Discarded American Hero Lewis Hine

Lewis HineOn this day in 1874, the great documentary photographer Lewis Hine was born. He did important work for the first three decades of the 20th century. After college, he became a teacher in New York City. But in his early 30s, he started working as a photographer for the Russell Sage Foundation and the Pittsburgh Survey, which was formed to document living conditions in industrialized areas. According to the New York Public Library, “Following this he became a staff photographer for the National Child Labor Committee and traveled across much of the southern and eastern states documenting the working conditions of factories, fields, mines, mills and canneries which made use of child labor. The results of Hine’s photographic pursuits eventually led to the establishment of child labor and safety laws for all workers.”

Midnight at the Glassworks - Lewis Hine

His most famous work is doubtless the collection of photographs he did from 1930 to 1931 to document the construction of the Empire State Building. You have probably seen this incredibly famous photo, which still makes me nervous:

Empire State Building - Lewis Hine

What I find astounding about Hine’s work is that it isn’t just documentary. It does tell compelling stories. But it is above all gorgeous. And that is extremely impressive. But in the mid-1930s, he found it almost impossible to get work as a photographer, either in the private sector or in the government. This was at a time when a younger generation of photographers were discovering and cherishing his work. But he died in poverty at the age of 66 in 1940. Yet another great man that our country simply turned its back on, even while people like John D Rockefeller got their boots licked.

I highly recommend checking out the Art Plus Photo page on Lewis Hine. It contains over 50 of his photographs: beautiful, sometimes funny, often heartbreaking, work.

Happy birthday Lewis Hine!

Beware Corporate Hotel Chains “Helping” Workers

Maria ShriverPoor Maria Shriver, the long suffering wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger, is out promoting an idea that just shows it wasn’t all that surprising that she married a Republican. According to a press release two months ago, Marriott International Joins The Envelope Please™, A New Initiative Created by Maria Shriver and A Woman’s Nation™ in Support of Hotel Room Attendants. But before getting to what sounds like a worthy campaign, let’s just take a moment to chuckle at all those trademarks. America really needs more trademarks. Like that first sentence would have been some much better like this: Poor Maria Shriver™, the long suffering™ wife™ of Arnold Schwarze™negger™, is out promoting an idea™ that just shows™ it wasn’t all that surprising™ that she married™ a Republican™.

Anyway, the idea here is to put little tip envelopes out in hotel rooms as a way to encourage people to tip the housekeeping staff. All my life, I have been a strong supporting of tipping the housekeeping staff. They do a difficult and disgusting job and generally get paid poorly. I do it because it is one small thing that I can do to help. It takes away a small amount of the oppression that the housekeepers suffer under. But this corporate push to encourage tipping is repugnant in the extreme.

MarriottForget about “A Woman’s Nation”; it is just some group that Shriver put together back in 2011. It seems to be nothing more than a group that doubtless does a little good, but which is primarily involved in allowing companies like Goldman Sachs and Cisco Systems to look like they have the slightest interest in helping poor women. And this new venture, The™ Envelope™ Please™™™, is just a way of making Marriott look like a compassionate corporation.

At Think Progress a week and a half ago, Bryce Covert noted that nationwide, the median pay for hotel maids is $9.41 per hour. But at “compassionate” Marriott, it is even lower: roughly $8.32 per hour. So sure, maids are way underpaid for their difficult jobs. But as Covert noted, “Tips will of course help, but a pay raise would lift their living standards even more.” She added:

Higher pay seems warranted given that it’s a very tough job. Hotel workers have a 40 percent higher injury rate than other service sector workers, and housekeepers have a 50 percent higher rate than other hotel workers. In surveys, about 80 percent had work-related pain. The job is very physical, requiring workers to lift, bend, and twist with heavy loads and clean in awkward positions. They also usually have to meet quotas for how many rooms they clean in a day, often 15 or more.

But the ever brilliant Michael Hiltzik suggested that there might be a much more nefarious aspect to this. Currently, hotel housekeeping is not considered a “tipped occupation” by the federal government. This means that companies must pay at least the minimum wage. But if this campaign is successful, it could be reclassified. And if it becomes a tipped occupation, then Marriott could pay their housekeepers even less than minimum wage!

Tipping is always a scam. I still always tip, because it isn’t a scam being perpetrated by the poor employees. It is a scam by corporations to keep their direct labor costs low. This allows them to post prices that are lower than they really are and skim ever more profits. We should really outlaw the practice at the same time we raise the minimum wage to $15 and peg it to productivity growth (not inflation). I’m not hopeful for anything like this. But the least we can do is push back against this kind of thing. When I go into Denny’s, at least I don’t have to look at signs that say, “Because we are so great to work for, we are encouraging you to tip your server (because we pay them less than minimum wage)!”

