Balls of Fury

Balls of FuryAndrea and I have written a lot of comedy together. And I think she has a love-hate relationship with my notion of comedy. She, of course, is very clever and funny. I, on the other hand, am just silly. (I do fancy that I have other talents as a writer like character development and structure.) So I have to be careful when she recommends a comedy that she thinks I will like. Note: one that I will like — not necessarily one she found amusing. And thus it was with this history that I began to watch the 2007 comedy Balls of Fury.

The film is written by the comedy writing team of Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon. They are funny guys who have been involved with such films as Night at the Museum and Let’s Go to Prison. But usually, they are just two writers of many. I have little doubt that they are brought in on a lot of projects uncredited just to “punch up” screenplays. And Balls of Fury certainly has a lot of punch. It is funny throughout. Plus, it is based on a funny idea: a kung fu film where the fight sequences are replaced with ping pong games. It’s kind of hard to go wrong with that.

Unfortunately, half the comedy involves hitting people in the groin and other forms of coarse humor. I have to admit that I feel rather out of time with modern comedy. Even with Bob’s Burgers, which I consider about the best thing on television, the fart jokes make me cringe. But at least there, the jokes are scattered about. Here, when the comedy has worked itself out, it is time for a kick in the balls. It is rather too predictable. On the other hand, much of the material is comedy gold like the band of male sex slaves.

A bigger problem is that the film is structurally a mess. It starts with a scene of our hero as a young man that is completely unnecessary — it could have all been rendered in the context of the modern story. Then it plays around with the failed ping pong legend, a halfhearted attempt at a “getting in shape” sequence, and then out of nowhere, we are at the tournament. It’s not clear where the film is going and that is probably best because the film doesn’t really go anywhere. Basically, the film has a ten minute first act, the second act is 20 minutes of “training” and 40 minutes at the tournament — none of it with any dramatic momentum, and then a 10 minute third act that turns the silly up to 11.

None of this would be a problem if any of the characters were worth caring about. There are a lot of actors and comedians who I like in the film. But up on the screen, they are just actors who I like. Dan Fogler in the lead role seems kind of like Rainn Wilson in The Rocker but without any of the pathos. Maggie Q as the love interest has no personality whatsoever. And why she falls for Fogler is not clear other than that the female and male leads must fall in love. Christopher Walken as the heavy is very funny, but he’s almost a parody of himself. The characters are only the actors playing them, there is nothing else to them.

Nevertheless, the film is funny. And if you are in the mood for something silly, I don’t think you will be disappointed. But I think what Balls of Fury wants to be is Kingpin. And while it never gets as vulgar as that film, it also isn’t the cohesive film with well developed characters either. Still, I will probably watch it again some time.

Rock Stars and Tax Cuts

What's the Matter with Kansas?Behold the political alignment that Kansas is pioneering for us all. The corporate world — for reasons having a great deal to do with its corporateness — blankets the nation with a cultural style designed to offend and to pretend-subvert: sassy teens in Skechers flout the Man; bigoted churchgoing moms don’t tolerate their daughters’ cool liberated friends; hipsters dressed in T-shirts reading “FCUK” snicker at the suits who just don’t get it. It’s meant to be offensive, and Kansas is duly offended. The state watches impotently as its culture, beamed in from the coasts, becomes coarser and more offensive by the year. Kansas aches for revenge. Kansas gloats when celebrities say stupid things; it cheers when movie stars go to jail. And when two female rock stars exchange a lascivious kiss on national TV, Kansas goes haywire. Kansas screams for the heads of the liberal elite. Kansas comes running to the polling place. And Kansas cuts those rock stars’ taxes.

As a social system, the backlash works. The two adversaries feed off of each other in a kind of inverted symbiosis: one mocks the other, and the other heaps even more power on the one. This arrangement should be the envy of every ruling class in the world. Not only can it be pushed much, much further, but it is fairly certain that it will be so pushed. All the incentives point that way, as do the never-examined cultural requirements of modern capitalism. Why shouldn’t our culture just get worse and worse, if making it worse will only cause the people who worsen it to grow wealthier and wealthier?

—Thomas Frank
What’s the Matter with Kansas?

