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.

GOTV Always Favors Democrats

Get Out the VoteAlex Roarty wrote a really interesting article over at National Journal, The GOP’s Talent Gap. It’s about how the Republican Party has too many chiefs and not enough braves. All the people working on Republican campaigns are doing it only as a stepping stone to those high paid pundit gigs in the Breitbart empire. To their credit, may people in the Republican Party are worried about this. But it isn’t a problem that is easily fixed. The Republicans have a culture of “looking out for number one” and they rebel against calls to work for the common good.

The article doesn’t go into this, but this is actually quite a recent development in the Republican Party. At one time, conservatives believed that the government should not force people to work for the greater good by, for example, making them pay taxes. But working for a common good of one’s choosing was perfectly fine. It is not anymore. This is a direct result of the dominance of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. By it, people are expected to be selfish because that does the greatest good. As I’ve discussed before, Rand created a great loophole in the form of enlightened self-interest. This is the idea that you shouldn’t just do whatever feels good; you should look at your whole life and see the best way to maximize your happiness. But among modern conservatives, I don’t see much “enlightened” in their self-interest.

This year, the Democratic Party is trying something new. They are trying to push back against the off-year election problem where Democratic leaning voters don’t come out to the polls. The idea is to focus on get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts. I’m on board with that. For years, I’ve argued that since people are very consistent in their voting patterns, we should stop trying to shape our message and put all of our work into getting the people who think like we do to vote. That’s the great thing about being a Democrat: most people agree with us.

The Republicans have no such advantage. And I think this is more important in explaining why the Republican Party has been so slow to focus on GOTV. They simply don’t have as much to gain from it. The base of the Republican Party is made up of older and richer voters. These are people who already vote in very high numbers. Reminding them or providing them with rides will not make them more likely to vote. So given there isn’t as much to gain, it isn’t surprising that GOTV efforts are not a high priority at any level inside the Republican Party.

Just the same, the Republicans do need to do it if they are going to stay competitive. But even with people who understand the issue, it must be disconcerting. The Democrats will always win at this game because they will always have a much larger group from which to draw. And so the Republican number cruncher will sit in front of his computer, not giving 100% because part of him is is bitching that his work will at best limit the vote margin bleeding, and another part of him is fantasizing about writing for Breitbart.

Terry and Arthur

Terry EagletonOn this day in 1732, the first US president George Washington was born. The less said about him, the better.

Arthur Schopenhauer was born in 1788. He is probably my favorite philosopher. Not surprisingly, he was a proponent of philosophical pessimism, which is “a worldview or ethic that seeks to face up to the distasteful realities of the world and eliminate irrational hopes and expectations.” I think that puts rather too rosy a gloss on what Schopenhauer wrote. I don’t actually accept his idea in The World as Will and Representation, but I nonetheless think he is onto something profound. The will is what keeps us living even though life is nothing so much as a sequence of painful events. As Wikipedia describes the will as it applies to ontology, “Schopenhauer presents a pessimistic picture on which unfulfilled desires are painful, and pleasure is merely the sensation experienced at the instant one such pain is removed. However, most desires are never fulfilled, and those that are fulfilled are instantly replaced by more unfulfilled ones.” On the other hand, if you look at those photos of him as an old man, I think you can tell that he saw humor in the absurdities of life. Ultimately, I think that is our only hope. Because life does not make sense and continuing through all of this pain makes no sense. If it gets better, it will only be temporary.

The tallest man in human history, Robert Wadlow was born in 1918. He was 8 feet 11 inches tall—three feet taller than his father. When I was a kid, I thought he was amazing. Now I look at him and I am filled with sadness. How can people look at him and think that there is a loving god. The man lived in pain most of his life and if he had lived longer, he certainly would have reached the point where he couldn’t walk. What a mess.

