Johnny Winter’s Mississippi Blues

Johnny WinterOn this day in 1685, George Frideric Handel was born. [Actually, that’s old calendar; his actually birthday was on 5 March 1685. -FM] As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become very bored with Baroque period music. I think that Classical period music is perfect because it has far more emotional depth than Baroque without hitting me over the head with it as much Romantic period music does. What we see is mostly a move from highly contrapuntal work of the Baroque period to an emphasis on harmonic structure in the Romantic period. I like all the counterpoint, but I want something more. Still, in the case of Handel, there is much that I still admire. Although I think that Bach is the more important composer, I enjoy listening to Handel more. Here is something great, “Ombra Mai Fu” from Serse:

Other birthdays: philosopher Richard Price (1723); public intellectual W E B Du Bois (1868); painter Kazimir Malevich (1878); philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883); film director Victor Fleming (1889); good hack film director Norman Taurog (1899); film director Claude Sautet (1924); actor Majel Barrett (1932); experimental filmmaker Paul Morrissey (76); actor Peter Fonda (74); humorist Tom Bodett (59); singer-songwriter Howard Jones (59); and actor Tamsin Greig (47).

The day, however, belongs to the great blues guitarist Johnny Winter who is 70 today. Despite the fact that his life is generally a mess, his music is always so finely crafted. I don’t know anyone who surpasses him in terms of his musical ideas. His lead playing is as good as anyone, including Hendrix. But what is most impressive is his rhythm playing. You see him doing both in this version of “Mississippi Blues”:

Happy birthday Johnny Winter!

Braveheart‘s Torture Problem

BraveheartI watched Braveheart again today. I saw it when it was out, roughly two decades ago and I rather liked it. So as is usual for me, I read everything I could find about the history of William Wallace and Edward I. Of course, I found the film was about as far on the fiction side of “historical fiction” as a movie could get. But I left it at that and didn’t think a great deal more about it. But seeing it today really brought all of this into perspective.

The main thing that jumped out at me was how much the film turned both Wallace and Edward into caricatures of themselves. Both were smart and even learned men. Wallace spent the last several years of his life on what turned out to be a hopeless diplomatic effort to get France and Rome to intervene in the Scottish conflict. And Edward, cruel as he was to the Scottish nobility (And the English nobility for that matter!) was hugely important in reforming common law. He also set up the first permanent English Parliament. So these were warriors, but not evil by the mores of their time.

The worst part of the movie is at the end. Wallace has been captured and if only he will admit to treason, they will kill him quickly. He will not. So they are going to torture him to death. So the queen comes to him and gives him some opium to be able to deal with the pain. But he refuses it. And then the executioner cuts off his genitals and even then, Wallace yells a defiant, “Freedom!” Really, the whole thing is just too much.

What really happened is that Edward wanted to send a message. Wallace had been thoroughly vilified in England. Like many other military leaders at many other times, Wallace used his disadvantage as a smaller force to his advantage by using what we would now call guerrilla tactics. From the English perspective, this was not cricket! I’m sure they saw it very much the way we see the use of improvised explosive devices and suicide bombs. So it isn’t surprising that Edward acted as he did to the applause of his people.

Of course, we know that people don’t respond to torture as is presented in Braveheart. For one thing, the English cut open his gut, pulled out his intestines, and set them on fire. I don’t think you yell “freedom” when that happens; if you yell anything, it is not words but screams of pain — Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and all. But the torture scene is not there because of Wallace. It doesn’t really matter. Wallace is important because of what he did before, not because of his execution. The torture is there because Mel Gibson is a very troubled man who clearly gets some kind of sexual thrill from torture. (That puts The Passion of the Christ into a new perspective, don’t it?!)

As it is, the film ends rather strangely. After Wallace is killed, the film jumps ahead a decade to when Robert the Bruce beats the weaker King Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn. So the Scots get their independent monarchy again. That would be a fine way to end the film if Bruce had been the main character. The way the script reads, it is more like a revenge tragedy where Wallace gets back at England for killing his wife. But Gibson wants to provide some kind of thematic layer on the film about the importance of the Scottish people having their very own royalty to oppress them. I suspect that this discontinuity was imposed upon screenwriter Randall Wallace. Gibson has been known to push his own unfortunate fetishes on other writers.

I don’t have a problem with movies that take large liberties with history. But if one is going to show a story about such people, it makes most sense to at least be true to who they were. Edward comes off as a psychopath who cares only for power. Wallace comes off as a man only interested revenge who only wraps himself in Scottish independence in pursuit of that revenge. And in the end, it is all about Gibson’s own obsessions with pain endurance.

