Pay No Attention to Rich Man’s Welfare!

Grazing Fees

That image is from All In. It shows yet another way that the government provides huge amounts of welfare to the rich. The normal price of private land grazing rights for one cow for one month is $16.80. The government basically gives it away for $1.35. That’s a subsidy of $15.45 per cow per month. Bundy reportedly had 908 head of cattle on federal land. So even if he paid his fees, he would have been getting a subsidy of $14,028.60 per month, or $168,343.20 per year.

This doesn’t come as a surprise to me. On 15 April, I wrote, Be a Patriot, Pay Your Taxes! It was a general article, but I included Cliven Bundy in the discussion. I said, “I’m sure that I can find more things in the federal budget that I don’t like than Bundy can. One of the things I don’t like is how the BLM allows ranchers to graze their cattle at below market prices. Of course, in Bundy’s case, even that is too much. So it just steals it.”

The truth is that I have no problem with the government subsidizing ranchers in this way. There are good reasons for a country to prop up the farm industry. A country always wants to be able to feed its own people by itself if it ever comes to that. But the problem comes in when people assume that farmers and ranchers are rugged individualists who get by just based upon the sweat of their brows. And that just ain’t the case.

SNAPThe average SNAP (food stamp) benefit in Nevada is $123.57 per month or $1,482.84 per year. That’s over a hundred children who could have been fed for the year. And that’s the subsidy that wasn’t good enough for Bundy! He thought the federal government giving him almost $170,000 was an outrage. He wanted over $180,00 so he threatened federal officials with hundreds of guns. What a patriot!

But I run into this kind of thinking all the time. Someone will mention some outrage like Jason Greenslate, the Fox News surfer. And they ask me, “Don’t you think this is terrible?!” Well, yes, to some extent I do. But why is anyone focused on such a small issue? Banks get billions of dollars and you are concerned that a surfer is getting a hundred bucks a month in free food? That is outrageous.

When poor people throughout the nation got their SNAP benefits cut, gun toting militia men didn’t show up to defend them. Instead, they showed up when a millionaire cattle rancher didn’t want to pay pennies on the dollar for his grazing rights. And this is because hate radio and Fox News are not interested in the really big welfare takers. They want to keep everyone focused on the little guy. Remember: the Tea Party started not when big banks got bailed out but when the government was talking about helping out struggling home owners. It’s like a magic trick: look at the poor person getting a little help so you don’t noticed boats loaded with cash being sent to the rich. Or, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

Some revolutionaries these people are! Like we need militia groups to protect the oligarchs. What a pathetic group of people.

And the la-hand of the Freeeeee!
And the hoooome, of thhhhhe, braaaave!

Update (24 April 2014 10:00 pm)

Now that I think about it, this is how the conservative base is made to vote against there best interests. They get focused on something like the surfer dude and vote on that, even though it doesn’t matter at all what the surfer dude does. This allows them to vote for people who funnel billions to the already wealthy. A lot of people don’t seem to believe it, but when I talk to conservatives alone, they are surprisingly sensible and there is much common ground. But as a group, I find them surprisingly gullible. It is so frustrating to talk to a conservative in depth about a particular thing and find that I totally agree with them. Then, after a month of Fox News propaganda, I will talk to them and they will have flipped their position. But that isn’t too bad; changing one’s mind isn’t a problem. But in general, they have no memory of having had any other opinion. It is like Fox News washes their brains of the ability to even think about the issue.

A Slightly Pissy History of “Man of Constant Sorrow”

Man of Constant SorrowYou probably know the song “Man of Constant Sorrow” from the excellent version of it (which I will get to) in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? But it is a very old song, dating back to 1913 when Dick Burnett published it. And even that version may just be his version of an earlier version.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any version of the song until 1928 when Emry Arthur recorded it. This version could hardly be more simple and earnest. Arthur sings it with a plaintive tone but there is little of the lyrics in his voice. The accompaniment seems to be a guitar and banjo. The banjo is kind of playful and it pushes a kind of meta-narrative that this is just a song and no one involved has had any worse a life than everyone else in Kentucky. But the version has a sweetness that I love. Unfortunately, the Great Depression was not kind of Arthur’s music career, which was completely over as of 1935. It would have been interesting to hear how he did the song at that point.

Right about the time that Arthur was giving up music, Sarah Ogan Gunning recorded the song with her own lyrics as “Girl of Constant Sorrow.” The lyrics focus on the poverty of the coal mining region that she is from. This a cappella version is probably from 1965, but it is doubtless much how she sang in in 1936. (Roscoe Holcomb did a similar version in 1961.) It’s haunting and beautiful:

Although Arthur’s version of the song sold well, it was not until The Stanley Brothers released their version in 1951 that it really became popular. Their version changes the song into much more of what we know today. Specifically, they turn it into a bluegrass song with that classic howling voice. It also adds a much more lively accompaniment with that relentless fiddle. Ralph Stanley just had his 87th birthday. His brother Carter died back in 1966 at the age of only 41.

