Suffrage, Hamlet, and Galilean Moons

Galileo GalileiOn this day in 1820, the civil rights leader Susan B Anthony was born. She was an amazing woman who did a great deal, including organizing for women’s suffrage, starting the first women’s temperance movement, and founding the journal, The Revolution. She lived to be 86 years old, but unfortunately never saw women get the right to vote. I was fascinated with her when the United States government came out with a dollar coin with her on the face. It was a great coin because of the smaller size, replacing the totally ridiculous Eisenhower dollars. But a lot of people had a problem with it. How dare we celebrate a feminist on our money! What people actually said was that they confused it with the quarter. I don’t accept that; it is far more difficult to tell a dime from a penny by feel. Regardless, the coin was only minted from 1979 to 1981 and then in 1999. In its place, we now have the Sacagawea dollar which I love, partly Susan B Anthonybecause of the color. (One can do silver-copper coin tricks using the two dollars.) But no one today complains about the size of the dollar, even though it is exactly the same as the Anthony dollar. Regardless, here in California (and Florida, New York, West Virginia and Wisconsin), it is Susan B Anthony Day. So happy Susan B Anthony Day!

John Barrymore was born in 1882. He was one of the great actors. We especially know him for his Shakespearean acting. Here is a bit of a screen test of him performing Hamlet. At the beginning is Orson Welles talking about how great he was. Take my advice: never listen to Welles discuss Shakespeare. He was very good, but when he talks about Shakespeare, it’s drivel. But I think he is quite right about Barrymore. It is the best up to that time. Shakespearean acting has only gotten better, but this is still really good:

Other birthdays: French painter Charles-Andre van Loo (1705); philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748); Romanian painter Ion Andreescu (1850); great mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (1861); songwriter Walter Donaldson (1893); probably the least interesting of Les Six, Georges Auric (1899); actor Allan Arbus (1918); actor Harvey Korman (1927); actor Claire Bloom (83); screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin (1932); singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester (63); actor Jane Seymour (63); Futurama creator Matt Groening (60); character actor Christopher McDonald (59); and journalist Josh Marshall (45).

The day, however, belongs to Galileo Galilei who was born on this day in 1564. I guess it is best to call him a scientist, although his most important work would now be called physics. I think mostly of his work on basic mechanics showing that gravitational acceleration is constant. This is because size of the gravitational force is proportional to an objects mass, but that is matched by its inertia. This is not a simple concept.

Galileo is probably better known for his enormous impact on astronomy. He was the first person to seriously apply the telescope to the field. And as a result, he saw things others did not, like the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, and sun spots. He was also a big proponent of heliocentrism, which got him in a bit of trouble with the Church. And personally, I think if you live your whole life without angering the religious dogmatists, you really haven’t lived.

Happy birthday Galileo Galilei!

More Disingenuous Treacle from Mankiw

Greg MankiwWell, Greg Mankiw is out with a great big pile of income inequality apologetics in The New York Times, Yes, the Wealthy Can Be Deserving. His article in a nutshell: superstar actors make more today than they did 50 years ago because they are worth it. Matt Yglesias‘ reaction to this argument is exactly the same as mine. He concludes, “It’s true—times change in ways that are disproportionately beneficial to some people. But that’s not a strong case for believing that whatever distribution of economic resources happens to emerge at any given time is optimal.”

Mankiw uses Robert Downey Jr as an example, so I’ll go along with it. It is true that more people have seen Downey in Iron Man 3 than saw Cary Grant in His Girl Friday. But the extra audience is due to changes in the economy and technology. These are social goods that have nothing whatsoever to do with Robert Downey Jr’s charm and acting ability. Why is he paid more? It’s quite simple: he’s lucky. The way the economy is set up either over-rewards him or under-rewarded Grant. What this means is that a given economic system under different conditions does not reward the same individuals the same. Thus, it must be unfair under some conditions and Mankiw’s argument doesn’t even acknowledge this, much less address it.

Mankiw is up to his usual tricks as well. Rather than looking at total taxes paid by people, he looks at federal taxes, which are the most progressive. This is unconscionable. What is he, an academic economist or a political operative for the Republican Party? Well, we all know the answer to that! He also makes some very questionable assumptions about Downey’s worth based upon the gross receipts of Marvel’s the Avengers. I cannot say whether he is just ignorant of the way actual businesses run (very common among conservatives) or he is, as is often the case, just being disingenuous.

There is a underlying problem with Mankiw’s big thesis that these huge salaries make us all richer: it isn’t true. In 1980, one could reasonably make that argument. But the last four decades have shown that as the top has done better, the middle and bottom have at best stayed even. I hate that people like Mankiw continue to argue this nonsense. If they want to go all Ayn Rand and say that it is tyranny to take a penny away from the rich, that’s fine with me. That’s their opinion. But this argument that income inequality is better for everyone doesn’t hold up. Of course, I know why they keep using it. It may be wrong, but it plays a hell of a lot better than the one about the poor oppressed rich.

