How Good Was Newsradio?

NewsradioI was never much of a Seinfeld fan. It was a well made and funny show, but I always find it hard to get excited about shows where I don’t like any of the characters. And Seinfeld was very much that. Even by sitcom standards, it had shallow characters. The sitcom that I liked — loved even — was Newsradio. But I don’t know if I would go as far as Todd VanDerWerff who says that, NewsRadio Was the Best Sitcom of the 1990s. Or maybe I would. But what VanDerWerff really thinks is that Newsradio was the best sitcom ever. I’m also not really interested in the question. The main thing is that Newsradio was a really, really good show.

I first watched the show because it starred Dave Foley. When I was in grad school, I was a big fan of Kids in the Hall. So it was exciting that Foley had made it to the big time. Most people no doubt watched because of Phil Hartman. But overall, it was the ensemble that worked. I immediately fell in love with Maura Tierney. And I thought that Stephen Root was one of the funniest actors I had ever seen. He has gone on to be one of my favorite character actors. The rest of the cast was excellent as well. But even without the great cast, it would have been a funny show. The writing was excellent.

What I didn’t know was just how troubled the show was. Despite initial good reviews and ratings, NBC really messed with the show. In five seasons, it was put in 11 different time slots. I’m not sure why a network would do that except if it was trying to kill a show. And for all I know it was. Hollywood is known for some of the most spiteful behavior, like network heads trying to kill off shows of predecessors. But the show managed on, even stumbling on for a season after Phil Hartman’s death.

As a result of DerWerff’s article, I went back and watched the Newsradio I could find online. The shows from the third season just blew me away. I still find them as funny as anything that I’ve ever seen. What I didn’t remember about the show was just how slapstick it is. I think I was so focused on Root’s Jimmy James and all his sly silliness, I didn’t notice, for example, Andy Dick’s amazing pratfalls. In addition, much of the writing is pure farce with people coming and going — often repeatedly to great comedic effect.

At this point in my viewing history, I would say that Newsradio is probably most like Fawlty Towers. It isn’t as tightly plotted. But then again, there were a total of 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers, produced over the course of four years. Over the exact same period of time, Newsradio produced 97 episodes. Regardless, Fawlty Towers is the pinnacle of television comedy. The fact that I can even compare Newsradio to it says a great deal about it. Yet the show still doesn’t get much respect. My public library, for example, doesn’t hold a single DVD of the show. It does, of course, overflow with Seinfeld — even though you can watch three hours of it each night in syndication on the television. It’s sad. But apparently, there are a lot of people like DerWerff and me who greatly admire the show. And that’s something.

US Equality of Opportunity Hypocrisy

Thomas PikettyThe amount of household debt and even more recently of student debt in the US is something that is really troublesome… This exemplifies a particular problem with inequality in the United States, which is very high inequality and access to higher education. So in other countries in the developed world you don’t have such massive student debt because you have more public support to higher education. And I think the plan that was proposed earlier this year in 2015 by President Obama to increase public funding to public universities and community college is exactly justified.

This is really the key for higher growth in the future and also for a more equitable growth. There’s one statistic, which I give in my book, which is a bit frightening, which is that if you look at the average income of the parents of Harvard University graduate students right now what you get is the equivalent of the average income of the top two percent of the US distribution of family income…

So this is an example which shows that you have the official discourse about meritocracy, equal opportunity and mobility — and then you have the reality. And the gap between the two can be quite troublesome. So this is like you have a problem like this and there’s a lot of hypocrisy about meritocracy in every country, not only in the US, but there is evidence suggesting that this has become particularly extreme in the United States. And of course, student debt at the other extreme of the distribution is the other side of the coin. So this is a situation that is very troublesome and should rank very highly in the policy agenda in the future in the US.

