Colbert Highlights Two of My Obsessions

Richard NixonLast night on The Colbert Report, there were two shocking bits. They both mean a great deal to me personally. And interestingly, they both involve the silly writing that I most enjoy doing. The first has to do with Richard Nixon. The second has to do with shocking news about Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Bohemian Grove

In the first bit, he did another segment of “Better Know a District” with California’s 2nd congressional district with Jared Huffman. It was probably the best one I’ve seen, and it included Huffman making a very good joke himself.The district includes the Bohemian Grove in Monte Rio, which is a men’s club that has been around forever. I grew up just a few miles from it and lived basically next door to it on one occasion. And there is so much folklore associated it, it shocks the mind. You would think people were doing satanic rituals inside. Mainly, it is just a place where very powerful men go to hang out.

In talking about how women are not allowed, Colbert said, “Sorry ladies, you missed your chance to see Richard Nixon play naked horseshoes.” This went along with the following image that is just too great. As you may know, I am obsessed with the Nixon White House, and I’ve written a number of puppet plays about it. Richard Nixon as a puppet is just the perfect character ever. But Nixon as a nudist is pretty close. That might make a good graphic novel, “Nudist Nixon!”

Naked Nixon Playing Horseshoes

Pabst Blue Ribbon

Pabst Blue RibbonIn the B-segment, Colbert reported that Pabst Blue Ribbon had been purchased by a Russian company. You could have knocked me down with asthmatic’s breath. To understand, we must go back over two decades when I wrote my first screenplay with Andrea. It was titled, “The Pabst Conspiracy.” It concerned a young documentary filmmaker, Skip, out to prove that Pabst Blue Ribbon was nothing more than generic beer. But little did Skip know that disgruntled ex-beer-taster for Pabst, Tonto Leftame was really behind it all. It was a revenge thing to get back at Pabst who he blamed for destroying his life. Throughout most of the screenplay, we think that Tonto is dead because he staged a fake death to make it look like Pabst had him killed to keep him quiet. (Oh, where is Oliver Stone when you need him?!) In the end, Tonto is discovered in an action packed chase through Wally’s Water World (where you get wet, but not in a fun way) in Scappoose (an actual place), mostly for the purpose of making a lot of bad puns.

But are you ready to be shocked? Tonto Leftame was a Russian immigrant.

So the Russians got the last laugh. The truth is, I always felt that we could have gotten Pabst to invest in the film. It was on the very cutting edge of the “Pabst is hip” movement. And the film was in many ways a two hour advertisement for the beer. But now that the Russians own it, the dream is dead. Because I’ll tell you something: I am not changing Tonto Leftame! In my mind, he was rather like Dr Strangelove in not being entirely in control of his actions. And he used to repeatedly crush empty beer cans on his forehead when he was stressed or frustrated. Although, in the context of the film, he was pretty normal.

Oh well. We’ll just have to add that to my long list of missed opportunities.

Afterword

For the record, the script was finished. It was just that I was never happy with it. (I’m like that.) We went through over 70 revisions before Andrea refused to work on it anymore. In fact, it is because of this that Andrea won’t much work with me on anything. She’ll edit. And she’ll punch things up. But that’s about it. I can’t blame her. But years later, she did come up with a brilliant idea to fix many of the plot problems. The biggest problem is that I’m very much a character writer. I’m good at coming up with characters. I don’t care that much about plot. And that maybe why I’ve given up writing screenplays. But if I can find a version of “The Pabst Conspiracy” I will definitely post it. If only to annoy the Russians!

Another Troubling “Support Troops” Bumper Sticker

If You Won't Stand Behind Our Troops, You Are More Than Welcome to Stand in Front of Them

I saw this bumper sticker on the back of a car — okay, it was an SUV, of course. On its face, it is not as offensive as “If You Like Your Freedom Thank a Vet” or “Freedom Isn’t Free.” These bumper stickers equate freedom with our enormous military that does very little to protect our freedom anymore. What it does is support corporate interests. But above all, these bumper stickers just say, “Whatever the military does is great and it is wrong to ever disagree.” In other words: you are not free to express your opinions. Subtext: because we lost the Vietnam War because people didn’t “support” the troops.