The Opportunity Costs of Bad Trade Deals

Dean BakerDean Baker made an important point in a recent blog post, Ben Bernanke and the “Ask Nicely” Strategy for the Trade Deficit. Everyone knows that a big problem with our economy is that US exports are not as competitive as they should be because China keeps its currency pegged lower than it should be compared to the dollar. But there is this ridiculous notion that somehow we can force China to change this policy. That was what Donald Trump talked about when he fake ran for president in 2012: he was going to talk to China like they were contestants on The Apprentice and make them change their policy. But even with sophisticated thinkers like Bernanke, the idea seems to be that if we ask nicely or whine or just let them know how much it means to us, they will allow their currency to rise.

This isn’t true, of course. China has that policy because it is good for China’s economy: it keeps the people of China working. But as Baker noted, “They would of course be open to ending currency interventions if they got something in exchange.” And that’s perhaps the biggest problem with trade deals like the TPP: they use what negotiating chips we have to do other things that are at best less important and at worse are bad for the economy. The ultimate example of this is the use of these trade deals to strengthen patent and copyright protections. These don’t add jobs in the United States; all they do is increase profits to make the already rich even richer.

And so in the TPP, there is nothing about currency values. But there is a lot in it about tightening intellectual property protections. These deals are not pushed by our government because they are seen as improving the American economy. They are instead about improving the profits of corporations that are only nominally in the United States. And just look at what great “citizens” these corporations are: they ship jobs overseas if they can save a penny; they hide profits overseas so they don’t have to pay taxes; they distort our political system; they blithely pollute; and they have a time horizon of three months. They are a pox on our country. They would be called traitors if they were human beings.

Baker related an anecdote that explains pretty much everything that is going on, regardless of whether the party in power is nominally liberal or conservative:

This dealing can take place inside or outside a trade agreement, but it is really a question of priorities. I was once at a meeting with then Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. When someone asked Geithner about currency issues with China, he said that he always raises currency values with China. He then added something to the effect that we have lots of issues with China.

This really said everything about the priorities of the Obama administration and likely the administrations that preceded him. Their priorities in international economics are investment rules to protect US based multinationals and stronger patent and copyright protections. Setting currency rules that can reduce the trade deficit and get us back to full employment comes way down on this list, if it comes at all.

This is why these deals are such a problem. Even I have a tendency towards dismissing them, “Well, it isn’t going to cause that much damage.” But the issue is really not the trade deals themselves. The issue is the opportunity costs — which are huge. Our government is passing up deals that would improve the lives of American workers. And in so doing, they are making future deals that do this harder. No Trade Deals Until Our Economy Is Fixed!

Tolerance Really Is a One Way Street

Brad Campeau-LaurionOn Wednesday, Digby wrote a article in which she countered this ridiculous new conservative meme that liberals are the real intolerant people because they object to conservatives bigotry (which the conservatives claim is actually “religious freedom”). I don’t have much to add. The entire time I’ve been following politics, the main conservative argument to any complaint has been, “I know you are, but what am I?” I don’t say that lightly. Conservatives have correctly learned that the mainstream media are determined to present the “controversy.” So if John Boehner walked into a McDonalds and murdered everyone, it would be reported, “Democrats claim John Boehner murdered a bunch of people, but Republicans say he didn’t. We report, you decide!”

But Dibgy presented an example of what real political and religious intolerance looks like in this country. It took place back in 2008 during a New York Yankees baseball game. A spectator at the game, Brad Campeau-Laurion, went to go to the bathroom during the seventh inning stretch. Since 2001, the MLB has dictated that “God Bless America” be played at that time. When Campeau-Laurion tried to make it to the bathroom, the police stopped him — telling him that he couldn’t go until the song was over. When he said that he didn’t care about the song, the officer, and another called for help, brutally ejected him from the ballpark.

As they shoved him out of the stadium, one of the officers said, “Get the hell out of my country if you don’t like it!” What’s more, Campeau-Laurion’s friend, who was still at the game, overheard the two officers talking to each other. One of them said, “We got to watch ourselves. One day we’re really gonna get in trouble.” And they were spreading rumors that Campeau-Laurion had said, “This country sucks.” It sounds rather like the thugs as police officers in A Clockwork Orange.