—Thomas Piketty
Big Think

Ted Cruz Is an Ordinary Republican

Ted CruzTed Cruz got a lot of razzing for his “Imagine” speech where he asked a lot of confused students at Liberty University to imagine a conservative world with things like a flat federal income tax. It was the “imagine” part of it that got the scorn, not the ideas — they are just standard Republican ideas. But I think it is really interesting that the Republican Party is so wedded to this idea that everyone ought to be pay the same federal income tax rate. This would make overall taxes in the United States regressive: the poor would be paying a higher percentage of their income in taxes than the rich. But that’s what Republicans like Cruz believe, and after they got their flat tax, they would start pushing for an explicitly regressive tax. After all, why should people pay the same percentage of their income in taxes?! One man can only walk on one road at a time; every man should have to pay the same amount. And so on.

It’s important to remember that as extreme as Ted Cruz’s ideas are, he is not an extremist in his party. The Republican Party is shockingly united when it comes to policy and ideology. And the mainstream press just goes along with this. So they treat the actual differences of opinion in the Democratic Party as equivalent to the tactical differences in the Republican Party. And it is in that way — and only that way — that Ted Cruz is an extremist. And this matters to his presidential aspirations in two ways. It will make it harder for him to get the Republican nomination; but if he wins the presidency, he will not face any special challenges.

Ezra KleinEzra Klein wrote an interesting article that touched on both of these points, Imagine Ted Cruz as President. On the first point, I think he is mostly correct. The focus of the article is the idea that “imagination is not a plan.” Apparently, Cruz is really disliked in the professional Republican Party. In Congress, many are angry at him for forcing them into shutting down the government. Does that sound pathetic? It should! But what do you expect from a party that is largely built on inciting its base to believe things that aren’t true and promising to do things that can’t be done and would be disastrous if they were. And so when Ted Cruz acts as the conscience of party, you whine? Give me a break!

But luckly for the Republican Party (and to a lesser extent the nation as a whole), the base voters are ultimately a bunch of followers. If they are told that Ted Cruz can’t be president, they will go along with that. After all, if they don’t, there might be a girl president; or some darkie; or a socialist! Regardless, these are all issues for the Republican Party. The truth is that whether the nominee is Cruz or Bush or Rubio or Walker or Paul, it won’t be any different if they end up in the White House.

It is on this second point that I have a problem with Klein’s article. He titled the section, “Can Cruz get 60 votes in the Senate?” I just don’t see Cruz having any trouble getting what he wants if the Republicans control the Congress. Klein tends to suffer a bit from Washington Insider Disease in that he assumes that the Republicans will act the same way in power as the Democrats did before them. This isn’t the case. The Democrats got rid of the filibuster for executive and judicial nominations. When the Republicans control all of Washington, they will get rid of the filibuster all together. So the question is, “Will Cruz get 50 votes in the Senate?” And the answer is: yes!

The main thing that we must all remember is that regardless of who the Republicans nominate, he (Of course “he”!) will become president if the economy tanks in 2016. So don’t think for a second at Ted Cruz is too extreme to lose. Anyway, Cruz is good in front of people. Remember how reasonable he seemed on Seth Meyers’ show? And maybe Cruz isn’t the worst we could get. After all, it wasn’t Reagan who destroyed welfare; it was Clinton. Maybe in twenty years, I’ll be saying, “It wasn’t Bush who destroyed Social Security; it was Clinton.” I still think Clinton will be better than any Republican, but I wouldn’t put anything past her.

Iranian Ideologues Are Not the Problem

Ali GharibI just heard a tiny bit of Ali Gharib talking on Majority Report Monday morning. And he made a great point. He said that for years, conservatives have claimed that the Iranian regime can’t be dealt with. According to them, the government is totally ideological and will never make deals. The same thing was said about the Soviet Union, of course; as a result, I’ve never bought into that idea. It is just another way for people to dehumanize their enemies. But while there has never been any proof that the Iranian leaders were anything but rational actors, the recent negotiations with the P5+1 should eliminate doubt on the part of the most ossified critics.

But Gharib noted that conservatives have met new information about Iran with exactly the same arguments that they made before. So it would seem that there really are unmovable ideologues — and they are not the Iranians; they are our own conservatives. This is, interestingly, a point I often try to make to my atheist friends: religion is not the greatest motivator of extreme evil; power is. Now religion is very often pernicious in its own way, and it is a great tool for the power hungry. But it isn’t necessary at all. The neocon position on Iran is a great example.