Other birthdays: the great Romantic period composer Frederic Chopin (1810); poet James Russell Lowell (1819); astronomer Pierre Janssen (1824); physicists Heinrich Hertz (1857); the great chess writer Savielly Tartakower (1887); the great film director Luis Bunuel (1900); actor John Mills (1908); announcer Don Pardo (96); film director David Greene (1921); actor Paul Dooley (86); statesman Ted Kennedy (1932); film director Jonathan Demme (70); actor Julie Walters (64); actor Kyle MacLachlan (55); and actor Drew Barrymore (39).

The day, however, belongs to the great Shakespearean scholar Terry Eagleton who is 71 today. But the truth is that I don’t know much about his work. I have one of his books, William Shakespeare. It was my first exposure to him where he wrote, “To any unprejudiced reader—which would seem to exclude Shakespeare himself, his contemporary audiences and almost all literary critics—it is surely clear that positive vlue in Macbeth lies with the three witches.” He goes on to discuss how the witches are democratic whereas the Scots are hierarchical and so on. How can you not love a man who would write such a thing?

Since then, I have read a number of Eagleton’s book. He writes these very insightful short books on philosophy such as Reason, Faith, and Revolution and On Evil. I especially like him because intellectually he is an outsider. Just as I am an atheist who offends all other atheists, he is a Christian who offends all other Christians. This is pretty much because my form of atheism is the same as his form of Christianity. Regardless, he is always worth reading because he always has something interesting to say, unlike most intellectuals.

Happy birthday Terry Eagleton!

Absurdity of Neoliberal Policy

Bad SamaritansI have a six-year-old son. His name is Jin-Gyu. He lives off me, yet he is quite capable of making a living. I pay for his lodging, food, education and health care. But millions of children of his age already have jobs. Daniel Defoe, in the 18th century, thought that children could earn a living from the age of four.

Moreover, working might do Jin-Gyu’s character a world of good. Right now he lives in an economic bubble with no sense of the value of money. He has zero appreciation of the efforts his mother and I make on his behalf, subsidizing his idle existence and cocooning him from harsh reality. He is over-protected and needs to be exposed to competition, so that he can become a more productive person. Thinking about it, the more competition he is exposed to and the sooner this is done, the better it will be for his future development. It will whip him into a mentality that is ready for hard work. I should make him quit school and get a job. Perhaps I could move to a country where child labor is still tolerated, if not legal, to give him more choice in employment.

I can hear you say I must be mad. Myopic. Cruel. You tell me that I need to protect and nurture the child. If I drive Jin-Gyu into the labor market at the age of six, he may become a savvy shoeshine boy or even a prosperous street hawker, but he will never become a brain surgeon or a nuclear physicist—that would require at least another dozen years of my protection and investment. You argue that, even from a purely materialistic viewpoint, I would be wise to invest in my son’s education than gloat over the money I save by not sending him to school. After all, if I were right, Oliver Twist would have been better off pick-pocketing for Fagin, rather than being rescued by the misguided Good Samaritan Mr Brownlow, who deprived the boy of his chance to remain competitive in the labor market.

Yet this absurd line of argument is in essence how free-trade economists justify rapid, large-scale trade liberalization in developing countries. They claim that developing country producers need to be exposed to as much competition as possible right now, so that they have the incentive to raise their productivity in order to survive. Protection, by contrast, only creates complacency and sloth. The earlier the exposure, the argument goes, the better it is for economic development.

Incentives, however, are only half the story. The other is capability. Even if Jin-Gyu were to be offered a £20m reward or, alternatively, threateded with a bullet in his head, he would not be able to rise to the challenge of brain surgery had he quit school at the age of six. Likewise, industries in developing countries will not survive if they are exposed to international competition too early. They need time to improve their capabilities by mastering advanced technologies and building effective organizations. This is the essence of the infant industry argument…

—Ha-Joon Chang
Bad Samaritans

Ne Me Quitte Pas

Jacques BrelGood morning. I thought we would start with this nice video by French Rescue of Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” As they note, the English translation is meant to be accurate and not poetic. For example, they translate the refrain “Don’t leave me.” They do, however, mention (on the YouTube page) that Dieter Kaiser wrote a more poetic translation with “Don’t forsake me now.” Personally, given the music, I think it works better to translate it, “Do not leave me now.”