I suspect that the officers did hear, “This country sucks.” Among a lot of Americans, not reverentially standing during “God Bless America” is exactly the same thing. As it turns out, Campeau-Laurion was more bothered by the “God” than the “America.” But it hardly matters. As I wrote here recently, this is a typical conservative idea of freedom of speech: you can say whatever you want to, as long as you don’t. In this specific case, there really is no more perfect example of what a sham the First Amendment is: official government officers brutalized and humiliated someone because of his political and religious beliefs.

About six months after this happened, the ACLU of New York State filed a case, Campeau-Laurion v Raymond Kelly, The New York Yankees Partnership, et al (Challenging forced patriotism at Yankee Stadium). The court found rather quickly for Campeau-Laurion and made New York City pay him $10,000. But to me, that’s not nearly enough. To begin with, that’s not even chump change for the city. But more important, it is likely that the police officers are to this day unaware that their behavior was publicly criticized. Personally, I think the officers should have been found and fired.

I don’t say this out of a sense of vengeance. It is just a matter of sending a message to all law enforcement personnel: you are being watching. The government is great at doing things that have a chilling effect on journalists — so they don’t do their proper job. But somehow, the idea of having a chilling effect on police officers doing things that are not supposed to be part of their jobs is just a bridge too far. The police in this country can’t be held accountable at all.

If a police officer was caught disturbing a Christian praying before eating her hot dog, the case would be the talk of the nation for the next decade. But an atheist getting brutalized by the police for not having reverence for “God Bless America”? Most Americans just yawn. The mainstream media can’t be bothered to report it. But a bigoted baker who doesn’t want to put two male figurines on the top of a wedding cake is a martyr to liberal intolerance? Give me a break!

Anniversary Post: Martin Luther King Assassination

Martin Luther King JrOn this day in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated by James Earl Ray. But did the man with three first names really do it? After all, he spent the last three decades of his life claiming that he didn’t actually do it. Could it have been some conspiracy where he was just the unwitting fall guy? In a word: no.

Ray was an evil man. I’m not referring to his convictions for armed robbery, burglary, and fraud by his mid-20s. These are generally the acts of people without a lot of options. Of course, I have to wonder about that. He was a white man in the 1950s. There was lots of work around at that time. But when he wasn’t in jail or actively thieving, his main interest seemed to be in seeing that George Wallace became president. “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!” Am I right?!

James Earl RayIn 1959, Ray was given 20 years for yet another armed robbery. But in 1967, he escaped. But he didn’t go into hiding; he went to work for George Wallace’s campaign. And he wasn’t exactly alone in his support for the segregationist. Wallace got 13.5% for the popular vote — 46 votes in the electoral college. But apparently, Ray got bored with this work, made his way to Tennessee and assassinated the civil rights leader with one shot.

Authorities found the rifle that Ray had purchased five days earlier. It had his fingerprints on it. Ballistic tests done a decade later were inconclusive. But witnesses saw a man who looked like him leaving the scene. He had been living in a room where the bullet came from. He fled the country immediately after. Oh, and he confessed. Then later, after trying to convince everyone, he took a lie detector test for Playboy magazine. The results: James Earl Ray murdered Martin Luther King Jr.

We mark this 47th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

In Support of Behavioral Therapies

iStock_000010317685LargeMy brother just sent me an article from The Incidental Economist about the relationship between ADHD medications and their benefits for children with ADHD. It focused on a study done two decades ago. The study concluded that behavioral therapies in combination with medication did not have significantly better outcomes than with medication alone.

What is important to note is that this research was done over a period of only 14 months. As an example, if we follow a child, who has just turned eight, until she is nine and a couple of months, that is what we are looking at. It doesn’t even have to be a child with ADHD. How much do we expect that child to mature in 14 months? In my opinion, the answer would be, not much.

SmilingBoyBehavioral development is a process that happens over a long period of time and, as we know, children with ADHD have unique brains. This concept, therefore, leads me to believe we can’t just go about the day-to-day with our atypical children and simply medicate them. Though it’s not always easy to do, including some behavioral guidance or therapy is probably very beneficial in the long run. Also, not giving behavioral therapy a try could actually be a great disservice to our children.