Conservatives Will Never Get Over Obamacare

Ed MorrisseyRegular readers know that I’m a fan of Jonathan Chait’s writing. It isn’t so much that he’s insightful. He is, of course, often quite insightful. He is also, however, pigheaded about a few issues that he just can’t seem to get his head around. But what I most appreciate is his sense of humor and his great appreciation of hypocrisy. Today, he wrote an article that rather well sums up the latter part of that, Here Is the Most Shameless Anti-Obamacare Argument Yet. But unusually for him, he doesn’t seem to see the humor in the hypocrisy.

The article is about how conservatives saw the increase in first quarter healthcare costs as an indication that Obamacare was going to cause us to go broke. “See,” they said, “We can’t afford to cover all these extra people!” But now, the original estimates have been revised and it turns out that healthcare costs did not spike and as a result, GDP in the first quarter actually decreased. So the conservatives are admitting they were wrong about Obamacare? Ha ha ha! No, of course not! They’ve simply changed what they are saying.

Chait noted that on the first of May, Ed Morrissey at The Fiscal Times published a column, Obama’s Biggest Lie: the ACA Will Lower Healthcare Spending. But then today, Morrissey published a column, Obamacare Will Suck the Life Out of the Economy. In other words, regardless of what happens, Obamacare is terrible. And Morrissey is hardly alone. As Chait put it:

If you suspect there is literally no imaginable set of facts that would make conservatives admit Obamcare is working as designed, you’re right.

But really, I would think that Chait could find something to laugh about in this. I think he may be to the point of exasperation. Is there no end to this? Will conservatives never admit defeat on Obamacare and just get on with other things?

I think the answer to this is quite simple: no. Conservatives are still complaining about progressive taxation! And that is true of just about every other political improvement of the last century and a half. Liberals love to quote Dwight Eisenhower:

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H L Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

But he wrote that in 1954! Since then, that “tiny splinter group” has become the Republican Party. Look at the recent Mississippi Republican Senate run-off. If it hadn’t be for Democratic Party support, the guy who would have won would have been the guy who promised to commit political malpractice by not bringing federal money back to the state. So yes, the Republican Party has gone crazy and stupid, and no, they are not going to stop attacking Obamacare regardless of what the facts are.

The Daily Show Fails on IRS—Again

The Daily ShowThe Tuesday night, I was very displeased with The Daily Show. Jon Stewart discussed the IRS non-scandal. I thought it was very typical of his occasional hit jobs on the Democrats, which he does apparently because he feels the need to keep his credibility. Although truly, it wasn’t so much a hit job on the Democrats, but rather the government. It is just that the Democrats are the only party that admits to believing we should have a government. I am so tired of this.

There is bureaucracy in any institution that gets large enough. This means that there are bureaucracies in government, business, religion, even family. I don’t like it when people claim that there is some big problem with the government bureaucracy. Over my lifetime, I have seen the government get better and better at serving its citizenry. At the same time, as we have seen corporations get bigger and bigger, I have seen their bureaucracies get worse and worse. And there is literally nothing that any of us can do, unlike in the case of the government where we actually have representatives.

Last night on The Last Word, Lawrence O’Donnell saw the segment differently than I did. But then he went on to mention a couple of things that Stewart notably left out. Watch the segment below, because it really is rather good. There was one thing that really annoyed me in The Daily Show segment that O’Donnell didn’t mention. This was Stewart’s offhand comment that conservative groups were more scrutinized. This is not a statement of fact. There were more conservative groups than liberal groups that were scrutinized. I think this was because there were a lot more conservative groups requesting 501(c)4 status. So basically, Jon Stewart was using statistics to lie. O’Donnell added an important point that almost always gets left out: of the groups so wronged by IRS scrutiny, only one actually got denied and it was a liberal group.

But my broader annoyance with The Daily Show segment was the way it was second guessing the IRS. The truth is the 150 MB size of the email in-boxes is not an unreasonable size. I have been using Gmail for roughly eight years now. I have over a dozen email accounts I use it for. I save everything I get that is not spam. And in that time, I’ve only just made it over 1 GB in total storage. It’s easy to point fingers now and say, “Oh, you should have larger in-boxes!” But there will always be these issues.

Stewart also complained that the IRS only keeps email going back six months and then compares that to how long we tax payers have to hold onto records. Now, there is an actual issue here, but it has nothing to do with email or the IRS non-scandal. Once you owe the government money, you always owe it. But if the government owes you a refund and you don’t file for it within three years, well, it’s gone. So imagine the years 1995-1999 where a citizen didn’t file taxes and owed the following to the IRS (parentheses indicate negative values—the IRS owes the citizen): ($5,000), ($6,000), ($7,000), ($5,000), and $3,000. Our citizen paid $20,000 too much in taxes. But he now owes $3,000 in taxes in addition to very large penalties. I actually find that outrageous, but I’m not sure where the humor is.