This new bumper sticker (new to me, anyway) is much better in that it is explicit. There is no pretense that the things we have the military do are for the good of the country or its people or any people, for that matter. It is simply belligerent. Note that it doesn’t say if you “can’t” stand behind the troops, it says “won’t.” So the problem, according to it, is horrible liberals like myself who just refuse to do what is right. It is not a matter of differing opinions.

Of course, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t “support” or “stand behind” the troops. This entire conservative meme is a phantom. No American I’ve ever seen has wished our military ill. So what people who claim that we must “support the troops” mean is that we must support whatever war the United States is involved in. What’s more, we must support ever more funding for our military. And above all, we must be bellicose, “America, fk yeah!”

The truth is that a lot of liberals (and some conservatives) over the years have indeed stood in front of the military. They did it to yell, “Stop! You’re making a mistake!” But again, people put these bumper stickers on their cars not to call for leadership but to call for conformity and the acquiescence to authority.

Everyone loves this photo:

Tiananmen Square

But this is someone standing up to another country’s army — a country that we have, at best, a difficult relationship with. What this young man did is exactly what peace protesters do, but obviously not as ostentatiously and not with the shocking amount of courage. And this gets to the very heart of what I so hate about all of these bumper stickers: the mentality that goes along with them is authoritarian. It is “America: right or wrong.”[1] And that is just about the most anti-American thing I can imagine.

Do we live in a military dictatorship? Is Bill O’Reilly right that after the government decides to go to war, all those who disagree should, “Shut up”? (This has long been official policy.) Should we all be good authoritarian followers who do just what the government tells us? I think the people who put these bumper stickers on their cars think so.

But these same people tend to be right wing reactionaries — supporters of the Tea Party and the John Birch Society and similar groups. And in general, these are the people whose love of and loyalty to the United States is the most contingent. These bumper stickers don’t say, “I love America!” They say, “I love the military!” America is always great regardless of what it does to others. But what America decides to do internally is not to be supported without conditions. These people believe in “America,” not America. And the unwavering support for any and all military adventures is a sign of that. And that, of all things, is what they put on the back of their cars.


[1] There is one early quote of this that I quite agree with. In 1872, Carl Schurz supposedly said, “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” But that is completely counter to the sentiment, “If You Won’t Stand Behind Our Troops, You Are More Than Welcome to Stand in Front of Them.”

Mark Thoma Explains “What Is Rich?”

Mark ThomaWhen I was a little kid, being rich meant being able to buy the stuff I wanted without having to worry about how much it costs.

But as I got older — and maybe this explains my choice of jobs — being rich was much more about the ability to do what I wanted with my time. In this sense, you can have considerable wealth, but still not be rich. In fact, the quest for more and more stuff gets in the way (though it depends in part on what you want to do with your free time; if it’s to play golf at an expensive club, sufficient wealth is a necessary condition).

Some of the richest people I know are quite poor in terms of having “stuff,” but free of the rat race, and as far as I can tell, they are generally happy. I think a lot of people are actually looking for freedom as they accumulate wealth — they imagine being able to do whatever they want — but don’t realize that working longer and longer hours until there is no time left for anything else is not the best the way to get the freedom they are looking for.

—Mark Thoma
What Is Rich?

Social Norms, Taxes, and Thomas Piketty

Capital in the Twenty-First CenturyI want to say a couple of things about Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I haven’t fully digested it. The first is from the beginning of the book. The very first graph in the book is, “Income Inequality in the United States, 1910-2010.” It is an extremely interesting graph.

Whenever I’ve looked at similar graphs in the past, what I’ve focused on is that inequality is actually higher now that it has been in the last century. But this time, what I focus on is how inequality comes crashing down during World War II and it doesn’t start coming unhinged again until the late 1970s:

Income Inequality History

There are a couple of things that do not seem to be going on here. First, this is really not about the top tax bracket. It had been raised steadily throughout the 1930s without much effect. But inequality was on a steep decline before 1942, when the income tax really went up. (It isn’t that the rate went high, but the income level at which it took effect was greatly reduced.) Then, in 1964, when the tax rate was greatly lowered, income inequality stayed pretty much constant. Finally, income inequality started to rise in the late 1970s — years before Reagan brought the tax rate down further.

