Kagemusha and Our Supporting Roles

KagemushaI just got The Criterion Collection DVD of Kagemusha. I love the film — it is one of Akira Kurosawa’s most underrated. So it is great to have. Another aspect of the DVD is that it is filled with extras, including a fine commentary by a man who has taught me so much, Stephen Prince. But I found that I disagreed with his overall take on the film.

For those who don’t know the film, it is about a petty thief who happens to look just like Lord Shingen Takeda. So instead of killing the thief, they use him as the lord’s kagemusha — or double. But when the lord is killed by a sniper, the thief has to take over acting as the lord full time. Thus far, this is pretty much the plot of Dave and many other stories. But the critical element here is how the thief really does become the lord. He seems to know intuitively how the lord would act in various situations.

Prince sees the film as a communitarian take on the samurai genre, in contrast to Kurosawa’s previous individualist films. While this is generally true, I take a few exceptions to it. First, much of Kurosawa’s work is about collective action. It doesn’t matter that the collective action isn’t based upon the government. Seven Samurai and Sanjurō are both about collective action. Certainly, Ikiru is about the heroic individual — but even it is in a social context.

My bigger complaint is that Prince seems to want to think of Lord Shingen Takeda as something of a ghost who takes over — or at least guides — the thief as plays the part of the lord. This ruins the entire idea of the film’s communitarian focus. And I take offense to this because it goes against what I see in the world. The basis of communitarianism is not that we are all the same, but that we play different parts. What’s more, it doesn’t too much matter who the “actors” are. The kagemusha acts like the warrior because he knows that it is his job to do so.

So in the broadest sense, what we see is that there was nothing special about the lord. He was playing a part just as much as the thief was. They were both, in effect, kagemusha. And to take it further, we are all kagemusha: we play the parts of husbands and wives and cab drivers and beggars. But as a society, we do not want to believe this. Our entire culture is based on the idea that people deserve their lots in life. This is why we in America cling onto the childish notion of the meritocracy.

In Kagemusha, the thief is eventually uncovered. But he does not go back to his old role. The society may no longer see him as lord, but he does. And this leads to the end where he commits an act of great, but impotent, bravery. Because it is not enough for us to play our parts. We must have a cast to support our roles.

Free Markets Won’t Save Us From Global Warming

John WhiteheadThe water market will never be a “free market” in the true sense of the word. A plea to the water authority (ie, government) to price water more rationally is a plea for policy reform towards a better use of incentives. Free markets only exist when there is no government regulation of buyers and sellers, no taxes, no subsidies, and no nothing. An efficient free market for water is a difficult thing to pull off since it is a common-pool resource. It is easier for the pizza market to operate efficiently since pizza is a private good.

I don’t think adaption to climate change can be accomplished efficiently by government taking a hands off approach. You can’t privatize much of the natural environment.

—John Whitehead
Water Pricing, “Free” Markets and Climate Change

The Rich Will Not “Fix” Capitalism

The New Prophets of CapitalI just got Nicole Aschoff’s new book, The New Prophets of Capital. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I just wanted to reflect on the subject for a moment. The book looks at four really rich people who see problems with our capitalist system and want to do something about it: Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook), Bill Gates (you know), John Mackey (Whole Foods), and Oprah Winfrey (Oprah). But none of them actually want to fix capitalism, because, as Chico Escuela would say, capitalism been berry berry good to them. So Sandberg, for example, doesn’t think that capitalism ought to do anything to help the family, but that the family should be more accommodating to capitalism.

Of all these people, I’ve written the most about Bill Gates and all the money that he gives for education “reform.” It is supposedly done in the name of creating a more educated workforce. The idea is that a more educated workforce would make more money. This is a lie. All that a more educated workforce does is put downward pressure on wages. Companies have a huge selection of trained workers. At best, this ends with worker wages staying the same. The only difference is that workers are now swimming in educational debt they had to accumulate just to stay even.

Of course, Gates isn’t actually interested in a more educated workforce. He’s a sophisticated man. He understands that industry did just fine when it did its own training. What education “reform” is all about is getting rid of teachers unions. And that’s all about getting rid of one of the few remaining decent paying middle class jobs. I know this is a very negative view of Gates, but there are a lot of things that could be done to improve education in this country, and he chooses to do just those things that will enrich him and his children even more.

The main thing is that the rich are not going to solve our problems with inequality and stagnant wages. I’m not saying that they couldn’t. But their approach is to ignore the problem that stares them in the face, and nibble around the edges. As Matt Yglesias used to say, “If you want to help the poor, give them money.” But that’s the last thing that any of these people want to do. Each one of these people has more money than they could ever reasonably spend. That’s the one thing they know about: their money. And they have no interest in giving any of it up. But when it comes to the advice they give out, they have very little knowledge. But they are very generous in sharing it.