Regardless, I didn’t find the Stewart segment funny. Complaining about the bureaucracy is more tired than stand-up routines about air travel from the 1970s. But I do think this is all about The Daily Show keeping its “credibility” as an objective arbiter of truth. And that creates a problem. Every time anyone complains that they don’t get their facts right, they point out that they are a comedy show. But if that’s true, why the pretense at objectivity? It’s very clear when Stewart and the gang are just phoning it in. That’s what we saw last week, which is particularly sad, given that the second sequence that made fun of rich Democrats pleading poverty worked quite well. Of course, it is rare that Democrats provide such a rich target as Hillary Clinton claiming the family was broke when they left the White House.

See also: Mainstream Media Freak Out More Than Fox.

“Ticking Bomb” Torture Hypothetical

Conor FriedersdorfFor a long time, I’ve had a problem with the “ticking time bomb” hypothetical used by torture apologists. Basically, it is a way to argue against a categorical ban on torture. The argument goes something like this:

Imagine you have a terrorist in your custody who has knowledge of a nuclear bomb in the center of a major American city. He won’t tell you where the bomb is or how to defuse it. So do you torture him to get the information or just let a million people be killed?

The hypothetical has always bugged me because it isn’t a trivial matter to argue against. At the same time, it is clearly a ridiculous hypothetical. And it is evil because the people are not using it to argue that torture is acceptable in extreme cases, but in pretty much all cases. The logic is: if you are willing to torture one person to definitely save a million people, you aren’t completely against torture; therefore, it’s just a question of where you draw the line; thus you liberals want to draw it way out in a case that would never exist, and we want to use it to maybe gain actionable intelligence (even though we can’t point to a single piece of useful intelligence we got through torture).

Two months ago, Conor Friedersdorf provided what I think is an absolutely fabulous counter response to the hypothetical, Torture, Ticking Time Bombs, and Waterboarding Americans:

There is a categorical ban on broadcasting child pornography in the United States. Is that prudent? Victims of the industry suffer horrifically. On the other hand, what if an al-Qaeda terrorist had a nuclear device in Times Square and credibly threatened to incinerate millions of people unless NBC broadcast an hour of depraved smut? Would the categorical broadcast ban seem prudent in that case?

The thought experiment is no less absurd when applied to “ticking time bombs” that can only be stopped by torturing.

This gets to the very heart of what I think I’ve always known about the “ticking time bomb” hypothetical: it has nothing to do with whether we should torture or not. As Friedersdorf’s example shows, torture is irrelevant to the hypothetical. You could put anything in there. Perhaps a better example would be killing your children. Would you be willing to kill your children to stop a terrorist from murdering a million people? Maybe you would, but that tells us nothing at all about the morality of killing our children.

I highly recommend reading Friedersdorf’s whole article. It isn’t long, but it deals with a couple of other issues that are worth taking note of. One is his discussion of the hypothetical as something straight out of a comic book. As he puts it, “[U]nless Hollywood screenwriters start engaging in murderous acts of performance art, no actual terror plot is ever going to involve a time bomb, a code to defuse it, a collaborator in custody who has that code, FBI or CIA agents who know it, and a waterboarding table on hand.” It’s just sad that the popularity of 24 has made a lot of people think that (1) torture works[1] and (2) such situations are not only possible but common.

[1] I am not saying that torture does not in many cases provide information. I know, for example, that anyone could torture me and I would provide them with any information they wanted. There are two fundamental problems with this meaning that torture “works.” First, it is almost certain that anyone torturing me would be looking for information that I don’t actually have. So I would make up stuff just to have the torturing stop. Thus, there is a big problem of sifting the good information from the bad. Second, there is a huge opportunity cost with torturing me. In general, rapport building has been found to be far more effective than torturing. I know it would be with me. (I still don’t have any secret information anyone would be interested in, but what are you gonna do?) So the cost of torturing is greater than the gain. Thus, torture does not “work.”

Brave Is Kind of a Mess but Enjoyable

Brave 2012Last night I watched the 2012 animated feature Brave. It is what it is. Visually it is stunning. But it’s curious. Much of the background animation could be mistaken for live action. The rendering of a waterfall was absolutely fantastic. But then in that environment exist all the characters who by and large look like they were designed by the people who created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s just interesting.

“Interesting” is the word for this film. It’s representations of men are just terrible, although given men in reality, not exactly undeserved. So the film focuses on women, and indeed, the three primary characters are women: mother, daughter, and the most charming witch, I mean woodcarver, you will ever see. But the narrative itself is a mess. The film is half over before the viewer gets clued in as to what it is about. And that issue—female intergenerational bonding—is a welcome one, especially given the film’s obvious appeal to girls. But it meanders, making seriously tired Scottish jokes that by this time ought to be at least a little blue. And then the mother gets turned into a bear.

That strikes me as just odd. But it does have the advantage of providing what would commonly result in strong dramatic momentum. The daughter is responsible for turning her mother into a bear and they both want to turn the mother back. There is even a ticking clock. Yet the film continues to meander. If you knew that you only had a day to cancel the spell that had turned your mother into a bear, would you really spend it teaching her how to catch fish? Then there is much mindless action. But I was surprised by the ending when the mother stayed a bear for the rest of her life after eating the daughter. Okay, so that was a joke. They all live happily ever after as computer generated quasi-humans.

