Paul Ryan Is the Face of False Equivalence

Paul Ryan - Reagan 2.0Finally, Jonathan Chait is back from vacation. This is a big deal because there really is no one who knows Paul Ryan as well as he does. He’s been calling him on his tricks for years, so I was really interested in what he had to say.

But given that he wasn’t around, Annie Lowrey filled in and wrote a very good article, Paul Ryan’s Poverty Plan: The Good, the Bad, and the Paternalistic. Most of the article is about how Ryan wants to put all the poverty plans together and give poor people what amounts to a parole officer. Paternalistic indeed!

As she noted:

Middle-class families don’t need to justify and prostrate themselves for tax credits. Businesses aren’t required to submit an “action plan” to let the government know when they’ll stop sucking the oxygen provided by federal grant programs. The old don’t need to show receipts demonstrating their attendance at water aerobics in order to get Medicare. Nope, it’s just the poor who need to answer for their poverty.

That’s right: the more money the government gives you, the less it looks like welfare. If they give you twenty bucks per week for food, they want to rub it in your face; if they give you $200 billion to bail out your bank, they want to make it out so you can claim you were doing the government a favor.

She also addressed the deal-breaker in Ryan’s new “poverty plan”: the block grants. Of course, the thing is that the combining of all the programs and the block granting are the same thing. It would be hard to block grant food stamps, but if he can get it to be part of an omnibus, then it gets block granted by default. She mentioned that this tends to have the effect of slowly killing the program. That’s true. But there is another aspect. That is that red states will find ways to take money away from the poor. After all, just look at the Medicaid expansion. That is free money to the states that Republican governments are passing up. They don’t care about the poor when it comes to Medicaid; they won’t care about the poor when it comes to Paul Ryan’s big ombibus block grants.

Jonathan Chait was back today with, Is Paul Ryan Still Paul Ryan? I get the impression that Chait hasn’t fully absorbed Ryan’s new gambit. And I understand: people like Chait have to maintain an open enough mind to at least consider that Paul Ryan may have changed. But come on! The parts of his plan that involve money are the same old things: block granting. He wanted to do it with Medicaid before, and for the same reason. His idea was that they would give the states their current amount of money and then increase them with inflation. But he knew full well that healthcare inflation was higher than regular inflation. So I think we can all admit that Ryan is doing the same thing that he was doing before; he’s just doing it with more subtlety.

And Chait did call him on this. He mentioned that David Gregory asked Ryan why anyone should assume that these red states that are refusing free Medicaid money would be willing to look out for the best interests of their poorer citizens. And Ryan came back with a bunch of talking point logorrhea that would make Sarah Palin proud. It included his old hammock quote, but he’s rephrased it so he doesn’t look like such a jerk, “If you want to have a healthy economy and have real solutions, you have to have a healthy safety net. And a safety net needs to work to get people out of poverty.” Chait summed it up well, “This string of unrelated talking points that provides zero engagement with the question offers little reason to believe Ryan has grappled with the gaping flaw in his proposal.”

Elizabeth WarrenMy question continues to be why anyone takes this man seriously. He has no ideas. He plays at being an intellectual. If he were in the Democratic Party, no one would pay attention to him, because there are smart, knowledgeable, and well-spoken people in the Democratic Party. So basically, Paul Ryan being on television at all is yet another example of false equivalence. The truth is that no network should have any Republican on until they actually come up with some ideas that are worth discussing. But unfortunately, we are left with a system where everyone has to pretend that Paul Ryan in the Republican version of Elizabeth Warren. Let’s see now: Warren has a JD from Rutgers and Ryan has read Atlas Shrugged. Yep, I guess they are about the same!

Actually, there is something else that separates Ryan and Warren. Warren is honest about what she’s trying to do. Ryan is a total fraud who won’t admit what he’s really trying to do. The only way that Ryan’s “plan” leads to fewer poor people is if he managed to kill more of them.