My biggest general problem with conservatives is that they refuse to approach a problem with the available solutions. They always start by casting aside the most obvious (and usually effective) solutions because they are not acceptable ideologically. It’s the same with these billionaires (and in Mackey’s case, close enough): they refuse to look at the obvious solutions to our problems — like allowing collective bargaining. So all they are left with are marginal and often harmful “solutions.” We need to rethink the whole system, not tinker with it.

Bernie Sanders Is a Loyal Democrat

Bernie SandersTed McLaughlin over at Job’s Anger wrote, Is Bernie Sanders Really a Democrat? In it, he speculates that for many Democrats, Sanders never having been a Democrat may be a big reason why they don’t support him. In general, I am very much in agreement with McLauglin. But on this, I think he’s wrong. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I hope that he’s wrong. There are a couple of reasons for this.

The first issue is just that I’m not a Democrat out of some sense of tribal loyalty. I’m a Democrat because it is the liberal party in the United States. If we had a parliamentary system, I would almost certainly be a member of a party that better reflected my beliefs. I have huge problems with the Democratic Party — mostly due to its right turn starting in the 1970s and really taking off in 1992. But there are two choices in the United States: the Democrats and the Republicans. The Republicans are hopeless. The Democrats have potential, and they have been moving in the right direction for the last decade.

But the name doesn’t mean anything. If the Republicans decided to push for a $15 minimum wage, universal healthcare, reproductive freedom, and an end to foreign wars, I would drop the Democratic Party faster than a hot frying pan. This isn’t a tribal thing for me. And I don’t think it is a tribal thing for most Democrats. That’s almost what defines us as a party. We aren’t authoritarian followers. What’s more, we have a long history of accepting new people who moved into our party. Even though I was none to thrilled with him, we had no problem accepting Arlen Specter back into the party.

We also need to look at Bernie Sanders’ voting record. He is a more consistent Democratic voter than many actual Democratic politicians. That is the kind of support that matters to me. If we want to take it to extremes, we could say that by this logic Joe Lieberman was more supportive of the Democratic Party than Sanders. But the truth is that Lieberman voted against the party often on really important issues. And then, the moment the party in his state said it didn’t want him to be its candidate for Senate, he dropped the party.

I understand that most Democrats don’t like Lieberman and don’t see him as a supporter of the Democratic Party. But he proudly claimed the name “Democrat” for 17 years. And what did it mean? Ultimately, nothing. So if calling yourself a Democrat means something, it is very little. And let’s not forget that support goes both ways. People run as Democrats and thus get various kinds of support — including money — from the party. In that regard, I would have to say that Sanders has given more to the Democratic Party than he has taken.

There may be Democrats around who won’t vote for Bernie Sanders because he hasn’t called himself a Democrat. And that’s fine. I don’t think it is very meaningful, however. And I want the Democratic presidential nomination to be about much more important issues than this. And I know that McLaughlin agrees with me. And I think that Sanders has already made Clinton a better candidate than she would have been without him. So we can add that to ways that Sanders supports the Democratic Party.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet…

Morning Music: The Stanley Brothers

The Stanley BrothersAlthough Emry Arthur’s version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” sold well, it was not until The Stanley Brothers released their version in 1951 that it really became popular. Their version changes the song into much more of what we know today. Specifically, they turn it into a bluegrass song with that classic howling voice. It also adds a much more lively accompaniment with that relentless fiddle. Ralph Stanley just had his 88th birthday. His brother Carter died back in 1966 at the age of only 41.

Anniversary Post: George Lincoln Rockwell

George Lincoln RockwellOn this day in 1967, the founder of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell, was assassinated. What I find interesting about him is that he was a conservative. I understand: there have been some liberal loons as well. But Rockwell worked for National Review. As I discussed early this month, The Fascism of National Review, the magazine has a long love affair with the vile movement. The magazine wasn’t pro-Nazi, of course. They weren’t idiots. But it was quite fond of the Italian and Spanish forms of fascism.

This is undoubtedly why Rockwell found the conservative movement wanting. It wasn’t willing to stand up for what he felt it really represented. And I have to say: I think Rockwell was right. I think that the conservative movement in the United States is fascist, and that the only reason it isn’t explicit about it is because of World War II. But if you look at what conservatives actually believe: the fetishizing of strength and hierarchy and purity, it’s all fascism.

Maybe if Donald Trump manages to win the Republican presidential nomination, the party can finally admit to what it is. And maybe they can create a George Lincoln Rockwell Day. Today would be a good day, because there aren’t any real holidays in August. And it would be a whole lot more honest for the Republicans to pay tribute to Rockwell than to Reagan.

