The Bonus Round

Football RunnerEven when I was a little kid, I hated the idea of coming in first place. Not that it was actually a problem I had to deal with as a practical matter. But it always seemed to be that second place was better than first place. It probably owes a lot to my love of stories. In general, I hate it when a good story ends. A second place finish implies more chapters. Although as I learned from Irwin Shaw in “The Eighty-Yard Run” (pdf), often the best stories end with the hero bringing up the rear. Sometimes, second place is the best that you’ll ever do. Sometimes, not even that.

The story starts with Darling on the football team in high school. He catches a pass in practice and runs for an eighty-yard touchdown. He feels great that day. He is in love with his girlfriend who will eventually become his wife. His whole life is ahead of him. And it’s going to be great! Except that it isn’t. That eighty-yard run is the high point of his life. Of course, the story is more complex than that. Fundamentally, it is about a man coming to grips with the fact that his life has been going down while his wife’s has been going up. He doesn’t begrudge her success, although he fears he will lose her because of it. He just wonders why even as he fell and she climbed he couldn’t have taken her hand and joined her.

It’s hard to read more than one or two Irwin Shaw stories in a row. In me, anyway, they bring out an intense feeling of loneliness. It’s the feeling that you’ve lost something, but you can’t quite locate what it was. There is a sad, even terrifying feeling, that you are alone and always have been. It seems like such a modern idea. After all, didn’t people have actual friendships in the past? Aren’t there vast collections of long letters that William Hazlitt wrote to his many friends. Now all we have is mindless time wasting: the Facebook picture of your dinner, the snarky tweet about someone I’ve never heard of, the sentimental blog post about loneliness or whatever it is I’m writing about.

But what’s most interesting in “The Eighty-Yard Run” is that Darling isn’t pathetic. His life certainly has not turned out as he wanted. But whose has? After a couple of years of graduate school, I realized something: by the time people got their PhDs, they didn’t care. There was a certain time when each of of us realized that we could do it; mentally we were already there and the rest was just bureaucracy. What mattered was the struggle not the resolution. But most of us got the damned thing because we were already so close. These kinds of rites of social status are never worth having once you can have them. They don’t signify accomplishment; they signify disillusionment.

Shaw’s entire story is told 15 years in the future, when Darling sells sports equipment to high schools. He is at his old high school and he relives the eighty-yard run, doing it himself on the same field. A young high school couple see him and doubtless think he’s a freak. He walks up to them and says, “I—once… I played here.” He’s embarrassed, but wise enough to laugh at himself. The kids just stare and he goes back to his hotel. Alone. But if Darling had gone on to play pro ball, at some point he would have the same experience. In the end, we all die. And we are all forgotten. Even this entire culture will be completely forgotten.

What ultimately matters is how we treat each other. And in general, that’s pretty bad. It’s not surprising. Everyone has to divide up their time with trying to make eighty-yard runs and listening to others tell us their stories of eight-yard runs. But we have a society—a culture—that reinforces this. I saw an episode of Wheel of Fortune recently. At the end of the main game, some woman had won $30,000 in cash and prizes, a guy came in second place with about $8,000 in cash, and another woman didn’t win anything at all—she went home with “parting gifts,” which I always imagine as being a year’s supply of dishwasher detergent. Then they went to the “bonus round” where the woman who won the most got the opportunity to win even more. That seems odd to me, but entirely typical of who we are.

Humans are almost indistinguishable. Albert Einstein or your average bus driver: throw them into the wilderness and they’ll do about as well. But we’ve set up a social order that makes a very big deal out of very little differences. The Darling of the story who is just a traveling salesman is no different than my hypothetical ex-pro football player. But our myths requires us to lie. “Oh yes! The ex-pro could run the 40 a tenth of a second faster!” Is that who we are? Because that strikes me as a very strange kind of myth to believe in. What’s more, it is exactly the opposite of the religion that 80% of us claim to follow. And also the opposite of the very idea of democracy that we claim to cherish. The problem is not you. And it is not me. It is us. We are killing us.

Darling put up his hands, felt all over again the flat slap of the ball. He shook his hips to throw off the halfback, cut back inside the center, picked his knees high as he ran racefully over two men jumbled on the ground at the line of scrimmage, ran easily, gaining speed, for ten yards, holding the ball lightly in his two hands, swung away from the halfback diving at him, ran, swinging his hips in the almost girlish manner of a back in a broken field, tore into the safety man, his shoes drumming heavily on the turf, stiff-armed, elbow locked, pivoted, raced lightly and exultantly for the goal line.

Capital in the 21st Century Not Refuted

Capital in the Twenty-First CenturyChris Giles at the Financial Times posted, Data problems with Capital in the 21st Century. It is a long and numbers-oriented article. And among economics wonks, it has created a flurry of activity, “You mean Thomas Piketty is wrong?!” Needless to say, there are a lot of people who want to think just that. For a good overview of what you need to know about Giles’ work and the problems in Piketty’s book, read Justin Wolfers, A New Critique of Piketty Has Its Own Shortcomings. Or just keep reading here.

