter Gabriel is 64 today. I used to be a huge fan of his, but I’ve been out of touch for some time. For now, let’s listen to his first solo single, “Solsbury Hill”:

And then the unique Henry Rollins is 53. He was, of course, the primary lead singer of Black Flag. It is interesting to see him now because he is so muscular. But he used to be a skinny little thing. He started working out because of all the violence at Black Flag concerts. Anyway, here he is with Rollins Band, doing a very good and funny song “Liar”:

Other birthdays: great Rococo painter Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (1682 or 1683); economist Thomas Malthus (1766); philosopher Lev Shestov (1866); economist Roy Harrod (1900); Burmese painter Aung Khin (1921); actor Kim Novak (81); actor George Segal (80); actor and personal man-crush Oliver Reed (1938); theologist Elaine Pagels (71); actor Donald Sumpter (71); actor Stockard Channing (70); and Jerry Springer (70).

The day, however, belongs to the great painter Grant Wood who was born on this day in 1891. He is best known for the painting American Gothic. I think it is a remarkable painting just because of its composition. Thematically, no one seems to really agree about it. Some have claimed that it is is satire about American repression and others think it is a celebration of American hard work. I side more with the satire crowd. Wood, of course, was satirizing nothing. But the painting does bring to mind the vacuousness of the American work ethic: we work a hard and long because that’s the way we are, and we get no special joy out of it. The father looks right at the observer, so one gets a sense of resolve from him. The daughter is looking away, providing a sense of acquiescence. For good and bad, it is a representation of America.

Appraisal - Grant Wood

I haven’t seen a lot of other works by Wood, but nothing that I have seen is as powerful as American Gothic. But his work is quite impressive nonetheless. I see in his work a mature synthesis of a lot of different art trends. There is especially a lot of illustrative and “primitive” aspects to his landscapes. I would like to know more of his work. I’ve requested a number of books on him, so if he becomes another of my fascinations, I’m sure you’ll be hearing about it.

Birthplace of Herbert Hoover - Grant Wood

Happy birthday Grant Wood!

Ranting Leftist on Economic Inequality

Raise the Minimum Wage?

As a ranting leftist, I have a little economic news to impart to you. It seems that what people like me have been saying for a long time is backed up by economic data: both the private views of the rich and the public views of the mainstream are driven by the self-interest of the power elite. Who that is allowed on network television would ever have imagined?

Last week I saw a segment on The Young Turks, What Changes When You Win The Lottery. It was about an article by Andrew Oswald and Nattavudh Powdthavee, Money Makes People Right-Wing and Inegalitarian. As I’ve written about here, in general, the rich are conservative and the poor are liberal. So these researchers looked at why that is, “Rich people typically lean right politically. Are they motivated by deeply moral views or self-interest? This column argues that money makes you right-wing. It shows that lottery winners in the UK are more likely to switch their allegiance from left to right.”

Their conclusions are disappointing but hardly surprising. One can imagine someone like Daymond John (founder of FUBU) thinking that he made it on his own so anyone could and thus his being a conservative. That would be how humans acted if they were morally rational. But it seems what really drives us is our sense of self-justification. And I get that. We all want to think that the bad things that have happened in our lives are the result of bad luck, and the good things that have happened are the result of our own brilliance. But it is sad that we generalize about this to others, and use it to justify high levels of income inequality just because it makes us feel better. As the authors conclude, “Voting choices are made out of self-interest and then come to be embroidered in the mind with a form of moral rhetoric.”

Paul Krugman discussed this study today along with another paper that discusses a different aspect of inequality. The paper by two IMF scholars, Davide Furceri and Prakash Loungani, is, Who Let the Gini Out? Searching for Sources of Inequality. They find that the standard neoliberal economic policies actually make income inequality worse. The two issues they look at are austerity (which lowers employment rates) and increased capital flows (which allows companies to move operations away to cheaper countries).

These two studies do not bode well for the world. It means that mostly the rich are trapped in thinking that high levels of income inequality are good simply because it is good for them. Related to this is that the neoliberal policies that almost everyone who is given a voice in the economic debate accept as God given. In fact, it is quite common for economic reporters to scoff at anyone who argues that “free” trade agreements might not be so great.

Krugman puts it exactly the way I would, so I will leave the conclusion to him:

So, if you were a ranting leftist, you might say that political attitudes are shaped by class, and that ideological justifications for high inequality are just a veil for class interest. You might also say that “sound” economic policies are really just policies that redistribute income upwards. And it turns out that the econometric evidence more or less supports your rant.

Bill O’Reilly’s Microwave Now at $85,400

Colbert with Microwave OvenLast night on Colbert Report, I learned that Bill O’Reilly is auctioning off his notes from the pre-Super Bowl interview with President Obama. Colbert lampooned this by auctioning off the microwave that he stole from The Factor when he was a guest on it. O’Reilly started the bidding on his notes at $10,000. Colbert decided that the microwave would normally be worth $40, but given that Bill O’Reilly had used it, he started the bidding at $43.