Verizon iPhone Ad Doesn’t Speak Well of Apple

Apple SucksI don’t know if you have seen this Verizon Wireless commercial about trading in your iPhone 5 for the iPhone 6. I seem to be getting this commercial everywhere. This has got to be a glitch in the ad serving software. I don’t have Verizon. I don’t have an iPhone. I have never had an iPhone. And I’m on record as being pretty negative toward Apple, which I think is one of the very worst high tech companies.

The problem is not just that Apple has spent the last 25 years doing little other than suing every other high tech company under the sun for copyright violations they are only taken seriously in the United States where the judicial system is strictly pay-to-play. They also are not not not innovators. I don’t know how people can miss this. They are at best a packaging company and at worse a branding company.

At least in the old days, their hardware products were well built. Their computers came with the very best components. This is not so anymore! As other companies have come out with computers that are arguably as sexy, Apple has responded by putting out worse products. I don’t know why. I remember reading a quote from (I think) Steve Wozniak in an old book that went something like this, “Apple isn’t a computer; it’s a lifestyle.” He meant that in a good way. And God knows, this fact is good for sales. So let the lemmings have their overpriced devices and I will still be getting work done with whatever happens to be in front of me (which sometimes is an Apple product).

So I think the fact that Verizon is advertising the hell out of this iPhone 6 upgrade is yet another manifestation of this. Given that the iPhone 6 is not a fundamental improvement on the iPhone 5, you’ve got to sell it as the best thing in the world. It reminds me of grim years when Microsoft kept the world enslaved to MS-DOS. Oh! My! God! Version 3 is out! And it is better than Version 2 because… Did I mention Version 3 is out!

Now this commercial might be great for the kind of people who just have to have the latest and greatest Apple device. It just fills me with guilt and regret and anxiety. In it, Paul reads about this great new deal where he gets to upgrade to an iPhone 6 for FREE. (That’s right: it is all in capitals.) And Paul’s phone acts like the girlfriend who thinks she is about to be dumped. It ends with, “Sure, you loved you old iPhone. But you’ll love your free new iPhone you trade it for even more.”

I hate this commercial because I think breaking up with a lover is one of the worst things in the world. I would much rather be dumped than have to dump someone. I have to have a really good reason. (Sadly, I have.) And this guy is dumping his lover-surrogate for what? Because the camera in the iPhone 6 has a true-tone flash? Because of the supposed 10% increase in battery life? Because of the supposed 20% increase in CPU speed? Because the base model has exactly the same amount of memory? As Trusted Reviews says, even while salivating over the phone, “There isn’t an objective reason, at this stage, to upgrade from an iPhone 5S.”

But am I alone in thinking the commercial is also vaguely sexist? The female voice on the phone sounds like a battered woman. “You’ve always treated me horribly, but please don’t leave me! I’ll be better!” And Paul seems very much like a lot of guys I knew when I was that age who were constantly worried that they was “settling.” When they were in relationships, they were always looking around to see if there wasn’t some other woman who might be better.

Don’t take this as me not getting the ad. I get it. I think it’s clever. I also think it appeals to exactly the market segment that Apple is most dependent on: people who think they can make up for the total lack of a soul through the purchases they make.

The Election of 1800 Transformed to 2012

Michael AustinI’m going to make some predictions about the election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. And the first thing I’m going to predict is that the election is going to get nastier. I’m going to predict that they’re going to call each other names — lots of names. Both of these gentlemen have supporters who honestly believe that if the other guy wins, America as we know it will cease to exist. And I am going to predict that they say this with increasing drama and increasing frequency and increasing histrionics — that Mitt Romney should definitely not be president but neither should Barack Obama. Barack Obama, in fact, has ruined this country. And if he’s elected again, this country will not survive. So who should you vote for: Joe Biden. And he’s going to publicly convince people to write in “Joe Biden” and millions of people are going to do it — to the point where nobody’s going to be sure if Joe Biden or Barack Obama is running for president. Which, of course, means that the Romney-Ryan ticket is going to sail to victory. Bear with me — it could happen.

After the election, I predict that Paul Ryan is going to decide that really he should be president. He’s going to get it in his head that vice-presidents can quickly become president. And he’s going to stage in the the electoral college a coup and get them to elect him instead of Mitt Romney. Now all the Republicans are going to know that Mitt Romney is their candidate, so they’re going to vote for Mitt Romney. But all the Democrats are going to see it as a chance to stick it to Mitt Romney. They’re going to support Ryan. Well who are they going to call in? Bill Clinton, of course! Bear with me. I know I’m out on a limb here. But this could happen.