I’ve seen this film before. It turns out that most of the data are correct, there are some minor data errors here are there, and some large but not ridiculous errors in the recent wealth inequality numbers in the United Kingdom. These large errors are on the order of 10%. Giles work is important. It should be done. But the bottom line is clear: nothing he’s found changes the argument that Piketty is making. What’s more, some or more of the errors may be on Giles part. Or they might be differences of opinion in how the data should be analyzed. And most of all, this is work on wealth inequality; it isn’t about the more important issue of income inequality.

But what will happen now is that conservatives and others who simply don’t want to think about it will take Giles’ article as proof that there is nothing to Capital in the 21st Century. And this will be true even if it turns out that Giles is completely wrong. Remember the Climatic Research Unit email controversy, commonly known as “Climategate”? As Wikipedia notes, “Eight committees investigated the allegations and published reports, finding no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct.” Yet to this day I hear conservatives say global warming is a hoax because of that supposed scandal. (If anyone wants me to explain why it was always clear this was no scandal, just ask; but I admit: it is exhausting discussing global warming in these contexts.)

Reinhart and RogoffI’m sure that The Wall Street Journal and Washington Times (it’s a bit highbrow for Fox News) will pick up on this. It will be the liberal equivalent of Reinhart-Rogoff. You may remember that they put out a paper that said that once countries reached debt loads of more than 90% of their GDP, their growth slowed way down. Then, last year, a graduate student found a spreadsheet error in their work that demolished their claim. But I didn’t report it that way; I reported, Reinhart and Rogoff Shown to Be Wrong—Again. Because it was always clear that there was no mechanism by which high debt hurt the economy; there was, however, a mechanism that went the other way: governments with bad economies go into debt because they are getting less in tax revenue and spending more on welfare.

But watch, because the conservatives (who have mostly just ignored Piketty’s book until now) will pounce on this as the ultimately refutation. They will say that nothing needs to be done, except more of what got us to this terrible state. Data and accuracy only matter to conservatives as talking points. I imagine watching This Week in two years. Paul Krugman will be on it and say, “Thomas Piketty showed that income inequality is getting worse.” And Peggy Noonan will scoff, “Oh, the Financial Times proved that was rubbish years ago!” And George Stephanopoulos will just shrug. “Who can say?”

Lord Michael Kinsley

Michael KinsleyI’m not going to go over what’s happening because there’s been a lot of good coverage of it (see links below). But Michael Kinsley wrote what was supposedly a review of Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide. But it wasn’t a review. You get no idea what’s in the book. Kinsley’s article is little more than an apologia for the mainstream press and its general adherence to keeping the government’s secrets.

The part of the article that isn’t an apologia is nothing more than a childish personal attack on Greenwald. It reminded me of nothing so much as Robert Greene’s deathbed bitch session about the young Shakespeare in Groats-Worth of Wit, “[T]here is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.” Kinsley really seems annoyed that there are actual journalists out there and not just power apologists who might occasionally disagree about exactly the right amount of power for the government to abuse.

Glenn GreenwaldGreenwald, of course, does a fine job of defending himself, A Response to Michael Kinsley. Kevin Gosztola takes Kinsley apart, In NYT Review of Greenwald’s Book, Vanity Fair Editor Endorses Criminalizing Journalists Who Publish Leaks. Erik Wemple provides a more evenhanded demolition, Michael Kinsley on Glenn Greenwald: He “cannot” Decide What Secrets Get Published. And Digby does an admirable job providing a bit of history of Kinsley’s career, Michael Kinsley Once Again Takes the Plebes to Task for Failing to Understand That They Don’t Matter. It is on this broader issue that I want to talk. But there is one thing in Kinsley’s “review” that is worth noting as a preface, “In a democracy… that decision [of what information is made available to the public] must ultimately be made by the government.”

That’s a fascinating claim. By that way of thinking, any government is a democracy. After all, every government claims to be doing what is best for the people. If the government won’t let the people know what it is doing, how can the people make an informed decision? It’s a Catch-22. If the people are voting without knowledge, they are voting randomly. And if they are voting randomly, they might as well not be voting.

Kinsley wants to have it both ways. He wants to say that the government should be allowed to keep some things that are important secret. And other things should be released to the public. And who gets to decide what information is fit for dissemination and what is not? Why Michael Kinsley, of course! Well, not exactly: Michael Kinsley’s class. The Serious People. That’s how Kinsley can say that America is a democracy: people in his class are actually listened to by our elected officials. People in my class are not. And that is not what we call a democracy today; that is what we call an oligarchy.

This is what Kinsley is. This is why he writes for The New York Times and Vanity Fair and The New Republic. Last year, almost to the day, I quoted him as saying, “I don’t think suffering is good, but I do believe that we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be.” I responded, Morality, Economics, and Car Repair:

What I think is so vile about such pronouncements is how they are proffered with a sagacious air. They always claim that we must share the pain, but if you look closely, you will see that it is never them or their friends who will be feeling the pain.

