The Pathetic Reason for Our 2% Inflation Target

Seven Bad IdeasEven if focusing almost solely on maintaining low, stable inflation made complete sense, why such a low rate of inflation? Persuasive studies find that only annual rates of inflation into the double digits affect economic growth. Moderate levels of inflation of well more than 2 percent show little appreciable damage. Some economists make a strong case that an inflation target closer to 3 percent would have been more beneficial to the United States. Few paid attention to this research, which seemed like a radical notion, a mere one percentage point rise in the target.

As far back as 1988, Alan Greenspan told Congress that the rate of inflation should be low enough that “households and businesses in making their saving and investment decisions can safely ignore the possibility of sustained, generalized price increases or decreases.” In 1996, he told his Federal Open Market Committee, the group of Federal Reserve governors and regional bank presidents who set monetary policy, that the rate should be close to zero. But Greenspan settled for a 2 percent target because the inflation data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics overstated, he thought, the rate by a percentage point or more. The informal target of 2 percent annual inflation, as measured by the consumer price index, was therefore really closer to zero already.

—Jeff Madrick
Seven Bad Ideas

The Holy Grail As Comedy and Film

Monty Python and the Holy GrailLast night I watched, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As brilliant as it is, I’ve always had a problem with it. It’s structure is a mess. The subplot about the modern world encroaching on the reality of the film doesn’t work, and is only there to make the ending seem slightly less terrible. And most gags are never really paid off. But it remains consistently funny. It is just a shame that it didn’t have an actual movie to exist inside of.

The main joke throughout the film is the tenth century Rodney Dangerfield: King Arthur can’t get no respect. These are my favorite parts of the film and it starts out with three different aspects of it. First, Arthur gets into an argument with castle guards about how coconuts might find their way to Mercia, “The coconut’s tropical!” Eventually, Arthur just “rides” off when it becomes clear that he will not be able to get the guards to focus on the central issue at hand: that he is there to see the lord of the castle. It is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

This is followed by the “Bring out your dead!” scene. This is typical of Python in the worst way. It is a funny idea: a man tries to dispose of his father (?) before he is actually dead. But it goes nowhere with the idea and the ending exhibits a kind of cruel cynicism that I find upsetting. Just the same, most people I know think it is very funny. I am similarly unimpressed with the last line — “Must be a king… He hasn’t got shit all over him.” It has always left me cold, but is beloved by most people.

The next scene is pretty much a repeat of the first scene. But while that one involved King Arthur not being able to hold the attention of scientifically oriented guards, this one involves him not being able to get his way with anachronistic leftist peasants who have formed an “anarcho-syndicalist commune.” Arthur gets lectured by a radical who repeatedly points his finger at the king while he says, “Oh, King? Very nice! And how did you get that? By exploiting the workers! By hanging onto outdated imperialist dogma, which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our social.” Then, after Arthur explains how he is king because the Lady of the Lake gave him a sword, the radical responds with the best bit of dialog in the film:

Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony… You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you… If I went ’round saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away!

Wise words for a crazy world. Arthur fairs little better with the Black Knight. He manages to cut off all his limbs, but fails in what he wants to accomplish: getting knights to follow him to his court at Camelot. After that, Arthur finds some other knights to follow him. But God doesn’t respect them and neither do the French. And that takes us the end of the first third of the film — the first act, if we can really apply the concept to such a badly structured narrative.

And here is where I think they blow it. They introduce a modern day historian who sets up the second act by saying that the knights split up to pursue the grail individually. And then a knight on horseback rides in and kills the historian. The idea is not bad, but this is not how to deal with it. It could have worked brilliantly if the historian had been used for narration from the start and then killed at the end of the second act as the seams separating the film and reality came apart. As it is, it is just this bizarre bit along with some later ones involving the police investigation to set up the ending.

The next half hour is spent on four skits dealing with the different knights. The best of these is Lancelot at Swamp Castle, but they are all good in that particular Monty Phython… “Idiom, sir?” And then they are all back together to hang out with Tim the Enchanter, who is also rather hard to get the attention of. This leads to two funny sequences at the Cave of Caerbannog with “the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on.” And then the “old man from Scene 24” at the Bridge of Death. And then the film goes into an over-long, over-fogged Terry Gilliam scene. The (abrupt) end.

I don’t mean to pick on the film. I still think its brilliance far outshines its lack of cinematic craft. But it clearly could have been a so much more fulfilling whole. The screenplay needed to be taken by a single person and structured as something other than series of skits. To make matters work, the film has battling directors. I have no problem with Terry Jones, who I think is a fine comedic director. But Terry Gilliam is something else entirely. He would go onto greatness, but it would take him a while to figure it out. And here it is just a lot fog and annoying iconography.