It’s Not Just Lower Taxes — Taxes Are Being Replaced With Regressive Fees

Matt BruenigThe brilliant Matt Bruenig has written another great article that expands the way that I look at economics, Nontax Revenue Accounts for 92% of Growth in “Taxpayer Money” Since 1970. The basic idea is one that I’m well aware of because I see it everywhere I go. Politicians are terrified to raising taxes. So they create fees and tickets and, as a last resort, sales taxes. The result of all this is to remove the tax burden from the rich and pile it onto the poor.

Think about traffic tickets. If a poor person is caught driving 35 in a 25 mph zone, the cost of the ticket is exactly the same as if a billionaire is caught doing the same thing. Think about that because it’s shocking. It means that the poor person is massively punished while the billionaire is effectively not punished at all. In fact, that billionaire might be able to fight the ticket and win in court. It really isn’t very hard when you have a lawyer since police officers have skimpy notes and no actual memory of the event. But even if they just pay the ticket, it is unfair. It is, in fact, what I’ve been arguing that the rich really want: each person paying the same amount in taxes — even a flat tax would be unacceptable to them.

Bruenig noted that we should stop discussing “taxpayer money.” For one thing, after people pay taxes, it is no longer theirs. But more important, discussing government money this way frames it in a deceptive way. This is how we get pundits on Fox News and CNBC talking about all the taxes that the rich are paying to the government — completely ignoring the taxes and all the other revenues that the poor pay. They just don’t count, even though as the title of the article indicated, since 1970, 92% of all government revenue increases have come from these sources. In 1970, roughly 12% of total government revenue came from these highly regressive sources. Now the number is almost 21%.

Another area of this is benefit cuts. The government doesn’t just take money and then go out to Las Vegas for a vacation. It gives that money back to the country and its people. This is an issue that Dean Baker has written about a lot. People want to cut Social Security, but they never think about the fact that voters will not be keen to continue to pay 15% of their paychecks if they aren’t getting anything back for it. Cuts are effectively just another form of tax.

As long as we continue to focus on taxes — which is what the power elite want us to do — we will see these revenues decrease. And we will see more and more of the cost of running the government and providing services fall on the backs of the poor and the middle class. So just looking at the tax burden on the rich, we see them paying less. And we see the overall tax burden reduced to be replaced by even more regressive fees, tickets, and reduced services. The power elite have been very clever. They’ve managed to make people living in an oligarchy think they live in a democracy.

Lots Ways to Measure Unemployment — Pick One

McDonald'sDan Diamond wrote a cheeky little article over at Vox, Donald Trump Says the “Real” Unemployment Rate Is 42%. He’s Really, Really Wrong. It’s about how Trump has been going around saying that the real unemployment rate is 18%, but then more recently 21%. Who knows what this is about? But his claim that the unemployment rate is 42% at least makes some sense. It is based upon the idea that only 58% of the people over the age of 16 have jobs. According this, school kids and retired people should all be working. What do you expect? It’s Donald Trump.

But it does raise an issue that is interesting. There are many ways to measure the unemployment rate. There are two that we standardly use here in the United States. The first is the one everyone knows: U-3. It does not include discouraged or involuntary part-time workers. It is currently 5.3%. The other measure is really more meaningful: U-6. It includes as unemployed, everyone who wants to work full-time but who isn’t. It is currently 10.4%. It doesn’t really matter which measure you use. The main thing is that you have to be consistent. And people aren’t — at all. It’s really sad to watch because it shows a total lack of intellectual integrity.

What Trump is doing is not at all unusual. I’ve been hearing conservatives — especially people on Fox News — saying that we should really use U-6. Like I said: that’s fine. But these same people didn’t want to use U-6 when George W Bush was in office. They just want to use it so they say, “Unemployment is over 10%! Obama is destroying the economy!” But you just can’t do that. This is just a way of saying that the unemployment rate was 7.8% (U-3) when Bush left office and is 10.4% after six and a half years of Obama. But the actual comparison looks like this:

President U-3 U-6
Bush 7.8% 14.2%
Obama 5.3% 10.4%

None of this is to say that Bush was terrible for the economy and Obama was great. The truth is that the unemployment rate was bound to go down. But you can’t say that the economy has done horribly under Obama. The most you can do is make the argument that the economy hasn’t improved as much as it could have under Obama. And that’s an argument I do make, although the blame is not primarily Obama’s but rather our entire political system.

But what this does show is that you can’t just pull out a different way of measuring unemployment and claim that things are worse than anyone knows. Everyone understands that the unemployment rate is not a perfect reflection of the state of the job market. But including discouraging workers into the calculation doesn’t make the economy any worse. The economy is just the same as it is. And whether you want to use U-3 or U-6 or something else, we see that the economy is improving.

Copyright, Community, and Collaboration

First News Alert

Perhaps my only disappointment with Frankly Curious is that not enough other websites link to my articles. I do get some. Certainly, a lot of people Tweet out my articles, I get a certain amount of love from Facebook and Reddit, and of course, Crooks & Liars links to me. Also, Google sends a lot of people and that results in normal and very pleasant links from more established blogs like Lion of the Blogosphere. This is all for the good and I really like it. My disappointment is that I don’t get enough of it.