I don’t think the lyrics really matter. The listener gets the meaning clearly. Brel’s performance is what really does it. He’s more an actor than a singer. That’s always been the problem when his songs are performed here by pop singers. All the depth and subtlety are ripped out of them. As in this song, I can’t really imagine an American male showing this level of vulnerability. Sure, there’s a lot of faux vulnerability—always with a wink to the audience. But then, Brel was a real man, not one of these pretend American men who are too worried that someone might think they are gay to ever be genuine.

Regardless, Brel is the real deal:

Plagiarism and Competence

New York State Senator Greg BallThere seems to be a problem with Republicans and plagiarism. They have this tendency to just stick other people’s work in their speeches and bills without a thought. We saw a whole bunch of this with Rand Paul recently. And in the end, he didn’t even seem to understand what was wrong with what he had done. He made it out like other people were academic with their insistence of “footnotes.” He didn’t get the fact that saying something that was a direct quote without noting it is the definition of plagiarism.

Of course, some might bring up Joe Biden in 1988 when he plagiarizing part of a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. Actually, there are mitigating circumstances in this. Primarily, he normally did directly quote Kinnock, but simply forgot that time. He claimed to be exhausted and I believe him. The fact is that love him or hate him, Joe Biden is the most authentic politician around. But the main point is that Biden was embarrassed about the incident and withdrew from the race.

Recently, we got another Republican plagiarizer: New York State Senator Greg Ball. Like me, Ball was deeply affected by the documentary Blackfish. So he put together a bill to make it illegal for aquatic parks to keep killer whales in captivity. The problem is that the bill lifts a paragraph wholesale from a blog post by high school student Donald Rapier.

This is unfortunate, because while Ball is a Republican, I agree with the bill he is trying to get passed. It is also unfortunate because he decided to rip off this high school student rather than me. Of course, the biggest problem is the plagiarism. And to his credit, Ball seems to understand that plagiarism is actually wrong and something to be embarrassed about. So he fired one of his staff members, who supposedly did the plagiarism.

But the whole thing shows how writing has been devalued. I would think that everyone who works in a state (Or federal!) level office would at least be a competent writer. But instead, it looks like Republicans are forced to hire people who scraped out of English Composition with a C-. Or if they aren’t forced, they think that ideology trumps competence. As much as I admire what Senator Ball is trying to do, I think he must ultimately be held responsible. It isn’t enough to say that your staff did it when you are the one hiring people who can’t write and don’t value those who do.

John Rawls and David Foster Wallace

John RawlsOn this day in 1836, the French composer Leo Delibes was born. He composed primarily for the stage, so: opera and ballet. As you know, I’m not a great lover of later Romantic period music. But as it goes, Delibes really is one of the best. He crafted very strong contrapuntal melodies. For example, although you are probably unaware, you know “The Flower Duet” from his last opera Lakme, which is some of the most beautiful music you will ever hear. Since most of the people in my life hate opera for reasons that do not speak well for a single one of them, I offer up the following Pizzicato from his ballet Sylvia. You all probably know this from the same place we all got our original education in classical music: Looney Tunes:

The great classical guitarist Andres Segovia was born in 1893. Here he is toward the end of his life play Enrique Granados’ Danza in G:

One of the greatest writers of the 20th century David Foster Wallace was born in 1962. He is best known for the novel Infinite Jest, and interestingly, I just requested it from the library. David Foster WallaceI’ve decided to yet again make a pointless effort to write my own expansive postmodern novel with a hundred characters. The problem is not the characters. As a writer, character development is the only thing that I think I’m good at. The problem is the broader structure—making everything work together. And also the absolute overload of creative genius that comes from Wallace on the micro and macro scale. And what my limited mind can only call his breezy style. So my effort is doomed to failure, but at least I’ll get another pass at Infinite Jest. Where I think I might have more success is in mimicking Wallace’s nonfiction. This too is destined to fail. What bothers me about Wallace is that he was so great at describing life and at creating things that made life worth living, but that ultimately he was unable to deal with life. Here he is talking about how funny Kafka is:

And it is this, I think, that makes Kafka’s wit inaccessible to children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance. It’s not that students don’t “get” Kafka’s humor but that we’ve taught them to see humor as something you get—the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home. It’s hard to put into words, up at the blackboard, believe me. You can tell them that maybe it’s good they don’t “get” Kafka. You can ask them to imagine his stories as all about a kind of door. To envision us approaching and pounding on this door, increasingly hard, pounding and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it; we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and ramming and kicking. That, finally, the door opens… and it opens outward—we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch.

Actually, it is not funny.

Other birthdays: religious reformer Shah Waliullah (1703); sculptor Goscombe John (1860); Russian painter Pyotr Konchalovsky (1876); French-language playwright Sacha Guitry (1885); English playwright Clemence Dane (1888); writer Anais Nin (1903); actor Ann Sheridan (1915); great director Sam Peckinpah (1925); humorist Erma Bombeck (1927); singer-songwriter Nina Simone (1933); destroyer of music David Geffen (71); actor Alan Rickman (68); and musician Jerry Harrison (65).

The day, however, belongs to the great political philosopher John Rawls who was born on this day in 1921. A few months ago I wrote, John Rawls and Disingenuousness. It was about his concept of universality in political legitimacy. The problem is that Rawls was a serious thinker. Now, all stripes of conservative cloak their faith-based and power-based beliefs in a patina of universality. So instead of arguing that abortion is wrong because God said so, for example, they argue that abortion is wrong because a woman is pregnant with a full citizen, even when it is just a fertilized egg without a brain. Nonetheless, it is thrilling to read Rawls, and spend time thinking about weighty moral issues instead of dealing with all the disingenuous political rhetoric that burbles from the right constantly.

Rawls is best know for his concept of the veil of ignorance. He argued that a just society would be the one you would pick if you didn’t know where you would be born into it. So, for example, no reasonable person would choose a slave society, because they might well end up a slave. Most people would choose a reasonably equitable society. To me, I think that beyond the issue of where you are born in society, you would need to consider how you were born. That would address questions such as, “How are we to treat the physically disabled.” It’s a very useful way of looking at moral questions.

Happy birthday John Rawls!

Free Will and Fun in The Incredibles

The IncrediblesLast night, I watched The Incredibles. It is a feature length animated film about a family of super heroes. Think: Fantastic Four meets Roseanne. It was written and directed by Brad Bird, and like most of his work, it is a hell of a lot of fun. The first half of the film is a parody of the super hero genre. And as such it is brilliant. The second half of the film is straight super hero genre, but still works pretty well. I think it is a mistake to think of The Incredibles as anything other than a romp. But there is a thematic schizophrenia in the film that I can’t help but discuss.

In the first half of the film, the guiding idea is that people ought to be allowed to be who they are. What happens is that Mr Incredible (voiced by Craig T Nelson) hurts a man who he saves from suicide. The man sues him and this opens the floodgates for lawsuits against the “supers” who do have a tendency to cause a lot of damage in their crime fighting activities. The government passes a law granting them all immunity, but they have to stop being super heroes. So 15 years later, we find Mr Incredible working in an insurance company under a very annoying boss (voiced by Wallace Shawn) who is also offensively short.