Fun Horror Films With Wax

House of Wax 2005There is one young lady I follow on Google+ who has a Christian kind of name, but basically only posts videos from The Twilight Zone. I’m quite the fan of the show and that’s undoubtedly why I follow her. I often make comments, pointing out things about the production. You know me. But she posted the episode “The New Exhibit,” with a description that this was where they got the idea for the film House of Wax. We communicated back and forth and I found out that she was not referring to what I think of when I hear that title—the 1953 Vincent Price classic—but rather the 2005 film of that name. With such confusion, I thought it deserved a little discussion.

To be honest, “The New Exhibit” has nothing to do with either of these films. It tells the story of Martin Senescu (played by Martin Balsam) who works at a wax museum. When the owner decides to close it down, Martin gets the owner to let him keep the wax figures from the “murderers’ row” exhibit in his basement. He has an air conditioner installed and spends all his time tending to them. His wife is none too happy about this—especially given that they don’t even have money for food. The wife’s brother tells her to sneak down at night and turn off the air conditioner; the figures will melt and Martin will come to his senses. But when she tries to do this, one of the figures comes to life and kills her. In the end, three people are murdered. Of course, it wasn’t the wax figures. It was just that Martin had gone totally insane and the episode ends with him being immortalized in wax as part of the “murders’ row” exhibit now at a museum in Europe. It’s a typically great script by Jerry Sohl.

That’s an excellent episode, but it is almost the exact opposite of all the other wax museum films. So let’s look at them. In the early 1930s, Charles Spencer Belden was working as a salaried writer at Warner Bros. He had written a short story, “The Wax Works,” which the studio decided to option. Coming on the heals of Universal’s successes with Dracula and Frankenstein, it probably sounded like a good idea. And it was a good movie! It was directed by veteran Michael Curtiz, who most people know for directing Casablanca. He directed at least five films released in 1933, one of which was Mystery of the Wax Museum.

The film is perhaps most notable for being the last major film to use the two-color Technicolor system. The missing color is yellow, and yet it looks pretty good. As for the story, it is what people who have seen the Vincent Price version will know. A master wax sculptor, Ivan Igor, has his unscrupulous business partner burn their wax museum for the insurance money. Igor fights with him and seems to be killed in the fire. But 12 years later, he is back, although confined to a wheelchair and without the use of his hands. Of course, he has also gone completely mad and is killing people, stealing their bodies from the morgue, and covering them with wax.

This is a surprisingly bad trailer, because it gives away the “surprise” and doesn’t include the parts of the movie that I like the most:

The main difference between the 1953 House of Wax and Mystery of the Wax Museum, is that the latter has this great subplot about plucky reporter Florence Dempsey (played adorably by Glenda Farrell) who is trying to get to the bottom of the mystery. She is Hildy Johnson or Amy Archer, depending upon how old you are. And the film even manages to cram a love story in its 77-minute running time where Dempsey has to choose between the rich guy or the right guy.

There are two reasons that I prefer Mystery of the Wax Museum to House of Wax. First, it runs at a frenetic pace. Yes, it is a horror film, but it’s also a screwball comedy. No one is taking any of it too seriously and it is just a lot of fun. Second, House of Wax was shot in 3-D, and there are some very annoying segments in the film as a result. Most especially, there is a scene with a guy with a paddle ball that goes on far too long. None of this is to say that House of Wax is bad. It isn’t. It’s great! It’s a horror film with Vincent Price. And even though I do not think that combination can result in a bad film, House of Wax is definitely closer to the best that he did.

Unfortunately, the trailer for House of Wax didn’t show any scenes from the movie. It was all about how great 3-D was going to be. By the way, 3-D sucks. Even today, it mutes the colors that you would see. I don’t know why anyone likes it. But if you do, apparently you can get House of Wax 3-D on DVD or BluRay. Here is a scene from the end of the film that gives away the “surprise” that was already given away in the previous trailer:

Now I must admit to having not seen the 2005 film House of Wax. But luckily, we have Wikipedia, and so I can tell you that it is nothing at all like the earlier films. It is basically a slasher film where the victims are covered in wax. It is exactly the kind of film being parodied in the excellent Tucker & Dale vs Evil. Roger Ebert wrote of it, “House of Wax is not a good movie but it is an efficient one, and will deliver most of what anyone attending House of Wax could reasonably expect, assuming it would be unreasonable to expect very much.” Not really my kind of thing, but it sounds good enough.