Elite Colleges Reinforce Status Quo

Kenneth GriffinThe graph below is from the Brookings Institute in a blog post, Rising Inequality in Postsecondary Education. But I found out about it via Matt Yglesias who is on a mini-jihad against those who would donate to the top tier “name” schools, Seriously, Don’t Give Money To Fancy Colleges. What the graph shows is that poor kids are under represented even in the moderately competitive schools, much less the elite institutions.

My opinion is that one is likely to get a worse education at the elite colleges. The only reason they are thought to be good is only the very best and and best prepared students are allowed in. I suspect you could take that subset of students, have them do nothing but drink beer for four years, and they would turn out quite well. That’s especially true given that the vast majority of them are from well-to-do families, their careers would be set regardless. The fact is that having a diploma with “Harvard” printed on it means a whole lot more than having a Harvard education.

Elite College Enrollment

The larger point is that the elite institutions perpetuate the existing social order by giving further advantages to the already advantaged. Yet they do it in such a way as to give themselves plausible deniability. Just as the Republican Party can trot out a few black conservatives as an argument that it isn’t racist, Harvard can trot out a few poor students as an argument that their primary mission is something other than reinforcing the status quo.

As Yglesias puts it:

If you took a time machine back to 1914 and proclaimed to the world that the Ivy League was an exclusionary club aimed at the perpetuation of an economic and social elite nobody would have been surprised… But the basic social role of the elite, highly selective institution hasn’t changed—they are both elite and selective, not democratic or egalitarian.

This all comes back to a point I have made many times before: democracy cannot exist in an economy that isn’t reasonably equitable. One of the primary uses of a person’s wealth is to improve the prospects of his children. There’s nothing wrong with that; we are mammals, and that’s how our brains are built. But when one man has billions and another man has nothing, there can’t be any notion of equality of opportunity.

Look at that graph again: 70% of the students at elite colleges come from the upper class. That isn’t just because those in the upper class can afford the prices at these schools. It is also a reflection of the fact that the upper classes have given every other advantage to their children for two decades before that. It starts even before they are born, in the form of better prenatal care. So it’s no surprise that most of those 70% also have high SAT scores—they’ve been invested into their whole lives in ways that simply aren’t available to poor children.

All of this comes from hedge fund manage Kenneth Griffin’s recent $150 million gift to Harvard. Seen clearly, this isn’t about helping the rich; it’s about oppressing the poor. But what would you expect from a Wall Street billionaire?

Fed Only Interested in Inflation—Ever

Ben BernankeAs you’ve probably heard, the 2008 transcripts of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (FOMC) were released last week. They allow us to see for the first time what all the Big Thinkers thought about the financial crisis and housing bubble in real time. And the picture is not pretty. It is also not surprising. As always, most of the people on the FOMC were primarily interested in inflation, even as the economy was in free fall.

I think it is best to think of the Fed in sociological terms. All the people on the board are members of the power elite. They never have to worry about losing their standard of living. But even more important, they don’t have any friends who have to worry about theirs either. As long as the Fed members keep inflation low, they will always be welcome at the parties of the power elite. Unemployment is something that only affects the commoners. The power elite only cares about it in as much as a very high unemployment rate would hurt profits and possibly start a revolution. So the Fed pretty much only cares about inflation, regardless of its mandate to keep unemployment low.

The reason that the financial crisis was so damaging to the economy is that it brought on the bursting of the housing bubble. But apparently, few at the Federal Reserve were aware of this. MarcusCMarcellus put together this video of clips from the years leading up to the crisis in which Ben Bernanke repeatedly claimed that there was no housing bubble:

But as Dean Baker points out, even as the housing crisis was upon us, the Fed was mostly ignorant:

The other item that is amazing in these transcripts is that no one seems to know about the Census Bureau’s data on housing vacancies. Vacancy rates of ownership units were already about 50 percent above normal levels by the end of 2007. The vacancy rate on rental units was about 30 percent above normal levels. What did the Fed folks think this implied for house prices?

Incredibly, the first mention of vacancy rates in the transcripts doesn’t come until June.

This is like watching storm clouds gathering and ignoring them. But it is important to remember what’s really going on. The storm clouds were gathering, but not for the power elite. So the safest thing for the Fed to do was to ignore the signs that thing were getting bad for the working class and concentrate on making sure that nothing would harm the wealth of the elites. And history bears this out. What is much more surprising is that people like Janet Yellen and Eric Rosengren had any interest in what was best for the economy overall.