But as the film progresses, it stops being about the oppression of those who are different. It becomes instead about the limitations placed on the great. At one point, Edna, the fashion designer who once made the fabulous costumes for the supers, laments, “I used to design for gods!” And indeed, as I’ve written about before, the modern action genre is nothing so much as demigod mythologizing. Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone don’t play humans, they play gods. And this has been a problem for our society where true heroism is devalued at the expense cinematic action that would kill any real man. At least the super heroes are demigods, unlike the Johns McClane and Rambo.

So, much of the second half of the film involves Mr Incredible grousing about the fact that greatness isn’t valued. For example, in an argument about their son Dash (!) whose super power is that he runs really fast, Mr Incredible says, “People keep coming up with new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but if someone is genuinely exceptional…” And then he proposes to his wife (the humorously sexist Elastigirl, voiced by Holly Hunter), “You want to do something for Dash? Well, let him actually compete! Let him go out for sports!” By the end of the film, he gets to do just that.

This brings up a fundamental problem, however. Dash may look like a little human boy, but he isn’t. He is a super or a demigod. Having other boys run a race against him is like having them run a race against a cheetah. (Note: I believe a human would beat a cheetah in a marathon.) After the race, father says to son, “I’m proud of you.” For what?! When Dash was born, he could run a hundred times faster than the fastest man on the planet. Is Mr Incredible proud that he just happened to be born with that ability?

That gets to the issue of free will. We are, all of us, the products of our genes and our environments. We are exactly whatever we were programmed to be. Now I understand that a society needs to pretend that this is not the case in order to provide an environment in which people will make the best of their lives. But we also shouldn’t lose perspective. The fact that I’m smart and knowledgeable is not something that I should give myself credit for. It is something that I should be grateful for. And so should Dash be grateful for his ability to run really fast.

The Incredibles gets confused about this. But it doesn’t matter. It is a fun and silly movie with a lot of laughs and action. And if you take it seriously, you are doing it wrong. Because it leaves a lot of unanswered plot questions. For example: when the super heroes retired, why did the super villains retire? But no one should care—not when we get to hear Wallace Shawn and Holly Hunter yell at Craig “No one helped me when I was on food stamps and welfare” Nelson. I suspect you will be having too much fun to notice any of these things. Regardless, you have no choice; you have no free will.

Obama Stops Grand Bargain Talk

Obama CopeYesterday, the White House announced that Obama would remove Chained-CPI from his next budget. Chained-CPI is the way of raising the cost of living more slowly so that Social Security benefits would be cut over the course of a worker’s retirement. Although it is not reported as much, it would also increase the taxes of lower and middle class people. So it is a good thing that the administration is officially giving up on it.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “There was a point in time when there was a little bit more optimism about the willingness of Republicans to budge on closing some tax loopholes, but over the course of the last year, they’ve refused to do that.” This was always the idea: Chained-CPI would entice the Republicans into a Grand Bargain of entitlement cuts and tax increases. Economically, this is a stupid idea. Cutting spending in a depressed economy is bad. Raising taxes in a depressed economy is bad. So other than the thoroughly repudiated idea of “expansionary austerity,” there was never a good economic reason for a Grand Bargain.

But I understand that politicians aren’t economists and often do things that make no sense in that regard. However, they ought to be smart from a political standpoint. Unfortunately, the Grand Bargain never made any political sense. A standard political compromise is where each side gives up something to get something else they want. But that doesn’t describe the Grand Bargain. It was making compromises to get something each side could deal with losing. Republican voters don’t want entitlement cuts and they really don’t want tax increases. Democratic voters don’t want tax increases and they really don’t want tax cuts.

Of course, there is a group that wants to raise taxes and cut entitlements: Washington centrists. These are the Very Serious People of legend. What makes them Serious? Being in favor of policies that no one likes! And if the policies are objectively bad for the economy, so much the better! What’s especially sad about this is that the Republican elite never really fell for this. But among the New Democrats who now control the Democratic Party, such Serious Thinking is all the vogue. This is the biggest problem with the party going forward.