It is probably because I tend to get too involved with films, that I overload on things like this and just see them as funny. So for me, late 1960s and early 1970s horror is just perfect. I especially like a bit of wit as in Theatre of Blood. (Horror, revenge, and Shakespeare!) But whatever. The three films I have discussed here that I’ve also seen each work. And I suspect the 2005 House of Wax works quite well in its own way.


There is a version of the 1953 House of Wax that includes a very nice transfer of Mystery of the Wax Museum. If you want it, buy it from Amazon and throw a few pennies my way!

KCTV 7: Satire When You Least Need It!

KCTV7: Satire When You Least Need It!Some things in the publishing industry are just wrong. And Catherine Thompson at Talking Points Memo, brings my attention to one, News Sites Get Duped By Satire About Bachmann “Americanization” Camps. What happened was that the website KCTV 7 published a story, Michele Bachmann Suggests Labor Camps for Immigrant Children. And such prominent websites as Daily Kos and Crooks & Liars picked up on it. The question is, why?

Well, let’s start with the fact that Michele Bachmann saying crazy things like this is not at all surprising. In fact, her mixing up of John Wayne Gacy and John Wayne to this day sounds like a brilliant joke written by one of Jon Stewart’s better writers. And we live in a world where conservatives gather at the border yelling at kids and holding up signs, “Not Our Problem!” We also live in a world where Newt Gingrich called for poor kids to do janitorial work at their schools. So Bachmann saying that we ought to set up work camps for the child refugees just isn’t much of a stretch.

The article originally ran in National Report, a well known satirical site that it usually quite good. I wrote about them less than two weeks ago, Cruz and Beck Distribute Crisp, Refreshing Dasani Sparkling Water to Brown Children. But I have to say, the Bachmann article contains very little satire. There is an over-emphasis on learning English, a casual dismissal of putting four-year-olds to work, and a subtle but funny reference to school vouchers. I doubt I would have caught the satire if I hadn’t known. It does end with a very funny paragraph about Jose Antonio Vargas accusing her of wanting to indoctrinate future Republican voters—just as silly an idea as the actual Republican belief that immigration reform is really all about winning elections two decades from now.

If the websites had been fooled by National Report, however, I wouldn’t be all that sympathetic. It is a well known satirical site, although I have to admit that I can’t find any actual indication on the site that says this. The Daily Currant is very clear about it being a satirical outlet, even though it gets more than its fair share of people taking it seriously. But National Report is big enough to have a Wikipedia page where you can check. That brings us to KCTV 7.

KCTV 5 is an actual CBS-affiliated television station serving Kansas City (both of them). Clearly, KCTV 7 is meant to deceive. What’s more, there is absolutely no indication on their site that it is satirical. Nor is there any indication that the Bachmann story first ran in the National Report. So of course, I understand the outlets that got confused. But it really does seem that the people at KCTV 7 are a bunch of jerks. But it may be that they simply haven’t been doing this for very long. Maybe their idea of good publicity is to confuse as many people as possible.

A Really Bad Representative Democracy

Representative DemocracyI’m not sure if it is the state of politics or the state of my mind, but I am trying to avoid politics. It is so depressing for reasons that are more implicit in my writing than explicit. But let me see if I can make it more explicit here. At one time, politics was almost exclusively retail. That doesn’t mean it was good. To a large extent, that just meant that so few people qualified as voters that any given politician didn’t have to work all that hard to have actual interactions with the voters.

But I still think that the size of the electorate does matter. This is why I have long been for greatly increasing the size of the House of Representatives. And it turns out, there is a group that believes this same thing, Thirty-Thousand. They note that, “The framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights intended that the total population of Congressional districts never exceed 50 to 60 thousand. Currently, the average population size of the districts is nearly 700,000 and, consequently, the principle of proportionally equitable representation has been abandoned.” I don’t know just how accurate this is, but the idea is basically correct. The fewer people a politician represents, the more accountable he is.