I used to really like it that animated features tended to be so well scripted. But that is less and less true, as animation studios have learned that they too can just wing it with a bit of action or a musical interlude. What’s more, the scripts—and most definitely the script for Brave—depend upon dialog to explain what’s going on. There is a second bear in the movie (not the mother), and the daughter has to explain that the bear was actually the son of legend who didn’t listen to his father. This was already fairly well established, and it really didn’t require any dialog—just some more information to drive it home.

None of this is to say that the film is bad. It works well enough. And it’s short: only 84 minutes if you don’t count the credits that go on and on and on. Kelly Macdonald voiced the daughter, which is just perfect, because it seems her voice will always sound like she’s 14. Emma Thompson as the mother is good and pleasant as always. But it was Julie Walters who had the fun part as the witch, I mean woodcarver, who really stood out. The two songs in it were as inoffensive as they were uninspired. (Can we all just agree that in the future, all films having anything to do with non-modern Scotland can just use James Horner’s score from Braveheart?) Finally, as I said: it really is beautiful to look at.

From a political standpoint, it’s a mixed bag. How can it no be? It is about a princess. Other than the aristocracy, everyone in the film is either part of the kitchen staff or the army. The one exception is the witch, I mean woodcarver. She is the most interesting character, and she isn’t in the film nearly enough for my tastes. She reminds me of something that Terry Eagleton once 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 value in Macbeth lies with the three witches.” In Brave, none of the men are creative (as I indicated before, perhaps an earned representation). Creativity is left to the women (You could have a fine time analyzing that!) which is left to the mother and finally the daughter when they reconcile. But most of all, it is the witch woodcarver who is creative, although her spells do tend to all end in someone turning into a black bear. So there’s your standard fairy tale: the important aristocracy, the happy peasants, and the outcast. I can hardly complain given that most “adult” literature only deals with the first two of those groups. And I was pleased that Brave presented its outcast in a very positive light.

On the DVD of Brave are two short films that are far better than the feature. The first one was directed by Brave story supervisor Brian Larsen, “The Legend of Mor’du.” It tells the backstory of the other bear who disobeyed his father’s wishes. Other than the opening and closing, which are done in the Brave style with the witch, I mean woodcarver, telling the story, it is done in that old fashioned kind of animation with still images. Even today, I find that to be some of the most compelling stuff because the images can be much more interesting. Here it is:

The attributes of the four sons are interesting: wise, compassionate, just, and strong. One of these things is not like the other. What exactly is strong doing in that group? Of course, I suppose the point of the story is that the strong one is not any of wise, compassionate, and just. And he’s the one who screws everything up.

The other short is Enrico Casarosa’s fabulous La Luna. It is about three generations of a single family: grandfather, father, and son. And it is their job each night to… Telling you would not spoil it, but just watch it:

It looks a lot better on the DVD. (Also: it isn’t reversed!) And really, buying the whole DVD just for La Luna is probably a great deal.

We’ll Always Have Peter Lorre

Peter LorreOn this day in 1904, Peter Lorre was born. I once had this boss who had worked in television. I had mentioned Lorre for some reason and she dismissed him out of hand, “Oh, he was married eight times!” I believed her, in part because I’m gullible. But also, it just seemed like Lorre would be the kind of guy who married a lot of women. And there is something to that. He was married three times—staying married most of his adult life.

He started acting on the stage in his late teens and didn’t make his first film until he was 25. But fairly quickly he became a star for his performance as the pedophile serial killer in Fritz Lang’s M. This led to his first English language film, The Man Who Knew Too Much. And since he was on the run from the Nazis (Lorre was nominally Jewish), he ended up settling in the United States in 1935.

Lorre is best known for his acting in films like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. These days, I most associate him with all of his Mr Moto films, because a couple of years ago I went through a period where I watched them all. They are rather bad films, but it is fun to watch the Austrian Lorre playing a Japanese character. I had intended to write an article about the racism in the films, but I never got around to it. Other than the casting, I’m not sure the films are that racist. Although they certainly push stereotypes of the cunning oriental. To do it justice, I’d have to go back and watch the films again—I’m not keen on that prospect, even with Lorre.

Sadly, Lorre had health problems for most of his life. These were mostly with his gallbladder, which kept him on morphine for many years. Then later in life, he put on quite a lot of weight. That’s all fine, but in the final films, he really does look sickly. You can see this in two of my favorite of his films at the end of his life: The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors. (Both films were written by Richard Matheson and available as a single DVD!) He was only 59 when he died of a stroke. I can’t help but think that modern medicine would have done a better job of treating his health problems.

Nonetheless, he managed to make an enormous number of films. He was a great actor, but his career was based primarily on the fact that there is just something very charming about him. Even when playing villains, his humanity comes through. That was clear enough when he was 27 in M. Here he is in Casablanca. I love the look he gives at the very end when Rick says, “I am a little more impressed with you.” It seems like the first time that Ugarte fully realizes what he’s done. It’s just a shame the character is used as nothing more than a plot device to get Rick the letters of transit. But we’ll always have this scene:

Happy birthday Peter Lorre!