So both The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life are better films. But neither are as funny as Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That’s generally a trade-off I’m willing to make as a viewer. But last night I still laughed at Holy Grail. And I can laugh just thinking about scenes. Arthur trying to change the topic followed by silence and then the guard saying, “In order to maintain air speed velocity a swallow needs to beat its wings 43 times every second. Right?” Tim gloating after the rabbit attack, “I warned you, but did you listen to me? Oh, no. You knew it all, didn’t you?!” Sir Galahad answering about his favorite color, “Blue. No, yel…” Comedy never gets better than Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But film does.

Religion More About Politics Than Theology

Steve BenenEvery Saturday, Steve Benen writes, This Week in God. He seems to grab snippets from the news during the week and then he features one story and provides a paragraph each for all the rest. What really comes across is just how politic religion is. This is my big problem with religion now, then, and always: it isn’t about God in any theological sense. It is about using a concept as a political tool. And this is why most religious people I run into are “useful idiots.” They are politically conservative because they think that is what God wants, but they are really just doing the work of the power elite.

This week, one of the minor items concerned an article in Religious News, Secularism Grows as More US Christians Turn “Churchless.” It is based upon research by David Kinnaman that finds that roughly four-in-ten Americans (38%) are either atheists, agnostics, or believers who never go to church. He refers to these people as “churchless.” According to the article, “If asked, the ‘churchless’ would likely check the ‘Christian’ box on a survey, even though they may not have darkened the door of a church in years.” Actually, the data only indicate that 32% identify as Christian, but that’s still higher than the 25% who identify as atheists or agnostics.

But a lot of these churchless Christians are real believers. They talk to Jesus all the time and one can only assume that Jesus answers their prayers as readily as he answers the prayers of those who go to church: not at all. But one would think that it wouldn’t matter. I mean, as St Ignatius said: wherever Jesus is, there is the Church. But of course it does matter to the religious elite, just as it matters to Bob Iger that people keep dragging the kids out to the newest Disney film. In fact, I’m sure if they could, religious leaders would copyright Jesus, so that praying along would be a crime.

I know that a lot of people would claim that the problem with people not going to church is that they will get lost in ever mounting heresies. But I’ve always wondered about that. Isn’t it the thought that counts? Wouldn’t God look at someone alone studying the Bible trying to figure out exactly what God wanted them to do and show mercy? Wouldn’t he send them to heaven just for giving it the old college try? But at least the Catholic Church can make the argument that it has made for 2,000 years: the Bible is a difficult book and it is best left to the experts. The protestants are all about going directly to the Bible. What authority do they have to claim that Christians need to go to them to be spoon-fed the meaning of scripture?

This, I think, is why protestant denominations have gone so far off the rails in terms of politics. Their only real appeal is essentially a tribal one: come to church because that is what good people do. It is hardly a step at all from “Good people go to church” to “Good people believe in tax cuts for the rich.” I’m not saying that all leaders of churches are especially interested in the politics; they are most just trying to fill the pews. But there is no doubt that sermons about how we all need to stop the “baby killers” are more exciting than those calling for humility and turning the other cheek.

Back in May, Randall Balmer discussed the history of abortion as an issue with the religion right. The movement didn’t sprout up because they had been reading Thomas Aquinas and had discovered that the soul enters the body at fertilization. No, the movement started with more banal, political reasons:

Some of these anti-Roe crusaders even went so far as to call themselves “new abolitionists,” invoking their antebellum predecessors who had fought to eradicate slavery.

But the abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe — that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools. So much for the new abolitionism.

[Emphasis added. -FM]

This is in reference to these protestant churches not wanting to have to let black children enter their schools. Ever wonder why black evangelicals haven’t followed their white brethren down the path of abortion monomania? Now you know. But white, black, or purple, churches are fundamentally about political power. And I think that’s just fine. What I don’t think is fine is their claim that they speak for God. I know that Pope Francis will probably be a disappointment to us liberals. But it is remarkable that he shows humility and says publicly that he is not in the business of judging. This is something we don’t hear from Pat Robertson, who told television viewers last week about raising the dead, “That power is there, we just aren’t using it.” Humility!

Ambiguous Idealism of Carter and Obama

Obama in East RoomThis morning, Thomas Frank wrote, We Are Such Losers. In it, he made an argument that liberal voters need to get past the idea of post-partisanship. I don’t think the argument is that solid. For one thing, are we liberals really attracted to milquetoasts like Carter and Obama? I don’t think so. Rather, I think it is the funders who like these kinds of candidates because it is a good way to convinced the voters to pick a moderate (or even conservative) candidate.