Jonathan ChaitSimilarly, Monday morning, Jonathan Chait wrote, Netanyahu: Don’t Listen to That Incredibly Explicit Thing I Promised About a Palestinian State. He noted a similar dynamic going on with Benjamin Netanyahu, “He currently opposes [a Palestinian] state on the grounds that it would be run by Hamas, but he opposed a Palestinian state in the 1990s on the grounds that it would be run by Fatah.” That gets to the core of my problem with the Israeli government the last couple of decades: they always have an excuse for continuing to allow illegal settlements and block any kind of deal. Yet in America, Israel is always and forever the good and open-minded actor. (I often wonder what Americans would think if Israeli settlers just started annexing American land. I think there would be violence. But the situation in Palestine is never presented that way.)

What we have in this country is a narrative that we are addicted to. In it, Israel is always right and Iran is always wrong. It is part of a broader narrative that claims that whichever country our government likes can do no wrong and whichever country our government doesn’t like can do no right. See my article, American Double Standard Regarding Democracy, where I discuss the way that the truly horrible government of Saudi Arabia is treated as a great defender of freedom, and the struggling democracy of Venezuela is treated as an evil autocracy that represents an existential threat to the United States.

But as we’ve seen with Cuba, over time, liberals can finally be made to see the light. But among conservatives, it is the same thing as it always was. Being consistently wrong is far better than ever changing your opinion to reflect a new reality. It seems that slowly liberals are waking up to the reality in the middle east. From a foreign policy standpoint, we should do what is in our interest. Making a deal with Iran is clearly in our interest. And increasingly, backup up Israel at all times is not. The conservatives — in as much as they are moving anywhere — are moving in the opposite direction. Fundamentally, I think that the racism that has always been so important to conservative domestic policy is now what is controlling its foreign policy. And so there will be no reevaluation of their position on Iran, because the conservatives are the true ideologues who — at least right now — cannot be reasoned with.

Morning Music: Curtis Mayfield

Curtis MayfieldIn 1964, Curtis Mayfield wrote a little song called “People Get Ready.” It is a gospel song, but like the very best gospel song, it seems like a political song. And it can read as a political song — and I choose to do so. Because political action is a matter of faith. For any person who is politically engaged, there are two options: cynicism and faith. And we are at our best when we have faith that things can get better. But it is hard — something I struggle with all the time.

The reason I’m playing the song this morning is because it is a song that gets stuck in my head. And I do truly awful things to the lyrics. I turn it into a foul mouthed and cynical anthem. But I don’t want that. I want to get on board that train and make a better future.

Birthday Post: Shelley’s Expulsion

Percy Bysshe ShelleyOn this day in 1811, Percy Shelley was thrown out of Oxford for publishing a little book, The Necessity of Atheism. It’s a notable event in the sense that it shows something that isn’t widely understood: schools are used primarily for the purpose of constraining thought. I remember as I was making my way through college being shocked that many great scientific advancements seemed so obvious. But I eventually learned that, despite the propaganda of the academy, scholars are encouraged to fall in line. Like everywhere else, it is easier to go along to get along.

That doesn’t mean that scholarship doesn’t work. But our colleges are dependent for their very existence on the good will of the power elite. They don’t like academics to shake things up. In general, that doesn’t affect the sciences as much as it does other areas of study. But most of all, they don’t like anything that will challenge their power. That’s why global warming is a far more contentious issue than quantum mechanics.

Historically, religion has been one of the greatest tools for maintaining the status quo. Even today in America, I hear people justify the wealth of the rich and the poverty of the poor in moral terms. It’s a great way to stop people from asking questions, “Things are this way because God wants them that way!”

Of course, Shelley did a lot more than just question the existence of God. He questioned the existence of free will. That is a much more frightening idea to the power elite. If we are not responsible for our thoughts and actions, then there is no justification for massive inequality. The basis of capitalism is the idea that incentives matters. If that isn’t true, there isn’t much left to justify it.

I’m sure that Shelley would have agreed with me. He was a political radical. I still think it is amazing that these people living 200 years ago were miles past where most Americans are today in terms of politics. It speaks well of him that he got himself kicked out of college. Good job!

Happy birthday Percy Shelley’s expulsion!