There is, however, a certain kind of linking that I do get that really annoys me. There are websites that do nothing but print other people’s content. They are often of high quality and they no doubt see themselves as news aggregators. The problem is that they don’t publish a couple of paragraphs and provide a link. They publish the entire article with a note at the bottom, “This article, [whatever], first appeared on [wherever].” One such website is First News Alert. Well, this website did this to me yesterday and I was not pleased. But let me back up a bit.

I am not that keen on our copyright system. And I don’t mind all that much if people want to use my content. But this outfit was added nothing. It was just using me as an unpaid writer. Even the statement at the bottom of the article saying that it was from Frankly Curious wasn’t highlighted — it just looked like the last paragraph of the article. The entire website is designed to look like it has a staff of writers, which it clearly does not. And it has all kinds of ads so the owners are clearly making some money off it. I have a problem with that.

But it is even worse than this. At the bottom of the page was printed, “© 2015 First News Alert… All rights reserved.” So there was a page that consisted of 99% my own content and they were claiming copyright! But hell, if it was a big website, it might have provided some people clicking over. But no. Frankly Curious is huge compared to First News Alert. And I checked my site statistics this morning, and sure enough: not a single person clicked from that article over to Frankly Curious. So I got nothing in terms of traffic and even the name “Frankly Curious” wasn’t highlighted, so I didn’t even get any name recognition.

But I’m a liberal guy. I might have just dropped the whole thing. But then I looked at the code for the page. And I noticed that the link to my page had the attribute rel="nofollow." That is a way to tell search engines not to follow (crawl) the link. But more important, it tells search engines to disregard the link when it comes to the ranking of the page. I almost never use them, but I used it in the link above to First News Alert out of spite — but also just because I want the search engines to know that I’m writing about the site in a negative way. They shouldn’t think that I’m linking to the site because it has content that I’m discussing.

So let’s review: a tiny website stole my content; it did little to highlight where the content came from; it did not ask my permission; it claimed copyright; and it didn’t even do me the favor of linking to my page to give it proper search engine credit. But even still, I wasn’t too angry. I just wrote them a short note pointing out the problems and asked that they at least remove the rel="nofollow" or take the page down. Within an hour, the page was down.

I must admit to being amazed by all this. What I do — both here and in my paying work — is create content. I understand that not all people are good at this. I’m not good at working on cars. This is why I pay people to work on my car (when I have one). If you want to have a website, you either create your own content or you find someone who will do it for you. First News Alert looks like a competent website. But its philosophy seems to be, “We don’t need no stinkin’ original content.” And so they just steal it from other sites. But that really isn’t the way that the internet works. There are writers all over the world who are looking for an audience. The last thing they need is a website like First News Alert diluting their efforts and taking their credit.

Morning Music: Sarah Ogan Gunning

Sarah Ogan GunningMoving on with our week of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” we have a woman. Recently, I’ve been marveling at the fact that people — including a lot of feminists — get their ideas of the traditional place of women in society from the 1950s. But the truth was that when humans were hunters and gathers, there were women hunters and men gathers. It has been civilization itself that enforced gender roles.

Right about the time that Emry Arthur was giving up music, Sarah Ogan Gunning recorded the song with her own lyrics as “Girl of Constant Sorrow.” The lyrics focus on the poverty of the coal mining region that she was from. This a cappella version is probably from 1965, but it is doubtless much how she sang in in 1936. (Roscoe Holcomb did a similar version in 1961.) It’s haunting and beautiful:

Anniversary Post: Not First Motion Picture Camera

William Kennedy DicksonOn this day in 1891, Thomas Edison patented the motion picture camera. It’s a great example of how the patent system doesn’t work. Let’s start with the fact that Edison didn’t invent it, but rather one of his employees, William Kennedy Dickson. And it wasn’t the first motion picture camera. But it was a good design. But why would Edison get a patent on it? Lots of people were doing the same thing. But by that point, Edison had the lawyers necessary to take his team’s minor achievement and put the force of law behind it.

If the patent system had worked the way it does today, Edison’s patent would have done wonders to slow cinema as an art form. In fact, Hollywood owes its existence to filmmakers fleeing the east coast to get away from having to pay Edison royalties on every film they made. At this point, I would have to say that our intellectual property laws do more harm than good in terms of innovation. Regardless, I don’t know why people claim that Edison invented the motion picture camera. He wasn’t even close.

The first surviving film by Louis Le Prince was made in 1888 — almost three years before Edison patented his camera. Oh my God! What would we have done if we hadn’t given Edison that patent?! We might be stuck with a film industry that is, I don’t know, exactly the same as the one that we have today. The horror!