During the folk revival of the early 1960s, many people did the song. Both Joan Baez (pretty good) and Judy Collins (meh) did versions of Gunning’s. Peter, Paul and Mary turned it into a dirge. Waylon Jennings managed to turn it into an easy listening monstrosity, which is good in its way. And Rod Stewart did his thing to it in 1969, before “his thing” became harming otherwise good music. But the most interesting, because he really does mold the song to himself, is Bob Dylan:

At this point it seemed that anyone you think might have been tempted to cover it has. Of course, you knew that after Judy Collins did it everyone would have to. What I think is strange is that it really wasn’t picked up by punk bands. The truth is that musically, punk and folk aren’t that far apart. In 2006, punk super-group Osaka Popstar covered it, but it is clearly based upon the film version.

Which brings us to the version in O Brother, Where Art Thou? It was recorded by Dan Tyminski, Harley Allen, and Pat Enright, with Tyminski on lead vocals. But here Tyminski is with Alison Krauss and Union Station doing the song live:

In a sense, I think this version kind of destroys the song in the same way that Jean-François Paillard’s version destroyed Pachelbel’s Canon. It is so powerful that everyone will agree that it is the way that the song ought to be performed and people will stop trying to innovate. Of course, there will always be the iconoclasts who insist that Emry Arthur or Sarah Ogan Gunning had it right all along and the song will be plopped on the end of a disc. But to really please an audience, it’s going to have to have that three-part harmony and the prominent banjo. It will be just like that damned pizzicato counterpoint in “Pachelbel’s Canon.”

Which is fine. Really. You all enjoy yourselves. Don’t worry about me.

It’s Not Our Brains, It’s Our Media

Dan KahanToday, Ezra Klein asked a question, What’s the Liberal Equivalent of Climate Denial? But he doesn’t have an answer. Or more specifically, Ezra being Ezra, he can’t think of any equivalent so he leaves the question open. He is, after all, a liberal. And that’s the kind of thing we do. Or do we?

If you listen to Dan Kahan, liberals and conservatives are exactly the same. They believe what they believe and then they look for ways to justify it. There are a couple of problems I have with this work. First: why liberals and conservatives? As any Radio Lab listener can tell you, that is true of all humans about everything. Second: the fact that there is a tendency doesn’t mean it swamps other factors. Kahan makes what I think of as a classic scientist’s mistake of thinking his results are far broader than they actually are.

But the most important thing is this is really not about how our brains work; it is about how our media work. Klein argued that it is too simple to show that conservatives and liberals actually make up their minds first and then justify them. He noted of Kahan’s work, “His experiments don’t say anything about how political coalitions reason.” And I think that gets to the heart of the matter. Conservatives can listen to right wing radio all day. And they can come home and watch Fox News all night. It is not necessary for them to ever hear a word that pushes against their established narrative. The worst that will happen is that they will see the Nightly News and wonder why no one is talking about Benghazi or whatever the conservative echo chamber is on about at that moment.

Ezra KleinThat just isn’t true for liberals who are far more dependent upon mainstream sources for their news. Look at NPR. It’s funny to me that conservatives consider it liberal, because given the political beliefs of the country, it is scrupulously evenhanded. But conservatives who think that NPR is liberal also claim that CNN is liberal. What they mean is that these middle-of-the-road news sources are not explicitly conservative.

What’s more, look at actual liberal sources. Look at this blog. I hate it when I’m wrong. That doesn’t mean that I don’t pitch things from a liberal perspective. But I never attempt to deceive because the purpose of this blog is not apologetics; it is to find the truth given my biases, which I am extremely open about. Consider the supposed IRS scandal. Even at the beginning of the coverage, it was known that both liberal and conservative groups were targeted. And now we know that liberal groups were targeted more than conservative groups. But Fox News viewers would be forgiven for not knowing this because it is hardly if ever mentioned. But had things been turned the other way around, there is no way that people reading this blog would have gone away with the idea that the IRS was targeting only liberal groups.

In my experience, liberals who aren’t totally obsessed with politics often have silly, but weakly held, beliefs. However, liberals who care enough to grind out five articles a day really do care. So liberals simply aren’t misled nearly as much as conservatives. So I don’t think that liberals are any less self-deceiving than conservatives. But Kahan’s tests check to see if priming distorts the thinking of liberals and conservatives. And it does. But the question we most care about is whether one group that gets a steady diet of lies is just as likely to figure out the truth as a second group that gets reasonably accurate, if still distorted information. I don’t think we need a study to test that.