Then we have the Senate, an anti-democratic compromise. When the United States was formed, the largest state (Virginia) had about twenty times the population of the smallest state (Tennessee, which was growing—fast). Now the largest state (California) has about 70 times the population of the smallest state (Wyoming—smaller than a California Congressional District). And that actually understates the problem because we have a whole bunch of little states now and a couple of really big ones. The 9 (18%) most populous states have more people than the 41 least populous states. In 1790, the 5 (30%) most populous states had more people than the 12 least populous. And things were improving because the new states like Tennessee and Kentucky grew rapidly after becoming states. We have the opposite now as people want to move to the two biggest states California and Texas.

So even under the best of circumstances, we do not have much of a representative democracy. But I suspect we could limp along with this. The real problem here is that politics is no longer retail. Let’s look at the 2012 California Proposition 37. It required that GMO products be labeled as such. As you probably know, I don’t really care about this issue. But what matters is that the measure was logical and it was hugely popular. And then Monsanto came in, spent millions of dollars on ads that showed small farmers who claimed that the law would put them out of business and the measure went down to defeat.

This sort of thing could never happen in a small community. For one thing, everyone would know who would be affected and how. But the ads that the GMO industry ran were total distortions. And they worked! And the truth is that when you have huge elections, people with money can distort if not destroy democracy. And I’ve seen little but that my entire life.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that local government is so great. I’m not making some kind of libertarian argument about only having local government. For one thing, if this can happen at the state level, it can happen at any level in the modern world. Even if Proposition 37 had been just for Sonoma County where I live, it wouldn’t have mattered. I don’t know any farmers and I don’t know anyone who knows any farmers. So unless we are going to go back to an agrarian economy that hasn’t existed since the 18th century, we are going to have this problem. (And libertarians are disingenuous when they claim that local control is better; they are just trying to destroy government piecemeal.)

Anyway, this is why each day I dread even reading about politics. That’s not to say that I don’t still do it obsessively. But even if our political trajectory is positive, it is only barely so. And it will take decades to repair the damage done by the last four.

Marcel Duchamp Descending a Staircase

Marcel DuchampOn this day in 1887, the great French artist Marcel Duchamp was born. He is hard to talk about though. Because I use the term “artist” in its widest possible sense. He worked in most mediums, but he was also a writer and eventually a chess player. In his early 30s, after a very successful artistic career, he decided he wanted to play chess. He went on to be a Master level player—for those of you who do not know, that means he was better than you can possibly imagine. But he is better know for his writing about chess theory.

Duchamp was born into a rich family. This allowed four of his parents six surviving children to go on to be successful artists. The family was very much into culture, so it isn’t surprising. It does make me wonder about what I see as the modern American rich who seem only to be interested in creating a new kind of aristocracy. The Koch brothers looked at their lucky fate and said, “I want to just make more money and influence politics so that even more comes to me.” The Duchamp children used their lucky fate to do something interesting. And all the Duchamp children did compelling work. What will the Koch children leave us? Oh, that’s right: a potentially catastrophically changed climate. I guess I’m forced to admit that the Koch’s legacy will be more profound than that of the Duchamps, even if it is a tragic legacy.

When I was a kid, I was never that much into modern art. The painting that really turned me onto it was Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. I love the use of line, the movement (not surprisingly from the early days of film), and the limited palette. It works as well for me today as it did 35 years ago:

Nude Descending a Staircase - Duchamp

Most of his other work is more conceptual in nature and not as interesting to me. Part of the problem is that once he started playing chess, he didn’t pursue art all that much. Still, he was still very much part of the art world. There is a great quote from him, however, “I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art—and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position.” I understand the feeling, although as a sport it has managed to be commercialized. But it certainly indicates that his love of art was pure and he didn’t like the way it became commodity.

There is an interesting story about his personal life. He married Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor, but couldn’t stand the confinement of marriage, so they divorced six months later. But Duchamp and Sarazin-Lavassor continued their relationship for the next two decades until she died. That’s right out of Scenes from a Marriage. And very sweet.

Happy birthday Marcel Duchamp!