This is not the first time that Mankiw has made this argument. Last June I wrote about another article where he highlighted Steve Jobs, J K Rowling, and Steven Spielberg. It’s shameful that he brings up these kinds of examples. All of the important work these people did was as workers, but who he’s defending are primarily owners. He does tip his hat to corruption, but only to say that people like Madoff should be thrown in jail. But as I’m sure Mankiw knows, that’s the exception. When people like James Dimon rob, cheat, and steal, they get bonuses.

I am so sick of reading Mankiw. It seems a couple of times each year, he will come out with another adult fairy tale, explaining to all of us idiots that we just don’t understand economics. And it’s so simple: if you encourage the job creators (You know, people like Robert Downey Jr!) fairy dust will be sprinkled throughout the economy, trickling down on all the rest of us. I think trickle is the wrong word, but what we get from Mankiw is treacle.

Update (15 February 2014)

I can’t believe I forgot to bring this up. As I discussed this morning, even as star salaries are higher than ever, the wages of establish actors have gone down. So even in Mankiw’s own example, we can see as a practical matter, Robert Downey Jr’s $50 million paycheck is not making everyone else richer by bringing more people into the theaters. (Of course, it isn’t Downey who’s bring them in.)

Update (16 February 2014 9:29 am)

Paul Krugman takes Mankiw to task. I particularly liked this:

Mankiw argues that our tax system is fair because the top 0.1 percent pays a higher share of income in federal taxes than the middle class. This neglects the partial offset of this progressivity by regressive state and local taxes. But surely the main point is that to the extent that taxes on the 0.1 percent are high (they aren’t really, in historical context) that’s largely because Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election, so that Obama’s partial rollback of the Bush tax cuts and the high-income surcharges that partially finance health reform remained in place and the Ryan budget didn’t happen. It’s kind of funny to claim that our system is fair thanks to policies that you and your friends tried desperately to kill.

In other words, Mankiw is being disingenuous.

Update (16 February 2014 9:42 am)

Dean Baker does a much more thorough job with Markiw. He starts by noting that Downey’s huge paycheck is only partly the result of technology; another part is the stricter enforcement of copyright. His larger point is that the current system that we have is a choice. It is not at all the most efficient or fairest. As he concludes, “If the 1 percent are able to extract vast sums from the economy it is because we have structured the economy for this purpose. It could easily be structured differently, but the 1 percent and its defenders aren’t interested in changing things.” You should read the whole thing, but here is a taste:

Then we get to the CEOs who Mankiw tells us get high pay because of what they contribute to their companies and the economy. If this is the case, how do we explain CEO’s of companies like Lehman, Bear Stearns, and AIG walking away with hundreds of millions of dollars even though they drove their firms into bankruptcy? When the CEO of Exxon-Mobil gets hundreds of millions because soaring worldwide oil prices sent Exxon’s profits through the roof, do we really think the pay is a function of hard work? How do we explain the fact that CEOs of incredibly successful companies in Europe, Japan, and South Korea make on average around a tenth as much as our crew does?

To Live With Ikiru

IkiruI watched Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru after many years. It is the story of a man who learns that he is dying of stomach cancer and so decides to use his life to do something meaningful. You can well imagine what kind of sentimental claptrap this would be in the hands of Hollywood. Ikiru—which means “to live”—is not at all sentimental. In fact, the main character dies halfway through the film. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t inspiring. It shows how one man decided to change his life for the better without any of the cheap movie tricks that I so despise. (Think: Beaches.)

The film is a product of the post-war period in Japan and focuses on a bureaucrat, Kanji Watanabe, who follows the tradition of doing as little as possible. This is highlighted at the beginning of the film when Watanebe uses as scrap paper, pages from a document titled, “A Proposal for Increasing Departmental Efficiency.” This is followed by the narrator telling us, “The best way to protect your place in the world is to do nothing at all.” This goes along with a quote provided in Stephen Prince’s excellent commentary from Masao Miyamoto, “The three great principles of Japanese bureaucracy are: don’t be late; don’t take time off; and do no work.” Watanabe wasn’t always like this, but he certainly is at this mature point in his career.

At the same time, we are introduced to a group of local women who want the government to fix a problem. Near where they live is an open sewer that is making their children sick. They want it to be remediated and turned into a park. So they go to the government and end up being sent from one agency to another. They stand as the opportunity that Watanabe needs to find redemption and his pathway “to live”—even if it is for a short time.