Well, this morning, I had to check E-Bay to see how the bidding was going. And not surprisingly, it is going really well. There have been 294 bids and it is currently at $85,400:

Bill O'Reilly's Microwave That Stephen Colbert Stole

It is amazing that someone has almost $100,000 to spend on what is, in the end, just a joke. What’s more, in the time I was working on this, the bid went from $85,300 to $85,400. So there are at least two people willing to do this. Go figure.

Here is the segment, which is pretty funny:

Dark Cynicism in House of Cards

House of CardsI’ve decided to get rid of my Netflix account because I’m just not using it. So last night I watched the first episode of House of Cards because I’ve heard good things about it. I’ve heard good things about Orange Is the New Black too, but I just can’t deal with a prison drama. Given that House of Cards is a political drama with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. What’s not to like?

Well, it turns out: quite a lot. What most bothers me about it is that the characters are not realistic. They are archetypes and not very interesting archetypes at that. So the show presents what appears to be a realistic story, but it is anything but. That in itself is not a problem. But I can’t get past the fact that it is all just an intellectual exercise that means nothing and says nothing about anything.

The show is self-consciously Shakespearean. Francis—the Kevin Spacey role—spends a great deal of time talking directly to the audience. It is very much like Richard III, where he explains his grand machinations. The episode starts with a dog getting hit by a car. This leads to Francis giving a soliloquy about useless pain as he kills the dog to end its suffering. But unlike in Richard III, we are not looking forward to a conclusion where the protagonist either succeeds or fails. We look forward instead to at least three seasons of the same thing.

What is the point of all this? Are we to take away the fact that powerful people have no moral rudder other than their desire to gain more power? There are two problems with this. First, we already all think this. Second, it is a problem that we already all think this. This kind of implicit cynicism is self-fulfilling.

What’s more, the show is utterly contemptuous of the one character who does have a moral sense. And as a result, the whole thing is nothing more than a Jim Thompson novel like The Grifters. But in Thompson’s telling, there is a kind heart. There is the idea that being a cynical bastard who preys on the weak lives in his own hell. Francis is kind of a Washington insider’s perfect politician: a guy who doesn’t believe in anything but gets things done.

Perhaps I would like the show more if there were any character that I liked. But there really isn’t. What’s more, all of the characters are there either to be Francis’ foil or pawn. And Francis’ wife—the Robin Wright part—is the head of a nonprofit, but every bit as Machiavellian as he is. That reminds me of something else, their relationship is entirely unbelievable. But then, you could say that about the whole series.

On the positive side, the show has its moments. In one, Francis is about to meet with the President’s Chief of Staff. He tells us that she will most likely say that the President wants Donald Blythe for Education Secretary. When the Chief of Staff comes in and tells him exactly this, Francis looks into the camera and gives a look that says, “Told ya.” But there is a whole lot of relentless cynicism one has to put up with to come upon charming bits like that.

The show is well made and I can see why it appeals to many people. As for me, I wasn’t even tempted to watch a second episode. I suspect that when people revisit the show in ten years, they will wonder what they thought was so great about it.

No GOP Hypocrisy on the Debt Ceiling

FilibusterEd Kilgore calls out the Republicans for hypocrisy about the Debt Ceiling. He notes that only 28 of the 272 Republicans in Congress voted for it—just over 10%. He also notes that of the twelve Republicans in the Senate who voted for cloture, none voted for the actual bill. I think he is totally wrong to call this hypocrisy.

The Debt Ceiling vote has long been little more than an opportunity for grandstanding. And that’s just fine. When Barack Obama was a Senator, he voted against it and we rightly justify that because he did it knowing that the Debt Ceiling would pass. That’s all that the Republicans are doing here. The only difference is that the Republican base has become so crazy that the vote is also a matter of political survival. So I think we should applaud them: we got enough Republicans to cooperate and got the Debt Ceiling raised. Yay!

Even worse than this, however, is complaining that the Senate Republicans voted for cloture but not for the bill. It amazes me that a smart and knowledgeable commentator like Kilgore would say this. The way things are supposed to work is that votes are allowed on bills even when 41 Senators are against it. Kilgore is implying that this “if you don’t like a bill you filibuster it” approach to legislation is right and proper.

Kilgore quotes an article by Carl Hulsey about the Vote No, Hope Yes Caucus. And yes, there is a small difference between that and Obama’s Vote No, Know Yes vote. But that’s just politics and I think we should all be a little understanding of the hole that Republicans have created for themselves regarding the base.

Hulsey spends a good chunk of his article talking about what this means for immigration reform. Kilgore also discusses this. It is the kind of Villager stuff that drives me crazy. We are not going to get reasonable immigration reform while the Republicans control half the Congress. But to these guys, anything that is called immigration reform is good. They apparently would be thrilled if Congress passed “The Immigration Reform and Deport Everyone Act.”

All this discussion comes down to is a plea that we all just get along. But the vote on the Debt Ceiling was an example of us getting along. So we aren’t going to get a bad immigration bill that is a huge giveaway to corporate America. Big deal. In Washington this week, we managed to raise the Debt Ceiling without further harming the economy. I call that a win. Let’s move on.