Racism as Political Subtext

Cliven BundyI’m sure you’ve heard that Cliven Bundy spouted some racist thoughts to Adam Nagourney at The New York Times, A Defiant Rancher Savors the Audience That Rallied to His Side. Ed Kilgore summed it up well, stating that he has “views about black folks that might embarrass your local Grand Dragon.” In case you haven’t heard, Bundy said that blacks were actually more free under slavery. There is actually a lot more but I’m sure you get the idea.

This whole things brings my mind to the argument that Jonathan Chait has been making that even though we all know that modern American conservatism is all about racism, we liberals shouldn’t assume that any given conservative is racist. That’s true as far as it goes. But there is a larger issue here.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this morning, “Prick a movement built on white supremacy and it bleeds… white supremacy.” The fact of the matter is that regardless of what any particular conservative thinks, as a culture, we only take these radical definitions of freedom seriously because there are a lot of people who hold them, and most do so because of their racist underpinnings. As an example, most people are not against welfare programs because they are concerned about the budget or dozens of other seemingly innocuous reasons. Most are against them because they don’t like one or more minority groups who they think benefit from them.

Rand PaulTo some extent, I’m sympathetic to Chait on this. It doesn’t do us much good to constantly focus on the racism that provides the popular support for conservatism. Just the same, not doing so turns politics into a frustrating game of whack-a-mole. We beat done the notion that food stamps are a budgetary problem and up pops the concern for fraud. Beat down the fraud claim and up pops Paul Ryan’s hammock “that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.” As long as we don’t beat down what is behind the latest argument, there will always be another argument.

Note that what Cliven Bundy said is part of this whack-a-mole game. Take away the racism and the idea that slavery was just great and you are left with Paul Ryan’s hammock argument. In Bundy’s mind, I’m sure he thinks that he is the hero of the black man. He’s the one who is trying to break the bonds of dependence that the modern welfare state has enslaved African Americans in. In this mind, he’s a modern day Frederick Douglass! In reality, he’s just the conservative base.

But he’s not the one we are arguing with. We are arguing with politicians and pundits. And here is where I think we make a mistake on the issue of racism. I don’t think that Rand Paul has any racial resentment or animus. But he is more than willing to use racism for his political gain. And I think that makes him far worse. Most racism is due to ignorance—just not knowing who other groups are and basing opinions on stereotypes. But people like Paul are using racism (that they mostly don’t share) in a calculated way to get what they want.

In this way, they are like the slave owners of old. When I think of the Antebellum era, I think of three classes of people. There were the slave owners who were mostly interested in profit. There were the poor whites who had been trained to be racists by the elites. In the early days this was an explicit policy of rich land owners to keep the poor—white and black alike—from organizing themselves and fighting for their collective rights. And then there were the enslaved blacks. Now Bundy is basically a political figure in the same way that the Koch brothers are. But the basic dynamic here is the same as it was 150 years ago: political elites use racism to set poor whites against poor blacks.

What I wonder is if anyone would say that a slave owner wasn’t racist just because he didn’t hate blacks or think they were inferior. If he would be just as happy enslaving whites as blacks, would that mean he wasn’t racist? Maybe so. But if that same slave owner did everything he could to make poor whites hate blacks, then he would be a racist. And I think that makes Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, and really most other elite Republicans racists.

The Spine Tingler William Castle

William CastleOn this day in 1914, William Castle was born. I have a great fondness for the independent filmmakers of that time. Just getting a film made was a major accomplishment. And getting people to go out and watch it was even more so. On the first count, I think his films stand up rather well today. Too much has been said on the second point, but there is no doubt that he was one of the greatest promoters in film history. To get an idea of what he did, check out the sadly neglected Matinee where John Goodman plays a character clearly based on Castle.

Castle worked in the studio system, even working as second unit director on Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai. But he wanted more, so he mortgaged his house (not the last time he would do so), and made Macabre. The film is mostly memorable because of the $1,000 life insurance policies that all audience members received in case of “decease by fright.” Silly and wonderful at the same time. According to Wikipedia, the film cost $90,000 to make and grossed $5 million in the decade after its release.

Perhaps the greatest bit of real time silliness came in the initial release of The Tingler. Castle had technicians install buzzers onto a couple of theater seats that were activated at the climax of the film. That must have had quite an effect on the audience. Of course, it was all in good fun as you can see in the following opening to the film. Castle looks like he’s about to burst out laughing:

Ultimately, Castle’s career is the prototypical American story. He was hugely successful. But he was never allowed into the inner circle. He continued to make “B” films for all his career. Near the end of his life, he managed to acquire the rights to Rosemary’s Baby. But the studio would not allow him to direct it, going instead with Roman Polanski. It’s hard to complain with that selection, but I’m sure the decision was entirely in-group/out-group politics. Success doesn’t much matter in the United States. It has to be the right kind of success. That’s why Bernard Madoff is (rightly) in jail but not the drug money laundering executives at HSBC.

Happy birthday William Castle!