Sadly, I don’t think this decision by the White House shows any growth either in terms of their political or economic thinking. Obama still pines for a Republican Party that will make deals the people hate. And he still thinks that the deficit is an important economic issue. (It is, of course, but in the opposite way he thinks.) Instead, I suspect his advisers are telling him that he’s already cut the deficit in half and it continues to go down. What’s more, it is getting hard to deny that all the cuts (especially the Sequester) are the cause of our weak recovery. But it is good that after four years of debt obsession, the White House is giving up. For now.

Richard Matheson and Andrew Bergman

Richard MathesonSorry to be gone all day. This working for money thing is very time consuming. I’m sure I would be doing a lot better if I had an actual job. But keeping clients happy is exhausting.

On this day in 1902, the great photographer Ansel Adams was born. He is best known for his nature photography. But of course, he did far more than that. In fact, his work spanned seven decades and just about any subject you can think of. Mostly, he was interested in nature, however. People especially know his work of Yosemite. I especially associate him with the Timber Cove Inn, which is one of my favorite places on earth. Like most places in California, Adams spent time there and photographed it. Unfortunately, I can’t find any of those photos online. So here’s just one of many beautiful photographs of his, “Workers Against Mt Williamson”:

Farm Workers Mt Williamson- Ansel Adams

The great film director Robert Altman was born in 1925. I don’t know quite what to make of him stylistically. To some extent, I think his brilliance was just in his willingness to do different things. So much of his work was simply playing with genres. That’s particularly true in things like The Long Goodbye and Gosford Park. But he also made films that are just unique like MASH and Nashville and 3 Women. But above all, he made one of my very favorite films, McCabe & Mrs Miller. This following scene from it provides a good idea of the moral universe of the film. The cowboy is probably the most likable character in the whole thing. But don’t get the wrong idea: it isn’t a world where evil triumphs. It just isn’t a world where anything especially triumphs. Everyone just muddles long.

The film writer-director Andrew Bergman is 69 today. I really admire his work. He is one of the greatest comedy writers ever. His script for The In-Laws is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Andrew BergmanHe is also the true genius behind Blazing Saddles, although as usual, Mel Brooks has done everything he can to minimize the work of his betters. What has always amazed me about Bergman’s films (The Freshman, Soapdish, Striptease) is that they are funny all the way through. A big problem with most comedies is that they stop being funny in the third act. That is never the case with Bergman’s scripts and when he is also directing the comedy continues to the end like a freight train. It’s very possible I should have given the day to him. Unfortunately, like a lot of filmmakers I admire, he doesn’t make films anymore. Here is one of many funny scenes from The In-Laws:

Other birthday: Dutch Golden Age painter Jan de Baen (1633); Classical composer Adalbert Gyrowetz (1763); physicist Ludwig Boltzmann (1844); playwright Russel Crouse (1893); psychologist Elizabeth Holloway Marston (1893); architect Louis Kahn (1901); choreographer Gillian Lynne (88); actor Sidney Poitier (87); singer Nancy Wilson (77); director Mike Leigh (71); Patty Hearst (60); MST3K creator Joel Hodgson (54); basketball player Charles Barkley (51); actor French Stewart (50); model Cindy Crawford (48); musician Kurt Cobain (1967); and actor Lili Taylor (47).

The day, however, belongs to the great writer Richard Matheson who was born on this day in 1926. He is best known for having written I Am Legend, which was the basis for four feature films, including the film that terrified me as a child, The Last Man on Earth. But what is remarkable is just how much Matheson wrote. So much of the great stuff from The Twilight Zone was written by him, including the classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” He wrote the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within” where Kirk is turned into his good and evil parts. He wrote a number of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films, as well as the similar (and wonderful) The Comedy of Terrors. And he wrote the short story and screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s television movie Duel. He also wrote roughly 30 novels and countless short stories. He was truly an amazing writer.

Happy birthday Richard Matheson!