One of the most exasperating things about the coverage of politics on television is the tendency to pair a flame-throwing conservatives with a mild-mannered “liberal.” When people at Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) complain, the justification is always the same: there just aren’t any passionate liberals. Of course this is patently false. There are no passionate moderates (almost by definition), and since news shows insist upon putting moderates on as “liberals,” it isn’t a surprise that they can’t find any who are passionate.

Jimmy CarterIf there is a problem with the liberal voter, it is that we have internalized the decades-long conservative attacks on liberalism. And this is a kind of curse on our more moderate brethren. But notice that the Democratic primary voters chose Obama over Clinton — because he was seen as more liberal. The fact that he wasn’t hardly matters. The only thing that really separated those two was the individual mandate in healthcare policy. And once in office, Obama collapsed on that issue (because he had to).

But Frank’s comparison of Obama and Carter is basically correct. It is a different comparison than the Republican comparison that we heard so much during the 2012 election. To conservatives, Carter is just a dirty world. Comparing Obama to him was just their way of calling Obama “doody pants.” Carter is an insult because he lost to Reagan and that is all the comparison that they need. But it’s strange how Bush the Elder does not occupy the same space, given that he too lost to the supposed Democratic savior Bill Clinton.

There is a comparison to be made here. I suspect that conservatives would claim that Bush was more liberal than Reagan, so Democrats are not inclined to vilify him. While that’s not even true, Carter was far more conservative than any Democratic president before him for almost half a century. Thomas Frank noted this:

The final ironic lesson of the Carter presidency should be a cautionary tale for any centrist Democrat who dreams of striking a “grand bargain” with the right: no matter what conservative deeds Democrats undertake, as Rick Perlstein told me in conversation a few days ago, they will never win respect for it. It was Jimmy Carter, not the Republicans, who enacted the sweeping deregulation of transportation. It was Carter, not Reagan, who recommitted America to the Cold War and who slapped a grain embargo on the Soviet Union after that country invaded Afghanistan. (Reagan is the guy who lifted it.) And yet, in the mind of the public, Carter will stand forever as a symbol of liberalism’s fecklessness.

I’ve been writing for a long time that Carter was pretty much the first New Democrat. When it came to economic matters, he was very conservative. And this was ultimately his own undoing. But this is the undoing of all the recent Democratic presidents. The only reason Clinton still has a good reputation is that he was president during an economic boom. But in none of these cases — Carter, Clinton, Obama — did the presidents’ conservative economic policies help the economy, much less the American worker.

The main thing is that Frank is right: being idealistic is not the same as being liberal. In fact, what we see is the that the kind of “above the fray,” ambiguous idealism of Carter and Obama go along with a kind of economic conservatism that has been as effective in destroying the American middle class as the Republicans have. (Clinton at least was an outspoken neoliberal.) The lesson is clear: when we vote for someone who won’t take a side, we can be sure that he won’t be on our side.

War Artist Vasily Vereshchagin

Vasily VereshchaginOn this day in 1842, the great Russian painter Vasily Vereshchagin was born. He is best known as a war artist. In the days before photography, armies had painters to immortalize their acts. The job wasn’t as much like a modern photojournalist as it was the poets who warriors have kept around for millennia to write songs of their exploits. Vereshchagin traveled all over the world documenting wars and a lot more. He was one of the first Russian artists to be highly regarded internationally.

At the age of eight, he was sent off to military school. From the age of 16 to 21, he was in the Imperial Russian Navy. At that point, he left and began studying art. A year after that, he was studying in Paris with Jean-Léon Gérôme (who I actually like a lot more). After studying there for a couple of years, he got a commission to travel with a Russian expedition to Turkestan. It was from these travels that my favorite of his paintings came, The Apotheosis of War:

The Apotheosis of War

This painting was not well received by the Imperial Russian Army, but most of his work was more traditional. After this time, he spent a couple of years traveling through India and Tibet where he did a lot of beautiful and, for him, unusual work. But by 1878, Vereshchagin was back with the Army at the Russo-Turkish War. His brother was killed during it and he was seriously wounded himself. Because he was actually a soldier, he saw war in a very objective way. And he didn’t like it. His work became more and more anti-war and didactic. For example, he was highly criticized for Suppression of the Indian Revolt by the English, but I have a hard time believing that it isn’t largely true. The British weren’t close to the worst colonial power, but they were nonetheless a colonial power.

Suppression of the Indian Revolt by the English

In my research of war artists, I’ve found that few of them live to be very old. It is just too easy to die in war zones. If it isn’t the shelling, it is the disease. Vereshchagin was no different. He was invited to come and document the Russo-Japanese War. While traveling on the Russian battleship Petropavlovsk, it struck two mines and sunk. Vereshchagin did not survive.

Happy birthday Vasily Vereshchagin!