(As a political matter, I have a problem with too much focus on governmental bureaucracy. Bureaucratic obstruction in the government was a big problem and still is in many places. But at least in this country, it has gotten much better. Now, the “run around” is much more common in dealing with corporations. A couple of years ago, Paul Krugman noted, “I’ve recently had fairly extensive dealings with both our healthcare system and with the New Jersey DMV. In one case, I encountered vast amounts of paperwork, mind-numbing bureaucracy, and extremely frustrating delays. In the other, my needs were met quickly and politely. So far, then, it’s DMV 1, private health system (and I have very good insurance) 0.” That’s my experience.)

The structure of the film is very interesting. As I said, Watanabe dies halfway through the film. As a result, his actual redemption is shown through the recollections of other bureaucrats as they get drunk at his wake. While sober, they all want to disregard what he has accomplished as just doing his job. But we’ve already seen that all the bureaucrats think their jobs are to do nothing. As they drink they begin to celebrate what he has done and commit to doing it themselves. Of course, the next day at work, they are all back to business as usual. All of them, that is, except for one mostly impotent low-level bureaucrat, Kimura, who acts as the conscience of the second half of the film.

The whole film is episodic. In the first half, we see Watanabe trying different things to make sense of life. An extended section involves a pulp novelist taking him on a tour of the night life. The whole thing is shot from the outside with a distinct subtext of disapproval at the hollowness of it. Then Watanabe starts following a young woman around who quit the bureaucracy because the people who worked for it never did anything. This isn’t sexual. He sees in her a more valid outlook on life. But ultimately, he returns to work, but with the idea of actually doing something. The second half is also episodic, but for a different reason. As in Rashomon, we get different views of the work that Watanabe did. But unlike in that film, it is done to create a single narrative: Watanabe working for the mothers to overcome bureaucratic obstruction.

Despite all of this, the narrative works well. I suspect that had it been normally structured, it would not have worked that well. Or it would have been a much shorter film. Once Watanabe has his insight about what kind of life is worth living, there is little to do except to show the results. So dramatically, the cut to Watanabe’s wake is jarring. But it allows the film to delve more deeply into the social dysfunction of the bureaucracy.

Clearly, there is a cynical take on the film: nothing changes. Unlike in Hollywood films, Watanabe doesn’t start a trend or lead a revolution. If he had, the movie wouldn’t be realistic. It would be just another story of the romantic hero who saves the world. But ultimately, Watanabe does save his world. And in doing so, he helps all the people in that neighborhood who got an environmental hazard replaced with a park. What’s more, he did act as an inspiration for Kimura, who we see at the very end of the film as he walks out of frame having just been watching kids playing in the new park.

Technically, the film is excellent as well. Most of the set design is very crowded until Watanabe has his epiphany. This is represented in the piles of paper that surround all the bureaucrats in his office as well as the night life. I think it is a stretch to suggest that Kurosawa was making a point about how our things distance us from one another, but that seems a perfectly correct interpretation of what got onto the screen. It is made even more concrete as the bureaucrats get drunk, they are seen crawling over each other.

The camera work is typical of the Kurosawa troupe. We see cross cut tracking shots just like we see in Seven Samurai and Ran. It is quite exciting to watch, especially for a film about a man’s existential crisis. There is surprisingly little music used in the film, which helps with keeping it from turning sentimental. I find I’m often offended when films overuse music to tell me what to feel. There is none of that here. But there is some great use of sound, as when Watanabe walks from the doctor in a daze. There is no sound until he almost walks in front of a truck, when all the sound comes blasting back.

Other than the script, however, the core of the film is Takashi Shimura’s performance. If you know him, it is most likely as the lead ronin in Seven Samurai. But I especially associate him with the woodcutter in Rashomon. (He’s also great in the Japanese version of Godzilla; if you haven’t seen both versions you owe it to yourself.) As regular readers know, I’m a big fan of Toshiro Mifune. But he is a star more than an actor. Shimura is a great actor. In fact, it is hard to believe that the little dying Bureaucrat in 1952 is played by the same man who plays the battle weary ronin in 1954. Of course, this isn’t to say he isn’t a star too. Regardless of the part, he radiates charisma on the screen.

It is commonly said that one should read Don Quixote three times: once when you are young, then in middle age, and finally when you are old. The idea is that you will perceive it differently at those times in your life. I’m sure that’s true of any great work of art. It is certainly true that I see Ikiru differently now than I did in decades previous. As a young man, I was much more egotistical—looking at the world only as a means to my fulfillment. Now I see things much more as Watanabe: I would like to be useful to the world. But being useful is not as easy as it sounds. We are all used to doing so little. We sleepwalk through life like we are zombies. It takes effort “to live.”