(Here’s an interesting thing. In 1987, the top marginal tax rate was reduced to 38.5%. This is 1.1 percentage points lower than it is today. But it applied to all incomes over $186,000 in adjusted 2014 dollars. Today, the rate is $403,000. So income taxes on the wealthy are actually quite a lot lower today than they were then. Basically, we have exactly the same top tax rate as we had in 1993.)

The second thing to note is that this doesn’t really seem to be about unionization. I’m not saying that unions aren’t important, because I think they are hugely so. But in terms of unions, they don’t seem to be of critical importance to economic inequality itself. Union rates went way up in the 1930s, again without much effect on inequality. And then after the Taft–Hartley Act in 1947, we see a constant decrease in unionization, but income inequality stays at about the same rate.

What I think income inequality is all about is norms. During World War II and following it, it was just unacceptable for the rich to pay themselves ridiculous amounts of money. Of course, there were strong unions to enforce these norms. But there is no doubt that people like Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises have had their effect. Regardless, since the rich will not police themselves (and really, I don’t expect them to), we need confiscatory taxes. These are not taxes intended to raise money for government services, but rather just to change behavior. If you tax incomes over a million dollars at 95%, you will see far fewer people getting paid more than a million dollars a year.

The problem, of course, is that the rich have great incentives and abilities to game the system to avoid paying taxes. This is why Piketty pushes for an international wealth tax. This is basically a way of making money disappear over time. The reason conservatives love the idea of a gold standard is that if you put a kilogram of gold under your bed, in ten years you will still have a kilogram of gold under your bed. On the other hand, if you put a kilogram of potatoes under your bed, in ten years you will have nothing at all. It makes more sense to have money be more like food and less like gold. I would love to see that, but I’m not too hopeful in the near future.

The second thing I was struck with was Piketty’s discussion of public debt. He notes that there are three ways that public debt can be managed: taxes on capital, inflation, and austerity. What I find so interesting about this list is that the first two things are simply off the table. According to the Serious People, you couldn’t possibly tax capital or allow even modest inflation. They say it would harm the economy! And it would. A little. But the alternative is austerity: cutting government spending and raising taxes on income. But these harm the economy too. But instead of harming it a little, they harm it a lot.

We get stuck with bad economic policy because it is good economic policy for those who are already rich. And those who are already rich are the ones who control the conversation. This is ultimately the biggest problem that we face on the economic front. And it isn’t just the rich within different countries. It is also the way that rich countries treat poor countries, as discussed in Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans. I know we will eventually solve these problems, I just don’t know how.

A New Film by Bert I Gordon!

Bert I GordonIt’s quite a day for birthdays. Jim Henson would be 78 today. And F Scott Fitzgerald would be 118. It is technically possible! But I wrote about them both to a decent degree last year, Tender Is F Scott Fitzgerald. Instead of either of these two unquestionably great artist, I picked simply a unique artist.

Today is Bert I Gordon‘s 92nd birthday! He is known for his low budget films, especially those with giant and miniature characters. His best known film is The Amazing Colossal Man, which I remember thinking was pretty cool when I was a little kid. I still think it is pretty awesome. But after making Satan’s Princess in 1990, he stopped making films. Until, that is, last year when Fangoria reported, Bert I Gordon returns to directing with “PSYCHOPATH”! The film is actually called, Secrets of a Psychopath. And according to IMDb, it is finished. I’ve got to see it when it comes out.

Gordon’s work was not always that great. He was an exploitation filmmaker. And mostly what he exploited was his ability to do rear projection. The funny thing is that if you look at his rear projection, it is far better than Hitchcock’s, who overused it out of what seems to have been just plain laziness. But almost three years ago, I took Gordon to task for his film, Attack of the Puppet People. But my problem with that film was primarily the script. His films were always competently put together.

Gordon is also known for Earth vs the Spider. It is not one of his best films, but it works well enough. I bring it up only because I so love this short hosted segment from Mystery Science Theater 3000 where Crow has written a screenplay, “Earth vs Soup.” I think it is one of the funniest things ever:

Meanwhile, we will be waiting for Secrets of a Psychopath. I hope Gordon lives to be 118 years old and makes many more films.

Happy birthday Bert I Gordon!