And that’s where we are. We don’t have a House of Lords in name. But we have a House of Lords in practice—an invisible House of Lords. And it is far more powerful than the House over there in England. Kinsley is a big part of its power. His toolbox consists of one thing: the ability to define debate so thinly that there is no debate at all. He is far more dangerous than a thousand Koch brothers.

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Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth

Kenneth BranaghI have long believed that Kenneth Branagh is the greatest Shakespearean actor ever. Of course, he has all the actors that came before him to build upon. But he is so much better than the generation that came before, that it is hard to escape the conclusion that he really does bring something special—something more than just refinement.

Last night, while writing Benghazi! Preview, I came upon a filmed performance of Branagh doing the “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” speech from Macbeth. This is one of the speeches of Shakespeare that I’ve memorized. And I’ve always found it difficult. Unlike the opening to Richard III that I completely understand and feel that I have the emotional flow, I feel this speech is all over the place. The way it is normally performed is emotionally dead. Macbeth understands that the end has come and he is ruefully reflecting on the nature of existence.

There are two difficult lines. The first is, “Out, out, brief candle!” He’s talking about the death of his wife. Ian McKellen says the line with a kind of mocking bitterness. Patrick Stewart does it sadly, which is what seems the most obvious way to do it. Alan Cumming does it with much more emotion than either of those actors, and that line seems to be spoken directly to lady Macbeth. Sean Connery manages much the same thing, but the emotional content bounces around like a pinball.

The second difficult line is, “Signifying nothing.” Both McKellen and Stewart provide very long pauses between these words. I understand this. It is tempting to wait as though Macbeth is thinking about what life can possibly mean only to conclude, “Nothing.” But it always sounds fake to me. Macbeth knows where his sentence is leading to. Maybe it is something about Scottish actors, but both Cumming and Connery come right out with it.

With all due respect to all of those actors (and I’m very fond of Stewart’s and Cumming’s performances), Branagh’s performance is on a different level. He starts stoically. And he runs through the lines very rapidly. I’ve always thought these lines should be read without pause and this is exactly what he does:

… and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;

But then he starts to lose it on “lighted” in “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death.” So by the end of the line he is crying. Thus, the first troublesome line—”Out, out, brief candle!”—is wailed.

He then regains his composure, but just barely. He’s trying to be philosophical. But he again starts to cry on the line, “It is a tale told by an idiot.” And then, he is a complete mess. I’m not sure the text is intelligible if you don’t know it. But by the time he gets to our second troublesome line—”Signifying nothing.”—there is a very good reason for a long pause. He isn’t looking for the word; he just can’t get it out.

Here is the video. It is a thing to behold. But before you start it, turn your volume all the way up because the sound is recorded really low.

[Update: as usual, the original was forced to be taken down; so here is a video of a video hopefully will stay up. -FM]

It is rare that I see Kenneth Branagh do some Shakespeare without thinking, “Oh! That’s how it should be done!” This is how the “Tomorrow” speech should be done.


I’m not that fond of his Hamlet. But I think it is exactly right. Hamlet is a very unlikable character. And speaking of unlikable characters, I still haven’t been able to see him as Iago in Othello.

Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas FairbanksOn this day in 1883, the great Douglas Fairbanks was born. His career is quite interesting in what it shows about the American film industry. America had an extremely vibrant industry during the silent era. But when sound came in, we fell in love with it. Films became much less cinematic. Calling them “talkies” is accurate. That’s when Europe and Russia really took off and it took us some time to catch up.

Fairbanks was famous for being an action hero, when that meant something. Let’s just look at one of his masterpieces, Robin Hood, which he also wrote and produced. Note all the wonderful crosscutting, fast editing, great stunts. It is state of the art filmmaking and as thrilling today as ever:

But then sound came in and it really gummed things up. There were suddenly a lot of movies with people standing around talking because the microphone technology demanded it. But Fairbanks’ first sound film was different. It was the first sound version of The Taming of the Shrew, with his wife Mary Pickford playing Kate. But it was made the way that the Italians long made their sound films: silent with dialog and sound added in post-production. As a result, I think the film is great, and Fairbanks as Petruchio is particularly good. It is pretty much the role he was born to play. But it wasn’t received well, despite or perhaps because, it wasn’t like other sound films.

It’s generally thought that the audience turned against him. I guess that’s true. But I think it is more accurate to say that his age forced him to make films that people didn’t want to see him in. I think he was as good as ever, all the way up to The Private Life of Don Juan, his last film. More than anything, I think he was tired. He was apparently a heavy smoker and he died only five years after his last film. His last words were supposedly, “I’ve never felt better.” These strike me as the words of a man who has been hiding physical pain for a long time.

I haven’t been able to find a collection of scenes from his films, but here is a get section of the documentary, The Great Swashbuckler, which has a lot of great material:

Happy birthday Douglas Fairbanks!