The Trials of Mid-Level Actors

That Guy... Who Was in That ThingAndrea alerted me to the documentary That Guy… Who Was in That Thing. It consists of interviews with 16 relatively familiar screen actors about the acting business and their lives. It’s interesting because we don’t get much information about actors at that level. I didn’t learn much, however. I’m very aware of just how extreme the winner-take-all economics of the film business is.

Consider, for example, Marcus Chong (who isn’t in the film). He played Tank in The Matrix. Other than the three principal actors, he was the only member of the Nebuchadnezzar who survived. So when the producers made the two sequels, they needed Chong to reprise the role. They offered him $250,000 to do both films—$125,000 each. Chong wanted $250,000 for each. Eventually, the producers replaced Chong with Harold Perrineau in a very clunky script rewrite. This was a huge mistake. As it is, the biggest problem with the sequels is that they introduce so many new and uninteresting characters. Having Tank would have helped a great deal.

Now I understand: $250,000 is a lot of money for roughly 6 months of work. But for actors who spend most of their time not acting, it isn’t that much. And it especially isn’t much for an actor who was one of the best parts of the hugely successful earlier film. And Chong was hardly alone. While the principals made a lot of money from the film, for everyone else, it was just a job. For most people, it is nothing other than a union job. And that’s good, but not great.

This comes across loud and clear in That Guy… Who Was in That Thing. Even extremely well-established actors like Paul Guilfoyle seem to get relatively little pay. Even more than that, the whole Hollywood system is designed to give them little respect. They are just cogs in the machine, to be plugged into roles. What I didn’t know before is that salaries of the actors have gone down over the last decade. Given that they are not seen as draws (although people like Guilfoyle and Xander Berkeley are for me), producers just offer a low salaries and get someone else if they aren’t accepted.

I’m not going to shed any tears for these guys. It is relatively hard to get into the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Even so, the average yearly salary of SAG actors is below $5,000. So most actors are making little money. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the median salary is zero. So these guys are doing okay. And they are doing what most people go into acting for: to act and get paid for it.

But it does bring up the issue of income inequality. I don’t mean the fact that acting is a winner-take-all market. Everyone knows that and so people who go into the business know what they are getting into. The big conservative argument of why we have to pay the “winners” so much is to motivate everyone else. But I don’t see that at all. If there were something vaguely linear about success and financial gain, I don’t think anything would change. Certainly these middle-level actors continue to do good work despite the fact that they know they will never be stars making millions of dollars per film.

Regardless, the documentary provides a far better description of Hollywood than is usual. And generally, what is happening there is the same thing that is happening in the rest of the economy. It isn’t a question of the stars versus the rest. The real money in Hollywood goes to the producers; stars make most of their money by being executive producers. So again, it’s all about the workers versus the owners. In general, working actors and technicians do okay. But very few are getting rich. Luckily for them, they still have strong unions. Without them, it would be far worse—just like in the rest of the economy.

Robots, Patents, and Inequality

Dean BakerDean Baker is probably the most insightful economic thinker in the public discourse. But there is one area where I think he is wrong. He complains that we have nothing to worry about from automation because it will make our lives better. This is in contrast to those of us who believe that robots are like other forms of capital and will be distributed the way that capital is now: unequally and unfairly.

Of course, Baker is aware of this problem. He just prefers to use the automation story to highlight other problems in our society. This morning he wrote, The Scary Robot Story Stems from Confusion by the Story Tellers. In it, he argues the real problem is not the robots, but long patents protection. In a free market, robots will be cheap. “In short, the scary story is a story of patent policy designed to redistribute income upward. It has nothing to do with technology.”

I agree. But you could say the same thing about globalization. The problem isn’t globalization, it is all those other policies designed to redistribute income upward. Our inequality problem is the result of those policies and not the broader economic trends. But given that we do have these policies, globalization is a very bad thing for most people. And robots are a real concern. As Donald Rumsfeld might say, “You lose your job to robots with the policies you have, not the policies you want.”

Baker seems to be focusing too much on the theoretical here. This is not like him. But I suspect in his mind, discussions of robots and automation are a distraction from very real problems in the economy now and going forward. The inefficiencies of our intellectual property system are a big issue to Baker. And it is a big issue to me. But the problem with robots is much deeper than patents.

The real problem is continually increasing inequality. Our broken intellectual property system is a result of that inequality. After all, we didn’t get copyright lengths that are roughly a century long because writers and software developers were demanding it. We got them because powerful rentiers didn’t want to lose their ability to charge rents on really old stuff. The biggest example of this is Disney with Mickey Mouse. So the more robots we have, the more inequality will increase. And that would just result in longer and stronger patent protections.

So I agree with Baker that robots are a second-order problem. But they are still a problem given the unequal status of people in the nation and the world. And the fact that people talk about robots is indicative of the fact that they don’t see our system changing. Unfortunately, they have good reasons for being so cynical.

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