Bill Clinton is going to say, “Well, Romney is a disaster, but he’s an honest disaster. This guy Ryan is a dishonest disaster, so you should vote for Romney.” And Bill Clinton is going to make Romney the next President of the United States! And Paul Ryan is going to get so mad that he’s going to shoot him and kill him. And as soon as he kills him, he’s going to come back on the very next day and preside at the impeachment of Sonia Sotomayor, who of course is going to be impeached because she lambasted Mitt Romney from the bench. How many of you think that’s going to happen?

Because that’s what happened in 1800…

—Michael Austin
Newman University lecture about his book That’s Not What They Meant!

The Latte Salute and the Right’s World View

Obama Latte SaluteMedia Matters brought my attention to, The Media’s Imaginary Coffee Salute Scandal. It seems that Obama had a cup of coffee in his hand when he saluted Marines while exited Marine One. The right wing are freaking out, even though Bush the Younger did the same thing all the time while holding his dog. It is just another thing for partisans to freak out about. And I don’t especially care.

What I have cared about in the past is the habit of our men in uniform saluting the President of the United States. This goes back basically to the beginning. To me it has always smacked of military dictatorships. But it is what we have always done and it does go along with Marines code (pdf) that states that one should salute “all officers senior to you in rank.” The president certainly is entitled as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces (and not simply Commander-in-Chief). But the Marines mention a number of other civilians who should be saluted, such as governors. Thus this is a sign of subordination of the military to the civilian government — a very good thing indeed. Conservatives want to turn this around.

But the Marines are a practical group and they note conditions under which one should not salute. For example, if you are bent over an engine trying to fix it, you are not expected to salute. But most important in this situation, you don’t need to salute when, “Carrying articles with both hands or being otherwise so occupied as to make saluting impractical.” That would pretty much relieve a president from ever having to salute.

Of course, the president never did salute. You know Colonel Jackson, General Grant, Colonel Roosevelt, General Eisenhower? None of them ever saluted. The tradition started in 1981 when the star of Bedtime for Bonzo did it because he thought it was super keen. He had been in World War II, but only stateside working in public relations. But you know how it is: once they stuck “under God” into the “Pledge of Allegiance,” people assumed it had always been there. Allen West, who really should know better even though he is a total authoritarian nut job, called the “latte salute” disgraceful. But you gotta wonder where West and all the Fox News ranters were when this happened:

Bush's Dog Salute

Of course they were no where. No one cared. And no one cares about the “latte salute.” Brian Adam Jones sums up the issue well:

But recent presidential history hasn’t been kind (or fair) to the president.

When Maj Gen Harold Greene was killed in Afghanistan earlier this summer, critics blasted the president for not attending his funeral. Retired Air Force Col Morris Davis claimed that Obama “bucked tradition” since Richard Nixon attended the funeral of Maj Gen John Dillard when he was killed in Vietnam in 1970 and George W Bush attended Lt Gen Timothy Maude’s funeral when he was killed on Sept 11, 2001. But for one problem — Nixon didn’t attend Dillard’s funeral, nor did Bush attend Maude’s. Davis later said that he was kidding and baiting Obama critics.

Similarly, a story that has plagued the Obama administration is that he failed to visit the D-Day memorial in Normandy on June 6 every year. The story claimed that there were only four occasions in 69 years that a president failed to visit the D-Day memorial on D-Day, and all four were in the Obama administration. In reality, however, no U.S. president visited the memorial at all until Reagan did it in 1984 (he was a real trend-setter). And it had only been visited by an American president six times in total, including a visit from Obama in 2009.

The man can’t win. No Democratic president can win. This is because the right wing in this country has nothing to talk about in terms of policy. The world view of the right is that the nation is divided into the patriots and the traitors. And the Democrats are by definition traitors. It doesn’t matter if any given Democrat is a president or not. Thinking this way doesn’t make those on the right traitors, but it definitely destroys any claim to being patriots.

Cheering Myself Up With Shel Silverstein

Shel SilversteinLet me state right out that last year, I was in no condition to celebrate the birthday of William Faulkner. And on this, his 121st birthday (It is technically possible!), I am in even worse condition. As always, the usual: great writer, blah, blah, blah. I really do love his work. All those Southern Gothic writers are great. But he so depresses me. Was it really necessary?

On this day in 1930, the great writer Shel Silverstein was born. And I’m not even going to talk about him. I’m just going to present some of his work. I don’t do this for you, although I do hope that you will enjoy it. I do it just to cheer myself up. He is always good for that!

Let’s start with a satirical song written by Silverstein, “Cover of the Rolling Stone.” Just to be clear, the band, Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, is made up of a bunch of spazzes who did a whole lot of work with Silverstein, who wrote their entire second album.

Next we will do a little poetry. Silverstein has often been thought of as a children’s writer, but he never saw it that way. I think we have a similar outlook on life that way. I think people talk down to kids far too much. Just the same, they assume adults aren’t just kids with younger kids. Here’s a poem that is very close to my heart:

Memorizin’ Mo

Mo memorized the dictionary
But just can’t seem to find a job
Or anyone who wants to marry
Someone who memorized the dictionary.

Another one that is sly and silly and yet mystically profound:

Something Missing

I remember I put on my socks,
I remember I put on my shoes.
I remember I put on my tie
That was printed
In beautiful purples and blues.
I remember I put on my coat,
To look perfectly grand at the dance,
Yet I feel there is something
I may have forgot—
What is it? What is it? …

And for our last poem, a little encouragement:

Listen to the Mustn’ts

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me—
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.

The Giving Tree

And finally, we have an animated reading by Silverstein himself of his sentimental and beautiful book, The Giving Tree. “And the tree was happy.”

Happy birthday Shel Silverstein!

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.


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!

The “50 Percent of the Votes, Plus One” Doctrine

Karl RoveOne thing I really hated about Karl Rove was his “50 percent of the votes, plus one” doctrine. I don’t go for that precisely because I believe in democracy and not in mob rule. Of course, it is all the worse in the United States where very few people vote. So getting 50% of the vote almost never means 50% of the people are in favor of a particular policy or candidate. And the conservative approach is always the same: get as few people to vote as possible.

There are some things that are not open to a vote, however. This is what the Bill of Rights is all about. This is why it is so frustrating to hear libertarians, who I think are totally wrong but usually fairly smart, say that if slavery were what the people wanted it would be okay. Wrong! And in a small defense of libertarians, the smart ones understand this very clearly. There are some rights that are not open to a vote. What’s more, we have rightly decided as a people that there are some rights you cannot even give up. If you want to be a slave, you can’t be. That is a freedom you do not have.

Scottish FlagSo even though I still believe that Scottish independence is a good idea if done properly, I find the vote quite questionable. What if the “yes” vote had received “50 percent of the votes, plus one”? Would that really have made it okay to upset the current reasonable state of things on the basis of a single vote? I don’t think it would be. And that brings up an interesting question: what level of support would justify independence? I wish there were an easy answer to that question.

There are two parts of it. First, I think there should be a very clear majority. I think some kind of supermajority would be appropriate — perhaps 60%, although maybe just 55% would be more appropriate given that it isn’t the only requirement. Second, I think there should be a high level of homogeneity in that majority. This is similar to the decision of the Second Continental Congress that all the colonies be on board before they decided on declaring independence. Clearly, this creates all kinds of problems of definitions. You wouldn’t want Scotland divided up by households so that some old crank is the only thing that is stopping Scotland from getting its independence. But Scotland is divided into 32 council areas and I think majorities (or maybe even submajorities) in all of those ought to do.

I’m sure this is the kind of proposal that is likely to make me hated by everyone on all sides of the issue. But the truth is that I don’t much care how Scotland wants to organize its affairs. I’m just using it as an example. When it comes to very important and disruptive things, I think more than a simple majority ought to be needed. Of course, here in the United States, we have a conservative movement that is the worst of all worlds. At the same time that they believe that they ought to be able to turn America into a theocracy with “50 percent of the votes, plus one,” they stubbornly obstruct the government on things they even agree on. See, for example, how the Republicans in the Senate use the filibuster against nominations that they later vote unanimously for.

The truth is that creating a governmental structure that works is really hard. My hat is off to Mr Madison. But it is also true that there is literally no free system that can work if the vast majority of the people don’t abide by social norms. That means that nothing works if we don’t treat each other with shared humanity. And I think this is why America is at such a dangerous point in its history. The leadership of a major political party does not accept the legitimacy of the other political party. Can you imagine what would have happened if the Supreme Court had canceled the Florida recount and anointed Al Gore president? The same people who concocted the Brooks Brothers riot, would have started a revolution. Liberals didn’t like how George Bush became president, but they accepted it because they accepted the system. I think most conservatives accept the system. But the people leading the movement do not. And things could go south quickly if “50 percent of the votes, plus one” ever worked in the liberals’ favor.